Europe travel · Travel

Italy travel- Roman glories


It might be long gone but the glory of the Roman Empire still lives on in Rome. Mostly in the form of the city’s most famous attraction, the mighty Colosseum, where gladiators and wild animals fought each other, and the Forum, where Roman senators and leaders used to meet to run their empire, but also numerous other buildings, ruins, castle, and even a 1.5 km road that is still very much in use.

I found the Colosseum impressive as it was built over 2,000 years ago as the Roman equivalent of today’s football stadiums but it was still quite as large as modern stadiums. Obviously, it’s been extensively renovated but it was good to see that the Colosseum is very much still intact. Once inside, you get to walk around the inner bowels and the spectator stands where you can imagine watching gladiators fighting in front of tens of thousands of bloodcrazed Romans.

The Colosseum is next to the Forum, which was the centerpiece of ancient Rome where the government used to meet, but which now exists as an impressive collection of ruins including towering columns, halls, and statues. Next to the Forum is the Palatine Hill, where many rich Romans used to reside.
After you leave the Forum, one can walk straight up the Capitoline Hill to the Piazza del Campidoglio, designed by the great Michaelangelo. A statue of Marcus Aurelius (one of Rome’s greatest emperors and who was in the movie Gladiator) mounted on a horse stands in the middle of a piazza surrounded by three exquisite buildings which house the Capitoline Museum.

My next stop was to fast forward over a thousand years in history to visit a giant hall that pays tribute to the first king of modern Italy, Vittorio Emmanuelle II, who ruled a unified Italy from 1861 to 1878. This massive all-white building fronted by columns looks impressive though apparently some locals feel it looks very out of place and is too extravagant.
From the Vittorio Emmanuelle memorial, one can walk across the roundabout to the Via del Corso, a 1.5 km road which the Romans built. On either side of this straight shopping street are elegant low-rise government and historical buildings, stores, and many lanes. To the east of the Via del Corso are historical structures like the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. I know Rome was full of history, but actually being in the midst of all these historical structures that still existed as part of modern neighborhoods and not as isolated sites was a memorable feeling.

It was notable that Rome’s subway was the grimiest and dodgiest one I’d ever taken (Toronto’s TTC subway was previously the dodgiest I’d ever taken). The trains were covered in graffiti and the platforms were slightly dark, which made me feel a little uncomfortable. Fortunately, I encountered no problems.
All in all, this was a fantastic first full day in the Eternal City.



From the Palatine Hill looking over the Forum. The Colosseum is in the back next to the tower.

Piazza del Campidoglio

Some Romans consider this monument to Italy’s first king Vittorio Emmanuelle II a little too grandiose.
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Europe travel · Travel

Random Paris photo round-up


I was only in Paris for a few days during my Europe trip, but wherever I went, from the famous attractions like the Louvre and Notre Dame, to taking walks to the National Library and along the river, the view was enjoyable. It’s obvious that a lot of effort is put into preserving not just historic buildings but decades-old townhouses. There are a lot of old buildings and hardly any highrises, and this is probably a deliberate form of urban planning to maintain the look of entre neighborhoods. The subway also has a distinct antique character, so for example, you have to open the subway doors by hand and a lot of the hallways, stairs and platforms look like you could be in the 50s. It is a great city to stroll through the streets and neighborhoods and riverbank, and I only wish I could have done much more of that.


Goodbye Paris. Setting off at Gare Lyon station
 
The top photo and this one above were taken during a morning walk before I left Paris in the afternoon. It was a serene way to enjoy viewing Notre Dame without encountering hordes of people.

Bibliothèque nationale de France (National Library of France)

Elevated subway station

Looking at one of the many great paintings at the Louvre
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Europe travel · Travel

Italy travel- magnificent Milano

While Rome was the highlight of my visit to Italy during my Europe trip, Milan was actually my first stop. While the Italian financial and fashion center is not as well-known as the likes of Venice or Florence for travelling, I thought Milan was a fine city to visit. It is one of Italy’s most prosperous, being the seat of the country’s stock exchange, and modern cities, but Milan also has a very old historical heritage, said to have been founded in 600 BC by the Celts and being part of the Roman empire. However, Milan also fell under the control of the Habsburgs from the 16th to mid-19th centuries.

