Europe Trip 2006 - Paris, Florence, Tuscany, Rome, and London
Retro Post (warning, it's LONG)
In September, 2006, four of us went to Europe. It would be an adventure that none of us would ever forget. The people and the sights were amazing. We saw ancient sites, ate some great food, drank plenty of wine and came back with an understanding that much of the world is older than what we're used to.
Arrival and the Tour
After riding on an airplane from LAX to Heathrow, we took two trains to Waterloo Station, and then a high-speed train through the Channel Tunnel, and finally a taxi. In the afternoon, we arrived at the Hotel Cluny Square, a small, boutique hotel located right in the middle of the Latin Quarter in Paris. We were within walking distance of the Louvre and Notre Dame, as well as very close to many cafés where we could sit, drink and watch the passers by.
On our first night, we arrived near dusk, so we grabbed a bite to eat at one of the many busy restaurants near the hotel. Just behind the hotel, there was a charming alley filled with cafés and restaurants with food from all around the world. From French, Italian, to Greek, we had a choice of anything we could want. It was then that we realized that this area was directed towards tourists. The food was decent, but fell far short of our expectations of what we were hoping French cooking was going to be like. When every one of our dishes arrived with a compliment of french fries, we understood that this was not the area to find fine cuisine. It was, however, a nice introduction to the fixed menu style that we would find all over Europe.
The next day, we woke up early and had a nice breakfast at a local sidewalk café, where we had lattés, baguettes and croissants. We noticed the elaborate architecture of the area that included gargoyles and we could see how New Orleans has had a huge French influence on its design.
We had been planning to see the Louvre that day. However, upon arrival, we noticed that it was closed on Tuesdays. Thus began a trend that would continue while we visited every major city on our trip: We got on the bus.
We learned that the sight-seeing bus tours that are offered in most cities are a great way to understand the layout of a city while learning about the history of its landmarks. It also provided us with convenient hop-on/hop-off transportation throughout the city.
We rode around the city on the open top floor of the bus, seeing the Place de la Concorde, the Champs-Elysees, Arc de Triomphe, and the Eiffel Tower, among others.
We then got off and walked the long distance (roughly 2 miles) from the Louvre to the Arc de Triomphe, along the Champs-Elysees, stepping in and out of the great shops that line the avenue. We had lunch at a European fast food place called Quick. My sandwich was called Quick’n’Toast. Recharged, we headed towards the Arc de Triomphe, but got a little disoriented in the underground tunnel that led to the Arc.
We then got back on the bus and went to the Eiffel Tower. We then proceeded to start two more trends that would last until our flight home: people-watching in the heat and enjoying pistachio gelato.
That night, we ate outside at a great local restaurant called Paul which was on the island in the river (Ile de la Cité) and faced the quiet Place Dauphine, a park-like square sheltered from the bustle of Paris. The food was great, including the escargot and the salmon. We enjoyed some refreshing white wine from the Bourgogne area of France and walked the short pleasant walk back to our hotel.
We arrived at the Louvre the next day, bright and early. Since it was closed the day before, there were a lot of people there to enjoy the exhibits. Our first stop was to see the Mona Lisa, which, as most people will say, is smaller than you would think. After that, we were free to roam the hallways, seeing such works as Venus de Milo and a host of jewelry and crowns that are part of the French royal collection.
The Louvre is extremely large and we could not possibly have seen it all in one day. We were, however, able to see “Gnome on a Snail,” which was a benchmark in bronze sculpture, as well as many early Christian works and Egyptian finds. We walked through a sky-lit courtyard full of amazing sculptures and saw a beautiful sculpture of Mary Magdalene. Other notables were The Winged Victory of Samothrace, and the works of the Dutch and Flemish Masters, including Vermeer, Cuyp, and Rembrandt.
We then walked back to our hotel and got ready for dinner at Le Soufflé, a restaurant that specializes in all sorts of soufflés. After a deceiving 1.5 mile walk, which wore us all out after walking in the Louvre all day, we were seated at the restaurant in a table in the front, which overlooked the small Rue du Mont Thabor, a small cobblestone street.
