Monday, May 30, 2011

A Knock At The Door...And A Gift

I was cleaning the apartment here in Vall d'Bronx earlier today when I heard a knock at the door. I figured it was either someone selling something or the landlord stopping by unannounced, both of which happen quite a bit. Nope. This time it was different.

At the door was a mid-fifties gentleman who said he was unemployed and that he needed some money. The guy wasn't sketchy or anything; he was just someone who seemed to be suffering from Spain's unfortunate high unemployment rate, which is currently running over 21% percent. Just like in the U.S., that number doesn't really represent what's going on as I know more than a couple of people who have stopped looking or are underemployed. You may have seen something about the protests that are happening at Plaza Catalunya here in Barcelona and at the Puerta del Sol over in Madrid. Many of the people there, just like the guy at my door, have reached the end of their options and just don't know what to do. They've gotten desperate.

Today a guy knocked on my door and left me a gift. That gift is that I'm grateful for what I have and thankful that I have the opportunity live each day to the fullest. I will take advantage of all that life has to offer and to live each day like it's my last. I do it for myself, for those who can't, and especially for those who have chosen not to. Thank you and good luck Mr. Random Guy who stopped by.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Trifecta: Vatican, Sistine Chapel, And Pope Sighting!

No first-time trip to Rome would be complete without a visit to the Vatican. After my twelve years of Catholic-school education and twenty-plus years of recovery, I was surprisingly excited about going. In a way, it reminded me of going between the U.S. and Canada in that you're crossing an international border but in most ways it doesn't seem like it (I'd apologize in advance to any Canadians but no one reads this anyway).

It was impressive to enter Saint Peter's square and stand in the middle looking around at something that I had seen in photos a million times but had never thought that I would actually see in person. I could tell that there were people from all over the world in that square and that they were all super excited to be there. I saw several groups of pilgrims carrying various sculptures and, honestly, I didn't feel that I fit in with the crowds since I'm no longer religious. Fortunately, one group adopted me as one of their own; that's me just to the right the Brazilian flag with my hand up:

Kidding aside, I read that a tour of the Vatican should start by going to the Vatican Museum. It's a large museum that houses an impressive collection of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art in addition to a bunch of Renaissance stuff. I really wanted my tour guide friend from Egypt to be there with me to explain all the Egyptian stuff but it was fun anyway. It's funny but to hear the story as they tell it there, the Catholic church pretty much was the savior of all pre-Renaissance art and culture. I'm not sure if that's true but they do have a pretty good collection of booty. treasure. art.

After going through the museum, you go directly over to the Sistine Chapel, which was pretty much the highlight of the tour. (I guess that's why it looked like 90% of the people visiting that day ran through the museum to get to the chapel.) Going into the chapel, you enter through a door in the corner of the room and you're immediately overwhelmed with what you see above you:

In case you're not familiar, the roof is Michelangelo's interpretation of the old testament starting with creation and ending with Noah being drunk. I'm guessing he stopped there because he ran out of roof...

On the front wall of the chapel is Michelangelo's The Last Judgement painting. Much to my surprise, it had nothing to do with the Terminator movies like I thought. Apparently, he did this one a bunch of years after he did the ceiling and the style is different--more serious and dark I guess. The three things that I liked were that he painted one of his critics in one corner with a snake eating his privates, that he painted himself as an empty "bag" of skin, and that when they renovated the painting, they left two small squares in the corners to show what it looked like before. Hint: very dark. You can see the squares if you look above the Last Judgement painting to where the arches of the ceiling curve towards the outside walls and meet in the corners.

After hanging out with about 18,000 of my closest friends in the Sistine Chapel, it was time to leave and go down to see the Basilica. again. The place is huge and having the opportunity to be in such an important religious place was amazing. I hadn't felt that way since my trip to the Holy Land in Israel.

Like I said, the place is huge. To give you some concept of scale, look into the cupola in the photo above (where the windows in the dome are). Below the windows is a gold-colored band that goes from one side to the other. On that band are letters that are about seven or eight feet (2-3 meters) high. Yeah, big. On the floor of the main space, they have information that shows the actual sizes of a bunch of other churches in the world as measured from the front door. They all seem so small when you're standing on the markers and comparing them to the interior of the Basilica. Some of the things that are worth seeing are Saint Peter's tomb and the Vatican Grotto where many popes are interred.

