Day 10: Black Forest, Rhine Falls, Swiss Alps

We woke up at 6:30 and enjoyed a German breakfast at our hotel. By 7:30 we had all boarded the bus heading for the Black Forest.

When we arrived at a little part of the Black Forest, we went into a cuckoo-clock workshop and were instructed in how cuckoo-clocks were constructed. All the clocks were very pretty: intricately carved and painted with good mechanisms. However, they were also super expensive.

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After enjoying the clocks, a bunch of us went for a hike in the Black Forest. The hike was beautiful; we followed a moderately sized stream and found a few waterfalls and a man-made partial dam. I couldn’t stop taking pictures.

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We then left the Black Forest and drove toward Switzerland. We crossed the Swiss border without incident (they didn’t even check our passports to give us stamps) and rode toward the Rhine Falls, the largest (but not tallest) waterfall in Europe.

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Following our visit to the falls, we arrived at the Grand Hotel Europe in Lucerne, Switzerland. The hotel was nice and included the first really good shower of the trip. Almost everyone got dressed nicely and headed out to our Swiss Folklore Dinner Party option.

At the Folklore Dinner, we enjoyed traditional Swiss music, dancing, and games before and after our meal. The meal was good and included some real veggies (why have they been missing everywhere else?), which made everyone happy. The games were a bit dangerous and a few people got hurt (but nothing is broken, as far as we can tell). Due to construction on the mountain road, we couldn’t stay in Illgau (the town on the mountain where the folklore dinner was located) past 10 PM. On the bus ride home, it turned into a bit of a party (but I fell asleep).

We arrived back at the hotel and fell asleep promptly.

Tomorrow: More time in Lucerne, journey to the small country of Liechtenstein, and end in Munich with a Bavarian dinner and some beer at the Hofbrauhaus.

Day 9: Cologne, Rhine River, Heidelberg

This morning, we woke up at 5:30. Another good Dutch breakfast was served at 6, and everyone was on the bus to Germany by 6:30.

I slept most of the bus ride until we arrived at a rest-stop in Germany about an hour outside Cologne. Again, we encountered pay toilets that gave a coupon in the store (€0.70 to use the toilet and get a €0.50 coupon). One short hour later and we were in Cologne.

The cathedral was pretty impressive; its two towers loomed over the city. Inside, mass was going on and we heard some beautiful organ music. After, we grabbed some McDonald’s, got cash at an ATM, and visited a souvenir shop.

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We then took the bus to a small town on the Rhine called Boppard. We boarded a boat to see the various castles on the Rhine. There was a bar/restaurant on the boat, so I had some hefeweizen and tried a new food: goulash.

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Following our boat adventure, we journeyed toward the Castle of Heidelberg. With its half-restored, half-ruined state, the castle was oddly peaceful. We only spent half an hour there, but it was enough time to get some good pictures.

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Arriving at our hotel, the Holiday Inn, we were happy to discover that the rooms were more of the American style, albeit with twin beds rather than full/queen. However, I still haven’t found a shower in Europe that I like: London and Heidelberg were just too small, Paris was too weird, and Amsterdam was just oddly placed. Regardless, they all (eventually) worked for getting me clean.

Nine of us piled into a taxi and headed down to the main street of Heidelberg. Since Heidelberg is a University town with an additional population of an American military base, there are over 200 bars and restaurants. We ended up in an Irish Pub to watch the final of the EuroCup.

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After our first round of drinks, we were surprised to see more people from our trip arrive. Alex (the tour liason from the Alumni Association) bought the second round of drinks and we continued to watch. When I had finished, I decided that I would try a scotch I’ve been wanting to try: Talisker 10. I liked it quite a bit and intend to buy a bottle soon.

Before getting ready to leave, everyone visited the restroom. While I was in there, I was approached by a man asking in broken English which team I supported. I tried to explain that I supported neither, but he didn’t understand. He guessed that I was an American soldier, but was surprised to discover that I was merely a tourist. He then decided that I should visit his home city in Poland.

I was able to escape and we grabbed a taxi back to the hotel.

Tomorrow: Spend some time in Germany’s Black Forrest, leave for the neutral planet country of Switzerland, and enjoy a traditional Swiss Folklore Dinner Party.

Day 8: Dutch Countryside

This morning, after a hearty Dutch breakfast, we left for a traditional Dutch cheese and wooden shoe factory. There, we had a brief explanation of the cheese-making process, followed by a chance to taste some cheeses; my favorite was the garlic cheese. After, we went to the other building and saw how wooden shoes were carved with a lathe and template.