Frog legs were passed around and enjoyed by all and I ordered the soufflé menu, which had a tomato and basil soufflé, a Henry IV (which was ham and cheese, I think), and an excellent chocolate soufflé. I was a little souffléd-out by the end, but the service was excellent and another bottle of Bourgogne white complemented our feast.
We took a taxi to the Eiffel Tower and hung out under its base, watching the tourists and vendors. It was a nice, mild night and it was a fitting final night in Paris.
On our final day in Paris, we had a leisurely breakfast of coffee and crêpes at a café directly across from Notre Dame before finally going inside and viewing the amazing architecture. Since the line to climb the towers looked hours long, we decided to pass on it. After a leisurely day shopping, we headed back to the hotel and packed for our overnight train ride to Florence.
The Train Ride
From our Latin Quarter hotel, we took our bags down the street to Boulevard Sant Michel and hopped onto the metro and rode it to the Paris-Bercy station, where we were scheduled for a 7PM overnight train ride into Italy. We had no idea what to expect. We arrived fairly early so we waited upstairs in the relatively empty waiting area. The downstairs area was full of nicely dressed people waiting for a train, perhaps to the opera. We had some time to spare, so the boys went to the market and bought some water, fruit, snacks, and (surprise!) Bourgogne white wine.
We got into our coach and were momentarily worried when we saw 6 bunks and thought that we may have to share our tiny little room with two strangers. It turns out, however, that Trenitalia used to sell these as 6-person coachettes, but they now are reserved for four people. We were a little disappointed when we realized that we didn’t have a corkscrew. It turned out to me not a problem, since most of us weren't in the mood for wine, as the train was a little bumpier than we had anticipated and caused headaches and a little nausea.
While the girls slept, the boys played rummy until the wee hours. Sometime during the night, in the Alps somewhere, I saw snow on the ground. I am not sure when we passed into Italy, but we may have been asleep by then. I woke up from time to time to peer out the window and saw dimly-lit, empty train stations in the mountains.
In the morning, when the sun was starting to come up, we passed through a very industrial-looking Bologna. An hour before arriving in Florence, the porter came by and woke us all up so that we wouldn't miss our stop at the Campo Di Marte Stazione.
12 hours from entering our 6x6 room and slightly disoriented, we exited the train into a busy Florence. The fresh air was nice. We realized that this was not the station where we were to meet our driver, Angela, as there was no McDonalds where she had described in her email to me. Since the taxi queue was so long, we decided to take the bus to the Stazione Centrale, where, later in the day, we were to meet Angela, who would take us through Tuscany.
The rest of the group entered the standing-room-only bus while I stayed at the front to pay. Juggling two suitcases and my backpack, I finally managed to understand that the driver needed €8 exactly and after getting jammed in the front with another person wearing a backpack, I finally managed to pay the driver and swipe our tickets in the onboard ticket machine.
We checked in our luggage at the station and bought our tickets from Florence to Rome that we would be using in a few days. We had breakfast at the McDonalds in the train station, in order to get a change of the usual coffee and pastry breakfast we had been having since we had arrived in Europe. The major difference from American McDonalds was that they charged for every ketchup packet and neglected to put ice into the sodas. We signed up for the bus tour and enjoyed the top floor bus view of Florence.
After having gelato and walking past the duomo and going to a market, we had a quick lunch at our first Italian restaurant, which was similar to a deli. There was a little mix-up in communication when we confused “o” with “e” which is basically “or” and “and.” Once that was clear, we sat in the rear of the charming little place and enjoyed our pasta and pork. On our way out of Florence, we cleaned out a little market of all of their oranges and other fruits. We also bought water and snacks for our stay on the farm.
After that, we met with our driver, Angela, and made our way towards the farm, where we would be staying the next 4 nights. She explained to us the types of grapes and wine that are in the area and what methods are used for the production of wine.
At the end of a dirt road lies the farm Fattoria Voltrona, which is a vineyard with olive groves. It consists of 5 stone buildings and has a swimming pool and a pond. Upon checking in, we realized we were staying at a building that is a short walk from the main house. This turned out to be perfect, since our nights were quiet and we had rooms near each other. Our room had a balcony that overlooked the rolling hills and a main house that is representative of the beautiful Tuscan landscape. From just outside our door, we could see the many tall towers of the medieval town of San Gimignano.
