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5/26/17- Lyon is the third largest city in France but it doesn’t feel like a big city. It has a historic and classical feel while maintaining the charm of a small town. There are many things to see and do here– unfortunately, we only grazed the surface.
(NOTE: More content will be added at a future date as I continue to reorganize entries on my blog.)
Travel Date: May 26, 2017, Friday (Day 14)
Playbill Travel’s “Broadway On the Rhone”
We woke up this morning to another beautiful sunrise. This time, docked at Viviers in southern Ardèche, we had the beautiful Viviers Suspension Bridge in full view from our balcony. We’ve had the most wonderful weather in southern France!
We decided ahead of time to join our friends for a morning walking tour of Vivier.
Our small group entered town, enjoying a relaxing walk under the canopy of ancient Plane trees before reaching the town’s center. We then slowly made our way to the upper town, as our guide gave us some history and noted points of interest along the way.
The small commune of Viviers, dates back to the 5th century. Today, it has less than 4,000 residents. It is a medieval town that has largely escaped the ravages of time. Scenes from the 2000 movie, Chocolat (Johnny Depp), were filmed here.
One of the buildings tied to an interesting piece of local history is the Maison des Chevaliers, or the House of the Knights. The age of the actual structure of the building is unknown but the fascade was constructed between 1545 and 1560. Several houses were combined to create what was to become the House of Knights for Noel Albert.
Albert, a rich merchant– had converted to Protestantism, opposed the king– and as a result, was tried and beheaded in 1568. As bailiff of the bishop of Viviers, he was believed to have been skimming money from the taxes he collected as well.
We visited the shop of Jean Luc Allonneau, Atelier 3 Ceramiques where he has been handcrafting functional ceramic pieces since 1981. After a tour of his workshop, he gave us a brief demonstration at the potters’ wheel.
Independent craftsmen like this are finding it more and more difficult to stay open and competitive with the accessibility of mass produced goods– priced much lower but of inferior material and design.
Jean Luc still hand selects his materials and completes each piece entirely on his own. The process for each, takes more than a month to complete with drying, firing and glazing to be done. He produces pots and dinnerware collections in addition to some pieces created from handmade molds.
Viviers is the birthplace of the Society of Lime and Cement Lafarge. Naturally occurring hydraulic limestone is mined here. The lime is burned to create a product that is used in mortar for construction.
I was particularly interested in this because the brick in our own 1889 house– is held together with a lime-mortar that has to be specially mixed for tuck-pointing (repair). It is seldom used today in new construction– now, mostly Portland Cement. The advantages of lime include a slow drying process and a much stronger, resilient, finished product.
On our way back to the ship, we stopped for a photo op with our friends before returning to the ship for a late lunch. We had a few hours before we would walk back into town for a special concert Playbill had arranged for us.
Viviers Cathedral aka St. Vincent Cathedral. Earlier in the day, we didn’t have a chance to go inside the cathedral but we saw the exterior from virtually every angle. I suppose, aside from the fact that we saw the performers entering to rehearse, when we passed in the morning– the main reason was: we’d return for our special concert in the afternoon.
St. Vincent Cathedral, built in the 11th century, is the smallest, if not the oldest, medieval cathedral in France that is still active today.
During the French Wars of Religion between the Catholics and the Protestants in the 16th century, the vaulted ceiling was destroyed. It was not rebuilt until the 18th century.
Concert at Viviers Cathedral. This was a first for Playbill Travel. Not only were we getting a concert in a beautiful venue– they were doing a second concert for the entire town, after ours. So you might say– ours was the dress rehearsal. (Wink.)
The concert truly was special. Having the chance to hear some of the great music of Broadway, resonating through this beautiful cathedral was breathtaking. The performances were great and the setting gave it an added magical touch. James Barbour, Liz Callaway, Rebecca Luker, John McDaniel and Paulo Szot all received a well-deserved standing ovation. A truly memorable event.
We found out later, that after our concert, several of the performers thought they’d get a bite to eat in town between shows. Only one problem– everything had closed down because everyone was going to the concert! The whole town attended, including the mayor. Some said they didn’t know what to expect from the concert. Very quickly they were drawn in, thrilled when they recognized some of famous Broadway tunes. The crowd loved it and it was a huge success.
Bravo, Playbill Travel!
Travel Date: May 24, 2017, Wednesday (Day 12)
Traveling to new places can certainly be a mixed bag of experiences. I learned a long time ago not to let expectations get in the way of the experience itself. Even if you’ve spent a lot of time researching a destination in advance, there are always surprises along the way. Something might be closed. There may be a new exhibit or a festival that suddenly draws your attention. It could be overcrowded or timing may play an important role. Weather may also be an important factor. Whatever the situation when you arrive, flexibility is the key.
