Ginny on the Road

23 June 2014
Brussels, Belgium

Coming into Brussels was quite a strange experience. I had been in Paris for long that suddenly arriving into another city was little bit of a shock. Where I arrived near the main train station is quite modern. Concrete and steel do battle with the asphalt just a stone throw’s away. A far cry from France’s low rise surburbs. I did not have my bearings at all and had to ask a fellow passenger who had also gotten off to use his phone’s GPS.

My hostel was located a little bit of a walk away from the train station but right in the centre of the action in a little laneway that shoots off the Grote Markt (Grand Place central plaza). What’s great for all the world cup that I am watching is a little Irish Bar close to my hostel which has happy hour from between 1pm and midnight where most beers are 1 or 2 Euros! I made a brief stop here before the supermarket and I was immediately hit on by a group of slightly tipsy and VERY friendly Peruvians with whom I really had to set down some boundaries early on!

They aren’t kidding when they say that Belgium is filled with (good?) chocolate. Within a 1km radius of centre, the touristy areas naturally, it does feel like every second shop sells chocolate. I did try a little bag on my way from my check-in/admin hostel to where I was actually staying, and it was good, but not so good that I would renounce every other type of chocolate in the world. Nonetheless, all the shops have very cute and sweet little football motifs in their creations at the moment. Belgium have done quite well in the world cup this time round, so I hope that the chocolate shops keep having something to celebrate.

The architecture in the Grote Markt is really beautiful with intricate details rising high into the towers, a real feat given that they were built 300 years ago. I ate a simple dinner of baguette, pesto, cheery tomato and cheese here, admiring the buildings and watching the tourists stumble over themselves to try to fit the tall buildings into one frame. I did come back after midnight to see all the buildings lit up like Disneyland and lots of young people just sitting about drinking in the square like they had always been here.

Before heading back to the same multi-TV screen Irish bar to watch the Brazil game (who eventually won over Cameroon), I stood and listened to a quite beautiful busking band that were just two men, one guitar and one cello. A combination that I think should be used more often! They drew quite a large crowd and I was more than happy purchase a CD as a souvenir.

The football game went long into the night and the large number of Brazil (or Brazilian) supporters around me cheered louder and louder. This was really just the start of the night as I ended up having some long conversations with some people who were also chilling in the downstairs lounge as I tried to finish watching the Godzilla movie which I had started on the bus this morning. Shit movie, but cool people in my hostel - always far more important. And as I stumbled into my top bunk, the skylight directly above me was showing glimpses of sunlight. Better crash now to be fresh for the walking tour!

21 June 2014
Paris, France

This morning my hosts took me to their gym which is meant to be one of the largest in France, if not the largest. It is part of a larger sporting complex including a huge pool area with a wave pool which you can watch from the higher levels of the gym. My hosts tell me that the gym definitely has the largest area of cardio machines in France with over 100 treadmills, many of which were occupied even on such a sunny Saturday morning.

Now friends of mine from back in Melbourne would know what a massive gym junkie that I am so I was quite excited to hit up the gym after so many months of ‘inactivity’ (sorry but walking just doesn’t quite cut it) since leaving the Costa cruise ship. My hosts and I did an half an hour abs class and also a plyometric class (both under the Les Mills program which many of you would be familiar with).

This one hour was such a weird study of my mind… on one hand, my brain remembered all the moves I needed to do (even though I couldn’t understand anything the instructors were saying beyond the odd number), but my body just wouldn’t move. It was almost like getting old. My legs remembered the sensation of sprinting across the room back and forth, my arms remembered doing heaps of push ups, but my body just wouldn’t move like it used to. I felt so helpless yet at the same time a little empowered to start doing a little exercise again around dorms. Without that, I am a little terrified to think about what shape I am gonna be in when I get home.

After the huge salad and salmon back at home, I felt almost like I was back home - gymming and a huge lunch, that was always the weekend routine. But there was no rest for the wicked and before I knew it, I was accompanying one of my hosts and his friends to an all night free music festival had live open air or more intimate concerts all over Paris. We ended up going past the Chinatown area into a very modern part of Paris with a big shopping complex, highrise offices and apartments. And amidst all of that was a punk rock band playing with rather unfortunate technical issues.

After a hour or two of this music (and getting to watch a Michael Jackson fan group perform a few of his signature dances), we headed off closer to the river to meet some other friends at an American diner and I got sneak a peak at the football. The river front was teeming with people as performances littered across the waterfront on boats and in bars. In spite of the music, it was actually quite a disgusting area to walk around as dozens of men were lined up to pee against the wall or in open-air urinals all along the foundations of the roads next to the river. The smell wasn’t pleasant and the amount of rubbish lying around rivalled even what I saw on a day-to-day basis in Brazil during Carnival!

