Monday, 30 January 2012

January 30, 2012 – Glasgow, Stirling, and Edinburgh

           On Wednesday it was the first international society pub night.  I met a few people there including students from France, Denmark, the U.S. and Canada.  On Thursday night I met a bunch of Mike’s friends at the University of Glasgow.  We then went to the pub night there and danced the whole night inside a church, which was turned into 2 bars and a club about 30 years ago.  The church itself is gorgeous on the outside with a giant steeple that you can’t miss from miles around.  On Friday Mike and I decided to walk around the city of Glasgow and take pictures.  We ended up going to the Glasgow Greens, which is a giant park where the Royal Doulton fountain made from terracotta is.  We also went into a museum that was all about the history of Glasgow as a city.  Afterwards, we walked around the Merchant City and went to the Museum of Modern Art, which wasn’t very spectacular.
            On Saturday Mike and I went on the University of Glasgow international society’s trip to Stirling.  On the way there along the sides of the roads in the farms there were sheep EVERYWHERE.  In Scotland there are 23 million sheep and 3 million people.  Made our sheep count rather difficult after seeing the first few farms.  We got to visit the Glengoyne Whisky Distillery and tried some of their whisky.  I of course didn’t like it, so I gave the rest to Mike, which he didn’t complain about.  Unfortunately there was a power outage while we were there so we could only get a tour of part of the distillery.  Next, we visited Stirling Castle, and got to go inside it.  Afterwards, we walked down to the town and grabbed some lunch.  The town was very cute with pedestrian streets and reminded me of Annecy in France a bit, just not as pretty.
            Mike and I walked around the entire castle below it on a trail, and then we came to a small park and cemetery, which we decided to walk through to see a view of the city below.  While we were walking we heard a dog whining and screeching and he was with his owner, which was a woman and her daughter.  The daughter went running to get their car, and you could tell that there was something wrong.  We stood there watching from a distance trying to figure out what had happened.  We continued to walk, and since we were the only other people there the mother called out to us to see if we had a hanky.  We unfortunately didn’t, and I knew something was wrong with the dog.  The women had a napkin and from a distance it was all red with blood as she put it to her dog’s mouth.  You could hear the dog crying and whining from far away and it broke my heart.  I really wanted to help but I couldn’t.  We walked back towards them after we got a few pictures from the viewpoint and asked her if her dog was going to be okay.  She said that he is just a year old, and her dog cut his face on broken glass that was lying on the ground.  She sat there hugging him closely and it really upset me that I couldn’t help the poor guy out.  She said that her daughter would be there soon with the car and they’d take him straight to the vet so he’ll probably be okay.  Just goes to show how ignorant people are that leave their broken glass bottles in the middle of nowhere.
            After witnessing that incident we then went to the Wallace Monument, which wasn’t anything special.  It was a giant monument that you couldn’t go inside even though there were doors on it.  We had to walk up a giant hill to get there, and then walk back down so it was a let down for me.  The only good thing about it was the view we got to see from that height.  After a long day of walking all around the town and up and down hills it was finally time to go home.
            On Sunday Mike and I went to Edinburgh with some friends I’ve made here at Strathclyde.  The entire group consisted of 9 girls and one guy – lucky Mike.  For the whole day our little group consisted of 6 girls and Mike since we split into 2 groups.  We saw the outside of Edinburgh Castle, saw the Elephant Room which is a café where J.K. Rowling wrote her first few Harry Potter books, and walked up and down the Royal Mile going into the little shops.  We also went to the cemetery where J.K. Rowling got most of the names for the characters in Harry Potter.  We then went on a tour of the Real Mary King’s Close.  Our tour guide was hilarious and the tour was overall really well done.  We went in the Mary King’s close, which is now underground, but hundreds of years ago when people lived there it wasn’t.  There were small houses, which were just small rooms with stone ceilings, floors, and walls where 8-12 people would live.  We also saw dummies that looked like they had a plague.  That was definitely a nasty disease.  1/3 of the Edinburgh population died every year from that single disease.  The conditions that people lived in back then are unimaginable compared to now.  They had no hygiene at all, which shows why a lot of them either died young, or got the plague, and then died.
            After the tour we walked down and saw the Palace of Holyroodhouse where the Queen stays when she comes to Edinburgh.  We then walked half way up Arthur’s Seat, which is a giant hill of rock with trails along the sides of it.  The view of the city from up there was amazing.  We’ll come back one day and walk up to the top of it, you just need a lot of time to do so.  Finally it was time to go home, and we were all exhausted from such a busy day.  It was a good weekend spent with some new friends, but it was just the beginning of our travels we’ll be doing these next few months.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

