Posts Tagged With: tour

Czeching In

Sorry, no photos in this entry… we arrived in Prague late yesterday afternoon, met with our tour guide, and had dinner. We haven’t had the chance to do any real tourism — with accompanying photos of course — so that will happen today.

We have a full-day city tour booked for tomorrow with a private guide, a genial former organic chemist named Martin, whom we met through a friend of a friend. Turns out he’s a pretty well known guide and is mentioned in travel guru Rick Steves’ best-selling guide to Prague. (And needless to say, Martin’s been flooded with bookings since being cited in Steves’ book, so we’re lucky to get him.) We met him for drinks yesterday evening to plan out tomorrow’s tour and also to give us some ideas for today’s walking around so we don’t duplicate the sights on two consecutive days.

Immediately following drinks with Martin we promptly went out and got scammed in order to have a complete travel experience. We have experienced three scam attempts on this trip, and saw through the first two of them. They were in Paris and easy to spot. On our first day, some young guys with fake laminated IDs tried to “help” us buy tickets in the Metro. Alice almost got taken in but I saw through it and shooed them away. Three days later a guy on the Quai d’Orsay (the tree-lined sidewalk that follows the left bank of the Seine) “found” a massive fake gold wedding band on the path, declared that it didn’t fit him, and tried to sell it to us.

But last night was the perfect storm, when we were tired from a day of traveling (that included some glitches) and unfamiliar with the local currency. The Czech Republic, though a member of the EU, still uses its own currency, the koruna, at about 21 to the dollar (25 to the euro). We only had euros on us so I withdrew a few hundred dollars worth of koruna from an ATM on a busy street. A few seconds later, a guy offered to break a bill for me, since the ATM only dispensed large notes. He offered four 500 Kč bills (worth a little under  US $25 each) for my 2000 Kč note, and in my fatigue I did not ask the obvious question: Why would anyone want a larger bill for smaller ones? You almost always want to go the other way around. So I went for it, and — as I learned about an hour later when I tried to spend one — the 500’s were fake. I’m out a little under $100 but at least got a story to tell out of it. The irony is that the fakes do not even resemble actual 500 Kč  notes. (Though of course at the time I did not know what actual ones looked like.) Not-particularly-close inspection reveals that the writing on them is Cyrillic (instead of Czech) and declares them to be 500 Russian rubles. But they’re not that either. They’re basically realistic props, complete with embedded strip and watermark. Oh well. At least it was a more interesting scam than the attempts in Paris, and I have four fake banknotes to show for it.

So welcome to Prague. We are staying in a large, utterly beautiful apartment a very short walk over the Vltava River, the body of water where vowels go to drown. The apartment is at least 1000 square feet (93 sq meters) with high arched ceilings and thick painted stone walls; it is a renovated very old building. The flat is owned by an artist — a photographer as it happens — and so is beautifully decorated as well.

Prague itself is a very compact, walkable city whose architecture has preserved a lot of its 18th century character. Because of this, it is a popular movie filming location. It stood in for Vienna in the movie Amadeus — the actual Vienna being too modernized and too expensive to film in — and is the go-to Generic Eastern European City in any number of spy movies, e.g. The Bourne Identity.  It’s got a population of 1.3 million — and had 6.6 million foreign visitors in 2017. That’s not quite as lopsided as Iceland, but it’s close. There are a lot of tourists here, Germans being by far the largest group, with the US and UK in second and third place.

The city is loosely divided into four districts, being the “Old Town” and the “New Town” on the east side of the river and the “Little Quarter” and “Castle Town” on the west. We’re staying in the Little Quarter, a few minute walk over the Charles Bridge from Old Town. Our apartment living room faces north towards Castle Town: from our window we can see the imposing Prague Castle, a gloomily imposing 9th century edifice that houses the president of the country and was the former seat of power of the Holy Roman Empire. (Fun historical fact: the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman, nor much of an empire. But it shows the importance of branding.) The castle also has the distinction of being the largest castle in the world, sprawling over 17 acres (7 hectares) not counting the exterior grounds. God knows what the heating bills are like.

