Sunday, October 2, 2016

Epic Europe: 21 days, 6 countries, infinite memories!

View from Piazza del Popolo 
The Colosseum
My wife and I had been interested in doing a European trip for a long time now. The art, history and culture over there is just too tempting to miss. After we found some cheap fares on, the first thing we needed was the Schengen VISA. The process at the Italian consulate in Chicago, IL was relatively smooth and hassle free. Here you can find the detailed checklist for the Italian consulate in the US.

Rome, Italy
Roman Forum
The Colosseum from the inside
Rome, or Roma in Italian, has history that dates back more than 2500 years. Once the capital of the western world, every inch of the old city breathes history. As I jokingly said to my wife, you could hurl a rock anywhere in the old city and hit something that's at least a few hundred years old.
We had booked a hotel near the Termini station in central Rome and took the direct Leonardo Express train, from the Rome Fiumicino airport to Termini for 14 Euros. The ride was about 30 min.
We started off exploring Rome by a visit to the viewpoint above the Piazza del Popolo. This Piazza is about 2 km walk from the town center, but the viewpoint at the top is worth the walk and the climb to get there. Especially, if you go in the evening you see Rome and the Vatican against the backdrop of the setting sun.
Trevi fountain
Spanish Steps
Next morning, we had pre-booked a tour of the Colosseum, Palatine hill and Roman Forum with Walks of Italy. The Colosseum is one of the few surviving ancient wonders of the world. Since we had the "skip the line" entrance, we whizzed through the entrance lines and security to get the first glimpse of this magnificent amphitheater. My first impressions were, that it actually looks smaller than what I had imagined or seen in the photos before. At it's peak, the Colosseum could hold between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators. However, what's left of it today is a mere shadow of the past.  Having said that, it really is a spectacle when viewing the inside for the very first time and an amazing feat that it has survived through earthquakes and other natural disasters.
The Pantheon
Arch of Constantine
Evening, we did a twilight historic and Gelato tasting tour of Rome. We visited the  Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona and even see some Ancient Roman ruins along the way. There was of course a brief pause from all the art and architecture to enjoy a traditional Roman gelato - Italy's answer to ice cream.

Vatican City
View from the dome
The St. Peter's Basilica
The smallest country in the world, which hosts the word's biggest church. The official residence of the Pope, this independent city/state came into existence in 1929 by the Lateran Treaty between the then Pope and Mussolini.
Inside St Peter's Basilica
On the way to the dome
Inside the Vatican museums
Basilica from the main complex
We had booked a 10 a.m tour with City wonders a local company based in Rome. As an official Vatican partner, they can skip, I mean really skip, all lines for getting into the Vatican, thereby saving you anything between 2 to 4 hours of waiting in the lines. At nine miles long and with 6 million worth of crowds every year, the Vatican Museums can be a little overwhelming. However, our guide carefully planned the routes through the Museums, visiting the most famous rooms such as the the Raphael Rooms, a wide variety of galleries full of ancient sculptures, tapestries, medieval maps, paintings and precious relics as well as the famous Sistine chapel. The guide talked not just about the pieces we saw but also the stories behind them and the Vatican itself. We learnt about the characters that walked those corridors before, and the dramas that unfolded there. The tour ended in the most magnificent St. Peter's Basilica which is also the burial site of Saint Peter's remains. We ended our tour of the Vatican with a climb to the Dome of  St. Peter's Basilica. You can take the elevator to the roof level (saving 320 steps), but if you want to be on the top of the cupola you must take the stairs for the last portion (551 steps in total). The entrance cost is 7 Euros for elevator, and 5 Euros for stairs. But the view from the top is worth the time, money and effort.

David by Michelangelo 
Florence, Tuscany, Italy

After our visit to the Vatican, we boarded an Italo train from Rome to Florence, in the evening.The journey by the super fast train takes about 1 hour 15 minutes, with speeds of up to 250 km/hr at times. Our hotel, Nuovo Italia, was fortunately just a 5 min walk from the Train station.

Florence Cathedral
For next morning we had pre-booked tickets to the Galleria dell'Accademia (Academic Gallery) in Florence. Pre-booking is highly recommended if you don't want to waste your time standing in lines. Here you’ll meet the city’s most famous resident – Michelangelo’s ‘David’, whose beauty and size must be seen to be believed. With eyes looking towards Rome, it is believed David is sizing up Goliath, before the fight. With our 8:15 a.m tickets, we were among the first ones to enter the museum and admire David before the crowds arrived.
View from the Bell tower
The dome as seen from the bell tower
We headed to the Florence Cathedral next where had pre-booked the tickets for the Duomo, bell tower and the Baptistry. We started our visiting with a climb up the bell tower, to get some wonderful 360 degree views of the city. We then headed over to the inside of the cathedral, which was actually a bit of a let down compared to the beauty outside. We then enjoyed lunch at Piazza della Signoria, a square dominated by the 14th-century tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, before walking to the famous Ponte Vecchio and then completed our morning excursion with last stop at the Bapistry.

