Tag: Europe

Disneyland Paris without Kids: A Review

Disneyland Paris without Kids: A Review

When I booked my solo trip to France, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to go to Disneyland Paris or not. I last set foot on any Disney property over ten years ago, and going to Disneyland Paris without kids seemed weird.

Okay, that’s an understatement. It actually seemed a little sad/pathetic. But since the trip was intended to help me figure out if solo travel was right for me, I decided to go anyway.

Getting There

Fortunately, taking the train from the heart of Paris to the Disney properties couldn’t be easier.

Line A of the RER system of express trains ends at Marne-la-Vallee station, right next to the front gates of Disneyland Paris. Not staying near an RER station? Just hop on the Metro and transfer at the most convenient stop. From most locations in Paris, the journey to Euro Disney will take about 40 minutes.

I should note that the Marne-la-Vallee station is in Zone 5, whereas most central Paris Metro locations are in zones 1 and 2. Make sure your rail pass ticket will cover transportation to Zone 5. The cost should only be about 8 Euros.

Bienvenue!

Upon entering Disneyland Paris, I got that giddy, like-a-child-again feeling. Because Disneyland Paris without kids is still Disneyland, right? So much to do, so much to see… so many wonderful details to take in!

Unfortunately, my enthusiasm was short lived. Now, I don’t know if the standards at Disneyland Paris are different than they are at other Disney parks… and maybe I only noticed because I didn’t have children with me to focus on… but when I saw this, it disappointed me more than it would have someplace else:

Disneyland Paris without kids - not watching kids means you're free to notice some rather disappointing characteristics of the park.

Chipped paint and damaged wood. Anyplace else, not that big a deal, but Disney has a reputation for keeping its parks pristine. From daily after-hours power washing of Main Street to placing trash cans every 30 feet, their attention to the physical appearance of their properties is near legendary. Walking in, visitors should feel like it’s a brand new place, open for the first time. Disney’s US parks, I later learned, have paint touch ups done every day.

Every.

Day.

Apparently that’s not the case with Disneyland Paris.

(DISCLAIMER: I fully realize that I sound like a whiny, first world, privileged brat. I hate it as much as you do. But as I said, if this was anyplace other than a Disney park, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it. Disneyworld in Orlando has set the bar very, very high!)

The Castle

As with most Disney parks, the castle – in this case, Sleeping Beauty’s castle – was front and center, dominating the park landscape once you enter.

Disneyland Paris without kids - who doesn't love a fanciful  castle?

It was so pretty! And I loved that the trees are trimmed to match the trees in the 1959 animated feature film, Sleeping Beauty. After snapping far more pictures than I actually needed, I entered the castle to look around. Displays, tapestries, and stained glass told the story of the ill-fated princess cursed to sleep until she received a kiss from her prince.

Disneyland Paris without kids - Sleeping Beauty's castle knight
Remember, the entire castle was placed under Maleficient’s sleeping curse. This sleeping knight stood guard in one of the castle’s displays.
Disneyland Paris without kids - take in the story of Sleeping Beauty in the castle

The “Secret” of the Castle

Friends, I could have written this entire article about the following feature of the castle. I could have billed it as “The Secret Attraction at Disneyland Paris that You MUST See!” like so many other bloggers have done. But the truth remains that, while it’s a really cool feature, it is not a secret and there is far more at the park to see than just this one thing. That being said, it is pretty amazing.

Are you ready for it?

Yes, there is a huge animatronic dragon lurking in the shadows beneath Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Disneyland Paris! By far the coolest part of the whole park, IMHO.

Disneyland Paris without Kids - grown ups will surely love the dragon beneath the castle!

The largest animatronic figure ever built when the park opened in April 1992, this dragon measures a whopping 89 feet long from head to tail.

To find the dragon when you visit, just go off to the left hand side of the ramp leading to the castle entrance. You will see a sign with Maleficent-style horns that says “La Tanière du Dragon.” Enter the dark cave and you will soon see this ferocious creature, growling and puffing smoke.

Pirates of the Caribbean

High on my list of must-see attractions at Disneyland Paris was Pirates of the Caribbean. I love pirates, I love the Disney movies that stemmed from the popular ride, and I love the ride at Disneyworld in Orlando.

The exterior of this attraction at Disneyland Paris was nothing less than stunning:

Disneyland Paris without kids - Pirates of the Caribbean

The line for this ride was surprisingly short, although I was there on a Friday in early April, so it was not at the height of the busy season. It was pretty much the same as the one in Florida, with one notable exception:

Jack Sparrow was singing in French! I could make out an occasional “yo ho,” but I had no idea what the rest of it was.

Aladdin’s Enchanted Passage

After the pirates, I explored Le Passage Enchanté d’Aladdin, which was unbelievably disappointing. Essentially, it consisted of shop windows (minus the shops) with dioramas depicting scenes from the animated Aladdin movie.

Disneyland Paris without kids - the Aladdin attraction is decidedly unremarkable.

Star Tours

As I made my way to Discoveryland, there was one attraction that I knew I had to check out. It was Star Tours: The Adventure Continues. I got giddy as soon as I saw the X-wing fighter.

The queuing area simulates a bustling spaceport. Eventually you see C-3PO tinkering away on a Starspeeder 1000, projection screens and scanners all around him. When we boarded the ride, we received strict instructions to buckle up and stow any loose items in the compartment beneath our seats. The storyline for the ride is that as you prepare for lift-off, a series of mishaps unwittingly causes your starship to launch and C-3PO to take control.

It was pretty exciting! But before we could get to the point where the transport is intercepted by Imperial forces, the ride stopped abruptly and we were told to disembark. There had been a real life malfunction that required us to wait for the next round of boarding. At which point we started over. This time, instead of stopping the ride, C-3PO entered hyperspace and propelled us on “an unpredictable, frantic adventure to the farthest reaches of the galaxy and back.”

The ride was essentially like a 4D movie. The seats move as you go hurtling through space. You feel every movement and sensation that you would feel if it were happening in reality. It was fun. (And honestly, kind of a bonus that I got to do it one and a half times but only had to queue once!)

Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast

I had so much fun with my family on the Toy Story Midway Mania ride in Disneyworld Orlando! I couldn’t wait to see how the Disneyland Paris version compared.

Disneyland Paris without Kids - Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast

The queueing area was not as fun as the one in Orlando (which actually makes you feel like you’re a toy, surrounded by other toys). It was definitely more focused on Buzz Lightyear/space and less on the entire Toy Story cast of characters. Once I got through the line and got seated, I picked up my laser blaster, and prepared to zap some stuff.

Disneyland Paris without kids - Buzz Lightyear laser blast

And then we took off. Here’s the beginning of the ride, before the action really started.

As you can see, the ride included plenty of black light effects. I was zap-zap-zapping away when all of a sudden, Emperor Zurg showed up to attack!

Disneyland Paris without kids - Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast

He actually startled me a little – and he’s quite a big figure! All in all, the ride was fun, even for someone who was traveling solo and visiting Disneyland Paris without kids.

After that, I thought about going on It’s a Small World. But there was a line. A loooong line. And ultimately I decided that I didn’t want to wait that long for a ride that was more or less the same as one I’d already been on at least twice.

Bottom line: Is it a good use of time & money to visit Disneyland Paris without kids?

By this point in the day, I’d had enough of being at Disneyland Paris without kids. A big part of the fun in going to a Disney park is sharing the experience with other people. Being there by myself just felt kind of wrong. Now, if Hubs or a friend had been with me, I’m certain I would have enjoyed it more.

But, as with most things, your mileage may vary.

Disneyland Paris without kids - pinterest graphic
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Paris’ Church of Saint Sulpice

Paris’ Church of Saint Sulpice

When I went to Paris earlier this year, I stayed in the most amazing Airbnb. It was super small and stuck up on the top floor of a large building with an open courtyard. Normally, it was not a place I would have chosen. But when I discovered that the tiny little apartment had a view of the Eiffel Tower, I booked it almost immediately. Because, my friends, if you are going to Paris, you might as well stay someplace that reminds you you’re in Paris every time you glance toward the window.

View of the Church of Saint Sulpice and the Eiffel Tower from my Airbnb in Paris

*sigh*

Okay, back to business. When I gazed out the window at the Eiffel Tower, I couldn’t help but notice the church off to the right with the two round towers. I consulted the map, determined that I had a great view of the Church of Saint Sulpice, and decided to check it out. I was glad I did, and I’ll tell you why you should visit the church when you’re in Paris.

