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Eurotrip 2012: Day one in Paris, France


23 – 27 April: Paris, France

Continued from part 10: Lyon, France

23 April – Arriving in a wet (and somewhat dodgy) Paris
We’ve been packing and unpacking so much lately that I feel we could be awarded some kind of medal by the ‘Efficient Packers ‘r’ Us Brigade’. After bidding farewell to the lovely Lyon, we’re on the train speeding through the picturesque countryside of France. We’re headed towards Paris and, though it’s sure to be just as wet and rainy as everywhere else on our trip I can’t help but feel super excited about what awaits.

Our train arrives at the Gare de Lyon in the 12th arrondissement in Paris. It’s one of the bigger train stations we’ve been to in the last few days and even from the inside, the characteristic Parisian architecture is clearly visible. I’d booked tickets for us to visit the Musee du Louvre from South Africa and indicated that we’ll collect the tickets from the FNAC counter in the train station. Picking them up is easy and after tucking them away safely, we set off in search of our hotel.

Gare de Lyon, Paris, France

Gare de Lyon, Paris, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In our bid to stay within budget and have a hotel that’s conveniently close to the Paris Metro system, we seem to perhaps have overplayed our hand. Though the hotel’s site showed charming photos of a newly renovated older building, the reality is far from it and we arrive to one of the dodgiest hotels I have ever had to stay in. Oh. So. RIDICULOUSLY. Dodgy. If they didn’t have my credit card details, I’d just have turned around and left. The up-side of this is the fact that this will force us to spend as much time away from the hotel, and thus on the streets of the city, as possible.

The Sacre Coeur! This seems like a great starting point for places to see in Paris. I also really want to spend some time in Montmartre in the early evening visiting shops and walking these tiny artistic streets. Though it looks like a complete shambles on first inspection, the Paris metro is incredibly convenient. We pop out right at the bottom of the hill, only to find it windy and rainy. Hoping it will pass, we stop to have some coffee and strategize a plan of action for the next few days.

Our first attempt for the day to view the Sacre Coeur, Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge all fail miserably as the weather is terrible. The wind gusts raindrops into any small opening it finds from all directions and overall, the morning is a complete waste.

Sacre Coeur Montmartre Paris

A view on the Sacre Coeur from the streets of Montmartre

In a last ditch attempt to see some of the city while keeping dry, we head to the Galeries Lafayette centre. It is an insanely large, multi-level department store with anything and everything under the sun. The food court is an amazing assault on the senses with flavoured candies, coloured sugars, exotic spices and a plethora of exquisitely prepared foods from across the globe on sale. One could spend a week here and not find everything it has to offer.

After getting something to eat it seems the torrential downpour has slightly abated and we head back to the Sacre Coeur. The view from the hilltop is amazing and a must-see for a visit to Paris. The basilica’s interior is astoundingly beautiful and well preserved, and the exterior offers many intricate details.

Sacre Couer Paris

We stroll through Montmartre hand-in-hand, as if the inconvenience of the rain and dreadful events unfolding the morning are completely forgotten. In a little side-street, we find a pub with pints of beer for a decent price and decide to enjoy some drinks as a reward at the end of the day.

Montmartre Paris

Montmartre Paris

On the way to the metro station, we find a French bistro that looks promising, and earmark it as The Place to have our one eat-out in Paris tomorrow evening.

Montmartre Paris

Montmartre Paris

Enjoying the amazingly well-behaved weather and wanting to take advantage of it, we decide to visit the Moulin Rouge again and are rewarded with a beautiful light show, though the prices for getting in are laughable.

Moulin Rouge Paris

Moulin Rouge prices April 2012 Paris

Still not sated with our first night in Paris, we arrive at a beautiful view of the Eiffel tower at 21:50 just in time to enjoy the 22:00 show.

Eiffel Tower, Paris

We finally call it a day and head back to Dodge central for a night of rest, feeling well rewarded at the end of the night.

[Tip of the day for Paris: Download a map or mobile app of the metro for easy reference]

Followed by day two in Paris.

Header photo by Deon Joubert.
All other images by the author: © catterflyworx 2012.