We got settled in and walked over to the stables for our horseback riding. We let the instructor, Johanna, know that we were beginners and she handed us riding helmets. She then explained the tölt, a rapid gait that is silky smooth, not jostling like most trots can be. We hopped on and began our scenic journey through the grapevines and olive groves. We passed some old stone houses and went up and down hills, occasionally getting the horses to tölt, and occasionally struggling with the horses to do what they were told. At the end, we rode the horses at a full gallop up a hill, which was quite exhilarating. We then walked the horses back the the stables where Johanna proceeded to wash them, feed them and rub them down. We thanked Johanna for the incredible experience and went back to our rooms to prepare for dinner.
Dinner at the farm is served family style, with about 7 courses and endless red wine. We sat on a long wooden table with other guests and shared our experiences of the day. The food was excellent and filling, with great pastas, vegetables and meat. Pina, the chef, emerged from the kitchen and greeted us all, asking how the food was. I am sure she could tell the food was appreciated by the stream of empty plates reentering the kitchen.
We decided that night that we were going to eat dinner at the farm every night. We didn't have much choice, since the nearest restaurant was over a mile away and we were without a car, but we welcomed our nightly maroon on the farm.
During our ride, we had met a Dutch woman traveling alone named Helga who we talked to during our meal. We also met an Australian couple who saw to it that all “first nighters” had to drink grappa, including us.
After a wonderful dessert, and plenty of wine and grappa, we walked the moonlit dirt path to our rooms and slept well, while getting munched upon by mosquitoes.
We enjoyed a nice breakfast on the farm overlooking the vineyards and rested up for our half-day Chianti tour with Angela, who was picking us up at the farm. We had time to relax a little and do some laundry and hang clothes on our balcony and windows to dry.
We started our Chianti tour by eating lunch at a local bar. We had panini and gnocchi, which was excellent and discussed our favorite music and got to know Angela a little better.
On our way, we went to Castellina in Chianti, which is a small medieval castle on top of a hill. With stone streets and walls, this little town immediately charmed us into picking this region as our favorite so far on the trip. We remembered to buy a corkscrew at a local shop so that we could open our French wine.
After Castellina in Chianti, we went to Castello D'Albola, a winery in the Chianti Classico region. The grounds and buildings were beautiful. We toured their cellars, tasted their wine and had a pleasant time visiting in their courtyard. We left with two bottles each and were much more talkative in the car than on the way up.
We then visited Rocca delle Macìe, another winery in the Chianti Classico region. The tasting room had an excellent view of the surrounding vineyards and I could see the hills many miles away. Angela insisted that I try all the wines they had available and even poured several glasses for me herself, while their pourer was busy helping another customer. I left with two more bottles and a nice sense of well-being.
During our stay in Europe, we discovered that the wine in Europe is much less expensive than wines in the States. We found that most wines, even Chianti Classico Riserva, sold for less than €10. As a matter of fact, we discovered that, in many Italian restaurants, the cost for a glass of soda is more expensive than a glass of wine. I would gladly give up soda for wine, especially if the price is right.
We had a lot of fun on the way back as the sun set over the vine-covered hills of Tuscany. We arrived just in time for dinner and met new people and drank plenty of wine before we retired to our rooms.
Volterra and San Gimignano
After another relaxing breakfast, Angela picked us up in the morning at the farm and took us to the town of Volterra, which is another medieval town perched on a hilltop overlooking the entire region around it. It is known for its alabaster artistry, an ancient Etruscan Arch and some Roman ruins of an ampitheatre. We browsed some shops, a church, an alabaster sculptor, and strolled along the empty streets. By the time we left, the main piazza was filled with motorcycles for a local meet-up.
We headed back to San Gimignano, which was very close to our farm. We walked up the hill into town and enjoyed lunch on the edge of the town with views overlooking the tree and vine-covered hills just outside the town. We had beer and wine and, in-between bee attacks, were instructed on the subject of Italian food by our knowledgeable guide Angela.
After lunch, we browsed the shops, visited the Collegiata, which is a 12th Century church whose interior is almost completely covered by frescos. We were almost about to climb the several hundred steps up the tallest tower in San Gimignano, when reason took over and we decided that it would simply take too much time to get up and down.
