Sunday, May 18, 2014

There and Back Again: Paris to Rome to Paris

I'm (finally?) back in old America and settling into Nashville. Since we had a nice buffer zone of Europe before landing here, the culture shock hasn't been as bad as every other time I've come here straight from Asia. Things have been easier; the English surrounding me hasn't been as annoying as it has been on previous occasions and I don't find myself the usual hot mess of awkwardness that generally comes from reverse culture shock. Overall, it's been pleasant, although I do sometimes find myself getting shocked at seeing a "foreigner" until I realize that, oh yeah, everyone looks like me. But, of course, I'm already wishing I was still sipping my coffee in a Parisian cafe or Swimming in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland. Though I couldn't afford it anymore. This vacation took quite a hit on the ol' bank account so really, I've not been able to enjoy Nashville as much as I'd like (nor have I been able to shop my face off at F21, unfortunately). Hire me, please.

After our brief four days in Paris, we picked up our rental car there at the airport and prepared for our nearly three week road trip through France and Italy. Goal #1: Get out of Paris. This is much easier said than done. I think we made four loops around the airport before even getting on the highways, and then somehow ended up in an underground parking lot to a shopping center that we had to pay 4 euros to get out of before finally getting to some open road. Once bypassing Paris, it was smooth sailing to our first stop, the Loire Valley.

The drive south was beautiful and the landscape was spotted with massive fields of yellow flowers. I found out later that they are canola oil plants. Weird.

Nearly the whole drive through France looks like this.

The Loire is an area of France known for castles. Like, castle castles. Big ones. Ones that have been around since, like, the 11th century. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the sheer oldness (is oldness a word?) of some of the structures in Europe. We only had a day and 1/2 in this area so had to pick and choose which castles to see. We wanted to see three, but only made it to two: Chambord and Villandry. Chambord is impossibly huge. Villandry is known for its gardens and has quite a Beauty and the Beast facade.

This "little" guy was just sitting in the middle of a town. No big deal. #europe

Castles have gift shops

The outside of Chambord Castle

Feelin' regal

Told ya it was big

Naw (they were doing restoration there on the top boo)

Villandry Castle
See? Very Beauty and the Beast

Vast gardens

After leaving the Loire, we didn't have any reservations for a hotel room until we reached Rome, so each day was freedom and stopping wherever and whenever we wanted. We had five days to make it to Rome before Easter weekend, but we were making a stop in Milan to see our friends Jared and Rachel (we met them in Japan many moons ago) and they were hitching a ride to Rome with us. Our next stop was Arles, a small town in the South of France.

 I was desperate to see this place because it's full of Van Gogh history. He spent a lot of time here painting. As a matter of fact, the biggest draw here for me was that he painted my favorite work of his, Cafe Terrace, right there in a square in the middle of town. The cafe he painted is still there and I wanted to see it!

See!?! I once again had watery eyes gazing upon something art related. Go Van Gogh! Our GPS didn't realize that some of the roads it was trying to take us on were put there long before cars were ever thought of, so they were hardly wider than a sidewalk. Arles is one of those towns (like most in Europe) that has been there for hundreds and hundreds of years and cars really have no business being down some of these streets. Yet, the GPS attempted to get us to the center.   

Try getting your car down there (they do, honestly)
We wandered around this little town for a while and I admired how European-y everything looks. I wanted to go down every single teensy alleyway and take pictures of the ancient windows and doors. 

From Arles we drove on along the coast, where I got my first ever glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea. It's so blue. The perfect cerulean, sapphire blue, perhaps. We hit the major towns along the South like Marseilles, Cannes and Nice. I've always thought "the South of France" had a bit of glam to it, and I'm thinking that might be the case if you're out on the water in a yacht, because from what I saw, it's not very glamorous. Cannes, where celebrities flock in droves every year for the most famous film festival in the world, seemed a bit like the Myrtle Beach of France. Palm trees everywhere and just a hint of tackiness to everything. Sure I saw some luxury hotels, yachts and truthfully, every other car was a Benz or Maserati, but the aesthetics of this part of the country didn't do much for me. But like I said, I bet it's an entirely different experience from out on the water or even possibly up in the mountains that graze the coast. Between the big towns was beautiful, though. The Mediterranean area looks a bit like rocky desert meets tropical island. There are rocky hills and outcrops dotted with houses with red roofs and a little greenery here and there, all looking out over the sea. Needless to say, it was a nice drive...that is until we reached the next somewhat inelegant town...then it was nice again. (other than Marseilles; Marseilles was nice.)