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Eurotrip 2012: Lyon, France


22 April: Lyon, France

Continued from part 9: Bourg-en-Bresse, France

Lazy Sunday markets and the roadworked steets of DOOM!
After packing up our fresh, clean clothing and saying goodbye to the small town of Bourg-en-Bresse in the south of France, we journey on to Lyon and find that the drive doesn’t take too long. We arrive a little too early to check in at the hotel, but leave our bags there and head to the fresh produce markets currently open on the riverbanks.

Olives at a market in Lyon, France

As we arrive there is a brass band playing on what seems to be the main bridge, connecting the parking area with the markets.

Brass band on bridge in Lyon, France

The brass band on a bridge in Lyon, France

There is an amazing assortment of fresh products on sale, each vendor trying to drown the next with their shouting. We recognize a few from one of the markets we visited in Turin in Italy a week ago. We stroll along the riverside tasting cheeses and meats, watching the other shoppers.

Fresh produce market Lyon, France

One of the stall owners starts a heated conversation about her wares with Francois in French, never allowing him a chance to explain that he can’t understand her. He eventually walks off and we continue our people-watching.

Fresh produce market in Lyon, France

 We get something to eat from one of the many stalls, and keep walking. The views are absolutely spectacular, made even more so by the fact that we have a few hours worth of sunshine again.

View across the river in Lyon, France

View across the river from the markets in Lyon, France

After sating our appetites and sure that we can check into the hotel now, we venture off in search of a gas station to refill the car and then the rental car agency to return our little Renault. What should take no more than 20 minutes, turns into a 90 minute ordeal as we are forced to take detours across the city due to roadworks , and are sent from one one-way street to another. When we eventually arrive at the parking area for rental returns, I am far beyond my limits for dealing with unknown areas and useless GPS’s, and we head back to the hotel on foot.

We check in and are shown to our ‘room’, though ‘apartment’ would actually be a better description. Living in luxury for one night, we take full advantage of the fact that we have a kitchen and enjoy some wine and dinner at an actual table. We’re off to bed early though, as we have another early train tomorrow to Paris. This time we double-checked that we have the right train station, as we didn’t want a repeat incident of our last train ride!

Continues in part 11 with our (rainy) visit to Paris, France.

Header photo by Deon Joubert.
All other images by the author: © catterflyworx 2012.

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Eurotrip 2012: Bourg-en-Bresse, France


21 April: Bourg-en-Bresse, France

Continued from part 8: Annecy, France

The road to clean washing
We check out of our hotel and stop at a little boulangerie (bakery) across the street to get some croissants for breakfast. They were life changing! Best. Croissants. Ever. EVER! Soft and buttery on the inside, flaky and crunchy on the outside, and absolutely divinely fresh!

We arrive in Bourg-en-Bresse just before 12:00 and check into the hotel. It seems we unwittingly booked two hotels in the same franchise and are really happy with being assured of clean rooms and decent service, though this room is even smaller than our hotel room in Annecy was (didn’t really think that was possible, but hey!). After checking in, we head out to view the only point of interest we could find in Bourg-en-Bresse: The Royal Monastery of  Brou.

The Royal Monastery of Brou, France

The Royal Monastery of Brou on a gloomy day

We arrive to find the doors closed, together with the rest of the town it would seem. We’ve forgotten about the fact that everyone packs up shop between 12:00 and 14:00; one can’t even find an open coffee shop to have something to drink in while we wait! We decide to wait in the car while we watch the weather closing in again. The wind picks up and a bride and groom arrive, with photographer and yards of white dress in tow for some pre-ceremony photos. Nothing else of interest happens, and I eventually fall asleep in the driver’s seat.

The Royal Monastery of Brou, France

Entrance to the Royal Monastery of Brou

Finally when the doors open at 14:00 we get inside. The monastery has amazing Gothic architecture and intricate carvings. Sadly, no photos are allowed inside. Overall the churches in France have been less impressive than their counterparts in Italy, though it seems that the focus is more on the architecture and design than paintings, sculptures and frescoes.

