Eric 2016 travels — May

Here are the links to previous months:






May 1 (day 141): Barcelona

In the morning, I went to see the outside of Sagrada Familia, which is architect Antoni Gaudi’s most famous work. He worked on it for 43 years, until his death.

Left: the Nativity Facade (which faces east to catch the sunrise, and represents Jesus’ birth); Right: the Passion Facade (which faces west towards the sunset, and represents the final period in Jesus’ life and his time of suffering)

I bought a ticket (yesterday) to see a soccer game today at 4:00pm. I’ve heard that soccer is almost a religion here, and people go crazy at the games, so I thought I’d check it out.

At the Power8 stadium: RCD Espanyol vs Seville game

The fans didn’t go as wild as I was expecting. But whenever someone on the RCD Espanyol team made a mistake, I’d see people raising their hand, palm up, as if to say, “you idiot! What were you thinking?”. (I have heard that fans of the Barcelona team “FC Barcelona” really do get wild and chant throughout the game, but there wasn’t going to be a hometown game for another week.)

In the evening I went to see the view from Placa d’Espanya, which has a nice view of the MNAC (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya):

Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya
view from the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, overlooking the “Magic Fountain of Montjuic” (Font Magica)

May 2 (day 142): Barcelona

Today I did a walking tour that focused on the buildings that Antoni Gaudi designed in Barcelona. Gaudi’s architectural fingerprint is all over Barcelona. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a Barcelona without Gaudi. Certainly, he has done a lot for Barcelona’s tourism industry. There’s a story that when he graduated from architecture school, a professor said, “We have graduated either a lunatic or a genius. Time will tell.”

Gaudi hated straight lines and right angles; he was inspired by nature, and claimed that everything he learned, he had learned from trees.

Above: La Pedrera; Below: Casa Batllo (these buildings are a couple of blocks from each other, and I went back at night to see them lit up)

The walking tour ended at Sagrada Familia. The goal is to finish it by 2026, which will be the 100 year anniversary since Antoni Gaudi’s death.

May 3 (day 143): Barcelona — inside Sagrada Familia

In the morning I went to see the famous Boqueria market (on the famous street called “the Rambla”). It’s a food market with everything from seafood and other meat, to fruits and vegetables, to prepared foods:

At the Boqueria Market, they present ham with the hoof still on

Then I had bought a ticket online to go inside Sagrada Familia at 4:00pm.

The ceiling of Sagrada Familia: architect Antoni Gaudi said “everything I’ve learned I learned from nature”. The support columns represent trees that spread out into branches, with the ceiling representing the leaves. The stained glass windows allow the sun to come in just like the sun would shine through the leaves of trees.
Left: the inside wall of the Nativity Facade (green and blue stained glasss); Right: the inside wall of the Passion Facade (orange and red stained glass, maybe representing Jesus’ blood?)

I also walked up the Nativity Facade tower for a view of Barcelona facing east:

May 4 (day 144): Barcelona

I started today by hiking up Monjuic (which means “hill of the Jews”). At the top there is the Montjuic Castle:

The view from Montjuic Castle

Then I went to the Picasso museum. What makes this Picasso museum different from all the other Picasso museums throughout the world (I remember going to a Picasso museum just outside of Tokyo back in 2012) is that it documents his early work and his growth as an artist. He spent his early years copying other master painters.

Left: Picasso painted this when he was 16; Right: “Man in a beret” painted in 1895 when Picasso was 13

Only after mastering existing masters’ techniques, did Picasso develop a style that was uniquely his own.

Left: “Woman and pipe player 2” 1956; Right: “The card player 2” 1971

Later today I went to Park Guell, which is where Antoni Gaudi lent his architectural design philosophy to a park environment.

Park Guell

And then later that night, I went back to the cathedral to capture a night picture of it.

Catedral, Barcelona

May 5 (day 145): Barcelona

I did a photography tour today. We started at the Boqueria Market. Nico, the teacher, focused on exposure settings (adjusted by changing the combination of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed) to make certain things stand out (or not). He also showed me how to adjust white balance for indoor settings.

We wanted to adjust the camera settings so that the fish and the woman were clear, but the background and the guy was dark. It was also important to wait until the woman leaned forward so that her face was lit up by the lighting above.
In the picture on the left, the “white balance” setting is set to “auto”, while on the right the white balance is set to incandescent (indoor lighting): the colours more accurately reflect what our eyes saw.

Then we went out to shoot some pictures of people. He likes standing at the end of a street that connects to another street in a “T” shape, because people tend to look down the street when they pass by, allowing you to get candid shots of them. (The ideal photographer would be invisible, he says, which would allow you to get really close to people without having them react to you.)