If I'm going to be in traffic, this view is okay with me. 
We spent the night in Nice and the next day drove into Monaco. Yes, Monaco is it's own independent country, but it's basically the size of Jane Lew. Monaco (capital Monte Carlo) is a playground for the rich. For a country so small, it is overflowing with wealth and affluence. Everywhere I look are $100,000 cars, upscale shopping and the marina has nothing but yachts floating in the water. We circled the entire country a few times (literally, haha) looking for a place to park and walk around, but it turns out the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters tennis tournament was going on. I could actually hear the grunts from the players as we drove by the courts. Perhaps it was Rafael Nadal I heard. Al saw Novak Djokovic riding on his bike but was too afraid to say anything to him. (Don't worry, I didn't know who he was either. Apparently he's the #1 tennis player in the world. Hm.) He saw him and looked at me and was like, "That was Novak Djokovic!!!" and I'm all....who??? But he was super excited about it, so I'm happy he saw him!

This is basically the only picture I got of Monaco. I was so busy gawking at everything. 

We crossed into Italy a few miles after leaving Monaco. No border control here! I was bummed, I wanted an Italian stamp in my passport. As soon as we crossed over, the landscape stayed the same, but the style of the buildings and the language on them (obviously) changed immediately. I found most French architecture was rustic while Italian was pretty. Each, of course, is beautiful and also pretty and rustic in their own way, just different. We had some beautiful sights on the way to Romano di Lombardia, outside Milan (Jared and Rachel's house) our first overnight stop in Italy. 

We got the screaming and shouting and all the it's so good to see you!s out of the way, grabbed some bottles of wine and sat on a balcony with friends we've not seen in many years. Teaching abroad allows people to meet friends from every corner of the planet, so there's a good chance that you will know someone in a desirable vacation destination. This time: meet friends outside Milan, go to Rome together. 

My camera, my nice new camera that I got specifically for this trip, broke (it's actually still a mystery how exactly) right when we got to Jared and Rachel's. It was working one minute and the next the lens was stuck and couldn't be repaired. The previous picture was the last one taken with my good camera. Luckily, Jared had an extra camera and let me borrow it for the remainder of our vacation, then mail it to his mom in Wisconsin when we got back to the US. Although it was just a basic point-and-shoot and I missed the power and quality of mine, it was the nicest thing someone could've done and I was beyond grateful. I don't know what I would've done had he not been so generous...used my phone I suppose! 

We all went to Milan the next day. I'll say this about Milan: I wasn't impressed. Yeah, it's Milan but it just wasn't a beautiful city at all. Of course there were some beautiful things to see, and the Duomo was actually one of the most beautiful churches I saw on my entire vacation, but the city itself just isn't a pretty one. 

Duomo. Insane right?


A castle in the city

Everyone knows "gelato". Everyone knows it's associated with Italy. I wasn't exactly sure what "gelato" was, other than Italian style ice cream, but it turns out...that's all it is. A fancy word for ice cream.'s the greatest ice cream I've ever eaten in my entire life. Throughout the entire vacation, I ate great food and saw amazing things, but sometimes because one is on vacation, the environment can make food taste better. I'm not negative, but I don't think that that cup of coffee I had at a cute cafe in Paris actually tasted better than other coffee I've had, but my surroundings made it seem so. So when I went in to taste my first scoop of gelato, I wasn't really sure what to expect, other than just some good ice cream. Well, results are in and gelato is like ice cream on crack. It isn't just the environment that makes it taste fantastic; it actually is fantastic. It's really, really dense, yet extremely soft and creamy at the same time. The flavors are so full and rich. It's simply very, very high quality ice cream. My favorite was coconut. I also had banana, mint, tiramisu, more coconut...some others. A lot of others, as a matter of fact. 

On the fashion side, truthfully, people in France are much more fashionable than Italians. I know it's like a war of labels, French vs. Italian, but I just found that French people were a bit more chic. And Italian men seemed to still be stuck in 2005. Popped collars, Ed Hardy-esque shirts, shield sunglasses and wet head all around. It was really strange, actually, because I was expecting sleek suits and next level fashion. I saw well dressed people, of course, it just seemed to not be the norm, especially among younger men. Although I'm really glad I got to see Milan, I probably won't be going back anytime soon. 