January 25, 2012 – First Impressions of Class

            Yesterday I had my first class at Strathclyde.  It was actually a lot different than McMaster but I enjoyed it.  The class had only 20 people in it, and it involved a lot of class discussion instead of lecturing by the professor.  I felt like I was in one of my labs I taught last term as a teaching assistant, except I was the student contributing to the class discussion instead.  Before class I was very nervous because it was actually a graduate class.  The class looks extremely interesting though but it has a report that is worth 80% of my mark, which is intimidating.  I looked at future slides for the next class and I've already learned a lot of the material.  I laughed when I saw it because it is supposed to be a graduate class, but I learned some of the stuff in 2nd year.  Maybe it is in more detail, but I'm not too worried about this class.  I was also surprised about the variety of people in the class.  I thought that I would be the only one with an “accent” but there were a variety of people with different backgrounds present.  There were other North Americans, someone from Pakistan, a bunch of Brits, and of course Scots.
            Today I had my 2nd class but I didn’t enjoy it at all.  Thankfully I’ll probably be able to drop it and take a different course instead.  Of course my courses STILL aren’t finalized.  This course had huge equations later on in the course that scared me when I saw them later in the courseware, so I don’t think I have the background knowledge to take it.  Most of the people in my class yesterday seemed to be in this class as well.  I also had orientation today so I had to miss most of the one class I had.  I met a lot more exchange students, and everyone is going to the pub night tonight held by the international society here.  Apparently anywhere from 100-500 international students attend the weekly pub night EVERY week.  I can’t believe that one pub can fit so many people!  Tonight is the night everyone is excited for to meet lots of other exchange students.  Mike is also coming so he can meet the few friends I’ve already made, and to meet more people.  Should be a fun night!

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

January 24, 2012 – All settled into residence

           Over the past few days my mom and I have gotten the basic things so that I’m all ready for residence.  Surprisingly, the steak I’ve had 3 nights in a row at the hotel restaurant has been my favourite food so far here.  The weather has been good the past few days as well with limited rain.  On the weekend my mom and I visited the Glasgow Necropolis, which is a giant cemetery with the biggest tombstones and monuments I’ve ever seen in a cemetery.  We also visited the famous Glasgow cathedral which we didn’t get to see last time we were in Glasgow 5.5 years ago.  To be honest, it was a sight to see, but I’ve seen so many churches and cathedrals in the past few weeks that it just seemed like the rest of them.
            On Sunday I got my residence room.  It ends up that I’m once again on the top floor of my residence, but this time there is no elevator.  Thankfully I am just 4 floors up, but it definitely sucked lugging my heavy suitcase up all those stairs.  I am in a flat with 6 girls in total.  I’ve only met 2 of them so far.  There is one girl from Greece, one from Texas, 2 from China apparently, and one from Latvia.  Our flat has our 6 single rooms in it, a lounge area with a TV and cable, kitchen, 2 showers, and 2 toilets.  Thankfully we have sinks in our own rooms.  These past few nights I’ve slept in my new room, and my bed is a tad on the hard side, which makes me miss my bed back home.  Guess I’ll have to live with it though.  My mom left early this morning to go back home.  It was hard saying bye to her last night but thankfully with modern technology, I can skype with family and friends easily back home. :)  The adventure is just starting to begin!
            Today I have my first class!  Once I go to my academic advisor and get my timetable all finalized, and then go shopping for some extra things I need, I’ll be almost set.  It ends up that 2 of my classes only have between 20-25 people in them, which will be a huge change from McMaster.  I’m excited for my classes, but also curious about how they’ll differ to my courses back home.  3 of my classes are actually graduate classes, but they are apparently equal to McMaster’s 4th year classes.  After class, I’m then meeting Mike to sign up for the University of Glasgow International Society’s day trip to Stirling castle and the Gleyngone Whisky Distillery this coming Saturday.  Busy day ahead of me!

Friday, 20 January 2012

January 20, 2012 – First few days in Glasgow

           On Wednesday we arrived in Glasgow in the evening.  After taking a cab to the hotel, and organizing and unpacking everything we met up with Mike finally for dinner at our hotel.  The next day was a busy day for my mom and I.  We ended up getting my student card, then my bank letter, then opening up a bank account, and finally getting a cell phone.  Doing all that took us most of the day and it was very tiring walking around the city, especially on campus with the giant hills.  Mike then met up with us and we had dinner altogether again.  The Scottish do live up to their reputation of not having great food.  I haven’t been impressed with their food yet.  Everything seems bland or the texture of things just isn’t right.  Maybe I’m just sick of restaurant food.  To be honest, I’m excited for when I get to start cooking for myself.  Their weather hasn’t been anything special here as well.  It has been raining off and on most of the time we’ve been here.  Nothing new for Glasgow winters though.  They rarely get sun here at this time of year.  One waiter we had at a restaurant even stated that Glasgow has all 4 seasons in a single day.  One hour it might be a very mild, nice day, and the next it might be very dark with rain and snow falling really hard.
            Today my mom and I went shopping for some things for my residence room.  We found the Poundland (like Dollarama back home) and Primark, which was an amazing cheap department store.  Afterwards Mike gave us a tour of the University of Glasgow, which was a very nice campus.  Just like most universities it has very old gorgeous buildings, but also modern buildings that aren’t as architecturally pleasing.  We ended up trying out the Glasgow subway today and it was hilariously small.  It is like a toy subway.  The platform itself is probably 1/8 of the size of platforms on the TTC and the train itself is a tube shape.  It just has bench seats going along each side of the train with enough space for one person to stand in between.  I ended up hanging out with Mike for most of the afternoon after we had lunch with my mom and tomorrow we get to do REAL shopping with all the winter sales going on.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

