Category: Europe


Landmark Paris

Eiffel Tower

Eiffel Tower

With more well-known landmarks than just about any other city, Paris challenges the visitor to decide which ones will make cut before the return flight.

Bas-relief on the Arc de Triomphe

Figures on the Arc de Triomphe

The iconic Arc de Triomphe, midway on the Champs-Élysées, was conceived to honor those who fought for France during the Napoleonic Wars, but also now memorializes those who have since fought for it.

 

Tomb of France's Unknown Soldier, Arc de Triomphe

Tomb of France’s Unknown Soldier, Arc de Triomphe

Chiseled into its walls are the names of the hundreds of battles fought by Napoleon’s  Grand Armée, and its friezes, figures and bas-reliefs make it something to be seen up close.

 

The World War I Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and its Memorial Flame sit directly beneath the arch. In a practice which continued uninterrupted during the German occupation, the flame is rekindled each evening by former combatants,.

 

Place de la Concorde

Place de la Concorde

Enjoy a two kilometer walk down the Champs-Elysees to the Place de la Concorde, Paris’s largest square.

Today it’s dominated by a giant Egyptian obelisk that once marked the entrance to the Luxor Temple.

Decorated with hieroglyphics dating to the reign of pharaoh Ramses II, it was given to the French by the Ottomans.

Its gold-leaf cap, added in 1998, replaces one missing since the 6th century BC.

It was here that the revolutionary government guillotined King Louis XVI and other notables including Marie Antoinette and Maximilien Robespierre.

Adjoining it to the east are the Tuileries Gardens and a treasured trio of art museums: the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, the Orangerie, and the Louvre.

 

Église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine

Église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine

Two blocks away down the Rue Royal is the Eglise Sainte-Marie-Madeleine. The distinctive design of this Catholic church is inspired by the Roman temple Maison Carrée at Nîmes.

The front facade frames a sculpture of the Last Judgment, and bronze entrance doors bear reliefs representing the Ten Commandments.  One of its first official functions following its 1842 dedication was the funeral of Frederick Chopin.

Paris Landmarks 008 Place Vendome

Place Vendôme

The Place Vendôme is a square located north of the Tuileries Gardens and east of the Église de la Madeleine. The column at its center was erected by Napoleon to commemorate his victory at Austerlitz.

Modeled after Trajan’s Column in Rome, its spiraling bas-relief bronzes were made from captured cannon and depict Napoleon’s campaigns.

He stands at its pinnacle, bare-headed and crowned with laurels, a sword in his right hand and a globe with Victory statue in his left.

Rear view of Notre-Dame Cathedral

Rear view of Notre-Dame Cathedral

The Cathedral of Notre Dame is most often photographed from its famous front, but I find views of the magnificent flying buttresses which support its remaining walls at least as awe-inspiring compelling, and the view of the river from this point is one of Paris’ most picturesque.

Few of the visitors taking selfies in front of Notre Dame, though, realize that one of Paris’s most unique and moving memorials sits only a stone’s throw away.

Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation

Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation

The Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation is a memorial to French Jews deported by Vichy France to Nazi concentration camps.

 

Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation

Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation

Built underground on the site of a former morgue, its long, narrow space and small rooms evoke the claustrophobia of imprisonment.

 

Urns containing ashes from concentration camps are positioned at both ends of the its tunnel.

 

Along the walls of the dimly lit chamber are illuminated glass crystals, one for each of the 200,000 deportees who perished.

 

Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation

Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation

Inside, an eternal flame burns at the Tomb of the Unknown Deportee.

 

Place des Vosges

Place des Vosges

For something lighter in mood, follow the Rue Rivoli (walk or Metro) from the Louvre to the Place des Vosges.   When it was completed by Henri IV in 1612, few realized that this square would become the prototype for the residential squares of other European cities.

Place de la Bastille

Place de la Bastille

Homes around it are all built of red brick and stone to the same design. vNotable past residents include Victor Hugo (#6) and Cardinal Richelieu (#21).

It’s a great place to take a break from tourist site surfing, and to sit in its park under the linden trees.

The Place de la Bastille, birthplace of the French Revolution, is a four block walk away.

The Bastille itself is long gone, but a monument still marks the spot, and the Paris Opera now often performs at its Opera Bastille theater .

Next on this trip:  Sorting out Paris’s innumerable museums!

 

See also my related posts:

 

The Paris vibe

Paris Street Scenes 001

Paris, the Left Bank

My first departure to Paris was scheduled for 9/14/2001, but the trip was delayed by the weeks of air traffic disruption in the wake of 9/11.