I’d chosen to visit Milan not because of finance, fashion or even football (I’m not a fan of Inter or AC Milan), but for its giant, white Duomo cathedral, plus the fact it was in Northern Italy and just a few hours from my previous stop in France. In addition, the city also had the fascinating Sforza castle, the 4th century AD-built Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, as well as the beautiful Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle, which is right next to the Duomo. There were also the Pinocoteca di Brera art gallery, with its many fine paintings, and a very interesting science and technology museum.

When I pulled into Milan’s Porto Garibaldi station and took the subway to my hotel, I had little idea of what to expect. I was wary of the language barrier and getting around, but it turned out to be relatively easy. I actually found that there was more English in Milan than in France, such as with museums and street signs. Also my hotel turned out to be Chinese-run, so I ended up speaking Chinese to the staff. Interesting, there seems to be a small Chinese community in Milan, consisting both of immigrants and students.

The Duomo was as impressive in real life as in the photos I’d seen, especially the massive interior where it felt like being in a cavern. The giant columns, stained glass windows and various statues were very attractive. I also went up to the roof where you can get a good view of the surrounding area as well as the myriad spires and other structures.
The open area in front of the cathedral was packed with people, including tourists, locals as well as dodgy characters holding strings which they are said to tie on unsuspecting tourists’ wrists and force them to pay money. Next to the Duomo is the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle, a high-end open shopping arcade with very attractive roof and floor decorations. On the floor tiles in the center, there were four coat of arms, those of Rome, Florence, Turin (capitals of the Kingdom of Italy), and Milan. Turin’s coat of arms features a giant bull on whose testicles (yes, really) which people stand upon and spin themselves because doing so is said to bring good luck. So many people do that so that there is a hole on the spot where the bull’s testicles are.


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Paris travel- Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe


The most recognizable symbol in Paris is probably the Eiffel Tower, with the Arc de Triomphe second. Previously, my mother and I had appreciated the Eiffel Tower from afar, atop the Montparnasse Tower, but on our third day in the city we went right up to the tower. But before that, we had coffee at Les Deux Magots, a cafe where famous literature and artistic personalities like Hemingway, Sartre and Picasso met and ate at; then visited the Arc de Triomphe, which we walked to from the busy tree- and store-lined Champs-Elysees. The Arc was much bigger than I’d expected and I didn’t realize it was a 19th century military memorial. That said, I wasn’t awed by any one particular structure, but all these places just confirmed my impression from the previous days – Paris is a beautiful city.


It might seem very old-fashioned but it is convenient that Parisian metro stations have giant metal signs with their names right above the entrances

The Luxor obelisk, an over-3000-year-old obelisk given by Egypt to France in 1829, at the Place de la Concorde

The Arc de Triomphe also features the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier memorializing the dead of World War I.

River Seine across from the Eiffel Tower

Europe travel · Travel

France travel- Versailles


The Palace of Versailles is synonymous with French royalty and grandeur, having been built by the Sun King, Louis XIV to serve as his royal court. Completed in 1682, it served as the royal court and remained so for about 100 years before the court moved back to Paris. During that period, the nobility had to stay at Versailles, so remaining under the eye and control of the king. This is covered in the ongoing trans-Atlantic Versailles period drama series.

When we visited France, my mother and I took a day to venture to this immense royal complex. The complex was much bigger than I’d imagined, and I could see why it was so famous, both for its opulence and size. We took the train from Paris to Versailles (the town), then walked towards the palace along a pleasant street.

Approaching the complex, I saw a giant statue, a paved open space, and a courtyard filled with people in a line that snaked across to form an N shape. We got in line and it took about an hour to get in. We checked out a lot of different rooms and halls, including the opulent Hall of Mirrors, the painted ceilings, the rooms where the king and queen lived and entertained, and a brief glance of the gardens in the back, which required a separate admission fee. Everything inside was exquisite, whether the columns, the windows, the paintings, or the stairs, so much that it was almost like an overload. There are additional buildings on the grounds that you can take a shuttle to, but we didn’t have enough time.