I've always seen photos of Vatican City taken from the roof of the church so I definitely had to do that too. They charge like 7 euros to take the elevator up to the roof, which is cool but not nearly as cool or with nearly as good of a view as up on the very top. Getting there from the roof where the elevator stops was crazy (note: if you're not wild about small spaces or can't climb stairs skip it) because of the narrow stairs that run between the outside of the dome and the inside of the dome but the view is awesome:

On the way out of the church I saw some Swiss guards over on the side. I definitely had to have a picture with them because of those crazy outfits. Oh yeah, by the way, Michelangelo didn't design them contrary to what many people believe. I think I know what I'll be dressing as next Halloween!

Finally, I got lucky. The pope apparently does public audiences twice a week when he's not out traveling the world, once on Sunday for mass and once on Wednesday just because. After arriving into the city mid-day on Wednesday, I figured that it was too late plus when heading over to check out St. Peter's square massive crowds were walking out. About 10 minutes after arriving and having taken about 150 photos or so, I looked up to the front and saw a guy in his bathrobe...oh wait, maybe that's the pope...and IT WAS! He was getting into his Popemobile preparing to leave. I maxed out the zoom on my trusty Canon camera and got about six photos or so. This was the best one I got but you can definitely tell it's him. Score!

I hit the trifecta! The Vatican and views from the roof, the Sistine Chapel, AND a pope sighting! I better play the lotto tonight.

*Travel Tip*: If you're going to the Basilica, the Vatican Museum, and the Sistine Chapel, it's best to do them all at the same time. Make a reservation for the museum online so that you can skip the scary-long line that wraps around the building and, as a bonus, you get to enter up to one hour before the people who didn't make a reservation. When you get there, bypass the people waiting in line and go all the way to the front door--no waiting! Go through the Vatican Museum and check out the displays. Once you're done, follow the crowds over to the Sistine Chapel. It's crowded but, since the display is on the ceiling, it's not really a problem.

When you're done at the chapel, (this is the important part) exit through the door with no sign in the far back right hand corner (with your back to the Last Judgement painting). You'll see another door on the left wall with a big sign that says something like "Exit Here" but that takes you outside via the museum whereas the other door leads directly into the Basilica. This allows you to bypass the lines and security because you're already inside. Doing this gets you the museum, the chapel, and the Basilica without having to wait in line twice. Let me sleep on your couch to pay me back.

Once inside the Basilica, to get to the Vatican Grotto, stand in front of the giant red/brown structure above Saint Peter's grave. From there turn left and walk towards the nearest corner of the room that'll be just in front of you. You'll see a large sculpture in the corner. Just to the right of the sculpture there's a small door with stairs that lead down to the grotto. It's not marked but go's easier than going back outside and then finding it. Have fun!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Colosseum And Roman Forum

Like other European cities, Rome is an interesting mix of the old and new but in Rome's case, it's more like a mix of the ancient and the new. You've got new modern office and apartment buildings, "newish" middle-ages buildings in the historic core, and ancient ones like the Colosseum and Roman Forum. This was the view of the Colosseum and some of the surrounding neighborhood from the hop-on hop-off tourist bus on the way to the Colosseum:

The area near the Colosseum gives you the opportunity to see and feel how things probably were a couple of thousand years ago. The Roman Forum, which sits next to the Colosseum, was the center of Roman government and life for almost 1,000 years. There are remains of temples, public and government buildings, as well as a handful of other monuments. It's super cool to be able to walk between buildings and other structures that have been around for thousands of years.

In some cases, the things you're looking at are just a few stones left from earlier buildings but in other cases they've rebuilt things back to how they were in their prime. I felt humbled while there imagining back to when Julius Caesar walked along these very same streets two thousand years ago and how he probably enjoyed eating his signature salads in one of the local cafes during his lunch breaks from running the empire...

Right next door to the Roman Forum is probably the most famous stadium ever built. The Colosseum is big, surprisingly big, when viewed from the outside. It's amazing to me that this place was built 2,000 years ago and is still standing today. Some of the it has collapsed due to earthquakes and has been carted off over the years to build other things so only some of the original exterior wall, which can be seen on the left below, remains. In other words, even though it looks really big now, it probably looked twice as big back when it was built. It must have been an impressive sight.