January 17, 2012 – Last full day in Paris

            Today my mom and I decided to explore the metro in Paris.  We took it to see the Sacre Coeur basilica, which was definitely a sight to see.  We’ve seen so many churches on our trip though so it just looked like others we had seen.  We then walked throughout the little streets around there and found the square where there are lots of artists selling their paintings.  A lot of the paintings were extremely gorgeous and some of them were painting there on the spot so I watched them paint for a few minutes.  We continued wandering aimlessly throughout the streets and I kept thinking we would get lost.  We just continued down the hill since the basilica was on the top of a hill and we knew we’d run into a metro station eventually near the bottom.  Finally I figured out how to get back to the Latin Quarter on the metro so we could have lunch and I feel like the metro here is really easy to use now – it is just a lot bigger than Toronto’s subway.  We then shopped a little bit after lunch, came to relax in the hotel room, and then went back out to shop and walk around the Latin Quarter one last time.

January 16, 2012 – Tour is finished, now time to Relax in Paris!

           Today my mom and I changed hotels to one by the Latin Quarter and Notre Dame.  On the way there Neil Young came on the radio in the cab, which surprised me since I hadn’t heard any Canadian music at all until then.  My mom and I decided to take it easy for our remaining time in Paris since the tour wore us out.  We strolled through the Latin Quarter and went in the many souvenir shops and had a nice lunch in a family owned restaurant.  Later, we found the nearby fruit and vegetable market, supermarket, and bakery to get some food for while we’re here and dinner for the night.  It wasn’t a very eventful day, but we definitely needed a day to ourselves not really sightseeing since we had done that for almost 2 weeks prior to that.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Day 11 – January 15, 2011 – Tour of Paris, the Eiffel Tower, the Palace of Versailles, and Farewell Dinner

            Today we went on a bus tour of Paris to see all the famous monuments.  We then stopped at the Eiffel Tower and went to the 2nd level of it.  It was very cold up there due to the wind so we didn’t stay very long.  We stayed for our brief tour up there and then just took photos.  My mom and I then went down to the first level to see the skating rink.  It was an extremely small skating rink with a white mini Eiffel tower in the middle of it but nobody was skating.  Afterwards we got a group photograph in front of the Eiffel tower.
            Next we went to the Palace of Versailles.  When I first saw it I couldn’t believe my eyes.  There was gold EVERYWHERE.  The architecture was so detailed and there were so many things gold plated.  Statues lined the edge of the roof in so many places, and the palace itself was ridiculously big.  It is no wonder it took 50 years to build!  Inside in the state apartments I was blown away.  There were paintings on the walls and the ceilings with gold in every room.  It was impossible to see all the detail; everywhere you looked there was something different to see.  Even the mouldings were carved showing different things.  When you see the palace, you really have no sympathy for the royalty.  It is no wonder that the poor people overthrew them and that the King and Queen got their heads chopped off (simple way of putting it).  They were obsessed with themselves and thought they could just have anything they wanted by taking it from the poor.  They had their bedrooms that were like 5 times the size of mine with paintings everywhere and silk on the walls and bedspread with silver and gold sewn into it.  Apparently those bedrooms were used so that they would wake up to 100 people in their bedroom who would help them get dressed and ready for the day.  It was called the Rising of the King whenever he woke up.  They also had private bedrooms for themselves as well that the later King and Queen made for themselves.  One of the Kings owned over 300 wigs and would apparently wear 6 different wigs a day depending on what he was doing.  The gardens were gigantic with perfectly pruned hedges and fountains everywhere.  Sadly the fountains weren’t running when we were there since it’s the winter.  Even though the palace was breathtaking and unbelievable to see, I still can’t believe that they had everything they had.  There were over 2000 rooms in the palace, and it seems like a mini indoor city to me!  They even had royal stables that used to house 200 horses and many carriages as well.
            After Versailles we then came back to the hotel to relax.  Next we went to our Farewell dinner which was one of the best meals yet I thought.  Everyone else had salmon, but because I don't like fish they made me chicken instead which was VERY good.  After dinner we then listened to 60's music on the bus ride back while waving to people on the streets (It's a TRAFALGAR tradition apparently :P).  Trafalgar was the name of the tour company we were on.  We then had to say bye to everybody but overall the tour was very enjoyable.  It was a tad fast paced but we got to see so many things we probably would have never seen if it wasn't for the tour.  Now my mom and I are on our own in Paris until Wednesday when we leave for Glasgow.  We change hotels tomorrow as well.

