“The trip was a whirlwind!” That’s what my mother and I end up telling people when we’re first asked how our month in Europe went. And it is absolutely true; despite our best efforts, this last month flew by. The fact is, it could never have been any other way. I love to plan and any organizational skills I have come directly from my mother, so when you get the two of us together, we are like a well-oiled machine. We are also both ambitious, and after 9 months of travel in South America I was primed for an all-inclusive, see-and-do-it-all trip through Italy and France. But in reality, this trip has been so much more than the constant go, go, go that it appears on the surface. Europe is a continent steeped in history, art, and culture. Even today, we can be witnesses to the births and deaths of whole civilizations, whole movements, and the whole lives of humanity’s biggest players and greatest geniuses. In the last month I have been brought to tears by massive buildings, intricate carvings, grandiose churches and colorful paintings. History seems more alive than ever in Europe and the biggest challenge we faced was wrapping our minds around all of the information in the short time allotted to each story and place.
My mom and I met up at the airport in Rome, Italy after our own separate long flights. I flew out of Colombia, and was tired before I even got on the plane, but was also excited to see my mom after 9 months apart and thrilled to experience Europe for the first time. My mom had anticipated the trip for months, and was excited for her first long-distance, out-of-country flight. Neither of us really knew what to expect. It had been years since we had traveled together and we both brought separate experiences to the table. Fortunately, we couldn’t have hoped for a better travel partner or itinerary. From the moment we shuffled through the crowd of the metro station in central Rome, we were off and running. When I first proposed the trip to my mom, the idea was to travel through Italy for a month. However, after doing some planning, my mom decided that we could split the time up between Italy and France and hopefully even see a bit of Switzerland. As it happened, we had to cut our trip into Switzerland, and ended up with 2 1/2 weeks in Italy and 1 1/2 weeks in France. In Italy we visited Rome, Florence, Tuscany, Venice, Lake Como, Genoa and Cinque Terre, and in France we explored the French Riviera, the area of Provence, the Loire Valley, and much of Paris. Of course, looking back it doesn’t feel like enough time (what is enough time when you are exploring entire countries with thousands of years of history in them?), but we feel great about all we saw and in the end, really see this trip as a sort of taster. We both have many years of travel ahead of us, and plan on returning to at least a few of the destinations we visited this month.
As it would be impossible (and probably not that interesting) to list all of the places we visited, I will focus on some of the highlights and some of our impressions and most unforgettable experiences in each place. The trip started out (appropriately, since we wouldn’t have had the energy at any other time) in Rome, Italy. Rome is the only huge city that I’ve ever spent time in that I truly loved. From the minute we arrived, I felt impressed by its cleanliness, charm, and of course, impressive historical sights around every single corner. On our first morning we stopped into the Caffe Greco, where many famous writers and artists have spent time, and then made it our first destination every morning after. The coffee was the best we had ever tried, and we felt quite Italian sipping it at the classy marble bar just like the locals (in smaller, cheaper venues of course). We spent a total of 4 days and 5 nights in Rome and even though we made it work, Rome truly deserves at least one full week. One whole day was dedicated to the Vatican, where we took a great, if somewhat rushed, tour of the museum and Sistine Chapel, and then wandered wide-eyed for a while around the impressive St. Peter’s Basilica. Another day was devoted to Ancient Rome, a place that made me cry each and every time I looked around myself. The sheer immensity and history of this ancient city center are enough to make it a must-see destination for anyone. We took a tour of the Colosseum, but if I were to do it over, I would want a guide for the entire area. If you’re not careful, parts of Ancient Rome could just look like piles of rubble, so a guide is vital in knowing exactly what it is you’re looking at. In order to see the many, many fountains, churches, statues, and sites that we had on our list, we rented bikes for one full day – the best idea we ever had. Bikes aren’t super common in Rome, which is strange because as long as you are a bit experienced in steering around traffic, it is by far the best way to get around. On the days we didn’t have the bikes, we must have walked over 8 exhausting miles each day. We had a blast (and stayed much cooler) traveling all over the city on bikes and drawing curious and half-jealous glances everywhere we went. One evening we took a taxi up to Garibaldi Hill in southwest Rome and watched a gorgeous sunset over the entire city. Of course, no trip to Rome would be complete without plenty of good food and wine. Our first night we scored at a small tourist eatery near the Pantheon and had the best lasagna we’ve ever tasted (it was never topped throughout the whole trip) complemented by impressively cheap and tasty red wine. Rome, with its hundreds of Egyptian obelisks, great food markets, and animated locals had won us over within the first 12 hours of our arrival.
