Aspen Times Weekly: European Whirlwind
In a city with a metro-area population of 12 million, battling daytime traffic on bikes for three hours seemed like a bad idea. At least that’s how my brother’s French girlfriend saw it.
“I don’t understand,” she told him. “It’s like you enjoy getting hit — because then you get to brag about it.”
To be fair, he’s lived in Paris for three years, and he’s only been hit twice. Not bad for someone who makes the 15-kilometer bike ride to work five days a week, from Paris to Saint-Cloud, a suburb just outside Versailles.
The pace and volume of traffic reminded me of Manhattan, and drivers were equally impatient. But once you get past the fact that there are so many of them — and start to see how well they yield to bikers — it’s almost fun.
The only close call I had was in a roundabout near the Eiffel Tower. The near-collision was more my fault than anything else. I didn’t understand French right-of-ways, the road was slick, and a van nearly took me off the road. It was the only moment of panic in an otherwise enjoyable three-hour round trip.
Past Saint-Cloud, we climbed a two-lane road surrounded by forest and green rolling hills. Versailles, its palace, its gardens and its statues are all free to view, serving as a reminder of the meeting that brought World War I to an end. Pay a few euros, and you can also visit Marie Antoinette’s farm.
From the obvious choices — Champs-Élysées, the Louvre, Notre Dame, Luxembourg Gardens — there are a few spots that stood out. Montmartre is a steep hill north of Paris where artists like Salvador Dali, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh worked. Walk up to Basilica of the Sacre-Coeur Basilica, past the Moulin Rouge and up staircases covered in street art, and see an expansive Parisian landscape. Without any of the Eiffel Tower congestion, you get a spectacular view of the city.
A few other highlights from the trip included Le Marais in the Jewish Quarter, a Nazi target during World War II, where plaques detail war stories. Not far from Le Marais is the Left Bank apartment Ernest Hemingway rented and wrote about in “A Moveable Feast.” There’s also Pere Lachaise Cemetery, where people leave kisses for Oscar Wilde and candles for Jim Morrison.
While in Paris, we took the 90-minute, 70-euro train ride to Brussels, the capital of Belgium, known for its commerce, waffles, chocolate and beer.
At the center of town, architecture at the Grand Place, which was rebuilt in the late 1600s after a French assault, is mind-blowing, though the surrounding area is peppered with tourist traps. If you want a good meal or simply want to get away from heckling business owners, check out the area near Place Sainte-Catherine. There, we found menus without cheesy photos of the dishes, a weekend marketplace, local musicians and a record store with rare European presses.
In a town with a cultural icon like Manneken Pis, a sculpture of a urinating child, the beer lived up to its reputation. A couple of hundred meters from the Grand Place is Delirirum Cafe, which boasts more than 2,000 brands of beer. The multi-bar setup feeds into a tiny alley, filled with revelers until 4 a.m., when it closes down.
After a week in Paris, we flew to Majorca, Spain, an island south of Barcelona. Larger than Ibiza but more cosmopolitan and less clubby, Majorca is an international paradise, consisting of Spanish villages, beaches, mountains, bars and culture.
We stayed in Palma, frequenting two beaches during the weeklong stay. Not far from our apartment was La Seu — a cathedral finished in 1601 that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. To the east of the cathedral is Anima Beach, a five-minute bike ride or 10-minute jog, past docks, fishing boats and cruise liners. Further east is Nassau Beach, the shoreline pocked with locals and tourists. We spent most of our days at Cala Major, a wider and cleaner beach that’s a 20-minute, €1.50 bus ride from the center of town.
A good nightspot is Agua Bar, a drinking hole run by two New Yorkers who are popular with local musicians. It’s located in Carrer de Jaume Ferrer, an old part of town made up of narrow alleyways and Spanish haunts. We watched World Cup matches and met travelers from Denmark, Holland, Germany, Britain, Italy, Belgium and France along the way.
I spent my last few hours in Europe on Anima Beach, and then took a cab to the airport. After 24 hours on planes, trains and buses, I was back in Aspen, sand still in my hair.
“Did you make it back ok?” an email from my brother read. “They were asking about you at agua bar…”
Two weeks was not enough. “Just got home. Tell everyone I’ll be back!” I told him.
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