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YFA鈥檚 Travels – Europe 2010 (Part 6/?) by YFA

Wow… let’s hope I finish posting this Europe trip blog before I start with Asia…

December 30, 2010
We had a super early start this morning because we have a lot of ground to cover – probably the worst part of highway driving for this trip, as we head up and over the mountain towards the north where there were earlier reports of snowstorms and possible road closures. This is as far north as we’ll go in this entire trip, so if we survive driving through the snow/mountains (which was a real concern we had, that we would get stuck in the snow in the mountain with a stick shift) we should be fine for the rest of the trip from the snow. Our final destination for the day is Bordeaux, but in between the 7+ hours of driving needed to get there, we have a few stops along the Loire Valley to look at French castles, of which we settled on the largest Chateau Chambord, and the unique looking Chateau Chaumont. Both castles appear very photogenic in our online image searches, so those were our top picks amongst the many Loire Valley castles.

We left the hotel just past 8am, where we intended to get breakfast at the Subway (yes they exist in Europe too!) next to the hotel, but unfortunately the Subway doesn’t open until 9am. So we decided to skip breakfast and start driving north towards the castles. The drive was quite treacherous as it just rained and the fog hasn’t cleared, so the roads were wet and visibility was super low. After driving for 1.5 hours, we arrived at Chaumont, only to find it wasn’t the correct Chaumont… sigh navigation fail! poor driver :P. At this point I was so hungry so I decided to eat my leftover sandwich in the car from the day before. After driving for another 1.5 hour or so, I started to get this headache which I thought was from this early “intensive” driving, so we changed drivers so I could take a nap in the backseat.

The wrong Chaumont - but has a European village feel

After 1 more hour of driving, we arrived at Chateau Chambord, but I was definitely feeling under the weather – with a headache and an upset stomach. But despite all that, there is a gigantic castle in front of me, but unfortunately parts of the exterior is under construction, including the moat, so we didn’t get the nice photo where the castle is reflected in full by the water in the moat :(. We went to grab lunch in the stores near the castle, but my stomach was so upset by this point I didn’t finish my food. Combined with my headache, I almost wanted to go back and stay in the car – but how can I miss out on this opportunity to see the largest castle in the Loire Valley!

Back side of Chateau Chambord, but moat is under construction
Side angle of Chambord. Do I look ill?
Front view of Chambord
Front courtyard of Chambord - same French flag as the previous photo

Chateau Chambord features a double helix staircase (which was some ingenious design by the standards back then) that ascends to the exterior terrace on the 3rd floor rooftops. The castle was generally very cold (which doesn’t help my not-feeling-well-ness) and crowds huddle by the active fireplaces. The view was pretty nice and the castle featured some French historical exhibits, but I was definitely not in the mood to appreciate French culture and architecture at that point in time.

Single helix staircase (double helix is in the middle of the castle)
Urgh graffiti and construction!
Top of the staircase to the terrace
I'm so tall!
Is this pose less contrived?!
View of the terrace
Higher view of the single helix staircase and courtyard
Castle with its
Classic French architecture?

After Chateau Chambord, we drove to the real Chateau Chaumont – which requires a good 5 minute uphill walk to get to. In my condition then, I really didn’t think I could make it to the top when I feel like I could throw up any minute – but I toughed it out regardless and the castle is definitely more interesting looking than Chambord. I think the photos are better here just because there’s no construction ruining the sight :).

Chateau Chaumont!
Chaumont's Courtyard
Fireplace inside. Too bad the fire isn't on, I'm going to die...
Chapel with stained glass windows
Dining Room at Chaumont
Parting shot of Chaumont - if I look annoyed that's 'cuz I'm about to collapse to the floor

One thing I noticed across both castles is that while many rooms host historical exhibits, a fair amount of rooms (and there are plenty of empty rooms) are used as art exhibits to showcase art (there’s even a photo exhibit of Cambodia). There was even some post-apocalyptic art exhibit in Chaumont which was quite scary when you randomly stumble across it in a corner room.

Church at Chaumont's town
Blois (I think... I didn't take this photo as I'm passed out at this point)

After Chaumont, we hopped back into the car and started driving, with one short stop along the way at Blois, but at that point I was so tired and sick that I didn’t even bother getting out of the car. I napped the entire way to Bordeaux and when we arrived at the Hotel Restaurant Kyriad Bordeaux Lac (Kyriad is another big European hotel chain) I was completely passed out and struggling to stay on my feet as I checked in for our 1 room for 4 people for 2 nights. The room ended up being a room with a ladder up to a loft and contains 4 twin size beds. The room was incredibly small and we barely had room to maneuver with everyone and their luggage. After settling in, I picked the bed downstairs next to the bathroom and showered and went to bed, foregoing dinner. The 3 of them left for dinner somewhere and I was already passed out by the time they got back.

The reason I picked the bed closest to the bathroom was because I knew I had an upset stomach and needed quick access to the bathroom – and this proved to be a wise choice as around 12:30am, I woke up feeling queasy and ended up making my way to the bathroom (like 5 steps away) to throw up all the contents in my stomach into the sink. (I even managed to close the door before throwing up, but I think I woke up everyone else regardless). Good thing I found the sink in time before I threw up – otherwise cleanup would be quite an unpleasant experience (the toilet would be a better choice, but sink wasn’t too bad). I felt much better after throwing everything up, and was convinced it must be mild food poisoning from eating that sandwich earlier in the day. Lesson learned – be more careful of what you eat while traveling!

Feeling dehydrated and with a mild headache still, I went back to sleep praying that I’d be fit enough to sightsee Bordeaux tomorrow, and would make it back home without dying in Europe O_O.

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Next to Normal – Seattle, Mar 2, 2011 by YFA

Next to Normal

I walked into this musical with high expectations, and it surprisingly did not disappoint. Some background – Next to Normal deals with the subject of the effect bipolar disorder has on one’s family, so it is definitely a heavier subject matter. It won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2009 Tony Awards for Best Original Score, Best Orchestration and Best Lead Actress – making it one of the rare few to get both Pulitzer and Tony awards. To set the bar for comparison, Rent was the last musical to get this achievement. Did I also mention, Michael Greif, who directed Rent, also directed this musical? The composers (music, lyrics and book) actually came from Issaquah, WA, which is one of the suburbs of Seattle – so there was definitely a lot of excitement when Next to Normal made it big out east on Broadway (it did lose Best Musical in 2009 to Billy Elliot, which I’ll be catching in April).

I don’t want to give away the plot in case you do catch it (and I strongly recommend you do, the US tour ends in Toronto in June 2011), the plot is straightforward and easy to understand, so please do NOT pre-study this musical as it will ruin the surprises and affect the overall experience.

The stage design is reminiscent of Rent (definitely has the fingerprints of Michael Greif’s direction) – the orchestra is all on stage, and intriguingly they are split up on the left side and right side. Stylistically it is not rock like Rent, but it is not traditional classical like Wicked either… in fact, if I were to describe the orchestration, I’d say it is like… worship team style 馃槓 It basically consists of a 4 piece band (keys, drums, a/e-guitar, bass) and some strings (think 1 violin, and the bassist switches to cello/double bass at times). So the instrumentation is very much broken down (which seems to be the modern thing to do as it keeps production costs low) but it does not take away from the musical at all. The stage is divided into 3 levels, much like a house with the walls taken out, which reminds me of August: Osage County. I commented before the show started that this setup is more common for plays than in musicals, because they can do scene transitions easily by moving the spotlight between levels while the other floors are getting setup, but this is less of an issue for scene changes as they can tide it over with a song. To my surprise, Next to Normal uses the multi-floor setup brilliantly to do a lot of parallel movement across levels, notably “Why Stay?/A Promise” when the daughter/boyfriend and husband/wife sings the same song across different levels and expands on two different relationships at the same time.

I generally liked Act 2 more than Act 1 (though fellow musical goers disagree on this one) because Act 2 has the hallmarks of what any amazing musical should have – it reprises a LOT of musical themes from Act 1, and brings them back with different meaning because of the plot (much like Wicked’s “I’m not that girl”). The musical structure is very tight as there are a lot of overlapping vocal parts, but not to an extent that it gets confusing as to what is going on. I was a little concerned as to whether they would drag out the ending, but I think looking back the musical ended at the right spot as it built up to the grand finale necessary to close off a musical.

The musical also contains a few references and allusions – the ones I caught were quotes from Catcher in the Rye, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music.

Next to Normal also has a few memorable, catchy numbers that I can hum to as I exit the theater. The only downside is because the subject matter is so serious, the songs are hardly reusable in everyday life (unlike Rent’s “Seasons of Love” or Wicked’s “Defying Gravity”) – thought I suspect if I were to let the experience settle and if I study the soundtrack more, I’ll find good use of their songs. This is the tiny ding to the musical for me – hopefully one that will get fixed over time :). For this reason I’d rate this musical a 4.9, if that’s at all possible… but for all practical purposes it is a 5-star musical for me, joining in the ranks of Rent and Wicked (finally!)

One parting note – instead of getting Alice Ripley (the Tony winning lead actress) I got the understudy Pearl Sun, which could have been a blessing in disguise. Checking out youtube clips, Alice Ripley definitely is a stronger actor, but apparently she has been suffering from vocal issues on this tour and can get quite pitchy and raspy, as reported by other reviewers. The understudy (or standby for this role) did a great job with the vocals – although being Asian, there’s that advantage of looking younger than your age which worked against her in this case as it made her role as a mom less convincing for me.

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Dead Island by YFA

Taking a break from Europe Trip writeup…

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YFA鈥檚 Travels – Europe 2010 (Part 5/?) by YFA

Wow so long since I posted. I blame starcraft. And work I guess – less free cycles to do the write ups, but here it is!

December 29, 2010
We checked out of Hotel du Simplon early in the morning and I started the drive towards Dijon, which is the captial city of the Burgundy region. But before that, we drove through the Beaujoulais wine region, which is a famous French wine region in the Rhone valley. We had no target wineries in mind and in fact, couldn’t find anything specific in the guidebook, so we literally randomly drove around aimlessly looking for signs for the winery (which proves rather challenging for a new stick shift driver, as I often have to make quick stops and starts). We ended up finally finding one winery (Armand Charvet) near Morgon that was open (many of them were close) to let us do wine tasting after 1.5 hours or so.
Beaujoulais Region vineyard
Armand Charvet's Tasting Room - which is the basement (wine cellar) to the owner's house

We then continued on our trip towards Beaune, which was a planned intermediary stop before Dijon. Beaune is a very classy small town in the Burgundy region that once upon a time was the capital of Burgundy. The downtown, historical part of Beaune was paved with cobblestone which adds to the classy feel. There were 2 primary attractions we wanted to see in Beaune – the H么tel-Dieu de Beaune and the Patriarche. We decided to visit the Patrairche first because we expect a fair amount of drinking and we wanted to give some time for the drivers to walk off the alcohol before continuing on.
Church at Beaune. There's a large crowd so we went to see what's going on - turns out they are waiting for mass to start :)

The Patriarche is a winery with a giant underground cellar that I suspect covers a major chunk of the historical center of Beaune. Only photos can describe the vast amount of wine stored underground here. Note the cellar is actually very dark with minimal lighting (to not ruin the wine) and it is all underground – I think it will make a perfect bomb shelter in the event of war :).
Entry way with giant barrels - this is before we enter the underground!
Underground barrel storage
stacks and stacks of bottles of wine
Wine stored and sorted by year - all up for purchase
more underground storage in corners and crevices

At the end of the self guided wine caves tour, one of the tour guides gives us a brief introduction and history of the Burgundy wines. We then get to taste a wide variety of Burgundy wines (red and white) – the entire process is unique here because it is self-served (so you can pour as much as you want, but there’s 20+ kind of wines available). Obviously you can’t swallow all that wine, otherwise you won’t be able to walk out of the cellar in a straight line. They even had champagne available… we suspect it was not for tasting, but for cleaning your palette in between wines, so literally, we used champagne to rinse our mouths :).
Why, I'll help myself to some wine, thx!

After the Patriarche, we went to the H么tel-Dieu de Beaune, which is a former charitable almshouse with interesting decor. Unfortunately the weather was crummy and it was raining/foggy most of the time, so the outdoor photos didn’t turn out too well.
H么tel-Dieu de Beaune
Unique rooftop patterns
How did I take one from the display case?!
Pretty decor
Even the ceiling is decorated with paintings
when the lights turn on...

After leaving Beaune, I drove to Dijon (yes I drove the entire day for Day 5), where we did our typical sightseeing of palace and churches (at this point they all seem to look the same and sound less and less interesting). Dijon seems a bit more historical and there is some uniqueness to it – for example, we saw a church with gargoyles along the exterior ledge. The wetness here worked to our advantage – it was very misty and the lighting turned out really nicely, with this… mystical feel to it.
Dijon in the mist
Palace
Church in the mist!
Nice elaborately decorated archway
Rows of gargoyles
After the rain... Dijon city square
Streets of Dijon with Christmas lights still up

Our Lonely Planet guidebook pointed out there’s some owl statue hidden in the town where people touch it for wisdom or good luck (or something along those lines) – so we set out to find this magical owl statue… except we walked all around the address it should be located at but couldn’t find it. And then we noticed there are numbered plaques and directional arrows with an owl symbol on them – so we started following these arrows which took us on some scenic tour around the city. We reached all the way up to 15 I think but got so hungry so we just gave up finding the owl at the end and went for dinner.
Owl No. 9, on the ground
Where does the wise owl lead?

We drove to the other side of town for dinner and I had my last try for beef (since Burgundy beef is supposed to be good) – and it tasted OK – but still not particularly special. So much for beef in France! They did serve some mash potatoes that had Dijon mustard in it (how sad, I think that’s all the city is famous for, its mustard) which was quite unique.

As an aside – when I tried to find street parking near the restaurant, the only spot I could find was cars parallel parked along this narrow street, where they had to park with half the car (2 wheels) on the curb – so I followed suit and did the same thing – it was incredibly challenging since I had to a) parallel park to my left; b) run the car up the curb, so need to have enough speed and momentum, without crashing into the car behind me; c) not stall the car with all the braking and turning 馃槢 but I did it! I’m now a true European driver… just don’t try this back home.

Anyhow, after dinner we went to our hotel (Campanile Dijon Centre – Campanile is a pretty big hotel chain in Europe) and crashed for the night, since we have a long day tomorrow – and when the trip went south for me!

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post-tremblant by teewee

I am no where near as diligent as yfa and his detailed writeup… maybe i’ll add a few more later..

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