Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Tour de France, Tour de France!

Once again, we have somehow managed to let so much time go by without updating our blog. Our lives in Germany have gotten increasingly busier and more exhausting over the past few weeks, but more updates on that will have to take place another time (soon, I promise).

This blog is dedicated to the fantastic July 28th weekend in Paris we spent watching the Tour de France finale. It was such an incredible moment to see the pack of cyclists whoosh by us for the first time at the Place de Concorde and catch a glimpse of the yellow jersey. Although we waited for about three hours to see them lap around this spot four times (for a mere total of 30 seconds each) it was worth it. How many times in life do you get to see the Tour de France?

But, that was not the only fantastic thing about Paris. This weekend was also a grand reunion with my dear friend, Thomas. Born a Parisian, Thomas was lucky enough to spend six whole months in glorious Waco, Texas, while doing an internship during the summer and fall of 2005. Although I'm sure it was extreme culture shock at first, Thomas became a true Wacoan during that time and embraced all that was Texan. We became fast friends after being introduced by my friend Beth, at Baylor, and soon Thomas was part of the international exchange students gang of Fall '05.

It was so wonderful to finally reunite with Thomas again and he was so gracious to let us crash at his apartment and show us the "true" nightlife of Paris as a local. We ate an interesting French dinner on Friday (pig intestine - yummy) and then headed to some great bars. Thank you, Thomas, for everything. You are the best tour guide EVER!

Unfortunately, our reunion would only last one night, because the next day Thomas had to head out of town for a birthday party. After coffee and croissant at a sidewalk cafe, we parted ways. Jon and I had a few things on our agenda we wanted to see, but we didn't want to be overwhelmed with sightseeing and going, going, going like we had in the past on other trips. Luckily, we had already visited Paris before individually and have experienced most of the major sights. This visit was all about doing and seeing what we WANTED to see, not what we felt we had to see.

First on the list were the Catacombs of Paris (Jon's choice - I wonder why?). The Catacombs ossuary was created at the end of the 18th century due to the closure in 1780 of the largest cemetery in Paris, the Saints Innocents, which the local inhabitants believed was a danger to local health. In 1785, a decree was issued for the transfer of the bones from every cemetery in Paris to an underground site until 1860. The Catacombs were opened to the public at the beginning of the 19th century. I must say it was quite cool to see the endless passages of intricately placed skulls, bones, and yes even crossbones. After an hour of being in the underground tomb, however, I was ready to be in the beautiful sunshine.

We metro-ed to the Louvre where we took a quick photo, but were happy to not have to wait in the long line to enter as we had already been there before. Yes, it may be true that I don't actually remember all the works I saw there, but I still do have a vivid memory of seeing the much-smaller-than-you-would-think Mona Lisa, and let's face it, that's the one reason most people even go to the museum.

Next we roamed around the beautiful Tuileries Garden in front of the Lourve where we shared a bottle of wine and cheese plate in an outdoor cafe. We felt soooo Parisian.

We also had some fun visiting some fantastic statues on our walk to the Orangerie museum. This museum contains Monet's famous mural paintings and other impressionist artists' works. I was so thrilled to finally be able to visit this museum as every other visit to Paris in '99, '03, and '05, it was closed due to renovation. Although it is a very small museum, it was absolutely incredible.

After some art appreciation, we headed for a hike along the Seine toward the Eiffel Tower.
Walking next to the Hotel de Invalides, it did feel quite surreal to finally be in Paris, supposedly the most romantic city in the world, with my husband. After visiting the city four times now, I have learned to like Paris more and more after each trip. I didn't totally dislike Paris after the first visit, but it just didn't seem like the friendliest most intimate city. Now having toured the sites with my sisters twice, my family once and run a marathon here, I think I can say that the great experiences definitely outweigh the disappointing. And being in Paris with my first and only love is definitely an experience to add to Paris' good side.

Even if he is a little.... weird.

