We go to London and visit Westminster Abbey

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The west entrance of the Abbey

        As we walked inside the Northern entrance to westminster abbey, we noticed that the style was very similar to a spanish gothic cathedrals. The only difference was that everything was fancier and much more lavish. The ceilings in the spanish cathedrals are made of soaring stone arches, but the one in westminster are soaring stone arches with paint and gold leaf on it. The tombs in the spanish cathedrals are bright white marble, but, the ones in westminster are white marble with paint and gold leaf on it. Basically, everything in westminster is just more elaborate and with more gold. It was quite incredible, and if you want me to describe it, it’s really big, really lavish, and it’s topped full with the tombs of kings and Queens.

The wonderfully decorated ceiling

        The tombs of all the kings and Queens of England since the 11th century reside here. The memorial statues everywhere give it an “old lady’s cluttered house” look. Still, each and every one of the tombs are unique and beautiful. Other famous figures lie in westminster such as Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, and Sir Winston Churchill. Oliver Cromwell was also buried in the church but was dug up and hung after two years in the grave. Then, he was decapitated. The reason for this is because he overthrew the monarchy and died the “Lord Protecter”. Two years after his burial, the monarchy regained power and dug him back up. Poor Oliver.

        Near the end of our visit, the choir ended up starting a practice session. This isn’t just any choir though, this is the westminster boys choir, where boys around ten years old are invited to attend a private school just for the choir and sing in the church multiple times a day.

The Choir with the altar in the background

When we were done, we admired the flying buttresses and fantastic towers. The abbey has stood fast for 1000 years, and hopefully it will stand another.

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Edie writes: Eiffel Tower!

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The sights in Paris are amazing, but my favorite by far was the Eiffel Tower. When we got to the park where the Eiffel Tower stands, we took some pictures and then got in line to go to the top. It took about thirty minutes to get the tickets. Once we got our tickets, we took a deep breath and started walking up the stairs. Once we got to the first level and did a restroom stop, we kept on walking up to the second level. It took longer to get to the second. It seemed as if the staircase would last for days, but we finally made it. When we did, oh how beautiful the views were! We were at the second level for a long time, and then decided to go to the top. Dad said that he wanted to stay behind so Mom, Isaac, and I got on the elevator and headed up. When we pile out of the elevator, we gasped. We were amazed by the views. Once we were ready, we took the elevator back down. We picked up Dad and kept going down. When we got to the bottom, I realised that I, Eden Lerner, had just lived a dream.

Sunday, by Rivane Neuenschwander

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For our stay in Paris, the Pompidou Centre stood out quite a bit. The modern art museum captivated Edie on first sight with it’s crazy exterior. With it’s colorful open look, the building is quite a sight. On display were fantastic works of art, some strange and some beautiful. This piece in particular grabbed my attention more than others.

This video was shown on a huge projection screen in a sealed off room. My mom processed the video to no conclusion but I thought of the video as instructions to teach you parrot to speak.

The Lawnmower of Escource

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The hour long drive from the Bordeaux train station to the farm house was flat, as is the rest of the surrounding horizon in that territory. With Escource as our final destination, the highway was nothing but a long road cutting into the endless beautiful farmlands and barns. And after we had been in Escource for a couple of days, we realized that all that Escource was and ever will be is flat. The points of interest in the (I dare call it) – town is a large roundabout and a nice go-kart track.

As we reached the property, we were greeted by two of the kindest and most generous people we had ever met; Paule and her husband, Cristian. They led us through the beautifully furnished barn that would be our home for the week and showed us how to use the furnace that would heat the house. Dad loved the furnace and thought that it heated the barn better than any heating system that we had had so far in our trip. 

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The beautiful farm house.
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The outside.

Over the week, Paule practically became Edie’s and my third grandmother (no offense to you, Grammy and Safta). Her wonderful character and delicious food was the key to our wonderful stay. Paule’s kitchen is state of the art, and it had better be because she is in there half of the day. She can cook almost anything, from her oven roasted duck to her homemade assortment of jams. Paule and her neighbor also keep a few bee hives. One huge gallon of honey that we were given by her ended up being the most delicious honey that we had ever tasted. We even made a batch of Challah with her honey, and gave them a loaf. (Note the the tastier the honey, the tastier the Challah!) We also were given a jar of her newest batch of orange marmalade and a box of truffles. The marmalade, like the honey, was also the best we had ever had. Thank you, Paule! Cristian had amazing skills on the guitar (and guitar skills is the key to being an awesome person…). Thanks to Cristian, Edie and I were able to drive the whopping 14.5 horsepower lawnmower around the property. After a couple of days, he awarded us with his “Official Driving License for Cristian Knittel’s Lawnmower”.