Left: Instead of just capturing street art, Nico likes to capture people with the street art as background. Right: there was a painting of an actor peeking out of a curtain, which was life-size, and Nico thought it made for an interesting backdrop to people walking by.

We played with how wide angle lenses distort proportions:

Notice the proportions of this statue by Botero: the left picture is taken from further away, and most accurately reflects the true proportions of the cat. As I got closer and used the wide angle lens, the cat’s head got bigger and bigger (and the nose is wider) in relation to the rest of its body (yet the frame still includes the legs). Nico said that lenses greater than 50mm (like 70–85mm) distort in a flattering way, and as such are used in portrait photography, while lenses less than 50mm (like my 16–35mm lens) can make people look like serial killers.

At night, we took a look at how shadows play an interesting part of a scene.

Above: notice the shadows on the ground. Also, notice how some of the texture on the wall is lost on the picture on the right, which is over-exposed relative to the picture on the left.
Nico felt that the different exposure settings created a different mood (the one on the left is the most exposed/bright, getting progressively darker on the right). No photo is “better” than the other or “right”; it just depends on what you like.

It was an interesting day.

May 6 (day 146): Barcelona

Today I went to “Orange” — a cell phone provider — to get a SIM card for the rest of my travels through Europe. (40 euros for 4 GBs.)

In the evening I went to see a Flamenco show at the famous Palau de la Musica. It was pretty good, but the most interesting parts were (i) the theatre itself, and (ii) one of the dancers who did this dance solo where she was stamping her feet so quickly she seemed like a crazy woman. Passion is an important element in Flamenco music.

Palau de la Musica theatre

May 7 (day 147): Barcelona

It rained today, so I took the time to update my travel journal, book my trains to Cordoba (May 9) and Madrid (May 18), and my flight to Paris (May 23).

May 8 (day 148): Barcelona

Today I met Jaume. He just got back from Chicago yesterday. It has been 24 years since we last saw each other (summer of 1992). It was great to catch up. He’s still as funny as I remembered him being back then. While he lives in Barcelona, his mother and sister are still living in Mallorca, so he travels there once a month. Also, for work (director of a university) he travels once a month to a few places in Spain, and occasionally to Chicago. We went over to a friend of his to watch the Barcelona football game, and then back to his place for dinner, and out for a drink later that night.

May 9 (day 149): Barcelona to Cordoba

I caught the 11:00am high speed train to Cordoba (via Madrid).

May 10 (day 150): Cordoba

It rained most of today, but I went out anyway. I went to a flamenco museum (which documented the history and people of flamenco music and dance), the fine arts museum of Cordoba, and a museum showing the tortures implemented during the Spanish Inquisition.

the Flamenco museum in Cordoba (Centro Flamenco Fosforito)
An example of one of the tortures devised to get people to convert to Christianity: “the head crusher”; your head is clamped down until your teeth get crushed, your eyes come out of your sockets, and finally “the brain squirts through the fragmented skull”.

I went out for a walk at night:

May 11 (day 151): Cordoba

I started today at the Mezquita, which is Cordoba’s great mosque/cathedral (it was a mosque when Cordoba was Muslim, and then it became a Christian Cathedral in 1238, after the reconquest by the Christians).

inside the Mezuita
The bell tower of the Mezquita

Then, right beside it, there’s the “Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos”, which is a castle/palace that was built in the 14th century by some guy named Alfonso XI. This is the place where Christopher Columbus proposed that he travel to the Indies (trying to sell the idea to Isabella and Ferdinand, who provided him with the ships to sail across the ocean).

A view of Cordoba from one of the towers at Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos

This week there is a festival in Cordoba called “La Fiesta de los Patios de Cordoba”. People open their patios for the public to come in and see how they’re decorated. I went to a few:

La Fiesta de los Patios de Cordoba: these are peoples’ homes that are open for everyone to come have a look

May 12 (day 152): Cordoba to Granada

I used BlaBlaCar to travel from Cordoba to Granada. It’s a website that connects people who are driving from one city to another, and want to make some money by driving anyone else who wants to travel to/from the same destination as well. It cost me about $20CDN, and the driver turned out to be a 46 year old linguistics professor and translator (at conferences; most of the conferences he works are in the medical field).

It was a 2 hour ride, and we had a good chat (I guess that’s why it’s called BlaBlaCar). The scenery was nothing but olive trees. Apparently the Spanish government is subsidizing the production of olives. The olives grown here in this region provide 10% of the world’s demand for olive oil (and one-third of Spain’s).