The Royal Monastery of Brou, France

An inner courtyard in the Royal Monastery of Brou

The Royal Monastery of Brou, France

The monastery is famous for it’s multicolor tiled roof.

Upon returning to the hotel at a decent hour for once (we may be getting used to this “the sun only sets at 22:30 at night” thing), I decide it’s past time we found a laundromat and get some clean clothing. This seems more trouble than I’d anticipated, as neither the guide, Google Maps or our GPS can find one (searched for in English and French). Luckily the concierge is able to help, and he points us to the only laundromat in town.

It takes us a while to figure out how to get the machines to work, and luckily we’re not the only tourists completely dumbfounded by the all-French instructions. Eventually the washer fills up with what seems to be soapy water, and after about an hour and a half we return to the hotel with semi-dry clothes. We spread them out all over the tiny room, leaving a little space to wiggle under the bed-covers and sit up reading while it rains again outside. Tomorrow we’ll pack up and spend a lazy Sunday in Lyon, before leaving for Paris on Monday.

Continues in part 10 with our stay in Lyon, France.

Header photo by Deon Joubert.
All other images by the author: © catterflyworx 2012.

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Eurotrip 2012: Annecy, France


20 April: Annecy, France

Continued from part 7: Chamonix Mont Blanc, France

Snow, snow, snow, and cold
Our little hotel and surrounds have been transformed to an area covered in a fine layer of white. The snowfall whithers to light rain and strengthens to snow again, and as we arrive in Chamonix from Passy there is a marked difference in the amount of snow and how low on the mountains it is now. We arrive at the train station and travel up the mountain at a crazy angle.

Heading down to the Mer de Glace

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But, before I go

We’ve planned a lovely weekend away at the beach. Thursday is National Women’s Day in South Africa and we’ve taken leave for Friday, looking forward to KwaZulu Natal‘s mild winters, sunny skies and city-free living. However, the Winter Queen had one last thing to say before she leaves the southern hemisphere, and she chose to send her message in white. Snow white, to be exact.

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Eurotrip 2012: Chamonix, France


19 April: Chamonix Mont Blanc, France

Continued from part 6: Genoa and Turin, Italy

Trains, taxis and “airports”
We wake up to some mighty cold weather and sadly, no hot water. After packing, checking our goodies and making sure we have easy access to our passports, we head off towards the train station. Francois has our train tickets and luckily we are both close to the station and he set it up as a destination on the GPS last night. We arrive approximately 15 minutes before our train is set to depart, but as we look at the “Departures” board, our train is not on there. In fact, there is no train to Chambéry from this station… we’re obviously at the wrong station, with 10 minutes before our train leaves the platform.

The realization sets in that we cannot afford to miss this train, and we run out of the station straight to a waiting taxi. The driver must’ve had some experience with people emulating contenders on The Amazing Race, and he has the car ready and loads our bags in record time. Without waiting to hear where we are headed, he starts the car up and heads towards the station exit. We show him our tickets and emphasize the departure time. He nods in understanding and races us to the other train station in Turin, a mere two kilometers away. We meet the train and gratefully (though panting and breathless) sit back in our reserved seats, finally on our way to France.

We wind through the amazing landscape and as the train snakes through the mountains, it is under the cover of thick fog and light snow. Francois and I are like small children, staring out the window at what can only be described as a wonderland.

Arriving on the train station in Chambéry, we start looking for a bus or metro train that connects the train station to the airport from where we need to collect our rental car, about 10 kilometers from the station. After much debate (and now having to not-understand people in yet another language), we figure out that there is no bus or train line to the airport. So, two taxis in one day it is, then.

The airport is tiny. Miniscule. Ridiculously small. It’s an airfield, with converted shipping containers for offices. The taxi driver looks at us a little dumb-founded (as there aren’t any planes), but off loads us none the less and points us in the direction of the rental car offices.

We walk in to find about eight rental car agency desks, though only one is manned by a slight French woman. We explain in a mixture of English and newly-acquired-Italian that we’re looking for a representative from Europcar, and eventually she calls their offices. She hands the phone to me and I am confronted by an angry-sounding Frenchman, accusing us of not booking a car. I assure him that we did, give him our reference number and he inquires as to why we booked a car from the airport, when we arrived by train. I tell him that their website only showed the Europcar at the airport and he changes his attitude and assures us that he is bringing our car to us.