View from Piazza Michelangelo 
That evening, we took the number 12 bus from the train station to the bus's last stop, Piazza Michelangelo. Here you can find some breathtaking panoramic views of the whole city, against the setting sun.

At Fattoria Poggio Alloro
Next day, we had booked a "Best of Tuscany" tour with a local Florentine company. Our day started by a bus ride to the Italian town of Siena.  We joined a guided walking tour through the medieval city made up of yellow-ochre buildings, terracotta rooftops and green shutters. We learned about the world’s oldest bank, saw Piazza del Campo, the site of the 600 year old Palio horserace, and admired the interior of the Duomo (Cathedral) there.
Setting for our lunch, with the town of
San Gimignano in the background
Our next stop was to an organic family run wine estate – the highlight of the day! We visited the farm, enjoyed an informal wine tasting lesson and a traditional Tuscan lunch with wine, in the most gorgeous location overlooking stunning views of the surrounding countryside.
Leaning tower of Pisa
After lunch we visited the enchanting hilltop town of San Gimignano and roamed the picturesque streets and squares, browsed the local shops, tried the gelato and walked among the town’s famous medieval towers.
Our final stop was to Pisa. Here, we got a close view of the iconic Leaning Tower.

Grand Canal in Venice
Venice, Italy

Lunch - Octopus, squid and potatoes
Next morning we took the Italo train to Venice from Florence. The city consists of more than 100 small islands, that are separated by canals and linked by bridges. It is renowned for the beauty of its settings, architecture, and artwork. We started off our visit to this beautiful city with a stroll through the many, many streets and bridges this city has; ending up, at St. Mark's square or Piazza San Marco, which is home to St Mark's Basilica and Doge's palace.
St. Mark's  Basilica
              Rialto Bridge
Rialto Fish Market
Next morning we had pre-booked a Walks of Italy tour, led by a local Venetian. We started at the Rialto square and continued to the Rialto Fish market to hear about the city's fishermen before heading Rialto Bridge, a structure that was considered so audacious in its engineering that critics at the time predicted it would fall, but 400+ years later it's still here. We walked through Venice’s back lanes to the Cannaregio district; one of the most authentic areas of Venice and ended up at St. Mark’s Basilica for a ‘skip the line’ tour. We learnt about how the relics of St. Mark arrived here by dubious means, and admired its incredible gold mosaics. The church’s east-meets-west architecture is a perfect representation of the city of Venice, and it reminded me of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey.

Gondola Ride
Basilica Salute at night
At the end of our tour, we climbed aboard a traditional Venice gondola, for a half-hour excursion through the city’s canals. We sat back and explored the city as it was meant to be seen – from the water!
Evening we boarded the flight to Paris, bidding adieu to Italia, for the time being.

PS: Venice gondola rides normally cost €80, but can cost more. However, if you share it or do it as part of tour, it's more reasonable, price wise.

Palace of Versailles
Main fountain at Palace of Versailles
Paris, France
We landed late night the previous day at Paris's Orly Airport and after, a "suspicious item left in baggage area" causing a delay of about an hour; we took a taxi (€35) to our AirBnB host's place in Paris's 15th district.
Hall of Mirrors, location of the
World Word I treaty
Next morning, we had pre-booked tickets (€25) to the Palace of

Versailles using their official website.
Gardens at Versailles
The palace is one of the most beautiful achievements of 18th-century French art. The site began as Louis XIII’s hunting lodge before his son Louis XIV transformed and expanded it, moving the court and government of France to Versailles in 1682.

Versailles was the seat of political power in the Kingdom of France from 1682, when Louis XIV moved the royal court from
The Classic 2CV car
Paris, until the royal family was forced to return to the capital in October 1789, within three months after the beginning of the French Revolution ag
ainst the Monarchy and Church. Versailles is therefore famous not only as a building, but as a symbol of the system of absolute monarchy.
This is also the site for the Treaty of Versailles, that was signed to bring World War I to an end.
The Mona Lisa at Louvre
After resting in the afternoon for sometime, we headed out, in the evening, to explore Paris in a class 2 CV car we had booked through a local company. The ride took us through various Paris landmarks like The Eiffel Tower, The Invalides, The Louvre Museum, The Alexandre III Bridge, Concorde among others.
David v/s Goliath at The Louvre