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Official Driving License for Cristian Knittel’s Lawnmower
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The freshly cut grass on the property.

Near the end of our stay, we got the opportunity to head over to the go-kart track a couple of miles north. As we pulled up to the parking lot, we were welcomed by the sound of a roaring tin can (a.k.a. go-kart) and the friendly owners. We bought four- ten minute sessions. I learned about apexes and accelerating out of the corners. Dad zipped around like a pro, and even Mom got in for one session. Eden got to drive for the first time in a smaller kart around the kids’ track. I was old enough to drive the big karts. The big track was so much fun!

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The go-kart track from an arial view.

As we left, 500 goodbyes from Edie and Paule were said and a promise was made to get more Americans to rent from her. So… if any of you fellow Americans are in the area of Bordeaux and want a break from all the Metropolis, this is the best place to go. Thank you Paule and Cristian for a magnificent stay.

Another late post: Venice

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People repeatedly cautioned us that a couple of days in Venice would be more than sufficient.  We spent five days in Venice and left wishing we had more.

To walk in Venice is truly enjoyable.  What a contrast to the cities we had been visiting along our route through Italy.  In Napoli, every step you take – whether crossing a street or walking along a sidewalk – carries with it a sense of possible doom.  It could be a collision with a scooter, an overly aggressive taxi cab driver, or just a step into a freshly delivered pile of recycled dog food.  There is no strolling in Napoli.  In Rome, the scene is grand, and so are the crowds.  In Florence it was the assault by the street vendors along with more scooters.  In Lucca, beautiful narrow cobbled streets full of shops are shared with cars and no sidewalks.  None of these distractions loom in Venice.  There are no cars, no bicycles, and, best of all, NO SCOOTERS!  You can walk out of your door without looking both ways.  You can cross any intersection or bridge without fear of collision.  You can stroll and enjoy the magnificent scenes that abound in every direction.   It was really striking how much we noticed this lack of competition for our senses.  There is a calm and sense of tranquility this creates that needs to be experienced to be understood.  If you have seen the movie Big Fish , there is a scene where the main character comes across a town in the woods named Spreckels.   The town has streets paved with grass, no exit route, and nobody wears shoes.   The once famous poet that resides there has lost his entire muse upon his arrival to the town, since all of his desires had been satisfied beyond his own imagination.  Venice could easily be the Spreckels of travel destinations in Italy.

During the day, we strolled through San Marcos Square, a scene almost too surreal to believe.  Over a thousand years of history and architecture beautifully organized.  There is a constant flight of gulls overhead as you stand in this immense Piazza lined with café after café, the Basilica and the Moors’ tower.  There is a large opening to the original port that has been used for trade for hundreds of years.  The water is now packed with Gondoliers rowing awestruck tourists towards the narrow canals. The fleets of Galleons and Napoleonic vessels are long gone, but their aura remains.   Every view here is a painter’s inspiration and a romantic’s delight

A highlight of our whole trip thus far was the Venetian Opera we attended at La Fenice (The Phoenix).  This is a magnificent theatre that has burned down and been rebuilt three times over its lifetime (hence the appropriate name), but still maintains its original 500 year old design and charisma.  There were a total of 1,000 seats in a very compact and traditional design consisting of the floor gallery seating at stage level and surrounded by vertical seating in boxes of four people rising to the high ceiling.  We splurged and sat in the Royal Box about mid-way up the wall directly centered to the stage.  In front of the stage sat a full orchestra.  The show was Mozart’s La Clemenza de Tito (the Clemency of Titus).  The whole performance was magnificent.  It was nearly three hours long and I was disappointed that it ended so soon.  A day earlier, we had spent considerable time trying to convince Edie that she would enjoy an opera.  Such persuasion will not be necessary again.  She has already asked about other operas.

Our last day in Venice saw a high tide and lots of rain.  The flood sirens rang through the city early in the morning. Portable elevated sidewalks that are stacked near low spots throughout the city were placed in their “usual” locations.  As we walked to the train station, the shops adjacent the canal were flushing out the overflow of water from inside their stores.  Furniture and wares were stacked systematically in a well-rehearsed dance with nature.

Leaving Venice on our way to Genoa, Susie and I both expressed our desire to return again in the near future.  It is a city where time has stopped and reality moves aside to let your senses soak in this magnificent homage to man’s ability to create beauty and art.

An Exiting Ethiopian Experience

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After 3 weeks in Italy, we weren’t necessarily tired of Italian food. Our hunt for the best pizza, or gnocchi was aided by TripAdvisor, tour books and local recommendations. We arrived in Nice, and one of the restaurants with the highest recommendation was La Ville de Siena, an Italian restaurant in Little Italy in the old streets of Nice. While we thoroughly enjoyed the dinner, the next night we were once again searching for a delicious and enjoyable meal, but maybe something other than Italian this time… On TripAdvisor we put in a search for vegetarian food and up came one listing for Ethiopian Cuisine with excellent ratings. Hmmmm, none of us had ever eaten this type of food, and we were ready for something different.

