24 hours proved to be a remarkable difference at St Peter's Basilica. We arrived at 07.20 and wandered straight up to the security point. Apparently Sundays are immeasurably busier than Mondays. Who'd have ever thought that?!
It was worth the wait, and the previous effort. Rob had earlier in the trip described the Louvre as the second-most impressive building he had seen - the Basilica being the first. All those concepts I have mentioned in earlier posts about scale, grandeur, history and power apply (perhaps even more so) to this building. Perhaps (and here is a possible theme for future adventures) I need to balance my perspective on these issues by visiting great triumphs of not-necessarily-Christian architecture such as the Hagia Sophia, Pyramids and Taj Mahal.
In the last day or so of our trip I have been feeling a sense of melancholy. This is not unusual in itself; it happens to me every time we pack up the shack on Sunday mornings on the west coast of Tasmania. This is different though. In a purely self-focused sense, we have done something significant in taking this trip. It has been, and will continue to be, a highlight in our lives as individuals, and our lives as a family unit. Few families are as fortunate as we have been to make this happen. There have been costs (apart from the obvious elephant in the middle of the room). The girls have missed valuable school hours and we have abandoned many of our responsibilities at home, particularly to family, friends and pets.
We're each very much looking forward to going home and re-immersing ourselves in those relationships and responsibilities; and in many ways we are tired of travelling - yet there is a reluctance to let this major chapter in our lives close, primarily for fear that another chance may never come our way.
Moggy and I had hoped that this trip would allow Mollie and Ella to arrive home with renewed appreciation on two fronts: an awareness of how large and varied the world might be, and a renewed appreciation and respect for the part of it we choose to live in. Even though our experiences on this trip have been of the first-world only, I am confident we have gone a long way to achieving that first ambition. The degree to which the second ambition is achieved is yet to reveal itself.
Our last day overseas had threatened to be something of a trial; having to vacate our apartment at 8am and not departing Fiumicino airport until 10pm. That's a long time to drag luggage around the cobblestones of Rome. In an attempt to turn that day into a pleasant end to the trip we booked a hotel room at Lido di Ostia, which is a town on the edge of the Mediterranean and only 5km from the airport.
We arrived expecting Surfers Paradise. What we discovered was in many ways akin to Indonesia. Funny old place, really. 30 minutes from the centre of Rome and perched on the edge of the Mediterranean, it should be fabulous. But it's not any more. The architecture suggests that it was a happening place in the 1920's and 30's, but these days it's just tired and shabby. Restaurants have been constructed on the beach side of the promenade, and they have been laid out in such a way that access to the beach is all but impossible except for a few easements about 800m apart from each other. Each of the restaurants has a thatched-roofed faux "beach hut" in front of it, invariably called the "Havana Club" or the "Tropicano Beach Night Club", and blocking the view of the sea from the restaurant proper.
So we spent the day wandering the promenade, reading, eating tapas from Toros Don Pepe, hydrating and waiting for the taxi to Fiumicino, from where I type.
Boarding commences in 15 minutes.
Arivadierci Roma. Farewell Europe
I recently added another year to my personal speedo. In those years I've had some dumb ideas and made some dumb plans. But I suspect that right up the top of that list would be my idea to avoid the crowds at St. Peter's Basilica by arriving bright and early on a Sunday morning.
I figured that the first mass was not until 9am, so the window from opening time at 7am until about 8 might be a relatively quiet period. How utterly wrong!
The first photo below shows the scene outside the colonnades when we first arrived at 6.50am.
With typical Italian efficiency no public admission occurred until 7.40am, and by then the scene where we were was as depicted in he second image.
We stayed to see how quickly those at the front of he grid got away, and which of those further down the starting order did something radical to make up ground early (almost all of them), then we turned and set off against the flood tide of further pilgrims to find coffee and cornetto. I'm beginning to think that the gods do not want me to see inside the Basilica. They have pre-disposed me to abhorring queues, then massed crowds at each attempt I have made (three so far) at getting in. I'll have one further crack before we depart the city.