During our stop in Avignon, we had six optional excursions to choose from. Four were included- a walking tour of Avignon, a walking/tram tour (for gentle walkers), the Pont du Gard Aqueduct, or kayaking on the Gardon river. Two offerings, for an additional charge, included: A cooking class with a master chef at the Hotel la Mirande, or Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine tasting.
I was interested in seeing the Aqueduct but that meant sacrificing a visit to Avignon and the Palace of the Popes. So it was hard to choose. Michael and I ended up deciding we wanted the adventure of exploring Avignon on our own. I thought to ask our Cruise Manager Tania, if there was an admission ticket to the Palace of the Popes, which there was. She had a few tickets on hand, for those not taking the tour that wanted to explore on their own. Good thing I asked!
One other thing– in each city we docked, Uniworld had maps available to take with us, whether we went with a guided group or not. Taking one today was especially beneficial.
We crossed the main road that runs along the Rhone river and entered the fortified walls of Avignon.
Avignon dates back to at least the 6th century BC under Greek domination. Naples and France each had their own piece of early history here. By the 1300’s, it became the residence of the Popes– seven in all would make Avignon their home before the Papacy returned to Rome as the permanent residence. In addition, multiple plagues had a big impact on the city over the centuries. While the current city population is about 90,000, only about 12,000 live with the ancient city center that is surrounded by looming medieval ramparts.
We walked through narrow streets, into the city, finding ourselves in the Place de l’Horloge. Not only is it considered the city center, it is one of the most perfect squares (I’ve seen so far) in Europe. It was still early in the day when we arrived. The hour was reflected by the activities of the merchants and restaurateurs busily preparing to open up shop. What made it so perfect was the blend of colorful shops, historic buildings and an old world atmosphere that hadn’t been completely modernized or commercialized. It still had so much charm.
Just a few blocks away was the Square Below the Palace of the Popes (Place du Palais). Not quite as charming as Place de l’Horloge but still historically beautiful and well preserved. There we found an artist was setting up to sell his work. Across the square, an accordionist played his squeezebox; busking at the steps of the Palace.
Palace of the Popes. The Palais des Papes is one of the 10 most visited monuments in France. It is the largest Gothic palace in Europe. Built in the 14th century, it was first home to Popes, then Legates, and finally Vice-Legates up until the French Revolution. Six papal conclaves were held here.
The majority of the palace was constructed in less than 20 years.
Over 20 rooms can be explored during your visit. Most of the ornate embellishments that were the finishing touches of later Popes, are now gone. One of the most interesting areas of the palace are the Popes’ private chambers– with original frescoes painted by the Italian artist Matteo Giovannetti. (No photography allowed.)
The palace was first opened to the public in the early 1900s. Today, exhibitions and performances are held here year-round. It is interesting that the palace has not been turned into a museum house in the way that many historic places have been. Here, the focus is on the magnificence of the building and architecture itself.
From the Palace, we wandered through the streets of Avignon, passing many shops and small theatres on our way to the Rocher des Doms Garden overlook. We strayed from the main path, discovering some unique passages and paused a moment to watch a sculptor at work.
After winding our way around, climbing many steps, we found ourselves at the top of the Rocher des Doms Garden Overlook. The gardens and panoramic views were nothing short of spectacular. It was just incredible up there. I couldn’t help but wonder if our cruise mates were going to miss out on all this beauty, or be rushed through, to stay on schedule. We had all the time in the world.
I think we found the best view of the famous bridge- Pont d’Avignon or Pont Saint-Bénézet. Originally completed in 1185, it crossed the Rhone, only to be destroyed 40 years later by Louis VIII when taking over Avignon. It was rebuilt with 22 arches but river flooding repeatedly damaged the bridge. The surviving sections of the bridge are believed to have been constructed around 1345, with the Chapel of Saint Nicholas at the middle of the four remaining arches. The bridge is considered an important representation of the city, as well as the inspiration for the song, Sur le pont d’Avignon.
We took a break, grabbing a drink from a small cafe on the hill, and continued to enjoy our beautiful surroundings. We had perfect weather. It was hard to leave this place but we needed to start making our way back down the hill.
We reached the bottom of the hill, once again passing the palace and finding ourselves back at Place de l’Horloge. It was a little busier now, the carousel was in motion and tourists were beginning to fill the streets and shops.
We’d only covered about a third of Avignon but felt like the experience had been totally fulfilling. It was still early afternoon and we could have spent more time but I was anxious to get back to the ship.