The man himself, Louis XIV

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England travel- Cambridge


Besides London, the only other place in England I’ve been to is Cambridge. Done as a daytrip from London, visiting Cambridge (as opposed to say, Oxford) was actually my mother’s decision, since a famous 20th-century Chinese poet had gone to Cambridge and written a memorable poem, which has since attracted many Chinese and Taiwanese to visit there. Anyways, we took the train to Cambridge, passing through some beautiful English countryside. At the town, we headed to the university, took a boat (punt) ride on the river Cam, toured King’s College Chapel, a neat and exquisite church, and strolled through an open-air market. The university is large, open, with university buildings spread among the town, and boasts a lot of impressive stone buildings, as expected from such a great university founded in 1209. We spent several hours there but still weren’t able to see all the main buildings.

The punt (flat bottom boat steered with a pole in front) ride was quite pleasant. During the ride, we passed a lot of attractive buildings on the riverside while treated to commentary by the boatman about the university college buildings, and self-deprecating anecdotes about his personal life. At the end as he drew up to the pier, he warned us not to get up yet, but he correctly predicted that the father of a mainland Chinese family on our boat would do exactly that.

  

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London travel- British Museum and Parliament


Two grand British institutions are the British Museum and Parliament at Westminster. The former has been home to artifacts and works of arts since the mid-18th century, the latter has been the site of parliamentary governance since the 13th century.

Whenever I visit major cities, whether it be Cape Town or Hanoi or Xian or Tokyo, history museums are always near the top of my list of places to visit. Obviously in London, the British Museum was a must-visit and it didn’t disappoint. The only thing I regret was not being able to spend more time. There are splendid displays of ancient Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and Greek artifacts, as well as sub-Saharan African collection. The huge, central atrium or Great Court features a circular reading room (closed to the public) in the middle, several statues including a giant lion from the 2nd century BC, and a nice, overhead ceiling with an interlacing or tessellated design. The exterior of the museum is a grand but somewhat dowdy gray facade with multiple columns.

Besides the sheer quantity of the collections, it was impressive to be able to view giant pieces such as ancient Egyptian pharaonic statues and tombs and Assyrian lion statues up close. The Elgin Marbles, which were taken from the Parthenon in Athens, were in an entire hall. In the African section, there were entire walls of weapons, colorful cloths and the fascinating Benin Bronzes. These were produced by the kingdom of Benin which was situated in Nigeria (the country of Benin is named after this kingdom but was not where it was located).

I managed to see some of the most famous pieces like the Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles, as well as Benin bronzes, from Nigeria. Incidentally all of these are claimed by their country of origin, which raises the point that many of the items in the museum, such as many Greek and Egyptian artifacts, were taken or bought from other countries, sometimes through surreptitious means. The Louvre in Paris is similar, with many of its famous exhibits hailing from other places.
Meanwhile, the British exhibits were alright, but not particularly memorable other than some Roman-era artifacts. I had hoped there might have been exhibits from the British Empire from the Commonwealth countries such as India and Pakistan, but then that is probably unrealistic because it would be like glorifying the empire.

Ideally many of the items should be returned to their countries if they had been illegally bought or taken. On the other hand, there is no certainty that they would be displayed and maintained in such secure and pristine environments in their home countries as those at the British Museum. Also, the best archaeological techniques and knowledge of the day, when these artifacts were obtained, belonged Western explorers and archaeologists, though of course, they honed this from roaming around the world and obtaining other cultures’ artifacts. While a bit self-serving, the availability of these pieces all in one place in the British Museum allows visitors to enjoy and appreciate the history and past civilizations of almost the whole world.

Short of returning all their exhibits, which would be unrealistic, institutions like the British Museum and their governments should provide more funding to countries from where they got the exhibits from, to help them with their local museums, historical research and archaeological efforts and so on.



