The Adventure Continues in April 2014

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Family, friends, and welcomed strangers:

I am turning 30 this year.  For some time now, friends and family have been asking me what I want to do to celebrate.  “Umm… get out.”  Thanks to some friends, who planted the idea in my head, and my sister, who told me to “buy your tickets already,” I am.  One week in London filled with an old journal, old friends, and new adventures.

Back in LA

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After 2 months in Europe, I am back at home in Los Angeles.

Some of the best parts about coming home?

Sleeping in my tempurpedic bed.

The Murray Trial just started and is streaming live on TV.

Showing my sister my Freudian Slippers and having her go upstairs and come down with giant elephant slippers she got from the San Diego Safari Park.

Sushi.

Mexican food.

(I have no idea why this wasn’t posted as soon as I got back from my 2 months in Europe 2 years ago.  It’s out of context, but I’m posting it now!)

Fiesole

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Fiesole is a small town in the Tuscany hills about a 30 minute bus ride from Florence.

The bus drives through the Tuscany hills, which are dotted with villas here and there.  In one of those villas is where my friend Dan Lee has his post doc office.  Such a hard life, right?  When your office is in a villa with a view of the Tuscany hills?  Ridiculous.

The view from Dan’ post doc villa in Tuscany

Like every town in Italy (maybe every town in the world?) the town was built around a religious building–another duomo (which means “cathedral” in Italian).  All Italian duomos look like fortresses to me.  Very few windows, tall brick walls, and one giant bell tower.

There is an “archaeological park” near the town square.  In the “park” is a partially restored 1st century BC Roman amphitheater, baths, and an Etruscan temple.  The museum in the park contains prehistoric, Etruscan, Roman, and Medieval artifacts.  You know where this is going… I was like a kid in a candy store.  I actually couldn’t decide if I wanted to walk around the entire site first or go straight to the amphitheater.

I know when most people go to archaeological sites they only see what’s left.  The remains, the fallen walls, the unfinished pillars.  When I walk through an archaeological site I see entire buildings, roads, stairways, covered markets, bath houses filled with water.

I hear people talking, carts being pulled and pushed, and all the noises that come with a town.  Archaeological sites are the best places to let your imagination run wild, and since it’s in your own head, there’s no right or wrong way to imagine it.

I decided to start with a walk around the entire site and then treat myself at the end with the amphitheater.

The views from Fiesole are panoramic.  You look in one direction and you see the entire city of Florence.  You turn around and look in the other direction and you see the other small towns that follow.  All around you is greenery.

And the perfect way to end a day like this is a BBQ turned dance party in the post doc villa, where I taught people how to dance syrtaki and others taught me how to salsa.

Me and Dan at the BBQ

What an amazing day.  I mean, really.  Who would have thought it would end with a delicious BBQ and a dance party in a villa somewhere in the Tuscany hills.  Man am I lucky :).

 

Firenze

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Rome is one of the most navigable and visually stunning big cities I have ever been to, but Florence (‘Firenze’ in Italian) is one of those towns that you’ll never forget.

Just behind me you can see the Ponte Vecchio, the most famous bridge in Europe.  As my friend Dan Lee said (he’s doing his post doc here in Florence), “It’s not that impressive when you’re on it but when you’re looking at it from far away it’s beautiful.”  The hotel Sepi and I stayed in had it’s front doorstep leading straight to the Ponte Vecchio (we did good).

What kind of shops do you think can afford to do business on the Ponte Vecchio?  Jewelry shops, of course.

What Florence is very well known for is its leather.  There are leather factories everywhere, and even open-air markets such as this one that sell high quality leather goods.  I actually purchased a purse from this particular leather market.  They say Florence isn’t for the bargain-shopper, but I disagree.  In the street markets you can haggle to bring the price down by quite a bit.  For example, the lamb-skin leather purse I bought was marked as 95 euro.  I paid only 40 euro for it.  Of course, it took two days to get down to that price, but I don’t mind being patient (contrary to the last post I wrote about waiting in line).

