Rila Monastery Bulgaria and Tsarev Vrah Hotel Restaurant

Rila Monastery Bulgaria and Tsarev Vrah Hotel Restaurant

Rila Monastery Bulgaria and Tsarev Vrah Hotel Restaurant

Our friend Tedi did a fantastic job of hosting our week in Bulgaria.  Our first day had gotten the trip off to a great start, covering most of the capital Sofia’s historical monuments.  In the next two days, we would get to visit some of the most important sights around Sofia, beginning with a Sunday drive to the Rila Monastery in the mountains to the south.

Manastirska River Waterfall

Manastirska River Waterfall

And when I say “in the mountains” I am mean a pretty rustic setting.  The river that flows past the monastery with its waterfall is quite beautiful and dramatic.

The entrance to Rila Monastery is gorgeous, covered with brightly painted ornament (with a curious lion in the middle of the ceiling).

When you enter, you find yourself in the middle of a large courtyard, the middle of the monastery.  All around you, framing the square, are the monk’s dormitories (and I hear members of the public can stay in guest housing here as well).

There are two buildings in the middle of the courtyard – Hreliov’s Tower and the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin.  The monastery is supposed to have been founded in the 10th century by legendary hermit Ivan Rilski, but Hreliov’s Tower, from the 14th century, is to my knowledge the oldest part of the monastery that survives.

The church is by comparison fairly new, only built in the mid-nineteenth century.  The walls of the interior are covered with involved paintings – I am sure you could spend many years going over all the biblical stories depicted there.  Unfortunately, there is no photography allowed inside the church, but fortunately, on the exterior is a porch wrapped around the church that also has many wonderful colorful paintings, and there is no photography restriction there.

After exploring the church, Tedi directed us toward the Monastery Museum, contained with a section of the main building, behind and to the right of the church.  Numerous pieces of sacred artifacts, like altar vestments, from down through the centuries are contained there in glass cases.  The museum covers three floors of the building, with long staircases connecting them – with our legs still a bit sore from the previous day’s walking, I could’ve done without the climbing.  And as I recall, we did not spend that much time in this museum.  And be aware, the museum is the one part of the monastery for which there is an entrance fee (although as I recall it was nominal, the equivalent of a dollar or two).

Tedi was surprised when we rejoined her in the courtyard – she thought we would spend more time in the museum.  It was time for lunch, for which we went to an outdoor setting on a restaurant that is just beyond the monastery entrance (I gather that some people are misled into thinking that this is an official monastery restaurant, but there is a clear sign indicating that the small Tzarev Vrah hotel is also the name of this restaurant).

It took a while for my entree of boneless spare ribs and and fries to come – by the time they did, Therese and Tedi had both finished eating their lunch.  But they were willing to wait for me, since we were not in a hurry to be anywhere, and I’m glad they were, because I enjoyed these tender ribs.

I was relaxed and sleepy during the drive back to Sofia (it is about 2 hours each way).  We agreed on our agenda for the following day – to meet Tedi in the morning for a visit to the legendary Boyana Church, after which she would drop us off at the National History Museum (which is not far from the church), and meet us back at our hotel in the late afternoon to drive to Veliko Turnovo.  Our extraordinary time in Sofia was going by so fast!

Posted in Bulgaria, Bulgarian Food, Churches, Countries, Dairy Free, Food, Lunch, Monuments, Rila, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sunday in Paris at Eiffel Tower and Musee d’Orsay

Sunday in Paris at Eiffel Tower and Musee d’Orsay

Sunday in Paris at Eiffel Tower and Musee d’Orsay

A very successful first day in Paris with our friend Faith lead smoothly into a second day, finishing up the weekend and filling in some more blanks in the beginning of our friend’s exposure to France.

Place Saint-Augustin

Place Saint-Augustin

We left our comfortable hotel near the Place Saint-Augustin and took the Metro to, tada! the Eiffel Tower (only the most famous monument in Paris, if not the whole world).

OK, so we didn’t go up in the tower.  We just gaped at it, in awe, and had some fun photo ops.  But now we had seen the best, most iconic, tall thing anywhere.

