[MAD] Mary Ann & Don

European Vacation 2011 – Our world history tour!

Posted by madkingblog on July 30, 2011

Don and I recently returned from our second trip to Europe together! The two trips were very different in the best ways. The first trip was like a second honeymoon, it was just us and we traveled around the country side and southern France, ate anything that was put in front of us with abandon, haha, and we ended in Paris. It was so totally romantic and just peaceful. THIS summer’s trip was like a whirlwind, 5 countries, full of friends, and like one huge lesson in world history. We just geeked out on history the whole time. It was completely awesome.

We even got a little sample of London, since our non-stop flight from Dallas to Frankfurt was diverted to JFK due to a medical emergency and we begged our way onto a flight leaving that night for Heathrow. Otherwise we would have been rescheduled for the next day missing a full day of our trip. We flew to London (on a nicer plane I might add) and hung out in the swanky and well stocked British Airways lounge (sometimes Don’s excessive work travel pays off) and then took another short flight to Frankfurt, missing only half a day instead of a full day.

Our first stop in Germany was Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Here we met up with five awesome friends. We had dinner at “Hell” and moved on to drinks in a Biergarden! The next morning some of us got up super early and went running. We ran part of a trail the circles the wall of the city and it is kind of foresty in the trees. It was really cool and almost spooky with all the misty fog. Then we went back to our B&B room and took a bath in the old timey tub. It was divine! Then we get downstairs to a traditional european breakfast and I was euphoric, it was a big “welcome back to Europe”. The other highlight of that day was the Night Watchman Tour. Learned so much about the very cool history of this town and how important night watchmen were for a walled city.

The next day we drove with two of our friends MILA, down into Barvaria to tour the Neuschwanstein castle. It was pretty cool but by far the best part of this experience was a one of a kind experience we got by sheer luck. Our tour group was full of these teens that were obviously part of a group and kind of obnoxious. We were all a little annoyed, especially when they kept taking pictures when there were signs posted everywhere not too. When we got to the room of the castle built for operas, the opera hall I think, the tour guide explained how it was built to have perfect harmonics and then she told them (the unruly part of our tour group) that this is where they could sing. Some adults with the group quickly gathered them up and took charge, and they sang BEAUTIFULLY. The room absolutely did have perfect harmonics and most of us were in tears by the end. It was surreal. We just got lucky and no longer minded so much how they had annoyed us before!

We stayed one night at Hotel Muller with a view of the castle which was nice. We also found time to dip our feet in the lake (well Chelle and I did) and drive into Fussen for dinner. Found a beirgarden type place with great food. At the end of the meal they bring this little barrel with a spout to the table. You lean your head back and they pour it into your mouth until you raise your hands. Well, I went first and assumed it was beer (which now I realize makes no sense but whatev) and I let him fill my mouth up (yup, that is literally what she said) and then swallowed it all in one big gulp (again…) and that is when I realized it was NOT beer but Schnapps! Actually, I think I had to ask what liquor it was, I just knew it wasn’t beer. haha. Anyway, our friend Landon let them pour for 16 seconds (which is a LONG time) and he basically OD’d on the taste of Schnapps. We went around after leaving looking everywhere for water or SOMETHING he could drink to get the taste out of his mouth. Haha, good times. Here we go…

Next day was all about driving. We drove from Fussen to Rome via the Stelvio pass. It was a LONG drive but the country side in Germany, Switzerland, and northern Italy is knock your socks off beautiful. Heaven on earth. Just like the Pyrenees in southern France. Wow. And to go via the Stelvio pass we had to take a route that took us on a dirt road at one point. So we were very much off the beaten path, which I always consider a privilege when traveling. At one point a big heard of grazing cows were on the road, all wearing bells, and this was an experience the cannot be described properly with words. So here you go…