Florence is a big student-town and full of artists.  I love street art.  Above are two gentlemen working on one picture.  Below is a street drawing made by 5 university students.

I must say that the food in Florence is significantly better than the food in Rome.  Again, I think I’m spoiled coming from LA.  We have great food in LA, and I have yet to taste any pasta to rival with my favorite Italian restaurant called Allora, which is owned by two Italian brothers and is located near the Beverly Center (make sure you call for a reservation because dinners there are booked very quickly).  I found that the pasta and pizza in Rome is often soaked in salt to create a flavor where there is none.  In Florence, however, I have eaten well.  Although I do wonder if Italian people ever get tired of Italian food.  Look, pasta and pizza is fantastic, but when you’ve alternated them for every meal except breakfast for 6 days you do actually get tired of them.  Every restaurant’s menu is exactly the same all over Italy (I swear), although obviously some restaurants are better than others.

As in most cities in Italy (or at least I imagine so) the main attraction is the Duomo (cathedral), which is made entirely of marble and is absolutely colossal.

There are plenty of things to see and do in Florence.  Michelangelo is buried here, and his David is also in the museum here.  But my favorite thing to do in Florence is window shop.

Gourmet popsicles?  Seriously?  What is this place?  And here I thought gellato was the only worthy ice cream to eat in Italy (Sepi and I passed a Ben&Jerry’s and we both laughed out loud).

How to do Rome in 48 Hours (and not wait in line)

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I hate waiting in line for anything.  I’m not generally a patient person to begin with, but i hate waiting in line.  The only time I’ve waited in a line for 3 hours was to get my iPhone 3G when it first came out.  The only reason why I tolerated that kind of a queue is because I had just moved back to LA from Oxford, didn’t have a U.S. phone, and had absolutely nothing to do.  It was an interesting queue, actually, where I met an animator for the Simpsons, a movie producer, and a funny little late-twenty-something man who was desperately trying to flash his head-shots at the movie producer to get his attention.  Oh, I waited in line at the Apple Store in the Grove in case you haven’t figured that out yet.  Anyways, I would obviously also wait in line to see (almost) any archaeological or historical site, but that doesn’t mean I like it.

Okay, so Sepi and I spent more than 48 hours in Rome.  In fact, I spent about 4 days or so in Rome, but still.  The touristy stuff we did was in the span of 48 hours, and we didn’t wait in a single line to get into anywhere.  We saw all the big and important stuff (Colosseum, Vatican City, Spanish Steps, Roman Forum, the Palatine), stayed out until 4:30am one night, got plenty of sleep, and still had time to eat plenty of delicious gellato.

Location

I hate cliches, but you know what they say–location location (you get the idea). If you only have a few days in Rome, location is everything.  Sepi and I stayed in a nice hotel near Termini station (the largest train station in Rome where you can get a train to anywhere and both the blue and orange metro lines).  This made access to everything significantly easier and faster.  All the major tourist sites have their own metro stations, and the metro is efficient, clean, and air conditioned inside the trains.

The Colosseum, Roman Forum, and the Palatine

If you only have a few days in Rome and it’s your first time in the city, you must go see these three sites, which, conveniently, are all right next to each other–the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and the Palatine.

They say the line to get tickets to the Colosseum takes 1 1/2 hours.  From what I saw I would say it takes something like 2 1/2 hours.  Have you ever been to Six Flags Magic Mountain or Disneyland on a weekend?  That’s the type of line I’m talking about.

See all those people?  This is where the line wraps around on the inside after you’ve already waited in a line that wraps around on the outside.