He arrives in a huff and apologizes profusely. He refunds us the cash we’d spent on the taxi to get to the airport and very deftly handles our contract. We receive the keys to a tiny Renault and are off on our way to Chamonix Mont Blanc.

Snow-covered French Alps
Driving from Chambéry, we watch as the temperature drops as we close in on the Alps. Accommodation in Chamonix itself is very expensive (due to all the skiers), so we are staying in the next village over, Passy. After checking into our rather quaint hotel rather high up the mountain, we get our “we’re seeing snow” today faces (and gear) on, and hop in the car to Chamonix. The temperature drops even further, and as we arrive in Chamonix it is 0ºC. The mountains are all covered in mist, but it only adds to the effect of having an all-white landscape surround us.

A quaint street in Passy, France

There are a number of cable-cars and -lines in Chamonix so after enquiring as to which ones are operational, we buy our tickets and head up the mountains. As soon as we depart the ground station, I have an insane feeling of trepidation and excitement build as we enter the fog and lose visibility of Chamonix and anything more than 50 meters away.

A last view on Chamonix

The first stop is at 1800m. It feels warmer than in Chamonix, but is ghastly white. Francois and I run around in the snow and make scrunching noises as we walk. The skiers look at us with dubious eyes and obvious judgment, but coming from sunny South Africa, we don’t care. Before we depart to continue our ascent, we make snow angels on one of the banks.

Francois & Catherine in the snow. Chamonix Mont Blanc, France

The cable car winds further up the mountain and the next stop is at 2500m. We get out and are immediately blasted with a freezing wind and swirling snow. When the wind isn’t blowing, it is deathly quiet and feels as if you’re inside a huge ball of cotton wool. There really isn’t much to see this high up other than snow and wind, and we head back down to our previous stop to enjoy a (VERY) expensive cappuccino.

Cafe at 1800m on Mont Blanc, France

Back in Chamonix we get something for dinner and some more medicine from the pharmacy, as we’re now both officially sick with flu. We plan on coming back tomorrow morning, to take the train du Montenvers up the mountain to the Mer de Glace glacier and ice cave.

Continues in part 8 with our visit to the glacier and our stay in Annecy, France.

Header photo by Deon Joubert.
All other images by the author: © catterflyworx 2012.

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Eurotrip 2012: Florence, Italy


15 – 16 April: The sites of Firenze, Italy

Continued from part 4: Roadtrip through Tuscany

We wake up to (yes, still) rainy weather and a cold atmosphere. In addition, there is also no hot water in our bathroom, and my dreams of a shower die a shivering death. One of our number is missing as he’s collecting his phone from the police in Siena and the remaining four of us decide to take a self-guided TripAdvisor tour, with yours truly acting as guide.

Following the Florence City Guide‘s Historic Highlights Walking tour, our first stop is the Duomo and the Campanile. Both these structures are very impressive and massive, with constructions having started in the 1200’s. The Duomo cathedral was built with the intent to shame all other churches in the Roman Catholic world – shaming everything that the Greeks and Romans built in their most powerful times, and at the time the design was put on paper, nobody had even known how the dome would be built or supported. Opposite the cathedral is a small baptistry with golden doors depicting scenes from the Old Testament.

A view on the Duomo cathedral with Campanile on the right in Florence, Italy

A view on the Duomo cathedral with Campanile on the right in Florence, Italy

We continue our “tour”, stopping momentarily in the leather markets and shops to get some gifts for people back home (and because I love the smell of leather). The next point of interest on our itinerary is the Capelle Medicee. These house some of the remains of the Medici family and is home to a lot of their amassed wealth and some interesting relics. The Medicis produced four Popes and financed a lot of the Renaissance in Italy, with staggering amounts of work being commissioned by the artists in the area. We receive an sms from our somewhat lost friend that his train is not too far from Florence, so we start heading towards the Santa Maria Novella train station.