Day 10 – January 14, 2012 – Back to Paris to see the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, and Moulin Rouge!

            Today we went on the high speed TGV train from Lyon to Paris.  The ride was about 2 hours because the train can go up to 300 km/hr.  The scenery was definitely flying by as I looked out the window.  When we got to Paris we went on a tour of the famous Notre Dame cathedral.  The detail in the carvings of the sculptures on the inside and outside of it was magnificent.  There was beautiful stained glass inside as well.  While we were in there, mass started as well.  Afterwards we went to the Louvre.  Our tour guide was very knowledgeable and seemed to know what every painting or sculpture was about.  Finally we saw the famous Venus de Milo sculpture and the Mona Lisa.  I got right to the front of the crowd to see them.  Thankfully the Louvre wasn’t busy since it is the off-season right now.  Apparently during the summer there is humanity everywhere.
            We then came back to the hotel and decided to do some shopping in the nearby mall since the winter sales are on right now.  The shopping was absolutely crazy though with people EVERYWHERE.  The crowds were worse than our boxing day shopping back home!  It made me not want to shop, which is a big thing because I LOVE shopping!  After some shopping where we hardly went into stores, we got ready to go to the Moulin Rouge to have a dinner and show!
            The Moulin Rouge was AMAZING!  The whole setting of it was very classy with dim lighting and live music in the background while we ate dinner.  The only problem most of us had was the food.  Most of us ordered vegetable soup thinking that it would be a safe choice, but it ended up being a cold soup, which tasted like mashed up peas.  It was rather gross.  I ordered the quinoa for my main entrée which was very good, but most people got the roast beef.  My mom said that it was the worst meal she had ever had because not only could she not cut the meat, she couldn’t chew it at all either.  At least the chocolate pudding dessert we had was good!
            During our dessert the show started and I was blown away by it.  Even though there were A LOT of topless women on stage for a lot of the show, the dancing and acts were phenomenal.  The costumes were very bright and extremely sparkly on stage while the performers danced and sang.  There was a guy that could juggle 7 boutons at a time, and a couple doing an acrobatic routine.  The one guy was standing straight up and balanced the women on his head from her head so that her feet were pointing straight up.  They definitely were one of my favourites.  Another act involved one of the women jumping into a tank of water full of snakes that randomly appeared from below the stage!!  At first I was grossed out because I couldn’t believe that she would jump into it, but then she did and she would wrap them around her while she swam in the clear tank.  There was a routine involving a few people from the audience, which was hilarious, and one routine involved a man and woman literally moving ABOVE the audience while singing and dancing since they were being suspended in the air.  The whole show was extremely well done and I didn’t want it to ever end!

Friday, 13 January 2012

Day 9 – January 13, 2012 – Châteauneuf-Du-Pape, and Lyon, France

           This morning we went to Châteauneuf-Du-Pape.  We first went to the top of the hill to see the Papal Palace (looked like castle ruins – there were only a few walls left).  The panoramic view from the top was pretty.  Unfortunately, we could not stay there for long since it was extremely windy and cold.  Afterwards, we went on a wine tasting tour nearby.  We first did a tour of the winery and saw the giant oak barrels where the wine is stored for a few years.  After the tour we tasted 5 different kinds of wine.  My mom and I didn’t like any of the kinds we tasted since they were all very strong and had a bitter after taste.  After the wine tasting we then had a long bus ride ahead of us to Lyon.
            In the afternoon we arrived in Lyon and had some time to get organized in the hotel.  We then met up with our local tour guide and went up to the top of the hill to see a gorgeous cathedral and a panoramic view of the city as it was getting dark with the pretty lights.  We did a walking tour in part of the old town of Lyon, which was beautiful.  There were cute shops and bakeries everywhere.  Our tour guide also showed us secret passageways between streets that went through buildings.  I wish we had more time in the old part because we didn’t get to visit any of the shops or cafes at all.  After our tour we then went to a small restaurant to try the local Lyon food.  The food was good, but not my favourite.  I definitely want to try to come back to Lyon though.  Lyon, Annecy, St. Paul de Vence, and of course Paris are my top 4 places to hopefully visit again at some point!  Tomorrow we’re going back to Paris on the TGV train!