You can do one of two things.  First, you can book your ticket online and then pick it up from the shorter line when you get to the Colosseum.  However, you can only buy it 24 hours before you plan to go if you buy it online.  Sepi and I didn’t do that.  Option number two, which is how Sepi and I skipped the line, is walking around and signing up with a tour.  For 25 euros each we skipped the entire line into the Colosseum and to the Palatine and to the Roman Forum.  And we got two tours out of it.  Let me break it down for you price-wise.  The ticket to the Colosseum, which includes a ticket to the Palatine and Roman Forum, is 15 euros.  For another 10 euros you can get two tours and skip 3 hours of lines.  Totally worth it and you get to learn something along the way.  Plus each tour gives you time to wander around and take all the touristy pictures you want.

If you bought tickets online, they would charge you a 4 euro reservation charge for each ticket and then you would still have to wait in line to pick up your tickets.  Yes, a shorter line, but still a line.  We didn’t wait in any lines.

We spent 3 1/2 hours seeing and learning about the Colosseum, the Palatine, and the Roman Forum.  And not any of those 3 1/2 hours did we spend waiting  in line.  We arrived at the Colosseum at around 1:30pm and left at around 4pm to have a late lunch/early first dinner.  In.  Out.  Done.

The Vatican

Again, no waiting in line to get into Vatican City.  That’s right, there was no one  in front of us.  Don’t worry, there were long lines with many, many people.  They just weren’t our lines.  With Vatican City we were smart.  I booked the tickets the day before online and had our hotel print the voucher for us.

Nero’s colossal mixing bowl made out of the most expensive marble on the planet (because you can no longer find it anywhere on this earth)

The voucher said we could get into Vatican City at 3pm, so that’s when we wandered in that direction after a good night’s (and morning’s) rest and after a tasty lunch.  When we got there and showed them the voucher, they pointed to an area that lead straight to the entrance without a single person in our way.  So we skipped the 5 lines (even the lines of group tours) and went straight into the building and through security.  Upstairs, we didn’t have to wait in line to exchange our voucher for tickets (strangely enough, they didn’t even ask for ID when they say they ask to see everyone’s passport).  After we received our tickets, we went straight in.

Sepi and I high-fived each other after we made sure there were no more lines we could possibly stand in.

A modest statue of Hercules

Now, the only line we did have to wait in (which sort of doesn’t count in my opinion, Sepi disagrees with me) was to see the Sistine Chapel.  You walk through an entire museum and two buildings before it leads you to the Sistene Chapel.  The flow of traffic goes in one direction and there were literally hundreds and hundreds of people all trying to get to the same place.  The reason why I don’t count it as a line is because you’re walking through the museum looking at the treasure trove of extremely valuable ancient artifacts Vatican City owns (like Nero’s colossal mixing bowl above).

Even the ceilings are heavily and ornately decorated.  By the time we got to the Sistine Chapel our brains were already on overload and our eyes couldn’t even distinguish one colorful ceiling from the next.

But the long walk (or whatever you want to call it) was worth the wait.

I wish they would tell people not to use flash photography.  The archaeologist in me is against that because over time it actually ruins the paint, and I think it would be nice if Michelangelo’s art could be around for just a bit longer.

So, again, in a matter of a few hours we skipped all (most, according to Sepi) the lines, saw what we wanted to see in Vatican City, and celebrated our second perfect day of tourism in a row by sharing a pizza and salad and finishing it off with gelato before we got on our train to Florence.

Rome in 48 hours (or somewhere around then), did all the major touristy things (including lots of pizza, pasta, and gellato eating), and we didn’t stand in a single line.

The Seat of Ancient Rome

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I loved Rome from the moment I stepped of the plane at the airport, and I wasn’t even in the city yet.  I just had a good feeling about it.  My good feeling was right–I love this city!

A little rant before I talk about the Colosseum, the Palatine, the Roman Forum, and the Spanish Steps.  Can I make it to one European city without seeing penis?  In Paris Christine and I saw men defecating in the street.  Last night in Rome, Sepi and I saw a tourist, by the bus stop mind you, with his pants unzipped and wagging his penis to-and-fro.  I’m just saying I don’t think it’s too much to ask not to be flashed.