Lighting Paulo. I ended up volunteering (getting volunteered) to try and help improve the lighting for tonight’s concert. After the daily briefing in the Van Gogh lounge, while everyone else headed to the Cezanne Dining Room for dinner, I stayed and helped the staff transform the lounge into a makeshift theater.
On all the previous Playbill cruises the ships had actual theaters (or performance spaces) with a stage. Being a much small ship, specifically designed for river travel, the S.S. Catherine had only the large Van Gogh Lounge (with no stage) that could accommodate all the guests at one time.
I’m not sure I was able to improve the lighting that much– but at least music director, John McDaniel would be lit. (The night before, he was totally in the dark.) The ship staff seemed grateful for the assistance and asked if I’d hang around for sound check.
A Private Moment. There really wasn’t time to go join our group in the dining room– so I went to our regular spot, which coincidentally was just off the lounge– on the front-lower deck of the ship. I got out there just in time to watch as our ship passed through one of the river locks– the first one I got to observe from start to finish. It’s fascinating how it works, moving from different water levels– and the fact that these locks help prevent most of the flooding that could occur along the river is pretty incredible.
After the lock, we were back in open water. Mostly natural, undeveloped land drifted by– with the occasional building or the remains of some ancient building coming and going from view. The sun was still quite hot as it was slowly starting it’s late afternoon descent from the sky. It was peaceful, quiet, and really a beautiful moment. How lucky I was to be experiencing it!
Paulo Szot In Concert. What a voice! Strong, rich, resonant– a joy to listen to. Paulo treated us to a wide variety of songs that included selections from his Tony Award-winning performance in South Pacific to Sondheim. I think the audience favorite had to be his rendition of Stars from Les Miserables; performed in many different languages and ending in English.
Paulo Szot is one of the most acclaimed and versatile baritones in the world, having garnered international acclaim as both an opera singer and actor. Born in Sao Paulo to Polish immigrants, Szot has appeared in leading roles with many major opera companies throughout the world including the Metropolitan Opera, Paris Opera, La Scala, Dutch National Opera, San Francisco Opera, Rome Opera and Opera Australia. In 2008, he won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Emile De Becque in the Broadway revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center Theater, for which he also won the Drama Desk, Outer Critic’s Circle and Theater World Awards. Szot was the first Brazilian actor to receive such honors. In the recent 2016-2017 season, Szot appeared as Don Alfonso in a new production of Cosi fan tutte at Opera National de Paris and presneted a solo recital at Teatro Royal de Madrid as a salute to Frank Sinatra’s recordings of Antonio Jobim’s bossa novas. He also originated the roles of Alexander Hamilton, Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney in the world premiere of Mohammed Fairouz’s The New Prince at the Dutch National Opera. — Playbill
Going Through the Locks. After the concert, the gang gathered on the deck and we were treated to quite a show. We went through probably the most unique of the locks on our trip– passing under, and then watching the massive gate drop behind us closing our ship in the lock, creating what felt like a medieval dungeon. It was dark and eerie, the ship’s floodlights reflecting off the dark, glistening walls as the water level changed before releasing us back out into the river.
It had been quite a day! I always tell people that doing the Playbill cruises is like getting two vacations in one. You enjoy traveling to, and exploring, fascinating destinations– and then you have the wonderful Broadway concert experience on board. Today was the perfect example of the best of both worlds.
Travel Date: May 23, 2017, Tuesday (Day 11)
If you had only one day to explore one of the world’s most famous cities– how would you approach it? Would you try to see all the important landmarks? Take a tour? Explore on you own?
There’s obviously no real right or wrong way to do it. You just have to go with your gut instincts.
Today was our one full day to discover Paris. Actually, we only had eight hours before a champagne river cruise on the Seine– the kick off for our Playbill Broadway cruise which officially launches tomorrow from Avignon. We had dinner reservations booked immediately following, so we had to make the most of the day.
I had ideas of where I wanted to go– but was determined I wasn’t going to get bogged down (and in a rush) with a packed itinerary. I just wanted to experience Paris and with few strings– let it happen organically.
At breakfast, we FINALLY got to see our friends, George and Mary. They are the easiest couple to travel with– and so much fun!
Michael was feeling a little under the weather, so when Mary and George said they’d accompany me on the first leg of the journey– he chose to stay at the hotel and rest.
So we headed out, uphill, in the direction of four places I’d included on the master list of places I’d like to see.
Montmartre. Montmarte was the trendy neighborhood of days gone by. Writers and artists such as Hemmingway, Piccaso, and Van Gogh once spent their days here. Though considered touristy today, I found the area quite charming and peaceful. Corner parks, tree-lined streets, cafes, street vendors– all culminate in a rather exciting, yet tranquil experience. I wanted to see the iconic windmill of Moulin Rouge, the I Love You Wall, and Sacre Coeur— in addition to just soaking in the atmosphere of Montmartre.