By the way, check out the comments Rafael (the driver) left on the BlaBlaCar website about me. The idea is that the driver gives you a rating and comments on you as a passenger, so that other drivers can know what you’re like, and decide (or not) to accept your ride request. (You also have the chance to rate the driver.) This is the way you build a reputation on BlaBlaCar. Interesting, isn’t it?

Snapshot of my cellphone

It was raining when we got into Granada, so I didn’t go out.

May 13 (day 153): Granada

It was raining again today, but I went out and checked out the cathedral in Granada. It was built in the 1500's (finished 1704) and it’s massive, but then again, so are all the other cathedrals in the area (like the one in Seville).

The catedral in Granada

Then as I was walking around, I found a house and garden called “Carmen de los Martires”, which was close to the Alhambra. There were only about 5 people there, and it was huge, so it felt like I had the place to myself. There were peacocks roaming about…

Carmen de los Martires: a 19th century house and gardens right beside Alhambra

I walked over to the Alhambra, but I didn’t have tickets to get in and they were all sold out, so I walked around the outside:

The view from Alhambra

Later that night, I went to see a flamenco show. I met a couple of people at the show (Nicole from Puerto Rico but studying in Granada, and Brittany from California, but living in Germany), and we went out for some tapas afterwards.

Left: the flamenco show at La Chien Andalou; Middle: Tinto de Verano (a mix of red wine and Sprite) with Nicole and Brittany); Right: late night (i.e. 2:00 am) desserts

May 14 (day 154): Granada

I got a ticket to Alhambra for today! This is no small feat. Tickets are sold out 4–6 weeks in advance (something I only discovered yesterday). There are 6,000 visitors a day. But every day, Ticketmaster releases a few tickets from cancellations, which are usually bought up really quickly. I checked online yesterday every half hour from about noon until 4:00pm, and at 4:00 there was a ticket available.

The Alhambra is huge, but it can basically be divided up into 3 sections: (i) the Nasrid Palaces, (ii) Alcazaba, (iii) General Life.

Alhambra (derived from an Arabic word meaning “the red castle”) was started in the 11th century, and added onto through the 13th and 14th centuries.

Inside the Nasrid Palaces area, Alhambra: Water was considered a central design element (maybe because water is scarce in the desert?) and linked to the idea of the heavens. Also, the courtyard is designed using something called the “Golden Ratio” ( The Golden ratio is a special number found by dividing a line into two parts so that the longer part divided by the smaller part is also equal to the whole length divided by the longer part. It equals 1 : 1.61).
The “General Life” area of Alhambra: the recreation area of the Kings of Granada, where they escaped for some R&R
Panoramic view from the Watchtower in the Alcazaba area of Alhambra
The view from the Watchtower, in the Alcazaba section of Alhambra

Later that evening, I went to see a flamenco show at “Casa del Arte Flamenco”. No microphones were used, which was interesting and rare (getting the chance to hear just the raw pure sound of the guitar with the singing, dancing and clapping).

Flamenco show at Casa del Arte Flamenco

And finally, I went to a lookout to watch the sunset over Alhambra.

The view of Alhambra from Mirador San Nicolas

May 15 (day 155): Granada to Seville

I booked a BlaBlaCar ride again to get from Granada to Seville. This time, the driver was Ana, a professional flamenco dancer! She was moving to Seville, and slowly taking her stuff with her, a little at a time. She had a plant and a vacuum cleaner in the car this time. It was a 3-hour drive, and she talked about her career as a flamenco dancer. I took the opportunity to ask her a ton of questions, and she seemed delighted to talk about her work.

She had lived in Montreal for 9 months back in 2005 while performing in the musical Don Juan. And she has traveled all over the world as a dancer: Japan (she said that flamenco is huge in Japan), Senegal, all over Europe and the United States… Back here in Spain, she has started her own production company.

She said that flamenco has changed so much — even in the last 10 years — and it continues to integrate more and more modern influences. While its origins are from classical dance from Italy, along with Indian, Atlantic Caribbean, and French (Bolero) influences, today there are elements of tap dance, and other modern dance styles. Moreover, flamenco dance is evolving in different ways in different regions. For example, the flamenco dance style in Madrid is different than the style in Seville: it’s more frantic (which is hard to imagine). Even the guitar playing is faster in Madrid, which Ana thought reflected the more hectic pace of life in Madrid. (She loves Seville for it’s more relaxed pace.)

Something else I didn’t know: the dancer leads, and the singer and guitar player follows. The singer and guitar player know when to come in, when to change sections, and when to finish based on the rhythms and footwork that the dancer does. Flamenco is a language of its own!

I asked her about the typical career of a dancer. She said that usually, a flamenco dancer can continue dancing professionally until about 45, longer than in other dance styles (like ballet or jazz). But she said it’s very hard on the knees and lower back, and she’s starting to feel it (she’s 36 now).