So driving was awesome… lots of beautiful countryside! And check this out…

After about 12-14 hours of driving we finally made it to Rome. Our flat in the city was GREAT! Really super cool funky little place in Trastevere (a very old part of the city). We met up with more friends in Rome! Mike and Dez were celebrating their anniversary! The second night in Rome we decided to do the Night Walking Tour from the Rick Steve’s guide book. It was so much fun. Takes you through a bunch of squares or plazas and we stopped in almost every one for either drinks or food and drinks. We threw pennies in the Trevi fountain (to ensure we will return) and we finished at the Spanish Steps. A funny and cool thing about Rome is that they like to hang out on the various steps around the city. This might just be a weekend thing since we were there over the weekend, but everywhere there are big sets of stairs (and there are a lot), they hang out on them and drink into the night. We were hanging out on the steps and Mike disappeared. We figured he went to find a bathroom. We were starting to fall asleep (at least I was) on the steps when he came back with a bottle “Cristal” champagne, haha or so we all at first thought it was Cristal! We passed the bottle until it was gone. And that is how we ended up having champagne with four of our best friends on the Spanish Steps in Rome! The Spanish Steps…

We saw all the main things we wanted to in Rome and we had a particularly awesome tour guide for The Forum. He helped us use the power of numbers to get the best spots on “the balcony”. He conceded that this was rude, but also that Rome is the only place where you can be rude and no one will care, because they all are also! haha. It was good times at the forum. We also saw the Collesium, and of course the Vatican. Our Vatican tour was ok, it got off to a bad start when we got there and couldn’t even figure out where to get in line, so we missed the window for our pre-paid tour. Then we paid for another tour and it was ok, but the guide was kind of a douche that kept telling us about his special privileges in the Vatican and how he could tell us special information about it yet he never really seemed to. Haha. Anyway, it was PACKED but we did get some time in the Sistine Chapel! It is just so massive and overwhelming I couldn’t even appreciate it when I saw it but in retrospect it was quite amazing.

After Rome, we dropped MILA off at their cruise ship and headed to Pompeii. I was SOO excited for this, I’ve been wanting Don to see it so badly ever since I saw it on a work trip back in 2007! It is the only time in my life I’ve felt like I literally stepped back in time. Next best thing to a time machine. The’ve dug up this entire city (well actually some of it is still buried under the current city) from almost 2000 years ago (!!) and you can just walk around it. You can walk on their streets, in their shops, in their houses! It is surreal!! Here you can see a shop counter where they had holes for pots of food they would serve from…

MILA went to Pompeii also a little later as an excursion on their cruise and their tour guide said the Americans didn’t invent fast food, the Italians did! haha.

Don and I didn’t buy a tour but got an unexpected tour guide …

There are several stray dogs that live in the Pompeii ruins and we figured they know where all the best spots are, haha, so we followed our new tour guide for awhile. He was super cute, he would come to a intersection of streets and look one way and then the other like he was really contemplating which direction to take us. Loved it. It was a good day in spite of the nasty cold I had caught somewhere along the way. Luckily I only had one day that it was bad, and that was this day, but I wasn’t letting ANYTHING stop Don from seeing Pompeii, SO friggin cool this place!

We had dinner and stay the night in Naples and then it was off to the French Riviera the next morning! The drive was gorgeous and the towns we drove through on the Italian side of the riviera makes me want to check that side out next time! Wow! But our destination for two nights in Villa Sur Franche wasn’t too shabby…

That picture was from our balcony! Fantastic view. Right on the water. We met MILA in Monte Carlo the next day at the aquarium. We saw each other for about an hour and then they headed back to their ship. They caught the same cold I’d had (probably from me) and this was their worst day. Don and I headed back to Villa Franche and hit the beach. Got in the water too, it was the perfect temperature and crystal clear.

