Friday, September 11, 2015

Vatican City

When I saw Vatican City, the smallest independent country in the world, it took my breath away.  I am a Roman Catholic so I am sure that it moved me in a way that it may not move everyone, but that being said, it really is a stunningly beautiful place.

St. Peter's Basilica has the largest dome in the world (second is St. Paul's in London, third is the US Capitol building) and it is so impressive.  Our first view was at night and it was lit up and was visible from a great distance.  We returned the next morning to visit the Vatican Museum that houses so many indescribable treasures that have been collected by the Popes for centuries.  It contains not only works of art but archaeological treasures as well.   Unfortunately, our schedule did not allow us to saunter through these wonderful rooms in a leisurely way.  I hope, one day, to remedy that and spend some time poking around this impressive collection.

Once we left the museum, we entered, the Sistine Chapel.  This small little chapel with its famous ceiling moved me in a way that I was totally unprepared for.  As I gazed at Michelangelo's ceiling, I suddenly realized that I was standing in the place where the Pope's kneel to pray, alone, immediately after their election. The historical significance brought tears to my eyes.  Despite being surrounded by tourists, that moment was very spiritual for me.  Whatever ones religious beliefs this is a place built to honor God, by true believers and it is a masterpiece that defies description.

Next stop, St. Peter's Basilica.  The central door dates back to 1455 with depictions of St. Peter and St. Paul.   I had to stop and take in the vastness of the basilica and noticed that most people paused for a moment.  I immediately spotted Michelangelo's Pieta on the right side which is now shielded by thick glass after being damaged by a tourist a view years ago.  This is the only piece ever signed by the artist and it can be seen on Mary's belt.  Though we have all seen duplicates and pictures of this piece, there is nothing like seeing the original work of art.  The basilica is full of entombed popes and saints including John XXIII, the benevolent and much beloved Pope of my childhood.  The more recent Popes, have been entombed beneath the Basilica with the first head of the Roman Catholic Church, Saint Peter.

As you leave the Vatican you pass the Swiss Guard (the Pope's personal detail) and enter St. Peter's Square that is familiar to all of us.  But like the Pieta, there is nothing like seeing it in person.  High above the balustrade and columns are sculptures of 140 saints.  The square is impressive in size and it was just swarming with tourists during our visit.  It was not hard to envision the crowds during a papal election.

I do recommend a visit if you are in Rome but try to get your tickets prior to your arrival as the lines are very long.  Or opt for a tour, they get right in and there is no waiting.  If you arrive in Rome without a ticket, speak with your hotel concierge and they will make arrangements for you.

Until next time, safe travels!

Central door into St. Peter's

Depiction of Christ and St. Peter

The Swiss Guard

A few of the 140 statues of Saints.

Friday, September 4, 2015


My very first view of the iconic Eiffel Tower was  from the backseat of a cab careening through the streets of Paris.  Despite the perilous ride, it was a wonderful moment.  I could not believe that I was finally in the beautiful City of Lights.

Like London, the accommodations in Paris run the gamut from budget hostels to five star luxury hotels.   The more impressive and expensive properties are located on the more formal Right Bank and they are gorgeous but costly.  I personally prefer the Left Bank where the hotels are more moderately priced and offer some old world charm.  You can find so real gems in the shadow of Notre Dame, St. Germain du Pres and even the Louvre.   Remember that hotel rooms in Europe offer little in the way of elbow room and may feel cramped to those of us that are accustomed to big, spacious American hotel rooms.  Most rooms offer TV with CNN and BBC in English and internet (not always free) and some are now offering air conditioning.  Traditionally, a continental breakfast which consists of a croissant or pastry and coffee is included with your hotel stay.

There is so much to do and see in this old city.  Of course, a must do is the Eiffel Tower.  It is the most visited paid monument in the world with almost 7 million visitors a year.  There are 1665 steps to the top but most of us opt for the elevators.   I always recommend a trip up the tower at dusk.  There is nothing like standing on the platform and watching the lights come up all over the city.  The view is spectacular and it becomes obvious why Paris is often called the City of Lights.  You can avoid the lines by reserving a ticket online prior to your visit.

Also, visit Hotel des Invalides, the eternal resting place of Napoleon Bonaparte.  His remains lay directly below the spectacular golden dome (said to be the inspiration for the American Capitol Building) in six coffins, one inside the other similar to Russian nesting dolls.  The tomb is very large and very impressive.  The building also houses the French Army museum, including Napoleon's uniform and tri-corner hat.

Of course, every tourist wants to take a leisurely stroll down the Champs-Elysees toward the magnificent Arc de Triomphe which most of us remember from the newsreel movies of the liberation of Paris.  This historic landmark was built by Napoleon and was inspired by the Roman Arch of Titus because Bonaparte considered himself the heir to the Roman emperors.  The Arc is known for its impressive sculptures and they are really something to see.  France's Unknown Soldier is buried beneath the arch and a memorial flame is lit every night at 6:30pm,  The traffic circle around the Arc radiates out into 12 avenues and is infamous for its traffic accidents.  Watching the traffic from the top the Arc de Triomphe is definitely not for the faint hearted.

A trip to Paris would not be complete without a visit to one of the most famous and largest museums in the world, the Louvre.  The most famous pieces housed in this historic gallery are the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo and Winged Victory.  Where you go after seeing these three amazing works of art depends on your personal interests.  Suffice it to say that you could literally spend days viewing these spectacular works of art so it is best to pick up one of the museums excellent color coded maps and prioritize according to your interests.  Passes for the Louvre can be purchased stateside to avoid the long lines.

While in Paris, we attended mass at the incomparable Notre Dame , the first cathedral built with flying buttresses. The mass was celebrated in French, we were surrounded by people from all over the globe.  We did not meet one French citizen on that Sunday morning.  To sit and take in the glorious stained glass window and to hear the incredible organ play familiar hymns was a very  moving experience for my husband and I.  Since our visit, they have installed nine bronze bells to celebrate the cathedral's 850th birthday which I am told are very impressive when they ring.  Leave yourself plenty of time to explore the cathedral and its grounds, it is well worth it.

Not too far from Notre Dame is Sainte Chappelle which is a small chapel that managed to survive the Revolution.  Try to visit in the afternoon to fully enjoy the stunning floor to ceiling stained glass windows as the sun shines through them.  Though a bit off the beaten track and not one of the top attractions, this was one of my favorites.  The windows defy description and you should make every effort to see them for yourself.

Like London, there is so much to do and see in the French city, that I will have to blog about it again in the future but I hope this gives you just a taste of what Paris has to offer.  So until next time, safe travels!

Notre Dame

Windows of Sainte Chappelle

Another shot of the windows

The Louvre

Another shot of the Louvre

The Eiffel Tower from the top of the Arc de Triomphe

Venus de Milo