 

In the weeks until my postponed departure, it often crossed my mind that U.S. had now shared the experience of  Parisians rocked by bombs during Algeria’s war for independence, and Londoners reeling from bombings by  Irish terrorists.

 

 

 

Café Luxembourg, Paris

Café Luxembourg, Paris

 

I arrived in Paris months later to find that the 9/11 disaster still evoked great sympathy for Americans among Parisians.

 

The irony was that only weeks before, U.S. conservative pundits had rebranded French Fries as Freedom Fries to protest lack of French participation in its Iraq invasion.

 

Kiosk newsstand, Paris

Kiosk newsstand, Paris

 

 

 

There may be no other city written about, photographed, and blogged about more than Paris, which challenges anyone writing about it to offer a new take.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paris Restaurants Cafes 008 Bistro San Andre

Bistro Saint Andre, Paris

 

Paris is a city living very much in the present, but imbued always with a sense of its past.

 

Its monuments, museums, and cathedrals are milestones that wordlessly sketch out a millennium of history on its every street.

 

 

 

Paris Street Scenes 005

Florist shop, Paris

Paris is egalitarian in its appeal.  For the better part of two centuries, it has held the affections of old and young, the well-off and not so-well-off, students and artists of all stripes, and foreign tourists and expatriates.

Paris Street Scenes 018

Restaurant Méditerranée, Paris

Few cities are home to a greater wealth of world class monuments and museums, and the embarrassment of cultural riches creates for the visitor the problem of what to pick from more choices than a lifetime visit could accommodate.

 

 

 

Paris Street Scenes 010

Landscape architecture, Paris

 

 

But if the measure of a city is the power with which it arouses also the urge to revisit, few other cities continue to attract and engage visitors long after all of the sights have been seen as does Paris, because Paris is a state of mind.

 

 

Paris Restaurants Cafes 014 Bar du Marche

Bar du Marché, Paris

 

 

Paris is sidewalk cafes with curb-facing tables.  It’s bistros and brasseries.

It’s trendy boutiques in historic buildings on broad boulevards.

Paris is the tranquil oases of verdant urban parks and intimate side streets.

It’s sidewalk newsstands and booksellers and flower vendors.

Paris is cafe au lait and pain au chocolat.  And the Metro.

 

Paris Street Scenes 011

Tuileries Gardens, Paris

 

 

 

World-wise and world-weary, defiantly proud and self-assured, and infinitely elegant, Paris is a city that seems to have no doubts about what it is, and what it is not.

 

 

 

 

 

Paris Restaurants Cafes 001 Bouillon Racine

Restaurant Bouillon Racine, Paris

 

Come along on this visit, and I think that you, too, will fall into the rhythm of the Paris vibe.

 

The itinerary for this trip includes some of my favorite monuments and museums, and the upcoming posts  include a few sites that might not otherwise make the cut on your next visit.

 

 

They’ll include a Sunday afternoon at the Luxembourg Gardens, a morning walk through historically bohemian Montmartre, a day in Reims and the champagne country, a country drive among the castles of the Loire Valley, and a visit to Paris’s stunning Grand Mosque.

Paris Street Scenes 012

Seine River bridge, Paris

Paris Restaurants Cafes 010 Allard

Restaurant Allard, ParisI’ve decided to base in Paris, venturing out on occasional day trips.

 

I’ve decided to forego a hotel room for a walk-up studio with loft bedroom, just a block from the intersection of the Boulevards Saint-Michel and Saint-Germain.

Paris Street Scenes 017

Eiffel Tower & Les Invalides, Paris

 

It’s within walking distance of many major sights and restaurants, and the nearby Metro and R.E.R. stations put it in easy reach of just about everywhere else.

By my third day I’ve become enough a part of the neighborhood that the barista at the  kiosk across the street has my “regular” drink working before I even stepped off the curb.

Come along on this visit, and I think that you, too, will be caught up in the Paris vibe.

See my related posts:

Pompeii unearthed

The city of Naples wraps around its namesake bay

The city of Naples wraps around its namesake bay

With only two days remaining after the cruise ship docks for the final time at Rome’s port of Civitavecchia, I opt to spend one of them visiting Pompeii, which 3 hours away via the autostrada just below Naples.

A travel oasis along the way looks far more like a page out of the Dean & Deluca catalog than an Interstate eatery.

Cured hams hang in the window and a bank of glistening espresso machines sits behind a long marble counter.

There seems to be no such thing as fast food in Italy, and taste confirms that it’s for delectably good reason.