For our second day in France's capital city, we had pre-booked Louvre ticket from their official site (€15 + €5 for audio guide). This does expedite the entry process a little bit. 
The Wedding Feast at Cana
The museum is housed in the Louvre Palace, originally built as a fortress in the late 12th century under Philip II. Although, much less grand, compared to Versailles, this palace turned museum has beautiful architecture, and is known for it's most famous masterpiece, Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci, which was, by far the smallest painting we saw at the Louvre. The Mona Lisa is surrounded by masterpieces by Italian artist from the Renaissance period. My favorite among on one's we saw was "The Wedding Feast at Cana", by Paolo Veronese in 1563, a representational painting that depicts the Biblical story of a marriage banquet at which Jesus converts water to wine. It also happens to be the largest paining in the Louvre and is housed right opposite the MonaLisa.
Arc De Triomphe
Louvre Panorama

For the afternoon, we had pre-booked tickets (€17) to the Eiffel tower. However, we made a quick metro stop at the Arc De Triomphe, before using the RER C metro train to head there. The Arc de Triomphe is one of the most famous monuments in Paris. It stands in the center of the Place Charles de Gaulle, and there is also a smaller replica of it, opposite the Louvre.
From the Eiffel tower, second level
The Eiffel tower needs no introduction. The tower built in 1889, at Exposition Universelle, to mark the 100-year anniversary of the French Revolution; was almost torn down in 1909. City officials opted to save it after recognizing its value as a radiotelegraph station. Several years later, during World War I, the Eiffel Tower intercepted enemy radio communications. It escaped destruction a second time during World War II, when Hitler ordered the demolition of the city’s most cherished symbol, but the command was never carried out.
There are two lines to get to the top. One for security to get into the main tower base, and another one for the actual elevator to get to the second level. If you have the printed, pre-booked ticket, you skip both lines thereby saving you anywhere between 1 to 2 hours or even more during peak time.
Palace of Justice, from Ile de la Cité
Another way, albeit expensive, to skip the line, is if you make a lunch or dinner reservation at one of the restaurants at the top.
Eiffel Tower from Notre Dame
Once you get to the second level, there is another ticket and line, if you want to, to get to the top of the tower. We only went as far as the second level, since it was rather rainy and gloomy weather, and that had impacted the visibility.

For our last day in Paris, we has a late evening 9 pm flight to Nice, the small quaint town in the French Riviera. Morning, we had booked a City wonders tour of the Notre Dame and Ile de la Cité (City Center Island of Paris). We learnt about the history behind this beautiful little island - the center of Paris where the medieval city was founded by the Romans.
The organ of Notre-Dame de Paris
We saw the Conciergerie (“The Keeper”), the oldest remaining part of the first royal palace (now known as the
Gargoyles of Notre Dame
Palace of Justice), and the infamous prison that housed Marie Antoinette before her execution in 1793 during the French Revolution.
After a lesson from French Revolution,  we now came to the highlight of the tour, Notre Dame. Begun in 1163 by Louis VII on a site that was originally sacred to the Romans, Notre Dame is one of the most magnificent examples of French Gothic architecture and among the largest and most famous churches in the world. It is the heart of Paris and the point from which all distances in France are measured. 
Sacre Coeur as seen from Notre Dame
Western Facade of the Notre Dame
After admiring its imposing exterior, we’ll explored the interior of the cathedral to see its incredible, naturalistic stained glass windows, sculptures and imposing arches.
 The highlight of our tour was Skip the Line access to enter one of the cathedral towers. Climbing the winding
Notre Dame - View from the top
staircase, we discovered perhaps the most beautiful views of Paris, with the Sacre Coeur rising on one side, and the Eiffel Tower on the other. Another iconic feature of the cathedral – the gargoyles can also been seen up close from the middle level. These fantastic, fierce sculptures are actually drainpipes, built for water run off, but it’s hard to think of them in practical terms.

Evening, we took the Air France flight to Nice from Paris's Charles De Gaule airport.

PS: The Charles De Gaule airport is located well outside the city, and public transit RER C is the cheapest and fastest way to get there directly. Although, make sure you buy tickets for the RER C separately, as it's not the usual Metro train, but a dedicated service to the airport.

View from Mt Boron
Nice, France and Monaco
The Principality of Monaco
We landed late in Nice and took an Uber (€18) to get to our host's place in Central Nice.
Next morning, we had book an all day tour to Éze and Monaco with a local company.