RER Train C to Musee d'Orsay

RER Train C to Musee d’Orsay

Next step was to take the RER train to the Musee d’Orsay.  It is probably possible to take the Metro from one to the other, but even if it is, it is simpler to take the RER.  First, it is closer to the Eiffel Tower than the Metro stop.  Then, it is just 3 stops to Musee d’Orsay.  It’s as simple as that.  And while the RER train, being a commuter train, is a little different than the Metro (the stations look more like train stations than Metro station, for example), as long as you just ride it within Paris (zone 1), it costs the same amount as the Metro, and you even use the same ticket.  Easy peasy.  Now, if you want to take it to Versailles, that’s a different story…

Anyway, so we arrived at what was really the main event of the day (I guess you could say that the Eiffel Tower was a palate cleanser), Musee d’Orsay.  One of our favorite museums in Paris, without question.  I don’t really know what the deal is with the rhino in the area outside the museum.  But that aside, we were there to see the permanent collection and see the current special exhibit, on Impressionist Henri Rousseau (1844-1910).

And by the way, Musee d’Orsay is one of those places where it is highly advisable to buy your tickets on-line before you arrive.  When you do that, you skip the line, rather than having to wait in a crazy long line just to buy your ticket.  On this occasion, the line was not so bad, but the first time we were at the d’Orsay it was super long, and we were very happy we already had our tickets.

Anyway, the museum’s first floor gives you a full taste of the museum’s specialty, painting of the nineteenth century.  Big names like Gustave Moreau and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec share wall space with lots of others I am less familiar with like Joseph Blanc.  A lot of the works on the first floor are generally realist in conception, but that doesn’t, to me, mean that they’re all the same.  In fact, I get a greater appreciation for the breadth of styles and subject matters of the century from seeing all these beautiful pieces together on this one extensive floor of galleries.

When we entered the museum, we vaguely planned that we would wander independently before gathering near the entrance to the Rousseau exhibit.  We should’ve specified a time, because I think that while I was indulging in all the galleries on the first floor, Therese and Faith were already finished and ready to move on.  Oh well.  We were thrilled with the Rousseau exhibit.  While there were no photos allowed there (grrrr), we walked through it and gained a fuller appreciation, again, for the breadth of styles that Rousseau employed during his career.  Of course, the crowing glory of the exhibit were the large-format paintings of wild animals in jungles like “The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope.”  The one that was probably my favorite was “The Snake-Charmer.”

By the time we finished with the Rousseau exhibit, it was time for lunch.  And here is where the d’Orsay out-shines many other museums (the Louvre, for example) – because their restaurant setting, which was the train station restaurant back when the museum was a train station, is gorgeous.  You can’t help but feel elegant sitting surrounded by the incredible ornaments on the walls and ceiling.  We had a very good lunch, feeling pretty comfortable on the funky shiny chairs.  My main dish, something with grilled salmon, was unremarkable, but my dessert, lemon sorbet with Limoncello, was wonderful.

Now that we had rested and were refreshed, it was time to tackle another part of the museum’s permanent collection, the Impressionist works on the Fifth floor.  I learned so much more about some of the Impressionists who were not so familiar to me that day.  Sure, I knew a bit about Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, a couple others.  But I never knew what to think of Edouard Manet, and I never saw much of Camille Pissarro’s paintings, for example.  And there was plenty of Claude Monet (and Degas and Cezzane, etc.) to fill in my appreciation of them as well.

Near the end of our time on that floor, I saw a couple of paintings highlighting individual pieces of food that I found rather curious.  So I did my best to collect enough to make a meal out of them.

Asparagus, lemon, meat and garlic – enough for dinner.  Hmmm, maybe I should’ve included Cezzane’s still life with onions in my group.

In any case, by then the afternoon was fading, and we could’ve headed straight to the train station and then on to Rouen.  We certainly had had a full day.  But I was feeling like we should show Faith something of the Marais, our favorite part of Paris.  So we took a taxi over there, straight to the heart of the district, the Place des Vosges.

I have never seen Place des Vosges with so many people!  I guess it becomes more like a park in the summer, rather than just a green square surrounded by old buildings.  We walked south through the place, past some musicians who were playing jazzy folk songs.  It was evident that we were pooped – if you want to explore the Marais, you have to have enough energy to wander without worrying if you are getting anywhere.  But I pushed on, passing some of the district’s highlights, like the Hotel de Sens and the Village St-Paul (where we had a cool beverage), before we finally collapsed into a taxi.

Then it was back to the hotel, and from there to Gare Saint-Lazare for our evening train ride to Rouen.