 

 

 

Ubiquitous Vespas weave through street traffic

Ubiquitous Vespas weave through street traffic

An hour or so outside of Naples the road passes a hilltop crowned by the monastery of Monte Cassino.

Founded by Saint Benedict on the site of a former Roman temple to Apollo, it has been repeatedly sacked by invading armies and destroyed three times, the last during a bloody four month siege of an entrenched German army early in 1944.

 

 

 

 

About 15 miles short of Pompeii, the route passes through Naples.  The old part of the city is the vintage Italy of ‘50’s cinema.  Palm trees line the harbor and ferries carry day-trippers to the Isle of Capri clearly visible on the horizon 30 miles away.

Faded elegance still adorns the city

Faded elegance still adorns the city

Tenement streets climb hillsides

Tenement streets climb hillsides

Narrow streets climb hillsides through ancient tenements broken from time to time by the uninspired concrete architecture of post-war buildings that mark the scars of more than 200 Allied bombings. Poverty is rampant in many of these neighborhoods, where over 100 clans of the Camorra – the local version of the Mafia – control not only criminal activity, but thousands of legitimate businesses.  Visitors are warned not to wander unfamiliar streets here alone. There’s no lingering here; Pompeii beckons!

Vesuvius smolders less than 5 miles behind Pompeii

Vesuvius smolders less than 5 miles behind Pompeii

Mount Vesuvius squats between Naples and Pompeii, towering nearly a mile high and squeezing the coast road against the sea.  It’s experienced more than 30 major eruptions since the one that buried Pompeii in 79 A.D., the last occurring shortly after the arrival of Allied armies in 1944.

Many buildins survive intact

Many buildings survive intact

The first sight of Pompeii’s streets is breathlessly arresting.  Unlike other often-vandalized ruins, it was protected for 17 centuries by a cocoon of volcanic ash.

Frescoes and mosaics survive in abundance

Frescoes and mosaics survive in abundance

 

The power of this place is not just the number of buildings left remarkably intact, but the distinctive window afforded into the daily lives not only of well-to-do Romans who vacationed there, but the service workers who supported their leisure. Artifacts excavated over the last 300 years and now on display are personal and intimate.  Makeup cases and hair combs.  Pocket change.  Beautiful mosaics and frescos in still-vibrant colors adorn the floors and walls of spacious villas, many featuring portraits of their owners.

Fountains and pools are abundant

Fountains and pools are abundant

This city of 20,000 boasted an amphitheater, forum, gymnasium and hotel.  Fountains and public baths were once fed by an aqueduct.

A bakery stands idle

A bakery stands idle

 

A wine bar endlessly awaits the arrival of fresh amphoras

A wine bar endlessly awaits the arrival of fresh amphoras

At vacant curbside food stalls, brick ovens stand at the ready and empty stands await the arrival of wine amphoras.

Wheel ruts are carved into paved streets

Wheel ruts are carved into paved streets

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tracks are worn into stone streets by chariot and wagon wheels.  The cubicles of a bordello stand open in invitation and graffiti and pornography adorn street walls.

 

 

 

By far the most startling of artifacts, though, are plaster castings made of victims – residents and even household pets – entombed in volcanic ash by the tragedy, their flesh long ago wasted away to leave only vacant impressions. It’s otherwise hard to dismiss the illusion that the residents have just stepped out, to shortly return.

A plaster mummy cast from an ashen mold

A plaster mummy cast from an ashen mold

Vibrantly colored mosaics survive

Vibrantly colored mosaics survive

Before the long ride back to Rome there’s dinner – and an obligatory taste of the local limoncello liqueur – at a charming hotel restaurant in nearby Sorrento, which marks the beginning of the hairpin thread of highway that travels the scenic Amalfi coast.

By the time I step again onto Rome’s Via Veneto and pass through the lobby of the Hotel Excelsior17 hours have passed, but it’s a delicious exhaustion! In the morning it’s on to Da Vinci Airport and the flight back to the States, the fresh memories of a week-long Mediterranean cruise still playing in my head.

If you’ve missed any of the earlier posts for this cruise – or want to revisit any –  you’ll find them here:

 

Roaming thru Rome

Ancient images evoke Fellini's Satyricon

Ancient images evoke Fellini’s Satyricon

What can be left to write about a place that’s been called “The Eternal City” for most of its nearly 3,000 year history?

The city’s been so widely photographed and the world has come to know it so intimately through films ranging from Biblical epics to Fellini that no stone seems to have been left unturned.

What came alive for me as I walked its streets was not only a sense of Rome as the thread upon which so much of Western history is strung, and its unending paradoxes.

