EUROPE 2013: Paris, France

Eiffel TowerAfter a fabulous trip to British Columbia and Alberta, I am refreshed and ready to continue my travel blogs, retracing my steps in time to May 2013, when I toured the Burgundy wine region of France, drove to Monaco to watch Monte Carlo set up for the Grand Prix, flew to Lisbon for a visit, and ended my vacation in Spain.

And yes, in a future thriller Darcy and Bullet will follow in my exact footsteps as they race against time to track down a killer before he strikes again. So focused are they on nabbing the murderer that they have no inkling someone else is fervently stalking them—until the hunter has them in his gun sight. Can Darcy stop him before he delivers a lethal blow?

Café LenôtreIn late 2012, my gypsy husband decided it was high time I saw Paris. No, I had never been. Without missing a beat, he began planning our next trip. In May 2013, we boarded a flight from DFW to London and from there to Paris.

Just before noon, we checked into the Hôtel Duminy-Vendôme in Paris. Famished, we dumped our bags in the room and immediately left for a brisk walk down the Champs-Élysées to Le Café Lenôtre. In my head, I played and replayed Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris,” as I finally had my chance to stroll the popular boulevard. When we reached the Arc de Triomphe, we retraced our steps to the restaurant.

Seated in a quiet corner on the outdoor patio, we played tourist by poring over a map to chart an agenda for the next few days. We glanced at the menus, ordered, and dismissed the puzzled look on our server’s face; by no means is our French good, but we manage. Our orders arrived and our server left. We looked at each other and burst into laughter. Absorbed in our plans for the days ahead, we had overlooked the fact that an “entrée” in French is a dish served before the main course, i.e., a starter. With the attitude that there is a reason for everything, we ordered two more starters, giving us the opportunity to sample a broader selection of dishes and still leave room for dessert.

IMG_6272After lunch, we headed to the Seine for a boat cruise down the river. We queued up at Bateaux Mouches, boarded, and settled into our seats on the upper deck for a view of the iconic sites of Paris—Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Musée d’Orsay, to name a few. There are some things you should experience once, and the river tour was one of them. From what I’ve heard, the summer tourist crowds can be quite unruly, but fortunately we were subjected to only one discourteous group of six, clad in tank tops and shorts, who soon sought refuge below deck, complaining about the chilly, overcast day. More interested in photographing the Eiffel Tower, I hadn’t paid much attention to the weather other than to consider how it might affect my pictures.

Eiffel Tower Up CloseAfter photographing the Eiffel Tower from a distance, I couldn’t wait for an up-close look at this magnificent structure, so the minute we disembarked from the boat we headed straight there. Ever since I had admired the architecture of the Budapest-Nyugati Railway Terminal, also built by the Eiffel Company, I had wanted see the tower.

When we arrived at the famous landmark, I was awestruck by the massiveness of the iron structure. It was impressive in size and construction, and I was looking forward to dinner at the Jules Verne restaurant—for the food, but more so for what I anticipated would be a breathtaking view of Paris. However, I would have to wait. That night, we had reservations at Kunitoraya and planned to retire early, as jet lag had begun to set in.


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EUROPE 2011: Sightseeing and Viennese Cafés

Votive Church Vienna

Monday dawned gray and rainy on our last day in Prague. Thankfully, our only plans were to board a train for Vienna. At the main station, we used the last of our crowns, the official Czech currency, to buy chocolates before we boarded our train for the four-hour and forty-five-minute trip. We passed the time looking at our vacation photos on our iPads, listening to music, reading, and taking a short nap.

We arrived in Vienna to rain. By the time we made it to the cab stand, a two-block walk from the train station, we both had only two things on our minds: hot showers and dry clothes. We had reservations at the Radisson Blu Style Hotel. I was surprised to see that this Radisson was not reminiscent of some of the ones I had stayed at in the US. The Vienna hotel was contemporary in design and our modern room spacious and well appointed. It was also located in the heart of the cultural district, close to every attraction, and near the famous Café Central.

The Viennese love their afternoon coffee and a pastry, and the city boasts many popular and different coffee houses to choose from. And they are all united by their strict adherence to the basic rule of Viennese café culture: those who wish to quietly read the national or international press, available to all customers, will not be disturbed by a server even after hours of perusing the newspapers. Those in a hurry can stand up to enjoy their gastronomic delights.