Paris Gare Saint-Lazare

Paris Gare Saint-Lazare

As a coda, I will just tell you about our evening’s misadventure in Rouen.  You see, the night we arrived in Rouen was also the night of the final of the European Football Championship, played (of course) in France (specifically Paris), between (of course) France and Portugal. Which meant, it being a Sunday night anyway, there were no taxis at the train station to take us to our apartment, and it was impossibly far for us to walk (AND there were like 6 people in line ahead of us, to boot).  Therese, resourceful as ever, crossed the street to a hotel, and got the fellow at the reception desk there to call the taxi dispatcher, wait 30 rings until the dispatcher picked up, and then tell him to send whatever taxi drivers were working that night to the train station.  So eventually, phew! a taxi came and took us to our apartment on Rue Eau de Robec.

By then of course all the restaurants were closed, but we managed to find a 24-hour falafel place open on Rue de la Republique, called something like “Food 76 Express.”  They sold us some filling hearty chicken shawarma with rice platters that we wolfed down when we got back to our apartment.  A very fine end to a long, exhausting, fulfilling day.

Posted in Countries, Dairy Free, Dessert, Food, France, Lunch, Monuments, Museums, Paris, Sorbet, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sainte Chapelle Hidden Gem on Paris’s Île de la Cité

Sainte Chapelle Hidden Gem on Paris’s Île de la Cité

Sainte Chapelle Hidden Gem on Paris’s Île de la Cité

If you don’t know where Sainte-Chapelle is, you might not find it.  I’m sure there are many people who visit Paris, prowl all around the Île de la Cité and never notice it’s there.  And there is a good reason for that – having been built as the personal chapel of King Louis IX (aka Saint Louis), it was in the middle of the grounds for the medieval Palais de la Cité, which is now the grounds of Paris’s Palais de Justice.  Thus, it is within a courtyard and cannot really be seen from the street (if you want to find it, walk south on Boulevard du Palais past the Conciergerie and the Palais de Justice, and you will see the queue for tickets on your right).

As for me, I treasure the opportunity whenever we are in Paris to see this glorious example of Royannant Gothic architecture.  Because, well, the upper chapel (we’ll talk about what’s upper and what’s lower in a minute) is just extraordinary, richly-colored medieval stained glass from floor to ceiling.  Like this:

Sainte-Chapelle Interior

Sainte-Chapelle Interior

So the Lower Chapel is the street-level entrance to Sainte-Chapelle.  Back in the day, this was the parish church for those who worked in the palace, but now it is the gift shop.  As a gift shop, though, it is the most well-decorated in existence (I say this without a touch of doubt).  Don’t believe me?  Well, look at these pictures of the lower chapel and then tell me what you think.

The main show is really the upper chapel, but to me, the lower chapel is also worth spending some time exploring.  But if you are eager to see the main event, the upper chapel, don’t worry – before you leave, you will have a chance to see the lower chapel again.  Give in to your patience and climb the curly staircase and come out into the glorious chamber where the king worshiped all those many centuries ago.

I had not previously noticed how incredible the porch over the west entrance is – I have already shown you the Last Judgment above the doors onto the terrace.  In addition to that, the exterior walls are decorated with glorious stone carvings, showing mostly Old Testament scenes like the creation and Noah’s Ark.  Some of my favorites are the ones giving the Adam and Eve story, beginning in the most graphic depiction I have ever seen of God pulling Eve from Adam’s side.

(Another wonderful detail is in the second panel – you can see the serpent curling around Eve’s heal, and she points a finger at him as if to say, “Don’t worry, you’ll get your turn!”)

There isn’t a much better time to visit Sainte-Chapelle than now.  After a series of repair efforts going back I believe to the nineteenth century, the chapel is in just splendid shape.  Most recently, they spent several years cleaning all the stained glass – the last time I visited Sainte-Chapelle (2010), they were still in the middle of that.  Now they are done, and it looks absolutely gorgeous.  As you can see from my photos, I am really into ornamental details.  You could do an entire manual of Medieval ornament just from what exists in Sainte-Chapelle.

So next time you are in Paris, don’t forget to put this glorious place on your itinerary.  And if you haven’t been to Paris yet, you need to go there just so you can see Sainte-Chapelle.  Once you do, your barometer of what beautiful sacred spaces look like will be altered forever.  But trust me, strictly in a good way.