Inside the stadium feels even bigger than it does on the outside. Originally built to hold somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 people (estimates vary), I could imagine what it looked like back then. Seating ran from the platform up to the top outer edge of the building. I read that it once had a large fabric cover that could be moved into place to block out the weather. During its history, it has been used for all types of public events such as gladiator battles, exotic animal "hunting" displays, and even for the martyring of Christians during their repression.

The "floor" of the Colosseum was a large wooden platform with passage ways running below it. Using trap doors, animals could be released at random places during shows that the gladiators would have to kill. In some cases, the animals were released to attack people who were "part of the show". I imagine that it was quite a spectacle to see unless you were one of the people in the show.

Like I wrote before, what I find most interesting when seeing sites like these is how long they've been around and how many generations of people have passed in that time. It makes me reflect on how little time we get to enjoy this world and that we need to take advantage of every minute of it. I'm reminded again and again how lucky I am to have this opportunity.

*Travel Tip*: The entry lines at the Colosseum are crazy long. You can avoid them if you go next door to the ticket office at the Palatine Hill, which is much less popular with tourists. The same ticket works for the Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, and the Colosseum. On the day I visited, there were about six people in front of me in the line at Palatine Hill and about 1,000 in line at the Colosseum. Enter the complex through the Palatine Hill and do a quick pass there (probably like an hour or so unless you're spending the whole day at the complex). You can then go directly into the Roman Forum, which is between Palatine and the Colosseum. The Forum takes about another hour or two to see. When you go in the Colosseum (I recommend seeing it last), you get to bypass the ticket window there and enter with your combo pass saving probably an hour or more in line.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Travel Learnings #1: There's A Person In That Photo?

I've been asked over time for all kinds of travel tips and information but I never really thought about posting them. Today I'm starting a new "feature" where every once in a while I'll share things that I've learned while "out on the road". The topics will include travel tips, photography tips, an occasional random topic related to travel, or even just fun "hmmm...that's interesting" stuff. To make them easier to find, they'll all have the title and tag "Travel Learnings:". I hope that you find them helpful and entertaining. I welcome your feedback via email and/or in the comments section below.

Today's travel learning is about taking travel photos. Just yesterday the camera I bought nine months ago rolled past 30,000 in the photo counter. (Actually, to be technically correct, it has reset to 0000 for the second time.) That means that I've averaged something like 111 photos per day (!!!) since I bought the camera. Over time, I've figured out a few tricks to take better photos so I thought I'd start the Travel Learnings series with something simple you can do to take better pictures.

Have you ever looked at someone's travel photo and seen something like this:

Wow! Cool! Nice arch! What? There's a person in that photo? Yes, that's me with the royal blue shirt way up there in front of the arch at the Roman Forum in Rome. What's wrong with this photo you ask? People do photos like this all the time. Well, for starters, when it's crowded it takes forever to set up the scene so that you can see your subject as well as the background. If you've ever had to wait for people to stop walking between you and the person you're trying to photograph, I'm sure you've felt the frustration. Also, you really can't make out who's in the photo because they're so far away.

So what can you do? It's actually pretty simple as there's only two things to remember.

First, I've found that you need to make sure that you are far enough away from the background subject that you want to photograph to be able to see the whole thing. It's best if the background fills as much of the frame as possible without going outside of it.

Second, once you have the background right, you need to have the person you want in the photo to move closer to you. For some reason, people from all over the world have this instinct to move away from the camera like they're running from paparazzi. Get them to move toward you (or position yourself) so that they fill a corner/side (one quarter or less) of the photo with their upper body and head and then take a photo that looks something like this:

I've learned that this creates a more interesting photo because you can actually see someone you know. It also has the benefit of being way easier to set up since there's less of chance that someone will be walking in front of you while you're trying to take the picture.

Now get out there and see some of the world!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Being from the U.S., Barcelona's a very old city in my books. It's something like 2,000 years old but it was founded originally as a Roman settlement/city. Those Romans were pretty much everywhere; I even saw Roman ruins in Cairo and Israel when I was there. To actually get to visit Rome is an amazing opportunity to experience what is a huge part of our modern-day society. So many things we have today are based on what a bunch of folks did over 2,000 years ago in central Italy.

