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(continuation of our trip to Barcelona)

The morning of our last day in Barcelona, we got up early to take the metro to the Barcelona Sants Train Station. I’m glad we did a dry run the evening before because you need to walk at least half a mile through underground tunnels, up escalators and stairs, and around corners to reach the station… dragging our heavy suitcases and carry-on bags.

Like our earlier treks, I cursed having packed so many clothes and shoes!

Once we found the correct terminal, we settled down for café leche and a pastry. About 20 minutes before the scheduled train departure, the agents started collecting tickets, and we took an escalator down to the rail tracks where the AVE train was waiting. We easily found our seats, and stashed our suitcases.

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The inside of the train is similar to an Amtrak train with wide, comfortable leather seats, foot rests, and fold-down tables. And like Amtrak, passengers are relaxed and jovial, happy to lend a helping hand to put a heavy bag in an overhead rack or patiently wait as someone makes their way down the aisle.

Unlike Amtrak, an AVE train travels at up to 299 km/hour (185 miles/hour), slowing as it approaches a station to unload and pick up passengers, and then gaining momentum again. Overhead monitors show the location of the train and it speed, along with information about towns along the way. The trip – around 645 miles – took 6½ hours.

The entire time, we watched the amazing countryside speed by with fleeting glimpses of farms, orchards and vineyards, small villages, towering churches, grazing cattle, sheep, and horses, and an occasional estate. One structure looked like a castle with a tall wall to protect the occupants.

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What we didn’t see in France and Spain was miles of abandoned and rundown buildings and houses, piles of old vehicles and trash, and eyesores like industrial complexes and discarded trains left on ancillary tracks. The only riff-raff was lots of graffiti painted on concrete walls, lining the track at various spots. Most of the graffiti, like that in America, is colorful with large characters, spelling out names and places or forming interesting patterns.

Trains are Vigilantly Patrolled

As we approached the French border, someone announced over the loudspeaker we needed to show our passports. Ten minutes later, officers in combat boots, carrying guns walked through the train, questioning every passenger and examining their paperwork. It was a little intimidating, but Europeans are probably used to the scrutiny. We saw heavily armed officers in Paris and throughout Barcelona, especially at landmarks like Notre Dame, Casa Batllo, Park Guell, and the Louvre.

When the train stopped at a small town to let off the officers, two young men in handcuffs accompanied them. Perhaps, they didn’t have the right paperwork or were wanted for a crime. We felt badly for them.

The remainder of our trip was uneventful except for nibbling on the great food we’d bought the night before, looking out at the countryside, and relaxing after a busy two weeks of traveling. Along with juicy tangerines, sweet grapes, and other fruit, we’d purchased packaged sandwiches, which had thick slices of avocados and turkey.

When we reached Paris, we had no problem getting on the correct metro train to Luxembourg Palace, and then walking a few blocks to the Sorbonne where we were staying at Hotel Design Sorbonne. We had to laugh because two weeks earlier, after flying overnight to Iceland, and then Paris, we were completely disoriented when we emerged from the metro. Not only did we have no idea, which direction to walk, but we failed to take detailed maps, thinking we could access maps on our phones. What a difference a few weeks makes!

The Hotel Design Sorbonne is in a “U-shaped” building with the hotel in one-third, and the rest private apartments. When we stayed in Paris a few weeks earlier, we rented one of the apartments. From our room, at the Design Sorbonne, we could look up at the apartment where we stayed.

Crazy, unplanned coincidence considering we did very little research before making reservations months earlier.

The Hotel Design Sorbonne is considerably swankier and more charming than the apartment. Along with funky furniture and lighting, it had multi-colored flocked wallpaper, quirky-framed pictures in the lobby and hallways, and an elegant curved staircase, which was I favored over the two-person elevator. I was wary of the elevator from the moment I saw it. The day we checked out, Rich took the elevator along with our two bags. I was in the lobby, and after ten minutes or so, I remarked to the desk clerk, “I think my husband is trapped in the elevator.” Sure enough, the elevator got stuck, and Rich ended up having to take the stairs.

Check out the Hotel Design Sorbonne gallery and virtual tour.