The History

A church has existed on the site since the 13th century, and construction began on the present building in 1646. If you’re into architecture, the Church of Saint Sulpice has a lot to offer: concave walls, Corinthian columns, pilasters, balustrades, double colonnade, loggia, Ionic order, and a bunch of other features about which, sadly, I have no clue.

At one time, there was a solid-silver statue by Edmé Bouchardon. Cast from silverware donated by parishioners, it was known as “Our Lady of the Old Tableware”. Sadly, it disappeared during the French Revolution. However, a breathtaking white marble sculpture of Mary by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle replaced it:

By Selbymay – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

During the French Revolution (1789-1799), Robespierre established the Cult of the Supreme Being during the Revolution as the new state religion, replacing Catholicism. At that time, the Church of Saint Sulpice became a place of worship for The Supreme Being. A sign at the church entrance said “Le Peuple Français Reconnoit L’Etre Suprême Et L’Immortalité de L’Âme”’ (“The French people recognize the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul”).

The Art

Churches contain some of the most beautiful art in the world, and Saint Sulpice is no exception. It proudly displays not one, but three original murals by Eugene Delacroix.

A mural by French Romantic artist Eugene Delacroix at the Church of Saint Sulpice.

Eugene Delacroix, widely regarded as the leader of the French Romantic school of art, has three paintings in the Church of Saint Sulpice: The Expulsion of Heliodorus, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, and Saint Michael Vanquishing the Demon. The first two are murals that are over 23 feet high, and the third is a ceiling mural that stretches 16 feet across.

The thing that struck me most about Delacroix’s paintings was that they were full of movement. This was especially the case with The Expulsion of Heliodorus:

The Expulsion of Heliodorus by Eugene Delacroix, one of three murals by the artist at the Church of Saint Sulpice.
The Expulsion of Heliodorus by Eugene Delacroix

Figures tumble down toward the bottom of the frame. Others are caught with a weapon in their hand mid-swing. An urn is toppling over, and the horse is rearing back on his hind legs. Chaos erupts from every brushstroke. The story depicted here comes from the Catholic Bible, in the book of 2 Maccabees. In reading it, you can see how vividly Delacroix captured the action:

But Heliodorus carried on with what had been decided. When he and his spearmen approached the treasury, however, the ruler of all spirits and all authority made an awesome display, so that all those daring to come with Heliodorus fainted, terrified and awestruck by God’s power. A horse appeared to them with a fearsome rider and decked out with a beautiful saddle. While running furiously, the horse attacked Heliodorus with its front hooves. The rider appeared to be clothed in full body armor made of gold. Two young men also appeared before him—unmatched in bodily strength, of superb beauty, and with magnificent robes. They stood on either side of Heliodorus and beat him continuously with many blows.

2 Maccabees 3: 23-26, CEB

The other mural, directly across from the Heliodorus mural, depicts a semi-violent scene from Genesis, wherein Jacob wrestles with an angel.

Jacob Wrestling with an angel, a mural by Eugene Delacroix inside the Church of Saint Sulpice.
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Eugene Delacroix.
Note the French flag in the lower right corner.

This painting captures the pivotal moment in the Book of Genesis when Jacob’s receives a new name. No longer known as Jacob, from that moment forward he is Israel, which means “God contends”.

I loved the detail of the beautiful sculpture atop the tomb of Jean-Baptiste Languet de Gergy:

The tomb of Jean-Baptiste Languet de Gergy, a priest at the Church of Saint Sulpice in Paris.

It was under Languet de Gergy’s tenure as priest at the Church of Saint Sulpice that the gnomon (see below) was built. He is the central figure of the sculpture, with death behind him and an angel before him.

The Gnomon

By definition, a gnomon is the part of a sundial that casts a shadow. The gnomon of Saint Sulpice was constructed to establish the exact astronomical time. Why? In order to ring the bells at the most appropriate time of day. This astronomical device consists of three parts that work together. The first: a brass line set in the marble floor of the church, oriented along the north-south axis.

Second: a small round opening in the southern stained-glass window of the transept. The opening is about 75 feet up from the floor. Sunlight shines through that opening and creates a circle of light on the floor. At noon each day, that circle of light crosses the brass meridian line in the floor.

Third: an obelisk, illuminated near its top when the sun is at its lowest at midday.

The obelisk at the church of Saint Sulpice

If the obelisk did not exist, the sunlight would hit an area about 60 feet beyond the wall of the church.

As an aside, you may notice in the photo above that there is a large rectangular area on the right side of the obelisk’s inscription that appears damaged. It originally made reference to the King and his ministers. The revolutionaries removed that part of the inscription during the French Revoluton.

Claims to Fame

Some random bits of trivia about the Church of Saint Sulpice:

  • It is the second-largest church in all of Paris. Only Notre Dame Cathedral is bigger.
  • The two towers of the church do not match. The north tower was replaced in 1780 but due to the French Revolution, the south tower was never replaced.
  • The Marquis de Sade (from whom we get the word sadism) was baptized in the Church of Saint Sulpice.
  • Author Victor Hugo (Les Miserables) married his wife in the church.
  • The church’s Great Organ is legendary. It has 102 stops. I gather that this is a big deal; however, I know as much about organs as I do about architecture.
  • Then there’s that bestseller…

The Da Vinci Code Connection

The church of Saint Sulpice was featured in Dan Brown's bestselling novel, The DaVinci Code.

In Dan Brown’s best-selling novel, The DaVinci Code, the Church of Saint Sulpice was one of the key plot locations. In the novel, Brown refers to the gnomon of Saint Sulpice as “a vestige of the pagan temple that had once stood on this very spot,” although there is no evidence to support this. He also indicates that the meridian line running through Saint Sulpice is the Paris Meridian (which is actually about 2 kilometers away, at the Paris Observatory).

The novel misrepresented the Church of Saint Sulpice to such an extent that when Ron Howard wanted to use the church as a filming location for The DaVinci Code movie, the Archdiocese refused to allow it. Further, the church has had to serve as fact checker for fans of the book who have come to see the church in person. They display the following note:

Contrary to fanciful allegations in a recent best-selling novel, this [the line in the floor] is not a vestige of a pagan temple. No such temple ever existed in this place. It was never called a “Rose-Line”. It does not coincide with the meridian traced through the middle of the Paris Observatory, which serves as a reference for maps…. Please also note that the letters P and S in the small round windows at both ends of the transept refer to Peter and Sulpice, the patron saints of the church, and not an imaginary “Priory of Sion”.

— sign posted at the Church of Saint Sulpice

In the News

Oddly enough, while the Cathedral of Notre Dame caught fire a week after I left Paris, the Church of Saint Sulpice caught fire two weeks before I arrived. Some of the areas were not accessible to me, but at the time I did not know why. Other than some items oddly placed, like the chairs up against the gnomon in the photo above, I saw no evidence of a fire when I visited.

A stop at the Church of Saint Sulpice is a quick and easy addition to any itinerary, and it’s definitely worth a stop in between other destinations. When you’ve finished exploring the inside of the Church, be sure to take in the wonderful view and the gorgeous fountain in the plaza just outside.

Header image source: By Mbzt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Church-of-Saint-Sulpice-Pinterest-graphic
Can’t visit Notre Dame while it undergoes repairs? Check out the Church of Saint Sulpice, Paris’ second largest cathedral.
The Paris Deportation Memorial: Dark Side of the City’s History

The Paris Deportation Memorial: Dark Side of the City’s History

At the eastern tip of Ile de la Cite, just behind Notre Dame Cathedral, the overlooked Paris Deportation Memorial honors some 200,000 of France’s victims from World War II. This memorial is not for the soldiers, however, but other casualties of that war. It honors the men, women and children who were arrested, rounded up like cattle, and sent out of Paris to Nazi death camps.

The History

France’s role in WWII was a complicated one. What follows is undoubtedly an over-simplification. My goal is not to bore you with too many details, but provide some basic background information.

In 1939, France had invaded Germany, but by May/June of 1940, Germany had defeated France and its Benelux neighbors (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg). To make matters worse, Italy had also invaded France from the south. The French had little choice but to seek peace.

Hitler carried a grudge over the way WWI had ended so poorly for Germany. If the French wanted peace, it would be only on his terms. He wanted to have an armistice (truce) signing with the French in the same exact place where his country conceded defeat to the Allies at the end of WWI. Needless to say, he wasn’t feeling particularly generous toward the French. One witness on that day reportedly said of Hitler, “I have seen that face many times at the great moments of his life. But today! It is afire with scorn, anger, hate, revenge, triumph.”

