Posts tagged Europe
My first trip to Paris was 5 years ago, back in 2008. We were on holiday in London for 2.5 weeks and with a cousin living in Paris and a brother who could organize free Eurostar tickets, we hopped over to Paris for the weekend. Literally.
In 3 short days we managed to pack in a world of sight-seeing…
The Louvre and the Mona Lisa? Check.
The Eiffel Tower? Check.
Basilica Sacré-Coeur? Check.
The Catacombs? Check.
Notre Dame? Check.
Arc de Triomphe & the Champs Élysées? Check.
People watching at a pavement café? Check.
The problem was, I was miserable. Emotionally, I was going through a turbulent patch and as a result, I really, really did not enjoy Paris. The food didn’t appeal to me, the people were abrupt and rude and quite frankly, I could do with not ever having to visit Paris again. Rome, Budapest & London rated far more highly on my list of enjoyable European cities.
So, when my partner decided that this was the year to participate in the Paris Marathon and that we’d make a holiday of it, I was, understandably, a little anxious. Would it be any better this time around? Could Paris really be enjoyable? What if the trip brought back old memories and regressed me emotionally? 7 days in Paris…how would I cope?
Thankfully, second time around, Paris was a pure delight. Apparently your emotional state of mind has a lot to do with how you enjoy your travels (like, duh!).
We rented an apartment in Ivry-Sur-Seine and set about exploring parts of the city that we hadn’t seen first time round. We splurged on breakfast pastries from the local boulangerie; we bought salamis and cheeses and crispy French loaves.
On our first day we discovered La Sainte-Chapelle and the Conciergerie. The Hall of the Guards dominates the Conciergerie, an imposing medieval room with striking pillars and arches. There are some quaint recreations of cells where prisoners had their hair shaved before their execution and Marie Antoinette’s private cell with her guards.
However, nothing can prepare you for the sheer beauty of La Sainte-Chapelle. Consisting of a lower chapel and an upper chapel, La Sainte-Chapelle has to be one of the most awe-inspiring buildings in the world. The lower chapel is dominated by Gothic arches with rich blue and gold colours, but it’s the upper chapel that takes your breath away. Fifteen massive stained glass windows, dating back to the 13th century, depict various scenes from the Bible and, religious or not, one cannot help but feel awed by the sheer size and beauty of the chapel.
We spent an afternoon strolling around the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris’ largest cemetery and the final resting place of notable icons such as Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf and Oscar Wilde. Having chosen not to buy a map (we have an iPod, an iPad, an iPhone and apps…why would we need a map?) and having declined an elderly gentleman’s offer to guide us around, we got horribly lost, but delighted in discovering family crypts, unique tombstones and amazing memorials. Finally, 2 hours later, we relented and bought a map, allowing us to find the graves of Edith Piaf and Oscar Wilde.
Marathon day allowed us to see new parts of the city and on our final night, I took a stroll through Le Quartier Latin, discovering cobbled walkways, cosy restaurants and an eclectic part of Paris that we never new existed.
Yes, this time round Paris was a pleasant surprise. It does appear to be the fantastic city that everybody thinks it is and for that, Paris, I must apologise. I judged you wrongly first time around. Rest assured, I will be back.
No visit to Rome is complete without a trip to the Vatican City. With all there is to see and do in St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums, you’d do well to allocate an entire day to your visit. You’ll want to spend at least 4 nights in Rome and there is no shortage of accommodation options, from 5* hotels for the luxury traveller, or Rome holiday apartments for budget-conscious traveller. We were fortunate enough to stay in the Visconti Palace hotel, courtesy of our travel club and found it to be a great, central base.
Taking an organized tour of the Vatican is undoubtedly the best way to see this historical and religious landmark. You’ll get to bypass the inordinately (even in winter) long queues and a professional tour guide will give you far more insight and knowledge than you could possibly gain on your own or through an audio tour.
Our tour started in the Vatican Museums, staring at the most impressive collection of marble statues and busts. It is estimated that there are so many treasures in the Vatican, that if you spent just 60 seconds looking at each one, it would take you 12 years to view each piece.
The statue of Laocoön and His Sons was particularly fascinating. Estimated to date back to 25BC, the statue was unearthed in 1506, with Laocoön’s right arm missing. Michelangelo (yes, he of the Sistine Chapel) proposed that the missing right arm was bent behind his head. Raphael (yes, the Renaissance painter) adjudged that the right arm was extended upwards and a replacement, extended arm was attached to the statue.