Lying on the north bank of the Thames River, the British Parliamentary building or Palace Of Westminster houses both the House of Lords and the House of Commons. It is easily recognized, with its gray Gothic features, multitude of windows and spires and the Big Ben clock atop Elizabeth Tower on its flank, though its tallest point is Victoria Tower at its southwestern corner. Alongside the building is an impressive black statue of Richard I, the Lionheart, atop a horse with sword in the air. There is also a statue of Oliver Cromwell, who helped defeat royalist forces in the 17th century and then ruled England as Lord Protector. There were armed policemen on the grounds, befitting the site of the nation’s parliament, though unfortunately this didn’t prevent a terrorist from running over dozens and killing several people, including a policeman, there earlier this year.

But Westminster Palace isn’t the only attraction in the area. Around it are several impressive old buildings such as Westminster Abbey, where the coronations of British monarchs have been held since 1066, St Margaret’s church, the Sanctuary, and Methodist Central Hall. Meanwhile, to get a good view of the Westminster Palace from the river, we walked down along the riverbank to a park and then onto Lambeth Bridge. For some reason, there was even a small rally opposite the parliament building on Myanmar’s upcoming election urging people to vote NLD, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi and which ended up winning over 80% of contested seats in that election.



Westminster Abbey

The Sanctuary, located next to Westminster Abbey
  

More British Museum photos
  
The Rosetta Stone, from Egypt
     
Close-up of the Benin Bronzes

Europe travel · Travel

Germany travel- Berlin the bold


Despite being Germany’s biggest city and capital, Berlin, to me, evokes a kind of tough, scrappy, brutish image, both from its past as a divided city during the Cold War and its contemporary image as a inexpensive, start-up paradise. I found this to kind of true when I visited it, as it was old in some parts, but I also found it attractive and more modern than Rome or Paris. As with London and Paris, Berlin was my first-ever stop in its country.

After getting off my budget flight from Rome, I took the airport bus to the station near my “pension,” their word for a cheap kind of inn, which in this case was a set of rooms inside a low-rise apartment. The building was dark at night, had no elevator, and had graffiti painted on the walls of its driveway. Not exactly the most ideal place to stay in. But it was close to the subway, being between two stations, and further up the street, a supermarket with a separate alcohol store next door (perhaps due to local rules). On one of the nights I went there, a group of punks (mohawks, black jackets and all) were hanging out with a couple of pitbulls in the parking lot, which did give me a little bit of trepidation but nothing happened. But yet, the neighborhood was attractive, with a wide expanse of lawn and a neat row of trees separating the block buildings from the sidewalk and main road. It was only the next day I realized there was a distinctive tower with a dome (TV Tower) at the far end of the main road. The neighborhood also had a lot of small businesses like cheap eateries, alcohol stores and clothes stores.

The first place I visited was the Berlin Wall Memorial. The city’s most famous attraction, the Wall exists as a few preserved sections, as it was mostly torn down. The Memorial is right in the midst of a neighborhood built over where the wall stood. As such, the Memorial stretches along several blocks where parks, preserved wall sections with a watchtower, and a small oval church commemorate the wall. Near the end, there is a museum from which you could get a good view of the wall from the top. The setting was so serene, in stark contrast to the harsh reality of the wall which bisected Berlin into an open Western part and the Eastern, Communist section from where people tried to flee to the West. Some of them lost their lives doing so, which is also commemorated. I also visited another more artistic part of the Wall two days later.

I later made my way to the Reichstag, the nation’s parliament that was in a grand, gray building. More specifically, I went to the top of the building, a dome from where you could get good views of the surroundings. It was then a short walk to the Brandenburg Gate, which was smaller than I’d imagined. There were horse carts, street musicians, and even an Iranian protest against their country’s regime going on. I walked to Gendarmenmarkt, where three magnificent buildings – the 18th century Konzerthaus Berlin (Concert Hall) and two 17th century churches (the French and German churches) are lined up in a row. I finished off the day by going to Potsdamer Platz, a confusing mall complex spread across several buildings and basements. The coolest part was Sony Plaza, a circular entertainment building covered by a neon-coloured roof made up of blades that resembled a propeller.