There are few places in which the past co-exists with the present so seamlessly as in Rome.

St. Peter's Basilica, The Vatican

St. Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican

Here it’s common to see trendy new boutiques and restaurants installed in centuries-old buildings.  Legions of Vespas circle Baroque fountains and Classical ruins.

Romans seem at once an unconscious extension of the rich past which surrounds them and at the same time casually indifferent to it.

The cruise line has booked everyone into the Excelsior Hotel as the trip winds to a close. The Excelsior is famous as the travel residence of choice for celebrities from Mark Twain to the Rolling Stones.

As I walk through its lobby and out onto the Via Veneto I can’t help but recall scenes shot here for Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

Ruins of the Roman Forum

Ruins of the Roman Forum

Many of ancient Rome’s surviving structures – worn, weathered, and vandalized for nearly two millennia –  stand in stark contrast to  the architectural grandeur of Renaissance Rome, some of which is built of marble stripped from their facings.

 

Roman Coliseum

Roman Coliseum

 

 

 

 

The Roman Forum survives only as a disappointingly bare skeleton.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even stripped of its façade, though, the Coliseum engulfs visitors walking the arena floor with its sheer size.

I can’t help but reflect on the fact that it was not until the latter part of the twentieth century that man first built stadiums to eclipse it in scope.

The Pantheon, Rome

The Pantheon, Rome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A notable exception to ruined Classical Rome is the Pantheon.

The Pantheon, Rome

The Pantheon, Rome

Its simple, geometric perfection seems to leave nothing left unsaid, and to stand beneath its dome looking up through the circular eye open to the sky was for me a far more spiritual experience than walking among the gilded angels of St. Peter’s.

Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

St. Peter's Square, The Vatican

St. Peter’s Square, The Vatican

 

 

The Vatican is an embarrassment of riches.

Swiss guards, The Vatican

Swiss guards, The Vatican

 

It’s impossible not to be awed by the endless tableau of master works in St. Peter’s basilica.

St. Peter's basilica

St. Peter’s basilica

St. Peter's basilica, The Vatican

St. Peter’s basilica, The Vatican

It’s also hard not to be left with a the sense that the intent of this place is to dwarf its awestruck human visitors and to glorify not so much the deity as the institution of the Church.

Vatican Museum

Vatican Museum

Only the Louvre can compare with the Vatican Museum for the number and quality of its works, and the building itself is a work of art, solid and imposing and classical in its detail.

Here the works of old masters seen before only in art books leap out of the frame, larger than life and richly colored.

The Vatican Museum

The Vatican Museum

The Vatican Museum

The Vatican Museum

It seems that every inch of every ceiling is covered in art, ornately framed in gold leaf.

 

 

The Trevi Fountain, popularized in the U.S. by the movies Three Coins In A Fountain and Roman Holiday, seems ever so familiar.  I’m startled, though, to see this monumental structure rising out of a residential neighborhood rather than as the anchor of a grand piazza, which was planned but never built.

The fountain also famously appears in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and when he died in 1996 the fountain was turned off and draped in black… a testimony to the way in which Rome’s old and new not only coexist, but constantly intermingle.

Trevi Fountain, Rome

Trevi Fountain, Rome

Trajan's Column, Rome, Italy

Trajan’s Column, Rome, Italy

The spire of Trajan’s column, adorned with carvings depicting Rome’s Dacian Wars victory, instantly evokes an image of the similar column erected by Napoleon in the Place Vendôme.

Trajan's Column, Rome, Italy

Trajan’s Column, Rome, Italy

The walk back to the hotel leads up the Spanish Steps, which on this day look more like the Spanish Bleachers, buried as they are in a sea of seated tourists.

Spanish Steps, Rome, Italy

Spanish Steps, Rome, Italy

With the date of a return visit in some vague future and my time in Europe drawing to a close, I make the decision to skip Rome’s catacombs in order to carve out time for a day trip to Naples and Pompeii before flying back to the States.

If you’ve just joined this account my Mediterranean cruise, you can still begin at the beginning:

Days 1-2:  Barcelona

Day 3:  Montserrat Monastery

Day 4: France’s Languedoc

Day 5: Monaco & the French Riviera

Day 6: Italy’s Cinque Terre gateway

Italy’s Cinqueterra gateway

Footpaths connect the five villages of Italy's Cinque Terre

Footpaths connect the five villages of the Cinque Terre

Call it luck, but in years of travel I’ve rarely experience an upended itinerary that didn’t have a silver lining, and my luck again held when heavy seas prevented our ship from docking at Portofino.