The I Love You Wall is the new Love Locks (more on this later) of Paris. Le mur des je t’aime is where love comes together in every language. Artist Frédéric Baron with the help of Claire Kito (oriental calligrapher) created the 612 tile mural described as “a link, a place of reconciliation, a mirror which reflects an image of love and peace.”
The phrase “I love you” is written 311 times in 250 languages with splashes of red representing parts of a broken heart.
You can visit the wall (free) at Butte Montmartre, Place des Abbesses, in the Square Jehan Rictus, Paris.
Near that square is Eglise Saint John de Montmartre. So many churches in Europe (unlike the U.S.) are open for prayer and visitation, all day, 7 days a week. We couldn’t resist stopping and admiring its architecture.
As we strolled through the streets, I thought we might view the Basilica of Sacre Coeur. We were already too close to it to find an unobstructed view. We came across a steep staircase– and with only a little convincing, George and Mary agreed to make the climb. This led to two more steep climbs that took us directly to the base of Sacre Coeur. There is an incredible overlook here with an expansive park below.
The overlook was the most crowded spot we visited in Montmartre, but that wasn’t a drawback– there was a carnival like atmosphere in the air.
George and Mary had been there before but it had been 30 years ago. Both agreed that it was worth the climb to experience it again. I was just happy to be there with them. Michael would have loved this spot too– but not the climb!
We then began the steep descent, heading back in the direction of our hotel, taking different streets, continuing to explore as we went. It was the perfect way to spent part of a day in Paris.
When we got back to the hotel, I only had time to freshen up, get Michael and then we headed back out in the direction of the River Seine and the Île de la Cité. One of two remaining natural islands within the city of Paris.
We passed the Louvre and reached Île de la Cité and spent some time at Notre Dame de Paris. Featuring French Gothic architecture, it was completed by 1345, survived damage during the French Revolution, and received its first major restoration in 1845.
It’s a beautiful cathedral. Even though there are usually long lines of visitors waiting to get in, they move very quickly. Visiting is free, although there is a charge if you want to climb the narrow stairs to the bell tower. (Which we didn’t do.)
My one regret– in our effort to keep moving, was that I forgot to find Paris Point Zero. It is the marker that supposedly designates the exact center of Paris and France. It is the point from which all distances in France (from Paris) are measured.
From there, we walked along the River Seine until we reached the Square du Vert-Galant and Pont Neuf bridge. The square is a park honoring Henry IV of France. The Pont Neuf bridge is the oldest surviving bridge across the Seine.
You may have heard of Love Locks on the Pont des Arts bridge. The affixing the locks to the bridge was used to symbolize love. In just five years the bridge was covered in locks. Officials feared for the weight and damage they were causing the bridge. They were removed– an estimated million padlocks, in 2015. Well, they are reappearing on other bridges, including Pont Neuf.
Reaching the bridge quicker than we expected, we had some time before the rest of the group would arrive for the Playbill Champagne River Cruise. We walked around the point of the island and enjoyed the views from Pont Neuf– just soaking up the atmosphere.
We met our friends at the boat launch and prepared for a lovely cruise on the river. The private event was organized by Playbill Travel.
Janet and Ken arrived, having been delayed a day by a flight cancellation, and we were all thrilled to be reunited.
After we got off the boat, we had a little time before our dinner reservations to wander Pont Neuf. We also had a birthday surprise for Janet. There was a quaint little vintage jewelry store (Jeanne Danjou et Rousselet) on the island where we had a gift– wrapped and waiting for her. Janet loved the surprise.
We had found the store online (back at home) and picked out a vintage necklace, as a gift from all of us– that they graciously agreed to hold for us to pick up in person. Michael and Mary went in the store with Janet while George, Ken and I watched from outside the shop window. They even resized it for her on the spot.
Our restaurant was just around the corner, on a square where a number of people were playing Boules (Bocce in Italy). We arrived promptly at 7 pm at the charming and historic, Restaurant Paul for dinner. The food and the service was great– a perfect birthday celebration for Janet.
After dinner, we caught the sun setting on the Seine. A stunning combination of color and light playing off the water and bridges as day turned to night.
We got back to the hotel and packed so we’d be ready for our early morning transport to the train to Avignon.
I added at least another 9 miles walking today. A pretty fulfilling experience. My own unique introduction to Paris, the City of Lights.
