Europe Vacation Travel Summary: The Whirlwind


I’ve had a few people ask about the recent trip my wife and I took to Europe so I thought I’d give a brief rundown of the itinerary. If you’re not interested, and you probably aren’t, feel free to just scan the pics. I’ll limit myself to a couple of pictures for each day, with just a highlight or two mentioned. The trip was a great experience and hopefully Melissa and I will cherish the memories for years. One of the things I liked about the trip was how it encompassed so many things you might want to see on a vacation. No need to decide between mountains, beaches, rolling hills, country sides, or metropolitan cities because Nice and Italy had them all. Not to mention it allowed for most things you’d want to do on a vacation all in one: seeing historical sites, paintings, architecture, nature hikes, museums, gardens, enjoying the best food and wine, UNESCO sites, world-renowned cities, and even boat rides on the sea. The daunting task for me here is how you scale down nearly a thousand pictures to just a handful, and how you summarize the countless memories and breathtaking sights in one blog post. I’ll skip the two full days of traveling on planes, since that largely consisted of being crammed and eating things I wouldn’t buy in a gas station.

Day 1: Paris
After flying into Paris overnight, we pushed through since we only had one day to experience one of the greatest cities in the world. Having taking advice from Anthony Bourdain’s Paris episode in The Layover, our focus was not seeing and doing everything but trying to enjoy the city and its culture. That’s more challenging when you don’t speak any French, but thankfully pointing communicates worldwide. We took in the croissants, the cheese, a bit of wine, and an espresso or two (Heminway didn’t call Paris “A Moveable Feast” for nothing). I don’t know if it was the fact that planes are designed for people under 6 foot tall, or if it was the constant walking after not sleeping for more than a day, but by the evening it felt like someone had replaced my kidneys with two porcupines. The good news is the throbbing in my lower back and the fear of passing out or bleeding out forced us to sit down and enjoy dinner along the Seine. My favorite spots were Notre Dame (for its size), St. Chappelle (its beautiful panoramic stained glass), and the Luxembourg gardens (just look at the picture!). In America, we do either big parks or we do pretty gardens, and neither are a gathering place for people. The Luxembourg gardens (pictured above) were a wide-open and absolutely gorgeous garden-park where people came to relax, meet friends, and casually enjoy the day. Below is the less well-known Sainte-Chappelle. It doesn’t compare to the mammoth size or intricate architecture of Notre Dame, but it’s resplendent stained glass that stretches to the ceiling from front to back of the chapel is incomparable.

Days 2-3: Nice, France
After a nice Eurail train ride down to Nice (5th largest city and 2nd most visited in France), we had 1 1/2 days to enjoy this relaxed city on the Mediterranean Sea. Nice was beautiful in so many ways! It also provided a nice rest from the constant rush of sightseeing in other cities. We stayed in Old Nice, where the tight streets are all walkable and full of shops and surprises around every corner. By far they had the best Gelato in Europe, and trust me, I tried a lot of different Gelato shops (Gelateria).
Nice is known for its beautiful beaches along the French Riviera. The next two pictures are from the same hill overlooking Nice. It’s a breathtaking view and one of the things that struck me was the various terrains in one view: beautiful water, mountains outlining the skyline, historic buildings nestled alongside contemporary architecture, and a fabulous promenade.

Day 5: Cinque Terre
This was the day my wife had been anticipating the most. I woke up sick and it would continue the entire day. There’s nothing quite like being the guy throwing up on a tour bus…and the rest stop. However, knowing the importance of the day I did my best to press on. It would be great if everything on vacation turned out dreamy, but reality often takes a different course. The day was tough but that didn’t take away from the glorious scenery the entire day. Other than a few moments here and there in a subway or on a bus, everything our eyes would see this day called for a picture. It is as advertised, one of the most beautiful places in the world. And I must say, I couldn’t have been more proud of my lovely wife than when she closed the day with a basket of assorted fried fish caught that day. Amazing!
The Cinque Terre (“five lands”) is known for its small towns, five of them to be exact, that are literally built right into the rocky cliffs butted up against the Mediterranean Sea. Most people recognize it because of the multi-colored houses. Unlike some places, like Venice, people actually live here. If you look at the picture above you’ll notice the terraced land. Level after level supported by man-made walls of rock so locals can grow grapes and vegetables. Many of the people are also fishermen. The number of small boats dotted along parts of the coast provide local restaurants with a steady supply of fish. They have beaches here, but not the packed out touristy kind.