After we unpacked and changed, we went for a long walk with no particular destination in mind; we wanted only to get some exercise after sitting for almost five hours on a train. About we’d walked three city blocks from our hotel, the late afternoon sky grew darker and the drizzle became a light rain, so we quickly retraced our steps and arrived at the Radisson just as the light rain turned into a downpour.

We had a glass of wine and shared an appetizer in the lobby of our hotel while waiting for the weather to pass, but the rain showed no signs of easing. So we checked to see if we could reserve a table at Sapori, the award-winning restaurant inside our hotel. Since they were able to accommodate us, even on such short notice, we dined in for our first night in Vienna.

Votive Church, Vienna

The next day the inclement weather had improved enough to sightsee without getting drenched. By now, our trip was winding down and we were as well. Since we had visited Vienna once before and for a longer duration, we planned to pace ourselves during our sightseeing. Or so we both said. Our goal for the day was simple—to walk. And to visit several parks along the way.

We began our day’s self-guided walking tour with the Ring, or Ringstraße, a circular road surrounding the Innere Stadt district. Its architecture is typical of the eclectic, historicist style called Ringstraßenstil of the 1860s to 1890s. Our first destination was the Votive Church. The church was built to thank God for saving Emperor Franz Joseph from a failed assassination attempt; it was a votive offering. What intrigued me was seeing photos of the massive pipe organ and the beautiful rose window behind it. But the church was closed for cleaning and renovations. Despite the scaffolding and canvas tarps that covered a good portion of one side of the church’s exterior, we were able to photograph it. In certain sections, the walls looked almost black in color, until I saw the cleaned areas. The church is built of white sandstone, and with its elegant and distinctive twin spires that appear almost lace-like, it is an impressive neo-Gothic work of art. (The photo of the pipe organ and rose window is courtesy of Bwag/Commons).

Vienna Sigmund Freud Park

From the Votive Church, we crossed to Sigmund Freud Park. In May 2004 a granite table surrounded by ten seats was erected in the park to represent the European Union’s ten new member states.

Retracing our steps, we paused often to snap photos of the town hall, Parliament, and various other government buildings and museums as we headed to the Monument to the Empress Maria Theresa. Maria Theresa was the only Queen regnant of the Habsburg dominions and the last of the House of Habsburg. She governed from 1740 to 1780. During her reign, she not only ran the country, but also reformed the school system—and raised her sixteen children.

We photographed the Hofburg Palace, the former imperial palace in the center of Vienna, then wandered toward Burggarten, the private palace garden laid out in an informal English style. With the fall of the Habsburg Empire, the park opened to the public.

Vienna Butterfly House

As the noon hour approached and we drew near Palm House, we stopped for a coffee break. Palm House was built between 1901 and 1907 and was designed by Friedrich Ohmann in the art nouveau style. One section of the iron and glass greenhouse is home to Butterfly House, where you can see hundreds of tropical butterflies and even bats. The other side houses a popular café. After all the walking we had done, we treated ourselves to an espresso and a slice of Sacher torte.

Vienna Albertina Museum

Charged from our caffeine intake, we set our sights on the Albertina Museum. The building sits on an elevated post atop the Augustinian bastion near the Albertina Palace and the Hofburg. The museum has three main collections: architecture, photography, and graphic art. Today, the collection consists of around fifty thousand drawings and one million prints. What I wanted to photograph was the museum’s modern exterior. Next week, one of the main highlights of our trip, and we witness an unexpected delight as we stroll past the Spanish Riding School.


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EUROPE 2011: Venice, Italy

On our second day in Venice, we set out to sightsee. Piazza San Marco, St. Mark’s Square, was first on our agenda. Although our hotel was a short walk from the square, the hardest part was negotiating all the tourists, even in late September. Face it, Venice is a popular destination no matter what time of year. St. Mark’s is the largest square in the city and the only one given the designation “piazza.” The centerpiece is St. Mark’s Basilica, nicknamed Church of Gold for its opulence. As I stood in the enclosed piazza and gazed about, I was in astounded by its size, almost 240 yards long, and its grandeur.