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Restaurant Shtastliveca Vegan Cake in Veliko Turnovo

Restaurant Shtastliveca Vegan Cake in Veliko Turnovo

Restaurant Shtastliveca Vegan Cake in Veliko Turnovo

Our last full day in Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria was already a special one when we walked into Restaurant Shtastliveca for afternoon refreshment.  We had taken the Free Walking Tour of the Old Town, followed by lunch at Gurko Tavern and shopping in Samovodska Charshiya.  Then we saw the incredible views of the city from our table next to restaurant’s window, and thought, “ok, this is really nice.”

We had seen other views of Asen’s Monument, the huge equestrian sculpture at the center of the city, but the view from this angle might have been the best.  And then when I looked to my left, I could see the city’s Old Town laid out before me.  Yes, really nice indeed.

Then I looked at the dessert menu, and I got an extra wonderful surprise.  First, I saw that they listed two kinds of sorbet, very nice (and their numbering system for food allergies, which used the number 7 to indicate the presence of dairy products, was pretty awesome).

Sorbets on Shtastliveca's Menu

Sorbets on Shtastliveca’s Menu

I kept looking beyond the sorbets, just in case there might be some other dessert options for me (always the hardest part of a meal to find dairy free, but I can always hope…).  And whaddaya know! they listed a vegan chocolate cake!

Vegan Cake Entry on Shtastliveca's Dessert Menu

Vegan Cake Entry on Shtastliveca’s Dessert Menu

I suppose we could postulate the theory that the restaurant sells a vegan cake because Veliko Turnovo is a university town, and students are more likely to be vegans than the general population.  Whatever the reason, they listed it on the menu, so I had to order it (just for scientific purposes, you understand).

Well, it turned out to be quite wonderful.  And for just 4.90 Bulgarian Lev, that translates to less than 3 American dollars for a great vegan dessert.  How often does that happen?

Vegan Cake with Raspberry Sorbet at Shtastliveca

Vegan Cake with Raspberry Sorbet at Shtastliveca

And as you can see from this picture and others I have included of the restaurant, this place is decorated with charm, lots of lace and soft comfy chairs.  Kind of like in the style of your hip grandmother, if that makes any sense.

Shtastliveca's Interior and Bar

Shtastliveca’s Interior and Bar

One final joy was to be reminded that this restaurant has a sister restaurant of the same name in Sofia – Tedi had pointed that out to us as she guided us through Sofia on our first day, and she mentioned that again when she picked us up after our transcendent dessert (Therese also had something that was quite wonderful).  So we resolved to make a stop at the Sofia Shtastliveca when we returned to the capital city!

Posted in Bulgaria, Cake, Countries, Dairy Free, Dessert, Food, Restaurants, Travel, Vegan food, Veliko Tarnovo | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Notre Dame and Sainte Chappelle on Faith’s First Day in Paris

Notre Dame and Sainte Chappelle on Faith’s First Day in Paris

Notre Dame and Sainte Chappelle on Faith’s First Day in Paris

After two weeks in the comparative quite and slow pace of Rouen, it was a bit jarring at first to be back in Paris.  But being there to meet our friend Faith, to introduce her to the city at the start of her first visit to France, was very exciting.  So I got over my initial shock, and got ready to spend a weekend with Therese and her in, yay! Paris.  We would cover all the usual best things to do, including a visit to the Eiffel Tower.  But on this first day, it was all about heading to the Ile de la Cite, the middle of the city geographically and historically, to make stops at Notre Dame de Paris and (my personal favorite) Sainte-Chapelle.

With Faith taking an overnight flight that changed in Iceland, we kept in touch with her through Facebook to get an idea of when she would arrive.  We had some time to kill and didn’t think it would be much fun just hanging around the hotel, so we went for a walk.

I had ambitions of tracking down things I’d never seen before, but it was easier to end up walking along the Champs-Elysees towards the Place de la Concorde.  This was worth the trip just to see the latter all clogged up with, I am guessing, arrangements for the coming national holiday (Fete Nationale, July 14th).  Along the way, we passed by the Grand Palais and walked through the peaceful Jardin des Ambassadeurs.

We planned on lunching with Faith later, but we were already quite hungry (our breakfast had been pretty light as I recall), so we stopped at a deli called Bram’s to share a salmon salad with pasta (the best part about this was reading the deli’s boast that they are as good as Carnegie Deli – how many Parisians would even know what that was?

We got back to our hotel, the Astor St-Honore, not long before Faith got there.  Hugs were exchanged.  We checked into our rooms on the 5th floor – Faith had a nice one, and ours was a mini-suite, with a table and chairs and a balcony – very impressive!