Among the terms of the Armistice of 1940: the Germans would occupy almost two-thirds of France (at France’s expense). Any German national who had sought asylum in France would be turned over for deportation to a concentration camp. And no French soldiers who were prisoners of war would be released under the armistice. As a result, one million of them spent the next five years in German POW camps.

The Deporation

Beginning in 1942, Jews in France faced deportation. Tragically, the French police actually aided in the effort to take these families out of their homes and turn them over to Nazi authorities. (Hard to imagine? I highly recommend a novel set in Paris during this time period: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay.)

In all, around 200,000 people were deported from France and sent to 15 different Nazi death camps. I learned that the term “death camp” covers different places: concentration camps, special camps of the SS, killing centers, internment camps, regroupment camps for deportation, retaliation camps for prisoners of war, etc.

I also learned that it wasn’t just Jews who were deported – of the 200,000 roughly 76,000 were Jews. Sadly, 11,000 of those were children. Each prisoner sent to a death camp wore a blue and white striped uniform with a special insignia – a colored triangle patch – to indicate his offense. Political prisoners wore a red triangle, Gypsies brown, homosexuals pink, Jehovah’s Witnesses purple, and criminals green. Jews were additionally identified by a yellow triangle, sometimes combined with another one.

Explanation of prisoners' insignia at the Paris Deportation Memorial.

The Design

Built in the location of a former morgue, the Paris Deportation Memorial is, fittingly, underground. I found it cold, impersonal, cramped, and dark. Which is exactly as it should be, given what it represents. Quite the contrast after strolling past Notre Dame Cathedral and taking in views of the Seine River.

Approaching the memorial from the outside, you can’t help but notice that the lettering declaring its purpose is crude and harsh, all straight lines. It almost looks as if the detainees had carved the letters and numbers into the stone themselves.

Entering through a narrow stone walkway that leads down below the ground, you approach one of the memorial’s few open spaces.

The Paris Deportation Memorial - with a window to the Seine.

Overall, the memorial is shaped like the prow of a ship. Gazing out at the Seine River through the barred window, you can easily feel like a prisoner. Just imagine having to leave all that you know behind for such a grim future.

The Paris Deportation Memorial

From the open area shown above, you pass through a narrow, almost claustrophobia-inducing passage to explore the inner, underground areas of the memorial.

A plaque on the floor of the underground chamber bears the inscription: “They descended into the mouth of the earth and they did not return.”

Inside the memorial crypt lies the Tomb of the Unknown Deportee. The remains placed in the tomb are those of an individual who died in the Neustadt concentration camp. Pebbles line a long corridor known as the Hall of Remembrance to represent the Jewish tradition of placing a stone on the grave of a loved one.

One area had a concrete wall with fifteen triangular niches cut into it. Each triangle bore the name of a death camp to which French citizens had been deported.

triangular markers with the Nazi death camp names at the Paris Deportation Memorial.

Each triangle contains soil and the ashes of the victims from the corresponding camp. Elsewhere, a map of France showed the total number of people deported from each region:

A map of France shows the numbers of people sent to Nazi death camps in each region - Paris Deportation Memorial.

In conclusion

I have often written about places that are not enjoyable to see, but that I feel should be seen, such as the 9/11 Museum & Memorial in New York City. As a history geek, I have a keen appreciation for the adage “Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it.” I encourage you, if you are in Paris, to take an hour or so to visit this stunning memorial.

Paris Deportation Memorial pinnable image

Art, Transformed

Art, Transformed

I was only two weeks away from my first solo trip to Paris when I stumbled across an online mention of an immersive art experience called Atelier des Lumieres (Workshop of Lights). From what I could gather, it was some sort of show featuring the art of Vincent Van Gogh.

I’m not a huge fan of Van Gogh, but I appreciate his “Starry Night” and “Sunflowers” as much as the next person. I’ve even seen a couple of his works in person. So I really didn’t get too excited about this art thing. After all, I had set aside an entire day for the Louvre… how could this possibly compare?

But then I kept seeing rave reviews about Atelier des Lumieres and FOMO kicked in. If that many people liked it, I reasoned, then surely I should go see it. You know, for the blog. So I ponied up the $16 or so and made my reservation. (As an aside, I’d like to remind you that I pay for all of my own travels. In the event that I am offered a complimentary admission/lodging/meal when traveling, I will disclose that up front.)

So… what is this art thingy, anyway?

In all of the rave reviews that I saw, not once did I find someone who could really explain what the Atelier des Lumieres experience was, exactly. And, believe me, I looked! So now I find myself in the same unenviable position as those who have reviewed it… trying to put into words something that, for the most part, defies description.

My goal here is to give you a realistic expectation of what the experience is like and to encourage you to check it out if you are in Paris. It truly is a phenomenal, unique experience.

The Immersive Art Experience

Upon arrival, you enter the lobby of the building, which is bustling with activity. You may have to wait a few moments, as they only allow guests to enter in between shows. Then, when the time is right, you will pass through a doorway into a very large, open, and dark space.

Take a moment for your eyes to adjust, and (if you want) look for a place to sit. There aren’t a lot of seating options, and if you really want to sit during the show, you may have to just find a spot on the floor. However, don’t despair if you can’t snag a seat right away. Most people will move around during the show, vacating their seats at some point.

As the show begins, you will see works of art displayed on the walls and floors while music plays. You won’t see dust particles swirling in a beam of light from a projector. You won’t see shadows cast by objects that have come between the image source and the wall. But thankfully, you will be too mesmerized to think about where the images are coming from, or how they are displayed so seamlessly. That’s something that you will ponder afterward.

Act 1: Van Gogh, Starry Night

Rather than keep the big name artist until the end, Atelier des Lumieres starts their show with the works of Vincent Van Gogh.

It begins with music, loud enough to keep you from being distracted by the sounds of others’ conversation, but not uncomfortably loud. The songs are about as varied as you can imagine. Some were fast-paced, some slow; some in English, some in (I assume) French; some relatively modern and others from decades past.

The pictures begin to appear, larger than life, on the walls and the floors. One of the first images I saw was this haunting self-portrait of Van Gogh, painted in 1889. Seeing it in a gallery is one thing. Seeing it larger than life in front of you, eyes fixed on you, is quite another.

There are a couple of things I’d like to point out about this picture. First, notice the scale of the space in comparison to the two people who walked into the frame. Second, as previously mentioned, the art was projected not just on the walls, but also on the floor. Third, the round-ish wall on the right of the picture has a completely different image, which is why it’s best if you don’t stay in just one spot to enjoy this immersive art experience.

As I mentioned, I appreciate Van Gogh’s works, like his Sunflowers, which I saw at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And while I tend to be the old school purist who says things like, ” Nothing can compare to standing in front of it and seeing it with your own eyes,” I would have been unequivocally wrong in this case. I saw an Gogh’s sunflowers in a while new light:

Sunflowers by Van Gogh at Atelier des Lumieres in Paris

Or perhaps you prefer irises to sunflowers?

The colors are intense. Music heightens the mood. The size and scale of the art is nearly overwhelming. Put all that together and you have a completely immersive art experience like no other. But as if that weren’t enough, Atelier des Lumieres adds animation to the mix:

The pictures come to life before your eyes! Birds fly, waves move, raindrops fall. It feels as though you are not looking at a painting, but rather standing inside it!

The Van Gogh portion of the experience ends with the soulful sounds of the 1965 hit, “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” by the Animals. It couldn’t have been more appropriate for a man who struggled with mental illness for most of his life. The final image of Act 1 was simply the artist’s signature.

Vincent Van Gogh's signature, the final image of the Starry Night portion of Atelier des Lumieres' immersive art experience.

Act 2: Dreamed Japan, Images of the Floating World

The next act took us from 19th century Europe to ancient Japan. It started with images of nighttime in a forest, with fireflies illuminating the space. Then kimono-clad figures appeared, gradually dissolving into the night.

We left the forest and traveled underwater, entertained by all sorts of aquatic life. They floated and swam past us, and seemed to watch us every bit as intently as we were watching them.

The scene transformed, and suddenly we were standing inside a shoji – a Japanese structure with paper walls. Two women were there, a teapot and cups on the floor by their feet.

Ancient Japanese warriors also appeared on the walls. Their facial expressions cracked me up, because in some cases it seemed as though they were scowling at the spectators.

Two of Japan’s most iconic cultural symbols came to life through the magical animation of Atelier des Lumieres. First, the ornately decorated hand fans, opening and closing in graceful sweeps of motion:

Second, the beautifully illuminated paper lanterns that float up into the night sky at a lantern festival.