We had another wonderful dinner with a waiter who loved that we were from California, and had to hit the road early the next day for Barcelona. We were in a tunnel entering the city and then took an exit (inside the tunnel!) and it spit us out in the inside of a huge traffic circle. Nuts! We had to go around twice to work our way to the outside to exit the circle. We checked into our strange but cool flat in the gothic quater and met MILA on Las Ramblas. There ship was ported over night so we didn’t have to rush. We decided to head down a side street to find some food and got a little worried when it quickly started looking rough and we passed hookers. HAHA! But then we found a place in a square that looked descent and some other tourist were eating. We ordered Paella and started drinking Sangria. When they brought our food, they brought it in the iron skillets it is cooked in so they had them on wicker baskets type plates. Cool right? A few bites in I see a roach on my basket. hmmm, maybe that was already out here (we were at an outside table) and it just crawled onto my basket… then I see another… “omg guys”… then another and another… from all our baskets. We all backed up and before we knew it the table was crawling with them. [gag] So naturally Don starts trapping them under glasses! LOL! The waiter is all embarrassed and takes the food away and then says “we can make it for you again”. hahahaha! Umm, no thanks, we’ll be leaving. They still charged us for the Sangria! HA! I think when you are served roaches, you shouldn’t have to pay. Call me crazy but it seems reasonable. Whatever, we just wanted OUT of there. And Don is pretty sure on the way back to Las Ramblas a gypsy lady tried to pick pocket him, but he didn’t have anything in his pocket to pick. We went straight for MILA’s ship after that and had dinner in the fancy restaurant. It was great and really cool to see what a cruise ship is like inside. They had a really nice room and good sized balcony, very cool!

The next two days (our last two on the trip) were just awesome. We slept in both days (YES!) and still saw sooo much. We hit the Picasso museum, the Dali museum, the Cathedral, and most importantly Sagrada Familia! This was a dream come true for me and I’m a better person for it. It was the Gaudi I’ve dreamed of seeing for many many years and it was every bit as incredible as I had dreamed and more! The beauty of the inside is awing just to see but we also had the audio tour which when into detail about the architecture and I totally geeked out on it. You must read about it. Guadi was a CRAZY AWESOME architect. It is all inspired by nature. See if you can tell how in this picture…

and this…

We visited the Quatre Gatos both days once for dinner and once for drinks. LOVED this place. It a cool little place that used to be the hangout of Picasso and was also frequented by Gaudi. Landon had actually mentioned it and turned us on to it, and it turned out to be only a few blocks from our hotel. The last night we had a Paella and Sangria dinner on a terrace restaurant above the Dali museum that erased our first night Paella experience. Here is the yummy…

So on our last day, leaving Barcelona, one of it’s fine citizens tried to convince us something was wrong with our rental car tire. I’m guessing see us backing out of an alley where we had obviously made a wrong turn and could turn around, we looked like an easy mark. Anyway I’m not sure what he had planned to do if Don had got out, probably just try to lift his wallet while Don was concentrating on what could be wrong with the tire. But fortunately for us we are not that easy of a mark, and we didn’t get out and just shook our heads at the guy. He finally walked away throwing his hands up like “fine if you don’t want to listen to me”. After he was down the street Don did step out and check the tire just to be sure and it was fine. Then this lady comes over and says “there’s nothing wrong with your car, you have to be careful with the people here”. Apparently. I guess no city can be perfect, so something has to balance out the amazingness of Gaudi and company. =)

If you want to see all the pics, check out http://www.flickr.com/photos/madkings/collections/72157627153104139/

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France Days 10 – 14: Paris! The grande finale!

Posted by madkingblog on March 6, 2010

So on Dec 1st, our 4 year anniversary of meeting, we turned in our rental car, and hopped on a train for Paris. When we got there our fist afternoon/evening was getting settled in our hotel and looking for fondue since that is our traditional dinner for celebrating the day we met. We learned a big lesson right away, it is hard to find fondue in Paris!!

Starting with what Don remembers… I can’t help but find it super cool the differences in what stands out to each of us (i.e. I would not have remembered the ballast tanks)

Don:We get to Paris and check into our hotel. Sounds simple till I fill you in on how we had to carry our luggage up and down 12 flights of stairs in the metro system. Then there was the 8 block walk to the hotel from the metro station. After checking into our hotel and taking a nap we head out and walk past the Eiffel tower headed along the river. I get tired and we jump on the metro and head to the Isle De La Cite. When we get there we find the underground is water tight, there are ballast tanks to retain leaks behind steel walls, extremely cool old technology. We walk around the island and then towards Notre Dame on our search for fondue. We head back across the river to the Latin quarter where we finally find a Swiss fondue restaurant. Its an old meat locker with the actual hanging tracks and built in hooks!  We eat there and their credit card machine would not work, so I played the hero because I wasn’t going to be able to sit there while MA was out getting money and took the metro back to the hotel to get my ATM card.  When I get to the hotel I have the concierge call a taxi that spoke English to take me back to the restaurant via an ATM machine. Finally we paid and left the restaurant at the same time a girl is screaming ‘I’m pissed! they wouldn’t take my card!’ Se la vie.