The drawback of the hotel is the rooms are exceptionally small. If it wasn’t for the large window, it would have felt claustrophobic. Our room had a double bed with two petite nightstands, and an oval full-length mirror in one corner. On one night stand was a vintage telephone. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Rich could reach over and open the window!

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At the foot of the bed was a small desk and chair. On the desk was a very modern Mac PC. You could access TV channels, information about the hotel, and the Internet via the PC. Also on this table were trendy magazines and tourist information.

To the right of the desk was a very small cove with a black curtain in front of it where you could stow a modest-sized suitcase, and hang clothes on hangers.

Opposite the window, and not much more than 4 or 5 feet from the other side of the bed was the bathroom. I estimate it was 6 to 8 feet in length, and maybe 30 inches wide. The shower was around 30 x 30 inches in size (width of the bathroom) with a tiny accordion door, and hand-held shower head. Within touching distance of the shower was the “half-sink,” which just enough room to rinse your hands. Small glass shelves above the sink held toiletries and drinking glasses.

One step from the sink was the toilet with a few inches of clearance between the walls and the toilet. The “button” to flush was a few feet above the toilet on the wall. You could literally take a shower, walk one step to the sink to comb your hair, and one more step to the toilet.

Despite the bathroom being petite, it was charming.

Final Evening Together

While we were in Barcelona, Stacey and Shawn were in Paris. We’d plan to meet up the final evening, and they ended up with the room next to ours at the Hotel Design Sorbonne. After we checked in, we got together to chat about our experience over the past few days. They’d visited quite a few museums and sites, and dined at an upscale restaurant where they had rabbit.

Months before the trip, Stacey had made reservations for the four of us at the Moulin Rouge for the 9:00 p.m. show. With several hours before we needing to get ready, Stacey and Shawn decided to do more sightseeing while Rich and I opted for dinner. We journeyed to La Creperie, where we’d eaten before. I ordered a buckwheat crepe with ham, emmental cheese, and soft-boiled egg in the center. Rich had chicken and vegetables in his buckwheat crepe along with a small salad. We also ordered yummy coffee drinks, which we sipped in the quiet café, gaining energy for the evening.

When we returned to the hotel, we got dressed for the evening, and then rendezvoused (when in Paris you rendezvous instead of join) with Stacey and Shawn. We took several metro trains to reach Moulin Rouge, which is near Montmartre, a historical area where many artists during the Belle Époque had studios, including Salvador Dali, Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro, and Vincent van Gogh.

It’s impossible to miss Moulin Rouge because it has a huge spinning, red neon windmill in front, and the building is illuminated with red, gold, and white neon lights. It’s excited to see, and even though I was a tired, my energy came rushing back, making me gitty with anticipation.

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However, because we’d arrived earlier, and it was rainy outside, we ducked into a Starbucks for coffee (as if we hadn’t drunk enough coffee). Once the doors of the Moulin Rouge opened, our tickets were examined, and we were assigned a host, who escorted us into the theater and showed us to our table. It was surprisingly ritualistic with the hosts and waiters dressed in black tuxedoes, and constantly monitoring the tables to ensure people were seated where they were assigned.

Stacey had splurged on tickets, and we were seated two tables from the stage. Included in the price was two bottles of champagne, which we sipped throughout the show.

The theater reminded me of a brothel with red carpeting, heavy, red velvet drapes, red and gold striped awnings that hang from the ceiling, little red and white lamps on each table, vintage posters, and gold filigree railings and bannisters. All the seating is at tables with several levels of tables and a small balcony.

The lush furnishing and fussy waiters make you truly feel like you’ve been transported to another era, and at any moment, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was going saunter down the aisles with a lady-of-the-night on each arm. Or a cigarette girl with a low bodice and short shirt was going to stop by our table, nudging us to purchase tobacco products, mints, or chocolates.

Moulin Rouge is known for having risqué shows, and because it’s a tourist attraction, I was expecting it to be an hour in length and unremarkable.

Called Féerie, which is a French theatrical genre known for fantasy plots and spectacular visuals, the show was SCREAMING AMAZING!!