 

The alternate port was a placed called Porto Venere, gateway to Italy’s Cinque Terre (“Five Lands”) where five villages that hug cliffs along the Ligurian coastline are unreachable by auto and connected only by footpaths, trains and boats.

Approaching Port Venere, Italy from the harbor

Approaching Port Venere from the harbor

 

The sun isn’t long risen as the launch slices through the waves toward the village, which is just awakening from its slumber.

 

Porto Venere is the imagined picture postcard against which all of my European visits are measured, and it easily exceeds expectations.

Quay at Porto Venere, Italy

Quay at Porto Venere, Italy

 

The lower village wraps around a bay that was once the home port of the Byzantines’ western Mediterranean fleet.

Fisherman dry & mend nets, Porto Venere, Italy

Fisherman dry & mend nets, Porto Venere, Italy

 

 

Here fisherman just returned with the morning’s catch are drying and mending their nets. Above them a women hangs laundry from a porch railing and suns herself as it dries.

Drying laundry, Porto Venere, Italy

Drying laundry, Porto Venere, Italy

Church of St. Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

Church of St. Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

 

The single most striking landmark here is a church that sits on the promontory of a finger of land that reaches out to gather the bay.

 

Its appeal is irresistible, and since much of the village clings to the steeply pitched hillside or is perched along its summit, the climb to the church the route winds through narrow, ageless village streets.

Narrow streets of Porto Venere, Italy

Narrow streets of Porto Venere, Italy

 

The village may be ancient and its buildings well worn, but everything here is infused with a tastefully simple Italian style that lends to it a casual elegance.

Visitor paused in front of a meat market, Porto Venere, Italy

Visitor paused in front of a meat market, Porto Venere, Italy

 

Stone streets have been washed and swept squeaky clean, and bright flowers sit in window planters along the lanes.

Bakery window, Porto Venere, Italy

Bakery window, Porto Venere, Italy

 

Local and tourists alike browse local businesses, and the tantalizing aromas of cured meats and freshly baked breads and pastries drift out into the street.

Restaurant, Porto Venere, Italy

Restaurant, Porto Venere, Italy

Harbor view, Porto Venere, Italy

Harbor view, Porto Venere, Italy

 

Through an open door a restaurant is polished and groomed in anticipation of lunch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the summit I look down through the telescope of an alley entrance that caps a steep stone staircase.

 

Through it I can see the village gathered along the wharves and my ship riding at anchor in the harbor beyond.

Cemetery, Porto Venere, Italy

Cemetery, Porto Venere, Italy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The church is finally close at hand, but I pause first to wander through a small cemetery where centuries of graves are stacked atop each other in the ever-shrinking space.

 

As I look down onto the town, church, and coastline stretched out below it’s hard to imagine a more picturesque setting in which to be buried, or one that could give more comfort to visitors.

Church of St. Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

Church of St. Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At last the massive doors of the Church of St. Peter are within arm’s reach.

 

Completed in 1198 A.D., this striking Romanesque structure stands on the site of a fifth century Christian church which itself replaced a Roman temple to Venus built there in the first century B.C.

Italians on holiday, Porto Venere, Italy

Italians on holiday, Porto Venere, Italy

 

 

By now the sun is high in the sky and along the harbor below Italians on holiday are picking out places along the rocky shore to sun themselves with typical European immodesty; Speedos are here in abundance!

Lovers play in Porto Venere, Italy

Lovers at play in Porto Venere, Italy

 

As the visit draws to a close, a bikini-clad young woman caresses the face of a young man seated on a quintessential Vespa.  It’s a scene that’s undoubtedly repeated itself again and again over the last 50 years, and it reminds me that la dolce vita is still alive and well in the land of Fellini’s birth.

 

 

As I scramble back aboard, though, I’m already contemplating the next port of call and it also recalls Fellini:  Roma.

 

If you’ve just joined this account my Mediterranean cruise, you can still begin at the beginning:

Days 1-2:  Barcelona

Day 3:  Montserrat Monastery

Day 4: France’s Languedoc

Day 5: Monaco & the French Riviera

The Riviera rediscovered

Harbor at Monte Carlo, Monaco

An overnight sail after a day spent in Montpelier and Sète, France (read about it here) the ship anchors at Monte Carlo, Monaco.

 

The harbor sits like the stage of an amphitheater upon which the rest of Monaco looks down from the surrounding heights.

Yachts, harbor at Monte Carlo, Monaco

 

 

 

 

 

Riding at anchor here are dozens of luxury yachts so large as to almost defy belief that so many private citizens can afford them.