She’s the real deal, living and breathing the flamenco dancer life. Check out her website here:

Isn’t it amazing the people you meet through BlaBlaCar? And you get a cheap ride too ($30CDN for the 3-hour drive from Granada to Seville)!

When I arrived in Seville, I went out for a walk in the evening:

Left: the Rio Guadalquivir; Right: Cathedral of Seville (the largest Gothic cathedral in Europe)

May 16 (day 156): Seville

Yet another star attraction in the area of Adelucia is the Alcazar (fortress) of Seville. I thought I could get through it in an hour, but I ended up spending 3 hours.

This palace/fortress was built up mostly in the 1300s, but was started around 900AD.

Later, I checked out the flamenco museum: nothing really great, just the costumes, shoes, and some videos.

Then I saw 2 flamenco shows: one at Museo del Baile Flamenco, and one at La Casa de la Guitarra.

Above: the flamenco show at the museum; Below: the flamenco show at Casa de la Guitarra

May 17 (day 157): Seville

I did a walking tour in the morning.

Then I went to see 2 flamenco shows: one again at the flamenco museum, and the second at the Casa de la Memoria.

The flamenco show at the flamenco museum

I was in the front row for the show at the museum, and I discovered there is such a thing as being “too close” to the stage. Every time the guy dancer did a quick head turn, the sweat from his hair would spray us in the front row. It wasn’t the best part of the show, for sure. Otherwise, I really enjoyed it.

Later I walked down to Plaza de Espana to take some night pictures. A trivia fact: Plaza de Espana was the setting for one of the scenes from Star Wars’ Attack of the Clones movie (except they digitally altered it to make the semi-circle into a full circle). Also, the semi-circle is supposed to represent 2 arms, and they are pointing west towards America, representing a “hug” to America (linked back to when Christopher Columbus “discovered” America in 1492).

Plaza de Espana, Seville

May 18 day (158): Seville to Madrid

I caught my 9:45am high-speed “AVE” train from Seville to Madrid and arrived around 12:20pm. I booked an Air BnB room for the first time here in Madrid to see what Air BnB was all about. (Basically anyone can rent out a spare room (or their whole house) online, and can ask whatever rate they want (which is typically way cheaper than a hotel room).

I’m staying in a small room for about $30 CDN/night. The person who is renting out the room is a guy in his 30s, and both his parents also live here. (Actually it’s the other way around: he still lives with his parents.) It’s a tiny apartment: the kitchen is also the laundry room, and the washroom is one of the smallest I’ve ever seen.

Later, I went to the Museo del Prado, which is supposed to be one of the world’s premier art galleries.

Museo del Prado

There are about 1500 paintings on display. One of the most famous paintings they have is “Las Meninas”, by Velazquez.

Las Meninas, by Velazquez (I downloaded this image from the internet: they were really strict about not taking any photos in the museum.)

The other famous paintings here are a series by Goya, called “las pinturas negras” (the black paintings). Here are a few examples that I saw:

Afterward, I went to the park “Parque de la Buen Retiro”.

Parque de la Buen Retiro

May 19 (day 159): Madrid

Today I went to the Reina Sofia museum.

The star attraction is Picasso’s “Guernica” (arguably Spain’s most famous piece of art), which he painted in 1937. It was commissioned by the Spanish Republican Government, and is a response to the bombing of Guernica (a village in northern Spain) by German and Italian warplanes.

I got this image from the internet, as there were 4 staff watching to make sure you didn’t take a picture of the actual painting in the museum. However, I did manage to take this pic below of everyone looking at the painting:

What was really interesting to me were the pictures on the opposite wall of the Guernica painting at different stages of completion. Someone had documented the evolution of the painting by taking a series of pictures from the time that Picasso started working on the canvas until the time it was finished. It was interesting to see how Picasso completely changed everything in the middle. I guess he just painted right over what he had already done. And the changes he made made the painting way better.

Also interesting were the sketches Picasso had done of each of the different elements (ex. the horse, the woman holding the dead baby, the bull) separately, which were presented in the room beside the one with the finished work. You could see how Picasso had tried to paint the horse, for example, several different ways before deciding on his favorite version. All very interesting stuff, to see his process.

There were also works there by Goya and Dali that were interesting.

Left: Miro’s “Man with a Pipe”; Right: Dali’s “The Invisible Man”

Then out for some tapas on a street called Calle de la Cava Baja, which is famous for its tapas bars:

Left: Calle de la Cava Baja; Right: a tapas bar called Txacolina

May 20 (day 160): Madrid

I went to check out a flamenco store, but it was nothing special. There were flamenco videos, books, costumes, and about a dozen guitars, some selling for 3,500 euros (almost $5,000 CDN).

