Monday, June 30, 2008

The Capitol Grounds

Brian and I slipped away from our desks at lunch today to try out my new toy on a quick tour of the Capitol grounds.

Sunday, June 29, 2008


People often tell me how much they like my photographs. . . and then immediately ask what kind of camera I use.

I tend to find that a little insulting - like they are giving the camera, not me, credit for my work. Or maybe what really bothers me is the subtle insinuation that, if only they had as good a camera as mine, their pictures would be equally good. I'm not that great a photographer, but still, I always want to explain that a great photographer can get a great photo of any camera while even the most expensive camera won't turn the average person into a great photographer. It's the person, not the camera, that matters.

Of course, that's only partially true.

As with any craft, good tools can greatly improve a photographer's work.

I've been using two digital cameras: a Nikon D50 SLR backed-up by an Olympus point-and-shoot. They are both relatively inexpensive cameras, but they let me do most of what I want without too much frustration. While I'd like a few more pixels and a few other features, I really haven't been looking to upgrade. . . . until a couple of weeks ago when a friend of a friend let me know she was selling a barely used Nikon D300.

The D300 is the new gold-standard for Nikon cameras, a camera that has photographers so giddy that camera reviewer Ken Rockwell proclaimed: The Nikon D300 is the world's best amateur camera.

The world's best. That's quite a camera.

I bought it.

Will it make me a better photographer? I don't know, but I shot over 25,000 pictures with my D50 during the past three years and I was still learning, still improving.

Time to learn a few new things.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Bridge Building in Minneapolis

I got to take a field trip to Minneapolis to see the new Interstate 35 W bridge construction.

It's quite a project -- even if my view of it was hindered a bit by the fencing.

I even got to watch them move a section into place, which was an amazingly quick and precise process.

Even the details are pretty fascinating.

The location is pretty dramatic too!

I learned how they'll close up the gap between the two sections. . . I might have to come back to watch that!

These were all taken standing on the 10th Avenue bridge, so you can stop by and check it out too. (The view from the Guthrie is also supposed to be great.) Of course, if you can't get to Minneapolis this summer, you can always follow the action on Mn/DOT's bridge web cam. There is also a link to archived images that lets you see the project progress over time.

Friday, June 13, 2008

No Alaskan Paddlewheel Cruise

Majestic American called last night to say they are canceling all of the later August cruises because of a lack of bookings. Damn.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

I Love Paris in the Springtime

I'd probably love Paris at any time of year, but I'll have to wait for future trips to confirm that.

We saw a lot in our short time. Of course, there is so much we didn't get to! (I already have a long list for the next trip.) The links here connect to the posts for this trip, so you can see some of what I loved about Paris. . . and a few other things too.

Bon Voyage  (May 29, 2008)

Charles de Gaulle Airport  (May 30, 2008)

The Neighborhood Looks Good
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris
Around the Islands
Sainte Chapelle
The Church of Saint Severin
The Pantheon and St. Etienne

We're Out Walking  (May 31, 2008)
Impressions of the Musee d'Orsay
In Rodin's Garden
Antiques Along the Street
In Search of Eiffel's Tower
Gardens at the Quai Branly
City of Light

Water Lilies and more at the Marmottan Monet  (June 1, 2008)
The Bagatelle is Beautiful, Come Rain or Shine

Stepping Back in Time at the Cluny (June 2, 2008)

Luxembourg Garden
Inside the Church of Saint Sulpice
The Marais
View from the top at the Arc de Triomphe
Night at the Arc

Inside the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris  (June 3, 2008)

Up on the Roof
Scenery with a Side of Pastry at the Arab Institute
Missing the Mosque
Inside the Quai Branly

And We Have Come to the End of Our Journey  (June 4, 2008)

Paris: The Details

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Paris: The Details

You don't really need to do a lot of planning in order to have a great time in Paris - almost every street in the old part of the city is interesting and lovely.

That's good, because my planning ended up being a little loose. I looked at a lot of books and web sites and considered all the advice I got from other travelers - and then left our time pretty open. (We didn't make a single advance reservation for anything.) In the end, we mostly did exactly what we had thought we might do when we first decided to go to Paris.