Italians are great people. We enjoyed observing the locals chat with one another, and always got a kick out of their elaborate use of hand gestures. They aren’t really a subtle people; on the contrary, they aren’t afraid of hurting feelings and it seems like they’re used to telling it as it is. What you see is what you get. It leaves a strong impression, and even though we found it endearing, it was a very abrupt change for me after spending 5 weeks in Colombia, where the people are just about as sweet and friendly as they come. We were sad to leave Rome, but with so much on the itinerary, we looked forward to our next destination: Florence, Italy. Florence was another great surprise. Even though it was another city, and this one much more crowded with tourists than Rome, we loved the style of architecture and the various sites on offer. We had learned our lesson in Rome, and this time didn’t waste any time walking before renting bikes for our one full day in town. In most European (and South American for that matter) cities, the town is built around a central plaza which is dominated by an, often breathtaking, cathedral. We were beginning to learn about the different architectural styles and movements in Italy, and enjoyed exploring Florence’s famous “Duomo” or dome, crafted by Brunelleschi in 1296, the bell tower which I was able to go up into to see one of the best views of my life, and the nearby baptistry featuring Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise”. Of course, we weren’t disappointed with Michaelangelo’s “David”, a statue that is much larger in real life than most people expect, and we would have very much enjoyed the Uffizi Gallery art museum if it weren’t so hot and crowded with visitors. Our tour guide did a decent job taking us to the most important pieces, but in the end, it wasn’t our favorite of all the museums. One of Florence’s greatest pleasures is its various markets and its prolific offering of luxurious leather goods. We spent the morning before we left walking around the food market, our mouths watering at the innumerable cheeses, oils, vinagers, wines and hundreds of picnic items. I almost spent all my souvenir money on one of the beautiful leather jackets, but held myself back and made a promise to bring money just for that purpose when I return. I did indulge in my 10th (or so) gelato of the trip, never once regretting that money spent or calories gained. There may be nothing finer than Italian gelato.
Somewhat eager to escape the hordes of tourists in Florence, my mom and I hopped on our second train, this time headed for the town of Siena in the heart of Tuscany. Unfortunately, Siena turned out to be a bit of a disappointment considering our state of mind. That coming weekend Siena had their big famous horse race so the streets were clogged with people, and our original plan of walking around with our suitcases until we found lodging was completely foiled. We found Siena to be steep (not flat like our other destinations), crowded, and most importantly, very dirty. We like to think we just caught it at a bad time, but either way, we remained flexible and ended up making the most of our Tuscany visit. We found an adorable bed and breakfast outside of town where we enjoyed an Italian aperitivo (you buy a drink and get a free buffet of food with it – a perfect way to eat cheap in Italy) while watching the sun set over endless vineyards. The next day we booked a full day wine and castle tour of the area, and enjoyed a marvelous day with new friends, great wine, a kind guide, tasty food, and beautiful views. We got just what we wanted out of the area, and the next day we felt ready to leave for my personal favorite destination of the trip, Venice – the city built entirely on water.
I love Venice; I would go back there right now if I could, which is surprising if you know me, mainly because it is a city, it doesn’t get snow, there is no mountain biking, and most importantly, it is completely flat. So what makes it so great? The first surprise came when we looked out our train window and saw nothing but water all around. To get to the city you take a long bridge out to the first of the 118 little islands that make up the city. Next we stepped out of the train station and in front of us was, surprise surprise, more water! A beautiful old building sat perched on the edge of the closest canal and with blue skies, white picturesque bridges, and boats all around, it felt like a completely revolutionary place. The city was crowded, apparently we aren’t the only tourists who had the idea to visit in August, but it was clean, and easy enough to get lost down some small alleyway of a street and not see another person for 20 minutes. Also, absolutely no vehicles are allowed in Venice (that includes bikes, scooters, skateboards, etc.) so it has a slower pace and less noise than other cities with half as many people. After checking into our hotel we took our first water taxi into the center of town and got our third big surprise. Yes, every city has a plaza, but few of them can compete with Piazza San Marco, which is fronted on one side by a fantastic basilica (I consider it the best church of our trip, partially because of the endless gold mosaics covering the walls and ceiling) and a huge well-maintained palace, surrounded on the other 3 sides by more gorgeous buildings, and boasts a large bell tower near the middle. My mom and I bought a bottle of Bellini and drank it in the middle of the plaza in complete contentment as the sun set on our first night in one of our new favorite destinations. The following days were no less impressive. One of the highlights of our trip, we were able to watch a performance of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” in one of the city’s old churches. Vivaldi was born and lived in Venice and the whole performance was played on the original instruments and was a beautiful way to connect with history. We also thoroughly enjoyed a morning in the Accademia gallery and even locked our mother/daughter love onto one of the city’s bridges. We were a bit sad to leave, but time was flying, and our next destination was close to our heart – we were finally going to visit Lake Como!