Have you ever tasted a sauce, or a stock, or even a wine for that matter, and found it to be so complex, and to contain so many layers of competing and complimentary flavours, that it takes a little time to form an immediate impression about whether you like it or not?
Rome is that flavour.
Rome goes way beyond sweet, sour, salty, spicy. These are just some of the elements I've detected in the past several days that go to making up the flavour of Rome:
prThe past three days have been a blend of early starts, packing, ham and cheese baguettes (not our preferred option), train travel, unpacking, ordinary hotels and extraordinary highlights.
We watched Paris slide away behind us as the 08.23 train to Zurich glided away from Gare Lyon train station. The TGV Lyria Duplex is a magnificent train: as fast as Barry Allen and as smooth as Rob Thomas & Carlos Santana. We had secured an upstairs berth of 4 seats facing each other over a small table. The train quickly reached speeds above 200km/h. I tried multiple times to get a photo of the speed display reading 300+ but was foiled many times by the changing display or a slight uphill section of track. Eventually, I managed to snap the pikkie below. Later, I was standing in the buffet car eating a ham and cheese baguette (theme alert!) and drinking an espresso when I glanced at the display to see the train travelling at 317km/h - and I'm standing up like it's the bar at the local pub!
A quick change of trains at Zurich saw us proceed to the small Swiss city of Chur. Now, to be fair to Chur, we HAD just left the middle of Paris on a busy weekend. Chur, at 3pm on Sunday, doesn't seem to have a whole lot going on. Even the cable car up to Brambrüesch was closed. So were all the restaurants and cafés. Our dining options were reduced to seedy kebab shops and the petrol station co-op store. More ham and cheese baguettes, please. Later, when about three of Chur's "many local restaurants" opened for dinner, we found a funny little pseudo-Asian restaurant where we managed to get a plate of noodles and a random assortment of condiments for a somewhat sobering price.
Our accommodation in Chur was the Hotel Schweisserhaus. In our pre-trip planning I had begun to refer to this as the Hotel Scheisenhausen, so much so that I had trouble NOT calling it that to people who may have been offended by the reference. My Mum always told me that many a truth is spoken in jest and I think on this occasion she was quite correct.
Another early start saw us trundling out of Chur on the Bernina Express. This scenic railway links Switzerland with Northern Italy by winding its way over the Alps via the Bernina Pass. Such is its significance that a section of it is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As we climbed the foothills of the Alps we were surrounded by mist and cloud and I thought our luck may have failed us in terms of seeing some of the peaks, but the further we ascended the less consistent the cloud became until eventually we were rewarded with spectacular scenery. It was a true highlight of our holiday and as we trundled into Tirano Rail Station (along the Main Street like a tram) I commented to Moggy and the girls, "Do you know what that was worth? - Every single cent we paid for it!".
From Tirano we caught a regional train to Milan, which we, sadly, credited with too little time for attention. We were on a mission to get to our hotel, eat something, grab a nana nap, and then get to a concert. Our taxi driver agreed that we had given Milan too little attention and so she took it upon herself to take us past the Duomo, the cathedral, the shopping district and the banking an d finance district - all of which was interesting, and of benefit to her taxi meter. It was done so nicely and she was so pleasant that we considered the additional €10-€15 to be a reasonable price for a speedy guided tour of the old city.
So we eventually arrived at the Assago Fawlty Towers (not its real name). The information about the hotel services and facilities was limited to a small pamphlet in three languages, and it was wrong! We had tried to arrange a restaurant booking for dinner, but the restaurant did not open until 7.30, which was too late for our concert schedule. So, relying on the pamphlet which promised room service from 5.30pm, we ordered some meals, only to be told that room service was not available until the restaurant opened. They did, however, offer us a snack. Guess what we had for dinner? Yep - ham and cheese toasted sandwiches!