Trastavere

Last night, Sepi and I went to Trastavere to walk around and to have dinner.  The guidebooks say this is a good place to get real Italian food and get away from the tourists, but of course, it’s just as much of a tourist trap as anywhere else in Rome on a warm summer night.  Truth be told, the pasta we ate last night was sub-par compared to what you can get in LA.  Like I said in previous post, we’re sort of spoiled in LA–being able to find what you want whenever you want that is delicious and for a good price. 

The Colosseum

Our morning, or early afternoon by the time we got there, started with the Colosseum.  What a magnificent site, and how appropriate after USC won its football game against Syracuse the day before, that Sepi and I (both USC Trojan alums) are standing in front of the first Colosseum.

In truth, we lucked out.  Instead of waiting in line for 2 1/2 hours to get tickets, we signed up with an English speaking tour of the Colosseum and the Palatine where we got to skip the lines to buy tickets and we got two tours (and for pretty cheap–25 euros each, 15 was the cost of the entry ticket anyways).

 

Our first tour guide was okay, frankly we were just excited we didn’t have to wait in the line that wrapped almost the entire way around the Colosseum on the outside, and then again wrapped around on the inside.

 

It’s not difficult to imagine the spectators and the gladiators.  The Colosseum itself is pretty massive (although smaller than USC’s, of course) and much of it still stands.

Our second tour guide was fantastic.  She was funny, actually told us things I didn’t know, and clearly was verry passionate about Rome’s ancient history.  She was our tour guide for the Palatine, which mythology links with the founding of the city of Rome itself.

 

The Palatine

The Roman Forum

We spent about 3 hours or so walking around the Colosseum and the Palatine, and when we were finished we went in search for lunch/early dinner.  We did much better with this meal, enjoying our pizza, with a salad on top.

And then we got gellato.  My gellato has home-made whipped cream on top (I don’t even like whipped cream usually but this was FANTASTIC).  Sepi and I have decided that every meal should end with gellato for dessert.  And, yes, it really is as good as they say it is.

 

We ended our afternoon with the Spanish Steps, which were actually comissioned and built by the French, to watch some of the sunset.

 

 

A Touristy Day in Paris, with Perfect Weather to Match

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After many days of eating delicious pastries, lunches, dinners, and coffees, Christine and I decided that a proper Paris tourist day was in order (don’t worry, the pastries were still involved).

After a delicious breakfast at our favorite bakery, our day began with the Avenue des Champs-Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe.

The Arc de Triomphe was Napoleon’s idea after his great greatest victory, the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805.  Napoleon had promised his soldiers, “You shall go home beneath triumphal arches.”  However, the Arc itself wasn’t completed until 1836.  Inside and to the right is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where an unknown French soldier from World War I is buried.

Afterwards, we slowly made our way over to the Eiffel Tower.  The Eiffel Tower itself was only supposed to be temporary, and originally built to impress visitors to the 1889 Universal Exhibition.  The engineer Gustae Eiffel designed it, and the people of the 19th century found it aesthetically displeasing.  Now it’s the symbol of Paris.

Just a fun little tidbit (because I love crazy people)–in 1912 an Austrian tailor, Franz Reichelt, attempted to fly from the to top of the Eiffel Tower with only a modified cape for wings.  He (obviously) leaped to his death in front of a large crowd.  The autopsy report states that he died of a heart attack (of fright) before he even touched the ground.  Also, a journalist has apparently cycled down the Eiffel Tower (how that worked out, I have no idea).

We spent a lot of time taking fun-touristy pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower.  Here are a few of them.

After the Eiffel Tower, we were off to our river tour of Paris on the Seine.

A few notes on the less glorious side of Paris (which is most of Paris, in my opinion)

I think Paris is a hard city to like.  Paris has been called the City of Light, the City of Love, they say the Parisians dress up even just for a stroll, and that good food can be found anywhere.  I disagree with all of those things.   It’s filthy, it’s smelly, the people are generally rude (although you do find nice people, too, they’re just not as common), and it’s unbelievably expensive.