Like you already know, the city of Rome is very old. It was founded over 2,500 years ago and you can see lasting evidence of how old it is everywhere. These ruins, which are what's left of a series of temples and other structures, are called the Largo di Torre Argentina and they're almost 2,400 years old:

By the way, Rome turned out to be an especially good city to photograph at night. I really like how the Castel Sant'Angelo and Bridge look when reflected in the Tiber river, which runs through the middle of the city. The building was originally built as tomb but has been re-purposed many times over the years into things like a military fort, a papal residence and prison, a castle, and currently as a museum.

The Pantheon, which is not the Parthenon of Greece (doh!), is the best preserved Roman buildings, which is especially impressive when you consider that it's been in constant use for its entire 2,000 years. It was originally built as a temple but currently serves as a Catholic church. I was super impressed when I first saw the outside and even more so when I got inside. The main building is a circle with a domed roof. Apparently, a 142 foot diameter ball could fit perfectly inside of it. Another feature that's interesting is that there's a circular opening in the roof that lets daylight (and rain) in to the worship space. Can you say f'n cool?!?

Of course one of the big draws of Rome is a visit to Vatican where the Catholic church is based and the Pope parks his Popemobile. The Vatican's also a nice spot to shoot at night. While taking this photo of the moon over the obelisk and dome, I wondered that if you work at the Vatican, for example like this guy picking up trash, do you get to meet and hang out with the boss at the company Christmas party like you do at other companies?

Before I got to Rome, I pretty much expected the worst. I had heard all sorts of horror stories of how dirty the city is, how poorly maintained the tourist sites are, and how bad the drivers are. Well, I can tell you that none of this was true. I think that Rome's figured out fairly recently that they need to step up their tourist game a bit. I even heard from a staff member at the B&B that people "are getting it" now and that they need to be competitive to get tourist visits. Yes, the city was clean, surprisingly so, especially compared to what I expected. Most of the tourist sites were equally clean and seemed well maintained. Even the drivers seemed great. There wasn't a ton of honking horns like in New York or Colombia and they stop for you when you step into the cross walks.

An interesting thing that I saw tons of in Rome and have occasionally seen in France and Barcelona is when Smart Car owners park their cars perpendicularly to the curb. It's a cool advantage to these small cars and I'm sure makes them even more popular.

Have you ever noticed that when you own a white car, every car you see is white. When I write about something I end up seeing even more later. For example, I saw some Locks of Love attached to the Pont Sant'Angelo (with the Tiber in the background) like those I saw in Paris recently... well as some Space Invaders art too:

One thing that I really have never talked about on my blog is that I've been photographing street art for over 20 years. I've always been interested in it, have photographed it, but haven't done anything with it...yet. There wasn't as much street art in Rome as I saw in Paris but I did see some neat stuff like these Do Not Enter signs that have been modified with stickers. They are done by an artist from Florence Italy named Clet Abraham. He cuts out vinyl shapes and sticks them on all sorts of traffic and other street signs. The first one I saw looks like a guy carrying a board or something...

...and the other looks like the view into the front window of a car:

Rome is a very interesting city. The amount of history that's around you everywhere as well as the awesome food made me really enjoy it. I'm still amazed at how much influence this small area has had on the development of the modern world so long ago.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mother's Day Mass At Sagrada Familia

That's mom is rolling over in her grave right now...I attended MASS at the Sagrada Familia last Sunday on (the U.S.) Mother's Day! This one's for you mom!

The past few weeks have been super busy with out-of-town guests staying with us here in Vall d'Hebron. My dad came and we had a great time not only in Barcelona, but also up in Paris and Normandy. It was a jam-packed and fun year 12 days! (Just kidding dad!) To keep the fun going, Diana's mom and dad arrived this past week. The two Chiquinquireños are here for almost three weeks and so far it's been loads of fun.

