Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Cat in Paris; April 23 - 25

I really wanted my sister, Cat, to get the most out of her trip to Europe and thought we should visit one more place besides Rome and Zurich. With a little inspiration from an Eiffel Tower statue I gave my sister back in 2000, she decided it was time to see the real thing. So I planned a day and a half whirlwind tour of Paris for us.

We arrived late in the evening by bullet train from Zurich and didn't get our trip really started until the following morning. Our sightseeing began at the Arc de Triomphe, allowing my sister her first view of the Eiffel Tower and the rest of Paris. We made our way down to the Musée de l'Orangerie to view Claude Monet's eight Water Lilies murals. The series is amazing in person. My sister was taken aback by them. She had seen them in books before but wasn't expecting them to be so large.
View of the city from Arc de Triomphe
Thanks New York Times for the photo of Monet's Water Lilies paintings

We joined a free walking tour outside of the Notre Dame Cathedral and the surrounding neighborhood. Overall the tour was blah but we did walk away with one golden nugget of information -  that the real Sweeney Todd murders took place a stone's throw from the Cathedral.
Cat and I

We did a little window shopping at Galeries Lafayette and various other malls hoping to find a bride's maid dress for our cousin's upcoming wedding. No luck finding a dress but we later found a nice place to rest our feet and people watch at Sacré Coeur Church in the Montmartre neighborhood. We must have sat there for nearly and hour watching the street performers. I think my wallet enjoyed that over buying a dress in Galeries Lafayette.
One last look at Sacré Coeur Church before heading on.

It rained off and on throughout our Paris trip, conveniently more of the "on" happening during a meal. After dinner and a short rain shower we finish up our evening with watching the Eiffel Tower light up.
15 minute sparkles on the hour.

We started our next morning planning for our departure, we stored our luggage at the train station for a quick getaway and headed back into the city for the main reason we came to Paris, the Eiffel Tower. We paid a little extra for a reserved time for the Eiffel tower - and it was worth every cent. The reservation line was empty and we had a straight shot to the elevator. Otherwise we may have stood in an hour long line in the drizzle.
Sister time at the top of the tower.

After coming down from the tower my sister just gazed up at it. I asked her what she thought and all I got out of her was that it was a lot bigger then she had imagined. We grabbed a crepe on the street and soaked in the view of the Tower a little longer before making our way back to the Gare de Lyon Train Station and back towards Zurich.

I hope my sister enjoyed Paris enough to come back. I'd love to spend more time there doing more of my favorite Paris activity - a lot of aimlessly walking around and eating.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Roaming in Rome; April 17 - 21

Last April, Laure and I drove down to meet her sister Catrina in Rome.
The drive down to Rome passes by some picture-perfect hill towns.

After arriving at night, Laure and I had an excellent dinner at The Library and walked around the city while checking out some of the famous outdoor highlights.
The Trevi fountain is a cool hangout spot at night.
It is apparently also good for wedding photos.

Next morning, we visited National Roman Museum, which we quickly realized has an impressive but overwhelmingly huge collection of archeological findings spanning multiple ancient centuries.
These Roman "cheap" copies of the Greek Discobolus statue used to be popular decorations at Roman gyms.
The sarcophagus of some guy that killed a lot of people.

Then we then picked up Catrina from the Rome airport after her flight from San Francisco. We were impressed that she hit the floor running without letting jet lag stop her from getting the most out of her trip.

The next morning we went on a guided tour of the Vatican offered by their own official tours, which covered the must-sees. We really liked our Italian tour guide not only because she presented the information in an approachable manner, but also because after visiting each section, she would slowly say in an unforgettable way, "andiamo."
One of many extravagant hallways of the Vatican museum.
Raphael obviously stole the idea for this painting...
from the poster I used to have on my bedroom wall growing up.
We also visited the Sistine Chapel.

They didn't allow photos, so I ripped this one off wikipedia.
Rug and Mochi pose for a photo at St. Peter's Square. Of course they came along!

Later in the afternoon, we had time to check out some more famous touristy spots.
Trevi fountain gets annoyingly packed during the day with tourists like us.
The Pantheon has been in continuous use for a couple of thousand years.
No visit to Italy is complete without some pizza.
Dar Poeta didn't let us down.

Next day, we headed to the world-famous Colosseum. We had made reservations for the limited guided tours months in advance by phone with Coop Culture but they had never sent us a receipt, which turned out to be a tremendous headache. Because of this, we were not able to simply waltz up to the reservation window. We pleaded with security personnel to convince them about our story and that we were not just trying to skip the ridiculously long lines. After a bit of stress, we found a sympathetic person that found our names on a printed list in a big binder of papers. We were in.
The cultural guided tour took us to exclusive viewpoints away from regular visitors like this one and the underground area where gladiators and animals were held underneath the arena.
One of the exclusive viewpoints was on the top floor (third ring) looking down at the massive structure and masses of tourists.
Totally worth the headache.

When visiting the Colosseum, one must imagine the original building at its full grandeur including all the stones and sculptures before they were destroyed by conquerors and natural decay.
Hmm, maybe this...
used to look something like this.

Photo credit: someinterestingfacts

Another place we visited was a fairly new museum named Le Domus Romane di Palazzo Valentini, which turned out to be my favorite. Guided tours are mandatory and we were lucky enough to snag an appointment. We joined a small group and walked through excavated ruins with a clever display of light projections and sounds, which recreated an immersive experience of ancient Roman life. When I was growing up, I would have paid much more attention to history classes if they would have been taught this way.

Lights virtually reconstruct the paint, artwork, and water of this excavated Roman bath house at Le Domus Romane.

Unsolicited Advice

For those planning a trip to Rome, I strongly suggest reserving tours for popular sights as early as possible. Thanks to Laure, we booked the Vatican and Colosseum tours months in advance basically as soon as they became available. Many people do not bother to reserve in advance and must wait many hours to get inside each place just to get a tour that may not be as good. We got lucky with last minute tickets for Le Domus Romane, but that is an exception rather than the norm.

One last thing: don't book a room right off Campo de' Fiori. Every night we had to deal with loud drunken people outside before being awakened by energetic vendors early in the morning. Earplugs helped us survive.