Paris Je T’aime! Tuesday, Feb 23 2010 

Paris truly is the city of lights and was my favourite city to visit while I was studying abroad.  Often one is bound to be disappointed when you have such high expectations for something you have wanted to do for so long, but my trip to Paris did not disappoint me, even if the frigid weather did try to knock me down a peg.  I relished in practicing my French language skills as I strolled the stone rues and was pleased that very few people were rude to us tourists, especially with me being an American.

Nearly every spot in the capital city has a view of its most iconic image, the Eiffel Tower.  This iron structure was built for the World’s Fair in 1889 so to commemorate its 120th anniversary, their were images of the ever-lasting tower through the years and subsequent World’s Fairs.  Initially, the Eiffel Tower was meant to be torn down after the expedition, but Alexandre Gustave Eiffel saved his creation by incorporating a radio signal into its design, ensuring the “eye sore” would provide functional service.  The queue for the lift to the top of the tower is often overly long so instead we bought tickets for the second level and began our long ascent to the top of the tower.  On top of the Eiffel Tower one can see the rest of Paris.  If you go near dusk you can identity landmarks like the Louvre in the daylight then spot the glowing Arc de Triomphe in the evening.  Speaking of nightly glowing, le Tour Eiffel glitters during its nightly show.  It sparkles for several minutes, then a spotlight gleams across the city when the tower’s decorative lights are in stasis.  It is a wonderful site to partake in.

Paris is full of opportunities to climb to the tops of buildings.  We hiked to the top of Montmartre in order to glimpse at Sacre Couer at night.  Since it is located higher above Paris we also had amazing views of the rest of the city.  From the top of the bell tower of Notre Dame cathedral we scanned up and down the Seine and hung out with Quasimodo’s friends, the bells and the gargoyles.  The interiors to Notre Dame were fascinating, especially the mammoth stained glass rose windows.  With such an elegant design it is easier to understand why the French mobs nearly destroyed the church during the French Revolution, although one reason was that they believed the statues of the kings of Judah to actually represent French royalty.  And while it is popular, we did not climb on top of l’Arc de Triomphe, but we did window shop down the chic boutique-lined Champs Elysees with its Christmas decorations that were ubiquitous throughout Paris the week before Christmas.

Much of our weekend in Paris was spent underground.  We used the inexpensive and efficient metro in order to travel around the vast city.  It was quite clean and much less crowded than the Underground in London.  We used the metro to travel to the Louvre and spent much time waiting beneath the glass pyramid in order to enter one of the largest museum’s in the world.  I wish that I could have better remembered the names of the exhibits we visited in the Louvre, but since we visited so many pieces of art it was hard to recall it all.  The museum was huge and did not disappoint, with the Napoleonic apartments and myriad of sculptures being the most memorable wings for me.

Et la piece de resistance!  I could not mention a trip to Paris without writing about la gastronomique.  Breakfast must include a croissant, but the flaky pastries are perfect any time, as are the chewy baguettes.  Pates and quiches are prominent on les dejeuners menus in brasseries, while coq au vin makes a delectable dinner since the portions are not tiny as what I experienced in Rome.  You do need to distinguish if you are eating sur place since the price is cheaper for take away meals, as was often the case throughout Europe.  Depending on what you chose, dessert can easily be taken outside to nibble on a bridge like crepes or meringues, but mousse au chocolate is best savored sur place since the delectable chocolate makes you weak in the knees.  I never wanted to eat any other cuisine but French after my trip to Paris, too bad it is tres cher in the US.  Still, all the magical parts of Paris added together to create the exquisite cap at the top of all the travels I took while I was studying abroad, c’etait magnifique!

The Manchester Christmas Market Saturday, Feb 6 2010 

I returned to the English city I would arrive in and depart from for a second proper visit in time for the Manchester Christmas Market.  We enjoyed the commemorative hot chocolate mugs that you could either purchase completely or return after you drank from it in order to get part of the price back.  In the German section of the market there were several types of sausage that we shared and sampled, but once again we were patrons of Sinclair’s Oyster Bar.  Even through the cold and the rain of December, we found the surprise of an Abraham Lincoln statue smack in the centre of Manchester.  The explanatory plaque told of the US president’s importance in bringing the raw cotton shipments back to Manchester where it would be spun into textiles during the US Civil War.  This encounter was an unexpected reminder of home and was on our minds as our time in England was quickly drawing to a close.

Art in Birmingham Saturday, Feb 6 2010 

I apologize for not knowing the names to all the works of art in these photos, but they were difficult to research after the fact.  Instead I will remain struck by the images since a picture is worth a thousand words.

The entire city of Birmingham was decorated for Christmas and was drawing tourists to its annual German Christmas Market.  These stands line blocks and blocks in the city and include homemade goodies with foods like sausage, marzipan, donuts, and chocolates, as well as crafts like wooden toys, glass jewelry, and purses.  The smells and the crowds are intimidating but they are very enjoyable.