Diana had read that they were going to celebrate a mass at the Sagrada Familia and she wanted to take her folks. I left the apartment with them as I was going to wait in line while they checked out the outside of the church and take some pictures before the mass. When we got there it was bad news right away. It turns out that you had to have a ticket to get in to the mass and they were only available in advance from your local parish church. Oh well, we decided, we'll just take some photos and leave.

We walked around the church snapping pictures...pretty much no big deal. When we were on the Nativity Facade side of the church, I saw a priest talking with some folks near the fence and I told Diana to go beg for a couple of tickets "for her elderly parents". She went over and while she was talking to the priest a woman overheard her and told her that she might have extra tickets. Diana followed her over to the gate and the woman gave her four tickets to the mass. The woman said that she was waiting for someone she knew to show up that was going to use them but that she couldn't wait any longer and needed to get inside. Here's my ticket:

Wow! My mom would be so happy, especially on Mother's Day, if I attended. How could I say no? Oh yeah, one other thing I forgot to mention was that this was, as far as I know, only the second (official) mass they've had in the main worship space since the pope came to town last November. Can you say historic for two reasons?

The mass was a very nice experience and the place was packed with people. Like a concert, they have video screens so that you can see the "action". During the mass, I happened to look up at the monitor at one point and there on the screen was the woman who gave us the tickets; she was a member of a choir group from some former Soviet state that I can't remember the name of. Very cool!

I pretty much spent the entire mass amazed by both Gaudi's creation and how much people talk while in church. On Gaudi, the guy's a frickin' genius and every time I see something he did I'm even more convinced of it. On the talkers, my parents would have killed, killed, killed me if I talked during mass. You should have seen the extended family of five (two kids and three adults) behind me that were having full on conversations. Wow. What idiots. I'm not very religious at all but I'm sure that at least some of the other people at the mass were.

So, mom, if you see/hear/read this post, first, thanks for reading and, second, I hope that I made you happy by attending mass last Sunday. I miss you all the time. Happy Mother's Day!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Mont Saint-Michel

After visiting the Normandy Beaches, we spent the night in the very cool 1st century B.C. (!!!) town of Bayeux. Ginny found a hidden gem of a hotel for us to stay in for the night in what turned out to be a fun place to visit. Bayeux has the distinction of being the first town that was liberated during World War II and was fortunate to remain relatively unscathed during the war.

After waking and eating a breakfast of coffee and pastries, which were to die for, in a local sweets shop, we drove about an hour or so to visit Mont Saint-Michel. I had seen pictures when Ginny first talked about it last Thanksgiving (while I was in Philadelphia) but it was even more amazing in person. This is what it looks like from a few miles away:

Mont Saint-Michel is a (very) small town built entirely on a tidal island just off the coast of Normandy. It was originally connected to the mainland by a small strip of land that was completely covered during high tide, which can be up to 46 feet (14m) above low tide!!! Today there's a paved road and parking lots that run between the island and the mainland. The lots get covered with water during high tide and the town cleans them each day during low tide. There are big signs that warn that you need to move your car before a certain time or else... No kidding!

The town is restored and well maintained and reminds me a lot of Carcassone, which I visited last July. It reminded me of it so much that I remarked to Diana that Mont Saint-Michel reminded me of a French version of Carcassone! Doh! She reminded me that we were in France but it occurred to me that I really think of Carcassone as a Catalan castle. :-)

After crossing the thin strip of land and parking on the wet sandy lot, you enter the town through a couple of drawbridge-style gates, which I just love.

There's a "main" street that runs through the town that has shops and restaurants. As you can imagine, it's super touristy with crepes (and crap) shops but I still really enjoyed walking around.

There are a handful of private houses on the island with about 40 or so full-time residents. The houses are all beautifully restored and have great views of the surrounding tidal area. I'm guessing that it's a bit busy during the day especially in summer but I'm sure that it's dead quiet and quite nice at night.

The island has had a town on it since pre-Roman times. The first monastery was built around the year 800 A.D. with the current form being from the 17th and 18th centuries.

The church is built in the Romanesque style and has a variety of crypts and chapels below the main worship space. I especially liked the crypts and a room that served as a dining room. The outdoor spaces are limited due to the contour of the island but this courtyard in the center of the church buildings was a nice open space and reminded me a lot of one of the courtyards in the Alhambra.