After an action-packed day of sight-seeing and dress-shopping (I had to stop in at least one store - it is Paris for pete's sake), we headed out for a night on the town. We took the fabulous metro (I say fabulous cause I could figure that sucker out in a matter of seconds) to the Latin Quarter - my favorite district of Paris.

We stopped by the Notre Dame at sunset where a film about the history of the cathedral was playing inside. Although I had visited this cathedral twice before, it was magical to see it at night with the dark shadows cast on the walls.

Afterward, we crossed the river to the Latin Quarter when we spotted a very bohemian-style bookstore packed with people. Paris is famous for its philosophers and it was easy to imagine that many of them may have visited this same bookstore.

After getting some intellect, we made our way down the bustling alleys with bars, restaurants, and culture a-plenty. Although it's not exactly authentic Parisian, we couldn't resist eating at one of the lively Greek restaurants that had live music, dancing and plate-throwing. I mean, seriously. Who can resist a good glass-breaking session?

We totally rocked the dance floor! We decided we both want to take Greek-dancing lessons (or maybe just study "Zorba the Greek" relentlessly) in order to perfect our skills. It's just too much fun!

After dinner, Jon bought me a beautiful rose on the street and we took a romantic stroll along the Seine. We had an incredible moment on the bridge beneath the moonlit sky holding and kissing one another. Now THIS was true romance. That is until someone yelled for us to "get a room." I mean, seriously, it's Paris. If you can't kiss your husband on the deserted street here, where can you?

The next morning, we planned our attack for the Tour de France over a fantastic brunch. Although we had no idea what the exact route was, we decided to head for the Place de Concorde, as we knew they would be cruising past this point to finish on the Champs de Elysse. Turns out we picked a perfect point behind only one row of people (Americans, Aussies, and Spanish), but what we didn't realize, is that it would take the riders at least three hours to arrive. So, you can imagine the anticipation that was built up (and Jon's bladder) after this time (and three beers). At least they entertained us for a while with a parade of sponsorship cars advertising everything from water, to frozen pizza, to sausage all in a "sexy" way.

At last we did see the riders in all their glory after a grueling Tour tainted with blood-doping and scandal. The sport of cycling may be hurting right now but that did not lessen the experience of the finale in magnifique Paris. And how could it? We shared an incredible weekend filled with history, art, intellect, culture, romance, sport-watching and even a reunion with an old friend. It doesn't get any better than that. Merci beau coup, Paris.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Polish Pottery Bond

This past weekend, I was invited by a group of wives to to go to Poland to shop for the famous Polish Pottery that is all the craze here. I had been hearing about this stuff ever since I arrived, and not one to miss a social opportunity, I decided to join them on this all-ladies venture and discover just what is so great about this stuff. Eight of us departed Friday at 5:00 a.m. and caravaned in two cars due east for seven hours to the Polish border. After clearing border control, we had an easy half hour drive to Boleslawiec, which is the birthplace of Polish Pottery.

I would like to say that the town was very beautiful (it looked so from the pictures) or that I enjoyed learning about some Polish history, but this was strictly a shopping trip, and in order to maximize our time and visit all 30 some odd stores, we had to keep-a-movin'. Like most women, I like to shop, however there are degrees of shopping endurance that every individual can take. I like to browse quickly and if there's nothing that immediately catches my eye after the first run-through, it's time to move on. That's just not how it was done. They would do a run-through once, then twice, then agonize over every piece on the shelf. I quickly learned that I was a mere amateur at this shopping experience, and they were the professionals who knew what quality to look for, the various patterns, which ones were new, which ones were a good deal and those that were overpriced. As they each already had an extensive collection already, they were searching for certain pieces that would compliment or add to those they had.