Like Don explains, this restaurant was a Swiss place and the cheese was strong! I like strong cheese and it still took me the first 10 or 15 minutes to acclimate to the smell before it no longer smelled bad to me. Also, of all the places we could have gone, this restaurant happens to be where Ratatouille is now working…

We didn’t really think to take pictures of our hotel room in Paris (although we took a ton of the tippy top of the eiffel tower that we could see), so we don’t have any of the inside of our room except for this super cool pic Don got of my reflection in the mantle on the door to our “Victor Hugo” room (which coincidentally is one of my favorite authors, although I’m sure that is the case for many haha)…

Our Eiffel Tower view (don’t laugh but we paid a higher room rate for this, I have to admit I was certainly expecting more, but it was still cool to come back to the room each night and see this)…

So the next day, starting with Don first…

Don:We slept in too long! It was raining and sleeping through the rain is our weakness. We ate at the cafe near the hotel, Constant, that had awesome food, we both had a rocket salad with delectably fried shrimp. Then we went to the metro to go to the Arc De Triomphe.  It was closed because a labor strike but it was awesome to see up close and the strike probably prevented a big crowd. We jumped back on the metro to go to the Eiffel tower, the 2 hour line was gone and we were at the top of the tower in about 25 minutes! We took our time up there and took in the view before heading down and back to the hotel to make dinner reservations. Before dinner we walked around the Christmas markets.  We went to dinner at the Laduree resturant and this is literally the longest I have ever waited for food in my life. 2 hours and counting for my main plate and I still had coffee icecream coming after that! They finally explained what happened, a group of 30 people were seated together and they get their food at the same time causing a delay for everyone else. We could see that other people that showed up at the same time were having the same wait. Our main course came soon after they explained and it was really great tasting. MA had a succulent steak and I had a wonderful sole filet. Dessert was iced macaroons for MA and I had icecream.

I LOVED LOVED LOVED the iced Macaroons (I’m not crazy about the non iced ones though) and my steak was great but like Don said, it was the longest wait ever.  Anyway, it was a really cool restaurant on Champs-Elysees which was all decked out for Christmas… gorgeous!

And the Eiffel Tower from the top…

The Eiffel Tower from the other side of the river at night!

On Thur, we first went to the Lovre but it was closed!! So we switched up our plans and headed for Montmarte instead. We went straight for a Dali museum that someone had tipped us off to. It is down a LOT of little side alleys, very tucked away, but Dali is worth any search. We finally found it, and it was so cool, it was mostly his sculptures.  We had lunch at a little place also tucked away in Montmarte and as usual, SO GOOD. Then we hit the Christmas markets for that night buying dinner, Christmas gifts, and souvenirs.  Then we headed to the hotel early for wine and relaxation. We watched TV in French for a while and saw some of the funniest stuff I think we’ve ever seen on TV, we were laughing so hard we were crying at one point.

Below we were looking down on Paris from Montmarte. Notice the foreboding clouds! We got poured on on the way back downtown, but it was cool, we were dressed for it with boots, wool jackets, scarfs, and umbrellas.  We didn’t let it stop us.  And because it drizzled most the evening, the Christmas markets were not as crowded!

Fri, we finally got into the LOVRE and it did not diappoint! I’m not a big museum person, and neither is Don, but the Lovre is in a class all it’s own, it’s AWESOME. I’m posting just a few of the best pics we got below (I’d love to post more, but wordpress makes if far too cumbersome).  This was our last day in Paris.  We hit the Christmas markets again, and then had dinner at Constant, a great little place right by our hotel.

Paris turned out great! It is no southern France, but the urban experience can be great in its own right. My favorite part of the urban experience has always been and continues to be, sitting in little hole in the wall cafes sipping on espresso and just taking in the world around me. Paris is so wonderful for this.