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We then set off for the town of Edam, where we rented bikes and got to explore. Jamie led all the people who wanted to follow to a Dutch windmill and then to the top of a dike. Riding on top of the dike was really cool; on one side you could see the ocean and on the other you could see that the ground was below sea-level.

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For lunch, we went to another small town called Vollendam. Our group of twelve had trouble finding a fast restaurant and ended up just taking everything to-go. Unfortunately, they served me something I didn’t order and I was unhappy.

When we arrived in Amsterdam, a bunch of us went to the “Heineken Experience”. This reminded me quite a bit of the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, but I felt that it was a much better presentation. Moving through the exhibit, we learned about the beer-making process (malted and roasted barley + water = wort, then wort + yeast + hops = beer). We went through the “Brew You” ride and experienced the process from the point of view of the ingredients. An employee poured some beer for everyone and instructed us in how to taste the beer. In another room, we were able to test our beer-pouring skills with a virtual tap and glass. At the end of the tour, we were all served two beers which we sat and drank.

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A bunch of people in the group wanted to go to the Heineken brand store, located in Rembrant Square. Unfortunately, none of us had maps and the concentric layout of the city seemed to facilitate our getting lost. It took us almost all of our free time to get there and receive our “free gift” (sunglasses). On the way back to the larger group, we got separated. Harris, Richard, Nathalie, and I all ended up taking a taxi (and arrived just before the meeting time).

Jamie then took us walking through a bit of Amsterdam to a Dutch-Indonesian restaurant for dinner. While very tasty, the food was too spicy for me and I needed to drink lots of water. After the dinner, we boarded another boat for a tour of Amsterdam’s canals (this one was worse than the Paris one).

Most people were pretty tired and went back to the hotel immediately after the canal tour.

Day 7: Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam

Another early morning greeted us as we boarded the bus to head to Brussels. With several hours of driving ahead, almost everyone fell back asleep.

We stopped at a Texaco in Belgium for a rest. This was my first encounter with pay-toilets in Europe; it cost me €0.50 to use the restroom. In the store, I discovered that six-packs of Chimay were available for sale. Unfortunately, I was not awake enough to realize that I wanted to buy some.

A while later we arrived in Brussels. Jamie took the group on a walk to the Grand Place and Manneken Pis. After being amused by the statue, Harris and I decided that we would have some Belgian waffles. I had a waffle with whipped cream and chocolate. Although it might have been the messiest meal I’ve had in a long time, it was also one of the most delicious (and for only €3!).

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Jamie had offered to take everyone to the Delirium bar, so we met at the Grand Place and walked over. I decided that I would have the namesake of the bar, Delirium Tremens (which was delicious). Harris had a glass of Chimay Triple. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to have more than one glass before getting back on the bus.

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We arrived at our hotel in Pumerend, a suburb of Amsterdam. After staying in the terrible hotel in Paris, this was a very nice change. A large room with normal beds and a normal bathroom made everyone happy. The only downside to this hotel is its distance from Amsterdam: a 30-minute bus ride.

Jamie offered to show everyone how to use the bus, so we journeyed to Amsterdam. Harris and I again got middle-eastern food for dinner, which was also pretty good. We then walked over to the red-light district to see what it was like. I was very uncomfortable with the crowds and furtive nature of some of the people, but we eventually decided to go into a bar and have a drink. As it was getting late by the time we were done with our drink, we decided to head back to the hotel.

Getting on the bus back was relatively uncomplicated. On our ride, some of the girls discovered that the bus had free wifi. A local helped us verify that we were on the correct bus and seemed happy to interact with (American) tourists.

Day 6: Paris

Today we woke up and got on the bus to Versailles. After a reasonably short ride, we arrived at this huge palace.

Versailles

We were able to get into the building and grabbed some audio tour devices. The palace was extremely crowded, but we were still able to see most of the rooms. Oddly, there was some strange modern art on exhibit in the rooms disrupting the period art.

After finishing the audio tour, we went into the gardens, which are huge. We were only able to walk in a small part of it (to explore the whole gardens, you would need a vehicle), but it was really pretty.

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We returned to Paris and most people got dropped off downtown to go shopping in the Champs Elysees. Harris and I continued on the bus until the hotel as we didn’t really see any need to go shopping. As we were hungry, we left the hotel and explored down the street to find food. We ate at a middle-eastern place on the same street as our hotel; the cooks were very excited to learn that we were from California.

