Travel


It seems a bit too late to write about our 2003 trip. My best friends are going there soon, so I’m writing this for their reference.

We still find it the best among our 4 European trips so far: weather, food, Gaudi, Alhambra, flamenco, bull fight, flower, … What a first impression!

Places

Roughly in descending order of interest.

City

Must see

May see

Skip
Madrid

Prado and Sofia Museums
Ermita de San Antonio
Plaza de España
Plaza Mayor
Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas (for bull fight)

Parque del Retiro

Palacio Real
Barcelona

Everything Gaudi
Did I say Gaudi?
Las Ramblas
Fundacion Miro
Palau Musica Catalana
Palau Reial Major

Montjuic/Miramar

Picasso Museum
Pobel Espanyol on Montjuic
Sevilla

Real Alcázar
Cathedral

El Patio Sevillano (too toursy)
Cordoba

Mezquita
Tablao Cardenal (flamenco)

Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos

Granada

Alhambra
Mirador de San Nicolas (to see Alhambra at sunset)

Food

We knew nothing about Spanish cuisine except maybe paella, but what a treat we got! The consistently tasty paella, the endless variety of tapas, and the refreshingly intoxicating sangria…

  • Madrid
    • Casa Mingo: Paseo de la Florida 2, right on the way from metro Príncipe Pio to Ermita de San Antonio. Have roast chicken with their self-made cider so that you won’t get dizzy later staring up at Goya’s masterpiece.
    • Cervecería Alemanic: Plaza de Santa Ana 6. On a very relaxing plaza, famous for fried sardine and Spanish omelette. The waitor is super cool: he took our order without writing down anything, then when we asked for check he wrote down everything on a napkin. Now that’s professional!
      CerveceriaAlemanic_bill.jpg
    • Cervecería Santa Bárbara: Plaza de Santa Bárbara 8. Nice brewery. We had oystery with beer, yummy!
    • La Plateria: Calle Moratin 49. Across the street from Prado, we had our first sangria there without knowing how strong it is. We got dizzily happy and took a nap in Jardin Botanico before going to Prado. Food, wine, great arts–life is beautiful!
  • Barcelona
    • BaBaReeBa: Passeig de Gracia 28, between Plaza Catalunya and Illa de la Discordia. Cool decor, excellent food, way better than those toursy places on Las Ramblas.
    • Pastisseria Escriba: Ramblas 83. Close to the colorful market La Boqueria, this is known as the most spectacular pastry shop in Barcelona.
  • Sevilla: Cerveceria Giralda at Mateos Gago 1, very close to Giralda. Very nice tapas, we even saw the waiter in the tourbook photo and got his signature.
    CerveceriaGiralda_signature.jpg
  • Cordoba: Taberna La Lechuga at Tomas Conde 12, very close to Mezquita. Definitely the best tapas bar we went to.
    TabernaLaLechuga_card.jpgfull.jpgJ_waiter.jpg

Exhausted, but how rewarding it is, as always.

Didn’t get wi-fi in Brussels, and couldn’t connect in Paris though there’re tons of APs (most are protected). When I checked out the hotel I saw a Linksys AP at the concierge, but wouldn’t have time to blog anyway.

Just record some fleeting thoughts here, to be expanded in our never-finishing travel site:

  • The Dutch houses usually have their living room at street side, with a large window WITHOUT curtain. This is the same in all 3 Dutch towns we went to: Sassenheim, Haarlem, and Amsterdam. I wonder if it’s because they don’t care about their own privacy, or they don’t care about other people’s lives so nobody peeks. It’s wonderful for us, though, to peek into many tastefully decorated living rooms to get the ultimate reason (for me) for travelling: witness different lives as they happen.
  • If I have to pick my favorite country/place in this trip, it’d be Belgium/Brussels. Big factors: Tintin, beer, and Art Nouveau. I absolutely love the comic walls in Brussels. Turn a street corner and you see a piece of art, intimate and accessible. The ‘t Brugs Beertje in Bruges is a beer lover’s paradise. Brussels’ Art Nouveau buildings aren’t as striking as Gaudi’s, but they’re still fine living monuments.
  • Paris is too big and sophisticated to take in 8 days. It didn’t help to have 3 days of bad weather, May Day when everything is closed, and my aching ankle. Some quick notes of do’s and donnot’s:
    • Best panoramic view is from Notre Dame, because it’s in the middle of the city and close to most sites. Arc de Triomphe is also good. Sacre-Coeur and La Defense is too far, and Eiffel is too high, and Paris at night is way too dim to be called the City of Light!
    • Do NOT go up La Defense. It’s not covered by museum pass, and the tall buildings around it block most views of the city.
    • Best underrated museum: Plans-Relief. Have some stunning city and landscape models. The one for Mount St. Michel is incredible. Later I found out from a book we bought that we only saw one wing of it due to construction, whereas the whole museum should take one full floor of the Invalides.
    • Most relaxing museum: Rodin. The garden is perfect for afternoon nap: there’re several lounge chairs.
    • Best moments: riding bike in Versailles garden. My ankle was hurting badly those days, so I felt like flying on a bike. We went to all borders of the garden, seeing only a few locals jogging in the vast woods. At the end of the Grand Canal, the chateau can hardly be seen, along with hordes and herds of tourists.
    • Do NOT go to Delacroix Museum (though it’s covered by museum pass). It’s a tiny house, and the courtyard is just so. Delacroix’s works are pretty impressive, and he must be seething in his coffin when the Rodin and Picasso museums are so much better compared.
    • Best cafe that we went to: Flore en Ile (something like that) on St. Louis island. We had stunning hot chocolate (I think it’s better than what we had at the so-called Paris’ best Angelina, which is pretty good, and different), and very nice Tarte Tartin.
    • Best for our stomach: this is a shame to admit, but it’s a Chinese restaurant (万里香 at the corner of 温州街). There’s just nothing like a hot noodle soup at the end of a day. The taste is very authentic, and the restaurant always crowded.
    • Biggest disappointement: Amélie’s Café des deux Moulins. I didn’t read the direction carefully enough, and thought it’s on the north side of Rue des Abesses along Rue Lepic. We walked up the curved street all the way to Rue Norvins, passing one of the only two remaining windmills in Montmartre (Moulin de la Galette) on the way. We cut back to Rue Lepic and still couldn’t find it. I was very stressed out and rain was pouring. Luckily, as we walked back toward the metro J noticed the cafe. The interior is dark and messy, hardly recognizable from the movie. The screen on which Amélie wrote the menu backward is gone. There’re only a couple of movie posters on the wall. There’re two ugly unhappy waitors. I guess the French just don’t care about one of the most popular French movies of all time.
  • There’s no coincidence that most great modern cities have at least one great urban planner/architect associated with them. Paris was created by Baron Haussmann, New York by Robert Moses, Vienna has Otto Wagner, Berlin has Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Brussels has Victor Horta, Barcelona has Gaudi. Now think of what’s been happening at Chinese cities…

The title is too irreverent of the master, but that’s the best summary I can think of. We spent the whole morning waiting in line for the Rijksmuseum, which has only a few rooms open due to construction. The only things worth seeing are a few Rembrandt’s and Vermeer’s, and some nice crafts. We bought the combo ticket that’s also valid for Van Gogh and Rembrandt/Caravaggio exhibition, so hopefully today there’s no more waiting in line.

Had lunch at 1e Klas in the train station, recommended by a tour guide, which isn’t bad at all. Then took a 1-hour boat tour on the canals. Sharp contrast to Venice, where almost every angle is picture perfect. Still interesting though, watching lively lives going on.

Then walked around the old town and to Rembrandtplein for coffee break. Walked back through the “new town” and saw another huge playground besides a church. Had “dinner” at De Wildeman, a beer bar recommended by Michael Jackson and what a treat! No time to write about it now…

Walked through the Red Lights before and after dinner. What a scene. Most ladies don’t look attractive at all. Chinatown is right beside, sometimes within the district. Chinese are fearless!

