High in the Swiss Alps

We took a cable cabin high in the Swiss Alps, at the Pas de Maimbre above the resort of Anzere. After a few days of inclement weather, the sky was crystal clear, the air crisp, the view spectacular. The flag is that of the Valais, the "canton" (state) we're in. Thomas and I hiked down and came across a mountain pool with thousands of tadpoles all crowded at one end. When we touched them they swam away in waves, only to return a few minutes later. We have no idea why but it certainly was fun to play with them (and examine them closely!).

Le Puy du Fou: A French Amusement Park

We toyed with visiting Eurodisney but in the end spent a whole day at Le Puy du Fou, a different kind of amusement park. Located in the Vendee region, about 200 miles south west of Paris, Le Puy du Fou park was founded over 30 years ago by locals who wanted to put on a show commemorating their history. Today, it's a large theme park that draws over a million visitors each year. Not only that, it's also a well-known school of the performing arts for the thousands of actors (many of them local teens and young adults) that participate in the shows.

Le Puy du Fou is different from other parks in the sense that it's composed of shows, not rides. When you arrive you're given a timetable of the day's events and can plan your visit around each of the spectacles you'd like to see: Musketeers, Knights, Vikings, Romans, and more. The main shows are elaborate and extravagant, rivaling any you might have seen elsewhere. Our favorite was the Roman one consisting of chariot races, gladiatorial battles, wild animals, and a few dead Christians. Another was a show where over a hundred birds of prey flew over our heads, including falcons swooping in at breakneck speeds from high in the sky.

In the evening we took in the "Cinescenie", the historical show I mentioned at the start of this post. Great fireworks, battles, and props were offset by longwinded dialog and slow parts. Worth seeing once IMO but no more.

All in all a fun, and very different, day.

Travel tips:
  • Probably obvious but plan on spending a whole day here, there's a lot to see
  • Book a week or more ahead and you'll get pretty sizable discounts
  • You're allowed bring food into the park if you want to save money
  • Pay close attention to the schedule, attend the shows in chronological order to make the most of your time
  • The Cinescenie starts between 22:00 and 22:30 and lasts over 1.5 hrs: make sure you're ready to stay up this late (or book into one of the adjoining, themed, hotels)
  • There's a strong Christian bent to many shows: Jeanne d'Arc figures in the medieval show, the Vikings are converted to Christianity by St. Cuthbert (who pops out of a big box), and the Christians eventually prevail in the Roman arena. Personally I could have done without this: Odin, Thor, Jupiter and Mars are all fine with me

La Belle Geode

La Geode is a fascinating structure in Paris' Cite des Sciences. It's a 36 meter diameter IMAX movie theater built in 1985 and has the only 12.1 surround sound system in the world (can't say I noticed). More impressive are the ~6,500 triangles that coat the sphere: they are placed in groups of 4 with a tolerance of within 1/10 millimeter. No triangles actually touch each other to allow for expansion due to temperature variations. Best of all? The reflections!

The Creepy Catacombs of Paris

After taking the boys to Notre Dame, the Eiffel tower, la Cite des Sciences, and even a strike, we thought we'd show them another side of Paris: the catacombs (cue scary music). There are miles, uhm, I mean kilometers of tunnels excavated under Paris. Why? Building materials. Many of the houses and monuments above ground are built with stones from below. This practice goes back two millennia, having started in Roman times.

In the late 18th century a different problem afflicted Paris: it was seriously running out of space in its cemeteries. The stench was unbearable, the well water contaminated, and Parisians demanded a solution. Putting two and two together, the mine officials excavated millions of old bones, stacked them in the tunnels... And opened the resulting catacombs to the public in the 19th century. All told over 6 millions Parisians are interred down there.

It's a fascinating experience but not for the claustrophobic or "people of a nervous disposition". In addition to bones, bones, and more bones, you'll see artwork left by the excavators, as well as many depressing sayings about death, dying, and the afterlife. The one below reads "Where is death? Always in the future or past. Barely present, it's already gone" (thanks to Thomas for the scary shadows :-)

If that isn't enough for you, visit the nearby (above ground) Montmartre Cemetery. Many famous people are buried there, including philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (notice the lipstick on the tomb).

Travel tips:
  • Bring a jacket or sweater
  • Make that a waterproof jacket since some sections of the catacombs have water dripping from the ceiling
  • Careful if you visit with small kids, our twins (9) found the visit a little too creepy
  • No restrooms down there, plan accordingly!
  • Bring a flashlight to peer down the many off-limit side passages
  • You resurface in a different place than you went down, so bring a map

Refraction with Honey

Interesting "discovery" the other day. We noticed that a spoon in a jar of honey looked much bigger than expected, certainly more than water. The answer? The refractive index of honey is ~1.5 vs. ~ 1.3 for water. 

La Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie

The City of Science and Industry is a huge museum complex full of interactive exhibits, it's the largest science museum in Europe. We learned about astronomy, space travel, and light, we fired a water powered rocket varying its fuel to find the optimal weight, we discussed statistics and gaussian curve, and much much more. Outside the museum is a large sphere, the Geode, which serves as an IMAX theater, it's a beautiful structure. A little further is a decommissioned submarine that you can self-guided walk through, very cool. All in all a fun day of learning.

Travel tips:
  • Plan on spending a whole day here, there's lots to see and do (we only managed two thirds of the exhibits)
  • Though the main language is French, many of the exhibits have English and German explanations
  • You can eat inside the museum, prices are reasonable
  • The submarine and Geode are both worth seeing (we enjoyed a 3D film on marine dinosaurs, you can get headsets for other languages)
  • September is the quietest month to visit as its back to school month and classroom field trips haven't started yet
  • That said, the first two weeks in September La Cite des Enfants (City of/for Children) is closed. It's apparently very fun for the younger kids

Traveling? Tired of seeing google results in a foreign language? Read on!

Google's a great search engine (so good I sometimes worry about seeing the world only through Google's eyes :-) but one thing always annoys me: it displays search results in the local language. This is great for the locals but not for travelers. In Switzerland google.com redirects me to a German google.ch, even though I'm in a French-speaking part of the country. In Italy, I get google.it. Mamamia, how to make it stick with English?!

You'd think Google would have a setting for your preferred language but if they do I haven't found it. Fortunately there are a number of workarounds:

In my opinion there's a better workaround, at least for the moment. Use https://www.google.com/ instead of http://www.google.com/. Leveraging a secure connection bypasses local language switching and sticks to English.

Going the https route has another advantage of course: it's much harder for a malicious person to sniff what you're searching for with Google (and grab your session cookies while they're at it). A nice bonus given that travelers can't always trust the connections they're using.

If you're on Firefox, a number of people have written search engine providers for secure google. The one I wrote also implements secure type ahead suggestions.

So now you can say arrividerci to those Italian search results! :-)

Terrific Eiffel Tower

Visiting the Eiffel tower was one of the high points of our Paris trip: the boys were really looking forward to seeing it and they weren't disappointed. Its beauty and size overwhelmed them initially and, once recovered, they clamored for a trip to the top. We asked one of the soldiers guarding the tower if we could take a picture of the boys with them. That wasn't allowed but they went one better when one of the soldiers put his beret on Daniel's head. The weather was rainy but the view from the top was nonetheless breathtaking. I was interested to see you could already rent your own iPad for a self-guided tour.

Travel tips:
  • Take the stairs to the second level instead of the elevator: You get a great view all the way up and a better feel for the tower itself. Though 43 stories sound like a lot, it's actually a pretty easy climb and you'll stop halfway anyway
  • Make the most of the exhibits on the first and second floors, esp. those showing the history of the tower and how it was built. The boys enjoyed learning that it takes 2.5 million rivets to hold this monument and 40 tons of paint to cover it from tip to toe
  • There are many street vendors around the Eiffel Tower, you can pick up souvenirs pretty cheaply esp. if you haggle a bit

Aston Martin, Ferrari, Lotus, MG... Oh my!

We spent the last few days with friends in Tours. They have a beautiful house... and an impressive collection of cars. My favorite is the Aston Martin Vantage: elegant and powerful, it was fun to drive. The  Ferrari California was gorgeous. The Lotus Elise is Thomas' favorite: a souped-up racing kart, it just sticks to the road. The old MG reminded us of times gone by.