Following lunch and a nap, we left to go to the Eiffel Tower. I think this was our longest subway journey yet, but we made it in reasonable time. Because only one elevator was operational, the line to get tickets for the Eiffel Tower was quite long; it took us an hour and a half to get in. While we were in line, we were entertained by a person performing in the middle: he would interact with passers-by to the crowd’s great enjoyment.

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We got inside the bottom of the South Pillar (Pilar Sud) and got on the top level of the two-level elevator. I’ve never seen another one like it: since this elevator goes up the leg of the tower, it must travel diagonally. The car consisted of two sub-cars, each with its own sets of doors and operator. The top car slid across a track on the bottom car so that the offset between the cars can change as it rises or falls. It was also strange in how it operated another way: I believe that it is a pulley elevator, but there was not a traditional counter-weight. Instead, three seemingly hydraulic cylinders were set in the ground and rose as the car descended. This elevator stopped at the ground, first floor (restaurant area), and second floor (cafeteria and shop).

Counter-weight mechanism of the lower elevator in the Eiffel Tower
Counter-weight mechanism of the lower elevator in the Eiffel Tower

Once we had reached the second floor, we got in line for the second set of (traditional) elevators ascending up the center. This was a much faster line and faster ride; soon we were at the top of the tower. We took in the sights and took lots of pictures. A diagram was mounted around the ceiling of the enclosed area comparing the Eiffel Tower to other tall buildings; unfortunately the Space Needle was not shown.

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By the time we were able to get down from the tower, we were both hungry for dinner. We each went to different vendors on the street, but I was able to get a crepe and was happy. We walked over to the park where the Euro-Cup was being shown on a jumbotron.

We left the Euro-Cup viewing to go to the Arc de Triomphe. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that it closed at 11 and we were too late to be able to climb to the top. As we sat at the base, it became apparent that Italy had won the game and there was much celebration in the streets. Several groups of police vehicles came around the Arc de Triomphe with their sirens on (probably returning from the viewing area).

We left to go home but had trouble finding the correct platform and I was coerced onto a regional transit train. We arrived at another station and were able to transfer to the correct Metro line to our hotel.

Day 5: Paris

We woke up this morning and went downstairs to breakfast, which consisted primarily of bread and not much else. Following breakfast, we met outside and walked to a Metro station for our inaugural ride on the Paris Metro.

The Paris Metro is in some ways very similar to the Tube and in others very different. Both systems seem to be very extensive with frequent trains and separate platforms for each line (unlike New York where many lines share platforms). This makes it easy to navigate around the city and not worry too much about getting on the wrong train, because the sineage is fairly clear. Unlike the Tube (and most other train systems), some Paris Metro trains run on rubber wheels. From getting on the train at the beginning, I was able to notice the difference in smoothness of the ride and the difference in how quiet the train was while operating. It did produce a racket comparable to traditional metal wheels when cornering, which makes me wonder whether the wheels are connected by a straight axle or if there is a differential (as in cars, trucks, etc). Overall, I’m pretty impressed with both systems.

We got off and visited the Fragonard Parfumeur. I guess that we went there to appease the large number of girls in this tour group; none of the guys seemed to be very interested.
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Once the whole perfume experience was done, we hopped on our bus and were taken around the city while listening to a tour guide from Paris. We got off at a few locations including a view-location for the Eiffel Tower and in front of Napoleon’s tomb.

Napoleon's tomb
Napoleon’s tomb

Our tour guide left us halfway through the Notre Dame cathedral, so we had the rest of the afternoon free. A group of nine went to lunch in a random Parisian cafe in the Latin Quarter (which was very good for not very much money). We then left to find a gelato shop and eventually make our way to the Louvre.

Gelato
Gelato

At the Louvre, we saw the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and the Code of Hammurabi. We stayed for about an hour and a half (not really seeing all that much else) and got on the Metro to go to Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart) cathedral. Walking from the Metro stop to the top of the hill was definitely a workout, but the view from the top was phenomenal. We had dinner on the steps there.

Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa
Venus de Milo
Venus de Milo
Code of Hammurabi
Code of Hammurabi

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We made our way back to the hotel and had just enough time to get ready for the evening’s activities. Fourteen people signed up for the optional excursion to the Moulin Rouge, so we met downstairs and made our way over. The show was…interesting; it reminded me of sort of vaudeville mixed with something else. Surprisingly, my favorite parts were the juggler (who was more talented than any other I have seen), the two acrobats (balancing on each other), and the woman who was immersed in a tank with three pythons. Three and a half bottles of champagne for a table of seven meant that I had a pretty good night by the end.