Our plans today are relatively modest. We’re going to walk into the Old Town and visit the tiny Jewish Quarter, which has five synagogues including the most famous one: the “Old New Synagogue” (it’s a long story), which is the oldest in Europe that is still in use. And, being an astronomer, I feel compelled to make a pilgrimage to Prague’s famed Astronomical Clock, which is over 600 years old. It shows the Moon, the Sun, assorted astronomical information, and the appearance of a proper 500 koruna banknote.

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Categories: Czech, Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lon Chaney, Call Your Office

So it appears that in France they believe that “The Phantom of the Opera” was a documentary. And, weirdly, that may not be altogether off the mark. The famed book, about a half dozen movie versions, and the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical all take place at L’Opera de Paris, also known as the Palais Garnier for the young architect who designed it in the 1870’s. Interestingly, the following things actually did happen in real life:

  • Some flooding occurred during construction, necessitating the inclusion of a retaining wall that created a small sub-basement pool that still exists and became the “Fantasy Lake” of the story.
  • One of the construction workers had a terrible facial deformity that he kept hidden. He loved the building and pretty much hung around there in secret all the time.
  • A counterweight from the chandelier in the main auditorium broke loose and fell in 1896, killing a spectator.

Who knew? In any case, the building is a spectacular one, built in an ornate neoclassical style, all marble and curlicues and domes and staircases. We took the tour. Here is the main lobby. It made me feel like I should have arrived in a horse-drawn carriage.

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Here’s the domed main auditorium. It seats nearly 2,000.

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And here is the dome itself with the infamous chandelier. You may note that the painting style does not exactly say “1875”. That is because it was repainted in a more current motif in 1968 at the behest of the then Minister of Culture, author Andre Malraux. The style may look familiar to you, since the artist is… Marc Chagall!

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And finally, here is the austere, understated Great Hall, in case the palace of Versailles isn’t garish enough for your tastes.

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Now here’s the weird part: the blockbuster Broadway musical “Phantom of the Opera” has never been shown in France. Apparently it was finally scheduled to run in Paris two years ago in October 2016, but a fire in the theater a few days before opening destroyed everything. So… no “Phantom” for Parisians, L’Opera notwithstanding.

Our next stop was a pilgrimage of sort, although I am not sure if it counts as a pilgrimage when you’re making the trip for somebody else. My former Evil Assistant and longtime BFF Angie is a devotee of insanely expensive designer purses (or, as she describes them, “receptacles for my soul”) and so we spent a few minutes wandering through the Insanely Expensive Purse And Other Retail Store district, just off the Champs Elysée. Our specific goal at Angie’s request was the Hermes flagship store (it’s pronounced er-MEZZ, you Philistine, not HER-meez), which we photographed but did not enter because we were not worthy. Angie was outraged that we did not take the opportunity to stop in and pick her up something called a “Birkin 35 Vermillion Togo”, which a moment of Googling revealed to be a $10,000 purse. I told her that we had decided to wait till it went on sale.

Designer-purseless, we moved on to one of our favorite museums in Paris, the Picasso Museum.

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The Picasso Museum is four stories tall, and by the time we got to the top I must confess that even we, big fans that we are, were utterly Picasso’ed out.

We had dinner at an excellent nearby Greek restaurant, three doors down from one of the sleazy sex shops on our street. Our dirty little secret (unrelated to the sex shops) is that neither Alice nor I are big fans of French haute cuisine. We love French “street food”: baguettes, crepes, that sort of thing. But I am not especially fond of creamy sauces, and Alice, being lactose intolerant, can’t handle the French fondness for butter and cream in everything. So when in Paris we go ethnic, much as we do at home. As you might expect Paris has very cosmopolitan restaurant offerings; so far our diners have been Italian, Vietnamese, and Greek. Tonight we’re doing Japanese.

It was dark after dinner, and so we made our way to the Seine for our nighttime boat ride. The Bateaux Mouches (literally “fly boats”, as in the insect, named for the Mouche region of Lyon where they were first built) are one of Paris’s delightful institutions They’re huge barge-like tourist boats, perhaps 200′ (60 m) long that hold hundreds of passengers, and they’ve been plying the Seine since 1867. Americans and Japanese seemed to be the predominant groups last night. The best time to go is at night when the monuments are lit up, so here are some shots from our trip. (The first, showing the beacon, is from shore, but all the others from on board. The second one shows Notre Dame over the rooftops.)