Then I spent almost 5 hours wondering around the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. There were paintings by all the famous artists: Goya, Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Rubens, Picasso, and Dali, among others.

But what was really great was the audio guide. I finally have a bit more insight into the whole “cubist” style paintings by Picasso! The idea was to fuse time and space, which is kind of what happens when you move around an object and see it from different angles. Then you unite all the different views into a composite view; present all the different views that we might have of one reality simultaneously (opposing angles, lighting). So as a viewer, you can identify the different fragments of reality that go into making the whole painting. Picasso was trying to show how we perceive the world as ever-changing and multi-faceted. Essentially, cubism is the sum of different fragments of reality.

One painting that I really liked was by Rene Magritte, called “La Clef des Champs” (“the key of the field”, which is a French expression for freedom; to take the key to the field is to go freely wherever one wants to go). To gain this freedom we need to break the glass in the painting. But the glass appears to be painted on, so there is some deception going on. Basically we need to shatter our habits and routine that stops us from being able to question things about the world. Interesting!

Left: Van Gogh’s “Les Vessenots”; Right: Magritte’s “La Clef des Champs”

Seeing Van Gogh’s painting “Les Vessenots” up close was also fascinating. The pciture here doesn’t do it justice, but close up you can see how much paint he used: it’s really on there in globs; very 3-D. I really got the sense from his brushstrokes in this painting that he must have been a very emotional man.

May 21 (day 161): Madrid

I read that there are tours of the stadium Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, where the Madrid soccer team “Real Madrid” plays. I took the metro there to check it out and discovered that Bruce Springsteen was playing there that night, so there were no more tours offered that day.

There were a ton of police at the stadium preparing for Bruce Springsteen’s show that night.

I also went to see the royal palace (Palacio Real):

Palacio Real (Royal Palace)

Then I went to Plaza de Toros to see “Las Ventas”, the bullring built in 1931, where Spain’s top matadors perform in front of 23,000 spectators. There happened to be a bullfight that night so I bought a ticket for 30 euros (in the shade, which is twice the price than if I chose to sit in the sun). Tonight it was going to be the style of bullfighting where the matador rides a horse.

When a matador performs well, people wave a white handkerchief to signal to the bullfighting president that the matador should be acknowledged (by presenting him with the bull’s ear and/or tail).

I wasn’t sure what to expect, other than I know that the bull gets killed (which I was not sure how I would feel about watching, but wanted to find out). I can say that it was an interesting experience; one that I don’t need to see ever again. From what I could tell, it looked like the process could basically be broken down into 4 steps, from the matador’s perspective: (i) tire the bull out by getting it to chase you [actually, I think the matador is also assessing the bull’s behaviour, as well], (ii) at the right opportunity, stab the bull in the back/neck, and repeat this 10 times over the course of about 10 minutes, (iii) when the bull is so injured/weak from your repeated stab wounds and blood loss, and so tired from chasing your pink cape around — so much so that it can barely stand up — finish it with a quick and decisive stab in the head, and (iv) see the bull carcass get pulled out of the ring and take a bow for the audience. This process is repeated 6 times in the evening (meaning 6 bulls get killed). It’s kind of gruesome, but after further consideration (and learning that the bull gets a totally 500,000-hectare free-range natural life up to the point it steps in the ring, AND that the bull is eaten afterwards — something that I learned the next day when I took the tour of the bullring) I don’t think it’s any more gruesome than what we do to process cows and chickens for our consumption.

Left: the bull chasing the matador; Middle: preparing to stab the bull; Right: the end result

Later that evening I went over to a friend of Nathalie’s (whom I met in Porto, Portugal) who was having a 60’s birthday party:

Nathaly, me, and Deanna at Nathay’s friend’s 60’s b-day party

May 22 (day 162): Madrid

I decided that I wanted to understand more about bullfighting (instead of dismissing it without context), so I went back to Las Ventas and took a self-guided audio tour.

The process has been the same for about 300 years, although it’s unclear whether it has religious or sporting origins. There was an interesting quote on the museum wall: the history of bullfighting is so closely connected to the history of Spain that it would be impossible to understand the latter without knowing about the former.

As part of the self-guided tour, you walk through the area where the bull is introduced into the ring, where a couple of employees were washing down before the event tonight.

Left: inside Las Ventas; Right: outisde

May 23 (day 163): Madrid to Paris

I caught my 9:30am flight from Madrid to Paris and checked into Les Piaules hostel around 3:00pm. After doing some laundry, I took the metro to see the Arc de Triomphe at sunset. Napoleon commissioned this at the height of his “career” in 1806, and his idea was that his soldiers would march through it after their victories.