We then climbed a parapet of the original walls for an amazing view of the surrounding countryside. On our way out, we bought bread, salami and cheese for a picnic on our day off. We also had the best gelato so far on the trip.
We came home to our farm, had an amazing dinner and asked the front desk for a plug-in mosquito repellant which works like a deodorizer. We brought it to our room and plugged it in. We opened up our bottle of French wine, which wasn't as good warm, and played rummy.
As we were getting ready for bed, we noticed dying mosquitoes around the room. Happy they weren't flying around, we slept with the windows closed until it got too hot. Then we opened them up and survived the little bloodsuckers as much as we could.
The next day was our “day off.” We spent the day doing more laundry, having a pleasant picnic lunch under the tree outside our room while playing rummy, and spent some time in the pool. We pretty much did nothing and that is how we wanted it. Dinner was excellent again and we had Vin Santo, which is a sweet wine served with small almond biscuits that you dip into the wine. It is very tasty.
As it was our last night on the farm, we drank wine like it was juice and had plenty of grappa. We played rummy until late and went to bed. This time, we had a fan to keep us cool and keep the mosquitoes off.
In the morning, we checked out of the farm and were presented with two bottles of their house red wine. We gladly took them and packed them away in our bags.
Angela took us back to Florence so that we could catch our train to Rome. We made it in plenty of time and had another quick lunch in the city. We also learned that there is such thing as bad gelato. While the pistachio tasted fine, this time it was clumpy.
We arrived in Rome and decided to wait in the taxi queue, as to not repeat the bus experience we had in Florence. After a wait, we got into the taxi and sped around the city towards the flat that we had rented. Upon arriving at the flat, due to a language barrier, we slightly overpaid the taxi driver and he had to give us change. The fare was €16 and some change.
We entered the flat and met the manager, who showed us around and left us to settle in. The flat was very comfortable and situated in a great location on a quiet side street near Piazza Navona, a popular square among tourists and locals. After a shower and unpacking, we took the afternoon strolling around Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and had dinner in the Piazza Navona, watching the crowds and the caricature and performance artists.
It was nice to have an air-conditioned, mosquito-free environment at the flat where we could relax. It even had a big screen TV which only had a few channels. We watched American music videos on MTV sprinkled with Italian music videos. It was kind of jarring, as the styles and production value were so different.
The next morning, we took the Rome bus tour and once again learned the general layout of the city before exploring it by foot. We were overwhelmed by the sheer age of the monuments in Rome. Rome is quite large and the bus tour took up a great bulk of the day. This was the hottest day of the trip and the sun took its toll on us until we had lunch in the shade and we were able to cool off.
At the end of the day, we went to the market and stocked up on food for the flat. That night, we all pitched in and made wonderful pasta and chicken, complemented by the wine from the farm.
We played rummy and ended up finishing the two bottles of wine between the four of us. I could get used to this.
In the morning, we were starting to get worried, as the PD was supposed to arrive at our flat at around 9AM. 10:30AM rolled around and he was nowhere to be seen. It turns out he was ripped off by a taxi driver, who drove him only halfway from Stazione Centrale to our flat and dropped him off at Trevi Fountain, claiming that our street was too small for him to drive through and that he was close by. On top of that, he was charged nearly €30. This made us appreciate our driver who actually gave us money back when we overpaid him.
Being nowhere near our flat and getting different directions from everyone he asked, the PD roamed the streets of Rome with his roller bag clacking against the cobblestone streets. He finally found our street and was walking away from our flat when we happened to poke our head out the window of our flat and see him on his way. We called out and he walked up the steps of our flat, sweaty and relieved.
After a quick shower, he was ready to discover Rome. We walked to the Vatican and enjoyed the fact that it was a slightly cooler day than those we experienced on the rest of our trip. We joined a free tour of St. Peter’s Basilica and enjoyed the tour guide so much that we paid for a guided tour of the Vatican Museum. We were amazed at the immense scale of the architecture and the craftsmanship of all the ornate sculpture, mosaic and stonework of the Basilica.