Venice St Mark's BasilicaWith my back to the basilica, I studied the architecture of the historic buildings. To my right were the old offices, circa sixteenth century, and the clock tower. To my left, the new offices, circa seventeenth century, and beyond them the square opened to the water. Behind me was the Correr Museum. Despite its size, the square felt protected, intimate, and definitely romantic.

St Marks Basilica Venice Italy I gravitated toward the basilica, drawn by its Byzantine and Gothic architecture. Construction of the cathedral began in 829 with the intention of building a shrine for the body of St. Mark, believed to have been brought from Alexandria to Venice in the same year. Fire destroyed the church in 976, and it was rebuilt between 1043 and 1071. The exterior of the west facade is divided into three registers: lower, upper, and domes. The lower register has five arched portals that open into the narthex through bronze doors. The upper register has mosaics depicting the Life of Christ. The layout of the church is based on a Greek cross with four arms of equal length. Five domes cap the space—one over each arm and one over the center where the two arms cross.
Upon completion, the interior of the basilica was plain brick and stucco until the late twelfth century, when every surface was covered with precious materials—marble, gold, gems, and mosaic glass—a space of unsurpassed visual splendor. Although all this was captivating, my eyes were drawn to the apex of the dome, where Christ appears adorned in gold.

Venice Campanile Outside the church, we crossed the square to the Campanile, the bell tower, which stands 323 feet high and has an elevator to the top for a spectacular view of Venice. We snapped a few shots of the city and some of the exterior of the tower, then walked on, hundreds of pigeons scattering in our wake. Relieved that we had avoided being dive-bombed by the birds, we skirted the outdoor cafés and left the piazza to explore the island, bypassing a visit to the Doge’s Palace. We were more interested in some other sites: the Rialto Bridge, the Grand Canal, Bridge of Sighs, and a few churches.

Santa Maria della Salute in Venice After two hours of sightseeing, and a tour of the Accademia Gallery, we made the short walk from the Accademia Bridge to Santa Maria della Salute. The domed baroque church stands on a narrow finger of land between the Grand Canal and the Bacino di San Marco. From what I have read, Doge Nicolò Contarini, before his death from the black plague, made a solemn vow to build a church to the Virgin Mary if she would free the city from the disease. He also promised that every year, on November 21st, he would lead a procession to the church. After his death, Doge Francesco Erizzo fulfilled Nicolò’s vow with the construction of Santa Maria della Salute. The plague killed almost one-third of the population of Venice.

Rialto Bridge Late in the afternoon, we strolled across the Rialto Bridge to browse the shops and take in the scenery. We had been warned that some of the stores were not selling authentic Murano glass, but we had already made our purchases on the island and weren’t interested in buying more.

Venice St Mark's Piazza On our way back to our hotel, we stopped for a coffee at one of the cafés that line St. Mark’s Square, and to give our feet a short break before we made the jaunt to dinner. That night, we had reservations at Osteria Da Fiore.


Da Fiore Venice The warm evening was delightful, so we took our time walking through the maze of quaint narrow streets until we reached our restaurant. The waitstaff led us to a table for two on the only balcony in Da Fiore. It overlooked a quiet canal. The setting was very romantic, especially when the occasional gondola would cruise by and soft music would drift our way as the gondolier serenaded his riders . . . and us.

Public Fountain We passed on the six- or seven-course tasting menu and ordered à la carte, beginning with tiny shrimp tempura on creamy polenta followed by a seafood tower. For our mains, more fish. I had shrimp in seven spices, and Dave ordered wild bass steamed with apples. For dessert, I chose the chocolate cake and Dave an orange-apricot cream. Full, we sipped our wine and watched the next gondola as it slowly glided down the canal past our table, this gondolier too serenading us with a low, melodic tune.

Before I sign off, here are two tips from the locals. One: carry a lightweight water bottle that you can refill at public fountains. Venetians pride themselves on great-tasting tap water piped in from the foothills of the Alps, and it is cold and refreshing, especially on a warm day. Two: if you are dive-bombed by pigeons, resist the urge to clean the poop out of your hair. Let it dry, and then you can brush it out. I know this will take some restraint, but it works. However, if it lands on your clothes, wipe it off immediately to prevent a stain. On that note, see you next week!


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