Below the arch lies the “tomb of the unknown solidier” from world war one. A flame is lit every night to honor those that died (that were never identified) in both world wars. From the top you get a 360 panorama of the city.

Left: the tomb of the unknown soldier; Middle: facing south you can see the Eiffel Tower; Right: facing west watching the sunset; Below: facing north-east (you can see Sacre Coeur on Montmartre)

May 24 (day 164): Paris

I did a walking tour today with a company called Sight Seekers Delight. They were highly rated on Trip Advisor so I thought I’d check it out. Here are some of the sights we took in:

Left: Notre Dame; Middle: Shakespeare and Company bookstore (where writers Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound, among others, would meet); Right: Pont Neuf bridge

Notre Dame cathedral was started in 1163 and finished in 1330. It’s a Gothic style church, with the idea that it’s built up as high as possible in order to get closer to God. The stained glass windows on the inside tell the story of the New Testament, starting with the windows that are facing east, so that if you were there for the full day, you could see each window section light up in the order of how the story unfolds.

Pont Neuf bridge is the oldest bridge in Paris. As you can see from the picture above, couples write their name on a lock and lock it on the railing of the bridge to lock in their undying love for each other. There was another bridge just up the river from here where they used to do this, but the extra weight from all the locks was making the bridge unstable, so they had to cut off all the locks. (Wouldn’t it have been funny if all of a sudden, shortly after they cut off all the locks, everyone in Paris started getting divorced? “I don’t know, but for some reason I just don’t feel the same about you anymore.”)

After the walking tour, I went to Musee d’Orsay.

There were about 6 paintings from Van Gogh here. I’m really loving his work. While it’s not apparent from far away, up close you can really see how thick he lays on the paint. His brush strokes seem so bold; almost careless… but isn’t the effect amazing?! Check out Starry Night: I took a couple of pictures from the side to try to show how much paint he used.

Above: close up and at-an-angle pictures of Starry Night; Below left: Starry Night displayed in the museum; Below middle: Starry Night version 2 painted in 1889 (I saw this when I was in New York at the Museum of Modern Art); Below right: Starry Night version 1 painted in 1888, here at the Musee d’Orsay

The picture in the middle above was what Van Gogh painted while he was checked into a mental asylum. He called both paintings “Starry Night” but you can almost see his craziness in the middle painting (versus the one on the right, which he painted a year earlier). Van Gogh committed suicide when he was 37…

After the museum, I went to Sacre Coeur, on top of Montmartre.

Finally, I went to see the sunset on the Eiffel Tower. There’s something about that Eiffel Tower that makes me want to keep taking more pictures.

There are 20,000 light bulbs that go on for about 5 minutes twice every night, and it costs the city 2,000 euros each night to light it up.

May 25 (day 165): Paris

I started the day with a walking tour:

Classic looking restaurants and stores in the 1st arrondissement

Then I went to Cimetiere Pere Lachaise. My first stop was to revisit Jim Morrison’s grave. I had visited it 26 years ago when I was in Paris with Mike and Rob. When I got to his plot, all I could think was, “I remember it looking different; simpler”. So I checked online, and sure enough, there were 2 different gravestone pictures: the current one (on the left below, I took with my camera) and the one I remembered so many years ago (on the right below, from the internet). I guess at some point someone decided to change it up.

Then I visited a few more plots of famous people that have been buried here, including (from left to right) Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, and Frederic Chopin:

Left: Oscar Wilde’s plot; Middle: Edith Piaf’s; Right: Frederic Chopin’s

Finally, I went to the Georges Pompidou Centre, which has the largest collection of modern art in Europe, including a lot of paintings from Matisse. There was also a temporary exhibit of Paul Klee’s work, which was interesting, in large part because of the titles he gave his works, like “While Two Monkeys Followed Them Nibbling Their Buttocks”, and “Green X Above Left”, for example.

The Georges Pompidou Centre also has a nice view of Paris from the 6th floor:

Upper left: Georges Pompidou Centre; Upper right: the view from the 6th floor

May 26 (day 166): Paris

I spent the morning/early afternoon doing some research and booking accommodations for London, and in the afternoon I did a wine tasting session with a company called Wine Tasting in Paris. It was owned and run by a guy who used to work in Marketing for Black & Decker, but who was born in Burgundy and who loved wine. We learned about the the different wine regions: Champagne, Loire valley, Alsace, Bourgonge (Burgundy), Bordeaux, and Cotes du Rhone. We sampled a champagne, 2 white wines, and 3 red wines. It was good fun and a little bit educational too.