Féerie blends music, dancing, pantomime, and acrobatics, as well as magical transformations created by designers and stage technicians, to tell stories with clearly defined melodrama-like morality and an extensive use of supernatural elements.

The Moulin Rouge Féerie consists of 80 artists, including 60 dancers (Doriss Girls), 1,000 costumes of feathers, rhinestones and sequins, 80 musicians, and 60 chorus singers. There’s a video on their website, which captures the show’s excitement. Click here, and then click on the link in the middle of the page that says “VIDEO.”

You can also watch a video of when two Moulin Rouge male dancers along with a chorus line set Guinness World Records.

And yes, the women are topless, but it doesn’t make any difference because the music, costumes, dancing, and sets are like watching a magnificent firework show where you’re in awe of everything you see, and can’t wait to see what’s next. The nudity isn’t a distraction because the women have beautiful bodies, which are draped in stunning costumes. And the men aren’t too shabby either.

Along with spectacular musical productions, there was a comedy act, large aquarium with a woman swimming with boa constrictors, a couple on roller skates that performed on a circular platform that was no bigger than 3 feet in diameter, and two men who did strength maneuvers, similar to what you’d see in Cirque du Soleil.

I kept thinking the show was coming to an end, but then they’d have another act, including the famous can-can with red, white, and blue costumes with lots of kicks, splits, and cartwheels. The can-can was originally a seductive dance performed by the courtesans who plied their trade at the Moulin Rouge. The can-can, along with other spirited acts lead to the introduction of cabarets across Europe.

French impresario Charles Zidler and Spanish entrepreneur Joseph Oller opened the Moulin Rouge in 1889 to enable the very rich to come and “slum it” in the fashionable Montmartre district. The cabaret was an immediate success, enabling people from all walks of life to intermingle and enjoy a festive champagne evening where people danced and were entertained by a range of performers, including la Goulue, Jane Avril, la Môme Fromage, Grille d’Egout, Nani Pattes en l’Air, Yvette Guilbert and the clown Cha-U-Kao.

Also spurring the popularity was posters and paintings by famous artists who showcased the cabaret and its famous performers. The posters were widely distributed, and later replicated, further strengthening the allure of the Moulin Rouge.

Thoroughly exhilarated after the nearly two-hour show, we headed back to the metro and our hotel for a restful night’s sleep.

Paris Awakening

Rich and I got up early the next morning to seek out breakfast, and walk through the Paris streets for the last time. Our hotel was a few steps from the Ecole St Jacques elementary school. It was interesting to see the children being dropped off by their parents – on foot and car – and then hurried into a multi-story building, which was the school. Police officers were on the street to help direct traffic, and ensure the children’s safety. We’re so used to see elementary schools with large playgrounds, and multiple buildings spread over many acres with parking lots for staff and parents.

Because of the narrow streets and price of gas, most of the vehicles on Paris streets are small. Even the delivery trucks are diminutive with small cabs like the front of a van, and a little trailer or cargo container in the back, not more than 20 feet or so in length. The cars are equally small, ranging from electric Smart ForTwos to utilitarian Volkswagens and Fords, and sporty Peugeots and Renaults.

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Also hurrying down the crowded weekday streets were bicycles, scooters, and motorcycles. To stay warm, and avoid getting wet on damp streets, many of the motorcyclist had weighted blankets or throws over their laps, covering their legs and feet. Some wore lightweight one-piece rain suits.

Adding to the traffic were city buses, police cars (sometimes with sirens blasting and blue lights whirling on top of their compact cars), and larger trucks who are forced to park in the middle of the street to make deliveries.

Throughout Paris, there are racks of bikes you can rent for a few hours or all day. Most bikes have a basket on the front or back for carrying PC bags, purses, books, purchases, extra clothing… whatever will fit. In the evenings, you can see baguettes and other groceries peeking out from these baskets.

The sidewalks are equally crowded with school-aged children rushing to schools, slightly hunched over with the weight of heavy backpacks, mothers pushing strollers or holding the hand of a toddler (or two), men and women in heavy winter coats, a wool, cotton or silk scarf loosely wrapped around their necks, lost in thoughts as they amble to work, joggers with earbuds, darting around pedestrians, and an occasional dog, on a lease or walking in front of its owner, in search of a tree or on the way to a park. Periodically, we’d pass a metro stop, and see people rushing down the stairs or coming up, having arrived at their stop.