So I want everyone to know that it is indeed possible to have a great trip to Paris without going into the Louvre. (Sorry, Jeff, Sarah, and the rest of you classic art lovers, but - at least for us - it's true.)

As for some of the other recommendations that we didn't quite get to:

We did not have hot chocolate at Angelina's, even though we fully intended to and actually got part way there. Sorry, Karen. (On the other hand, Lane did have a tasty treat at Berthillon.) Nor did we see the exhibit on Marie Antoinette, take a guided walking tour, or cruise on the Seine, as recommended by Jill Jergel via Wendy Perrin at Conde Nast Traveler. (We did have snacks at the Branly though.) While we spent a little time in the market in the Latin Quarter and at the Branly's vertical garden, we didn't get to many of the inexpensive/free suggestions provided by Howard Lewis (also via Wendy Perrin) Nor did we get to many of the wonderful places suggested by Chris Welsch and the readers of the Escape Artists blog.

Actually, with only five days, we didn't even get to do everything I came up with on my own to do like shopping, listening to live jazz, visiting the 19th century shopping passages, wandering the Viaduct des Arts, and a day trip to Versailles or Giverny.

That leaves a lot to do on my next trip!

Guidebooks and General Websites -
There must be a million guidebooks for Paris, but we particularly liked the Rough Guide and, surprisingly, Paris for Dummies, which has a wealth of practical information that is easy to find and to use.

Rick Steves provides a ton of in-depth information, but he focuses in on things he likes and thinks will appeal to his audience. That is great if you share his tastes and prejudices. It's a problem if your tastes are more wide-ranging and you want to visit a place like the Arab Institute or the Grand Mosque - neither of which are mentioned in his guidebook. None-the-less, if you can ignore a few annoying prejudices, his book is stuffed with useful information. Enough so that I would buy it again despite the holes.

On the web, information on exhibitions and happenings in Paris can be found in English at Paris Update and at AngloInfo.

For a fascinating view of how Paris has changed over time, check the website Mapping Paris.

Can't get to Paris and want to see more images? Fred Relaix has posted many, many stunning images on Pbase.

Want more info on photography in Paris? A Photographer's Guide to Paris on Photo Net provides tips for getting great shots while you are there. Note, however, that while some folks discuss using tripods without hassle, I ran into a number of places where I couldn't use mine, including the Arc de Triomphe and St. Chapelle. VERY annoying, but there clearly is a limit to how much fun you are allowed to have while in Paris!

Language and Other Myths
My attempt to learn basic French was feeble and the results appropriately dismal. Fortunately, Lane still recalls a reasonable amount of his high school French and people were really, really nice and very patient. If Parisians ever were rude to idiot Americans, that is no longer true. Everyone we met was truly lovely.

Thus, besides the disappointment of not being able to have a meaningful conversation with many people, the real downside of not speaking French was our inability to decipher some of the more inscrutable signs we came across. . . like this one, that appears to prohibit service dogs. And does the graffiti on it say what I think it does?

Traveling to Paris
We took NWA's new (short-lived) non-stop to Paris. They were using lovely new planes, which made for the most comfortable coach experience we've had since flying Air Pacific to Fiji in 2003.

Charles de Gaulle (CDG) was under construction in an attempt to accommodate all the new traffic coming in under Open Skies agreements in Europe. Many flights, including ours, disembark on the tarmac, with passengers transported to the terminal. Once in the terminal, construction and the lack of signage after passing the immigration counter makes locating luggage a little tricky.

After the confusion of arriving at CDG, I was shocked by how easy and comfortable our departure was. The first person we asked immediately directed us to the check-in counter serving NWA. Check-in was a fast, high-tech operation. While our gate was under construction, it was still comfortable, open and airy, with LOTS of electric outlets for laptop users! The only down-side was NWA's lack of gate staff and the misdirection provided by the staff that was available.