The next day was a long one of driving to Rome. Since it was Easter weekend and millions of people also had the same idea, we decided to pay to use the highways instead of the free side roads. Using the faster roads cut a probably 9 hour drive into a 6 hour one. The four of us piled into our tiny rental and headed south to visit one of the holiest cities on Earth on one of the holiest holidays of the year.

As much as I didn't like Milan, I really liked Rome! You want old? Go to Rome. Now THAT place is OLD! It was really busy because of the holiday weekend, but honestly not nearly as bad as what I was expecting. Our first Roman stop: St. Peter's Square and the Vatican Museums. 

Sistine Chapel ceiling. Extraordinary! 

Michelangelo was a boss. 

Famous main staircase in the museum

The line to get into the museum wrapped clear around the walls of the Vatican and then some and we barely made it inside in time. We ended up having to pay many Euros extra to get a tour because we wouldn't have made it just waiting in the line. And it was raining.

I found some Cardinals or something!
St. Peter's Square
That evening, we went and had a thing called "aperitivo". I guess it varies from restaurant to restaurant, but basically you buy a drink at about 6 euros and then you get lots of free food along with it. Usually it's chips, fries, mini sandwiches, olives and even little pizzas, poppers and other finger foods. Pretty good deal! 


Poured the rain at our outside dinner!
Happy Easter! We weren't coming all the way to Rome on Easter and not pushing and shoving our way to St. Peter's Square on Sunday to get a glimpse of the Holy Man himself, the Pope. We were packed in as tightly as sardines and the Pope was merely a small white spec on his balcony, but we got to hear his (Italian) speech and got the experience overall.

A little tight

There's the Pope! The little guy on the balcony!
We found a cute restaurant and got some pizzas for lunch. Italian pizza is, of course, delicious. I find that I'm sure I could get just as good of pizza around America somewhere, but American style is much different. Italian pizza is thin, not too crispy and very flavorful.

The rest of the day was spent hitting all the Roma hotspots like the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum. Because millions of others all wanted to do the same thing, the Trevi Fountain was smothering. I don't know if it's always like that, but I imagine not since this was such a big holiday weekend. No matter, it's easy to block out all the people for a few minutes and just appreciate the beauty of this fountain. 

The Colosseum was one of the highlights of my entire month. It was everything I wanted it to be and more. A lot of famous monuments or attractions in Europe have had modernism build up around them, but the area around the Colosseum is (I think) the oldest area of Rome, and the surrounding locale and buildings reflect that. Despite all the tourists, I felt like I had stepped back in time walking toward this behemoth. I stepped into its shadows and reflected on the history and what went on behind its walls and I immediately felt very small. I felt I was in a very powerful place, even though now it's nothing more than stone structure. So many people died in that arena, and I'm just staring down at it taking pictures. 

Jared and Rachel accompanied us to our next Italian destination, San Quirico, smack dab in the middle of the Tuscan countryside, before they caught the train north back to their town. 

We had a really nice drive out of Rome on Monday morning. We found a lake on the way! Just happened across it. 

Al and I wanted a little R&R after all the go, go, go, so we were staying three nights at our agriturismo. An agriturismo is a working farm, usually olives, olive oil, wine, etc. that also functions as a bed & breakfast. They seem to be a dime a dozen in Italy, it all came down to just choosing one. They range from super luxurious, large industrial type farms to small and basic. I think they are all family owned. My stipulations in choosing ours were that they produced wine, it had a lot of cypress trees, and that it was super cute. I got all my wishes plus one; ours also produced olive oil. It was called Bagnaia and I couldn't have asked for anything more adorable. 

Our room was the door on the right edge of the picture

Like all little towns (villages?) around Italy, San Quirico is walled. Our agriturismo was just outside the walls across a bridge, so we'd go into town to get food and walk around once we tired of looking at the vineyard.

And then we went on a drive and just lost ourselves down some gravel roads because why not. 

At one restaurant, I ate some kind of goat cheese and pear ravioli in a butter/olive oil sauce topped with pecans. It seems a weird combo, but it was incredible. We stuffed ourselves with bread, cheese, pasta and wine for nearly four days, then unfortunately it was time to leave and get on the road to our next destination, Pisa! 

Church next to the tower

Inside the church. Nuts. 

Pisa itself was a pretty town, just not much to do other than the tower. It was only a few hours drive from San Quirico so we only stopped for a little bit and got back on the road. 