Travel Date: May 20, 2017 Saturday (Day 8)
Here are some additional photographs from our day in Versailles:
Travel Date: May 19, 2017 (Day 7)
We were really looking forward to visiting Versailles. We got our tickets in advance and had made plans with our friends, Laura and Cass to spend at least half the day there. Most days the gardens of Versailles are free– except when they have the Musical Fountains Show or Musical Gardens as it is called. Today was one of those days.
Our tickets included the Palace, Grand Trianon, Petite Trianon and Marie Antoinette Estate, in addition to the the special garden show. There are a variety of ticketing options, including special tours (only a few are in English) of portions of the Palace that general ticket holders don’t get to see. We did not add any additional tours and I can assure you that there is plenty to overwhelm your senses without them.
The grounds of Versailles covers over two thousand acres of which 213 acres are formal gardens. What you see when you visit, particularly in the Palace itself, is pretty astounding. Especially when you consider it began as a hunting lodge! Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King, had an unwavering determination and vision to create what Versailles was to become. He chose the sun as his emblem because of its association to Apollo– and it was the symbol of peace and art.
The Château de Versailles and the gardens were designated as one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1979.
Putting this post together was a little difficult with so much to cover: which photographs to use, how much history/facts to include, and of course, the experience itself. (I’ll be posting more photos of Versailles in a separate blog post, immediately following this one.)
If you are interested in the history of Versailles and Louis XIV, and I promise you, it is really fascinating — I encourage you to explore the subjects online. I’ll try and keep my inclusions here- brief; and focus more on our experience.
The four of us took a taxi to Versailles, arriving about a half hour before the Palace opened. This gave us plenty of time for pictures of the magnificent exterior. Then, while Michael and Laura waited in line, Cass and I took turns running back to take a few pictures in the gardens (The Orangerie) before it had a chance to get crowded.
The Palace. There aren’t enough adjectives to describe the beauty and grandeur of the Palace. Versailles, rightfully, is on most top ten lists of the most beautiful palaces in the world.
The effort made to maintain and restore the Palace is some of the best I’ve seen in our travels. In so many places we’ve visited, you find faux finishing used to repair, restore or represent what had been there originally. I didn’t notice any of that here.
Every room is dripping in its uniquely-styled opulence. Ceiling mural, elaborate moldings, wall and ceiling medallions, gold leaf everywhere– it doesn’t stop. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
The palace is absolutely stunning! I stepped outside to wait for the others to finish in the Battles Gallery and saw the crowds of people lining up to enter. It made me really glad we arrived early.
While waiting, I noticed the military presence outside the Palace. Actually, it was the most visible of our entire trip.
When the others came outside, we decided to head out to the gardens. Cass suggested we establish a time and meeting place in case we split up but the consensus was it wasn’t necessary at this point.
The Gardens. There are more than 50 fountains and water features in Versailles. My biggest disappointment was the fountains aren’t continuously working. Being that is was a Musical Fountains Show or Musical Gardens day, I expected to see more flowing water. We never did see any of the larger, world-renowned fountains working.
We were told different fountains come on briefly, at different times, throughout the day. You either had to wait by a fountain, or hope to pass one that was working. Since they charge more money for this, I would have thought there would be a schedule and/or a map assisting you in enjoying them. This wasn’t the case. There are maps of Versailles but no indication when the individual fountains would be running.
As we wound our way through the garden maze, we heard music ahead. Tucked in a secluded section, we found a modern water show in progress. This was nice, but I would have rather seen the many older fountains working.
The views of the garden are breathtaking. There is something new to see around every turn– statues, alcoves, private garden enclaves– they never end. There are large map boards strategically placed throughout, to help you find your way around.
After some wandering, we made our way to the Grand Canal and the Apollo Fountain.
Walking from the Palace to the Grand Trianon, Petit Trianon and Marie Antoinette Estate covers about two miles- one way. There is a tram (for a fee) that can transport you as well. We didn’t discover the tram until we were halfway through the gardens, along the canal– and decided we’d walk the rest of the way to the Grand Trianon– knowing we’d probably take the tram back to the palace after we’d seen the other features of Versailles.
Grand Trianon. We reached the Grand Trianon, divided in two sections by a peristyle (breezeway). Louis XIV had this built as a retreat. His getaway from the nearby palace.
Getting Lost. Taking my last picture, I exited the final room of the Grand Trianon, to look for Michael who had been ahead of me. Cass and Laura were just a room or two behind us in the chateau. I got outside– no Michael. I went back in, getting stopped by a guard– and was told I had to wait there. I saw Cass and Laura coming though – but no Michael.
We got outside and just waited. Where was he?
WWMD? What would Michael DO?
Not disappear. But he had.