Most of the traditional patterns contail cobalt blue, and as I'm not the biggest blue fan, I wanted to find some with brighter colors, which proved to be difficult. After the first dozen or so stores, I did come across a pattern that had orange, green, yellow and turquoise, so I managed to buy some pottery after all.
After a full day two days of looking and shopping and analyzing, I became obsessed. I even dreamed of Polish pottery the first night in Poland, and much to Jon's disappointment, I became a fan of the pottery and have no doubt I'll be returning for another haul. More wonderful than filling my kitchen with new serving ware, though, was the opportunity to get to know some of the squadron ladies (wives of Jon's co-workers) much better. Although it's cliche, I guess a time-old tradition such as shopping really can bring people together. We had some great laughs, great chats and now and a great shopping experience just down the road to always remember.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Croatia Honeymoon

And so it begins...., the story of two people who partook on a wild and romantic adventure on the Adriatic Sea. It was Dalmatia, the southern region of Croatia where the honeymoon began its course.

Our first destination was Split, the ancient city within a city of the palace of the retired emperor, Diocletian. The guy knew how to pick a place to party. As we arrived, the moon broke through night clouds and glinted off marble older than democracy. We wheeled our R2D2 suitcase through winding passageways until by sheer trial and error we happened upon our hotel. Got settled, set out to explore. Picture fields of city ruins, like Greece or Italy, we've all seen them, but until you go to Split, you never get to drink and play on 'em. Each house, cafe and store, are built on the ancient stones of the city. Our first night of the Honeymoon, we sat, drinking our Croatian brews, in the ruins of an ancient temple under the stars.

Early the next morning, we caught an 1.5 hour catamaran to the island of Hvar (pronounced hwarrr!), where we would spend the next three days. After skipping along the Adriatic, we arrived - Port of Hvar. It was on the shuttle ride to the Podstine Hotel, where we first came in contact with some chatty Americans. At the hotel, Jon asked how much the other Americans would tip the driver - they replied, "oh, you speak English?" We checked in post haste and bolted down to the beach. Directly in front of the hotel, there was a shallows of crystal clear Adriatic goodness. Beginning at three feet and quickly dropping to twenty-thirty, the visibility remained the same - absolutely stunning with a clarity revealing all manner of fish, mollusks, crustaceans indigenous to this paradise North. Somehow, our towels ended up next to those dang noisy Americans, who turned out to be Holly and Josh and great companions for the duration of our trip.

Not one for small talk, Jon dove off rocks and explored the seawall while Cat, ever the ambassador (this attribute helps to offset the pirate nature of the former), conversed ashore. Plans were made to go out to Hvar town for dinner that night. The four of us hiked the relaxing twenty minutes to town along the sea. The lights of the town would seem to blink from the swaying of boat masts moored.

Holly led us to a guide-book recommended restaurant that rocked. Dalmatian seafood kicks ass! After a rare downpour, we made our way back to the hotel to get some rest before a day of adventure ahead.

That's right - it's scooterin' time! We rented two scooters and took off on a tour of the island to discover the wonders of Hvar. We were given a map at the front desk of our hotel, however we were all thinking, what in the world do we need a map for? It's an island - how could we possibly get lost? So you would think. We took off after a somewhat rocky start, and made our way across the island to the town of Stari Grad.

We scootered through beautiful fields of lavender and saw spectacular views of the island coast

After making a stop in Stari Grad for lunch, we scooted across the island again to some of the best beaches on Hvar. We took the road that we thought was the designated road on our map,a road indeed by 5th century standards. Once again - how do you get lost on an island? This was off-road scootering at its best dubbed, "the valley of death," and allowed for us to see some of the rustic beauty of Hvar.

Once we arrived to the water, we enjoyed sunbathing on the perfectly pebbly beach. As there are mostly pebble and rocky beaches in Croatia, we all purchased aqua socks to wear. And what do eight aqua socks equal? An octasocktapus!

The beach and crystal clear water were absolutely beautiful and scootering is the only way to see them, unless you're talkin' boat.
After meandering our way back to the town of Hvar, we stopped at the Spanish fortress (that was actually built by Venetians) and had a breathtaking view of Hvar town below.