Hotel L’Hermitage, Monte Carlo, Monaco

 

Most of the hotels, condos, restaurants, and shops are of modern design.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fortunately, a few surviving structures like L’Hermitage, a hotel dating from the Belle Époque, evoke the feel of this place when rail service first connected it to Paris and the casino at Monte Carlo was brand new.

St. Nicholas Cathedral, Monte Carlo, Monaco

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The St. Nicholas Cathedral is only 150 years old, but sits on the site of the original cathedral of the same name built in 1252.

 

It’s the home of the well-known Cathedral Choir School, and it Little Singers of Monaco perform at its masses during the school year.

Grimaldi palace, Monte Carlo, Monaco

 

 

 

 

Other historical architecture worth seeing is the Grimaldi Palace.

 

It’s been the home of Monaco’s ruling family for more than 800 years and is the one time home of Princess Grace Kelly.

Grimaldi palace, Monte Carlo, Monaco

Shopping district, Monte Carlo, Monaco

Shopping district, Monte Carlo, Monaco

Because Monaco’s land area is too limited to afford its royalty the luxury of multiple residences, this palace has been remodeled and expanded throughout its 700-year history and so it’s a slice through the layer cake of history.

 

Terrain and language aside, Monte Carlo has very much the feel of Palm Beach.  Immense wealth is now sheltered in – and managed from – Monaco, and many of its owners have at least a pied-à-terre in the Principality.  Chic shops and restaurants prosper here in abundance.

Our Lady of the Assumption church, Eze, France

 

Duty-free shopping for designer goods holds little appeal for me, and I instead take a 5 mile drive into France where the historic village of Eze overlooks the Mediterranean Sea from a 1,500 foot promontory, accessible by roads so narrow that motor vehicles cannot pass into the old town.

Eze, France

 

The terrain here seems better suited to mountain goats than to people, and the modest uphill climb from the parking spot is the first of several.   Here goods are trundled through narrow cobblestone streets on hand-trucks and wrestled around switchbacks and up endless stairwells.

Eze, France

 

An easily defended coastal lookout, this site has been highly prized for nearly 4,000 years and has been occupied by the Phoenicians, Romans, Italians, and Moors.

Eze, France

 

There are several high-end hotels in the area, but the most interesting hotel was one cobbled together from adjoining homes on a pedestrian-only lane which left every doorknob on the lane sporting either a “MAID SERVICE REQUESTED” or “DO NOT DISTURB” sign!

Eze, France

 

Eze is also the site of a botanical garden created after World War II and known worldwide for an impressive collection of cactus and other succulents from around the Mediterranean and the Americas.

 

The cruise ship is scheduled to hoist anchor late in the evening. Passengers straggle aboard laden with bags of purchases from the shops of Monte Carlo.

 

As the boat leaves the harbor the lights and sounds of parties in progress on the big yachts at anchor carries across the water.

 

My takeaway is instead the memory of looking down at Monte Carlo from the vantage point of the Corniche, and out over the Mediterranean through the charming picture frame of medieval Eze. Tomorrow we’re scheduled to drop anchor in Portofino, Italy.

 

See earlier posts from this cruise trip:

Barcelona Beckons

Magical Montserrat

France’s Languedoc

France’s Languedoc

Sète, France

The cruise departs Barcelona bound for Rome on the day after my visit to the monastery at Montserrat, and the first of three ports of call along the way is the French Mediterranean port of Sète.

 

This stop includes a trip of around 20 miles overland to the provincial capital of Montpellier.

Sète, France

Sète and Montpellier may not rank high on many bucket lists, but they ably fulfill curiosity about French daily life beyond the big cities and tourist attractions.

 

Sète, France

 

 

 

Sète sits on a spit of land that separates a saltwater lagoon filled with mussel and oyster fields from the sea, and there are plenty of fishing boats in the harbor.

 

This is a working seaport, the terminus of a canal that connects the Mediterranean to the Atlantic at Toulouse.

Sète, France

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The list of tourist sites and events here may be short, but the place is long on atmosphere and it’s a popular local destination for seaside holidays.

Sète, France

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sidewalk shops around the marina and along the quay beg to be painted or photographed.

Montpellier, France

 

 

 

 

 

Only twenty or so miles up the coast and set back from the sea is Montpellier, and the contrast between the two towns couldn’t be more striking.

Montpellier, France

 

 

 

 

As a department capital, Montpellier has a decidedly white-collar cast to it, and much more the feeling of a small city than a large village.

Montpellier, France

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At its heart are buildings and monuments that reflect its official status, but along its side streets the charm of the provincial south of France is everywhere in evidence.