Our Room at the Astor St-Honore Hotel

Our Room at the Astor St-Honore Hotel

We started off Faith’s immersion into all things Paris with a lunch at an outdoor cafe not far from our hotel.  Le Saint-Augustin faces the “place” of the same name.  Over-priced and not top quality, but we got some sun and filled our bellies.

Then it was time to hit the Metro.  We changed at the Republic stop and took that to Chatelet, and a block from there, we hit the Seine.  In front of us was the Conciergerie (where Marie Antionette was famously incarcerated) and just to the right Faith got her first sighting of the Eiffel Tower, behind the ancient Pont Neuf.

Seine River with Conciergerie, with Tour Eiffel and Pont Neuf in the Background

Seine River with Conciergerie, with Tour Eiffel and Pont Neuf in the Background

Next to the Conciergerie is Sainte-Chapelle, a small Medieval royal chapel that is without an equal in my eyes.  I will write a separate post to give you the intricacies of its beauty, but here are a couple to give you a taste.

So yes, we spent a good bit of time there.  Then Faith and I descended into the Archaeological Paris museum in front of Notre Dame (while Therese took a break).

I appreciate this museum more than I enjoy it.  It is instructive to see how all the different layers of historical development of the island were literally not only right on top of each other, but also alongside each other.  They make an effort in this museum to give you information about the different sections of ruins – what time period they are from, what function they served.  It just comes across to me as a jumble of stone and mortar.  I would be thrilled if there were more scale models of the area during different historical periods, identifying sections of the extant ruins that pertain to those periods.

And then it was time to enter the glorious cathedral of Notre Dame of Paris.  The cathedral of cathedrals.  I think it is crazy but also amazing that a building that is so much in demand as a tourist destination is also so devoted to serving the community’s spiritual needs.  There are not that many times of any day of the week that there is not a service going on.  We tourists are relegated to walking around the perimeter of the church, away from the action.  I enjoyed hearing the cantors leading Vespers, the evening service, while we were there (the soprano was excellent, the tenor, meh).

Restaurant Beaurepaire

Restaurant Beaurepaire

After the cathedral, we crossed the bridge to the south and retraced steps Therese and I had taken on our first trip to Paris in 2010, to a relaxing cafe where we could have some cold beverages and chill.  The cafe, now called Beaurepaire, is still there but has changed ownership since we were last there.  As we savored our cold drinks (Mint “diabolo” for me, Campari and orange juice for Therese and Faith), a frenzy to clear out the afternoon loungers so that the dinner service might begin took place.

No worries – we finished up and taxied it back toward our hotel.  I had picked out a restaurant just a couple blocks from the hotel, Pomze, a place that is apple-themed.  We had a fabulous dinner, another one of those experiences where I was reminded that food is generally exceptional in Paris.

More importantly than having a transcendent meal was having a meal that ably encapsulated the experience of a great day in Paris, both for us and for our new visitor.  We went to bed that night ready to wake up the next day and do it all over again!

Posted in Churches, Countries, Dairy Free, Dessert, Dinner, Food, France, French Food, Lunch, Monuments, Museums, Paris, Restaurants, Ruins, Sorbet, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Our Sofia Bulgaria First Day Walking Tour

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral Highlights Our Sofia First Day Walking Tour

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral Highlights Our Sofia First Day Walking Tour

The first day of our glorious month-long trip, hooray!  We arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria, had a very enlightening shuttle van ride from the airport, driven by Sammy, the concierge from our hotel the Sofia Hilton, and we were off to a good start.  After freshening up, our friend Teodora Kaleynska (or Tedi), our guide for the next week in Bulgaria, arrived, and we were on our way.

This first day she would take us on “a circle,” as she called it, taking in many of the sights of the Bulgarian capital.  To begin, we set across the pedestrian overpass that led us past the massive National Palace of Culture (Tedi told us the tragic story of the cultural minister Lyudmila Zhivkova who got it built during Soviet times).

National Palace of Culture, with Pedestrian Bridge in the Right Foreground

National Palace of Culture, with Pedestrian Bridge in the Right Foreground

From there, we soon made it to our first monument, the ill-fated 1300th Anniversary Monument, which was unveiled in 1981 to celebrate the 13 hundredth anniversary of the founding of the original Bulgarian kingdom in 681 (Bulgarians are proud because their country holds the distinction of being the oldest country to have kept the same name since its founding).