What capped off a random evening was that although we were all under the impression that the music would last all night, most of the performances across the city finished at about midnight. In search of an alternative, we came across an impromptu r&b hip hop party that was taking place in the dark at a skate park under a bridge. The music was loud, raw and the crowd looked about right… We watched the party from the bridge and I was itching to join in but something in my head told me that that would not a good idea. But even that soon finished and thus begun our protracted return home which involved a train to the Chinatown area and then a 15-20 minute walk home.

Wasn’t quite the night that I expected, but I did get to see a few less touristy areas of Paris just for the experience - and that is never a bad thing. Now I will never come away from Paris filled with just the ideal of the romance of the city. And for now, I definitely cannot un-see all that public pee :)

22 June 2014
Paris, France

My last day in Paris and in France. After a month in France and quite an eventful last 9 days in Paris, I don’t feel like I left many stones unturned. I had a lazy morning in the apartment, and then took a long walk around the Champs Elysees and into its surrounding streets with the gorgeous stone facades, rarely marked by obviously graffiti.

Time flew and I eventually found a little bar filled with Algerians across the river from the Eiffel Tower to watch Algeria beat South Korea. I got a lot of odd looks in the bar and I almost wanted to hold up a “I am not South Korean” sign in French to dilute the attention.

The streets went wild after the win. If you didn’t watch the match tonight or watch any football at all, you would’ve thought that France had won the World Cup! I had to go back to the Champs Elysees to catch the metro, and by this time the entire boulevard was lined with cars filled with flag wearing (presumably) Algerians, singing and tooting. Not quite matched in numbers were the police on hand to rein in anything too crazy. But at least I saw nothing but joy. And not so many South Koreans.

20 June 2014
Paris, France

Today was a ridiculously chill day. After getting back fairly late from the Moulin Rouge, I didn’t bother setting an alarm, waking up close to 10am (as did one of my poor hosts who had to rush off to work).

The bulk of the day was spent chill in the apartment, venturing out around noon when  the hunger finally got the better of me. As I have said time and time and before, one of the very few things that I miss about home is having my own kitchen and being to pick up fresh produce to make an amazing meal. It wasn’t quite amazing today, but I did pick up an amazing salmon fillet, ingredients for a salad (sweet potato my favourite yum!!), a fresh bageutte and chevre cheese. I was in heaven. I share the meal with my other host who is working from home and it was a super chill day, blogging and looking through photos.

After the rather disappointing experience of the Moulin Rouge last night, I had all my fingers and toes crossed that Crazy Horse would be good! I quite enjoy burlesque shows as 1. They are beautiful, but 2. I honestly believe they celebrate the power of the female body and sensuality, which is nothing to scoff at.

The Le Crazy Horse de Paris cabaret was opened in 1951 as a stage show performed by nude female dancers chosen to be indistinguishable in height, breast size and general body shape. The venue is located near the Champs-Elysees on a busy avenue. From the outside, unless u knew the show was there, you would not know that the red carpet led not such secrets within.

And the show was spectacular. How can I write about what I saw (since photos were not allowed!). Yes it was an erotic show, yes I saw a lot of boobs for the second day in a row, but the girls were real performers who really sold every move, every wink, every moment.

I was seated in the front row in the middle in a huge, red and dimly lit room. Partly because I asked to be, but I suspect that most people wouldn’t want to be seated so close anyway. By the start of the show, a Japanese business man and a Japanese girl were seated on either side of me. The girl works at a hiking/mountaineering store in Kobe, Japan, but had taken time more than a month off to do one of the major hikes in France, taking 33 days and walking about 800km. Talking to her made me quite embarrased about my level of physical activity lately.

But back to the show. The costumes (what little of then) were delicate, the music sensual and above all the choreography was sexy and technically brilliant all at once. There were times then when girls danced en pointe, around fluorescent poles, stripped sensuously, suggestively kicked and arched their way around curtains and chaises, and even whilst moving on built in treadmills on stage. My absolute favourite of the girls was one who performed a challenging but  visually effortless ropes act that had her writhing, suspended and spinning as she got into beautiful poses.

And we were also treated to a brilliant shadow puppets performance that had its own naughty moments involving fornicating rabbits, and a tapping duo (most likely twins) who performed a mini history of dance, covering genres as diverse as Swan Lake, Michael Jackson and We Will Rock You, all in tap! They were a great reprieve from all the suggestiveness and sexual innuendo, but they were brilliant in their own right too.