In 1906, an archaeologist discovered a bent marble arm in a Roman building yard and, believing it to be Laocoön’s arm, he donated it to the Vatican Museums. It lay in the museum storerooms for 50 years until the Vatican decided that perhaps, after all, Michelangelo had been right and affixed the bent arm to the statue.
Many of the museum rooms are dedicated to particular items, for example the Map Room, where the map of Venice is exactly correct, even though it was first drawn hundreds of years ago. Interestingly, each map was drawn with the assumption that Italy was the centre of the universe so many maps are “upside down” relative to what they should be.
A great addition to our tour was the chance to enter the “Vatacombs”, the underground part of the Vatican where the tombs of former Popes are located. Unsurprisingly, no photographs were allowed in this area and for many people this is perhaps the most religious part of the tour. Yes, even I kneeled at the tomb of Pope John Paul II and crossed myself!
Both the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica are highlights of the Vatican City. The size of St Peter’s is awe-inspiring and the focal points are both the central dome and the massive baldacchino, designed by Bernini. An optional extra to most tours is to take the lift and then climb the steps to the roof of St Peters. Affording 360° views of Rome, most impressive are the statues of Christ, 11 of the Apostles and John the Baptist. The sheer size of these statues makes you realize how small and insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things.
Be prepared to be amazed by all the Vatican has to offer and set aside at least an entire day to explore all the treasures – you’ll be glad you did!
Paris. The name conjures up visions of love….and food. Well, it does in my mind at least. So when the opportunity arose to take the Eurostar from London, to spend a weekend in Paris, we leaped at the opportunity. Long summer nights, wandering down the Champs-Élysées and munching on croissants, what could be better?
With only 48 hours to make the most of one of the world’s most visited cities, we had to hit the ground running. Luckily a cousin of ours, who has lived in Paris for many years, was on hand to show us the sights and sounds. Thanks to our family connection, we didn’t have to look far for a place to stay, but if you’re short of Parisian friends, there is no shortage of hotels or Paris apartments to rent for the weekend.
Hungry and thirsty after an early morning Eurostar trip, we headed to the local supermarket to pick up a feast of food. Colourful fruits, crusty breads, delicious patés and more cold meat and cheese than we’d ever seen before greeted us. In South Africa, we’d have to have visited a specialty store to sample such delicacies.
In truth, you need way more than 48 hours to make the most of Paris, but we did what we could. Many guidebooks made mention of a visit to Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, in Montmarte. Situated on the highest point in the city, it serves both as a Roman Catholic Church and a political and cultural monument. A good pair of walking shoes comes highly recommend, you’ll be walking up some steep cobbled streets and a significant number of stairs to reach the summit! We were there in the height of summer, so the steps of the Basilica were crowded with tourists and locals alike, unwinding on a Friday afternoon and enjoying the slowly setting sun.
The Notre Dame Cathedral is every bit as impressive as it is made out to be. The detail in the architecture is nothing short of amazing and the gargoyles keep a watchful eye around each wall and parapet. After a quick, brief glance inside the cathedral, we briefly toyed with the idea of climbing up to the top of the towers for a sweeping view of Paris. However, mention of climbing 387 steps (there is no lift like there is in the Vatican!) in the muggy heat, combined with the queue that snaked around the cathedral and down the road soon put paid to that idea.
No trip to Paris would be complete without two things – a viewing of the Mona Lisa and a trip up the Eiffel Tower. In truth, we could happily have skipped a trip to the Louvre, but a sudden attack of culture from our teenage son had us joining the crowds, staring at the postage stamp size picture that is the Mona Lisa. We didn’t get what the fuss was about – she’s small, non-descript and not particularly attractive either. And what’s with that smile? But, it was something else ticked off the list and at nightfall we set off up the Eiffel Tower.
Personally, I think that most cities look best at night. The dark skies eliminate the smog, dirt and dull grey buildings and a scattering of lights makes every city look like a fairy tale. Paris is no different and the 360° view afforded by the top viewing platform of the Eiffel Tower is breathtaking. We could have spent hours staring into the sparkling lights that truly did make Paris feel like the City of Love. Alas, our trip had to come to an end far too soon, but I’m sure we’ll find another reason soon to visit Paris again.