“Wine Tasting in Paris” session

In the evening, I went to Tour (tower) Montparnasse to watch the sunset over Paris.

The view from the top of Montparnasse Tower

May 27 (day 167): Paris

I did a morning walking tour called “Hemingway’s Paris”. Hemingway was born in a suburb of Chicago (Oak Park), but wanted to get out because, as he described the place he grew up, “it was filled with wide lawns and narrow minds”! He moved to Paris in 1921 when he was 22, in part because of an amazing exchange rate at that time, and also because, according to him, “it’s where the most interesting people in the world were”. Paris in the 1920's was apparently a place where people that didn’t fit into the mainstream set could take refuge: in Paris, you could be who you were. And, in Paris you could realize your artistic dreams. As another writer said “you get your inspiration from the air you breath in Paris”.

Hemingway got in with a group of writers (including James Joyce and Ezra Pound), and they all hung out together in a bookstore called Shakespeare & Company (owned by Sylvia Beach).

On our walking tour, we went to several places of significance for Hemingway, but we started at the apartment where James Joyce wrote Ulysses (a book that eventually made him wealthy, but at first was banned and burned for it’s “pornographic” language).

Left: this was the building where James Joyce had an apartment, and where he wrote Ulysses; Right: there’s now a plaque on the entrance

Hemingway had his writing studio a couple blocks away. When he wrote, he supposedly lived on a diet of tangerines and cherry brandy. But Hemingway liked to exaggerate his poverty for marketing purposes. He made $3,000/year during his early years in Paris, and for context, his rent was the equivalent of $5/month.

We also passed by a place where George Orwell wrote “Down and Out in London and Paris”. Orwell had a fascination with the “underbelly” of society, and wanted to get right into the shoes of how this half lived, so he took up residence here (as you can see it’s been turned into a restaurant):

George Orwell wrote “Down and Out in London and Paris” from this building

My main takeaway from the walking tour was that the 1920’s was such an amazing time to be an artist or writer in Paris, and many like-minded talented people formed communities here and supported each other in their artistic pursuits.

In the afternoon, I went to the Louvre, which actually started out as a palace/fortress: it only became a museum during the French revolution (1780's). On the picture below on the left, you can see that we had to walk through the former moat to get into the museum:

Left: the moat surrounding the Louvre; Middle: the main square of the Louvre; Right: an inner square at the Louvre

There are 3 super heavy hitters in the Louvre: (i) Venus de Milo, which was sculpted around 100 BC and found on the Greek island “Milo”; (ii) the “Winged Victory of Samothrice”, sculpted around 200 BC and found in 1863; (iii) the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, painted around 1503. I didn’t know this before, but the reason this is the most famous painting in the world, is in large part because it was stolen in 1911 by an Italian man who worked for the Louvre. He felt that all Italian art belongs in Italy, and this painting was small enough for him to carry under his arm as he went home from work! The scandal that this caused created such a buzz about the painting, that ever since then, the Mona Lisa has found its way into the consciousness of (probably) every person on earth. Scandal does amazing things for one’s fame, doesn’t it? Well, now the painting is behind bullet proof glass, as you can see from the picture below on the right (and look at the crowds of people all wanting to take pictures of it or selfies with it!!!):

Left: Venus de Milo; Middle: Winged Victory of Samothrice; Right: the pandemonium that Mona is still creating today and everyday

As a side note, I remember seeing the Mona Lisa when I was here in 1990 with Mike and Rob, and I was struck by how different an experience it was seeing it then versus now. First of all, they’ve moved the painting to its own separate wall. Before, it was on the wall along with a bunch of other paintings. Moreover, back in 1990 there were about 4 people standing beside me looking at the painting. Today, it’s mayhem. It got me wondering why, and one reason that I came up with is that back in 1990 there were 5 billion people in the world. The population has grown 40% since then: there’s an extra 2 billion people milling around these days!

There were a ton of other paintings in the Louvre, of course, but the other one that I found interesting was one by Eugene Delacroix, painted in 1830, because it inspired Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables; specifically for the character of Gavroche.

Later in the evening, I went back to see the Eiffel Tower, this time from the other side:

May 28 (day 168): Paris

I did another walking tour today of an area called the Marais.

One of the things I learned was that when the Germans moved into Paris in 1940, they started by restricting Jews from practicing certain professions, and slowly ramped up their madness, so that in 1941 they removed 3,700 Jewish men from Paris (to concentration camps), and in July of 1942 they rounded up 13,000 Jewish women and children. In total, 76,000 French Jews perished. Below is a memorial — a giant urn with the soil from the different concentration camps — that’s in the Jewish neighborhood.