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Since the Metro was closed at 1:30, Jamie (our tour guide from AESU) arranged vans to take us back. Our driver spoke no English, but it was very amusing to watch him gesture to all the other drivers on the road.

At the hotel, I ended up drinking about half a liter of water to make sure that I wouldn’t regret anything in the morning.

Day 4: London, English Channel, Paris

This morning started out with three wake-up calls at 5:00 AM. After the abrupt wakeup, we went downstairs to the lobby and grabbed our boxed breakfasts. A relatively short bus-ride (on which everyone slept) and we were at the Port of Dover. There was a slight mix-up with departure times, but we ended up on a ferry only half an hour late and said goodbye to the white cliffs of Dover.

The white cliffs of Dover
The white cliffs of Dover

The ferry ride was uneventful, but the actual ship was fairly large (9 decks, carrying people, cars, and even 18-wheelers). In an hour and a half we arrived at Calais.

Calais, France
Calais, France

We met our bus-driver and were aboard the most comfortable tour bus I’ve seen (comfy padded seats that recline almost flat).

Along the way, we stopped for some food while the driver rested (European commercial driving codes are more strictly enforced than in the US). The ATM at the rest stop was out of cash, so I was not able to obtain any Euros. However, we were able to use credit cards at the restaurants there, so I had a chicken sandwich which was pretty good. The bread it was on, though, was amazing.

We finally arrived at the hotel in Paris after some truly impressive maneuvering by our bus driver, Carmena. After checking in, we discovered that it is one of the strangest hotel rooms I’ve ever stayed in: bunk beds (full on the bottom, twin on top), separate toilet and shower (neither of which have locks or even actual door-closing mechanisms), and a shower-head that points straight down (rain shower-head?). The lack of basic amenities (clock/alarm and phone) and the general poor quality of the finishings make me a little dissatisfied with the accommodations. However, it is only for three nights and then we’ll be gone.

Shower head in Etap Hotel, Paris
Shower head in Etap Hotel, Paris

Everyone was able to get dressed up and we went out for dinner at a French bistro. The meal was a bit unsatisfying (seemed burnt) and the wine wasn’t anything special, but it was fun nonetheless to go to a restaurant with everyone. I ended up drinking most of the wine at the table, which put me in a pretty good mood.

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Following the dinner, we left for the bank of the Seine river for a tour/cruise. The actual tour was pretty bad; since they were providing pre-recorded segments in six languages and the boat was moving at a good clip, there wasn’t much depth to anything they were saying. However, we did turn around and see the Eiffel tower lit nicely. Everyone took ridiculous numbers of pictures to try and capture what it looked like.

Eiffel Tower with Richard and Harris
Eiffel Tower with Richard and Harris

Returning back to the hotel, I was finally able to obtain some internet access and start posting the first pictures.

Day 3: London

This morning, both Harris and I were awake by 6 AM. (Dad, this will not be a regular occurrence.) We hung out in the room until 7, when the hotel breakfast opened.

We met up with the whole group at 9:15 and started our walking tour of London. Simon, our London city guide, was very good. We saw interesting places around the city, saw the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, and ended the tour by the Tower of London at 1 PM. After an unimpressive burger and very unimpressive IPA at a local pub, a smaller group set out to see some sights around London.

First, our adventure was toward the place where Diagon Alley was filmed. After a fair bit of searching and some wrong directions, we found the place.

Diagon Alley
Diagon Alley

Then it was off to the Globe Theatre, where some people stayed behind for a tour/exhibit.

Globe Theatre
Globe Theatre

Six of us split off to go buy tickets for a West End show. Stomp, our first choice, was sold out. However, we were able to get tickets for Sweeny Todd.

We then adventured out to find London’s Icebar. Due to how long it took to find the place and the timing of the performance later in the evening, Harris, Erin, and I split off to go take some pictures at Abbey Road.

At Abbey Road, we encountered some very drunk Englishmen in costume who were wreaking havoc at the crosswalk. Even so, we were able to get some successful pictures before heading back to the hotel for showers and different clothing.

Abbey Road
Abbey Road

We met up later to head out to the theatre. The map that the ticket place gave us was not great, so we were assisted by a homeless man who was able to successfully direct us to the theatre.

Overall, Sweeny Todd was a good show. The sound mixing wasn’t great, and combined with the fact that some English people are hard to understand when speaking quickly and at a high pitch, it was sometimes difficult to hear what was being said. Additionally, there was a mishap where an actor fell off a platform in the middle of Act I and the curtain was closed for a while to verify that he was okay.