The Campanile in Florence, Italy

The Campanile in Florence, Italy

We find a gelato store on the piazza in front of the Santa Maria Novella basilica, and decide that this is a great meeting spot. The sun also shows up for a few minutes and we lavish in the sheer awesomeness of sunshine, eating gelato on a random bench in Italy.

Ordering gelato from a colourful shop in Florence, Italy

Ordering gelato from a colourful shop in Florence, Italy

Eating Gelato on the Santa Maria Novella square in Florence, Italy

Eating Gelato in the sun on the Santa Maria Novella square in Florence, Italy

Finally reunited, we forget about following our tour and head towards some shops and other things that catch our fancy. We end up in the Piazza della Signoria and view the copy of Michelangelo’s David, together with an assortment of other amazing sculptures that are on display. Musicians play in the space outside and we find a few steps on which to sit down for a while outside the mull of the crowd. It’s a Sunday in Italy and the locals seem to take to the streets as badly as the tourists, taking advantage of the little sunshine there is.
From here we head across the river to view the Ponte Vecchio and visit either the Boboli Gardens or the Parco Bardini (I can’t remember which). It offers a nice view of the city and the gardens are immaculately kept.

It starts raining again while we are here though, so we head back to our lodgings to have some dinner and prepare for per-birthday celebration night out for me. We end up finishing four bottles of dreadful red wine and take to the streets of Florence in search of a party. We meet up with some locals who are also enjoying a Sunday night on the town, and we return home at some unholy hour the next morning.

Monday, 15 April
Our plan for today is to visit the Uffizi gallery before parting ways. Francois and I head further North into Italy tomorrow, while the other three are sleeping in Venice tonight. To our dismay, the Uffizi is closed on Mondays and only Francois and I will be able to visit it tomorrow. Instead we head up the hill towards the Piazza Michelangelo to collect the rental car and return it. The view from the piazza is amazing!

The view on Florence from the Piazza Michelangelo at sunset

The view on Florence from the Piazza Michelangelo. (Florence Sunset # 1, by Christian Krieglsteiner)

After returning the car, Francois and I are alone for the afternoon and we stroll through the shops and markets once more. Both my mom and mother in law gave me some money for my birthday and I’m in search of a gift for myself from Italy. I find a gorgeous brown leather jacket and red gloves (lined with rabbit fur) and from here we head up to check into our hostel with a room for two instead of five. We’ve also procured some more stock for our depleted grocery bags and have coffee in a quaint little shop across the street. We have dinner on our bed and find this is the first time since our arrival in Europe where the WiFi access actually works relatively well in our rooms. I chat with my mom in SA (who is very happy to find out we’re OK and enjoying it) and share some of the places we marked off as interesting in Venice with the guys there. We’re in bed fairly early and sleep rather well, considering that there is an entire school booked into the same floor as ours.

Tuesday, 16 April
Francois and I booked our tickets for the Uffizi gallery online and, after collecting our (much smaller) new rental car, we arrive early and miss most of the first crowds in the gallery. We buy a guidebook in the foyer and start strolling through the artworks, starting in Medieval and Byzantine eras, moving into the Renaissance and a little beyond. Sadly no photos are allowed, but it helps to not distract one from the art. The highlight of the visit for me is Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, and I spend a good amount of time staring at the immense work.

Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, c. 1486. Tempera on Canvas. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, c. 1486. Tempera on Canvas. Uffizi Gallery, Florence. (From sinoorigin).

Our tired feet let us down sooner than we were hoping on and we head back to the car and start our drive North. We are sleeping in Genoa tonight, and we’re taking a route that will lead us along the western coast of Italy.

Continues in part 6 with our drive up the coast to Genoa and Turin, Italy. 

Header photo by Deon Joubert.
Florence Sunset #1 by Christian Krieglsteiner. The Birth of Venus by sinoorigin.
All other images by the author: © catterflyworx 2012.

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Eurotrip 2012: Roadtrip through Tuscany and Pisa, Italy


14 April: Roadtrip through Tuscany, Italy

Continued from part 3.2: Two days in Rome

It’s another cold, wet, rainy and grey day in Rome as we pack our bags and head to Termini station to collect our rental car. We’re sleeping in Florence tonight, but we plan on making a roadtrip of it through the Tuscan countryside and are hoping that we will be escaping the weather a little further North of the city.