Lake Como was a pleasant stay, but quite different from the rest of our trip. It is clearly a rich place, and also a popular vacation spot for Italians. It is, of course, beautiful, but it is made for a different type of tourism than ours. Someday I would love to return to this gorgeous lake in the alps and do some great hiking and biking, but we eked out a nice little visit by taking a day to cruise around the lake, getting out at various little towns and walking down their quiet cobblestone streets. Lake Como was also a bit out of the way, but part of our trip has been the public transportation and we pretty quickly became masters of the Italian train system. We rarely boarded without lunch, wine, chocolate, and validated tickets in hand. It was nice to go north, but it only whetted our interest in a return trip to Switzerland at some point. From our sweet little hotel at the lake, we took the train south, headed for Cinque Terre, but with an unfortunate detour in the large, dirty city of Genoa. We thought we would spend the night in the city in order to see one more place, but after a few hours of walking around, we were desperate to get back to our room and away from the all the noise and people and grime. Genoa has some nice spots, but it was our least favorite destination and if we had known, we would have skipped it all together. One influence over our opinion is the stark contrast that the memory has in our head because of how much we loved Cinque Terre, our final destination in Italy. We scored with the most beautiful AirBnB room overlooking the ocean in the sweet hill-top town of Corniglia in Cinque Terre. We only stayed two nights, but my mother would have stayed 6 months if I had let her. Cinque Terre is a region made up of 5 small coastal towns which are all connected by very scenic hiking trails. It is possible to hike from one end to the other in one day, but it would be long and hot. For us, our stay in Cinque Terre was magical. We hiked two different days, ate delicious meals (all finished off with gelato of course), visited adorable towns, and even spent half a day sunbathing on a beach and swimming in the ocean. If our trip had consisted of only this destination, we wouldn’t have been disappointed. Alas, the time came too quickly for us to leave Cinque Terre, and Italy all together, and head for France. We managed to save 1 1/2 weeks for France, but it was hard to imagine how we’d fit in all we wanted to see in that time. In the end, we took the country as it came and after crossing off a few major trips (St. Tropez, Tours, the Comeaux castle in central France, and Normandy) we managed to get a great feel for the country and its people, and of course, per usual, leave wanting more.
Our first stop in France was the city of Nice in the French Riviera. The French Riviera is almost exactly how we imagined, with a few exceptions. It is crowded with tourists, ridiculously expensive, and boasts an incredibly long and sunny coastline. Nice is a rather large city with hundreds of tourist traps, and very little in the way of culture or charm. Fortunately we spent one of our days in the area taking an electric bike tour, which got us out of the city and up to some incredible views. We even ended the tour with drinks at a little port-side bar. That evening we took the bus north along the very ritzy coast up to Monaco, where we spent a couple hours enjoying some first-rate people watching. We started to walk into the Monte Carlo Casino, where my mom had dreamed of winning big, but were stopped short at the door because we weren’t appropriately dressed. Apparently our sandals wouldn’t make the cut. Feeling way out of our comfort zone and a bit annoyed by all the pretentiousness, we headed back on the last bus home. The next day we were able to see a much more charming and enjoyable side of the riviera when we took the bus south along the coast to the charming town of Antibes. We visited the Picasso Museum (which infuriated my mother – we both have a hard time understanding post-impressionism) and then enjoyed a picnic, purchased at a foodie-lover’s dream market in town, on the local beach. That evening we made our way inland, stopping first in the posh historical town of Aix-en-Provence.
Once inland, France is full of art history, award-winning wineries, and wide, lazy rivers. We spent time in the areas of Provence and the Loire Valley and appreciated the peacefulness and cleanliness of both. Aix-en-Provence was the home of Cezanne, so the town owes much of its reputation to him. We spent our short time enjoying our perfect apartment-style accommodation, walking around the historic district, and visiting the wonderful temporary exhibition of late-impressionism paintings at the Granet museum. Aix-en-Provence is a very livable city and draws way fewer tourists than our other destinations, which made for a nice break from all the travel. In general, by this point in our trip, we both agreed that we had enjoyed Italy more than France. Mostly we just missed the history and food of Italy. Also, the French people had a very hard time speaking any English, and after finally grasping some Italian, our brains were too fried to get beyond basic greetings in French, which made communication a little more challenging in general. That being said, we found the French to be very kind and polite and we had a number of great interactions with locals who were thrilled when we could even struggle through a few words of French. As far as transportation was concerned, in addition to a wide array of train qualities, we had begun taking a variety of buses, which were actually a consistently clean and pleasant mode of transportation. From Aix-en-Provence, it was a bus that took us to our next destination of Avignon, a bit of a has-been town in the history of Christendom, but still a nice historical visit. It was the home of the Popes between the years of 1309 and 1378 when it was too dangerous to stay in Rome. The papacy moved back to Rome, but they left behind a huge palace, which people now come from all over the world to see. It was a nice visit, for an old castle, but the real treat was actually the little towns that we bussed to just outside of the city. The little town of Saint Remy has a wonderful town-wide market on Wednesdays which we had fun exploring, and is also home to the mental health hospital where Van Gogh received treatment in the early 1900’s, so we visited the very interesting museum and walking path where we lived and painted. My mom and I both took a great liking to Van Gogh’s art, so in the next town of Arles, we made sure to have a drink at the cafe that he painted in his famous “Cafe Terrace at Night”. Both towns were charming and perfect day trips, but we found unexpected delight in the mountainous bus ride between the towns, which reminded us of rural Northern California and reinforced the growing desire I had in someday bike touring around France.