WordPress seems to have problem with uploading, so no more PODs.

Weather now seems like #1 reason that we loved our Spain trip so much. Winter in Germany and Austria is miserable. Summer in Italy is too hot. Let’s hope Spring in Belgium and Paris is a little better, because…

Keukenhof was fantastic under the sun, which sun went out about noon, and mid afternoon it started to drizzle. First everyone ducked in a large pavilion, then everyone wanted to leave so there’s a huge traffic jam. We tried to go opposite of traffic and go see the flower fields, but made a couple of wrong turns and stuck in traffic for almost an hour. We can only imagine how stunning the fields would look like in a perfect day, which is probably rare in spring–well let’s leave that for our next visit, together with the rest 3/4 of Keukenhof!

Came back to Amersterdam’s “most famous pancake house” (according to Rick Steve, and the restaurant itself), which is ok but not great. Then went to Anne Frankhuis close by. It’s incredible that there’s still a line at 8pm (it closes at 9), soon I found out it’s because there’s really nothing to see and everyone lingers to make something out of the 7.5e entrance fee. I wonder how many visitors complain, like Norbert did. It’s definitely not a fun place, and it’s not supposed to be. It’s interesting to know that Anne rewrote her diary once, and if I’ll ever read it, I want to read the two versions side by side–if she didn’t tear up the old one.

Walked to the central station to get canal boat tour info. Not many interesting things to see along the way. Amsterdam boasts more canals than Venice, but it’s way less charming, though we haven’t seen the best district (Golden Bend). Or it’s just the gloomy weather.

Today is museum day, because it’s again overcast. Hopefully tomorrow we’ll see a bit of sun to go see the windmills.

Picture of the day:
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Write something when Jin’s kids getting ready to go… We’re really here! Norbert picked us up from Schipol last morning, going back to the 3-room apartment, picking up the family for Blomencorso. It’s really cold: no sun, windy, temp at most 10C. There’re thousands of people lining up in the street of tiny Sassenheim to see the parade, must be 10 times more than the number visitors the town sees in all other days in a year combined.

In the afternoon we went to Haarlem (must be where New York’s Harlem came from, part of the original New Amsterdam). It’s a nice town, the center is too toursy, though. The Grote Markt is filled with a theme-park like playground, with a huge swing swinging people up higher than the top of the church tower. The church has many shops occupying the ground level, a really bizarre scene–the Dutch is obviously more commercial than religious.

Had dinner in a Chinese restaurant called Nanking, recommended by Rick Steve. It’s surprisingly good–much better than what we expected. The signature Indonesian “rice table” combo, which has one big plate of sauteed chicken and beef, 8 small tapas-style dishes, and rice, is tasty and filling. The waitress is from Wenzhou, a relative of the owner.

Today the sun came out and the temp will be in lower 10’s, so we’ll go to the huge Keukenhof flower park, the tulip-growing area Bollenstreak, and hopefully with time for the windmills of Zaanse Schans, Holland’s most stereotypical scenes. Go Dutch!

BTW there’re a couple open hotspots here and one has pretty good signal. I’ll write as long as it’s open, and we have time besides organizing pictures and planning and playing with the kids and Skyping with families in China and …

Picture of the day:
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A friend recommended his tourbook, and we bought it as one of 3 Paris tourbooks besides DK’s and Knopf’s. It’s unmistakenably written by American for Americans, but I like his attitude. Here’s a quote from his Back Door Travel Philosophy (printed in the book):

Globetrotting destroys ethnocentricity. It helps you understand and appreciate different cultures. Travel changes people. It broadens perspectives and teaches new ways to measure quality of life. Many travelers toss aside their hometown blinders. Their prized souvenirs are the strands of different cultures they decide to knit into their own character.

BTW his book, like Frommers and Lonely Planet (later borrowed from library), is focused on praticality. We’ve been using DK’s as our main guide for all our European trips, because the books are beautifully printed, durable, comprehensive, and well organized. It focuses on history more than praticality, sometimes bogged down too much in uninteresting anecdotals. We saw the Knopf’s book in the bookstore, and it’s even more beautifully printed (with many colorful glossy pages) and less practical, but it’s a nice side read.