A meal out is minimum 20 euros, and if you don’t know where to go you’ll end up with a mediocre meal.  Maybe I’m spoiled because I’m from LA, where good meals are easy to find, and generally very cheap.  Luckily, Christine had the book Edible Adventures in Paris which led us to some very delicious meals.  However, when we strayed from the book, the meals were mediocre at best.

There is graffiti everywhere.  They have run out of room on the subway walls so now there is graffiti on the floor, too.  There is trash all over the street (except for the St Germain area, apparently, and even there there’s trash, just less of it). It probably doesn’t help that there are absolutely no trash cans anywhere, or ashtrays on the tables.

Every single time I have been to Paris I’ve seen someone defecating on the street.  When I first came to Paris with my family something like 8 years or so ago, Maria and I saw someone peeing in the middle of the street in broad daylight near the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre.  When I went to Paris about two weeks ago to meet up with my cousin Zea, I saw someone taking a dump in the middle of the street in the Opera Quarter on my taxi ride back to my hotel.  When I went to Paris with Christine, we saw someone peeing in the middle of the street in broad daylight (again).  If you’re paying attention, you also notice that there is a lot of poo on the street (at first I thought just dog poo but after seeing a man pull down his pants and relieve himself near the Ritz in the Opera Quarter, who knows?).

Beggars drag themselves through underground trains with their hands (because they have no feet) pushing along a tin bin for money.  Christine and I even saw people openly doing cocaine in the subway on our way back to our hotel.

The people are generally rude, although occasionally you will meet some nice ones (in the Jewish quarter).  No one speaks English, and if they do, they won’t speak English to you.  God forbid you ask them if they speak English (in French)–their face acquires an expression as if they just smelled something terrible,  and often times they won’t speak to you at all after that.  Luckily I remembered enough French to get around.

The city itself is a nightmare to navigate, and god forbid you have to get on a train.  Arrive at least an hour earlier than you would expect because you’re going to need that hour to find out where to buy tickets and then to figure out where your train leaves from.  No one knows where anything is.  The big train stations are filled with people, even French people, asking where to go for this or for that.  Since we’re on the subject, metro signs are difficult to find, also.  Sometimes they’re green, sometimes they’re red, sometimes they’re in one type of font or another.  They say in Paris there is a metro station every 500 yards, but you’ll probably miss about 3 of them before you actually see one.

The guidebooks (and people) also say that the metro and trains in France are more efficient than in England.  Again, I disagree.  Every train I’ve been on has been delayed.  My train from Paris to Bordeaux was almost an hour late.  My train from Paris to Mantes La Jolie (where I saw Gary) was 30 minutes late.  My trains back to Paris from both places were also about 30 minutes late each.  The metro isn’t exactly efficient either.  You have to wait minimum 3-5 minutes for a train during the day (in London it’s about 1 minute, maybe 2 if you just missed the one before) and at night a minimum of 8 minutes.  Meanwhile you’re holding your breath to relieve yourself of the stench and staring at the graffiti.  It’s not even nice graffiti.  It’s just tagging–one word in black or blue or some other color of spray paint.  There’s no art in it, and it’s all over the walls and the floor.

All that being said, after spending so many days in the city I began to like it (when i never have before).  Christine and I found great spots to eat and fun touristy things to do.  We even met nice people!  Minus the security guard at the Musee d’Orsay who told Christine, after she asked in French where we could get an audio-tour, that “most people speak French and it’s very rude to make motions with your hands when you speak.”  Then he almost broke down and cried and started to apologize–he must have been having a bad day.  I almost asked him “Really? Where? You’re the first person who’s spoken English to us and everyone else says they don’t speak it at all.”  I’m glad I didn’t because then he really would have broken down and cried.  Poor thing.

All-in-all, you have to give Paris time and just get swept up by it (and turn a blind eye to public defecation) and you can really enjoy yourself.  Just make sure you have a good guidebook on food in Paris (Edible Adventures in Paris is amazing) and you’ll eat well, too.