Rome travel- eternal sights


Rome is famous for great historic sites such as the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, but what makes it a fantastic city is that there are many more sites across the city. A lot of the sights are close to each other, such as the Colosseum and the Roman Forum and Capitoline Hill, and there are entire neighborhoods or districts that are full of landmarks. A lot of other cities have famous sites but when you visit those sites, there isn’t much to see in the immediate vicinity. In Rome, the famous sites are often next to other interesting sites, and the surroundings are filled with beautiful and historic buildings.

Besides the Colosseum and the Forum, two of Rome’s most well-known tourist attractions are the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. Both are east of the Via del Corso, a straight street that was built by the Romans (from the Roman empire, not the present) and within 15 minutes from each other. Unfortunately, they were both undergoing renovations when I was there so it was underwhelming, but still crowded.

The Pantheon is to the west of the Via del Corso, while not far away is the Piazza Navona, a superb square built by the Romans in the 1st century AD and surrounded by historic buildings with an obelisk and beautiful fountains in the center. The Pantheon is a former Roman temple, from 126 AD, with a domed ceiling with an occulus (central hole in the middle of it). It is incredibly well preserved, simply because it has been in continual use as a place of worship.

Crossing the Tiber took me to the Castel Sant’Angelo, a castle built by the Emperor Hadrian in 129 AD. The top of the castle gives you fine views of the River Tiber and the Vatican, with St Peter’s Basilica visible.


The Trevi Fountain, fenced off for renovations but still a crowd-puller

Parthenon, Rome
Pantheon

Outside the Pantheon is the Piazza della Rotonda
Continue reading “Rome travel- eternal sights”

France travel- Chambéry


When I visited France, I went to a place not many people have been to, the small town of Chambéry, located in the southeast near the French Alps. The reason I visited Chambéry was because it was between Paris and Milan and I wanted to stay somewhere in the middle. While it is obscure, Chambéry used to be capital of the House of Savoy, way back in the Middle Ages from 1295-1563, which ruled a region covering southeastern France and northwestern Italy. However when the Duke of Savoy moved the capital to Turin in Italy in 1563, Chambéry steadily declined in terms of political importance.

Chambéry is still pleasant, with a heritage area that has a castle, lanes with attractive buildings, and the Elephants Fountain, built to honor Benoît de Boigne, a military officer from Chambéry, for his feats as a general with the Maratha Empire in India in the late 18th century. Apparently he served in the French military, then went overseas to India. The castle or chateau was a large, formidable grayish building which houses administrative offices and a chapel. You can only visit on guided tours held at certain times so I didn’t do that.

The town is a nice place to walk around since there isn’t much traffic and there are a number of lanes to pass through and see interesting old buildings and houses. One can also visit the nearby Lake Bourget in a neigbouring town or enjoy mountain views by cycling on the outskirts of the town. However, since it was a little rainy and cloudy, it was hard to see the mountains and I decided to stay in town.


Elephants Fountain, a local landmark built in 1826 to honour a local war veteran who served in India


Continue reading “France travel- Chambéry”

Germany travel-Frankfurt finale

Frankfurt might be better known as a business hub than a tourist hotspot, so not many travelers visit this city, unless they are on a business trip. For me, I was flying back to Taiwan from Frankfurt at the end of my Europe trip so I had to visit Frankfurt. And it wasn’t bad at all. The city, where Germany’s financial sector and stock market are based, has a good modern skyline, one of Europe’s best, located next to the Main river, and the Römerberg, the historic old town center where the Römer, a medieval complex that has been Frankfurt’s City Hall for over 600 years, and several reconstructed, picturesque old houses are located. The reason they were reconstructed is that the original ones were destroyed during World War II. The Römerberg was undergoing renovation when I was there, so the appearance may have changed now.

With over 1,200 years of history and being a major city in the Holy Roman Empire starting from the 9th century AD, Frankfurt has been important for a very long time. In the present, as Germany’s financial center, as well as the European Union’s, Frankfurt has one of the most numerous collection of skyscrapers in Europe, including the EU’s second and third highest skyscrapers. However these were modest compared to Asia. European cities don’t seem to have too many skyscrapers and the ones they have are not too high. I wonder if this is because of disdain for ultra-tall buildings, a lack of need, or simply building regulations. Anyhow, I liked that European cities didn’t feel crowded or cramped and were very walkable and pleasant. Frankfurt was no different.