Act 3: Verse

“Verse,” presumably short for Universe, is a piece created specifically for the Atelier des Lumieres. Bursts of light against a black background make you feel like you’re floating through space.

In all honesty, I didn’t like this segment of the immersive art experience as much as I did the other two. I didn’t even take any pictures. For me, the appeal of the Atelier des Lumieres is primarily seeing familiar things in a brand new way. The art showcased in Verse was not familiar to me, and seemed to be more of a movie than an experience. Which is not to say that it wasn’t well done or beautiful to look at. It simply lacked the excitement that the other two possessed.

Bottom Line

By all means, if you are in Paris, go see the Atelier des Lumieres. It’s an amazing, completely immersive art experience like nothing else. I highly recommend it for anyone!

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Where to Get the Best View of Paris

Where to Get the Best View of Paris

Ah, Paris… The city of lights, love, and the iconic Eiffel Tower. Seven million people visit the Eiffel Tower each year to enjoy what they believe is the best view of Paris. But is it really? Or could they get a better view somewhere else?

The Iconic Tower

The Eiffel Tower is almost synonymous with Paris. Tell someone that you went to Paris and their first question will not be about the Louvre, or about Versailles, or the Arc de Triomphe. It will undoubtedly be, “Did you go to the top of the Eiffel Tower?”

This iconic landmark was constructed in 1889 and was the tallest building in the world for over forty years. (It lost the title to New York’s Chrysler Building in 1930.)

Controversy surrounded the structure almost from the beginning. Parisians banded together and sent a petition to the Minister of Works calling for and end to the Tower’s construction. The petition referred to the Eiffel Tower as called useless, monstrous, ridiculous, and barbaric (to name just a few undesirable adjectives). Such drama!

Gustave Eiffel, who apparently also had a flair for the dramatic, responded by comparing his tower to the Pyramids of Egypt. In part, he said, “My tower will be the tallest edifice ever erected by man. Will it not also be grandiose in its way? And why would something admirable in Egypt become hideous and ridiculous in Paris?”

Fortunately for Monsieur Eiffel (and us), the petition had no effect on the tower construction, which had already begun. By completion of the Tower, some of those who had fought against it came around to appreciating it. Others, like author Guy de Maupassant, remained opposed to the structure. Legend has it that de Maupassant ate lunch in the Eiffel Tower every day because it was the only place in Paris where the Tower was not visible.

Facts & Figures

I found these factoids very interesting. You never know when you might need this info for a trivia game!

  • The bolts that hold the four bases of the tower to the ground measured 4 inches in diameter and were 25 feet long.
  • Horse drawn carriages delivered finished parts of the structure from the factory to the building site.
  • The tower is comprised of 18,038 pieces that are joined together with 2.5 million rivets.
  • The planning office produced 1,700 general drawings and 3,629 detailed drawings of the structure’s 18,000+ parts.
  • During the construction, French tabloids printed articles with headlines such as “Eiffel Suicide!” and “Gustave Eiffel Has Gone Mad: He Has Been Confined in an Asylum!”
  • If you have a fear of elevators, you will need to climb 1,710 steps to reach the top of the Tower.
  • The guest book for the Tower includes a note signed by Thomas Edison.
  • The permit to build the Tower stated that it would only stand for 20 years. It was supposed to be torn down in 1909. Thankfully, the plan changed!
  • A scientist discovered the phenomenon of cosmic rays at the Eiffel Tower in 1910.
  • In 1914 (World War I), the Tower contained a radio transmitter used to jam German radio signals
  • When German forces occupied Paris in the 1940s (World War II), the elevator cables were cut and the Tower was closed to the public. That did not, however, keep German forces from flying a swastika-emblazoned flag from the top of the Tower.
  • In August 1944, Hitler ordered the German governor of Paris to demolish the Tower, as well as the rest of the city. (He disobeyed the order, thank goodness!)
  • The elevators that run between the second and third levels were replaced in 1982 after running for 97 years!
  • The iron parts of the tower weigh 7300 tons (that’s 14.6 million pounds)!
  • To recognize their contributions and achievements, Gustave Eiffel had the names of 72 French scientists, engineers, and mathematicians engraved on the Tower.
  • Painting the Tower to prevent rust takes place every seven years. It takes 60 tons of paint to cover it.

Inside the Eiffel Tower

Visitors to the Eiffel Tower can go to three different levels. The first level is primarily retail, with multiple souvenir shops and restaurants.

The second level offers more souvenir shops and another restaurant. But rather than spend time in those establishments, I was drawn to the view of the sprawling French capital and the Seine River. Boats, cars, people were all going about their business, heading from place A to place B… and I was watching them from my bird’s eye view of the city.

A beautiful view of the Palais de Chaillot, Seine River, and the Place du Trocadero from the second level of the Eiffel Tower.

After I had taken everything in, I headed up to the top floor, also called the summit. There the view was pretty much the same, just smaller due to the added height. Below is the same view as the one above, but taken from the summit.

The summit of the Eiffel Tower offers visitors one of the best views of Paris.

The third level of the Eiffel Tower contains two areas. The lower area, where the elevator drops you off, is fully enclosed and protected from the elements. But you can also climb a flight of stairs to the area above, which is open.

The view from the highest accessible point on the Eiffel Tower.

The Other Tower

Montparnasse Tower, in stark contrast to the graceful lines of Tour Eiffel, is a more modern structure. From a distance it looks like someone modeled the building after a darkly painted rectangular building block. In the photo above, taken from the open air summit of the Eiffel Tower, the large dark rectangle centered in the photo is Montparnasse.

As you can see, the Montparnasse Tower sticks out like a proverbial sore thumb. Designed and built in the late 1960s/early 1970s, Montparnasse was such a controversial building that within two years the city had new zoning regulations. From that point forward, no new construction in the city center could exceed seven storeys in height.

So why bother going to this out-of-place modern office building? For the same reason Guy de Maupassant supposedly ate lunch in the building he detested. If you’re looking out at the city from the building you consider an eyesore, you don’t have to look at it.

The best part of the view from Montparnasse is that it lines up perfectly with the Eiffel Tower. Yes, it’s a great experience to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower and look out at the city. But isn’t it just as exciting to see the cityscape with the Eiffel Tower in it? I thought it was, particularly since I was there as the sun began to set.

Because I was closer to the ground than at Tour Eiffel, I was able to pick out the landmarks more easily. I spotted Luxembourg Gardens and Notre Dame Cathedral, to name just a few.

Best view of Paris: From the Montparnasse Tower, you can see Notre Dame Cathedral, the Church of Saint Sulpice, and the Jardins Luxembourg.

And when I saw several blocks of what appeared to be very small buildings, I realized that it was the Montparnasse Cemetery.

Best view of Paris: From the Montparnasse Tower, you can see all of Montparnasse Cemetery.
Sorry for the crazy camera tilt. I was trying to make sure I got all of it in the frame.

Comparing Pommes to Pommes

So, how do these two buildings compare to each other? Here’s what you need to know.

Height: Eiffel is 1063 feet; Montparnasse is 689 feet.

Admission Cost: Eiffel is 25.5 Euro; Montparnasse is 18 Euro. (That’s a difference of about $8.50 in US currency.)

Convenience: You can only use Eiffel Tower tickets on the specified date at the pre-selected entry time. Montparnasse Tower tickets can be used on any day/time and are good for one year. (Please note, however, that for special events and holidays, you will need to purchase a special admission ticket.) Additionally, if you are traveling by subway, the Montparnasse Tower has a station basically right underneath it. In contrast, to visit the Eiffel Tower you will have to walk a ways from the closest station to reach it.

Weather: Both towers have enclosed and open air decks for viewing the city. Inclement weather may affect your view, but you will at least be able to stay dry/warm.

Security: Needless to say, the Eiffel Tower is a very popular spot with tourists. As a result, it is also very popular with scam artists and pickpockets. Montparnasse, on the other hand, is an office building and less likely to be crowded with people trying to relieve you of your wallet.

My Take

Therefore, in my opinion, the best view of Paris is at Montparnasse. Now, I’m not saying that you should forego the Eiffel Tower. After all, it pretty much represents the entire city. But if you would like a majestic view of that iconic tower, by all means make the trip to Montparnasse as well. You won’t regret it.

where you can get the best view of Paris
Everyone thinks the Eiffel Tower has the best view of Paris.
Sacre bleu! Could they be wrong?
My Travel Planning Process

My Travel Planning Process

How to Plan for an Amazing Trip (My Way)

I recently found a great airfare deal and booked myself a ticket to Paris. Just me. No one else. This is my first ever solo trip, and I’m a little nervous but also very excited. Okay, considering that I don’t really speak French, I’ma lot nervous. But in the words of Dr. Sheldon Cooper, “If there were a list of things that make me more comfortable, lists would be on the top of that list.” So I’m making a lot of lists in preparation for my trip.