To make a long story short(er)… we waited… worried… went ahead… backtracked– about three hours went by before we found his whereabouts. We wouldn’t see him again until we got back to the hotel.
Going on through the park, we passed several small buildings and more sculpted gardens before reaching the Petit Trianon.
A guide pointed us in the direction of the Marie Antoinette Estate, more like its own little village. He neglected to tell us that the main house was under renovation. It was completely covered up, in fact.
We looked at a few of the small cottages and then decided to backtrack, hoping to find Michael along the way.
When we got back to the Grand Trianon, we discovered the tram stop and decided to take it back to the Palace. Just as we got on, there was a brief downpour– with some hail. Luckily, it had stopped by the time we reached the main entrance. Laura had cell service, so we called the hotel and left messages, hoping to find Michael, or at least to let him know we were on the way back.
Just as we were getting in a taxi, Michael responded. He had just gotten back to the hotel. (It turns out he had been waiting by an exit at the Grand Trianon that we didn’t even know existed. Then he went on his own adventure, searching for us as we were searching for him.) He was safe, we were safe. A sigh of relief.
On the way back to the hotel, we had some terrific views of the Eiffel Tower. If we’d been any closer, it would have been hard to get all of it in a picture.
Back at the hotel, Laura and Cass went up to their room and Michael came down and met me out front. We recounted our search efforts, vowed to never let that happen again– and then Michael informed me that the day’s drama wasn’t over yet.
Our friend Janet had emailed Michael to let us know that her flight from the U.S. had been cancelled. She and her son, Ken wouldn’t be arriving until the next day. We’d already prepaid for dinner and a show so we had to find someone to take their place.
We found our friends, Marilyn and Rita, who had experienced their own misadventure that day– and were thrilled to join us.
Paradis Latin. All of us met in the lobby (including Laura and Cass) and then got a car to Paradis Latin. Like Moulin Rouge, this was one of several venues catering primarily to tourists. We all had a really nice time. Dinner was very good and the show was pretty much what we expected. Topless showgirls and shirtless men, a comedian, an aerialist– song and dance — including the Can-Can. An enjoyable evening, though by our standards, a bit overpriced.
We’d had quite a day and walked over ten miles! In spite of the drama, it had been a pretty fulfilling adventure.
AND— we had another great travel story to tell. Let’s just hope it’s the last one of its kind.
Travel Date: May 19, 2017 (Day 7)
According to schedule, we landed at Heathrow at 8:30 am and breezed through Customs/Immigration. We had arranged a car service to meet us and whisk us off to our London home away from home, the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. We loved it so much last September, we didn’t even have to think twice about staying here again. The added bonus (this trip) was that they have VIP service to walk you through customs and get you boarded on the EuroStar train we were taking to Paris at the end of our stay.
We pre-checked in and dropped our bags, then had a quick knosh in the Chambers Club before hitting the street for the day. (We knew ahead of time our room wouldn’t be ready.) With tickets to two shows, we figured we wouldn’t actually get into our room until late that night.
We’d made a short list of things we wanted to see in London this trip. Since we were just here last September, we’d gotten the touristy- thing out of the way and felt no rush to cram in a bunch of sites. Plus, with our heavy show schedule, we figured we’d just try and do one thing a day and keep things simple and relaxed.
We didn’t get to spend any time in Trafalgar Square last trip, so that’s where we headed first. The large public area, formerly known as Charing Cross, was named after the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar and is anchored by the prominent Nelson’s Column surrounded by statues and fountains.
The National Gallery is located on the square, but being a Saturday, the lines were quite long so we didn’t try to go in.
There were plenty of artists and street performers entertaining the large crowds of people enjoying the weekend. The wind started to pick up and dark clouds started rolling in suggesting we might be in for a downpour.
After a bit of people watching, we headed to the far end of the square, towards St. Martin in-the-Fields church and the National Portrait Gallery around the corner.
After watching The Crown recently, I found out the sketches for Graham Sutherland’s commissioned painting of Winston Churchill were on display at the National Portrait Gallery. (Churchill hated the painting, that was commissioned as gift to him– and his wife had the painting destroyed.) What I neglected to find out was the room in which they are displayed is closed for renovation. Maybe on a future visit.
After exploring the neighborhood a bit more, we returned to Trafalgar Square to relax, enjoying the sights and sounds of the city until we needed to head to our matinee show.
Half a Sixpence. Our first show was a matinee performance of the musical, Half A Sixpence. The romantic comedy was originally produced in 1963 (in London) starring Tommy Steele and moved to Broadway (with Steele) in 1965. I saw the 1967 film version many years ago and remembered it as being a lot of fun.