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Day 8 – January 12, 2012 – Marseille, Arles, and Avignon, France

            Today we went on a tour of Marseille, which didn’t seem like anything special.  We saw the Basilica on the top of the hill, which had a great view of the city.  The Basilica itself was very gorgeous.  We then stopped at a fish market, which I found rather gross.  The people were gutting the fish in front of the locals buying them, and some fish were still alive on the tables where they lay.  There were also eels and squids that were breathing still on the tables where they were being displayed.  After we drove around the city a little more to see some churches, palaces, and forts, we then made our way to Arles, France.
            In Arles there was a statue of Van Gogh who is a famous painter.  The reason why there are many self-portraits of him is not because he was obsessed with himself, but was because he was very poor and couldn’t afford to hire models to paint.  There was also a statue of his face with no right ear since he cut it off in his life.  He was a tad on the crazy side when he lived.  We saw a Roman Amphitheatre and a Roman Coliseum as well.  Definitely didn’t compare to the famous Roman Coliseum in Rome though!
            Most of the shops in Arles were closed, and after an okay lunch we got on the bus to make our way to Avignon.  Marseille and Arles are not on my list to go back to at all.  Once we arrived to Avignon we saw the Pope’s palace and the famous Avignon Bridge.  Our whole tour group sang the famous Avignon song on the bus when we got there.  My mom and I couldn't sing the song while dancing on the bridge though because you had to pay to go on it and our tour guide said that it wasn't worth it.  Our hotel was in the old part of the city where there were many footpaths with cute shops.  Our group went on a walking tour of the old part of the city, which was mostly surrounded by tall stonewalls.  We visited the gardens beside the Pope’s palace and did a bit of window shopping since the winter sales are on now!  Later on my mom and I got a baguette for dinner, and I tried my first sweet crepe.  I got a Nutella crepe with coconut and it was DELICIOUS.  Definitely going to get another one before I leave France!  Tomorrow we are off to Lyon!

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Day 7 – January 11, 2012 – Cannes and Saint-Tropez, France

            Today we left Nice and drove to Cannes where the international film festival is held.  We only stopped there for about 10 minutes but saw the red carpet and the building where the film festival is held every year.  After a short stop in Cannes we then made our way towards Saint-Maxime.  From Sainte-Maxime we took a ferry to Saint-Tropez.  That town isn’t even on an island, but the proper way to arrive is apparently by boat.  In the harbour of Sainte-Maxime and Saint-Tropez there were large luxurious yachts.  We then went on a walking tour of Saint-Tropez.  By the harbour there were some open-air shops and restaurants overlooking the water.  We toured through the narrow streets up the hill towards the citadel.  As we walked higher up the hill beside the citadel we could see the Mediterranean Sea and the town of Sainte-Maxime across the bay.  We were above the town of Saint-Tropez and had a spectacular view.  Around the opposite side of the citadel was a view of many villas on the hillside including a villa owned by the Heineken family and some other rich and famous people.
            We then had some free time so my mom and I decided that we would finally try some crepes.  The savoury crepes that are not sweet are actually called galettes in some places.  That could be why my mom and I couldn’t find crepes for dinner last night anywhere.  After the tasty crepes we decided that we would do some shopping.  Unfortunately, most of the stores were closed since the workers were on their siesta for the day.  In many places in Europe, workers take 2 hour lunch breaks so stores can be closed anywhere between 12-3pm in some places.  The shopping was not very exciting at all.  Finally we got back on the bus to make our way to Marseille.
            On the way to Marseille we went on country roads in some mountains.  The ride was a tad frightening because not only was the road very twisty turny, the road was so narrow that there wasn’t a guard rail around turns sometimes AND there was a cliff on the side of the road.  The road was going downhill, and our 10 foot wide bus couldn’t even fit in the lane at some points, especially when we had to make tight turns.  I was in the front with my mom so we definitely got a big thrill ride from that.  My mom said that it reminded her of the road to Hana, Maui.
            That wasn’t our only crazy driving experience today.  Once we arrived in Marseille it was pretty apparent that they did not make the roads with large buses or trucks in mind.  We were literally 3 minutes from our hotel going down a very one way narrow road with cars parked on each side of the street and a single lane down the middle.  All of a sudden we came to a T intersection and we had to turn right.  The problem was, there were cars parked everywhere along the top of the T and cars improperly parked on the inside corners of the T as well so it seemed impossible for us to make the turn.  We all thought that it was an entry of no return because it would be impossible to reverse down that long narrow road.
            Our bus driver, named Frank started to make the turn but he was reluctant to do so since it would be a VERY tight fit.  A local noticed that we were having problems so he decided to get off his scooter and help us.  He started guiding our bus driver and we were literally only centimeters away from other cars trying to make this one turn.  We then were stuck, but luckily owners of a cube van just in our way came and could just squeeze past us to back their cube van out of the way.  Now that we were clear at the front of the bus, our problem was a car improperly parked on the right inside corner of the T.  Since I was in the front, I could see the car in the rear view mirror on the bus.  I held my breath in because I thought that we would for sure hit it and at one moment we were probably just a centimeter from it.  Everyone on the bus was very tense, and to the left of us was a large line up of cars forming since we were blocking the entire street.  Locals were gathering around staring at our bus, and others were trying to help to get us clear of all the cars blocking us.  I then heard sirens and started looking around frantically to find the emergency vehicle because if it were on the street we were blocking, that would definitely not be good.  It ended up not being on the street thankfully.  FINALLY, Frank worked his magic and with the help of the main guy that got off his scooter, we were free.  Frank honked the bus’s horn many times and everyone on and off the bus cheered and congratulated Frank.  It probably took us a good 10 minutes to make that ONE turn.  It was very intense, but very entertaining at the same time.  The French driver’s are crazy here, and my mom and I couldn’t believe how Frank got us out of that.  He will definitely sleep well tonight after driving on that stressful twisty road in the mountains and then getting stuck making what should have been a simple turn.
            We then went back to the hotel, had dinner, and a pretty relaxing night getting our Internet fix in.  Tomorrow we are off to Avignon!