The tour which was basically comfortable transportation to Éze, Monaco and back included a Panoramic view over Nice from Mt. Boron,  stop at Éze– a medieval perched village with its crafts shops and breathtaking panorama.
Oceanographic Museum of Monaco
Followed by a Guided tour of a traditional perfumery, which turned out to be a bit of

a letdown. We then went on to another country, Monaco. Second smallest in the world, after the Vatican. We toured Monte-Carlo and drove along the famous Monaco Grand Prix circuit. All this while the driver cum tour guide told us some interesting tidbits about Monaco as a country, and how difficult it was to get property and citizenship of Monaco; which is technically a "constitutional monarchy" to this day.
Nice from Chateau overlook

Luxury apartments in Monaco
Next morning we went for a stroll to the famous Promenade Des Anglais which is Nice's version of the Sea face. We strolled to a hike up the Colline du Chateau overlook to get a panoramic view of Nice. On the way back we stopped by the local market (Marché aux Fleurs) which was at one time the largest flower market in Europe. That privilege now belongs to the one in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Evening, we boarded our Vueling flight to Barcelona.

The Sagrada Familia
Barcelona, Spain
Gaudí designed the
columns to mirror trees and branches.
Barcelona, with its architectural beauty and whimsical Gaudí flair, makes for a great start to a Spain trip.
We started off our time in Barcelona by a visit to the Sagrada Familia.  This is a large Roman Catholic church designed by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí. Although incomplete, the church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI. The construction has progressed slowly, as it relied on private donations and was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War. Construction passed the midpoint in 2010 with an anticipated completion date of 2026, the centenary of Gaudí's death. The church only relies on donations (tickets from visitors) for construction costs.
Six new towers will soon be added, bringing the total in the Basilica to 18 and—finishing the work begun by Gaudí.
Gothic Quarter
Plaça Sant Jaume -
Catolonia Flag can seen next to Spain's
In the evening, we joined a free (tips are expected and appreciated) walking tour of the Barrio Gotico (Gothic Quarter) with Runner Bean tours, as we were lead through the winding corridors of the medieval town to give us a unique view of the enchanting Gothic Quarter. We started at the Plaza Reial, one of the  most picturesque squares in Barcelona. Followed by, a visit to the old Jewish quarter, where we learned about the Barcelona horrific past for those like Saint Eulalia who were persecuted by the Romans for following Christianity. 
Cathedral of Santa Eulalia
Eulalia of Barcelona
Our next stop was at Plaça Sant Jaume, the centre of political life in the City for over 2,000 years. Today, the main government buildings dominate the square.
View from the Nativity tower of Sagrada Familia
Park Güell
We went through some other landmark of the Gothic quarter like Plaça Sant Felip NeriCathedral of Santa Eulalia and Roman City, often described as the most extensive and comprehensive underground Roman ruins in the world. We ended our tour at the Plaça del Rei which house the royal palace, Palau Reial Major, and its surrounding buildings.

View from Montjuic
Casa mila by Gaudí
Colonnaded pathway at Park Güell
For our next day, we had booked a half day Barcelona city tour by Barcelona day tours. This is a great way to see all the highlights of Barcelona, if you're short on time. The tour was personal, interesting, and stress-free. With real insights on the places we visited and a local perspective on life in Barcelona. The tour covered all the main highlights of the city in a half-day. My favorite spots from the stops were Park Güell and Montjuic, for great city views, history, and a view of the port.

This brought to end a wonderful introduction to Barcelona, until we return next time. Evening, we took the Vueling flight to Seville in the Andalucia region of Southern Spain.

Seville, Spain
We arrived at around 8 pm local time and took the taxi (€29) from the airport to the hotel.
Inside the Alcazar Real
Alcazar Real of Seville
We started off our visited to Seville with a visit to the Alcazar Real (Royal Palace) of Seville. We had booked the tickets on their official site. This is especially useful if you wish to visit the Upper Royal Quarters of the Alca
zar. Visits to the Upper Chambers of the Royal Alcazars are managed by the Royal Alcazar of Seville Heritage Foundation; and are worth the extra €4.50 they charge. Although, they need to be reserved in advance with a specific time. The rooms represent Moorish architecture from the 15th century Muslim rule.

Tomb of Christopher Columbus
Cathedral from the Giralda (Bell tower)
These are the reception rooms and common areas that are still used today by the Spanish Royal family when they visit Seville, and access to this area is only by a strictly limited, audio guided, security escorted tour, that operates only during the mornings. We had booked the 10 am slot, the first one available when the Alcazar opens.