Travel Planning Process: How I'm planning my first ever solo trip to Paris.

As I dive into doing this trip 100% my way for 100% me, I thought it might be helpful to show you what my travel planning process looks like.  But first, a disclaimer: I am a highly structured, type A, over-planning kind of person, even on vacation. If you prefer to be a little less organized more spontaneous than me, you might want to follow this guide loosely and omit anything that seems like it might be too much effort.

Step 1: Have No Destination or Date in Mind

travel planning process - if possible, and to save money, start out being flexible on destination or dates

Yes, you heard it here first. The best plan starts by having no plan. Amazing vacations often present themselves as unanticipated opportunities in the form of cheap airfare. When you choose your destination or dates first, you lose a lot of flexibility in how much you will need to spend. My family and I have flown from Baltimore to both Peru and Iceland for around $200 per person round trip. It can be done. And since we want to travel as much as we can, it only follows that we need to do it as cheaply as we can.  After all, money saved on this trip means more money for the next trip!

Step 2: Start Putting Together a Destination List

travel planning process - make lists of where you want to go

One of the first places I look once I’ve booked my tickets is Pinterest, which I have written about before. Pinterest is great because not only is it a place to find destination ideas, it’s also a place to keep destination ideas. As soon as I’ve booked a trip, I create a board for my new destination and start pinning away. At first I pin everything that looks even vaguely interesting. For instance, my trip is to Paris but I’m pretty much pinning everything in France that I find of interest. I’ll be able to go through later and scale down, but if I find 3+ points of interest relatively close together outside of the city, that might make for a good day trip.

Depending on how anal organized I want to be, I might then set up a different board for each day of the trip with the activities for that day. I realize that it sounds over the top, but when you’re in an unfamiliar place, it actually makes sense to plan a day’s activities according to where they are located. Less time in transit between points makes for more time to see the sights.

The only caution I have to offer about using Pinterest as part of your travel planning process is to not allow your board to become oversaturated with images. You only need one pin with helpful information about visiting, for example, the Eiffel Tower. You do not need eight to twelve pins about the Eiffel Tower because they all have stunning images to go with them. The more you look at pictures, the less impressed you will be when you stand before it in person.

Other sites I like to peruse for things to see at a particular destination are Roadside America (US travel only) and Atlas Obscura. Both of these sites offer tips for seeing things that are off the beaten path and not likely to be on every tourist’s must-see list. They also usually have some history attached to them, which you know I love.

Corollary to Step 2: Accept That You Can’t See it All

travel planning process: to stay sane, set limits as to what you can reasonably hope to see/do on your trip

Unless you are visiting your destination for a very long time, you will have to prioritize what things you want to see and do on your trip. You cannot realistically expect to see every great architectural wonder, museum, monument, cathedral, park, and restaurant in one week’s time.

If you compile a massive list of all the places you want to see, and add to it all the places someone (friends/family/blogger/travel guidebook) recommended that you see, you are going to end up with a very long list. And when you find that you only have time to do about 20% of the things on that list, you will probably be disappointed and/or feel like your trip has been a failure.

I prioritize my destinations into three distinct lists:  Must See (I will not forgive myself if I don’t do this), Should See (important in order for me to consider the trip a success), and If There’s Time (everything else). The Must See List should be reserved only for iconic sights and experiences – things that, if you don’t do them, you won’t feel like you really even went to that location. In the case of Paris, it would be visiting the Eiffel Tower and seeing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The Should See list will have a reasonable amount of attractions/activities – between one and four per day. The If There’s Time list, if you’ve kept track of all those recommendations, should be the largest list.

Step 3: Finding Lodging

Travel Planning Process: Things to consider when booking lodging on your trip

A lot goes into finding the perfect place to stay. Here are just a few of the things you must consider:

  • Expense – How much can you afford for this portion of your trip?
  • Area – What sort of neighborhood do you want to stay in? Hip and trendy, or residential and quiet? How safe is the neighborhood you’re considering? Do you want to have a room with a view?
  • Type of accommodations – Do you want complete privacy? Do you want to be able to fix some of your own meals? Do you want to stay someplace that provides you with breakfast each day? Will you need local staff to provide you with recommendations on where to go?
  • Convenience to public transport – If you aren’t renting a vehicle, you may want to make sure that you are within walking distance of a subway station or bus route

As for when to book, I’ve found that you want to do it far enough in advance that you have plenty of options (particularly if you plan to stay in an Airbnb or private home), but not too far in advance in case your itinerary changes. There is nothing worse than booking a place for an entire week, only to decide later that you want to spend part of the time elsewhere. I’d say three months ahead is probably a good window, but you can go with less advance booking if you’re staying in a hotel.

Step 4: Buying Tickets in Advance

travel planning process: consider buying tickets for attractions in advance online so you won't have to wait in line when you arrive

I will admit, this step is riskier than the others. The potential benefits of buying your admission tickets in advance are:

  • Little to no time spent waiting in line when you arrive at the attraction.
  • Allows you to start paying for your vacation expenses before you go
  • No need to worry about an event being sold out; your admission is guaranteed
  • Some venues offer a cheaper admission rate when booking online.

The potential drawbacks of buying your tickets in advance are:

  • Your plans change and you cannot go on the day for which you purchased admission
  • You forget to take your tickets with you when you go (or lose them, or they get stolen, etc.)

Now, as you can see, there are more pros than cons here. Also, in many cases, venues who offer online admission sales either are not date specific or will honor your ticket on a different date if you cannot use it on the date you originally booked. These days, you will most likely have an email or other electronic record of your ticket, which should suffice if the printed version got lost.

Step 5: Keep it Together, Girl!

travel planning process: keep your information color coded and organized in a binder or folder

This is where my type A super-efficient personality makes most people roll their eyes and groan. I color code all of the information I’ve assembled (green for financial, blue for nighttime activities, orange for daytime, hot pink for anything in the Must See category, etc). Then I make a folder or three ring binder with all of the information I will need for my trip.

I keep everything that I need together and sort it by day. Typically, each day’s packet will include:

  • a list of activities for the day
  • maps and/or directions on how to get from A to B
  • printed admission tickets if purchased online
  • brochures or other information about what I will be doing (opening and closing times, special significance, etc.)

It might be important to note that I do not carry the entire binder around with me – just that day’s pertinent documents. Apps are great, but I’m old school enough that I like paper. Using paper doesn’t have me at the mercy of finding a wifi connection.

YMMV

I cannot stress enough that this is the process that works for me. Following these steps is what gives me peace of mind so that I can relax and enjoy my trip. If you prefer to be impetuous and plan as you go, that’s great. You do you! The point is to be prepared for your trip, know what you want, and not spend valuable vacation time under stress.  Bon Voyage!

The travel planning process - practical tips to get the most out of your trip.

 

 

 

Iceland in One Week – A Budget Friendly Itinerary

Iceland in One Week – A Budget Friendly Itinerary

Iceland on a Budget: An Oxymoron?

Talk to anyone who has been to Iceland and one of the first things they tell you is that it is absolutely stunning, and should be on everyone’s bucket list. Another thing they will tell you is that it is an incredibly expensive place to visit. Like, probably the most expensive country in the world.

I’m not a fan of carrying debt, and I try to do most things as cheaply as possible without compromising the experience. So here’s the itinerary my family used when we went to Iceland in February. If it cost money for us to do it, I will note the price. If no price is listed, the site did not charge an admission fee.

Day 1: Arrival & Jet Lag in Reykjavik

We flew non-stop from Baltimore and arrived local time around 5:30 AM. Our bodies, however, thought it was midnight, and we were ready for bed. No such luck… check in at our Airbnb was not until 2:00 PM.  That left us with a lot of time to kill and not a lot of energy.  Fortunately, I stumbled upon a great little museum that opens at 7 AM and is very close to the airport. By the time we claimed our bags and got our rental car, it was 7:00, so we went straight to the museum – Viking World (or Vikingaheimar in Icelandic).

The museum also has a breakfast buffet which costs roughly $5 more than museum admission alone. So, for $20 each, we got a hearty breakfast, coffee (thank you, Lord!) and an introduction to Viking lore and history. We spent 2-3 hours there, taking in the exhibits and feeling like we had the place to ourselves.