After finding the place, we immediately noticed the low seating and woven basket tables only 2 feet high. The colors were bright, and the smells were enticing but different! The hostess was so welcoming, and lucky for us she spoke excellent English. We sat at one of the low woven tables with a colorful matching cone cover. She explained the typical way of eating Ethiopian food: A large platter is brought out with several different foods presented. Everyone eats from the platter, which is placed on the woven table. The most exciting part for us is that there are no forks! The food is scooped up with your fingers and this thin millet bread similar to a tortilla or a crepe. We had green beans, spinach, spicy and non-spicy lentils, cabbage, chicken, and rice each cooked with its own unique blend of spices and additions. We happily tore off the millet bread and scooped up the delicious dishes until there was nothing left. The flavors were full and savory, but like nothing we had ever eaten before.

After we had finished our feast, we were relaxing and marvelling at the delicious food we had just enjoyed. The waitress had told us that her mother was the cook, and that she likes to come out and meet guests after dinner when she can. Lucky for us, we were there early in the evening, and the place was not so busy yet. She came out and sat down with us and another couple sitting nearby. We told her how much we loved the food, and she was so pleased to see that the kids had eaten and enjoyed it all as well.

The food, the environment, the people, the lack of utensils, the whole experience was a feast for the senses!

A really late post for Naples

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First, an explanation of our swift exit from Spain to Italy and a quick lesson on something called the Schengen Zone. When we had planned this trip, we learned that about 10-15 years ago, the EU established a zone within most of the EU countries in which EU citizens could travel freely between borders without going through customs. As most of you know, border crossing is a lengthy process of questioning and passport review. This Schengen agreement eliminated all of that by making border crossings within zones no different than traveling state to state in the US. The downside of this new agreement for Americans is that we are only allowed three months within that zone for travel without requesting a long-term stay visa. I looked into this process, and discovered that the countries wouldn’t grant us one unless we had an address and or itinerary to present, neither of which I had. I learned from France that they would let us stay an additional 3 months after the Schengen allowance was reached, so we understood that we had 6 months of free travel. After 6 months we planned to head up to the UK, which did not join the Schengen Zone, therefore allowing us an additional month before heading home in June.

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The Schengen Zone

Fast forward to early January where we were taking our time exploring Catalonia, planning a trip into Madrid for a week, cruising over to Salamanca and then San Sebastian before making our way up into France to cross into our second 3 month stretch. We thought we would get a stamp from France allowing us that additional 90 days, wander into Italy for 5 or 6 weeks, then head over to Greece and the Czech Republic before heading back to France, Belgium and Amsterdam for the springtime. Great plan, right? Well, what we found out was, France would allow us to stay only in their country, no other country would honor that additional 90 day stretch. While we could conceivably cross borders into these countries without anyone taking notice, we have two children in tow. If we had any emergency or situation where any official asked to see our passport, we could get in serious trouble. Plus, our travel and health insurance would not be honored. Being the responsible adults we think we are most of the time, we reluctantly realized that we only had three weeks in which to visit Italy, and Greece, Prague, Belgium and Amsterdam are out of the picture for this trip. Sigh…

So by January 10th, we were flying from Barcelona to Naples to begin our brisk “Giro de Italia.”  We landed in Naples and immediately hopped into a taxi. I was supposed to call our hotel for a taxi, but my phone still had a Spanish SIM card, so we just took the first taxi we saw. Big mistake! The hotel said the taxi would be a fixed price of €16. We are in the taxi with this loud and overly friendly Italian who spoke very good English to us. I immediately became suspicious when I noticed there was no meter on the dash… We realize later, once we learned the town that he drove us all around town, then dropped us at our hotel to the price of €38! Argh… It could have been worse; we have heard stories of people slyly reaching into bags and stealing phones, wallets, etc.

In any case, we had arrived in Italy, and if anyone has ever been in Italy, you know it is a beautiful country with amazing cities. We were a bit shocked when we dropped our bags in our very nice hotel, and went to explore the streets. Naples is a gritty, gritty city. The few trash cans we saw were overflowing, and there was trash everywhere in the streets. The buildings were dirty and many of them were crumbling. People drive like maniacs and stoplights are merely suggestions. Motorscooters rule the roads, and if you hear one coming (how could you not? They are extremely loud), you had better look out. They consider pedestrians flags on a slalom course! The people of Naples stay up late… or maybe they just don’t go to bed at night. Their voices and music (live and recorded) get louder as the night goes on. Remember that we had just come from two weeks in some small, quiet villages of Spain. This crazy, dirty, loud, and busy city of Naples was quite a shock!

