Monday, June 27, 2011

Torino, Italia

Every couple of weeks I get an email from the French transportation company, SNCF, listing their current promotions, future deals, travel packages, etc., and about a month ago I got one advertising some really cheap train tickets to Turin, Italy. Checking my calendar, I also had a long weekend coming up, the weekend of Pentecost, so George and I decided to take advantage of the 3-day weekend and the promotion on train tickets and head to Italy to stuff ourselves on pasta and pizza and cheese and porcini mushrooms.

Turin is much closer to Lyon than Paris--more than 150 km closer actually--but due to the fact that it is on the other side of the Alps and the lack of transportation options that entails, it takes about twice as long to get there by train as it does Paris (4 hours vs. 2 hours), but trains in Europe are pretty comfortable, and our tickets were cheap, so we just packed some snacks and a good book and walked over to the train station to catch our train.

When we got to the train station we checked the big departure board to see what platform our train leaves from, but where you would normally see a platform number, our train had Sortie porte des Alpes (Exit Portal to the Alps). Having absolutely no idea what that meant, we headed over to the information desk and were told to go out the back exit. Out the back exit we went, and there we saw why our train tickets were so cheap. Our train was a bus!

The bus trip over was pretty cool though. The trip from Lyon to Turin goes thru some beautiful mountains and countryside, particularly on the Italian side of the Alps.

Turin itself is not a particularly popular city for tourists. For obvious reasons, Florence, Venice, Rome, and southern coastal cities attract more tourists, but Turin still has a lot of cool stuff to see.

The famous shroud of Turin that Jesus was buried with.

Numerous cool statues

Amazing churches

Giuseppe Verdi

Famous composers

Nice parks

And even cool medieval castles.

And Turin was just a really cool city to walk around. Most of the walkways in the center of town were covered and shaded like the one above, and as you got a bit further out the walkways and sidewalks were still wide and tree-covered and well separated from the roads.

But the most important thing about Italy, of course, is Italian food. I loooooooovvvvveeee Italian food, especially the amount of vegetarian choices.

For more pictures of Turin, click here, and if you are in the area, Turin is definitely worth a visit.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Paris, again

This is where we stayed

I'd been to Paris before, a couple years ago at just about the same time of year, and to be honest I was a little underwhelmed. I was only there for 2 days, the weather sucked, it was super crowded, our hotel was in a less then desirable part of town (just a couple blocks from the lovely Moulin Rouge), I was sick with Whooping Cough, and with our awesome bad luck we managed to eat at some of the crappiest restaurants I have ever been to.

This time, however, was a complete 180. We stayed in an awesome part of town just across from the Jardin du Luxembourg (Luxembourg Garden), in an amazing apartment (pictured above) that some equally amazing friends lent us the keys to. We did a little research first to find some good restaurants (outside the tourist areas :-), and we actually went inside the Louvre Museum (which is free on the first Sunday of the month). In a weird twist of meteorological law, the weather in Paris was amazing and much better than the crappy weather we were having in Lyon. And to top it all off, we had a nice dinner in a little French brasserie with the soon to be famous Bobby.

Cool fountain in the Jardin du Luxembourg

Paris obviously has a ridiculous amount of cool things to look at. During our first trip to the city, we tried to run thru the city as fast as possible snapping photos of the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe (Arc of Triumph), Notre Dame Cathedral, the outside of cool museums like the Louvre or Musée d'Orsay, only stopping to grab some food and sleep. But this time, since we had already seen all that stuff, we slowed down and just visited a couple places in Paris and even got to go inside! We still only had 3 days, but we paced ourselves.

the Basilique du Sacre-Coeur

We started our weekend with a trip up to Montmartre. I knew absolutely nothing about Montmartre other than Rick Steves suggested it on one of his travel shows, and we didn't go there last time we were in town, so we decided to take the trip up there. Turns out they have the awesome church pictured above, some nice art shops, a cool park, and pretty nice view of the city. As the name Montmartre suggests the area is on a hill, and as we were lost trying to find an extremely poorly marked spot on our map (thanks Rick Steves!) we even made a few extra exhausting trips up and down that hill.

To cool ourselves off after the above impromptu hike, we took a detour thru Belleville to hit up one of Paris' Chinatowns for a refreshing--and impossible to find anywhere else in France--Bubble Tea.

Not available in Lyon

Lyon, France is often called the Culinary Capital of France, or even slightly more pretentious in French Capitale Mondiale de la Gastronomie (The World Capital of Gastronomy). This is mostly due to Lyon being the home of the world famous chef Paul Bocuse, but in their defense, the French food here is REALLY good. The international offerings here, however, are a bit lacking. There is good north African food, great pizza (I guess that's Italian :-P), an extraordinary amount of sushi restaurants (If your only exposure to Japanese food was in Lyon, you'd have to assume that the Japanese eat nothing but sushi), but for the most part the Asian food here is pretty bland, and there isn't much American food outside of a handful of overpriced Bagel shops and a couple decent burger places.

Paris, however, is a HUGE city--many times larger than Lyon with many times the number of people. It is also, without a doubt, the most international city in France with people from all over the world calling Paris home. Because of this, it has a much wider variety of non-French offerings, and also much more authentic offerings. We had really good dim sum, Korean food, Japanese food (not sushi), vegetarian middle east-ish food (falafel, humus, moussakaa, etc.), and some good old American diner food (pancakes and omelets and hashbrowns).

But the highlight of the weekend was the Louvre.

This is as close as we got to the Mona Lisa

The Louvre is a really cool museum. An old palace, the place would be cool even if it didn't house some of the most famous and important art and historical works of western civilization. The place is BIG. If you move thru it a pretty decent pace, you could see everything in a day, but to really appreciate it, you probably need at least 2. We only had about 5 hours, so we decide to take it all in at high velocity (well, most of it anyway).

Taking a break from running thru the Louvre

There are some really cool museums in Europe--The Vatican Museum in Rome, the Prado Museum in Madrid, The Natural History Museum in London, and many more--and The Louvre is definitely up at the top of that list. I've unfortunately never been to any of the really cool museums in the US, like the Smithsonian or MoMA, so some day I'll have to check those out to see who has the awesomest museums :-)

But it'll be hard to compete with the Louvre. I mean, just check out these statues of creepily aroused monkeys below :-)

Ancient Egyptians were weird

For more pics of Paris (mostly of the Louvre) click here