This is the first time that I will be driving on the “wrong side” of the road, and I have no idea what to expect. We get the car and luckily it seats five of us, plus all our luggage quite comfortably. The first stretch out of Rome is both the worst and best part of the drive, as due to traffic it moves quite slowly. After this the real test starts, as we’re on a small back-road out of Rome heading North to eventually join up with the highway. It takes a lot of concentration to stay far enough in our lane, without off-roading on the right-hand side whilst changing gears with my right hand. By the end of the day the driving won’t be as daunting as it was at the beginning, though when we arrived in Florence that evening I was absolutely dead tired.

Our first stop is the small town of Orvieto. We find parking quite close to the Orvieto cathedral and draw out our hoods and umbrellas to brave the rain. I am in no mood to bring out my camera only to then try and keep it dry in the rain, but instead grab Francois’ hand and walk around the massive zebra-striped cathedral with him. The rain is relentless and soon we opt to find some shelter in front of the cathedral from where we can view it without getting soaked. The header image to these posts were taken while we were hiding from the rain (but not the wind).

Duomo di Orvieto Cathedral

Duomo di Orvieto Cathedral, Italy (by fortherock)

Our second point of interest is Siena. The massive Piazza del Campo is slanted to allow for drainage of storm water, and though we’re sure the tower would offer amazing views of the beautiful city, the rain serves to dissuade us from making the climb. Instead we look for a coffee shop and treat ourselves to some fresh, warm coffee in one of the dodgiest little shops we’ve come across so far. We have our packed sandwiches for lunch in a dreary concrete parking lot and decide to trek on towards Pisa.

Piazza del Campo, Siena

Piazza del Campo, Siena (from Visiting Siena)

Our last planned stop on the way to Florence is Pisa. How can one visit the area and not see the famous leaning tower? We arrive late in the afternoon, delayed by rain and the twisty, windy roads of the Tuscan countryside. We remark again that, if it were not for the rain, we would’ve loved to stop at one of the hundreds of lookout points, wine & olive farms and miscellaneous other points of interest along the way. As it happens, the rain served to keep us in the car and make me more cautious about driving too fast in unknown territory.

The tower leans out at a somewhat ridiculous angle, and though it’s still pouring with rain, the tourists (like ourselves) abound to take ‘that’ picture with the precariously balanced tower. This is literally the only reason we are in Pisa and, after having the photos taken and reading some of the informative plaques, we get back in the car to head to our destination.

As we start heading out to Florence, we receive an sms from another one of our friends’s cellphones. He had apparently lost his phone in the coffee shop in Siena, and someone kindly handed it in to the Siena police, who are sending sms’es out to the people he last contacted. Included in this list happens to be his parents, who are understandably sent into a panic back in South Africa. It takes some time to sort out the misunderstanding and unfortunately he will have to return to Siena to collect his phone from them the next day.

We arrive in Florence in peak hour traffic and it’s a nightmare driving through the rain in the dark with Italian drivers who flow like water amongst the lanes of traffic. It’s a rather harrowing experience and by the time we get to the backpackers where we will be staying, I am overjoyed at the prospect of being able to park the car outside and just forget about it for the next two days. We finally check in and are sadly advised that the parking outside is only for permit holders and that we should take the car to the Piazza Michelangelo, where parking is free and safe. It’s however approximately 2km out on the other side of the river, but we’re assured that there are buses that will bring us back into the city. We fire up the GPS again and head to the parking lot, where we spend about 40 minutes waiting for a bus that never shows. In the end we walk all the way back in the rain and by the time we get back, we’re soaked, starving and (I am) quite irritated with the whole situation. We get some kebabs from a store around the corner and get in bed, hoping that tomorrow will bring some sunshine and a brighter view on Florence.

Continues in part 5 with our visit to the sites of Florence, Italy shortly. 

Header photo by Deon Joubert.
Duomo di Orvieto Cathedral by fortherock. Piazza del Campo from Visiting Siena.
All other images by the author: © catterflyworx 2012.

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