Alas, it was too cold to spend too much time outside browsing the house-shaped stands, therefore it was time to explore the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.  Inside the gorgeous Chamberlain Square clock tower is a grand collection of stained glass walls, paintings, important documents, and interactive exhibits.  We did not have time to view all of the collections, but it was still a fun free activity.  Another that fits in that category was St. Philips’ Church of England with its own brightly colored stained glass windows, tiled floors, and floor-level pipe organ.  Being one the last church I visited in England, St. Philips reminded me of how my goal of visiting the grand castles of England was replaced with my discovering churches of all imaginings.  They were just as historical and often more majestic than castles, ensuring I was not disappointed.

London Calling Friday, Jan 29 2010 

London truly is one of the most expensive cities in the world (one way on the tube costs about 6 American dollars!) but it really is a special place.  Chock full of high end stores on Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus, luxury restaurants, and the Strand’s entertaining theaters you really can spend a pound or two in the Capital.  However, there are many free or inexpensive treats to be had.  We were able to attend a decadent high tea (complete with scones, sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and petite fours) and visit the ancient Tower of London with two-for-one coupons because we took the train in.  Free museums included the Victoria and Albert with its eclectic collection of prehistoric Eastern art up to post-modern fashion designs and the British Museum with the Rosetta Stone and European paintings.  Of course, no trip to London is complete without visiting Big Ben (actually the name of the bell, not the tower) and Westminster Abbey, an ornate royal spot filled with the memorials to past monarchs and the location of all coronations, if you cannot make it to the palaces.  The weather may not always be agreeable, but you can just pop in a shop for some new wellies and plan to visit the parks another day.  Life in London is never dull, the lights glow as you return from the pub and if you are on the Thames you may even see the London Eye lit up!

When in Rome Thursday, Jan 21 2010 

Being in bella Roma is like being in a different world, nearly tropical with its palm trees and blue skies.  It also has the distinction of being a city which also contains another country within its borders.  Vatican City is the residence of hundreds of people who are governed by the Pope and are guarded by the Swiss Army along with an elevated wall.  The Vatican museum is the second largest in the world and contains countless works of art, many of the pagan statues were stolen from the Colosseum during the fall of the Roman Empire.  St. Peter’s is the largest church in the world, with glorious, high-reaching domes.  Of course, the piece de resistance of the Vatican is the Sistine Chapel.  Due to a contract with the industrial cleaners, photographs cannot be taken in the chapel for over a century.  You can nearly fall over backwards from taking in Michelangelo’s ceiling, but you can rest your neck by viewing his equally impressive wall frescoes.  The poor painter was forced into painting the chapel by the pope and suffered for his labors, but the results were spectacular.

The other reasons to visit Rome are to sample the ruins and food.  The marble and terra cotta remains of the Roman Empire are amazing considering they how intact they are after so many centuries.  The Colosseum was originally billed as an amphitheater, but because of the intimidating statue of Colossus out front, the name was forever changed.  The interior still resembles an American football stadium with its hollowed passageways and ascending staircases to the outside field.  Back in Rome’ golden age the public could enter with a free terra cotta tablet as their ticket to view animals and gladiator slaves fight each other.  While its impressive to walk in the Colosseum, it is hard to imagine it adorned with marble statues and a canopy since its ruined state is so iconic.  It is easier to picture the Roman Forum in its glory days as a political center of the capital.  Most of the arches and temple columns remain intact and are gigantic structures.  Even away from the ruins, the Fountain of Trevi and the Partheon are reminders of the

For food, the Italians are masters, everything tastes scrumptious, and its homemade taste makes it worth the wait.  We sampled bread, bruschetta, soothing wine, several pastas, pizzas, seafood, and the best dessert in the world, gelato.  For a small price you are given three different, delicious creamy flavors of gelato, the perfect way to end a wonderful trip.

Statuesque Stonehenge Wednesday, Jan 20 2010 

It really is true as one of my friends remarked, Stonehenge really is just a pile of rocks, however it still is a remarkable place to visit if you can.  The best way to see Stonehenge is to get a bus tour from nearby Salisbury since there really are no cities directly next to the monument.  This mammoth structure is a testament to humanity’s physical and mental strength.  The educational audio tour told how 5000 years ago the center blue stones were laid on the ground and that centuries later the 18-foot standing stones followed.  Historians believed they came from Ireland by boat on the canal with no clear answer for why, although some myths attributed it being built by the devil or King Arthur’s Merlin.  When Stonehenge was first opened as a historic site visitors were allowed to bring chisels in order to extract souvenirs.  Now in order to protect its historical value, a short fence surrounds the monument ensuring visitors do not touch the stones.