We weren’t disappointed. We both enjoyed this “poor man- inherits fortune- loses fortune- gets the girl” story, thanks to the energetic and extremely talented cast. Charlie Stemp would have made Tommy Steele proud. It was a great start to our London theatre experience.
The threat of rain gone, the dark clouds had been replaced with sun and beautiful blue skies. We ventured over near Buckingham Palace and revisited the Wellington Arch. It was nice to be able to take our time enjoying the nice spring weather, leisurely, making our way to the theatre nearby.
We had plenty of time for dinner after picking up our show tickets, so we chose to eat at The Other Naughty Piglet. The restaurant boasts a seasonal menu of small plate offerings. Let me just say– the food here is art. The ham croquettes were to die for! For a place that appears so casual and unpretentious– the food is a culinary masterpiece. I’m no foodie and I seldom write much about our meals. This should be an indication of how impressed I was.
Whisper House. Our evening performance was Duncan Sheik’s Whisper House at The Other Palace Theatre. Built where the Westminster Theatre stood until fire consumed it in 2002, it was named the St. James Theatre when is opened in 2012.
Andrew Lloyd Webber acquired it in 2016 and it was renamed The Other Palace. There are two smaller theatres in the complex (a 312 seat main stage and 12o seat studio space) which is now dedicated to developing new works.
When I saw Whisper House would be playing, I had to see it. I’m a huge fan of Sheik and his musical, Spring Awakening. I’d say Whisper House is more a play with music than a true musical. It’s basically a ghost story that takes place in a haunted lighthouse during World War II. The show was originally workshopped in San Diego in 2010 and it was co-written by Kyle Jarrow.
It seemed promising at the beginning. Visually, the show was gorgeous. The opening number “It’s Better To Be Dead” is both haunting and glorious. Much of the music is really good– but at as the show progressed, it (the show) seemed to be troubled on a number of levels. The cast seemed to struggle with the material and the stage chemistry between the actors/characters wasn’t always evident. Initially, it appeared that only the ghost characters would be singing the musical numbers as a commentary– but then later it seemed to hinder the show’s progression.
Director Adam Lenson fails to make this production his own. During one song, for no apparent reason, the cast began to physically express themselves (individually) in a way that directly mimicked Spring Awakening. So much for originality. I also felt that overall, the intensity was lacking, causing the show to drag. I didn’t hate it– with work I think there’s some real promise in this piece.
It had been a long day.
We headed back to the hotel to complete check in, unpack and get some sleep. Our heads hadn’t hit pillows since Thursday night (in the U.S.) and I’m surprised we weren’t even more exhausted.
It had been a great first day of vacation. We’d walked over seven miles today, even with taking the Tube. We were ready for some solid rest.
Travel Date: 5/13/17 Saturday (Day One)
Time to say goodbye to Europe and head home. Whirlwind trips like this are so rewarding and overwhelming at the same time. Here, on the last day, I was full of mixed feelings: sad it was over, anxious to see my pups, and needing a vacation to recover from vacation. But– what an incredible experience!
When I got up, I walked back over to St. Peter’s Square. The sun was rising as I watched the nuns and clergy making their way to work. People were already lining up at the Holy Door, waiting for the first service at the Basilica.
I just took a moment to breathe it all in….. Absorb it….. Memorize it….. Knowing it was time but not quite ready to file it away.
The four of us had breakfast (Michael, Mary, George and I)– which opened a little late– causing us a bit of a rush before our transportation to the airport arrived.
By the time we got our luggage downstairs, our transport was waiting for us. I took one last look at the grand columns surrounding St. Peter’s Square as we climbed in the van, bidding Rome a fond farewell. Ciao!
We got to the airport quickly and easily, then said our last goodbyes to George and Mary. (In all likelihood, we wouldn’t see them again for seven months– in Paris!) Then we proceeded to get checked in and head to our gate.
Everything was pretty much on time. We got settled in on the plane and shortly after take off, I watched the tearjerker, Me Before You. I thought it was really well done. It’s one of those sad, schmaltzy, romantic films that can easily be done wrong– but it kept its edge and believability throughout, without getting too sappy.
Over the course of the ten hour flight, I dosed on and off. My head was full of all the places we’d been. Growing up I’d never thought I’d ever see the world like this.
When we arrived at O’Hare, we breezed through customs with our Global Entry clearance and the new, automated ‘self serve’ kiosks that definitely sped up the process.
Peggy had picked the kids (Belle & Dudley) up from their vacation– and took them home before she came to get us. If she hadn’t, we’d have had to wait two more days (Monday) before we could get them.