As you pass people, you can catch whiffs of their cologne or perfume. France is the leading perfume manufacturer with 30% of the global market share. Some of the most recognizable names – Chanel, Christian Dior. Loreal, Lancôme, Yves Saint Laurent, and Estée Lauder – are French.

We walked for half an hour or so, admiring the sites, enjoying the weekday hubbub, and glancing at the listing in a real estate office before choosing a café for breakfast. We were handed a menu and tried to make knowledgeable choices based on the few French words we knew.

What arrived was two trays of food. We both had a soft-boiled egg in a little egg holder, croissant, small glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, little cup of berry jam, sliced baguette, and café au lait.

Looking at our trays, we tried to figure out how to proceed, being neither one of us knew how to open a freshly-cooked, hot-to-the-touch soft-boiled egg. Recalling what we’d seen in movies (always a good place to start), we lightly tapped the eggs with the little spoons on our trays.

We then tapped a little harder. Progress. However, bits of shell kept falling onto the egg yolks. Jointly, we resolved to smack the eggs harder, and hopefully secure larger piece of the shell so we could scoop out the contents.

Happily, no one was watching the pathetic Americans attempt to eat an authentic French breakfast.

After some trial and error, we removed the top portion of the shells, and enjoyed the contents. Everything was delicious and was one of our more memorable meals, nibbling on small portions of scrumptious food, while watching the procession of people, cars, trucks, motorcycles, and bikes hurrying to work, school, errands, and untold destinations.

End to an Amazing Trip

Sad to leave Paris, but also anxious to get back to our new home on Whidbey Island, we returned to the hotel to get our luggage, check-out, and take the metro to the airport. Once at the airport, we met up with Stacey and Shawn. Not wanting to be encumbered with heavy luggage, they only had backpacks and light carry-on bags. This may have account for their better temperament!

Anticipating the long flights, we’d stocked up on food, including baguette sandwiches (mine with brie), pastries, fruit, and other noshes. We had an uneventful flight to Iceland, reading and watching movies the entire way. Once in Iceland, we parted ways with Stacey and Shawn who were going to spend a few days touring ice fields and watching the aurora borealis.

We headed to our gate, in a newly built portion of the Reykjavik International Airport. It little more than a shell with an exposed ceiling, handful of plastic chairs, and hordes of people standing with their luggage at their feet. Knowing we’d be expected to walk onto the frigid runway to board our flight, we geared up with coats, hats, gloves, and scarf. Happily, we were able to walk directly to the plane, and not be loaded in an unheated bus and transported across the tarmac.

Rich had upgraded to exit-row seats the day before so we had plenty of room to stretch-out. Nevertheless, we stayed awake for the entire flight, landing in Seattle around midnight, and then drove up to Mount Vernon. Our five cats, one monster (Lolitta), and three birds didn’t seem to notice we’d been gone for two weeks.

Even though we hadn’t slept for nearly 24-hours, we weren’t overly tired. When we woke up the next morning, we felt rested, and never suffered jetlag. If you read my initial post about our trip, you’ll recall we were completely exhausted after flying to Iceland and then France, and it took days to “somewhat” adjust to the time difference.

Awakened our Wanderlust

The moment we returned from Europe, I wanted to go again. France and Spain was a glorious roller-coaster ride, which at times was jolting, but exceeding exhilarating and memorable.

Rich was more on the fence mainly because of the long flights, and expense. However, months later, he’s changed his tune, and would welcome another European excursion.

In the meanwhile, we remodeled/refreshed our Mount Vernon house, which is now rented for the year. We have another month or so of finishing the remodel of our Coupeville house, hanging pictures, organizing the garage, putting up tile in the kitchen, working on landscaping, and hopefully, securing full-time jobs.

In-between, we’ll be taking short-trips in our motor home, dipping our kayak in the Puget Sound, biking around Whidbey Island, and “finally” enjoying some down-time of watching sunsets, waving to passing ships, and spending time with family and friends.

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