A Rejuvenating Bath Wednesday, Jan 20 2010 

Bath may have been established in the first century, but its architecture remains in the Georgian style of when Jane Austen was its resident.  Still, the biggest tourist draw still remains the Roman Baths, which were built on hot springs, although the Romans believed it was due to the goddess Minerva and named the city Sulis Minerva to honor her.  The bath as a museum still has bubbling pools and steam rooms, with explanations of the temple’s remains by an interesting audio guide.  Apparently the pagan Romans conducted business in el delicato in the pools surrounded by former Roman emperors, while the Britons of the 18th century flocked there for health ailments.

Jane Austen wrote about Bath in her last novel Persuasion and now her former home is a museum for the author.  The museum includes a short talk on Austen’s family life and the sad circumstances that brought her to a city she did not care for.  The museum also includes costumes and artifacts for daily life in 19th century bath, including film clips and a demonstration of the art of the fan.

Bath Abbey is one of the oldest churches in England and an incredibly elegant one surviving wars and destruction.

One thing we learned from our trip to Bath is how similar the trains in England are to airplanes.  They both feature a drink service where you can purchase refreshments, have plush seats, in-seat magazines, and can cause travel problems when they are delayed.  However, there often are trains quick to go to your next destination listed on the electronic departure board, but beware that your ticket is not for a specific time or else you could be charged more for a new ticket.

Medevial Edinburgh Wednesday, Jan 20 2010 

Edinburgh is a wonderful city on a hill.  Edinburgh Castle is situated on a volcanic mountain as a means to view and protect the stone street city, as further means of protection from enemies, English or otherwise, the castle is still armed with cannons and iron gates.  While it used to be the home of Mary Queen of Scots, today the castle is the home to the Scottish crown jewels, which were hidden by peasants when the castle was seized, along with the Stone of Scone, which is placed under the coronation throne when a new monarch of England is crowned.  From the castle’s height you can see the whole city and the lochs and hills beyond it.

Edinburgh is made up of the Old Town where most of the city used to reside and contains the Royal Mile where you can take historic ghost tours along with the New Town where the modern shopping and industry are located.  In Old Town there is the philanphropy-minded Elephant House that was once frequented by J.K. Rowling along with the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre with the world’s largest collection of Scotch Whisky.  The New Town also is home to the Scott Monument, honoring author Sir Walter Scott, and the National Gallery of Scotland, which has huge canvases painted by famous Scotts and other European artists like Rembrandt, Degas, and Van Gogh.

Industries of Manchester Wednesday, Jan 20 2010 

Manchester has a similar history to Liverpool’s, as we learned about at the Museum of Science and Industry.  It too was a city that flourished during the Industrial Revolution when factories worked to produce cotton for around the world.  At the museum there is even an exhibit demonstrating the process of creating textiles with 19th century machines.  This museum also highlighted Manchester as the first English city to have a 1830-built railroad warehouse (which is the building that houses the museum) along with toting the University of Manchester as the creator of one of the first computers.

The city even features a historic pub with Sinclair’s Oyster Bar that still features inexpensive pints and food in its original interior, even though the building was bombed away from its bombed location to today’s tourist center.  World War II also took its toll on this Northwestern city as did foreign competition causing the factories to close.  Today Manchester is home to department stores, a big wheel, and the glass-pyramid shaped Urbis, which will soon be changed into a football museum instead of showing traveling art exhibits.

Meet the Beatles While in Liverpool Wednesday, Jan 20 2010 

Liverpool is a wonderful, revitalized city.  Because it was chosen as the European Union’s Capital of Culture in 2008, when we were there in the Fall of 2009 we witnessed new infrastructure and brightly lit shopping arcades with glass staircases.  Beautiful sites to see included the Liverpool Cathedral and the Metropolitan Cathedral.  The Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, built between 1903 and 1978 and one of the largest churches in England, is very traditional with its stained glass alcoves and gilt carvings but it is also holds neon signs advertising its coffee on the walls.  The Metropolitan Cathedral is known for is glass-funnel shape that is one of the most unique designs for a church.

The modern developments in Liverpool have brought tourism back to a city that used to be the gateway to the sea, which fell on hard times after the bombings during World War II and the end of the Industrial Revolution.  Even with its new construction projects, there are still startling reminders of the past with bombed out churches and barbed wire walls present in the outskirts of the city.  A reminder of Liverpool’s importance in history is demonstrated at the historic Albert Dock where the stone streets and brick buildings house  the Merseyside Maritime Museum.  The International Slavery Museum is housed on the top floor with the rest of the museum detailing Liverpool’s maritime history through the age of the Cunard (Queen Elizabeth II) and White Star (Titanic) cruise lines to the wars and up to the age of smuggling.

Albert Dock is also the home of the Tate Modern and one of the most popular reasons to visit Liverpool, the Beatles Story.  This museum features an amazing audio tour with sound clips from the Fab Four and the people who helped them become the most famous band in the world.  Their photos and artifacts detail the band’s history from their start at the Casbah club through all the albums and their independent careers post-Beatles.  Not too far away is the rebuilt Cavern Club on the famous Matthews Street, with A Hard Day’s Night Hotel next door, completing the Liverpool tour for any Beatle-maniac.

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