This was definitely one of the most brilliant erotic and shows in general I have seen. Yes there are exposed boobs on ten very beautiful girls, and Yes there is only a piece of thin black tape that cover the girls’ finely waxed vaginas from the hungry gaze of the audience, but it was a brilliant dance perfomance, and I would recommend it for any night visit to Paris, especially if you have any appreciation for dance or just burlesque or the erotic. After seeing the Moulin Rouge last night, this was art through and through.

I had a half bottle of champagne included in ticket and now I am happily sitting on the metro heading back into the outskirts of Paris to presumably a quiet Friday night in with my hosts most likely watching them play games haha.. But after the show that I saw, I am content with the day. Ah Paris…how u surprise me.

19 June 2014
Paris, France

You would think after seeing 6 million skull and bones within the catacombs and all those royal burials at Saint Denis that I would be over the dead. But that is obviously not the case since I managed to get myself to the Pere Lachaise cemetery where over 1 million bodies are buried as well as many more cremated remains. It is a tourist destination as it holds the tombs of many illustrious composers, performers, politicians, writers etc.

Signs around the cemetery as well as my hastily acquired map recorded the exact location of the tombs of these famous figures. I was only specifically interested in four of them (all of which are pictured), but given the size of the cemetery, it was a little difficult to locate them at first. I was interested to learn after getting back home today that when it was first built, it was difficult to get burial numbers up. So the administrators of the site undertook a marketing campaign with the burials of two well-known people of the day to boost the prestige of being buried at Pere Lachaise, instead of one of the older cemeteries (which were overflowing). The idea worked and the numbers shot up in the following years.

Walking about the 44 hectare cemetery was really like walking around a very organised park. The more significant streets were named like avenues, and the smaller winding pathways also had names. Some of the tombs were as small as phone booth, others towered as high as the trees. Some looked well maintained or were protected (such as the Oscar Wilde one), others looked like no one had paid them any attention for 100 years. It is always fascinating for me to read the inscriptions on the tombs to see just which families were buried there and how many generations.

Leaving the cemetery I walked a little around the Bastille area which I had seen briefly on my first night here in Paris. Picking up a cheap pair of heels, I went home to change into as ‘formal’ attire as I could muster from the depths of my backpack to dine and watch a show with my hosts. And the show of choice? The Moulin Rouge of course. My hosts, despite having lived around Paris their whole lives, had never seen the show so they decided to accompany me on my little adventure.

The entire auditorium and set of the ‘Ferie’ show was glowing red, which really boosted the excitement of the crowd. But when the show started, it was obvious that the show probably hadn’t been updated in years, the music sounded a bit too midi, the lipsyncing was beyond bad (yes NO live singing whatsoever), the tits were gotten out too early and there was no attempt at all at a coherent theme or storyline. I hadn’t seen a show in such a long time and I really wanted to like the show. But I just couldn’t.

My hosts enjoyed themselves, but I left pretty disappointed with how I just spent a little over 100 euros. This was compounded a little by a kuffafle of missing the night bus after the show but jumping in a taxi remedied it easy enough. I am also booked into see the Crazy Horse nude cabaret show tomorrow so I have ALL my fingers and toes crossed that it will be more positive experience. Otherwise, I will just have to hold out for the West End when I get there. But re: today, at least I got to snap that famous windmill, right?

18 June 2014
Paris, France
(Photos part 1 of 2)

As planned impromptu last night on my way home from the Notre Dame concert, I embarked today on a little circuit around the north, south, east and west of Paris, starting in the east with Vincennes Castle, the south with the catacombs, the north with Saint Denis Basilica and the Sacre Coeur, and west by taking a leisurely lift up the Eiffel Tower.

Out west, the Château de Vincennes was built through the 12th-14th centuries and was occupied by French Monarchs throughout the 16th and 17th centuries who favoured its huge castle walls. The chateau lost its royal status when Louis XVI settled in Versailles, but became a military arsenal during the revolution, a tradition which Napoleon continued. Given this evolution, in spite of its impressive exterior, that’s really all the castle has going for it now. The interior is bare and rather small and cramped compared with the more ‘modern’ creations at estates of Versailles or throughout the Loire. From atop the tower you can see ‘suburban’ Paris in all of its glory, a rather different view than what Charles V saw when he completed the keep in the 14th century.

In the south, a huge line snaked up to the entrance of the Paris Catacombs. Containing the skeletal remains of around 6 million people, the catacombs are within old reinforced mines that were given its new purpose when remains from overflowing cemeteries were moved here in the late 18th century / early 19th century. The catacombs were renovated under one particular Head of mine inspection services who ordered the skulls and bones to be stacked in the famous patterns that exists till this day.