In 1977 I bought a copy of Peter Gabriel's first solo album because I was completely entranced with the song "Solisbury Hill". Since 1977 I've been completely entranced by petty much all of Peter Gabriel's music and it has been a constant accompaniment for me. Thirty six years after beginning that association I saw my first Peter Gabriel concert, and I'm so pleased that Moggy and the girls were with me for it.
The show started off as a very low key, acoustic set. The house lights were up and the first few songs were simply the band on the stage reinventing some Peter Gabriel songs. The song "Family Snapshot"' for those who don't know it, is a story about an assassin, and it builds steadily in tempo and tension as the song proceeds. At one moment in the song where it starts become quite intense ("They're coming round the corner with the bikers at the front, I'm wiping the sweat from my eyes...") - in a heartbeat - the house lights dropped and a full-on light show took its place. It was a breath-taking transition to an amazing display of sound, light and technology.
Mollie and Ella were sad because they knew all the songs. I'm just happy!
Tuesday morning saw us depart Milan aboard the Frecciarossa (Red Arrow) for Rome, where we settled into our very comfortable apartment at Ottaviarno (near the Vatican Walls) and enjoyed a night out (REAL FOOD!!!) with Rob and Tom.
In my pre-trip planning, Paris would have sat more in the "obligatory visit" category than the "must see" side of the ledger. In my post trip analysis it will have moved.
I've really enjoyed it here. Paris is different, and occasionally frustrating, but it has a swagger about it. I can see why the people of Paris are associated with arrogance, but my experience has been that the tag is an unfair one. We've had nothing but pleasant and cordial exchanges with pretty much everyone we've interacted with, and those exchanges have not occurred in anything even resembling passable French, I promise you (well, with the possible exception of my proficiency in ordering 'an espresso and a croissant please').
Moggy likes it here too. The icing on her cake happened when, after narrowly avoiding a collision with a fellow pedestrian and smiling in apology, he caught her up moments later and presented her with a single red rose. Arrogant bastard!
I even had some fun with a French telemarketer who rang the apartment - you guessed it - during dinner one evening. I only answered the phone as I thought it may be the apartment owner checking on us. Our conversation went something like:
We've learned little tricks about getting around the city each day: the wisdom of purchasing city zone train tickets at the start of the day so they can be used at convenient entrances to the subway which have no ticket sales facility; how to read the subway entrance signs to know precisely which lines are available at that entrance; how to exit the subway at the location you desire to be; and how to proficiently order a stand-up espresso and croissant (I'm guessing you are beginning spot sense my pride at this achievement?).
But, by far for me, it has been the beautiful architecture and public art works which have captured my imagination. For the sake of convenience one day we exited the subway at the station Châtelet les Halles and found ourselves virtually on the apron of the astounding Paris City Hall (Mairie de Paris). My point is that this exquisite building has never made its way onto my radar as a pleasing place to visit - it's just there. We stumbled upon it. And that's the thing about Paris, there are plenty of treasures to just discover by accident.
By a process other than accident we spent our final day here in the Musee du Louvre. It's indescribable! There is such an overload of priceless art, history and beauty on display that my senses became a little scrambled. I suspect that to visit the Louvre properly is to eat an elephant, and our bites were too large and inadequately masticated. One day, when I am wealthy and at leisure, I will return with a detailed art reference and spend days at a time in single galleries, learning about and absorbing what is on display. But I do feel privileged to have seen what I saw today. I also feel much more in touch with a song by the Crash Test Dummies which has been in my head all day:
If I could see, if I could see, if I could
So, I will leave Paris with regret, and I think Moggy and the girls feel the same. But the regret will be tempered by the promise of things to come; including the Bernina Express, Peter Gabriel, and The Eternal City.
We travelled out to Versailles today and visited the Chateau de Versailles which is, as you probably know, the former royal palace of the French monarchy up until Louis XVI was chased out of there by a stick-wielding populace in 1789.
I'm beginning to see why!
The buildings and the artworks contained within them are extraordinary treasures which the world is fortunate still to own and to be able to view. However when you realise that those priceless assets and extreme opulence were once the exclusive property of a single family, who continued to bask in privilege while their subjects were experiencing food shortages and tax increases to support the nobility, is to understand how it came to that which it did!