We pulled in the driveway and it was overflowing with fallen leaves– just the first reminder of all the fall projects still ahead.
We were home.
Looking back, Michael and I had shared another truly amazing journey. We’d expanded our travel log: adding 5 West End shows, meeting nearly a dozen Broadway pros, visited 4 more countries and 18 cities, in addition to sailing the Mediterranean Sea. And– we still have so much more of the world to experience! We made new friends, created memories with old friends and had a thoroughly wonderful time.
I can’t stress enough the value of traveling and seeing the world. The history, different cultures and most important– seeing how others live and adapt– really help put the big picture in perspective.
(Original Travel Date: October 1, 2016)
We sailed into Cittavecchia as the sun rose, ending our seven day cruise. Before we disembarked the Silver Wind, we had breakfast, said a few goodbyes and waited to be called. We were provided transportation from Cittavecchia to the taxi stand at the Piazza Barberini in Rome. From there we headed to Vatican City.
Arriving at the Residenza Paolo VI Hotel, our home for the night– we had plenty of time before our tour. The hotel was literally across a narrow side street from St. Peter’s Square. George and Mary were able to check in when we arrived but our room wasn’t ready. We left our bags in their room and then we went upstairs and checked out the view from the terrace.
Michael had booked our private tour before the trip. This allowed us to bypass the lines at the Vatican Museum which can be quite long. We were supposed to meet our guide by some park stairs near the museum — we just had to find them. After spending a little time in St. Peter’s Square, we headed out around the perimeter of Vatican City– and of course. we chose the long way around.
After about a half mile walk, we found the meeting point and then decided to get a little lunch before the tour. We ended up at a little corner joint — didn’t look like much on the outside but inside it was actually quite nice. We had a nice filling lunch (I had pizza) and then headed to meet our guide.
The Vatican Museum is massive. We only saw a portion of it, marveling at the incredible content as we moved from room to room. Detailed frescos, hundreds of enormous tapestries, thousands of marble sculptures– not to mention the wide variety of architectural styles throughout the museum.
The Sistine Chapel. I’ve always heard this was a must-see in Rome and it is only accessible with a ticket to the Vatican Museum. We were warned before entering that there was to be no talking and no photography inside.
We entered, and were in and out in probably five minutes or less. Why? It was extremely crowded and a little uncomfortable. Visitors were crammed in like sardines, most staring up at the magnificent ceiling. But– people were talking, taking cell phone pictures and prompting the guards to yell at the crowd, repeatedly, to stop doing both.
I kept getting bumped into and brushed against. I was honestly afraid I was going to fall victim to the rumored pick-pockets. It was the only time during the whole trip that I had any concern. I was just anxious to get out of there. By the time I got to the other side of the room– the rest of our party was also there– we all just wanted to leave that claustrophobic environment.
St. Peter’s Basilica. The Papal Basilica is considered by many as one of the world’s most holy places. We’ve toured many churches, cathedrals and basilicas around the world. This is THE basilica, right? Nothing can prepare you for how colossal it really is until you walk inside and experience it for yourself. The tallest dome in the world, it rises 448 feet above the sanctuary.
As we were nearing the end of a Jubilee year, we were still able to pass through the Holy Door which according to Catholic beliefs, cleanses the pilgrims that pass through it. (The Holy door was just resealed by the Pope a few weeks ago.) It is normally sealed from the inside with mortar.
There is no charge to visit St. Peter’s. If you are visiting Rome but limited on time, you should most definitely visit St. Peter’s Square and the Basilica, even if you don’t have time to tour the museum.
For dinner we headed to Su & Giu Cucina Romana on the recommendation of George’s sister. We arrived too early (just after 6) forgetting that most restaurants close after lunch and then open later for dinner. In our case, they didn’t open until 7:30. So we took a walk through the neighborhood and did some window shopping in the meantime.
The streets were quite lively. There were lots of street vendors and people hurrying about. I found a special pleasantness about it all– a wonderful vibe and quite charming. It was enjoyable just to sit, people-watch and soak it all in.
We were the first to be seated when we got back to the restaurant. We couldn’t have shared a more perfect meal for our last night. There was an overabundance of delicious food. We were stuffed!
We took a taxi back to the hotel, George and Mary went upstairs, while Michael and I walked back over to St. Peter’s Square to view it all lit up and snap a few photos.
I’m really glad we planned our trip this way. Saving a day just dedicated to seeing the Vatican was a smart move. There’s really no way to truly experience all that Rome has to offer and the Vatican in one day. Splitting it up the way we did, I feel like we were able to fully experience this incredible city– even if it was crammed into a couple days.
(Original Travel Date: September 30, 2016)