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Day 6 – January 10, 2012 – Nice, Eze medieval town, and the French Riviera

           Today we went on a walk to the market in the old town of Nice.  There were fresh fruits and vegetables and beautiful bouquets of flowers.  We went on a walk along the Promenade, which is basically a concrete boardwalk beside the beach by the Mediterranean Sea.  We met up with our tour group at 11am and went on a day tour to Eze, which was a cute medieval town similar to St. Paul de Vence that we saw yesterday but it was older.  On the way to Eze we passed by Elton John's villa at the very top of the hill overlooking the entire city of Nice and the Mediterranean Sea.  In order to get to Eze we had to go along narrow winding roads on the hillside overlooking Nice and the Mediterranean Sea.  There were some points where I thought our large coach bus wouldn’t make certain turns but our bus driver came through and we all applauded.  When we got to Eze we had to walk up many steps to the medieval village within stonewalls.  The village itself was very hilly with many stone steps within it.  There were cute shops in it but most of them weren’t open.  At the top of the village was a large garden with many different types of cacti and plants.  The view from the top was of the Mediterranean Sea and hills with villas on the side of them.  It was very spectacular.
            After we walked around the village and saw the cemetery, gardens, church, and narrow walkways throughout it, we walked back down all the steps to the restaurant nearby for our 4 course lunch.  I had salad that is special from Nice, veal with French fries and green beans, cheese, and then chocolate mousse.  It was very tasty with a man playing traditional songs on an accordion at the same time that we sang along to.  My table was right beside the window and we had a view of the medieval village of Eze at the top of a hill, the Mediterranean Sea in the distance, and the valleys with villas on them far below – gorgeous.  We then came back to the hotel in Nice and enjoyed the beautiful view from the bus on the way.  My mom and I then shopped around the nearby pedestrian streets in the cute little shops.  After a quick rest in the hotel we then went back out to a café and tried to find crepes for dinner.  We could not find savoury crepes for dinner at all so we ended up having spaghetti instead and then coming back to the hotel for the night.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Day 5 - January 9, 2012 – Grasse, St. Paul de Vence medieval village, Monte Carlo, and Nice

            Today we left Aix-En-Provence and drove to Grasse to go to a perfume factory and learned how perfume was made.  Grasse grows some of the best flowers for making perfume, which is why it is considered some of the best in the world.  A chemist who learns how to make perfume spends 8 years in schooling to identify over 3500 scents and the chemistry behind it.  An average human can only identify 500 scents!  The factory had a school set up for weekly lessons.  The tour guide said that in first year usually 48 students sign up, and by the end of it there are 4-8 students left since it is such a hard program.  The scents that we tried were mostly very good, especially the last one that smelled like candy floss and fruit – my fav!
            After Grasse we continued on to the St. Paul de Vence medieval village – by far my favourite part of the trip so far!!  It was located in a hilly setting at the top of one of the hills overlooking the city of Nice.  The St. Paul de Vence medieval village had a wall around it, which was used to protect it from enemies during the medieval times.  Inside the village were “roads” (really walkways) about only 10 feet wide at most with little shops, cafes and restaurants on either side.  When you walked to the edge of the village and looked out beyond the large stonewall surrounding it, you could see the many villas along the countryside up the side of the hills, and the Mediterranean Sea and French Alps in the distance.  The view was probably one of the best yet.  My mom and I then split a ham and cheese baguette for lunch while sitting on a bench in the village.  Total cost of our lunch was €4.50 – you need to save money whenever you can while travelling!  It was nice because it was about 17 degrees Celsius out (warmest day yet!), there weren’t many people around because it is the low season in tourism, and we took in the atmosphere of the cobblestone narrow walkways and restaurants and shops around us.
            The next stop was Monte Carlo in Monaco (country within France that is pretty much only a square mile).  This place is where the rich and famous can only live and it was a completely different world there.  As we drove into it we were up on the hillside looking out at the Mediterranean Sea with buildings all along the hillside.  The marina had giant yachts in it – some worth €30 million or more!  We then went on a short walking tour over 100 steps up the hill to the Monte Carlo Casino – the casino of all casinos.  The architecture of the building was so gorgeous and you could tell rich people were there by the cars all parked outside.  We saw many Porsches, Mercedes, Bentleys, Lamborghinis, Maseratis, and Ferraris.  There was one Lamborghini that was parked in the middle of the road right outside the casino blocking a lane of traffic – shows you how much power that person has.  We saw the palace in Monaco that Princess Grace of Monaco once lived in.  When we had free time, my mom and I went to the mall in the area.  It was definitely not your everyday mall.  There were chandeliers, and fancy interiors in the hallways and shops.  The shops tended to be upscale stores as well.  One shoe store we stopped at had VERY sparkly shoes in the window that were some of the prettiest shoes I’ve ever seen.  We went in and discovered that the prices were rather pricey but we continued into the store.  My mom then picked up a pair of high heels with rhinestones all over them and looked at the price – they were about €2650.00!!!  That is EUROS, not dollars.  They seemed like shoes that movie stars would wear if they were expected to win academy awards.  We left them behind.
            Finally we headed to the city of Nice where our tour guide is from.  Our hotel here is definitely the best one yet.  Our view is of the main square downtown with a large Ferris wheel and pretty Christmas lights too.  Thank goodness we’re staying here for 2 nights!  We are right on the Mediterranean Sea and there are many pedestrian streets with shops on either side.  After we got settled in we went to dinner and had one of the best dinners yet.  Thin pieces of roast beef, with some of the best roasted potatoes I’ve ever had and green beans.  We just went back to the hotel to relax after dinner, and tomorrow we have free time in the morning for once until 11:30 am and a tour of the French Riviera.  Definitely won’t be as busy a day like today was!