So FINALLY, that was FRANCE!

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France Days 8 & 9: Burgundy

Posted by madkingblog on February 27, 2010

Driving to Burgundy was long, but luckily we had the pastries from the night before when we had thought they were going to be our dinner! haha. We also had some cheese, bread, and marinated olives we had picked up the day before from the Saturday market on our way out of Sarlat… DIVINE! Best olives I’ve ever had hands down, YUM. This was a long drive across the country so we were taking highways most the way and it wasn’t very scenic… until we hit Burgundy!

You know the minute you enter, it turns into beautiful rolling hills of the greenest green I’ve ever seen.  And these quaint cottage style houses start popping up with little trails of smoke coming out of their chimney’s, very quintessential French countryside.  THEN we hit the vineyards and it became quintessential French wine country! It was really awesome and Don kept sleeping, so I kept waking him up because he was missing it! haha.

We finally made it to our B&B, and although it was a very nice place with a great and cozy room, I was disappointed because the description from the website had led me to believe this was a winery.  I had planned this part of the trip to be staying on a vineyard, or at least more in the middle of that scene! Instead the B&B was basically in the suburbs of Dijon. I’ve since went back and looked at the website again and it is REALLY misleading. Anyways, it could be a great area and place to stay IF that  is what you  are looking for, but not at all what we had in mind.

So o’well! We went into Dijon for a wonderful dinner that night and the next day we drove down to Beaune. Killer cute old French city surrounded by vineyards. We went to the Marche Aux Vins which is an old church with a wine tasting tour that starts in the cellars and then leads back up to the main level. It is self led, which is awesome and there were SO many wines, which means by the end it was hard to taste the difference haha. We ended buying a case to ship home. It FINALLY arrived here at home months after us! We’ve only had one bottle so far but it was wonderful and did not disappoint.

Each “tasting” was at a little station set up like this…

And then it led back to the main level…

A few MAGNUM bottles…

And back outside strolling around Beaune…

That was pretty much it for Burgundy… We had dinner in Dijon again that night and again it was wonderful (I’m convinced there is no such thing as a bad meal in France). Right after we got back I had Don write down some stuff he remembered and about this dinner he writes… “for dinner we went to an italian place, I had 5 fromage raviolo and Mary Ann had the best Lasagna evar! Then MA gave me half of her lasagna because she loves me soooo muuuuch and she was full.” LOL, what a cutie.

The next day we turned in our rental car and jumped on a train to Paris!!

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France Day 7: Crazy Creepy Castle Night!

Posted by madkingblog on February 21, 2010

Before I begin the story of our crazy and creepy night in a castle, let me say that Chateau de Tennessus is an AWESOME B&B.  It is a true castle with a mote, drawbridge, towers, the whole nine yards, it is fantastic… and a family bought it and restored it making it into a B&B so that others could share in the experience of staying in a castle! Our friends Michelle and Aaron stayed there in September and had a wonderful time!

So for us, several conditions came together in just the wrong way but it made for a memorable night! Not the kind of memorable night we expected but a memorable night none the less!

So this story actually begins a few days before we left for France when I got an email for the host, who speaks English (in fact I think he is English), saying that he needed to go out of town on our arrival date but that he had a friend who would be there to get us settled, and then would come back in the morning. I was kind of disappointed that we wouldn’t meet the host family, but , OK, he had us covered, that should be fine.

So on the Saturday that we drove to the castle, we left Sarlat and it was five hours going north… we were leaving beautiful southern France =( and by the time we arrived at the castle it was raining and windy and getting dark. We ran inside with our things and the stand-in hosts speaks NO English, and I couldn’t understand any of her French. I’m not, by any means, fluent but I know enough to get the general idea of what someone is saying and usually piece together an answer. I couldn’t figure out anything she was saying… at this point I was really regretting not spending more time on French lessons before our trip. She showed us around and gestured enough for us to get the idea, haha. We go our big key to the castle and she showed us to our room. So coool.