The dream of bike touring turned into a definite plan when we stopped in Orleans for a night on our way up to Paris. Situated in the Loire Valley along the river with the same name, Orleans is one of the major cities along the 800 km “Loire a Velo” bike path. The trail is flat, beautiful, off the road, and punctuated every 20 kilometers or so by old chateaus and their surrounding villages. It is about as perfect as cycling gets, and my mom and I couldn’t pass up a day of exploration. We got into the charming, quiet town of Orleans in the evening, rented bikes for the next morning, and then rode 60 kilometers the following day before hopping on our final train into Paris. It was good that we got in our quiet time with nature when we could, because once in Paris, we were surrounded by everything that makes up a big city. After navigating through train stations, subways, and crowded streets, we finally found ourselves at home in the ritzy, glamorous Hyatt Hotel Etoile. My mother has worked for the Hyatt for years, and we were lucky enough to get hooked up with an 18th floor room with expansive views of the city and right in the middle of it all, the iconic Eiffel Tower. We brought up some wine, stared out the window, and spent a relaxing evening officially celebrating my mother’s birthday and planning out the coming days. The hotel had a great restaurant and it turned out to be our favorite place to eat in Paris. In all honesty, Paris was not what we expected. I think in the United States especially, we have romanticized Paris into something that it simply is not. It does have a great downtown and of course, a complicated and rich history full of interesting figures and priceless art, but we never did get that romantic, sit in a cafe and read all afternoon or take a stroll along the Seine feel. Instead, we were impressed by the city’s sheer magnitude and number of sights. With only a few days to go, and with a bit of a chest cold attempting to weaken my mother, we took to the streets of Paris with a list of a few must-see destinations and a general plan of easy strolling. Still sold on biking as the best way to get around, we booked a 4-hour city tour for our first day in town. It was good to see the major sights, and at the end of the tour we both shared the similar notion that if we had to leave Paris right then, that would actually be okay. Of course, we didn’t need to leave quite yet, which left time for a day at Versailles, a visit to Rodin’s Thinker, an excellent tour of the Louvre, a stop at Shakespeare & Co., my new favorite bookstore of all time, and finally, a morning of exploration in Montmarte. Paris is very expensive, but we did manage to find a couple restaurants that offered classic French cuisine at reasonable prices, and we had fun drinking wine and munching on escargot and beef bourguignon. By the time our trip came to a close, my mother was a bit burnt out on big city living, but was also feeling inspired by all the history and art and committed to learning more when she got home. I was enjoying the early fall weather, which was especially wonderful in the gardens at Versailles, but was excited to get to the end of a long 10 months of travel, and looking forward to another fall that would be awaiting me in northern Michigan.
Our return trip was pleasantly uneventful, and after 19 hours, brought us to the Sacramento airport, where Don was waiting for us with flowers in hand. It was great to see him, and exciting to be back “home”, though my mom and I both felt a little worse for the wear physically. I was concerned that the transition back to the states might be difficult, but it actually felt exactly right. I have enjoyed the friendliness of Americans and it is actually very comforting to speak in my mother-tongue and be understood. Europe served as the perfect transition – I had spent the last month back in the 1st word lifestyle, but still on the road and living out of a suitcase. For all of its differences, Europe and South America actually still had a lot in common. One comment that my mother and I made over and over was how impressed we were with Europe’s ability to preserve the past. She expressed a lot of interest in the groups of people that are willing to spend their lives and resources restoring and caring for relics of the past so that we, and all future generations, can experience and learn from them. We have made our way back to Tahoe, and are both looking forward to all that this coming fall and winter will bring; she with her return to San Diego, and me and Don with our job as dog sled guides in northern Michigan. I hope to continue posting throughout the winter, so readers can expect to hear some stories inspired by cute puppies, outdoor adventures, lots of snow, and very cold temps. What has been my greatest lesson in those last 10 months of travel you ask? Live life to the fullest, never hold back and love the people around you. And travel! There is no better way to grow and learn and be inspired.