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Day 4 - January 8, 2012 - French Alps Scenic Drive and Aix-En-Provence

            This morning we drove through the French Alps, which was absolutely beautiful.  The only mountains I’ve ever seen before were in Quebec, Vermont and New Hampshire and they definitely don’t compare to the Alps.  At first the mountains weren’t very big and it was rather disappointing, but as we continued driving and increasing in elevation slowly, they started growing.  The snow was on the peaks of them, and some had cliffs of pinky beige rock.  It was evident where the tree line ended due to the cold temperatures at the top of them, and all the trees that were high on them were covered in snow, which was pretty.  As we drove through the sides of the mountains we would pass by traditional bridges for trains and cars with the arches under them holding them up.  They reminded me of aqueducts that were in old Roman villages in the past.  Large valleys were off the sides of the mountains with villages scattered throughout them.  There were villages along the sides of the mountains as well.  It would be gorgeous to wake up everyday looking at the beautiful mountain scenery.  As we continued driving upwards in elevation the snow became more prevalent.  There was probably half a foot of snow at the most at one point, and there were icicles hanging from the walls of rock at the side of the road.
            We then stopped at a cute restaurant near the top of a mountain for lunch.  It was a cafeteria type place owned by a husband and wife.  Most of the people on this tour are Australian, and were very fascinated by the snow.  My mom and I happen to be the only Canadians.  After lunch, most of the tour group went outside and had a giant snowball fight, and I made a snowman, which was super fun!  I hadn’t made a snowman in years and to do that in France in the Alps with people who don’t normally see that much snow was certainly an amazing experience.  When I started rolling a snowball for the base of the snowman one Australian said, “Here comes the Canadian truly showing us how to make a snowball.”  It was pretty funny because they were all fascinated in how you could make large snowballs just by rolling them in the snow.  It was like it had never occurred to them that you could do that.  As we continued along, we saw the Chartreuse massif mountain (where the Chartreuse liqueur was made).
            After we played in the snow it was then time to continue on to Aix-En-Provence.  We arrived there in the mid afternoon and there were palm trees there!  We did a bus and walking tour of the city, which took a couple of hours.  We saw the famous Mont Sainte-Victoire, which is a large mountain that Paul Cezanne painted multiple times in his life in Aix-En-Provence.  During the bus tour we were pulling out of a driveway to continue on and we heard a loud scratching sound from the front of the bus, which sounded like we hit something.  It ended up that there was just a bump in the road that scraped on the bottom of the bus and the driver just had to back up slowly and turn at a different angle.  We were stopped there for a fair amount of time trying to get back from the bump though.  Aix-En-Provence was a nice city with narrow one-way cobblestone streets and very old buildings and churches, but I still liked Annecy better.  Most of the shops were closed because it was a Sunday, and there were tacky antique markets where nothing looked good enough to buy, even if it did fit in your suitcase.  After our tour we went back to the hotel, and had dinner.  It has been a pretty relaxing evening after a few days of constantly being on the go.  Tomorrow we are off to Grasse, St. Paul de Vence, Monte Carlo, and then Nice for two nights.  Busy day tomorrow!

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Day 3 – January 7, 2012 - Annecy and the French Alps!