I'm glad that I had the chance to visit Mont Saint-Michel. Even though it's another church, the abbey building is architecturally interesting and the whole place is in such an unusual setting that it's worth the visit. This last photo shows me getting ready to save move the car from one of the wet and sandy lots "out front":

Our trip to France was a great time. I was bummed that we didn't get to spend more time there as it's turning out to be one of my favorite countries to visit. Thanks once again to Ginny for all the work planning the trip and choosing great places to sleep and eat. Let's do it again soon...maybe in the south of France next time.

(Side note: I rented the car through a popular travel website with the pickup location at the Louvre and the drop off at the airport. I didn't notice when they emailed me the confirmation, when I picked up the car, or even when I dropped it off that the return location had been reset to be the same as the pickup location. I believe that the change happened when I was entering information and had clicked the "Book Trip" button. The page probably reset because I was missing some piece of information and I didn't notice it at the time. I figured that I'd get mega overcharged by the rental agency but it didn't end up being too bad, only like 50 Euros. So, what did we learn, check the contract when picking up the car AND, if you're a web designer, create your forms so they don't loose information that was entered if data is missing and the page reloads. I hate when that happens.)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Normandy Beaches

After a few days in Paris, we rented a car and headed up to check out the famous beaches of Normandy. The ride up took about three hours on a combination of freeway-style and two lane roads. Getting out of the center of Paris is a little challenging but after that the ride is through lovely countryside. I'm convinced now more than ever that most of France is planted with rape seed plants, which are used to make canola oil. I saw fields and fields of the tell-tale yellow flowers with some farm houses mixed in.

Something that I learned on the trip that I guess I probably should have known beforehand is that there's no town called Normandy. It's the name of the region of north-western France that was made famous by the D-Day Allied invasion that took place here in 1944. The area includes towns like Caen and Bayeux along with the coastal-English-Channel areas that have nicknames like Omaha and Utah Beach.

Our first stop in the region was at the small town of Arromanches-les-Bains. It's located along a stretch of beach that was designated Gold Beach during the invasion. It became a key man-made port used to bring supplies in to the area. Concrete remains of the harbor jetties are still visible off the beach of the tiny village, which mostly caters to the many tourists in the area. In other words, if you want crepes or ice cream after visiting the town's two WWII museums, you're in luck.

After my dad and Ginny went got their history on at the museum and Diana and I ate crepes and ice cream, we all got back into the car and drove over to Colleville-sur-Mer, home to what is called Omaha Beach. It's very awe inspiring to look out over this lovely beach in this beautiful region and think about what the D-Day invasions were like. If you've seen Saving Private Ryan, you'll have a pretty good start since the opening scenes were based here.

As a about 630am on June 4, 1944, the Operation Overlord D-Day invasion began and approximately 160,000 allied ground troops started coming ashore along a 50 mile stretch of beach. By the end of a day that saw bad weather and intense fighting, approximately 10,000 allied troops had died (and between 4,000 and 10,000 German troops) with many more injured.

This is a photo of a quiet Omaha Beach on the hilltop in front of the cemetery and memorial looking basically east.

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is located above Omaha beach on a hill overlooking the ocean. They have a museum that's excellent. What I really liked about it is that it looks at D-Day from the point of view of the infantry men. It follows a handful of different men that died that day through parts of their lives as well as letters they had written home in the days leading up to the invasion. Since WWII happened a little before I was born and I didn't know anyone personally who was there, I think it did a great job in making the history of the area real because you can attach names and faces to it.

I particularly liked this display of a rifle with a helmet on it planted into some pebbles. It was very moving.

After visiting the museum, we walked through the cemetery for a while. The site is a beautiful memorial to those who gave their lives for what they believed in. It was humbling to walk through the rows and rows and rows and rows of grave markers.

Many thanks to all those who were there and especially to those who never left.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Angelina Chocolate

When I first went to Paris, I was fortunate to have two coworkers at the time who had each recently lived there. They gave me great recommendations for things like a hotel, outdoor markets to check out (Rue Cler is a must!), and a bunch of other generally-touristy stuff not to miss. One of the recommendations was to visit the Angelina chocolate shop on Rue de Rivoli across from the Louvre.