Montpellier, France

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Narrow side streets wander of at odd angles.  Small markets and sidewalk cafés mark their intersections.

Montpellier, France

Country chateau near Montpellier, France

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plenty of winery tours are available in the surrounding countryside, but it’s hard to pass up instead a tour of a French country villa still owned and occupied by its hereditary nobility.

Country chateau near Montpellier, France

 

 

 

 

It seems that the taxes on the place now dictate that its blueblood owner find a way to make it pay for itself, and he’s become an able tourguide, walking us around the property as he shares his family’s history.

Country chateau near Montpellier, France

 

The vicomte is both a very cultured guy and very approachable one, and he seems to have adjusted to his changed financial circumstances with characteristic French aplomb.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve toured plenty of villas and wineries, but none where I’ve had quite the same feeling of being an invited guest at a private home.

 

 

 

 

 

Today has been a very laid-back day in the Languedoc, and a great change of pace from Barcelona’s near-overload of sights, sounds, smells and tastes.

Tomorrow the ship docks at Monte Carlo, where we’ll also make another land excursion into France to see a medieval village with a stunning view of the Mediterranean!  Click here to come along!

Magical Montserrat

Monastery at Montserrat, Spain

What to do with one day yet in Barcelona before the cruise weighs anchor? There’s plenty of ground yet unturned in the city, but there’s also an intriguing day-trip site of a completely other flavor that begs to be on a Barcelona short list.

The Monastery of Montserrat – also called the Abbey of Montserrat or Santa Maria de Montserrat – sits at the edge of the Pyrenees about 30 miles from Barcelona. Founded by the Benedictines in the 11th century, it’s tucked into a mountain of the same name that rises to more than 4,000 feet.

Since tour bus service from Barcelona is non-stop and everything at the other end is very walkable, it makes sense to sidestep car-rental-and-parking-spot-search and grab an uninterrupted chance to enjoy the great scenery.

Pyrenees foothills near Montserrat, Spain

The ascent starts gently, but it’s not long before rock formations begin to sprout. These are not the sharp-toothed mountains of Colorado or the Alps, but weathered monoliths on which the angles are all now worn to curves.

Monastery at Montserrat, Spain

As the bus approaches, the monastery grows picture postcard perfect out of the mountain not as much perched upon it as embraced by it. The architecture here is Romanesque, and buildings including a basilica and belltower are arrayed around a classic courtyard.

Monastery at Montserrat, Spain

The “Santa Maria” part of the abbey’s name comes from a Madonna-and-child statue carved in dark wood that’s the centerpiece of the basilica. She is one of only about 500 Black Madonna artworks to survive the Catholic Church’s remake of Christian art in a European image, and she is known affectionately among Catalonians as La Moreneta… the little dark-skinned one.

Monastery at Montserrat, Spain

Paradoxically, Ignatius Loyola laid down his arms at the icon’s feet before founding the Jesuits and in 1881 Pope Leo XIII declared her the patroness saint of Catalonia!

There’s more to Montserrat than worship, though. This monastery was a productive community that provided for itself and was very engaged in the world around it.

Monastery at Montserrat, Spain

The Benedictines have been printing books here since 1499, and the monastery houses one of the oldest continuously operating printing presses in Europe.

 

 

The celebrated Montserrat Boys Choir – the Escolania de Montserrat – sings at least once daily in the basilica and on select dates gives more extended performances.

Monastery at Montserrat, Spain

The basilica museum houses sculptures and paintings by artists including works by El Greco, Dalí, and Picasso.

Did I mention that wine’s been made here for centuries?!

Courtyard market, Monastery at Montserrat

Wherever there’s traffic there’s a market, and Montserrat is no exception. Here the merchants here all looked like mothers and grandmothers. Everything for sale looked to be both was homemade and edible; there was not a Montserrat T-shirt or baseball cap in sight!

Tram at Montserrat, Spain

The funicular’s upward and downward trams share the same mountainside track, and those with an inclination can hike further up to a lookout point from which it is claimed that the island of Majorca is visible on a clear day.

Monastery at Montserrat, Spain

As the tram descends and the monastery grows ever larger, it really sinks in that in medieval Europe there were a lot worse jobs than being a monk!

Monastery at Montserrat, Spain

See my related post on Barcelona here, and join me on the cruise when the ship departs Barcelona for the south of France on my next Europa post.

Barcelona beckons

Street scene, Barcelona, Spain

I might never have seen Barcelona had a cruise to Rome not begun there, and that would have been a travel tragedy.  Barcelona is not only a different flavor of Spain and a distinctive take on Europe, but a feast of sights, sounds, and tastes that will provoke your thoughts and lift your spirits.