            Currently driving from Paris to Annecy today.  It is rainy but as we drive on the highway throughout the French hillsides there are many cute villages.  The hillsides have slowly turned into mountains as we come into the Alps.  There is more snow here than Toronto!  The tour guide said that the avalanche risk is 5/5 today. K  Glad we aren’t skiing!
            Arrived in Annecy!!  It is such a cute town surrounded by snowy mountains and on a lake.  So picturesque!  It is like a very large version of old Montreal, or is very similar to Treviso, Italy my mom said.  Some parts of it reminded me of parts of Rome as well.  It is very close to Switzerland and Italy so that is probably why it is similar to Italian cities.  There were MANY cute restaurants and bakeries, and shops selling almost everything including touristy souvenirs, clothes, shoes, and fresh fruits and vegetables.  After we had an hour and a half to shop around we had a large 3-course meal at a restaurant, which was DELICIOUS.  Now we are back at the hotel where there is FINALLY free wifi.  Driving through the French Alps tomorrow, passing by Grenoble, and going to Aix-en-Provence!

Day 2 – January 6, 2012 - Arrival in Paris!

            Flight and connection at Heathrow went well with no problems thank god, except for an incident at the Charles de Gaule airport in Paris.  I was sitting on a bench with the luggage waiting for my mom while she was in the washroom, when these 3 soldiers start walking towards me with giant machine guns IN THE AIRPORT.  They were just casually strolling by and seemed to stop around the bench I was at and looking at me.  Of course I started wondering what I was doing wrong and I became so scared since there were 3 giant machine guns around me.  Thankfully they continued walking down the hall casually and my fear was alleviated.  My mom knew something had happened when she came out and saw the look on my face.  I’m definitely not used to seeing soldiers casually strolling around, usually just police officers.  Later on we learned that there had been a bomb threat at the airport which was why the soldiers were there and looking at me suspiciously.
            Shortly after we met up with our tour company.  They took us to our hotel, and gave us literally only 20 min to “freshen up” and unpack a little before our welcome meeting with our tour group.  Of course 20 minutes was not enough time since our safe was not working, and we had just arrived on only a couple hours of sleep MAYBE in the past 24 hours and was constantly on the go.  Shortly after the meeting we went on a Seine cruise and Paris by night tour.  The Eiffel tower was GORGEOUS, especially when we saw it twinkle on the hour.  The giant roundabout around the Arc de Triumphe was pure insanity.  This roundabout has 12 streets coming out from it and there are NO LANES.  It literally involves cars randomly driving and honking their horns at people and they’re free to drive wherever.  If you could make lanes it would probably be about 6 lanes wide.  And THAT is why we’re not driving in France!  To top it off, we even saw a car crash while we were walking around the round about.  Sigh.
            The Champs Elysee was GORGEOUS.  There were neon lights in all the trees for Christmas and many Christmas decorations.  At the end of the road was a giant Ferris wheel all lit up, which you could see through the Arc de Triumphe.  We went in and quickly out of some shops on the Champs Elysee since we soon discovered that they were a tad pricey.  The whole area was very touristy and made me wish we had a place like that in Toronto.  After we met back up with the tour bus we then went on a cruise up and down the Seine River to see all the great monuments Paris has to offer.  Even though it was very cold outside on the boat, seeing everything was well worth it.  Right when I saw the Eiffel Tower up close it hit me that I was ACTUALLY in Paris, a place I’ve always wanted to go.  During the cruise we saw the Eiffel Tower of course, the Louvre, the dome where Napoleon’s grave is buried, the big ferris wheel all lit up, many gorgeous bridges we went under, the Statue of Liberty (very small compared to the real thing), and other gorgeous buildings along the river.  All the architecture in Paris is so unique.  After the cruise we went on a bus tour of Paris and it occurred to me that Paris is a well laid out city.  All the main buildings are symmetrical.  We saw the Louvre and the famous pyramid within the square after squeezing our coach bus into an arch that JUST let us fit through – we all applauded the bus driver because it really made me nervous driving through it!  Afterwards we drove by the Ritz hotel where a large pillar with Napoleon on top of it is within the square.  Seeing the cobblestone narrow streets with Christmas decorations and lights was beautiful.  After a long 2 days we finally went back to the hotel, organized and FINALLY had a well deserved sleep, but sadly had to wake up at 6am the next day to go to Annecy.

Day 1 - January 5, 2012 - Departure Day

   And so the journey has begun.  Got to Pearson super early for my flight to London, England, with a connecting flight to Paris.  Nothing significant has happened yet except for a gate change but there have been basically no line-ups, which made arriving super early rather unnecessary.  Going to miss Canada, especially since I’ve never been away from it for as long as I’m going to be.  Super excited to see what the next few months have in store for me, and what I’ll end up seeing and where I’ll end up going.  Getting on flight soon to Heathrow!