No enough books can describe the City of Light. We just hope the strike will be over in a month…


More on RS’ book. It’s organized in such a way that it’s hard to look up info on a particular place (like DK book), because it’s scattered in several sections, starting with sights (brief description), then walks (in depth for some places like Notre Dame), then tours (details for some places like Louvre). So it’s really good for “lazy” travellers who want to follow the book exactly. They’ll read the sights in general, then follow the walks, and look up the tour when they’re at a specific site. Not for us, though I pick up a ton of good info.

Some humorous lines:

La Madeleine … a postcard facade and a postbox interior.

(Montparnasse Tower has) the added bonus of one of Paris’ best views–the Eiffel Tower is in sight, and Montparnasse Tower isn’t.

Maybe even greater than Charles (Charlemagne equstrian at Notre Dame) are the nearby pay toilets–the cleanest you’ll find in downtown Paris.

(Giverny is) worth a visit if you like Monet more than you hate crowd.

The French spend at least as much on their babies as they do on their dogs.

Like back home, the LOTO is a big deal–and a lucrative way for the government to tax poor and less educated people.

(In church of St. Pierre-de-Montmatre) along the right wall, rub St. Peter’s toe (again–first in Sacre-Coeur), look up, and ask for deliverance from the tourist mobs outside.

(End of Louvre tour:) In A.D. 2003, five thousand years of invasions, violence, and regime change finally came to an end when peace, prosperity, an democracy were established for all time in Iraq by the USA under the benevolent guidance of GWB.

If you like Impressionism, visit this museum. If you don’t like Impressionism, visit this museum. Sure, ya gotta see the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, but after you get your gottas out of the way, enjoy the Orsay.

Even if the rest of you is sleeping in a cheap hotel, let your taste buds travel first-class in Paris–They can go coach in London.

Another must-see place on the east coast that we’ve missed in the past 3 years, we finally decided to go with the crowd. Left at 7am to beat the traffic, the road was clear until 4 miles to Bourne Bridge. Finally arrived at Falmouth about 11am, not bad at all.

Had a quick lunch, and got on a ferry to Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. Took a bus to Edgartown, rent bikes to ride to South Beach. With nothing to do we soon rode back to tour Edgartown. The waterfront facing Chappaquiddick is a nice place, and the many captains’ houses scattered around the town are intriguing. One could easily spend a whole week on the island, but it’s too crowded, and you need to reserve many months in advance to get your car onto the ferry.

We got back to Falmouth and arrived at the Parsonage Inn in East Orleans. A typical family inn on Cape Cod, it’s cozy and charming. We had dinner with the legendary 柳方 and his soon-to-be-broken-up girlfriend, and went to Nauset Beach hoping to see some fireworks. Little fireworks did we see, but lots of twinkling stars, and an awesome moon rise over the ocean.

On the next day we went to the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary first. Followed the Goose Pond Trail, then Boardwalk to the beach, then Try Island Trail and Silver Spring Trail. Easy and relaxed, we saw lots of birds, and some beautiful deers. We wanted to have lobster for lunch but the store we went to had it sold out, so we just had a simple picnic back in the sanctuary.

Went to Marconi Station Site and Marconi Beach, then settled on Nauset Light Beach for a little while. We flew the kite we robbed from Lilian last year, and that’s easy and fun! Went off to Coast Guard Beach and the trail down to the pond and bridge is beautiful.

We ordered 2 lobsters from the store and brought them back to the inn. What a feast! And what a great decision to bring vinegar and ginger! Well fed, we went to Provincetown to see the fireworks. On our way back there’s a terrible traffic jam, fortunately the only one we experienced during the trip.

The last day was gloomy and chilly. We climbed up the Pilgrim Monument, and then I completely missed the direction so we walked to the edge of Provincetown and back to catch the whale watching trip. We’re miserable on the ship battered by wind and rain, and only caught glimpses of the back of 3 whales. Coming back on land we walked around town a little bit then headed home.

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