The subway was old, but retro and clean in a charming way, not so much creaky and antique like Paris’, cramped like London’s or dark and dirty like Rome’s. But it was a little confusing (see the system map) because there are so many lines, divided into surface and underground trains- U-Bahn and S-Bahn.

  

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Italy travel- Eternal City at last

Rome is called the “Eternal City” and just a couple of days wandering around was enough to make me understand exactly why. Whether it was walking inside the largely intact 2,000-year-old Colosseum, going up the neighboring Palatine Hill, or going from the young, almost 300-year-old Spanish Steps to the Pantheon to the Castel Sant’Angelo, ancient Rome exists in an impressive and timeless state everywhere.

But it wasn’t “love” at first sight when I arrived in Rome. Rome actually wasn’t my first stop in Italy (it was Milan, which also was a very interesting city), but as the capital and the country’s most famous city, I’m writing about it following my previous posts on London and Paris. My initial thoughts when first stepping foot in the city was slight trepidation and dismay, the former at the notorious reputation I’d read of regarding pickpockets and thieves, and the latter at how dark and shoddy the subway was. When I got out at my subway stop and headed up the exit stairs with my luggage, imagine my shock when a guy at my side grabbed it while two of his friends walked right behind me. But when I looked at him, he said I’m just helping and true to his word, he let go when we reached the top. I don’t think I looked too helpless, especially with my slight carry-on luggage, so maybe some Italians are really helpful.

And when I reached the place I was staying at, a bedroom in an lowrise apartment that was clearly only for visitors, I was taken aback at the elevator – a slim metallic cage in which the inside and the mechanism were fully visible, probably something that was older than my parents.

While I did visit all the great attractions listed above like the Colosseum and Pantheon, as well as the Vatican, I’ll start off with a less famous but still prestigious attraction – the Archbasilica of St John Lateran.

That same evening after I arrived, I headed out to the Archbasilica of St John Lateran. I had never heard about it until I spotted it on Googlemaps near where I was staying (just one subway stop away), but yet it is the cathedral church of Rome, and so basically the Pope’s cathedral. The archbasilica’s lofty status derived from it being the oldest church in the West, having been built in the 4th century AD, and the ecumenical mother church of the Roman Catholic faith.

The archbasilica (the first of the four highest-ranking Catholic churches or basilicas, including the Vatican’s St Peter’s Basilica) was different from almost every church I’ve ever seen. It stood proudly on a grassy mound at the end of a driveway from the street almost as if it was a mansion on an estate. But the host of lifelike stone popes standing vigilantly on the top of its imposing stone facade made it clear it was a house of God.

Inside, the vast hall featured ornate marble statues, gold engravings and resplendent painted Biblical scenes on the walls. Every altar, every hall and every cloister was richly decorated. In addition, six popes are actually entombed inside the church. I visited a lot of cathedrals during my Europe trip – Milan Cathedral, Notre Dame, St Peter’s; but I never got tired of walking inside them, and the archbasilica was no different. When I came back out, it was fitting that there was a brilliant burst of cloud in the blue sky that looked as if it emanated from the church. Walking away from the archbasilica towards the street with the cars brought me back to the present, but the stately Roman umbrella pine trees and the stone Porta San Giovanni wall, part of the city’s 1700-year-old Aurelian Walls, that stretched across the street with arches to allow cars to go through were a steadfast reminder that this was a city where the past exists in a formidable form.

  

Europe travel · Travel

France travel- Paris at last

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Usually I write about my travel in sequential order but I’ve decided to skip ahead to the next city on my Euro trip last year and continue doing so, and then go back to the beginning. London was my first stop so it was natural that the next big city was Paris, which was just a short cross-channel Eurostar trip away.

Paris is a city that obviously doesn’t need an introduction, being featured, written about and pictured in so many movies, books and photos. I was never one of those people who dreamed of going to Paris, especially as I’ve never been a romantic person, but I figured if I was going to Europe, I might as well come here. And I would be very glad I did.