Getting into the City
CDG is a long way from central Paris, but there are several options for getting there from the airport. Next time we'll probably take the Air France shuttle to get to the train station nearest our hotel and take transit or a cab from there. For this trip we used the Blue Bus - which was late to pick us up (which meant that we were stuck at the airport for an extra hour while the bomb scare closed off the road to the terminal on top of the extra hour we had because our flight was early) and then rescheduled us for an earlier than necessary pick-up on our return (which meant that we didn't have time to get to the mosque that morning). If it isn't rush hour and you don't have a lot of luggage, I'd just take regular transit.

Which leads to the surprising discoveries that dogs were not welcome in all parks and that the streets were relatively "poo" free. More myths consigned to the dust bin!

Getting Around in the City
Paris is a fabulously walkable city and so we walked almost everywhere we went. It was like always being on a free walking tour.

Signage is generally good if you know where to look (although street names can change abruptly and sometimes seemingly at random), so a good map is invaluable. Jeff steered us to Streetwise Paris and it was an excellent choice.

Although the city has a lot of traffic, we never found it particularly difficult to cross streets.

Taxis seemed expensive, but the Metro is an efficient and easy to use alternative. Just don't expect fancy stations, aside from the stop at the Louvre, the underground component is pretty basic.

We didn't try the bus system. Nor did we even consider renting a car. Driving in Paris looks like it would be miserable. (We did find a gas station though, tucked into the street level of a parking ramp along with a car wash and a Mercedes dealership. Good luck if you need to find it while driving!)

A bicycle would be the perfect way to travel around the city, but apparently American credit cards don't work with the Velib system. I wish it did, as the bikes were widely available, cool looking, and seemed well-maintained. It would be a fun way to get around.

LodgingWe booked our trip as a package, so stayed at a tourist hotel in the Latin Quarter. The Hotel Sully Saint Germain was an upgrade, but nothing fancy. It's an old building with a miniscule elevator and funky stairs with a suit of armor at the bottom. (The hotel has a medieval theme.)

It was an excellent choice for us. The staff was helpful and friendly, the rooms large and clean enough, the location perfect, and the views from our window excellent.

We really enjoyed staying in the Latin Quarter and would do so again - it is a lively neighborhood that is conveniently located for sight-seeing - although we would consider the inviting looking Hotel De Varenne near the d'Orsay.

The hotel breakfast was ample and good, so that got us through a good chunk of the day. We usually only ate one really nice meal each day, usually lunch, since that is an affordable way to sample some great cuisine. I mentioned the lovely Le Relaise de I'lsle in my post on the islands. We also had a nice classic bistro dinner at Restaurant Perraudin, and a wonderful dinner at le Reminet. We also had a very nice lunch at a place in the Marais. (I'll post the link if I can find it.)

Budget options include the ubiquitous creperies and sandwich stands, as well as many of the city's small ethnic restaurants and food stands. There are, of course, amazing bakeries everywhere.

As noted in my post, exquisite but pricey treats are available at the Noura restaurant at the Arab Institute. It also looks like a lovely spot for dinner.

Notes on a Few of the Sights
In general, because the weekend was in the middle of our stay, it didn't make sense for us to get a museum pass. As it was, there really wasn't any other place we would have gone to with our pass, so we wouldn't have saved money. Also, keep in mind that the real joy of being in Paris can be found while just wandering through the city. Some of the most interesting things you see might well be the behind-the-scenes things that you aren't supposed to notice, like the pile of extra carved stones piled alongside St. Chapelle or the pigeon spikes that form a halo above most public statuary!

Notre-Dame has a fabulous website that will tell you anything you could want to know about the cathedral.

Note that visitors to the tower are clumped into groups and kept moving along. Time at the top is limited and when it's up, they will usher the stragglers back to the stairs so the next group can come up. (There is only room for one-way traffic on the stairs, so this sort of crowd control is necessary. If it isn't a really busy day and you stay out of the way and ask nicely they'll usually let you stay longer and depart with the next group.)

St. Chapelle doesn't have a sign that tells you so, but they won't let you use a tripod. They are very insistent about it.