1300th Anniversary Monument

1300th Anniversary Monument

Okay, the thing is ugly.  It was ugly when it was built, and now that it is crumbling, and slated for removal, it is uglier still.  But it was kinda cool to see it.

Not far from there, just a block to the west, is the beginning of the pedestrian-only street Vitosha Boulevard, lined with shops and restaurants.

Vitosha Boulevard

Vitosha Boulevard

A very calming atmosphere prevails here.  You can already see our next stop if you look hard: Sveta Nedelya Church.

Tedi warned us that this church is not as old as it might initially appear – it was only built in the 19th century.  In Bulgaria that is what it is like for us to say, “oh that was built in the 1970s.”  AKA, “oh some of that new unimaginative crap.”  At least in this case they had the good sense to copy the old buildings – and we would see some of the truly ancient parts of Sofia, some that day and some later in our trip.

Sveta Nedelya Church

Sveta Nedelya Church

We didn’t have to walk far to see some truly ancient architecture.  The tiny Sveta Petka Church is utterly charming, and I regret we didn’t have a chance to go inside.  But for the most part, on this first day, we kept moving.  Tedi was sensitive to the fact that we were going on little sleep after our overnight flight from New York City, and also knew that we wanted to get a good idea of the city on this first day (hopefully before exhaustion set in).

Sveta Petka Church

Sveta Petka Church

Not far from Sveta Petka Church is the Ancient Serdica Archeological Complex.   Serdica is what the city was called originally, and these ruins, just below the level of the street are remnants of some of the oldest settlements in the area.  I love these kinds of ruins – the previous summer I so enjoyed seeing the Roman ruins below Vienna – so this really thrilled me.  Unfortunately, I was not very nimble with the camera that day – the only thing I managed to capture was a bas relief made to commemorate the complex when it was opened to the public recently (as in just a couple of months ago).

Modern Plaque Commemorating the Serdica Archeological Complex

Modern Plaque Commemorating the Serdica Archeological Complex

Our next stop was in front of one of the most photogenic buildings in the city, the Church of St. Nikolai which is often called the “Russian” church since that is where the city’s Russian Orthodox community worships.

A few blocks further brought us to one of the city’s grandest (though not oldest) buildings, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.  With its sequence of round domes, some covered in gold, this reminds me so much of the Aya Sofia in Istanbul.  Although again, this building is a youngster, only having been built in the nineteenth century.

By now, with the day being a very hot one (our entire time in Bulgaria the temperatures were in the 90s), we were starting to feel a bit weary.  Luckily, we were able to duck into the somewhat less sweltering interior of the cathedral where a gorgeous Vespers service was taking place.  The interchange between the chanting priests and the choir was marvelous.

Tedi could see we had had enough, and assured us that it was not far to where we would have dinner.  She took us to a charming place, Alegre Restaurant, that had a lovely garden in the back.  You’ll hear me say this in just about every post I write about Bulgaria – but if only it had been a couple degrees cooler, our dinner would have been completely lovely.

Mediterranean-inspired Chicken Dinner at Alegre Restaurant

Mediterranean-inspired Chicken Dinner at Alegre Restaurant

As it was, we had a very nice dinner.  I had a Mediterranean-style chicken dish with paprika and peanuts and grated carrots.  And of course we drank many glasses of water and other beverages.

Then it was time to head home.  Tedi got us as far as the pedrestrian walkway (her car was parked in the other direction), and from there we had just enough gas to make it back to the Hilton hotel and the comforts of our air-conditioned room.  Wow, what a first day.  Thank you, Tedi! Sofia certainly seemed to be a remarkable city, and in the few days we had to explore it, we would do our best to take in some of its beauty!

Sofia Hilton

Sofia Hilton

Posted in Bulgaria, Bulgarian Food, Churches, Countries, Dairy Free, Dinner, Food, Monuments, Restaurants, Ruins, Sofia, Temples | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Gare Rive Droite Rouen Our Gateway to Paris and Bayeux

Gare Rive Droite Rouen Our Gateway to Paris and Bayeux

Gare Rive Droite Rouen Our Gateway to Paris and Bayeux

None of us travel with the idea of getting to be experts on the airports and train stations. But the fact is that knowing your way around those places can make your travel time go smoother, and thus take a little of the stress off and make the whole experience of travel more fun.  And I’m happy to say that during this time in Rouen, I definitely got to know the Gare River Droite better.