I had to wait around 2 hours to get into the catacombs and in the meantime I had made friends with an Australian family (and their son’s Canadian girlfriend). When we first entered the stairwell leading down into the secrets of the catacombs, I had no idea what to expect, especially after the rather disappointing to some catacombs in Rome which contained no remains within the first two levels that permitted visitors. But these Parisian catacombs more than made up for that! The walls of alternating skulls and bones seemed to go on forever, sometimes even stacked into shapes of crosses, cylinders, and other patterns. There were some very scary looking skulls that looked like they had died rather painful deaths or bore marks of deformities in life that had left their mark even in death…It was a beautiful sunny day outside, but inside the catacombs, it was like nothing had changed since these remains were first interred there more than 200 years ago.

Cutting across to the north, I went to visit some other Parisian remains, but this time of far great notoriety. The Saint Denis Basilica holds the remains of nearly every French King and Queen from the 10th - 18th centuries (all but three). Famously, the remains of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were moved here when the Bourbon dynasty was briefly restored during Napoleon’s exile. I am no royalist, but I do think it is a bit sad that all of the lavish tomb monuments are empty. I didn’t know this (since much of the information was in French) that all of the monuments were opened during the revolution and all the remains dumped into a pit nearby and dissolved with lime. When this mass grave was finally reopened almost 20 years after the revolution, nothing was distinguishable, and so all of these 100s of royal family members all rest behind a plaque - which I took just to be a list of the people buried within Saint Denis. I spent a fair bit of time walking around the Cathedral and the crypt which has a central section for the remains of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Having seen where they had lived in Versailles, where she was imprisoned in the Conciergerie, it was like my French royal education had come full circle.

Coming a little down back towards the centre of town, I made a brief stop to Sacred Coeur - the tower was already closed when I got there, but I did get to watch a short mass within the basilica itself. From its perch in the Montmarte district, the shining white monument is meant to atone for the ‘moral decline’ which followed the revolution and to ‘expiate the crimes’ of the Paris Commune - the revolutionary and socialist government that ruled Paris for some brief months in 1871. It was a little disappointing that I couldn’t climb the tower, but with the Eiffel Tower just in a few hours, it wasn’t as if I was going to miss out on seeing Paris from above.

After a brief meal, I went to watch the sunset from the Eiffel and for my 10:30pm ascension to the first level via the lifts. There were still lines close to the time of my lift ride, and like clockwork by 10:30, those of us with the right tickets were ushered into the security line for the lift. Before I knew it, I was herded into the ferris wheel carriage shaped lift which travelled both upwards and diagonally up to the first level. The sun had just set completely leaving a purple hue in the sky and the longer I stayed the brighter the lights below became. With my camera, I wasn’t able to really capture the atmosphere of the city during that hour that I was up there, but I was treated to the light show from up close.

Despite warnings from other travellers and my hosts that the area around the Eiffel Tower is super dodgy at night, I couldn’t resist hanging around the bit longer (with the potential risk of missing the last metro!) to take a few longer range photos of the Eiffel Tower. Now that I have seen it both during the day and night, it really does turn on its charm at night. Even close to midnight, the area was crowded with some families and couples even sitting around on the green having a late night picnic.

So concludes my day of circumventing Paris. Even though the Eiffel isn’t quite as far east as my other monuments were out to their respective directions, I am happy to count it as the ‘east’. At least it is ‘east’ of the centre. This also concludes my 4 day Museum Pass so it means from tomorrow I can let up on my sightseeing a bit and just chill. There are definitely a few other things that I want to see, but most big things are crossed off the list. I think I will reward myself with a bit of a sleep-in tomorrow :)

17 June 2014
Versailles and Paris, France
(Photos part 3 of 3)

Full blog post at: http://ginny-on-the-road.tumblr.com/post/92666426457/17-june-2014-versailles-and-paris-france

17 June 2014
Versailles and Paris, France
(Photos part 2 of 3)

Full blog post at: http://ginny-on-the-road.tumblr.com/post/92666426457/17-june-2014-versailles-and-paris-france

17 June 2014
Versailles and Paris, France
(Photos part 1 of 3)

Today, like so many other days on this trip thus far, I really felt like my feet were going to either fall off or never feel anything again. Must be part of getting older :)

The size and scale of Versailles was far greater than I could have ever imagined and it was with sheer willpower that I managed to explore all the significant parts of its grounds (also with partly the mentality of “hey I paid for entry into all the sections so I want to see everything!”).