Abraham Centre, Barcelona,Spain

Barcelona is full of contrasts that will surprise and delight, beginning with a skyline dotted by grand scale sculptural architecture in cutting-edge Euro style.

Microwave tower, Barcelona, Spain

This is, after all, the birthplace of painter/sculptor Joan Miró (there’s a museum) as well as Picasso’s childhood home (you can visit it).

Beach near Port Olympic, Barcelona, Spain

The window of my high rise hotel right on the coast in the Olympic Village affords a great view of the city.

Street scene, Barcelona, Spain

Street scene, Barcelona, Spain

It is the door to a walking time machine that will take me back 1,000 years within 45 minutes.

 

Barcelona is a different flavor of Spain because its history as an independent Cataluña far pre-dates its Spanish nationality.

 

Beginning with the fall of Franco, the Catalan culture has experienced a renaissance to the extent that the Catalan language appears on maps and street signs.

 

The walk from the Olympic Village (’92 Summer Olympics) toward the city along the shoreline begins with a mammoth marina that’s liberally sown with seafood restaurants and bars.  (Dinner begins late here, and it’s not unusual to see a family with children sitting down to order at 10PM.)

Barri Gotic, Barcelona, Spain

 

In the Barri Gòtic, the oldest part of Barcelona, narrow streets are scaled to pedestrians or one-horse carts and buildings for walk-up.

 

It’s easy to get turned around in its Byzantine street plan, but you’re never more than a few blocks from the twenty-first century.

Roman ruins, Barcelona, Spain

 

Barcelona is the product of cultural overlays beginning with the Greeks, Carthaginians, and Romans.

Roman ruins, Barcelona, Spain

 

Subsequent overlays have erased most architectural evidence of them, and the few that remain are treated like antiques under glass.

Montjuic cable car tower, Barcelona, Spain

 

 

Montjuic is a low mountain that is not only a Barcelona skyline signature, but an important milestone in the city’s past and an integral part of its present.

 

This large, wooded park takes its name from its centuries-old Jewish cemetery, and is home to a collection of sites well worth a visit.

 

Most notable are structures built for the 1929 International Exposition including the Palau Palace and the Spanish Village, a hamlet of streets each representing a different region of Spain.  It can be reached from the city center by cable cars that pass over an Eiffel-vintage tower on their way up and back.

Catedral, Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona’s Catedral is a medieval masterpiece and startling contrast with the Catedral Sagrada Familia.

Catedral Sagrada Famillia, Barcelona, Spain

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catedral Sagrada Famillia, Barcelona, Spain

 

Sagrada Familia is the unfinished masterpiece of native Antoni Gaudi, whose strikingly original architecture reshaped the face of Barcelona at the turn of the last century, and it’s easily the city’s biggest single attraction.

Gaudi devotees are continuously raising money to complete it and work continues to this day.

 

The place is thick with tourists from Japan, where Gaudi has acquired cult status.

Gaudi’s Casa Mila, Barcelona, Spain

 

Gaudi’s residential architecture may be smaller in scale, but equally original and instantly identifiable.

 

Gaudi's Casa Batllo, Barcelona, Spain

Gaudi’s Casa Batllo, Barcelona, Spain

 

 

For anyone whose appetite for Gaudi remains unsated, his work at the Parc Güell garden complex will completely fulfill.

La Rambla, Barcelona, Spain

 

If Sagrada Familia is Barcelona’s heart, then La Rambla is Barcelona’s soul.

 

The origins of La Rambla pre-date the Roman occupation.

La Rambla, Barcelona, Spain

 

It’s the Champs-Elysees without auto traffic, an urban promenade that lets you crisscross the boulevard at your own pace.

 

Here among the throngs you’ll see mimes, street musicians, and a great slice of Barcelona life.

Mercat de la Boqueria, Barcelona, Spain

 

Don’t miss the Mercat de la Boqueria, a great open market in the finest European tradition where you can find everything from fish to flowers. The Mercat fronts on La Rambla.

Mercat de la Boqueria, Barcelona, Spain

Mercat de la Boqueria, Barcelona, Spain

 

You haven’t experienced Spain unless you’ve had jamon Serrano.

 

Great historical and cultural sites, and engaging coastal setting, and delectable dishes make Barcelona a lot of bang for a single port-of-call, and it will lead you to agree that Barcelona IS the most European of Spanish cities.

Tomorrow I travel into the Pyrynees to the magical monastery of Montserrat.  Click here to come along!