As with most major European cities, Frankfurt has a large cathedral as well as a pedestrian shopping street that was still busy on an early weekday night. The cathedral (technically not a cathedral but it is still called one since it was used for the election and coronation of Holy Roman Emperors) is not that large, but you can pay to climb up the tower for sweeping views of the city and river. I also visited a couple of the city’s major cultural attractions. The great German writer Johanne Wolfganng Goethe was from Frankfurt, and his childhood home is now a museum, an elegant house where the rooms are well preserved and personal belongings show visitors how Goethe grew up (a book about Italy given by his father helped inspired a fondness for Italy and travel for Goethe, who would later visit Italy himself). The Senckenberg Natural History Museum features great collections of fossils and stuffed animals, but the highlight was the numerous dinosaur and mammoth skeletons including the tyrannousarus rex and marine shark-like dinosaurs.

I stayed near the main train station or Hauptbahnhof, in a supposedly rough part of town, but it was very convenient for getting around as well as to the airport, less than 20 minutes away on the subway. If you find yourself in Germany and want to try a new city, give Frankfurt a chance.



The skyscraper with the strange side spire, the Commerzbank Tower, is Germany’s tallest building and the second-tallest in the EU. At right, you can see the Frankfurt Cathedral.

Römer, City Hall since the 1400s

Opposite the Römerberg is the Römer


View of Frankfurt’s business district from the cathedral’s tower

T-rex at Senckenberg Natural History Museum
Continue reading “Germany travel-Frankfurt finale”

Rome 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.
  Continue reading “Rome travel- Roman glories”

Civilization- book review

Why does the West dominate the world today? Why did the West become so successful in advancing from a chaotic backwater 500 years ago to overtaking Chinese, Indian, Ottoman, Arab, and other civilizations? Niall Ferguson attempts to tackle this major question in a fascinating and informative book. Despite its provocative subtitle – The Six Killer Apps of Western Power, the book is nuanced and not some form of propaganda advocating Western supremacy. According to Ferguson, six major factors allowed the West (Europe and later, the US) to become the world’s leading region: competition, science, property, medicine, consumption, and work.

Competition arose from compact populations that led to a multitude of kingdoms and city states that eventually became the dozens of countries in Europe today. China, for example, is equivalent to most of Europe in area and has a far greater population. As a result, while Chinese emperors put a lot of effort into administering and securing their giant empire, European states constantly fought and competed.

Science is self-explanatory. Europe experienced the age of Enlightenment and Reformation that led to the questioning of old dogmas and religious ideas that were erroneous or nonsense, like the earth being flat. In contrast, in civilizations like the Arab world, religion became a central force and dominated thinking and education.

Property rights meant people could own their own land and be assured of ownership by ensuring the state or other people could not simply seize it. Ferguson compares North America to South America, which were colonised by different countries and had vastly different experiences. Hence, North America had a more “liberal” experience (not trying to excuse slavery) in which private property rights payed a key role in legal, political and economic liberalization, while South America had a more feudal colonialism in which land was concentrated in the hands of the few.

Similar to science and also a result of it, a lot of medical advances took place in Europe in various fields (surgery, dentistry, psychology etc) and led to things like the eradication of smallpox, rabies, polio etc.

Consumption refers to materialism. Simply put, this was a big part of the West’s economic success over the last century (and East Asia’s in the last few decades). Industrialization meant both more goods produced and more wealth generated, which would be spent on goods and hence lead to greater demand, in an ever-growing cycle. For the US, this helped it become the world’s most dominant economy due to a vast domestic consumer market and because it made goods that the world wanted like jeans, Coca Cola, and planes.

Work might sound strange, because people everywhere work, but Ferguson’s main point is that Protestantism, which originated in Germany, helped promote economic development. That’s because its emphasis on hard work and prosperity encouraged people to focus on economic activities by making generating wealth seem sanctioned by the Lord.

There is much, much more than what I’ve summarized up here. There is a lot of facts, arguments, and examples in Civilization that make it a very compelling book, whether you agree with its points or not.

One might argue that China, as well as India, Southeast Asia, and Russia, is challenging Western dominance and Ferguson addresses this directly in the conclusion. In this, he says the West’s problem is not the rise of China, India etc but that it has lost faith in its own advantages. That might be true but it remains to be seen whether the West can regain its dominance or shrink from the challenge of China, Russia, and the developing world.

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
Continue reading “Random Paris photo round-up”