After that, we explored Reykjavik a little bit. There was a great bookstore I wanted to visit (Bókabúð Máls og Menningar), so hubs found a parking garage where he could nap while I explored. Also nearby was a Christmas shop where I bought an ornament as my only souvenir, and this really cool building covered in artwork:

Iceland on a Budget - Look out for amazing street art in Reykjavik.

By this time, though, I was starting to drag. I went back to the car, woke hubs up, and off we went to buy groceries. (The only smart thing to do if you’re trying to do Iceland on a budget. Eating out can cost a small fortune.) By the time we finished that, it was time to check in and unpack. I then crashed for a much-needed but all too brief nap.

After we had rested a little, we got back in the car and drove back to downtown Reykjavik. We went to the iconic Hallgrimskirkja church. The inside is a lot less ornate than older European churches, but it was still quite grand. We purchased tickets to go up inside the clock tower ($10 per adult, $1.50 per child up to age 14). From there we enjoyed amazing views of the city:

Iceland on a Budget - There is a fee to go to the top of the clock tower of Hallgrimskirkja church.

After that, we still had some daylight, so we headed to Perlan. I hadn’t run across many people talking about this site on travel blogs, but it seemed intriguing, and they had a simulated ice cave.

Why should that matter, you ask? Well, I really wanted to tour an ice cave while in Iceland, but it was cost prohibitive. At roughly $200 per person, it would have cost $600 for Hubs, Daughter and me to do it. That’s not even within the realm of possibility when you’re trying to experience Iceland on a budget!

Perlan admission, on the other hand, was roughly $29 per adult and $15 for children age 6-15. Still a bit pricey, but much more manageable.  Was it as cool as being inside a real ice cave formed by nature? No, of course not! But it was still a neat experience that provided us with some really great photos.

Iceland on a Budget - See a man made ice cave at Perlan for $30, or the real thing for $200.

Additionally, our guide was very entertaining, and we learned a lot about Iceland and glaciers at Perlan’s other exhibits. But the best part of Perlan was going out on the 360 degree observation deck, where we were treated to beautiful twilight views of the city.

Iceland on a Budget - The view from Perlan's 360-degree observation deck,

When we finished up exploring Perlan and looking at the view, we headed back to our lodging and off to bed.

I should note that while this day’s adventure’s may sound expensive and not at all budget friendly, it is the only day that we spent any money on anything other than food, shelter, and transportation. Our activities on all of the days that followed were free of charge.

Day 2: The Golden Circle

The husband of a friend of a friend is a native of Iceland, and is still living there while he tries to get immigration to the US sorted out. We contacted him and he graciously offered to be our tour guide around the Golden Circle for our second day in Iceland.

The Golden Circle consists of three sites of interest that are more or less arranged in a circular loop not too far from Reykjavik. It’s a popular tourist route, and while it makes for a full day, you really don’t need more than a day to do it. Here’s our Golden Circle map:

Iceland on a Budget - Most sites on the Golden Circle route are free to visit.

We started by driving to Thingvellir National Park, about 30 minutes outside of Reykjavik. The cool thing about this park is that it is the site where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, and you can walk in between them. The park has both natural beauty and historic significance, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Iceland on a Budget - Thingvellir National Park is part of the Golden Circle and, aside from a small parking fee, is free to visit.

From Thingvellir, we drove about 40 minutes to Geysir and Strokkur, a geothermal site featuring one dormant and one active geyser. The active one, Strokkur, erupts every 5-10 minutes. And I’ll just warn you… even if you are standing there with your finger lightly resting on your camera button, waiting for it to erupt and fully aware that it will do so at any moment… it will still scare the crap out of you when it does, causing your photo to come out crooked.

Iceland on a Budget - Strikkur is a very active geyser that you can watch for free.

Our third stop on the Golden Circle Tour was Gullfoss, a massive waterfall just 10 minutes away from the geysers. Unfortunately, when we were there, most of the waterfall was frozen.

Iceland on a Budget - Gullfoss, on the Golden Circle, is a huge waterfall that is free to visit.

However, the highlight was the visitor center. Our friend/guide insisted that we try the lamb stew. I was skeptical, as I’ve had lamb before and did not care for it at all. But I must say, the stew was amazing! Even my daughter, who picks bits out of her Campbell’s chicken noodle soup if she doesn’t like the way they look, finished every drop. Now, nearly two months later, she will occasionally say with a wistful sigh, “I wish I had some lamb stew.” It is that good. I don’t remember how much we paid for it but it was worth every krona.

From there, at the recommendation of our friend’s friend’s husband, we went to a place that is usually not included on Golden Circle tour routes: Faxi. It is the site of a fairly wide waterfall with a curious-looking set of steps on one side.

Iceland on a Budget - Faxi Waterfall can be added to your Golden Circle route; it is free to visit.

We asked our guide for the day what the steps were for. It turns out that they are built for salmon, not people. By having the steps there, salmon are able to swim up to the top of the waterfall, where people are eager to catch them. Coming from very flat land, I had never heard of such a thing before, but they aren’t that rare and known as fish ladders.

Our last stop on the Golden Circle was Kerid Crater. If you’re going to Iceland in the winter, like we did, you may want to skip this.  It’s not much to look at.

Iceland on a Budget - Kerid Crater on the Golden Circle

Day 3: Reykjavik to Hof

We said goodbye to Reykjavik and headed off to explore the southern part of the island.

Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss waterfall, which was beautiful. Unfortunately, the tourists there were not. We didn’t stay long.

From there, it was on to another beautiful waterfall, Skogafoss. This one is situated in such a way that if the sun is out, you have a really good chance of seeing a rainbow in front of the falls.

After our experience with the tourists at Seljalandsfoss, we decided to just appreciate this waterfall from a distance.  Besides, at this point I was ready to see something other than waterfalls.

We traveled next to Reynisfjara, the black sand beach that was featured as a setting at the beginning of Star Wars: Rogue One. What a wonderful, beautiful, epic place it was! Huge basalt columns, caves, squawking birds flying overhead, huge rocks jutting out of the sea, and crashing waves with a reputation of being sneaky. We spent a good amount of time here, laughing, exploring, taking photos… it was easily one of my favorite places in Iceland.

Iceland on a Budget - Reynisfjara Black Beach is free to visit and breathtaking to behold!

When we finally tore ourselves away from the black sand beach, it was time to head to our lodgings in Hof. I wanted to make one more stop, at Fjaðrárgljúfur, an ancient river canyon. This is another one of those sites that you can completely skip past if you’re going in the winter. When it’s all covered with snow, it’s hard to capture the depth and the scope of it.

Iceland on a Budget - Fjaðrárgljúfur is an ancient river canyon that is best appreciated in spring & summer.

If you are not going in the winter, then consider exploring this area and/or driving farther. Lodging and dining options in Hof (as opposed to Hofn, which is 90 minutes farther east) are limited.

Day 4: Heading East to Egilsstadir

First thing in the morning, we got up and headed to Skaftafell National Park. I had fallen in love pictures of the Svartifoss waterfall there and classified it as absolutely-must-see.  I think you can see why:

Iceland on a Budget - Svartifoss waterfall in Skaftafell National Park.
Photo via Flickr by Victor Montol.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look quite as good in the winter. And there is a 90 minute hike to reach it.

Uphill.

In the snow.

We didn’t get as close as the photographer above did, because frankly, I was exhausted, hungry, and cranky. Not to mention disappointed.  This is as close as we got:

Yeah. Significantly less impressive in the winter.  But at least I tried.

From there we headed to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. It was absolutely breathtaking… still water clear enough to see down several inches, big chunks of pale turquoise ice, and the cold, crisp air. I’d like to think that it’s nowhere near as pretty in the spring and summer months.

Iceland on a Budget - Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon is free to visit and stunning to behold!

From there, we went over to the opposite side of the road to the stretch of black sand known as Diamond Beach. Chunks of ice break off of the glaciers and wash ashore. The contrast between the slowly melting ice and the dark black sand is striking, and when the sun hits the ice fragments they can resemble diamonds. However, most of the ice chunks I saw were opaque and white rather than clear and diamond-like.

After that, we were supposed to stop near Hofn to check out a Viking village created for a movie/television series. Unfortunately, we forgot about it until we were well past it on our way to Egilsstadir.