My photos cannot hope to convey a sense of the place. This website (http://www.stockholm360.net/list.php?id=versailles) does a better job.
Earlier in the day I bailed out early and left the females to compete for the bathroom and associated accessories. I wandered and enjoyed un espresso et un croissant, si'l vous plaít, before parking up in the morning sunshine by the Seine and reading for a while. While there, two motorised, inflatable police boats launched across the river. One headed upstream at a rate of knots while the other faffed about nearby. Then I saw a single swimmer making his way along the opposite shore for about 200m until he was picked up by the second boat and taken upstream. This didn't appear to be an exercise in physical fitness, and I can only assume that they were searching for something more interesting than, say, an old bike which had been dumped in the river.
We travelled to la Tour Eiffel where the queues for the single operating lift were substantial and serpentine, and so we settled for viewing the monument from the ground only. I also learned that, if a person approaches you in a place frequented by overseas tourists, and asks, "Do you speak English?", it is unlikely to be anything but a con.
A somewhat more endearing con was being worked on the train to Versaille in which one or more chaps, armed with a saxophone and an accordion, will serenade the carriage with some oomp-pah-pah music and then march up the aisle seeking a gratuity for their trouble. This one, I was happy to contribute to.
I'm just a shy romantic with my eyes on the loose
Now, I will concede that quoting James Reyne is an odd way to commence a post about Paris, but since we arrived at our apartment, the "Unpublished Critics" song has been pretty much constantly in my head. This place is in the 6th Arrondissment of Paris, very close to the River Seine, and directly opposite the small island upon which sits Notre Dame Cathedral. It is, understandably, an old building. We are on the 5th floor in an attic (read garret - hence the 'Reynesness' of the place) apartment with sloping walls and low beams. It's utterly charming, in a quirky, cosy, historical kind of way. The wooden stair-treads to our apartment (yep, no lift!) are worn with the traffic of a million footsteps over the centuries, and have a distinct reverse camber which throws one to the outside of the staircase. Fortunately, speeds dangerous in relation to the camber are rarely reached on the ascent!
Eurostar from London to Paris was pleasant and hassle-free. We departed from St Pancras at 11.31 British Summer Time and immediately put our watches forward one hour to Central European Time. Within an hour we were in the Channel Tunnel, and within 90 minutes we were in France. We arrived at Gare du Nord in Paris at 2.50pm to find Rob, Jeannie and Tom waiting at the station for us.
After hauling our bags up to the garret, we were guided by Rob across the Pont Neuf Bridge and into the central courtyard of the Musee du Louvre. A left turn at that point reveals the Avenue les Champs-Élysées, a wide and arrow straight avenue of about 2.5km through the Place de la Concorde and on to (and beyond) the Arc de Triomphe.
It was and is one of the most spectacular walks of my life!
It's impossible to convey the immensity and grandeur of The Louvre, and we haven't even been inside it yet! The extent and quality of the works of art on display along the Champs-Élysées are astounding: it is an outdoor, public gallery of itself. To stand in the Place de la Concorde feels like being in a movie set - it is so familiar. And the Arc de Triomphe is a spectacularly grand and beautiful monument.
We also had a lovely personal moment along the Champs-Élysées when Ella, who had sworn not to partake of her first macaron until we arrived in Paris, spied patisseire 'Laduree' where we purchased enough for all and had a small ceremony nearby.
We returned to the garret, but knowing the cupboards to be bare I went in search of some provisions to facilitate evening cups of tea and breakfast. To say I failed is an understatement. I could have purchased a thousand bottles of wine, a meal of any cuisine you care to name, cigars, jewellery, souvenirs, clothing - but no milk. Eventually I went to a crepe stand near the garret where, through passable English and appalling French, I negotiated the purchase of 4 chocolate crepes and a take-away plastic tea cup of milk (no lid) which I carefully conveyed back to our building and up the 5 flights of reverse-camber steps without spilling a drop!