Day 6: Tuscany
On day 5 we joined a one-day tour that drove us all around Tuscany. Having prepared myself by reading Under the Tuscan Sun and watching Anthony’s Bourdain’s Tuscany episode multiple times, I had high expectations for the picturesque landscapes. The picture above was taken at a local vineyard where we had lunch. It’s farm to table in the most real sense. They grow their own grapes and olives for your wine and oil, they raise their own cattle that we enjoyed in our pasta ragu, and all of the vegetables are plucked from the garden on location. We also saw the famous leaning tower of Pisa, the Medieval town of San Gimignano known for its dozen towers (see the town in the distance on the picture above), and spent a few hours at Siena. Over a year ago I learned about Siena watching Kenny Mayne’s Wider World of Sports when he attended the world famous Palio race. The town is built around its distinctive neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has clear boundaries, an animal mascot, and the Palio race is where all the neighborhoods compete against each other on the central piazz. The town rivaled Florence and this can be seen in their Duomo’s architecture. Whereas Florence’s Duomo outdoes Siena’s in its external architecture, the inside of Siena’s Duomo was as grandiose as any other church we saw on the trip. Below is a picture from the inside of the Duomo’s ceiling and the Piaaza del Campo where the Palio takes place.

Day 7 (& most of 4 ): Florence
On days 4-7 we stayed in an apartment (next to the very sweet owners) in Florence. I’d recommend doing this in a city like Florence; avoid the hotel and find a local or an apartment to stay with. In the mornings and evenings on days we had day trips we experienced parts of Florence, and the end of the week gave us a full day and a half in Renaissance capital. It’s tough to say which part of our trip was my favorite since every place was unique in its offering and comparably beautiful. The city of Florence differs in that the entire city is walkable. Every narrow alley is worth exploring. There’s no “historical section” to find; the entire city is historical. It’s home to some of the most famous architecture, paintings, statues, and piazzas in the world. It feels much smaller than Paris and Rome but there’s just as much to see and do. The last few months I’ve done a lot of reading on the Medici, the Renaissance, and Michelangelo so I especially enjoyed the thick historical aroma of the city. The top picture below was for me my favorite view of the whole trip. After seeing a monastery with monks doing Gregorian chants atop the highest hill in the city, we walked out to the sun setting over the enchanting city that is Florence. Brunelleschi’s dome rises above the red roofs, the Arno river snakes through the middle and passes under the most famous bridge in Italy (Ponte Vecchio), and the distant mountains under the passing clouds provide the perfect backdrop. I’ll avoid waxing eloquent or getting sentimental, but when you stand over a city like Florence and see a view like this you really do wish somehow you could keep this moment in time with you forever. The second image captures the night view of the Ponte Vecchio. The bottom image was the ceiling of the Baptistery next to the Duomo. The ceiling glittered with gold that the camera doesn’t capture, but the pictures were meant to tell the biblical story to the unlearned members of the church.
bridge edited

Days 8-10: Rome
Rome. Not much more needs to be said. It’s as romantic, endearing, and entrancing as you’ve always heard or seen through the television. Until you get to the airport (horrible), it’s a place you don’t want to leave. It was the best food from our trip and on our last night (our one year anniversary) we had the best meal of our lives (and we’ve had a lot of good food this past year). As a husband, you always hope big days like that don’t take a terrible turn for the worse or that your plans fall flat, so I was thankful our anniversary meal left us talking about it for days. Since I have limited space I’ll only mention two of the things we saw.
We were at the Vatican on the Saturday that the new pope could for people of all faiths to gather there for prayer about Syria. It made for a unique experience where the viewings of certain rooms would get interrupted because the pope or one of the president’s there was coming through. The Vatican is unlike any other place I’ve been. In one location you have one of the best museums, the largest cathedral, world famous paintings and statutes by the greatest painters, the Sistine Chapel, and thousands of visitors, including many of whom are considering this a spiritual pilgrimage. It’s luxurious, I mean over the top luxurious, and every room outdoes the next in the wow factor. Some of the pictures from Constantine’s room can be seen in a previous post. Although I’m tempted to show a picture one of the dead popes–yes, there are two dead popes whose bodies have been waxed and are viewable–I’ll show one picture inside and one outside. The inside one shows only the front of the gigantic and spacious cathedral that is St. Peter’s Basilica. The picture from the outside captures the highest building in Rome, St. Peter’s, just beyond the Tiber River.

On the last day of our trip we spent the morning seeing the ancient ruins of Rome. There ended up being more ruins than I assumed there were and we had a tour guide for part of the time to help give historical details and fill in a picture of how things might have looked. Most of us are familiar with the uniqueness and sheer size of the Colosseum from Gladiator. As a Christian, standing in the enormous but well preserved Colosseum you can’t help but think of the number of Christians whose blood was shed here. There were a number of intriguing artifacts and buildings from 2,000 years ago that you walk around from place to place, almost able to imagine what life was like for the more well to do Romans. Since most people have probably checked out by now I’ll show a few extra from Rome. I’ll finish with a picture of my wife and I. There’s no one else I’d rather spend time on a trip like this with and I’m thankful God blessed us with this opportunity to experience Europe together.

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