Once inside the museum, we were struck by the history of it all. Tapestries, maps, frescos, paintings, sculptures; all were of amazing quality and of historical significance. We learned about the culture of the time they were created. For the last part of the tour, we entered the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s first real attempt at large-scale painting. I would say that he did a pretty good job for a first time out.
We then went to the crypts under the Vatican and saw where Pope John Paul II was buried along with his predecessors. I had assumed it would have been a dark and dreary place, but it was well-lit and, dare I say, festive.
By this time it was raining. In the back of our minds, we were wondering how we were going to get back to our flat without getting soaking wet. We visited some gift shops, hoping the rain would abate by the time we got out.
It is hard to feel dignified when you are becoming soaking wet in the rain when all those about you are protected by umbrellas. We were simply too cheap to buy an umbrella from the street vendors, fearing shoddy quality.
We were resigned to our fate and proceeded to walk over a mile back to our flat in the pouring rain. Once back, we showered, dried off and decided to get some pizza and eat in again.
Since it had stopped raining by this time, we walked down to Piazza Navona and ordered a couple of pizzas from a local place and then walked past the Pantheon to a supermercato that we saw earlier. We picked up some wine, dessert, and some limoncello, which is a lemon-flavored aperitivo.
We had a nice cozy dinner, relaxed a bit, then proceeded to play a rousing round of rummy with limoncello shots as a punishment for scoring the lowest. Let’s just say I had a low scoring night. But the good part was that I really enjoyed the limoncello.
The next morning, we set off to trek all the way to the Colosseum, which was about 2 miles away. On the way, we saw the Pantheon and went inside. I wish I could have seen the original Roman statues that used to fill the niches around the dome. But the light shining in through the hole in the top of the dome was an interesting sight.
We then walked past the Area Sacra, which shows how low the streets were back during Roman times. It was also here that Julius Caesar was likely stabbed to death. We followed the road past the Palazzo Venezia, to the Capitoline Hill, which houses the Senate Palace. Just on the other side of the Palace was the Roman Forums.
The scale and age of the place was amazing. We strolled around the ruins of temples and walls which bore witness to 12 centuries of history which began Roman civilization. Just past that was the tremendous structure of the Colosseum.
We decided to have lunch before experiencing the Colosseum, so we ate in a little café in its shadow. We enjoyed more pizza and then made our way inside. We learned that it was built in only 8 years, completed in 80 AD and could seat more than 50,000 spectators. While an amazing feat of architecture, 9,000 wild animals were killed in the one hundred days of celebration which inaugurated the amphitheatre opening. It was awe-inspiring and tragic to imagine how much pointless death occurred within its walls over the years of its activity. It was even flooded for entertaining mock naval battles.
We then walked all the way back to near our flat, where we were rewarded with the best gelato we had the whole trip. I didn't understand how they could get it that creamy. It just didn't seem possible. We quickly inhaled it and made it back to the flat. All told, we walked around 5 miles that day.
Since we were beat, we decided to eat at the restaurant directly downstairs from our flat, which ended up being the best meal in Rome, and possibly the entire trip. The antipasto was an excellent blend of meat and vegetables and was almost a meal in itself. My veal marsala was incredible. The house red wine was nice and we all had plenty to eat and a great time.
After dinner, we decided to go to the Piazza Navona one last time. The PD got picked out from the crowd for a street performer’s act. He was part of a self-supporting man apparatus that eventually collapsed under its own weight. It was very entertaining.
We retired back upstairs to the flat where we finished off the wine and limoncello and got ready for our flight to London the next day.
We had to check out of our Roman flat at 10AM, so we decided to get to the airport early and see if we could get an earlier flight. Upon arrival to the airport, we discovered that a morning Alitalia flight was canceled and that they were filling up later flights with displaced travelers. We had absolutely no chance of getting an earlier flight.
We waited in line for an hour or so to check in for our 3:50PM flight, but were told that only 1:30 PM fliers should be in line. We decided to go have lunch upstairs, as it was noon. We had lunch and got back in line. When we got to the front, we were told that they had overbooked our flight and should have checked in earlier. I told him that we were told to get out of line and had been there since 11AM. Long story short. We were bumped to the 9:15PM flight and left the airport very late, having been there for over 10 hours. They gave us restaurant vouchers and credit to fly on their airline again. Since they are partners with other airlines, we may be able to use the credit. We will certainly not fly Alitalia again.