While we were getting settled into our room, our stand-in host was standing in the doorway saying something and the lights went out! PITCH BLACK! And she says “UUUHHH NOOOO”… LOL!!  Not a good sign! Luckily I remembered where I had laid my keys and I have an LED light on my key chain so I used it to guide us all down the spiral staircase and she led us to one far side of the castle where the breaker box was located. When we got the lights back on my first thought was that she is leaving and locking this side of the castle so what are we supposed to do if the lights go out again!  Oh well. Not much we can do considering I don’t know French well enough to express my concern. So thank goodness, another couple showed up, we weren’t going to be totally alone!

So we head into town for dinner, and find out that in a small French town you pretty much MUST have reservations at any type of restaurant… hell, even the pizzeria type place couldn’t take us without one.  We went to several places and keep getting turned away. We were giving up and stopped at a bakery and bought pastries, and we really thought we were going to have to eat them for dinner.  Then, on a whim, we tried one last place, a Middle Eastern/Moroccan type place.  Of course the first thing the host asked was if we had a reservation and we said no but we must have looked pathetic enough because he looked around and then gave us a little table near the back. We were SO thankful. Then we got our food and were even MORE thankful, the food was amazing! Which is par in France! So dinner turned out well, we had a great meal in a cozy restaurant and the host kept coming over to tease and talk with us. I even showed him how to use his hand-held credit card swiping machine hahaha. He was trying to swipe the corner of the card I kid you not.  =)

So we finally made it back to the castle and the other couple was out so it was just Don and I for awhile. We couldn’t make a fire because the wind was blowing too hard, which sucked because that was one the things I was most looking forward to about our castle stay.  We ran around the room taking  some pictures and explored the castle a bit.

Eventually, we heard the other couple come in and then, the inevitable, the lights went out again!  The couple above sounded kind of distressed and they hadn’t been there when it happened earlier… I wanted to go check on them, but Don was like, well, we don’t need lights to sleep, lets do that. haha. He was already falling asleep but I could still hear the couple above and it sounded like that might be trying to figure out what to do, so I got up and used my LED to go up the spiral stone stair case, and I could only see directly where I was shining the light, other wise, pitch black around me. I made it up to the couples room above us to see if they needed some light to find candles or something, but I could see light under their door so I guess they were ok.  I went back to our room and cozied up with Don and tried to get some sleep.  The wind was literally howling outside the windows and making a buffeting sound over the fire place flute. There were SO many noises! I convinced myself that any creaking was the couple above walking around. But also, water was dripping into the fireplace from the rain and then I swear at one point there was a drip onto the canopy of our bed! WEIRD!  I’ve never been able to figure that out! I finally feel asleep at some point to this cacophony of sounds, and I later wake up when Don grabs the LED light and starts shining it around the room.  You can only see a small portion of this huge room at a time with the little LED. He had woke up and heard what sounded like shuffling feet in the room!  UGH! And he could see some light out the window and there should have been none since there was only fields that direction. CREEPY.

No fire, no lights, we had to used our key chain to even navigate to the bathroom and it was SO cold. So needless to say we had a really uncomfortable night in so many ways and just wanted it to be OVER with. I knew when our stand in host was back in the morning because the lights came back on! I hope she told the host about the lights going out because if stuff like that is going to happen, guests should not be left alone in the castle. I’m sure it would have been a COMPLETELY different experience if someone had been there that we knew we could go to when there was a problem. It would have also been a different experience if we could have had a cozy fire or something, but I guess there isn’t much anyone can do about the wind! We did have a nice breakfast in the morning and stopped to take more pictures of the castle in the daylight.

I had JUST pulled the car up to get Don who was still snapping pictures when it started to pour down again… so he jumped in and we headed for Burgundy… unfortunately relieved to be leaving. O’well, maybe one day we’ll visit the castle again on better terms.  All in all, it was quite the experience.

After the castle we stayed in Dijon for 2 nights and then Paris for 4… and it is taking me so long to get to these blogs (and WordPress and Flickr are ridiculously cumbersome) that I’m just doing two more. One for Burgundy and one for Paris with a quick summary of our four days and some “best of” pics.  That way I might actually get to blog about some things that have happened SINCE France, like our birthdays or the awesome Jazz concert for Valentines. =)

SOOO, next up, Burgundy!  Let’s see how long it takes me to get to that!

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