Arriving at Versailles at about 8:30, there was already a huge line growing outside, but to my relief when the line finally got moving I was actually able to get into the palace quite quickly.

I am sure many of you have been to Versailles, but I knew nothing about it except for the fact that it was very opulent for its time and that Marie Antoinette lived there. What I didn’t know was that it was broken up into the main palace and the very large gardens, the Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon and the Queen’s Hamlet (an English cottage village of sorts). Is it any wonder now that I spent close to 7 hours there?

The rooms in the main palace were so crowded that I couldn’t even see the number for the audio guide so I eventually gave up trying to ‘learn’ about the palace, and just focused on trying to take in as much as possible of the artistry around me. Until now, I thought I had seen a good spread of the French royal decadence, but the rooms within the state apartments really were something else. Even one of the first rooms we saw, the Chapel, was the size of a regular church with glorious tiling and paintings from floor to ceiling. The grant apartments of both the king and the queen depicted deeds of King Louis XIV (the sun king) through allegories of heroic scenes from antiquity and mythology.

Not so original, but my favourite room was genuinely the Hall of Mirrors (galerie des glaces). I had seen it on numerous documentaries but in real life it does take your breath away and marvel at its light. The 17 mirror covered arches on one side of the room are designed to reflect the matching 17 arches windows on the other side of the room overlooking the gardens. 357 large mirrors used in this room and the audio guide asked all the visitors to imagine what the room would have looked like all aglow with candle light. Mirrors were one of the most expensive commodities during the time of Louis XIV and he had to bring in workers from Venice (who at the time monopolised the manufacturing of mirrors) in order to complete the project. I have included a few photos here as part of my blog, but I took so many more, not just of the room and the beautiful chandeliers, but of also of the golden gueridons that line the room holding smaller chandeliers which were designed to replace much of the original silver pieces in the room which were melted down by Louis XIV to finance war.

The size of the Versailles gardens are legendary at 800ha with 100s of thousands of plants, 50 fountains and the huge Grand Canal at over 5.5km at the opposite end to the palace. For a little time, I let myself get a little lost amongst all the greenery, various groves and private gardens within. Eventually I started making my way to the Grand Trianon, a small palace of pink marble and an accompanying geometric gardens. Much of the original decor survives but not the furniture which like many French Chateaux were auctioned off during the revolution. It was built as a retreat for King Louis XIV and his mistress Madame de Montespan and as a visitor, it also felt like a retreat from the crowds of the main palace, tranquil and fine, with smaller rooms and light colours.

A short walk away, the Petit Trianon was also built for the Louis XIV’s private use but was gifted to Mary Antoinette by Louis XVI. It became her sanctuary from the formalities of court. The Petit Trianon really is ‘petit’ compared to its neighbours, but contains some fine paintings of Marie Antoinette and you really do get the sense of a ‘family life’ within its walls.

Marie Antoinette had turned part of the gardens into an English (Norman) style park with a small village where she could experience country. This hamlet even had a working farm, a mill and a watermill, which supplied some food to the Palace. Only her close friends and family entered this sanctuary. It felt so out of place within the grounds of Versailles, but I think it conveyed a real sense of romaticism from the Queen and perhaps a longing for something lost in her ‘royal’ existence.

Returning to Paris, my mind reeling from images of Versailles, I made a brief stop to the Roman Archeological site beneath Notre Dame and went for a long walk around the Latin Quarter of Paris which circles around the university district. By the time I sat down inside Notre Dame to hear the live performance of ‘Le Miroir de Jesus’, I was pooped! I had no idea about the piece that was about to be played, but it ended up being a very soothing 2 hours of chamber music with a solo soprano and a large children’s choir. I am happy to admit that I nodded off a few times, but also woke up when the soprano hit her high notes.

Stumbling out from Notre Dame, I hung about the area waiting for the sun to set before wandering about the riverfront to capture a few images of what the night means in Paris, calm yet bustling, dark yet completely illuminated. I definitely see the romanticism of it all, but travelling alone gives you an unique perspective of the what it means to be ‘new’ in a famed city such a Paris. So tomorrow is the last day of my museum pass and I intend on making the most of it by visiting something in each quadrant of the city, starting with the West, well all depending on what time I wake up…

16 June 2014
Paris, France (Photos part 2 of 2)

Full blog post at: http://ginny-on-the-road.tumblr.com/post/92622712897/16-june-2014-paris-france-photos-part-1-of-2

Photos from Saint Chapelle, Notre Dome (without, within and from above) and the George Pompidou centre for modern art.