EUROPEAN VACATION – WEEK 10
Well, it‘s time to go home! Fortunately for us, I guess, the weather in Rome and Paris was as bad as or worse than the weather in good old Prince Edward Island this past week. We damn near froze! As a result, we’re fully acclimatized and ready for winter!
On Monday, we visited the magnificent Colosseum, the Palatine Hill and the remains of the massive Roman Forum. The Colosseum, built almost two thousand years ago, is where Romans went for entertainment. It’s where the condemned were put to death by feeding them to wild animals; where wild animals were hunted to their deaths; and where gladiators fought, sometimes to the death.
It’s hard to imagine that 55,000 people would go mad over this sort of thing but then again, I suppose, they’d have just as hard a time understanding why we buy Don Cherry’s “Rock Em’ Sock Em’” hockey videos. They’d think we’re fools for paying to watch the WWF. You see, entrance to the Colosseum for all events was free!
Later that day, it rained so hard we had to buy an umbrella on our way to dinner at a local restaurant. Of course, it hasn’t rained since! But we did have what was one of my best meals at Il Colibri, a small local restaurant just a short walk from our apartment. The pasta and the lamb were to die for.
Tuesday, we decided to revisit a couple of our favourite places: the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountains. Both are marvels, and it’s such fun watching people, especially the young, at the Trevi Fountain. They probably don’t much care who carved the sculptures or when, but they sure have fun throwing a coin backwards over their left shoulder with their right hand while making a wish.
Wednesday, we followed the crowds to Saint Peters Square, arriving there around 9:30 for the Pope’s 10:30 blessing. The place was two-thirds full; about 40,000 people. Around 10:00, the Jumbotron showed him coming into the Square, shaking hands with people, kissing and blessing young children as he went. The security guards walking beside the ‘Pope-Mobile’ actually seemed to be enjoying themselves. The atmosphere was very relaxed and joyous.
The Pope-Mobile zigzagged through the crowd along a pre-determined route, pausing from time to time. Next thing we knew, it was coming right at us, and I was able to get a few very good shots of Francis taking a child in his arms and another of him waving in my direction. We listened to his message for a while, but I don’t know enough Italian to have gotten the gist of it. He did begin, however, by thanking everyone for coming out to see him on such a cold day. The man has a sense of humour and a very human touch, and you can’t help but like him.
We’ve read that Rome has 900 Catholic churches. We didn’t see all of them, but we certainly saw 30 or more, many of these on the lists of ‘must-sees’. The wealth displayed in most of them is beyond description, to the point of being almost obscene. We couldn’t get our heads around the questions of how all of them were paid for and manage to stay open. While many are quite old, most are in a reasonably good state of repair. The money comes from somewhere, but it can’t be the parishes since there are hardly any seats in most of the churches we visited.
Our lasting impression of Rome is, overall, very positive. Everyone should visit once in their lives as there is so much to see. One big negative is the Metro system and, especially, the main train station called Termini. The place is mayhem when it’s quiet and indescribable at rush hour. Being devoid of any security whatsoever, it’s an ideal hangout for thieves, beggars, and con artists. We were some glad to board the overnight train to Paris and leave that miserable place behind.
A funny thing did happen to us at Termini, although it wasn’t funny at the time. We were on our way somewhere at peak rush hour. People were three or four rows deep, pushing one another, trying to squeeze through the door. I had told Elva to follow me; that I’d break a path. Well, to our great surprise, just as I got on, the door started to close! She had one leg on the subway car and one leg off! But the door kept closing and she had no choice but to stay behind.
What to do? Well, with each of us on different sides of the door, and the train starting to move, she mouthed the words “Je reste ici!” (I’m staying here!). It was just like in a movie. So I rode the subway to the next stop, crossed over to catch the train going the opposite way and, fifteen minutes later, was ‘Back in her arms again!’. Another lesson for the both of us: whatever happens, stay calm…
We arrived in Paris on Friday after spending the night on the train. It was Elva’s first time sleeping on a train, and my second; my mother and I took the overnight train from Montréal to Moncton after spending a week at Expo ’67. It was quite an experience!
The last day of our adventure we spent in Paris. We took the train from the airport to Notre-Dame and visited this beautiful church. We walked across the Seine and had a coffee at the Café de Paris, and then strolled along the left bank as far as the Eiffel Tower. The left bank is as beautiful as ever, even on a cold fall day.
From there, we took the Avenue Kléber to the Arc de Triomphe, and then walked down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées to Les Jardins Tuileries and Le Louvre. The Champs Élysées were lined with small shops set up for Christmas, selling all manner of goods. Finally, we took the subway to the stop nearest to Montmartre, and walked up the hill to see the beautiful Basilique du Sacré-Coeur. What a day!
Before I close this chapter, here are a few parting thoughts on our wonderful adventure:
1. Elva and I travel well together and enjoy one another’s company. She’s a great motivator, always positive, and brings me back to reality when things get a little hairy.
2. Cruising is one of the best ways there is to travel. As a matter of fact, we can’t think of one single reason why we wouldn’t recommend it to others or do it again ourselves. In terms of value for money, it can’t be beat. As for the length of our next cruise, we wouldn’t even think of anything less than twenty days.
3. Since we plan to travel extensively, we promised ourselves we’d ‘learn to travel’, starting with this trip. Not that we hadn’t traveled before but, this time, we wanted to get out of our comfort zones a few times, and we did. Sometimes the goal was to save money; other times it was to try something completely different. We also learned a great deal from listening to more experienced travelers, particularly on the cruise.
4. It’s important not to squeeze too much into one day.
5. Pack lighter next time!
6. Put the rip-offs behind you as quickly as you can: the over-priced meal; the oversold tour; the outrageous cost for a third piece of checked baggage on a discount airline; the bill with an unexpected surprise.
7. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or directions, even if you’re a guy. Remember the wise words of Red Green: “I’m a man but I can change; if I have to; I guess…” Most people comply and, even through a language barrier, do the best they can. Be VERY WARY, however, of those who approach you with offers of help. To illustrate, one friendly man met us on the steps of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, asking us where we were from, etc. It turned out his game was to try and get us to visit his carpet shop.
8. If a city is walkable, walk as much as you can. It’s an even better way to see things than a hop-on-hop-off bus. And, if there’s a high point of land within or close to the city, climb it. You invariably get fantastic views, with the added benefit of some much-needed exercise.
9. There are places we’d return to, and others we’re happy to have seen just the once. The nicest surprises were: the Dalmatian Coast – Croatia and Montenegro; Barcelona; the Turkish Riviera; and Capri. The biggest disappointments were: Marseille; Malta; Istanbul; and Cyprus. Venice was very interesting, but about what I expected.
10. We visited several big cities: Barcelona, Marseille, Venice, Athens, Rome, Antalya, Jerusalem, Istanbul, and Paris. Our favourite, by far, is Barcelona.
11. We docked at many beautiful ports, but our favourites were Split, Croatia, and Kotor, Montenegro.
12. If we were to go back to one place for a one-month stay, it would be Marmaris or Analya, both in Turkey.
13. In terms of unfinished business for that part of the world, we’d like to see the Pyramids someday. But, it doesn’t look like that will happen anytime soon. More realistic would be some island-hopping in Greece to see the smaller islands we missed this time around.