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Eifel Tower Moon crop (5 of 1)

Note the sequence of low bridges in the middle photo. The boats have unusual design to accommodate them: the ship’s bridge (where the captain steers) is on a hydraulic cantilevered arm and can raise and lower by several feet as needed.

We returned home about 11 PM, navigating the gauntlet of prostitutes working the street near our flat. One surprisingly pretty streetwalker, all hot pants and fishnets, greeted me with that most venerable come-on: “Hi! Do you speak English?” I said, “Yep,” and continued to walk, but before I could take another step, Alice charged up from a few feet behind me, grabbed my arm, and forcefully declared, “HE’S MINE!” It was such an absurd, retro bit of rom-com that all three of us — including the hooker — burst out laughing. Which, I suppose, was as surreal a way as any to end the evening.

We had another “museum day” today — St Chappelle cathedral, with its spectacular stained glass, and the Musée d’Orsay. I may write about them later if time and energy permit. This was our last day in Paris: we head to Prague tomorrow morning. We loved our time here; for us, Paris is the most enjoyable city in the world to simply be in, regardless of whether one runs around checking off all the traditional sights.

Categories: Europe, France, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kauai from the Skai…er…Sky

Yesterday was Helicopter Day for us, that means of transportation being far and away the best way to get a real sense of the geography and vegetation of Kauai.

We woke up with the chickens. I do not mean by this that we woke up early; I mean we literally woke up with the chickens. There are *&%^$# chickens — that is pronounced “frickin’ chickens” — absolutely everywhere on Kauai: on the roads, on the sidewalks, on the golf courses, underfoot. Today we had lunch at an outdoor food court where, for very good reason, there was a sign posted that said “Please Do Not Feed The Chickens”. I have no idea why, but the island is plain crawling with chickens. (Hmm. Somehow “crawling” doesn’t seem like the right word when discussing chickens. But “scratching with chickens” doesn’t sound right.) The consequence of all this is that there are three constant sounds that form the backdrop of life on Kauai: the surf crashing (dramatic!), the suserration of the wind in the palm trees (soothing!), and the ubiquitous roosters crowing (um…).

We made the 50 minute drive to Lihue airport, received a safety briefing, and entered a helo with four other passengers. The bird had bulbous windows in order to accommodate photography and a more panoramic view, at the expense of all sorts of inconvenient reflections and glare. (Fifteen years ago we took a similar helo tour in a ‘copter with no doors, which affords a spectacularly ideal view for the non-nervous.)

We made a clockwise circuit of the island, passing over the coastal plains; hovering next to stratospherically-high thread-thin waterfalls; banking through green valleys and Waimea Canyon (about which more shortly); and surveying the dramatic Na Pali coast. (Na Pali simply means “the cliffs”, by the way.) Here are some shots:

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Eastern coastal plain, looking west towards the interior

 

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One of six zillion waterfalls

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Na Pali, Kauai’s signature vista

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Looking east towards fabled Hanalei Bay. Our B&B is on the north shore (leftmost point) of the peninsula.

The flight took a little under an hour. The sights along the way included some of the venues where “Jurassic Park” was filmed.

After leaving the airport we continued on our own clockwise tour of the island, the first stop being Waimea Canyon, Kauai’s second most well-known geological feature. It is in the interior, accessible by a very winding 18 mile (30 km) road to a lookout point. The canyon itself is about 10 miles (16 km) long and 3000 ft (900 m) deep, strikingly reminiscent of a scale model of the Grand Canyon, thus:

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Though very much younger than the Grand Canyon, it was formed by a similar erosive process. In the Grand Canyon’s case, that would be the Colorado River; Waimea Canyon was formed by rain runoff from 5000′ Mt. Waialeale, the second-highest peak on the island and purportedly the rainiest spot on the planet. Mt. Waialeale averages roughly 14″ (35 cm) of rain per day. You do not want to plan a picnic on Mt. Waialeale.

For our demographic there is little to do here except gawk at the declivity from the lookout point and take a bunch of pictures. It is true that there are bicycle tours that zoom down the side of the canyon, which is also threaded by hiking trails. I could plausibly claim that 35 years ago these are activities that we might have ambitiously undertaken. But I visited here 35 years ago and didn’t want to do it then either, so just enjoy the view. (Which, by the way, nicely illustrates the characteristic colors of Kauai: the iron-rich orange soil and red sedimentary stripes on the formations, dotted with emerald green vegetation.)

We snaked back down the mountain and continued our clockwise course until the road petered out altogether near Polihale State Park, at the westernmost point of the island. The beach there is spectacular: an endlessly long, broad, and flat expanse of coarse pale orange sand, terminating at the Na Pali cliffs a few miles to the north. On calm days, the water is so clear that you can see the sand being sucked up off the bottom by gentle waves as the rollers come close to shore. But that is not a sight for winter, when the surf is ceaselessly punishing.

The main problem with Polihale is getting there, since the last 4 miles of the road isn’t a road at all, but rather a spine-jangling washboard surface of packed dirt and small craters. You are not allowed to take rental cars there, and certainly not our rented Nissan Versa, which appears to be made out of aluminum foil. So I would like to state for the record that we were transported by a giant eagle, like Gandalf in “The Hobbit”.

Since this is the westernmost point of Kauai, it affords the best vantage point to glimpse the last major island in the Hawaiian chain: the “forbidden island” of Niihau, 17 miles (28 km) away. If the nickname sounds a tad melodramatic to you, here is what it looked like yesterday:

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Yep, looks forbidden to me all right.

But the reason Niihau is called “forbidden” is not because the ancient gods will smite you if you land there, the above photo notwithstanding. No, you will be smitten by the lawyers from the Robinson family, a venerable clan of major Kauai landowners who own Niihau outright and maintain it as a preserve of Hawaiian culture. The residents are of native Hawaiian blood — among the very few left — and the primary language of the island is Hawaiian. Tourism is by and large forbidden, though there are a small number of special permits issued. The Robinsons also have an arrangement with the Navy, which maintains a small unmanned facility there which they occasionally use for training exercises.

How did this come about? The answer, simply enough, is that in 1864 a wealthy woman named Elizabeth McHutchison Sinclair flat-out bought the island from Kamehameha V for $10,000 in gold. It passed down through the family and in 1915 her grandson Aubrey Robinson closed it off to visitors. Aubrey’s grandsons own the island today, along with significant swaths of Kauai itself.

I’ve mentioned Na Pali a number of times on this leg of the trip, not unreasonably because it is a genuinely extraordinary sight. We have so far seen it on foot during our hike two days ago, and yesterday by air. We were supposed to have completed the trifecta by taking a boat trip to it earlier this afternoon, but the excursion was canceled because we were the only people who signed up. We have rebooked it for Saturday, so stay tuned for yet more pictures of the place.

 

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Thar She Blows…and Thar…and Over Thar…

As you may have inferred from today’s title, we have just returned from a successful whale watching trip. The outfit that we chose to go with was the cleverly named Wild Hawaii Ocean Adventures — clever because their acronym is WHOA. Their big selling point is the boat itself, a 36′ (11 m) jet-powered Zodiac that can accommodate 12 passengers in padded stand-up “seats”. (The quotes being because you do not actually sit but rather stand and lean back into padded backrests.) Here’s the boat, which at full throttle can zoom along at over 50 mph (80 kph):

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Hawaii hosts several types of whale, but the most common by far is the humpback. The humpback is the cetacean equivalent of a snowbird, only instead of wintering in Florida they do it in Hawaii. It’s an interesting life cycle: the humpbacks mate and give birth in Hawaii in January and February (after a one-year gestation), then, in about March, start the migration to Alaska. They spend 8 or 9 months a year in those cold but nutrient-rich waters, basically bulking up in preparation for the winter migration back to Hawaii. During that journey, and during their whole time in Hawaii, they do not eat at all. Rather, they spend the whole time variously mating or giving birth. (It escapes me as to how the males are able to find mates without taking the females out for a meal — “Hey sweet fins, could I take you to dinner? Seeing as how we haven’t eaten in three months?”)

The adult whales are about 45′ (14 m) long and weigh 45 tons, which is one humongous slab of mammal. The newborns are 16′ (5 m) long and weigh between one and 1 1/2 tons. The mothers suckle the newborns for over a year, and we learned that whale milk has the highest fat content among mammals: 40%. Which is not surprising, since it has to sustain the calf for the long swim to Alaska.

We had a good day, spotting about a dozen whales. The boat crew usually spotted them first, usually sighting either the waterspout from their blowholes, or a pair of flukes slapping the water as the whale prepares to dive. But the other way to spot them is to look out for other tour boats who may have spotted them first, and tag along.

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(Yes, I know these photos are not up to my usual standard. I did not want to risk getting my good equipment wet, and so relied on a point-and-shoot and a cell phone, both from a rocking boat.)

Our big excitement was a whale breaching, leaping out of the water to its full length before crashing back into the depths. No photos of that — it happened too fast. Our other big moment was one surfacing directly in front of our boat, maybe 40′ (12 m) in front of us. This is a big deal because under U.S. federal law the tour boats may not deliberately approach to within 100 yards (90 m) of the creatures. However, whales are either flagrant scofflaws or are really lazy about reading the federal criminal code, so sometimes you get lucky (as we did), and they will spontaneously approach the boats.

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Our boat was equipped with a hydrophone, i.e. an underwater microphone on the end of a cable. The water about a mile offshore is a good 1000′ (300 m) deep, but water is a very good sound medium and you don’t have to lower the hydrophone very far — 30′ or so — to clearly hear the whale song. That was eerie and exciting to hear; we’ve all heard those squeals and clicks in any number of nature TV shows and movies, but there is a certain compelling immediacy to hearing it in real-time from whales who are singing in the water directly beneath your feet.

Bottom line: if you are ever in Hawaii in January or February, do this!

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Viva Italia: Where the Pasta is Prologue

Having now fully recovered from last October’s sojourn to the bottom of the world, we are about to turn our attention to a (literally) more classical destination: Italy.

We depart on Wednesday, April 15, for a three week ramble through northern Italy. Most of the trip will be in four regions (see map): Veneto (since we are starting in Venice), Lombardy, Emilia Romagna, and northern Tuscany. We’ll only go about as far south as Florence and Pisa, which you can see on the map. A bit northwest of Pisa along the coast is the town of La Spezia, which is one of our major destinations since it is the jumping-off point for the famous Cinque Terre hiking region.

Why Italy? Since our travel proclivities seem to run along the lines of Botswana and Patagonia, you might ask, isn’t Italy a little….pedestrian? To which we can only reply: “C’mon, it’s Italy!” Both of us have been to the country a number of times — Alice spent ten weeks there as a visiting mathematics professor many years ago — but we have never explored these regions very much. And neither of us has ever been to Venice, an egregious oversight that we will now correct. Moreover, while we enjoyed eating warthog and pan-fried insect grubs well enough, generally speaking Italian cuisine carries just a tad more appeal than Zimbabwean. We did not much worry about gaining weight in Africa or South America; on this trip it’s pretty much a given.

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If the route were simple, it wouldn’t be our trip.

Our first five days will be in Venice, after which we pick up a rental car and follow the route shown in the second image. And now you know that this is really us making the trip, since the route is far too complicated for any rational travelers to undertake. In truth it is not quite as crazy as it looks; we will only be driving every few days, with few-day stays at “hubs” like Verona from which we will make driving and walking day trips.

We will not be alone on this trip, nor will we be in a 16-person group as we were in Africa and South America. Rather, we will be with another couple, our friends Jim and Elaine. Jim and I know each other from NASA, from which he retired a number of years ago, and we have all become quite good friends since discovering ten years ago that they lived only a few minutes from us. They are also one of the very few couples we know — my parents being about the only other one — that have traveled to even more places than we have.

As usual I will be posting my travel journal interspersed with some of my photos (Jim is also an avid photographer). So stay tuned and, as they say over there, “Ciao bella! Dolce Gabbana!” Which means, “Say goodbye to all your money if you buy this designer handbag.”

 

 

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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