Pisa on the river
A few more hours of driving and we arrived in Cinque Terre! It means "five lands" and it's fitting because there are five small towns perched on cliffs along this area of the Mediterranean. It was a place I was looking forward to most, a place that I had only heard about from a friend in Korea maybe three months before departing. He showed me pictures and I was sold, so we added it to the itinerary deciding on the first town, Riomaggiore.

There are no cars. Everyone has to park at the top and then the town itself is pedestrian only. The road getting there winded along the side of a mountain hugging the sea. We soon discovered the labyrinth that is Riomaggiore. There is one main "street" up the middle from the water. Other than that, every other route throughout the entire town looks like this:

Claustrophobics: beware! Up and down ancient, death trap staircases and narrow alleyways are the only ways to get from place to place and building to building. We had only planned on one night there, but after laying eyes on it, we decided to stay another. I mean, look at this place!

The main street with shopping and restaurants

Told ya it's blue! The pathway that you see along the cliff is how you walk to and from each of the five towns

View from the top where the cars are parked. You walk from here!

I learned that this place was built here in the early 13th century. Insane. This was our last official and planned stop before heading back to Paris. We had four days to get there before turning the car back in...where should we stop next? Al has a weird obsession with checking "Olympic cities" off his list, so we chose Turin as our next stop. I found the cutest little bed and breakfast up in the hills outside Turin for only 35 euros a night. Win!

View from our place

It rained the night before so we woke up to this foggy insanity
Another morning, another decision on how far we should go and where we should stay. We looked at the GPS and decided that the road going through some mountains wouldn't be so bad. We were crossing back into France today and it looked like the most straightforward route without going on the paid toll highways. (1. Paid toll roads are really expensive 2. The side roads are slower, but where the scenery is. We only used highways if we absolutely had to.) We had our last Italian coffee and breakfast and hit the road again.

 We only had the GPS screen for a visual of what our route looks like, so we had no idea what was actually waiting for us. The previous day as we were approaching Turin, there were snow-capped mountains in the far distance. I've never seen mountains like that before! I have never been to Colorado or out west at all (other than California), so this was the first time I've seen rocky, pointy, snowy mountains. I feverishly snapped pictures, thinking it was as close as I'd get to them. Wrong. 

As the GPS took us closer to the "bumpy" area of the screen that I guessed were mountains, little did I know then that we were headed straight for those huge snow-capped peaks in the distance. The Alps. 

The further we ascended, the quicker the temperature dropped and the more the buildings and towns looked like ski lodges rather than typical Italian dwellings. 

The mountains were also getting closer.

We passed what what we thought was a castle, but turns out it's called "Fort of Exiles" and it's where the Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned. It was super creepy. Nothing else really around but the fortress and a small village in its shadows. 

It was getting colder and snowier. The mountains were covered and we were soon officially "in the Alps". 

We left Turin and it was about 70 degrees, and soon it looked like this:

Flip flops. Def weren't expecting snow! 

A nice place to end up on accident!
We eventually weaved back and forth down the mountains and escaped the snow. We wanted some food so stopped at the first cute French town we ran across. I think we were outside Lyon. It's all kind of a blur now!

Churches churches everywhere

Pretty French rooftops

Next overnight stop: Dijon. I thought it would be nice to stop in the land of mustard, even though mustard completely grosses me out. I hate the word, even. But Dijon mustard from Dijon would be a good souvenir for people back home, so stop there we did. We stayed a little outside the center, but naturally, everything was beautiful. 

It was time to get our butts back to the airport and drop off the car. We arrived early in the morning so we'd have extra time in Paris. (Our flight wasn't until the following day.) We checked into our hotel near Gare du Nord (the main train station) and enjoyed Paris again and for the last time. 

Sipping coffee at a Parisian cafe is one of the most sexy things in the world, I think.

Unfortunately our last day in France was a rainy one.

One of my favorite pictures. 

View from our room the morning we left. Not a shabby way to wake up!
I was très, très sad to leave Paris. I feel like I didn't get to spend nearly enough time there. There is so much beauty to explore and see! And as far as the "Paris snob" thing goes, it's not too bad. I tried to speak in French as much as I could and always said "bonjour" and "merci" and "s'il vous plait". I'm sure it helped that I have a French husband, but he said he even felt slightly discriminated against occasionally simply because they knew he was a tourist, speaking to them in their own language or not. But overall, everyone was nice and helpful enough. 

Next destination: ICELAND! I left mainland Europe heading straight for the Arctic Circle in a flurry of excitement. It was the portion of the trip I was looking forward to most. Onward!