We ended our night after the show so that we could get enough sleep to wake up by 5:00 AM.

Aside: The London Tube is fantastic. Fast, easy, and clean. However, there is a reason that “Mind the Gap” is well known; the carriage is often at a different height and fairly far from the actual platform.

Day 1 & 2: Travel to London

My flight to London was relatively uneventful.

We left the house at 2:00 (early, so as to allow for traffic due to the 405 Wilshire exit closure) and arrived at LAX at 3 (exactly 3 hours before my flight departed). Check-in was fine, although I did have to use the most confusing self check-in kiosk I’ve ever seen (there were no instructions as to how to operate the passport scanner). While waiting in line for security, I encountered two other travelers on the same trip. After security, we went toward the gate and found the Alumni Association’s tour leader, Alex.

The plane boarded relatively quickly and left on-time from LAX. I was seated in a middle seat, but ended up switching with a gentleman so that he could be with his son and wound up sitting next to Harris (my roommate for the trip). The pilot enabled United’s “From the Flight Deck” audio, so Harris (an Aerospace Engineer) and I both listened to the radio traffic. Except for some flap about a plastic bag somewhere on the tarmac, the radio traffic was as you would expect. I was ammused by the sign-off that the tower would have with each plane: “Good day”.

I was very impressed with the selection of TV and Movies available on the flight. I first watched Ocean’s Thirteen (which I had not seen before), followed by Star Trek (hello Anton!). Meals were served during the first movie. I had requested a Kosher meal, which was correctly served.

The meal was prepared by a company called KoshAir and consisted of chicken rustica, fruit, a roll, and a brownie. The chicken rustica was chicken (fairly good) and pasta (fairly terrible). The roll was good, but the brownie was dry. Overall, I’d say it was decent for airline food. The meal also came with an interesting insert, which I have transcribed below:

KoshAir Cuisine

This Kosher meal is prepared under the strict constant supervision of the Kashruth Department of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

All dishes, flatware and trays used for this meal service are new and have never been used before. All meat meals are Glatt Kosher. Bread and rolls are Hamotzie. Cake, as well as the bread and rolls are Pas Yisroel. Dairy meals are not Cholov Yisroel unless they are clearly marked as such.

When you received this meal, it should have been over-wrapped and sealed with an imprinted “KoshAir OU” plastic film. If there is a hot entree served with this tray, it should be presented to you in a double wrapped and sealed package with a “KoshAir OU” label. These imprinted and sealed packages are your assurance that the foods were all produced under OU supervision. Only trays which are sealed in our imprinted film and entrees that have not been opened are guaranteed to be OU Kosher.

Our kosher meals and trays are delivered to the airline’s designated in-flight catering service kitchen, where the product is stored in a freezer until it is needed for meal service. Green salads cannot be frozen, therefore, KoshAir is unable to provide a kosher salad with this meal request. The in-flight caterer should ensure that your tray service is presented to you completely defrosted and that any hot entree is fully heated.

We wish you a pleasant journey and a hearty appetite!

Prepared by: MilMar Food Group, LLC. One 6 1/2 Station Road, Goshen, NY 10924

Breakfast was also served. The Kosher breakfast (again from KoshAir) consisted of turkey and pastrami on challah…yum!

As we got closer to Europe, I started to listen to the “From the Flight Deck” audio again. Irish air-traffic control was fairly difficult to understand. British air-traffic control was easier, though Heathrow put us in a holding pattern for about 20 minutes (why can’t they figure out how to schedule flight patterns better?). I don’t think I’ve ever been in a holding pattern above a US airport (that I know of) unless there was a major problem.

After (finally) landing, everyone got through Border Control and Customs without incident. A short drive (in a Mercedes bus) and we were at the hotel.

The Orientation meeting was at six, but by the time it was done, I was ready to fall asleep. I uncharacteristically fell asleep by 7:30.

St. Giles Hotel, London
St. Giles Hotel, London

I’m alive!

I’m alive and in London! Unfortunately, I’m using a kiosk with limited time, so I can’t really write a full post. However, the flight was relatively uneventful and I woke up bright and early at 6 AM local (GMT) after about 11 hours of sleep. Today will consist of a three-hour walking tour of London followed by free time (we’ll probably go to the Tower of London, the London Eye, Abbey Road, and the British Museum.

I’m most-easily reachable by email (though even that will be intermittent).