Left: a memorial in the Jewish neighborhood; Right: the names of the people who took action, and risked their own lives to save Jewish people during the Nazi occupation of Paris from 1940 to 1944

May 29 (day 169): Paris

I did yet another walking tour today! (I find these tours to be a great way to get to know the city in a way that I could never fully discover and appreciate if I was just walking around on my own.) This tour covered the village of Montmartre.

On our walk we came across this:

There was a French writer, Marcel Ayme, who wrote a short story called “Le Passe-muraille” (The Man Who Walked Through Walls), and when the writer died, the city commemorated him by creating this monument next to the building that the story takes place. (It’s a fun story; our guide told it to us along the way).

We also saw where Van Gogh lived for a few years with his brother, Theo.

Vincent Van Gogh lived here between 1886 and 1888 with his brother Theo

The story of Van Gogh’s life is a sad one: he never really succeeded at anything in his early years. He tried being a minister, a teacher, he worked in an art gallery… and even after he tried his hand at painting, he wasn’t able to sell them for very much. He grew depressed, cut off a part of his left ear at one point, and eventually committed suicide at 37.

We also passed by the place that Picasso lived when he first arrived in Paris when he was 20 years old: Le Bateau Lavoir. This was the place where many up-and-coming artists were living and painting and sharing ideas with each other at the time. This is the place where he developed his ideas for the whole cubism movement.

Picasso lived here!

Afterwards, I did another wine tasting session. The Parisians love their wine, and are so proud of it, I just wanted to see what else I could learn. The sommelier that did the session was an Asian Parisian. He was quite entertaining. A few things he said were: (i) the French say that a meal without wine is like a day without sunshine, (ii) a meal without wine is basically called breakfast, (iii) a French baguette should be crusty on the outside and like mother’s love on the inside, (iv) we buy a bottle of foreign wine once a year just to make sure we still don’t like it… it was fun. On a more serious note, we learned that France is so small, but so diverse in terms of climate, which is why you can get so many different types of wine. Also, to observe the tears (or legs) it’s best to tip the glass. Smell the wine first, then swirl it and smell it again (the swirl mixes the molecules). New world wines (from Australia and North America) are created more for drinking on their own, whereas European wines were developed and perfected over centuries to go well with food. For this reason, it’s best to have wine from the same region that the food you’re having is from. And finally — while perhaps intuitive — the smaller boutique wineries make better wine, as a general rule of thumb. Just like when you cook for 6 people you can put your heart into it, it becomes industrial when you’re cooking for 600+. “Industrial wine can be technically flawless, but with no character”, as he said. In summary, it was a fun evening.

May 30 (day 170): Paris to Reims

I got a BlaBlaCar ride from Paris to Reims. It was raining buckets today.

I booked a room through AirBnB with a guy in Reims and he picked me up from the train station (which is where my ride share dropped me off). Mael Brun, my host, is a med student. He was born and raised in Reims.

Mael took me to his house, and then dropped me off at the big champagne producer in town, GH Mumm, where I managed to get into their last tour of the day, along with a tasting of 2 of their champagnes. The tasting was pricey (38 euros, or almost $60 CDN) but I came all this way to check this all out, so why not? I can’t say that it was amazing, but it was good. I guess I haven’t cultivated a taste for the bubbly; it was worth it to try.

GH Mumm estate

May 31 (day 171): Epernay

I started today by walking around central Reims, and checking out the cathedral in here: it was massive… I can’t help but think about how much energy, time, and resources were put in building these monuments to God and Jesus. And there’s everywhere; in every small town…

I caught the 12:20pm train to Epernay, arrived around 1:30, and headed straight to Moet & Chandon, the most famous champagne maker (not just in here in Epernay or France, but the world), and owner of the Dom Perignon label. (Every time I think of their name, that song by Snoop Dogg comes to mind: I got a Rolly on my arm and I’m pouring Chandon, and I roll the best weed cause I got it going on! Drop it like it’s hot…)

At the estate of Moet & Chandon

I was just in time for their 2:00pm cellar tour. They have 28 kilometers of underground tunnels where they age their champagnes. A vintage champagne is aged a minimum of 7 years, and their “entry level” champagnes are aged at least 3 years. Also, Moet & Chandon does all their grape harvesting by hand.

A small section of the 28 kilometers of underground tunnels at Moet & Chandon
Behind me are literally thousands of bottles of aging Dom Perignon

After the tour, it was time to sample a couple of their vintages.

I sampled the 2006 “grand vintage” in both white and rose. You can pick up a 6-pack for just 282 euros ($420 CDN).

I don’t know if I was just influenced by the label, but I did think it was a very smooth and easy drinking champagne. Either way, it was good fun.

My adventure continues here: