Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Paris & Rome 2006

Finally!! I'm posting my trip report from November. Enjoy!!

Day 1

The flight into London was uneventful. I was able to fall asleep fairly soon after dinner and snooze off and on. Arriving in Heathrow, I made my way to the departures area (my bags were checked all the way to Paris). But to get to departures, I had to go through security again. No problem, I thought, after all I didn’t even have to switch terminals, it is only security. Boy was I wrong! The security line was enormous! Good thing my flight into London had landed early as I had a feeling I might need the extra time. The line stretched around the corner and down the corridor as far as I could see. I got in line and finally turned the first corner and then when I turned the second corner I began to feel hope the end of the line was near. But around the second corner my hopes were slightly dashed as the line didn’t end there but zig-zagged (think Disneyland). The harried airport staff was trying to keep the line moving and allowed several people to branch into another line. Several women who were not allowed to branch off started arguing with the airport staff saying it wasn’t fair those others got to change lines. The staff person let them through so they would stop arguing. However the line they argued to be in was longer than their original line and I felt a perverse pleasure in the fact they were still in line when the people behind them in their original line made it through security. Seeing that, one of the women re-cut back into the original line. Apparently there is no way to make some people happy. Finally I made it through security and to departures. To stay awake I walked up and down the terminal. My flight was called and I boarded the plane. My eyes were closed and I was dozing as soon as I sat down. Thinking we were sitting an awful long time after everyone had boarded, I dismissed this thought due to my half-awake state. But as it turned out, we were sitting. One passenger did not show up for the flight so they had to find their bag and take it off the plane. Once the bag was off we were further delayed as we had missed our chance to go and had to wait for air traffic control to assign us a new time. All in all, we were probably delayed about 30 minutes in taking off. However we landed nearly right on time so we must have made up time in the air, or they build a lot more time into those flying estimates in case things like this happen!

After clearing passport control and collecting my bag it was time to head for the hotel. I figured the easiest way would be either by bus or train and then by metro. I found the train first and bought my ticket. When I realized I would have to switch metro lines twice, I decided to get off at the first major train station and take a taxi the rest of the way. The taxi line was almost as long as the security line at Heathrow! But I wasn’t about to get on the metro so I stood in line. Finally it was my turn and I gave the address of the hotel to the taxi driver and we were off. After we turned the corner the taxi driver pulled over to look at a map. I was torn between being glad at least she was looking at a map and being dismayed she was looking at a map. She found it on the map and maneuvered back into traffic. I had forgotten how crazy Paris drivers can be! I reached the hotel and Jana was waiting in the room. We walked around the neighborhood and found a restaurant for dinner. Our waiter was very odd and there was a dog under the table next to us. After dinner we walked around a bit more and discovered how close the Eiffel Tower was as we looked up and there it was right in front of us.

Day 2
We decided that today we were going to take a train somewhere - either Reims (pronounced Rance, like France) or Troyez. We got to the train station and found out we couldn't use our credit cards in the machine. It has to have a special chip in it to be used to buy tickets, so we got in line to buy tickets. The ticket agent discouraged us from going to Troyez and suggested Reims, except the train to Reims wasn’t leaving until 11 (it was 9). We didn't want to wait around so we said we'd go to Troyez. But before we could buy tickets he again discouraged us and gave us another medieval town to visit but we couldn't buy the tickets from him - we had to buy them from another ticket counter across the train station. We walk over to the other counter and try to find the other city mentioned in Rick Steve's book but it wasn't there and since we really did want to Reims we decide to go have breakfast and then buy tickets for the 11 o'clock train to Reims. We went to a little cafe near the train station for breakfast and once again we got a weird waiter. Back at the train station we get in line to buy the Reims tickets. Our first ticket agent sees us and looks at us questioningly to which we reply we decided we wanted to go to Reims after all. Ticket in hand we validated them and climbed aboard the train and 90 minutes later we were in Reims.

I had used our time on the train to consult with Rick to figure out what to see and how to get there. Our first stop was the cathedral, which looked a lot like the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. In fact it was also called Notre Dame, complete with gargoyles. After the cathedral we started walking towards the champagne house we had decided to tour (there were several in the town). We figured on the way there we would find a restaurant to stop in for lunch. However, it was not to be as it was later in the afternoon and most of the restaurants were closed until dinner. We did find a little bakery which was still open and got a sandwich and a soda and found a bench nearby where we had our first lunch in France.

The champagne house was not much further up from where we had lunch. We arrived just in time for the tour in English. The champagne house used to be an abbey and the abbey was founded on ruins left by the Romans. We walked down 70+ stairs into the caves where the champagne bottles are stored. The guide explained how they make the champagne and then insert the carbonation to make it fizzy. After the tour we got to walk back up the stairs (our first stair of the trip) but the reward at the top was a taste of the champagne and it was good! After we finished our sample we headed back into town.

We had already bought our tickets home and still had time before the train came so we decided to visit the Museum of the Surrender. This was Eisenhower's headquarters and where the Allied forces accepted Germany's surrender in World War II. On the map it didn't look to far away from the train station or too far away from where we were at the moment. We made our way back to the train station, passing by a scrapbook store! It is always good to know where the nearest scrapbook store is, in case I wanted to start on my trip book a little early! :) The museum was close to the train station, if you were a bird and could fly over the fence and the train tracks. We had to go up the street, over the bridge and back down the street to reach it. Inside was the actual table where the surrender was signed. It was really dark by the time we left the museum and we made our way to the train station and back to Paris.
Stair count - 70+ up from the champagne caves

Day 3
I have wanted to go to Versailles ever since I can remember but each time something has happened each time that has prevented me from going. Last time I made it all the way out there to find out there was a strike and it wasn’t open. I was determined to make it there this time. The train left from the metro/train station near our hotel. After breakfast of croissants (yum!) we made our way to the train. We arrived in Versailles and stopped in the tourist information office to make one of the most important purchases you can make in Paris - a Paris Museum Card. This pass not only gets you into a lot of museums for free or a reduced rate, it also lets you skip entrance lines! It would come in handy many times on our trip. With our Museum Pass in our hand we walked into Versailles. What an incredible place! Unfortunately, the hall of mirrors was under renovation and so we weren’t able to see it. Oh well, it just means I’ll have to make another trip there.

We ate lunch in the café and then started exploring the gardens. Given that it was the end of November, most of the trees and plants were bare, but you could imagine the gardens in all their splendor during the summer. It was a very nice day out and the sky was very blue and the clouds looked like clouds in a painting. We walked along the path to the Grand Trianon, a smaller palace on the grounds. Apparently, as the popularity and fame of Versailles grew, the royal family tried to get away and continued to build further out from the main palace. From the Grand Trianon we went to the Petit Trianon, which as the name suggests, was a yet even smaller palace. Give me the Petit Trianon any day!
The last thing on the map we wanted to visit was called the Queen’s Hamlet. We weren’t sure exactly what this was but since we were there we wanted to visit. It turns out this was a model village Marie Antoinette had built so she could have a village of her own. It seems that France wasn’t enough for her! It was a very cute village and had lots of animals around.
We walked back through the gardens and to the train station and headed back to Paris. We decided since we had bought the 2 day Museum Pass and as the Louvre was open late tonight we would head directly over to the Louvre. It was still crowded even though it was in the evening. We hit the high points (Winged Victory, Venus de Milo, Mona Lisa) as well as the foundations of the Louvre (it used to be a palace) before deciding to find dinner. We had originally thought to eat in the café but the choices weren’t all that great. Trying to find the metro to head back towards our hotel and find a restaurant there, we came across a food court! I don’t know if it was we because we were hungry but that dinner was one of the best dinners I’ve had!

Stair count – No official count today, but both Versailles and the Louvre had a lot of them!
Day 4
We started off early Saturday morning with a list of places we were going to go to that day. The first stop was the Rodin Museum, not far from our hotel. The museum had just opened in the morning and already there was a line. One of the staff came out and asked if anyone had a Museum Card, which we did, and so we were able to jump the queue and go right in. The first thing we came across was probably one of his most famous pieces, if not the most famous, The Thinker. It is always amazing to me how much detail they can portray in what started out as a hunk of stone.

From there, we made our way to the D’Orsay Museum where once again the Museum Card let us right in ahead of the line. And the line to get in was quite long. We made our way through the museum up to the top floor which is the Impressionist floor. The impressionist style of painting is my favorite. I just love Monet, Manet, Degas, and Renoir so I was happy as a clam strolling through the rooms filled with their paintings. We had lunch at the café and finished our tour.
Leaving the D’Orsay, we strolled along the Seine. The streets along the river are filled with booksellers and souvenir stands selling just about anything you could want. We passed by Pont Neuf (the New Bridge), which is my favorite bridge in Paris. I don’t know why I like that bridge, but whenever I think of Paris I think of the Eiffel Tower and that bridge.
We crossed over another bridge to the island where the ancient city of Paris originated. Our first stop was Sainte-Chapelle which has amazing stained glass panels. It was remarkable with only a little daylight - on a sunny day it must be breathtaking. A little ways down the street from Sainte-Chapelle is the Conciergerie, a former prison. Many of the prisoners in the French Revolution were kept here, including Marie-Antoinette, before being carted off to the guillotine. From there we continued on to Notre Dame Cathedral and were able to hear the bells.
By this time it had gotten dark. We took the metro over to the Arc de Triomphe. A military ceremony was taking place when we got there - we were there near Armistice Day (Veteran’s Day in the US) and the Arc houses the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. We couldn’t find the elevator and so we started up the winding staircase up to the top. 284 steps later we emerged at the top and gazed at the view. At night you can really see why Paris is called the City of Lights - it was all lit up. The Eiffel Tower was easy to spot as was Napoleon’s Tomb. I looked down the Champs Elysees toward the Place du Concorde and the Lourve.

We headed back down the stairs started towards the Eiffel Tower, looking for a place to eat dinner on the way. We ended up at a pizza place recommended by Rick. The waiter saw my Rick Steves book and pointed out the poster he had in the window of Rick’s book. When we looked above our table we saw several postcards - one from Texas and one from Seattle - very appropriate for one Houstonian and one Seattleite. After dinner we walked a couple more blocks and looked up and there was the Eiffel Tower! It had just started to sparkle! I’m not sure when the twinkle/sparkle lights were put on the Eiffel Tower but I love it. It’s magical to see those lights twinkling. There was only one elevator working so the line was long. We went all the way up to the top and saw Paris from another viewpoint, again, all lit up. The Arc de Triomphe was visible and finally I found Notre Dame in the distance.

Stair count - 283 up to the top of the Arc de Triomphe

Day 5
This was our last day in Paris. We started off the day trying to find the Harley Davidson store. We were successful, except for the fact the store was closed. Oh well, on to the next thing which happened to be the Catacombs. These underground tunnels became an official ossuary. Bones are stacked high for miles in the tunnels. These tunnels were used in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables, as well as by the French Resistance in WW2. Apparently they’ve had problems with people stealing bones. What I want to know is, what would you do with a stolen ancient bone?
Sacre Coeur was next. One of my favorite words to say is funicular (a cable railway) so what better way to visit Sacre Coeur but to take the funicular up the hill? However, we approached Sacre Coeur from the wrong side and so we climbed up to the top via the stairs. Mass was being held inside the church as we entered so we sat and listened for awhile.
We went back down the stairs and made our way toward the metro stop only to find the nearest stop closed. We walked toward the next stop, which was on the border of the red light district.
For dinner I had heard about an American ex-pat who held Sunday dinners at his Paris apartment and we had decided to try it out. We got off at what we thought was the closest metro stop. Emerging from the metro station, the age old question arose - right or left? Getting to the right street wasn’t a problem, it was what to do after we got to that street - did we go up it or go down it? Inevitably, I would choose the wrong way and we’d go a block before realizing it was back down the other way. Trying to prevent it from happening again, we stood off to the side and looked at the map to orient ourselves. A very nice old French man came up to us to ask if we needed help and I showed him on the map where we needed to go. He started looking for his glasses so I asked in which direction the church was and he said it was up the street. We thanked him and continued on our way. We found his apartment and punched in the code and were again faced with a right or left decision. Fortunately for us, a resident came in (who was also American) and asked us who we were looking for and took us to the right apartment. There were a lot of people there!! There were not a lot of seats so we ended up standing in a corner that wasn’t occupied. We had a glass of wine and an appetizer and talked with a Frenchman before deciding it really wasn’t our cup of tea and headed back to our apartment. Besides which, we needed to pack for our flight to Rome the next day.

Stair count - 80+ up from the catacombs, 150+ up to Sacre Couer

Day 6
The next morning came to early and we were off to the airport. We said au revoir to Paris and Buon giorno to Roma! The taxi dropped us off right in front of our hotel which was on a little side street down from the Colosseum. The room in Paris was on the small side, but it was extremely roomy compared to this hotel room! One of the comments on Trip Advisor had warned off the Tiny Tim rooms but we had liked the location and the price and decided to go ahead and book it. The hotel itself was nice, the location was great and we survived the tiny room.

After freshening up, we ventured outside and found a café for lunch. I love Italian food in Italy. Italian food in the US is good, but it doesn’t compare to a nice pizza margherita in Italy. Granted pizza margherita is your average cheese pizza, but it tastes so much better in Italy. We finished lunch and walked down the street to the Colosseum and up towards the Forum. To our surprise, there was a gate in front of the entrance to the Forum and the guard was not letting people in, which was not how either of us remembered it, and certainly not what Rick had in his guide book. Nevertheless, the Forum closed at 4:30 and you could not enter after 3:30. Before we figured this out we walked up the hill to see if we could enter up there. It ended up being a dead end, but at the top of the hill was a picturesque little church which we stopped to admire before climbing back down. From there we walked over to the Pantheon and then stopped for gelato. Yum, gelato!

To make sure this would not be our last trip to Rome our next stop was the Trevi Fountain. Legend says if you throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain, you ensure a return trip to Rome. I’m not sure why you throw the coin standing backwards - if it was part of the original legend, or if it was added after the movie “Three Coins in the Fountain”. We sat at the base of the fountain for awhile people watching and taking numerous pictures for ourselves as well as for others. It was starting to get cold so we headed back towards our hotel. We stopped at a restaurant up the block from our hotel. The waiter greeted us with a friendly “Hello ladies”. This would become our “place” as we ate dinner here several times.

Stair count - You know I don't think we climbed anything big today. It was just a normal stair day.

Day 7
The theme for today ended up being St. Peter. We started off the day visiting St. Peter in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains). This church was built to house the chains that held St. Peter. It also holds Michelangelo’s Moses statue.
Continuing with the St. Peter theme, we made our way over to St. Peter’s Basilica. I’m always in awe of St. Peter’s, and there is this sense of peace there. Prior to visiting St. Peter’s both of us said we were tired of stairs and that we didn’t want to climb up to the top of the dome. However it was such a nice day that both of us thought why not climb to the top. After all we were there, the dome was there, and it would be a nice view. There are two options to climb to the top of the dome, you can take the stairs all the way up, or you can take the elevator to the base and then climb 320 stairs to the top. We opted for the elevator and then the stairs. After the elevator you walk through the church and can look down on the altar. It’s amazing the amount of detail in the mosaics on the wall! We started up the stairs. About halfway up you really start to notice you are climbing stairs inside of a dome as the walls are really tilted. That was the most difficult part for me because I started feeling a little dizzy and walking while slanting sideways did not help the situation. Pretty soon it was back to normal stairs, and then another spiral staircase and then daylight! The view was incredible and well worth the climb! It was very crowded at the top and hard to maneuver around but after circling the top we decided to head down. We exited and looked back up at the imposing dome. And then I made a discovery!! There is a gift shop at the base of the dome! Now I have, in the past, had problems with finding the actual Vatican gift shop and so to turn around and find one at the top was a great discovery! We decided against waiting for the elevator to take us back down and instead took the stairs. They weren’t stairs as much as a big hill with little stairs every couple of feet, but in any case I was still glad we took the elevator on our way up.
There are secret tunnels that run between St. Peter’s and Castel Sant’Angelo, but we had to go the normal route and walk down the street. We walked through the castle which has had many uses over the years. It was first built by Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum. It was used as a mausoleum, holding the ashes of several Roman emperors. It was later a military fortress before being converted into a castle. By the time we got to the top, it was dark so we could see St. Peter’s in the distance all lit up.

We debated going back to the same restaurant for dinner but decided to try someplace new. Too bad for us, we chose a restaurant close to our hotel which catered mainly to tourists. The food wasn’t bad, but the service was horrible. We asked for the bill and after 30 minutes it still hadn’t come so we asked again. When it still hadn’t arrived and it looked like we would be waiting for another 30 minutes we added up what we thought the bill would be and left the money on the table before walking out. One of the waiters saw us leaving, glanced at our table and saw that we had left money and went about his business. I have threatened to do that before but never actually done it!

Stair count - 320 up to the top of St. Peter's Basilica, but the view was worth it!! Not to mention all the stairs in Castel Sant’Angelo and the stairs up to St. Peter in Vincoli!

Day 8
We decided to take a day trip to Florence. It’s only an hour and a half train ride on the Eurostar. We ended up just missing the 9:30 train as the ticket machine wouldn’t issue tickets for that departure time as it was too close. So we bought tickets for the 10:30 train and arrived in Florence a little after noon. We made our way toward the center of town and had lunch. After lunch we visited the Duomo before heading towards the Accademia to visit David. I don’t think I will ever get tired of seeing David. I think his hands impress me the most – all the tendons and lines of his hands. Michelangelo was an amazing, amazing artist. We meandered back through the city over to Ponte Vecchio. From there we wandered through the market, buying all sorts of treasures. After our pocketbooks were significantly empty we decided to go visit Santa Croche as we still had time before our train. Santa Croche is the finally resting place for the who’s who of Italy – Michelangelo, Galileo, Dante and Machiavelli are all buried there. It was starting to get late so headed back to the train station.

We arrived back in Rome and got a call from Jana’s friend Fabrizio. Arrangements were made to meet later for a drink. After last night’s dinner disaster we decide to go back to our restaurant. We were again greeted by a friendly “Hello ladies” by the same waiter. We finished dinner and Fabrizio picked us up. He had brought a couple of friends along – Mateo and Massimo. We went to Trastevere, an up and coming neighborhood across the Tiber River.

Stair count - Another normal stair day!

Day 9
I woke up the next morning and decided to visit the Forum since it was so close. On my way over I saw a group of gypsies attacking a tourist. I had never seen it that blatant before. He got away and I went the long way to avoid them. It’s so horrible that they live this way and then they bring their children with them who learn the same behavior. Talk about a vicious circle!
The gate was no longer up in front of the Forum and I was able to walk right in. I always think of Rome as this giant onion. Peel back a layer and you find another element of history. Walking through the Forum is like stepping through the pages of a history book. My active imagination can hear the sounds of the Forum in its heyday.
Walking up from the Forum to the Capital Hill area I pass by a souvenir stand. In this age of digital cameras I thought to myself I wonder how much film they sell when I noticed they now sell both film and memory cards!
At the top of the Capital Hill I debated walking down and then walking back up to the Victor Emmanuel II monument. However, Rick described a short cut through the church that led right onto the top of the monument. Hooray! I don’t think I’ve ever been at the top of the monument. I’ve walked by it enough, but I’ve never walked to the top. Fabrizio later told us that after the statue was finished 12 people had dinner inside the horse’s stomach. It was a large statue up close so it was certainly possible – but why would you want to?
After lunch we got on board the metro and headed for Ostia Antica, the ancient town of Ostia. Ostia used to be a bustling port city but with the fall of the Roman Empire, it was abandoned. Silt from the river eventually buried the city, protecting it throughout the years. Walking down the main street it could be Any City, USA, except for the fact it is in ruins and of course in Italy – maybe a better description is Any City, Italy. There was the business district, the theater, the health club, the local bar, apartment complexes and the government buildings.
Fabrizio picked us up at our hotel. We then picked up his friend, Bruno, who was joining us for dinner. So now we have met a Mateo, a Massimo and a Bruno, and of course Fabrizio. How much more Italian can you get than Massimo and Bruno? We went again to Trastevere for dinner. The restaurant was a bright, cheery place with maps on the wall. The menu was mainly in Italian so Bruno asked "Do you trust me?" When in Rome, right? "Yes, I trust you." He ordered dinner and we split 2 pasta dishes. Both were really good. However, my trust was a bit shaken when later he ordered broccoli, which didn't look (or taste) like broccoli at all but rather spinach, and ate that for dessert. It was funny to watch Fabrizio and Bruno talk as they were so Italian – always using their hands.
Stair count - Ah who know?! There were a lot of them!!!!
Day 10
Last day in Roma! I wandered aimlessly for awhile before meeting up with Jana for lunch. I passed by part of the construction taking place for the 3rd metro line. But in true Italian fashion, no one is certain when construction will be finished.
At lunch there were a couple of Asian girls sitting near our table and in stereotypical Asian fashion they were taking pictures of everything. When their cappuccinos were brought out we both said “I’ll bet they’ll take a picture of their cappuccinos” which they did. However, we had to eat our words when our cappuccinos were brought out and we saw the foam had two hearts in it. So of course, we had to take pictures of our cappuccinos as well! Hello, pot? It’s the kettle calling. With our bill the waiter also brought us two roses, which we took pictures of as well.
We were visiting the Cappuccin Monks and their ossuary today. We visited the church upstairs before heading down to the crypt. Standing in line, waiting to enter, a pushy American came in behind us and started making a fuss that we weren’t moving. I’m not sure if he didn’t see the line or was just cranky or what. The line started moving and he moved ahead of us and was stopped again as the line wasn’t moving all that fast. I’m not sure why he was frustrated but we were all waiting in line. Fortunately he was really the only “ugly” tourist we ran into and he was really only ugly to other tourists, that we knew of anyway.
The bones in the ossuary were artfully arranged, much different than the catacombs we had visited in Paris. Written in the crypt was this warning “We were what you are…you will become what we are now.”

Up the street from the Cappuccin crypt was Santa Maria della Vittoria which houses Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy. Unfortunately the sun wasn’t shining so we didn’t get the full effect of the statue’s placement. Across the street was Santa Susanna, the American church in Rome. After admiring the artwork in Santa Susanna we walked toward the Baths of Diocletian. Only a few buildings are open, one being the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. We walked in and I was surprised at how big it was - it didn’t look that big from the outside.
For our last dinner we again went to our restaurant. The waiter again greeted us with a friendly “Hello ladies” and seated us next to a table with a couple of priests, as well as a lay person. The waiter had by this time remembered our drink order, which wasn’t that hard – still water and red wine. Halfway through our meal the one of the priests breaks out into the Hallelujah chorus. Jana and I just looked at each other and tried not to burst out laughing. Only in Rome…
After dinner Fabrizio picked us up and we went to Trastevere. It was Friday night, so cars were not allowed into areas of Trastevere and we drove around for awhile trying to find parking. We did finally find parking – which was near the top of a hill. While driving around we got several fantastic views of Rome. We walked down the hill into Trastevere and ended up at the bar we had been to a few nights ago. After we finished we began the climb back up to the car. After all, we hadn’t climbed nearly enough stairs that day!
Stair count - Once again, not sure on the actual number but there were a few going down to Trastevere and of course climbing back up.
Day 11
Fabrizio dropped me off at the airport the next morning. I flew into Heathrow but this time I had to actually transfer terminals and I think actually transferring terminals, which involved taking a bus, took less time than moving within the same terminal at the beginning of the trip. Go figure! Before I knew it, it was time to board and it did not take long before I was asleep. I arrived back safely in Seattle, ready to start planning my next trip!!

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