Day 5: Egilsstadir to Akureyri

Driving from Egilsstadir to Akureyri in the winter can be a white knuckle experience. If you are attempting to do this, make sure you have a car equipped with 4 wheel drive and tires like these:

Iceland on a budget - tires for winter driving

Our first stop on Day 5 was Námafjall, a volcanic site that features fumaroles and boiling mud pots. A fumarole is an opening through which sulfurous gasses pour out with a loud hiss. In layman’s terms, it’s like a giant anthill blowing out steam that smells like rotten eggs. It is every bit as disgusting as it sounds. In fact, my daughter started gagging as soon as we pulled up and refused to get out of the car.  But also visually striking.  It felt like we were on another planet.

Iceland on a Budget - Fumaroles at Namafjall

Boiling mud pots are pretty much what they sound like – essentially deep mud puddles that are so hot they are boiling. Every once in a while you would hear one go BLLUUUURRRPP as a large bubble broke the surface, but for the most part they are much quieter than the fumaroles.

From there we rode to Grjótagjá cave, which was a popular hot spring bathing site until volcanic eruptions from 1975 to 1984 made the water too hot – 140 degrees. Today it is cooler, more like 110-115 degrees, but bathing here is prohibited. Save for a few cars parked nearby, you wouldn’t know that anything was there at all. But inside, it’s easy to see how people would have enjoyed slipping between the rocks for a warm soak.

Our third and final sightseeing venture for the day was Godafoss, which means the Waterfall of the Gods. It was easy to see how this waterfall earned its nickname. It was very big, very powerful, and very impressive.

Day 6: Akureyri to Borgarnes

Our drive across the northern part of Iceland was quite nice and relaxing. It was one of the warmer days we spent there, and it almost seemed like spring was right around the corner. Looking out  we actually saw grass where previously we had only seen snow. This, coupled with the fact that the road follows the coastline, made it a remarkably enjoyable drive.

We headed to Grafarkirkja, which is the oldest church in Iceland, and nearly missed it altogether. It was only by sheer determination that we found it, as it is quite small and in a rural location, even by Icelandic standards.

Grafarkirkja is a turf building, common in Icelandic architecture centuries ago. Icelanders would fit turf to the frame of their buildings, providing excellent insulation against the harsh weather.

Iceland on a Budget - Grafarkirkja is the oldest church in Iceland, and is free to visit

From there we journeyed in search of dragons. Stone dragons, that is. Hvítserkur is the name of Iceland’s famous sea stack off the northern coast that looks a bit like a dragon taking a drink of water from the sea, don’t you think?

Iceland on a Budget - Hvitserkur is said to resemble a dragon taking a drink from the sea.

We ended the day in Borgarnes, which has a Viking Settlement Museum and restaurant. We had dinner at the restaurant and it was crazy expensive, also not that great. (I ordered lasagna. It had carrots in it. Who puts carrots in lasagna?) We did not visit the museum, but I have a feeling our money would have been better spent there.

Day 7: Borgarnes to Keflavik, then home.

The day of our departure we didn’t do any sightseeing… just drove back to the airport and turned in the rental car, mailed off the portable wifi, went through airport security, and flew home.

We loved Iceland, and hope to return in the future – but would like to do so in spring or summer. It would be wonderful to see sites like Svartifoss and the river canyon when they are green and vibrant instead of half-frozen and covered in snow. 😉

I hope you find this itinerary useful. I cannot stress enough how glad I am that we journeyed around the whole island. The crowds in Reykjavik and along the southern coast were stifling, even in the off season. Once we got past Hofn, however, we found most places to be less crowded and also enjoyed some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen.

Iceland on a Budget - One Week Itinerary
Your guide to spending one week in Iceland without breaking the bank.

Why Viking World Needs to Be Your First Stop After a 5 AM Arrival in Iceland

Why Viking World Needs to Be Your First Stop After a 5 AM Arrival in Iceland

I Get in at What Time?

If you are flying to Iceland from the United States or Canada, the chances are overwhelmingly good that you will arrive at Keflavik Airport sometime between the hours of 5 and 7 AM. The chances are equally good that after getting through immigration, baggage claim, and picking up your rental car, you will be wondering what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.

Check in time at your hotel/hostel/airbnb won’t be for another six hours or so. To complicate matters, most stores and attractions won’t be open for at least two to three hours. So what can you do? You’ve just landed in a foreign country but you can’t go anywhere or see anything because everything is closed. To make matters worse, it’s still dark outside and your body thinks it’s the middle of the night.

A Stroke of Genius

Fortunately, someone had the brilliant idea to build a museum fairly close to the airport, have it open at 7 AM every day, and serve a breakfast buffet with admission. Viking World Museum (Vikingaheimar in Icelandic), absolutely should be your first stop in Iceland.

When we picked up our rental car, we asked the clerk about the museum. He told us that it wouldn’t be open until 9:00 am at the earliest. The web site said 7:00 am, though, so we decided to take a chance and at least drive by it because we had nothing if not time to kill.

Getting to the museum from the airport only took about ten minutes. When we arrived, we noted that the lights were on and it did, in fact, appear to be open. So in we went, bleary eyed and not sure what to expect. Admission to the museum is 1500 ISK, which is in the ballpark of $15 per person. The breakfast buffet, which includes the museum exhibits, is 1800 ISK, just $3 more per person.  It’s probably the only place in Iceland where you can get a meal for $3.

UPDATE 4/30/18: The price for breakfast + museum admission, according to Viking World’s website, is now 2000 ISK, about $20 per adult.

It was an impressive spread, too, with scrambled eggs, hard boiled eggs, toast, sausage, pastries, fish in two types of sauce, fruit, jellies, biscuits, and probably some other things that I can’t remember. We took our time eating and when we’d had our fill, we proceeded into the museum exhibits.

The Exhibits

The first floor exhibits told the story of how Vikings expanded across the North Atlantic Ocean and settled in Iceland. The expansion began around 800 AD and lasted about 200 years. There were archaeological finds and reproductions. One of the most interesting to me was the burial boat of a Viking chieftain.

The burial boat of a Viking chieftain at Viking World Museum in Iceland.

In the Viking culture, it was customary to provide the dead with objects that they might need in the afterlife – men with tools and weapons, women with jewelry and utensils. Placing the bodies of the dead, along with these items, in an actual boat implies a belief that the dead journeyed to the next life.

The sample burial boat shown above held a plaster figure of a man, with a shield, furs, a drinking vessel, antlers, and other animal bones.

Just beyond the burial boat, there was a collection of figures known as tupilaks. These menacing figures, carved from bones or antlers, functioned as sort of Viking voodoo dolls.  Shaman chanted over the tupilaks to give them life, then put them into the sea to find and kill their intended victims. However, if the victim had his own witchcraft skills, he could send the tupilak back to kill its maker. Here are a few of the specimens on display:

tupilaks at Viking World Museum - what to do after early morning arrival in Iceland.

Tupilak carved figure at Viking World Museum - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.

From there, we went into a room that was showing a documentary about the Viking settlement of Iceland and Greenland. My poor daughter was suffering badly from jet lag, and she fell asleep almost as soon as we sat down. We decided to stay put for a while and let her rest.  I’m not a big fan of watching movies when you travel, but this one was exceptionally well done and informative.

Up and Away

When we decided to move on, we headed up to the second floor of the museum, where we were able to walk on board the huge Viking longboat that dominates the museum’s interior.

Okay, so you know by the name longboat that it’s going to be, well, long.  But until you’re actually standing on it, you can’t fully appreciate just how big this type of boat really was.

Viking World Museum’s ship Íslendingur (which means The Icelander) is an exact replica of an ship excavated from a burial mound in Norway in 1882. That ship dated to A.D. 870, the time of the settlement of Iceland. It is likely that the settlers of Iceland sailed ships similar to the this one, with crews of about 70 men to power its 32 oars.

This ship isn’t just a pretty replica, however. It’s a seaworthy vessel that sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in the summer of 2000. It made the journey to commemorate Leif Eriksson’s trans-Atlantic voyage one thousand years earlier.

Viking World Museum longboat  Íslendingur - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.
The length of  Íslendingur

 

Viking World Museum - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.
Local students made the shields on the sides of Íslendingur. In Viking times, shields were used not just for defense, but also protection from the elements while rowing.

After exploring the massive ship, we moved on to the Fate of the Gods exhibit, an artistic expression of Norse mythology. These were very colorful figures arranged in dramatic ways to evoke the suspense and emotion of tales from Norse mythology.

Viking World Museum exhibit on Norse mythology - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.
Odin and his ravens, Huginn and Muninn, in the Fate of the Gods exhibit.