Put it this way, for a couple of reasons, I remember the day I first went to Angelina like it was yesterday. I've said it before but...Paaaaaaahreeeeeeees!

Going to Angelina is a little bit like going to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Your senses get overwhelmed by the experience. When you first walk in the door, you pass through their dessert and chocolate shop where you can pick out what you want to have with your chocolate.

After you've decided on a dessert or three, you get led to the dining room, which is, I guess, decorated in the traditional French style. Other than sitting outside on the sidewalk, it's about as French as you can get; the waiters are even dressed like...French waiters!

The highlight of the visit is, for sure, when they bring you your own little pitcher of piping hot drinking chocolate and a little dish full of fresh whipped cream. Try looking at this and not have your mouth water just a little bit:

Absolutely amazing is what I have to say. Pure art...that you get to drink. The closest I can describe it is when you get one of those molten chocolate lava cake things except that the chocolate is better and it doesn't melt the roof of your mouth. The desserts are awesome too. My advice though is don't get a chocolate dessert to go with your drinking chocolate like I did on my first visit. This time I opted for something that looked a whole lot less sweet and that would go nice with my chocolate explosion.

If you're one of the three readers of my blog, you may remember I've also written about Cafe de l'Opera in Barcelona that also serves a wicked drinking chocolate. I'd be pressed to say which is better. On one hand, Cafe de l'Opera serves churros with their chocolate, which, honestly, is a much better match but, on the other hand, Angelina is soooo Paris and their desserts are top-notch. I guess it's like deciding between my two favorite children...whichever is in front of me at the time!

(Advice: There are actually a few Angelina locations, including one inside the shopping mall attached to the Louvre, but I recommend going to the one across the street as the ambiance is better.)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Space Invaders Attack Paris!!!

Run for your lives!!! Yes, Space Invaders are attacking Paris. They're everywhere in the city. Ack ack!!! Ack ack ack!!!!

Within about an hour of arriving into Paris I started to see them--tile mosaics of the 1970's Space Invaders video game aliens on the city's walls. The first I saw was near the Pompidou Center and someone added their own LEGO ship below it that's shooting at the alien:

I thought it was cool so I took a couple of photos but didn't really think much of it. It wasn't until I started seeing more and more while walking around that I figured out that it must have been or still is some sort of guerrilla-art project.

When I got home I googled "space invaders Paris" and the entire page of results is about what I saw. To save you from having to look it up, an artist named Invader started making and putting up small tile mosaics around Paris in 1998. He's since put them up in many cities around the world including in Los Angeles. They are generally placed about 10-15 feet up in well-traveled areas. I spotted at least eight but I'm guessing that I passed more and didn't notice them all.

This one might be my favorite... I love Paris!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Notre Dame

When you hear the word Paris, what's the first thing you think of? Probably the Eiffel Tower or maybe even the Davinci Code. For me, one of the first things I ever learned about Paris was flying buttresses. I have no idea where or why I learned about them but, for this reason, when I think of Paris, I think about the church of Notre Dame.

I did the Notre Dame visit during my last trip to France but, even though I'm not really a church-type of guy, I wanted to see it again, especially after having visited so many other Gothic churches. From what I understand, Notre Dame is the finest example of French Gothic architecture and probably one of the most famous Gothic churches in the world. The inside is nice mostly for the massive amounts of stained-glass windows and Gothic arches.

Where it really shines in my book is on the outside--especially 'round back where you get a great view of the flying buttresses:

The buttresses are the arch-shaped "wings" that extend from the walls out to columns built up from the ground. I'm not an architect but the flying buttresses are built this way to allow the walls to be both thin and have large openings (for lots of stained glass windows) while simultaneously preventing them from collapsing outward under the weight of the structure itself. Like I said, I have no idea why I learned about them when I was a kid but I'm glad I did and am even happier that I got to see them for myself.

In addition to the buttresses, there are some other cool things to see outside and near the church. For one, I love this super-so-eerie statue of Charlemagne, which because of his rough look, could be Charlemange:

Finally, in my previously-unannounced quest to find every location in Europe that has a painting or sculpture of a headless John The Baptist, I was glad to find one that's right outside the front door of Notre Dame:

Enough of this French architecture and culture crap, let's go get some chocolate!!!