A long hard day of scooterin' sure does take its toll on one, and a beer at the hotel waterfront was the perfect relaxation tactic.

We met up with Holly and Josh for dinner at our hotel and were impressed with the fabulous service, meal and Croatian wine, Grasevina.

ARRRGGH! We come across a fine ship and set sail for the archipelago of Hvar. After a quick lesson on how to evade boat cops, we cast off and motored our S.S. Minnow along sun-bleached jagged coasts, across light-strewn shallows of Adriatic splendor and an island of old naked people.

Exploration began with a slalom-like course bringing us to a narrow spit where water was mere feet on either side.

We discovered crustaceans and named a hermit crab "Jimmie."

We moored in a hidden cove betrayed only by yacht masts visible by afar and had lunch of cheese and ham.

Back in the minnow we spied a solitary rock island that demanded conquest. Chet Johansenn (Jon) dove from the moving boat and scaled the jagged surface to run across. This was our own private island. Free to roam, explore and cannon-ball off of as long as we wished.

We came, we honeymooned, we conquered.

The 284 HV - finest ship in the fleet.

After a Grasevina toast and partial circumnavigation of the islands, tragedy struck - the rum was gone. On a heroic mission of mercy, we docked in sea urchin bay and Jon ran up to secure beer from the locals. The mission was a success, but came at the cost of a score of urchin stingers lodged in his feet. We also saw a guy in a neon green Borat thong and had to ask ourselves if he'd even seen the movie. Very niiiice!

After a birthday dinner for Cat at the Podstine, we crashed to get up for the early ferry.

The ferry took us from Hvar to Duubrovnik. The picture is of the island of Korcula where we moored briefly.

As Holly and Josh were also traveling to Dubrovnik the same day, we were able to endure the six-hour journey together on the tourist-packed boat.

Dubrovnik was bustling. After a short cab ride to Hotel President, we hit the beach. Having boated, scootered, swam, the next way to explore would be in the air. The picture shows Jon parasailing above our hotel in the distance.

We had an awesome room with a run-way style balcony.

That night, we met up with Holly and Josh downtown, old town Dubrovnik. The summer music festival was rockin', traditional Croatian music reverberated off the marble walls of the city.

We searched out the myriad and labyrinthine passageways of the old walled city.

After a few drinks, Holly turned into Donlonatella Versace calling everyone "stupid peaches." Elton John showed up and she threw a drink at him. (Any SNL fans out there?)

The brilliant idea to rent a car and drive to Montenegro manifested when Holly and Josh showed up in a sporty red V 1.5 Euro car. The border was surprisingly close (under an hour) and surprisingly packed (the Rolling Stones were in town).

Quick facts about Montenegro: the world’s newest nation, declared its independence on June 3, 2006. It is about the size of Connecticut, with a population of 650,000. The country got its name (literally, “black mountain”) from the dark, mountain forests that cover the land. Some 60 percent of the country is more than 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) high, with the tallest peak reaching to 2,522 meters (8,274 feet). It boasts 117 beaches along the Adriatic coast, mountain ski resorts, the medieval city of Kotor, and other cultural sites. The new country uses the euro as its currency and plans to join the European Union.
... and we rocked it!

These pictures are across from Kotor Bay, where we would hang out and bask.

The most incredibly scenic restaurant ever was located on the narrow track of land between an 800 meter mountain ridge and the waters of the Adriatic. Stari Milni (the old mill) had its own fish ponds and waiters wore traditional garb.

For our final night in Croatia, we dicovered a bar named "no nude, no topless," but we went anyway. This bar was located on the rocks outside the Dubrovnik sea wall directly over top the water.

After parting ways with Hosh and Jolly, we caught a Beatles cover band and danced until the last bus leaving from old town.
Our final day was spent walking the 2 km wall around the city. This would be the only historical learning done on the entire trip.

Stay classy, Croatia.