Not that there is really that much to it.  When you enter there is the wide open lobby, with ugly murals painted on the walls.

Then there is just one sit-down restaurant, one sandwich counter, and one magazine stand.  Yep, just one of each.

The entire train station is under renovation right now, so hopefully, there will be a little more than just these options; but as they are working with limited space, I can’t see that they can add that much (well, maybe another magazine stand and sandwich counter).  Anyway, as you walk further into the station, you pass through a hallway into the waiting room –

Main Hallway of Gare Rive Droite Clogged by Renovation Work

Main Hallway of Gare Rive Droite Clogged by Renovation Work

And there is the access to the trains – usually just four tracks, accessible by two stairwells each, are in play.  Two screens overhead give you information on the trains – green for arrivals, blue for departures.

List of Train Departures

List of Train Departures

The train we were taking that day was the 10:04 to Caen – we would change trains at Caen, and eventually arrive at Bayeux, our destination.  But let’s back up just a bit.  In France, trains are all run by one company, the Société nationale des chemins de fer français, or SNCF.  You can buy tickets on-line; however, if you are using an American credit card (whether you are buying tickets at home before you travel to France, or buying them while you are in France), you cannot use SNCF – instead, you have to buy your tickets through RailEurope.  Of course, if you’re already in France and planning to take a train trip, you can always just buy your tickets at the train station.  But if you’re like me and don’t want to get sold out of tickets for a particular train, buying ahead of time can be crucial.

If you buy online, you will get get a code that will enable you to pick up your tickets.  Whether you are doing that, or buying tickets at the station, using the machines is really really easy.

Yellow Ticket Machines in all Train Stations

First, make sure you change the language you are using to English.  Once you do that, it is pretty straightforward to us.

If you’ve purchased tickets online, you will put in your code to retrieve them.

Retrieving Tickets from Train Station Yellow Machine

Retrieving Tickets from Train Station Yellow Machine

Then the screen will show your itinerary and ask you to confirm that.

Confirming Bayeux Reservation

Confirming Bayeux Reservation

Then it prints out your tickets and you’re ready to go!

If you are buying your tickets from scratch, it isn’t that much more involved – you just pick what city you are going to, then find your desired train time, and class, and how many tickets, and that’s pretty much it.  The machine will ask you for the name and other information of the passengers, but unless you want your ticket to have all that information on it, you can just skip through that step.

For many short-distance trains, like the one from Rouen to Paris, the seats are unreserved (just as our Amtrak tickets are), and you can sit anywhere there is a free seat.  But for some longer-distance trains, the seats are reserved, which means you have to find your proper car and seat.  Once you get down to your track, the signs for your train will give some idea of how the train’s cars will be aligned with the track, as seen in this photo.

Alignment of our train with the track

Alignment of our train with the track

The letters R through X represent positions along the track – when we got to the bottom of the stairs, we were at position T, so since our seats were in car 16, we simply had to walk down to the sign for position U.

One other potentially confusing thing is the way the seat numbers are laid out in French train cars.  In short, it is bizarre.  On the left side are even numbers – the first seats will be 2 and 4, then 6 and 8 – and the right side odd (1 and 3, 5 and 7).  But then somewhere in the middle, there are also even numbers on the right side.  And the numbers are not consecutive.  This is what I am talking about –

Wacky French Seating Set-up

Wacky French Seating Set-up

Yes, that’s right: 12 is next to 18, and they are on the right side, surrounded by odd numbered seats.  In some rationale, that allows all the seating to work out, but don’t ask me how.  Just don’t get panicky if you buy two tickets and one is for 12 and the other 18.  Those two seats are in fact next to each other.

Now that we’ve got all these logistical details settled, you are ready to ride the rails in France.  And trust me, riding the trains there is great.  From Rouen to Paris’s Gare Saint-Lazare, for example, is usually only a 75 minute ride (there are some slower trains that take longer, but those usually run at the off times).

Paris Gare Saint-Lazare

Paris Gare Saint-Lazare

But pretty much anywhere you go, there are bound to be lots of things full of beauty and history.  For example, when we went to Bayeux, we just happened to pass through Lisieux, with its gorgeous cathedral visible from the train.

Lisieux Cathedral

Lisieux Cathedral

And after you’ve had a long day exploring art and culture and history, you can get back on the train and relax, knowing you will get to your destination in comfort, in a timely fashion.

Snoozing at the end of a busy day of traveling

Snoozing at the end of a busy day of traveling

 

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