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An average street in Naples

Now, don’t start thinking that I am Nelly Negative about Naples… There certainly is a silver lining for this city; namely Pizza! Pizza with crust so thin and delicate, slightly charred in places from cooking it in the depths of the wood fired clay oven, pomodoro sauce so fresh and bright red, medallions of fresh mozzarella, and perfect basil floating over the top. After two months of ham hocks hanging in our faces wherever we went, we were smiling from ear to ear with this Napoleon delicacy~ and for €3 a pie too! This, we had been dreaming about since we started on this trip.

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Di Matteo’s wood fired pizza, Yum!

Well, we certainly did not fly into Naples just for the pizza (thought not a bad idea, I might suggest to you). We really came to walk through the streets of Pompeii and Herculaneum (See Eden’s informative essay on the two Roman towns). I have been fascinated with the town of Pompeii since I found a library book on the subject when I was just 8 years old. An entire town of 20,000 people was buried in a day with all of its contents (and many of its people). Archeologists have carefully excavated the town and found artwork, utensils, boats, tools, and even scrolls that were preserved due to their burial for 1800 years.

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An Overview of Herculaneum

Much of the artwork and artifacts that have been discovered are safely housed in the Archeological museum just a few blocks from the hotel we were staying at in Naples. We walked there the first day to get an idea of what was in store for us at the excavation sites. What we saw was absolutely astounding. Mosaic floors with  much detail have been carefully sliced out and lifted from their spaces in Pompeii’s grandest houses. They are carefully displayed in the museum for our appreciation along with statues, and frescoes that are amazingly beautiful. We especially appreciated one room in the museum that had an enormous model of the entire town of Pompeii. We could stand to one side and get perspective of the town in order to orient ourselves for our visit the next day.

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A Pompeii model

As Eden says in her essay, Herculaneum was a much smaller town, but was buried with a more voluminous pyroclastic flow. The initial explosion of Mt. Vesuvius was a giant ash cloud and wave of destructive heat. The winds blew the ash to the southwest, burying Pompeii on the first day with this fine gray powder. The second day, the crater collapsed unto itself, and then exploded from the pressure to the northwest, burying Herculaneum under 16 meters of earth. The result of this is a town that is not fully excavated, but is better preserved than Pompeii. Most of the homes in both towns were two story, but only in Herculaneum can you see most of those homes still intact. Some of the wood trim and doors were buried so quickly they actually burned to charcoal in their exact wooden state. These beams and doors are still there, carefully covered with acrylic so you can see their original form. The town of Herculaneum was much smaller than Pompeii, with narrow streets and pleasant coastal verandas. The excavation site is not coastal anymore, as the volcanic flow added about 400 feet of coastline to the area. There is a row of boathouses that was originally on the waterfront. Sadly, they are filled with skeletons of many of the residents that were trying to hide from the destructive flow that decimated their town. We were able to walk all around the town and in and out of many of the homes. Much of the town has not been excavated due to two major obstacles; 16 meters of earth, and an entire modern town that has been built on top of all of that new surface above. Perhaps someday, we may get to see more of this ancient Roman treasure.

The town of Pompeii, on the other hand, is almost completely excavated. This town was not buried under such depth, so its location was always known, with the tops of many of the structures above the earth’s new surface. The excavation of the site began in earnest in the mid-1700’s, and what an accomplishment it is! We walked all through the town as if we were members of the community. The cobbled streets with raised crosswalks are completely intact. The bath houses with coved steam rooms and lockers for clothing are still there. The Forum, or town square, is so grand and well preserved. The tops of the temples are gone, but the columns, pedestals, and steps remain. Many of the homes are open for exploration; we saw palatial courtyards and gardens, as well as street-side taverns with countertops and storage rooms. There is a grand outdoor amphitheater built on a hillside and a colosseum that we were able to enter and sit as if we had tickets to the show. We could see the extensive water system of aqueducts, street gutters, rain cisterns, and public water fountains at almost every corner. We were just blown away by the state of the town, there was so much to see! Isaac took many photos..

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The entrance to Pompeii
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Back in the day, water ran from these faucets twenty four-seven
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Ancient crosswalks
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The Pompeiian colosseum
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Edie has memorised the different types of columns; Ionic, Dorian, and Corinthian

After eating pizza every night for three nights, it was time to pack up our bags and catch the high-speed train to Rome. The grandeur (and cleanliness) of Rome was a stark contrast to the gritty streets of Naples. The motor scooters were also much nicer and quieter! Best of all, there was order in the streets, and pedestrians could cross safely at crosswalks. Sadly, we have not found pizza quite like the marvelous creations we ate in Naples!