At the airport, we ended up making friends with others the same situation. A friendly Canadian man, originally from London, let me use his cell phone to call our hotel in London to let them know that we would be checking in late.
Once on the plane, we had to endure an unhappy child for the 2 and ½ hour duration of the flight. It was definitely a relief to get off the plane.
We arrived at Heathrow near midnight and caught a charming London Cab and piled in. The driver was listening to Pink Floyd on his iPod, so we asked him to turn it up. The cold fresh London air coming in through the windows was a welcome change to the hot weather we felt for the previous days of the trip. We arrived at the Darlington Hotel and checked in and were pleasantly surprised at the comfortable rooms. We passed out immediately.
The next morning, we were again pleasantly surprised by the hotel's amenities. The basement breakfast area had a skylight and offered more food than we could eat. What did we do next? We got on the bus.
We rode around London, seeing the sights from the top floor of the bus and were actually a little chilly. We got off at Trafalgar Square and went to the National Gallery, a free museum. As we were contemplating going on a walking tour in a ½ hour or so, we went on the express tour of the museum, highlighting the works we wanted to see, including The Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci, and works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Van Gogh (Sunflowers was not on display). Monet and Renoir were also completely off display. We sped through the museum, decided we were going to be hungry soon, and decided not to go on the walking tour. We got back on the bus.
We got off near St. Paul’s Cathedral. We decided to eat at a local pub for lunch and had some great beer and cider, along with the staple fish and chips. Our mood slightly elevated, we toured the Cathedral, once again awed by the immense scale of the building and the high level of craftsmanship and materials. On our way out, the church bells started ringing in complex harmony.
We got back on the bus and rode it to the tower bridge where we could board a boat to get off near the Westminster Abbey. We were treated with an entertaining live tour aboard the boat. We exited the boat and discovered that the Abbey was closed for the day. We saw Big Ben and the Parliament Building and got back on the bus and visited Buckingham Palace.
Calling it a day, we rode the bus back home, showered and ate at a nice Indian restaurant within walking distance of the hotel. We took a nice stroll around the area, did some shopping and ended up buying some ice cream cones and headed back. Exhausted, we all crashed.
The next day, after another great breakfast, our bus pass was still valid, so we rode it to Westminster Abbey and toured the interior, fascinated by the many tombs within, including Lewis Carroll, William Blake, Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, and many, many other significant British historical notables. We then took the tube to Covent Garden and hunted around for the Wagamama that was supposedly there. We eventually found it and enjoyed real noodles for the first time in about two weeks.
We then went to the Covent Garden Market, where we browsed their wares and watched the street performers. We did some shopping and once again called it a day, and rode the tube back to the enormous Paddington Station, experiencing what rush hour traffic can do to train schedules.
Our final night, we decided to eat at Garfunkel’s, which was an American place near the hotel. The service was excruciatingly slow and there weren't refills on the soda, so it couldn't have been too American. Luckily, the food was tasty and hit the spot.
We went back to the hotel and got ready to travel home.
We rode Heathrow Express from Paddington Station to Heathrow without a hitch. However, the new rule at Heathrow is to show up 3 hours ahead of your flight. We arrived ~1.5 hours early. They rushed us through check in and gave us passes to the short security line. We got stuck in the line when some souvenir teacups aroused suspicion from the personnel. They checked it out and we rushed to the gate, where we were some of the last people to get on the plane.
Once on the plane, we appreciated the fact that we were flying Virgin Airlines, where we enjoyed larger seats and entertainment on demand. In addition, they offered us more food than we could eat. We even got ice cream, which is a treat at 30,000 feet.
We arrived at LAX, went to a family member's house and promptly slept from 7PM to 3AM PST and headed back towards SD before traffic could start.
I am still absorbing the quantity of sites and artwork that I saw while in Europe. Each city had its own flavor and history.
Paris had its crêpes and cafés, Florence had its duomo and markets, Tuscany had its rustic beauty, vineyards, and medieval towns, Rome had its ancient heritage and piazzas, and London had modern momentum coupled with older architecture. They all have their own flavor of art and history that makes them distinctly their own place.