 

Norse mythology exhibit at Viking World Museum - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland.
Thor defeats the Midgard serpent.

When we exited Fate of the Gods, it was about 9:00 AM and the sky was just starting to lighten. The huge window located in front of the longboat provided us with a lovely view of the harbor outside.

View of the harbor from Viking World Museum - what to do after an early morning arrival in Iceland

So, if you’re getting into Iceland in the pre-dawn hours, I really recommend stopping by the Viking World Museum for breakfast and a little history. It will be an enjoyable way to kill a few hours and acclimate to your new surroundings.

Wondering what to do after an early morning arrival in iceland? Check out Viking World Museum, which opens at 7 AM every day.
Are You Being Spied on When You Travel?

Are You Being Spied on When You Travel?

Just Imagine This:

Say you go on vacation and later discover, to your horror, that there is a hidden camera in your hotel. Most recently, it was an Airbnb lodging that had a hidden camera in the smoke detector. But it could just as easily happen in a hotel room. Just ask Erin Andrews, the Fox Sports reporter who was secretly filmed through her hotel room’s peephole.

hidden camera
Photo via Flickr by Monchoocnom

Fortunately, there are things you can do to prevent being spied on when you travel. Here’s how.

1. Know Where to Look – Which Room?

There are basically two reasons why someone would use a hidden camera. Either they want to make sure you don’t steal anything, or they want to catch you naked. If it’s the first option, you should be looking for cameras near items of value (high end electronics in the living room, for instance). If it’s the second, the bathroom and bedroom are the most likely locations.

2. Know Where to Look – Where Is It Hidden?

There are a million different ways/places to hide a small camera. Some examples of everyday objects that could be hiding a camera are a hidden camera wall charger, a clock, a pen, a light bulb, a smoke detector, a key chain, a clothes hook, and a picture frame.

It’s easy to slide from “protecting my privacy” into full-fledged paranoia when you think about all of the places they could be. But take a deep breath and approach it rationally. Here are a few pointers on where and how to look for hidden cameras. First, remember that a hidden camera cannot work without an exposed lens. So look for anything that might conceal (but not cover) a small lens.

Also, if you’re renting a home, check anything that looks like it was accidentally left behind by the owner. I’ve seen cameras concealed in water bottles and coffee cups. Did the owners leave a gym bag out? How about a shirt with buttons? Tissue boxes and pens are another likely spot.

Consider the placement of a camera when looking. It will most likely be on the periphery of a room, facing the center where people will be spending time. Or it may be facing a mirror that will capture the events of a room. If you see a mirror hanging in an odd place, that would be a good area to examine.

hidden camera

3. What to Do When You Aren’t Sure

If you can’t rely on your eyes to spot a camera, try your ears. Many cameras have motion detectors, and are dormant until someone or something moves in front of them. In an absolutely quiet room, you may be able to hear a click or whir sound as the camera activates.

Some people recommend using the flashlight of your phone to look for hidden cameras. Because camera lenses are glass, they will reflect light. Shine your flashlight around a dark room very slowly and look for the glint of a reflection.

4. Fight Fire with Fire (or Tech with Tech)

If your accommodation has wifi, you can use a network analysis app to see how many devices are connected to the network. If there’s no hidden camera installed, you should only see the router and your phone listed. If you see more than that, there is a possibility that a hidden camera is installed on the property. Something listed other than the router and your phone could be another “smart” device in the household, so keep that in mind before jumping to conclusions.

If all of this just sounds like too much work, I’m inclined to agree. After all, who wants to spend precious vacation time looking for something the size of a screw head? Not to mention being paranoid about the possibility of overlooking one.

Fortunately, there is a gadget that will help you find any hidden cameras in your lodging, and they aren’t expensive. I recommend this  Hidden Camera RF Signal Detector, which is in the $15-$20 range. For a professional grade device, you could get this Anti-Spy Amplification Signal Detector instead or about $80. In both cases, you don’t have to do much more than turn the gadget on.

Even cheaper is an app for your phone that will detect hidden cameras. There are many available, for both iPhone or Android, and they run $2-$5.

5. Okay, I Found One… Now What?

First and foremost, take pictures of the hidden camera and its location. Report it to management (hotel desk or Airbnb, whichever the case may be.) Then contact local authorities, as secretly filming someone in a private residence may be illegal in that location. If you’re really angry about it, you can use social media or place a call to local reporters. Third, find yourself another place to stay.

What not to do:  Do not destroy the camera. Do not angrily confront the property owner. Do not stay there after discovering the hidden camera.

If you’ve ever found a hidden camera in your lodging, I want to hear about it.  Leave a comment below!

 

Hidden Camera
5 essential tips for making sure you are not being secretly filmed in your lodging when you travel.

Disclosures:

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Pinterest image via Flickr by kimubert.

Russia’s Hermitage Museum

Russia’s Hermitage Museum

Six Things You May Not Know About the Hermitage Museum

The state Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, is one of the oldest and largest museums in the world. Catherine the Great founded the Hermitage in 1754 and it has been open to the public since 1852. In addition to its stunning architecture and beautiful works of art, the museum has a fascinating history. Here are six secrets of the Hermitage.

Secrets of the Hermitage #1: It’s really big.  Like huge.

It covers 765,567 square feet and contains over 1 million works of art, over 1 million numismatic objects, over 770,000 archaeological artifacts, and nearly 14,000 pieces of arms and armor. There are 2.7 million exhibits and displays in all. I’m thinking it’s probably not the sort of place you want to try and see in just a couple of hours.

Secrets of the Hermitage #2: It isn’t just a building.

The museum is actually a complex of many buildings, including the Winter Palace, which was the main residence of the Russian tsars.

hermitage-museum-st-petersburg-the-raphael-loggias
Interior of the State Hermitage Museum

Catherine expanded the museum beyond the palace to have additional buildings erected, creating the Hermitage Complex. The Russian rulers hosted all kinds of festivities in these buildings, which helped the Hermitage garner a reputation as not only a dwelling place for the Imperial family, but also as an important symbol and memorial to the imperial Russian state.

rsz_catherine_ii_the_great_by_fedor_rokotov
Portrait of Catherine the Great by Fyodor Rokotov

Secrets of the Hermitage #3: Its initial pieces were art rejects.

The King of Prussia rejected the initial collection of artwork that started the Hermitage. The first pieces (225 or 317, there are differing accounts as to how many) obtained by Catherine the Great were assembled by an art dealer named Gotzkowsky. He put the collection together for Frederick II, King of Prussia, who was not impressed and did not want them. Frederick’s loss was Catherine’s gain: that collection included 13 works by Rembrandt.

Secrets of the Hermitage #4: Art can be addictive.

Catherine didn’t stop after that initial purchase. In her lifetime, she acquired 4,000 paintings from the old masters, 38,000 books, 10,000 engraved gems, 10,000 drawings, 16,000 coins and medals, and a natural history collection filling two galleries. Competitive art collecting was popular in European royal court culture at the time of her reign, and Catherine was an enthusiastic collector. Her art collection enabled her to gain European acknowledgment and acceptance, and to portray Russia as an enlightened society.

Secrets of the Hermitage #5: Special precautions were taken in WWII.

Art treasures from the museum were evacuated in World War II. Officials feared that the artwork would be lost in the event of an attack, so items from the collection were taken from the museum to the train station. Two trains then carried art treasures off into the Ural Mountains for safekeeping. It turned out to be the right call: two bombs and a number of shells hit the museum buildings during the siege. Once the war was over, the collections were returned unharmed.

evacuation of art from hermitage.jpg
Protecting the art treasures from the State Hermitage Museum.

Secrets of the Hermitage #6:  Crazy cat … museum?

A population of about 50-60 cats lives in the basement of the Hermitage museum. In 1745, Elizabeth of Russia required cats in the palace in order to keep the mice at bay. In times past, the cats would freely roam through the galleries of the museum.  These days, however, they are only permitted in the basement or on the museum grounds. They have their own press secretary, Instagram account, and three caretakers.  You can even adopt a Hermitage cat!

cats-of-hermitage-st-petersburg

The Hermitage should definitely be one of your top five things to see in Russia – where else could you see such a vast collection of art in a lavish setting like a palace? Just be sure to allow plenty of time for your visit.

The address for The Hermitage Museum is 2 Palace Square in St. Petersburg.  You may purchase tickets up to 180 days in advance online in US dollars for $17.95 (one day) or $22.95 (two day). However, admission is free on the first Thursday of every month for all visitors, and it is free daily for students and children. Closed on Mondays, New Year’s Day, and May 9.