After getting off the Eurostar train in Paris, where we had a most inauspicious start by having to go through an alternate exit due to precautions taken after station staff found a piece of unattended luggage, my mother and I got to our hotel by subway, as in London. Initially, the “antiquity” of the Paris subway was a little underwhelming, with the rickety old carriages and the doors that had to be pulled open with a handle and the somewhat dim platforms.

The first full day started with a trip to the Louvre, of course, and ended with a view of Paris and the Eiffel Tower from on high. The Louvre is one of the world’s most famous museums, and when we got out of the subway station, passed these elegant old buildings, and walked through the dark entrance of one of these buildings to see IM Pei’s glittering pyramid in the centre of the Louvre’s inner courtyard, it really hit home that we were in Paris.
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But before we could enjoy the museum, I had to brave the hustlers and pickpockets which I read so much about and had come to fear. After a brief search to buy a Museum Pass, during which I avoided people pretending to seek donations (the web is full of warnings about people seeking donations from hapless tourists while their accomplices try to take your wallet), we lined up in the courtyard for about half an hour before entering the pyramid and descending to the basement entrance.

I didn’t realize it at first but the Louvre is huge, housed in a former royal palace with three different wings in different directions (according to Wikipedia, the Louvre is the world’s largest museum). After figuring out the map, we chose one wing and set off. The museum is big but it was packed with tourists and predictably, there were scrums around the most famous exhibits like the headless Winged Victory of Samothrace (marble statue of the winged goddess Nike) and of course, the Mona Lisa, where after much moving around and maneuvering in the dense crowd (no pushing or jostling though), I managed to get up close to the fabled painting.

Those two exhibits were very decent, but there were so many great pieces of exhibits including the massive Babylonian marble lions, Greek statues, and paintings of French kings and Napoleon. We were there for only three hours, but I really could have spent a couple of more hours as we only saw about one half of the museum. Of the three wings, we saw two of them and probably not even most of them.
The only complaints I had were that all the exhibit captions were in French, which for a world-class museum was a big stunning to me. Obviously, it was deliberate because it’s the French. Also, the toilets are few and inadequate – for instance, a couple of the washrooms only had one toilet and they are far apart. While my mother had lunch, I had to walk through something like 10 rooms to get a vacant washroom and by the time I returned, she had finished. Yes, I know the building is old, and the exhibits are old, but surely the authorities should be able to install some modern washrooms.

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From there, we went on to Île de la Cité, an islet located on the Seine that is the center of Paris. This was Paris as I had imagined, with the rows of elegant townhouses, magnificent old buildings, Notre Dame cathedral, and the streetside bakeries selling baguettes and crepes. But of course, it was also a very heavily touristed place. First, we went to St Chappelle, a royal 13th century Gothic chapel fitted with the most beautiful stained glass windows I’d ever seen. There is a smaller hall from which you went on to the larger sanctuary whose upper walls were filled with fantastic multicoloured stained glass windows featuring scenes from the New Testament. The effect was like being in a hall with resplendent purple and blue ceilings.

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Notre Dame was next, with its imposing Gothic structure fronted by two towers, and the famous stone gargoyles perched on its roof and above its windows. There was some impressive sculpted artwork in its front – midway, a row of stone statues of bishops stood sentry across the entire front facade while the three curved entrances had countless stone bishops sculpted along the sides and top. The cathedral is massive and it was an interesting experience to walk in the cavernous inside and view the stained glass windows, the sculpted scenes of Christ rising, and even the stone coffins of two bishops at the back. I was starting to enjoy Paris, even its old subway system, which now seemed kind of cool.

Finally, for the evening, we went to the Montparnasse Tower. The building is considered a monstrosity by some due to its somewhat unattractive appearance, but that is exactly why it provides the best views of Paris. Because if you go up the Eiffel Tower, which is another great place to view the city, you will see the Montparnasse Tower itself. As it is, when you can see the neat triangular grids of the uniform townhouses and famous landmarks like the Louvre, Notre Dame and even Montmartre hill, Paris is amazing. Continue reading “France travel- Paris at last”