Seville Cathedral inside
For the afternoon we had reserved a ticket, from the official website, for the Seville Cathedral, the largest in the world. There is no payment needed to make this reservation, however, the website is only in Spanish. You need to take the email confirmation, from the website's reservation section, to the ticket office, thereby skipping the lines in 40'C heat.
The €9 ticket grants you access to also the Bell tower, which you can climb to get 360 degree views of Seville and the Iglesia del Salvador (Church), which we could not visit due to our limited time in the city.
The Seville Cathedral is the largest cathedral and the third-largest church in the world.
Giralda (tower) of Seville Cathedral 
The Giralda is the bell tower of the Cathedral of Seville. The former minaret of the mosque that stood on the site under Muslim rule, was built to resemble the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech, Morocco. It was converted into a bell tower for the cathedral after the Reconquest of Spain from the Muslim back to the Christians.

Plaza de España
We took a tram from the cathedral to the Plaza de España and the bus to go home. Plaza de España is a large plaza built in 1928 for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929. It is a landmark example of the Regionalism Architecture, mixing elements of the Renaissance Revival and Moorish Revival (Neo-Mudéjar) styles of Spanish architecture. You can even take a Gondola ride in the artificial river around this plaza.

PS: One of things Sevilla is famous for is the local Spanish Saffron (Azafran in Spanish). It's good quality and relatively cheap. There are also Flamengo dresses, scarfs and traditional Spanish hand fan, for women, to shop for.

Córdoba, Spain
Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba
Bell tower (Minaret) of the Mosque
Our next day in Seville began early with the Renfe express (AVE) train to Córdoba. During the Muslim rule of Spain Córdoba became the capital of the Islamic Emirate and then Caliphate of Córdoba, including most of the Iberian Peninsula. It has been estimated that in the 10th century Córdoba was the most populous city in the world, and rivaled the Islamic cities of Istanbul and Baghdad in terms of its influence.
The train takes about 40-45 min, to reach Córdoba and the famous Córdoba mosque is a 15-20 minute walk from the train station, in the early mornings.
Roman temple of Córdoba
The site was originally a small temple of Christian origin. When Muslims conquered Spain in 711, the church was first divided into Muslim and Christian halves. This sharing arrangement of the site lasted until 784, when the Christian half was purchased by the Emir 'Abd al-Rahman I, who then proceeded to demolish the original structure and build the grand mosque of Córdoba on its ground. Córdoba returned to Christian rule in 1236 during the Reconquista (Reconquest of Spain from Muslim rule), and the building was converted to a Roman Catholic church. From that period till date, Muslims have not been allowed to pray in this Mosque-Cathedral, although visiting is permitted.
Bell tower as seen from a narrow alley
Our group in Córdoba
For the afternoon, we had booked a free guided walking tour of the city through a local company. The tour covered the historical buildings of the Cordovan historical center. Some historical squares such as La Corredera and the hearth of the Jewish quarter, where we learnt about the legend of Maimonides.
We went back to Seville in the evening by the super-fast Renfe.

PS: Renfe allows same day changes without any fees.

Milan, Italy
Duomo di Milan
 Arch of Peace
Our last stop in Europe was Milan in Italy. We took the Ryan Air Flight from Seville next afternoon  and landed about 3 hours later. Milan is a leading global city.

Although Rome is the political capital of Rome, Milan is the Financial one. Its business district hosts Italy's Stock Exchange and the headquarters of the largest national and international banks and companies. The city is a major world fashion and design capital, well known for several international events and fairs, including Milan Fashion Week.
Roof top - Milan Duomo
We wanted to take it easy in Milan, as we were also going to spend some quality time with my parents who had been doing their own tour of the Italian cities.

Lugano, Switzerland and Como, Italy
Lugano in Switzerland
We had booked the Como and Lugano tour with City wonders day trip from Milan, for the four of us. Planning a visit to Northern Italy can be difficult – there’s a lot to see and never enough time to see it all. Day trips from Milan are a great way to experience other parts of the region but again it’s hard to choose.
Our first stop of the day was in another country. We crossed the Swiss border to get to this striking city - known as the “Monte Carlo of Switzerland”, nestled at the foot of the Alps, the town of Lugano is blessed with a stunning backdrop of its vast lake and imposing (often snow-capped) mountains.
Next we headed to beautiful Bellagio to have lunch.

At Bellagio
Lake Como in Italy
Our final stop was Lake Como. Surrounded by mountains and beautiful scenery that changes year-round like a moving painting, Lake Como has been Italy’s top holiday destination for centuries. Once upon a time the expensive houses that line the pristine lakeside were owned by opera singers and performers.

This brought to end a hectic but the most enjoyable and fulfilling three weeks in some of the most amazing countries on the planet. Until next time, ciao, au revoir and adiós!