Musée Marmottan Monet is a house museum and, while noted for it's impressive collection of Monets (in a special basement gallery and scattered throughout the house), it also has work by a number of other painters from the period, as well as rooms that display the Marmottan family's collection of earlier European painting. It is a little out of the way, but it is a pleasant walk through a leafy neighborhood from the metro stop. Be sure you know how to get there and back because there is no logical spot from which to catch a cab.

The Bagatelle is located within the Bois de Boulogne. While it is accessible by transit with some walking, you really need to know where you are going. Don't wing it like we did. The Bois de Boulogne is huge and has a lot of bike trails - it would be a wonderful place to spend a day if one needed a break from the city.

The Arc de Triomphe doesn't allow tripods, so forget about going up there for great night shots.

I missed the medieval gardens at the Musée National du Moyen Age (the Cluny). Apparently they are wonderful, but we never saw the entrance. Don't make the same mistake.

Although we found Paris to be very safe, anywhere tourists gather will attract folks running scams. My favorite was that of the Romany girls, as it will only catch the greedy. (Which seem right.) Busy setting up my photos and switching lenses outside the Louvre, I was a perfect target. Indeed, when I heard a girl say "oh my!" and then come running up to me with something in her hand, I had no clue what was going on. She showed me a plain gold ring: "Look! My lucky day! It is heavy, it must be gold. . . " Without thinking, I told her the Louvre probably had a lost and found where she could turn it in and went on my way.

And We Have Come to the End of This Journey

Previous Post: Inside the Quai Branly

The shuttle company has called and wants us to leave an hour earlier than we had planned. This means we do not have time to visit the mosque or do much of anything this morning, but ensures that we will have a very long wait at the airport. (At least they have plenty of electric outlets at the airport for eager bloggers!)

Thus our travel in Paris comes to an end. . . for now.

Next Post: The Details

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Inside the Quai Branly

Previous Post: Missing the Mosque

Musée du quai Branly was designed to house major collections of art and artifacts from the Americas, Oceania, Asia, and Africa. Now we are here to see those collections.

As I noted earlier, I love this high-tech Jean Nouvel structure, but almost as soon as we enter we discover a problem: it seems like we have to walk forever to actually get to the galleries. Once we get past the glorious pillar of musical instruments, there is no purpose for this and nothing to see but a few annoying videos. It irritates me. If I'm going to hike, I'd much rather do it outside!

We finally reach the galleries and are confronted with a conundrum - where do we start? In one direction lie treasures from Asia and Oceania, to the other, Africa and the Americas.

We pick the Americas, beginning with exquisite ancient artifacts from Mexico, Costa Rica, Columbia, Peru, and other spots. We see Incan gold and silver, Moche pottery (always a favorite), Mayan artifacts, and feathered tunics unlike anything we saw in Peru and Ecuador. It's amazing.

There are only a few pieces from north America, but almost every one is stunning and many are unlike anything we have ever even seen illustrated before, including incredible Yupik and Aleut pieces. They are amazing.

The African galleries are absolutely overwhelming, with amazing masks, sculpture, weapons, jewelry, clothing, and other wonderful, beautiful objects from across northern and central Africa. There is a gallery with ancient Christian pieces from Ethiopia and booths showing evocative videos on various subjects (including a favorite of ours about rebuilding a mud brick temple in Mali). It's exhausting to try to view it all. It would be easy to spend a whole day right here!

The Asian collection is smaller, but heavy on exquisite textiles and jewelry from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, China, Japan, Arctic Russia, and parts of what I consider the Middle East.

We save Oceania for last. Although this is the most notable of the collections here, it is the area in which we have the least interest. However, our introduction to the collection begins with an amazing display of Aboriginal art from Australia (We clearly need to get to Australia) and Maori pieces from New Zealand.

There are other great pieces too, from Hawaii, Sumatra, and lots of lots of amazing pieces from the South Pacific, Papua New Guinea, and across Indonesia.

I guess everything here is pretty interesting.

It is an incredible museum and I am exhausted long before we actually have finished our visit.

All photos are from the Branly's website, which has wonderful information on their collections, but only in French and without a way to link to a specific item.