Monday, December 04, 2000

Let's Go Europe!

One incentive of being in the GPS EMEAI project is having the chance of visiting European countries easily. The project is based in Paris, France and has been the focal point of our travel within Europe. Crossing the borders of two countries can sometimes be negligible that you won’t even notice it unless you see the sign that announces the new country’s identity.

On the offhand chance that you find yourself in Europe, here are surely enjoyable places that should be included in your itinerary…

Allez, Allez Francais!
Paris has a lot to offer to tourists. There’s the famous Champs-Elysees, dubbed as the most beautiful avenue in the world. La Tour Eiffel in its towering presence. Arc de Triomphe, a work of art that symbolizes triumph even in defeat. Sacre Couer with its glorious overview of the city of Paris and the nearby Painter’s alley. Notre Dame de Paris, famous for its connection with a classic story. Chateau de Versailles, a castle that could be commended for its beautiful garden. And who could miss the Musee Louvre and Musee d’Orsay, both containing timeless and priceless works of art?

Simple buildings in Paris usually have a sense of beauty that make square and unassuming buildings plain beside them. Where else can you consider department stores as tourist attractions? And Paris has an abundance of beautiful churches that could probably put to shame even the most beautiful cathedral in our country. One personal favorite is the Eglise Saint-Germain L’Auxerrois. This is a small Gothic church near Musee Louvre and used to be the parish of the Kings of France. It boasts of exceedingly beautiful 16th century stained glass windows.

Outside of Paris, a world of great culture and interesting places awaits those who are willing to progress out of the famous center of France. Visit Giverny to see Claude Monet’s house. The garden has a big collection of flowers of different kinds, sizes and colors. It is simply magnificent. Once you get to the water ponds, you’ll be surprised by the likeness of the real thing to the artist’s masterpieces.

Etretat is worth visiting for its beautiful cliffs. Imagine walking along really small streets towards the sound of the sea. And then suddenly you have before you the beach and the open sea with two towering cliffs on either sides. The view at the top is spectacular and is worth the long trek up.

Beaches in France is quite a different experience. Do not miss going to the French Riviera : Nice, Antibes and Cannes. During summer, the beaches of the French Riviera are lined with numerous topless women. Do not be surprised to see mothers and daughters lying in the beach topless in front of their whole family. I read that it goes with the French culture. Biarritz is another beach area but on the Basque country of France. This is near Spain. A friend commented that it looked like California.

While visiting the French Riviera, be sure to drop by the relatively near Monte Carlo in Monaco. A lot of people mistake the place as part of France but it is a different country. There is no border formalities. A visit to the Palais du Prince is worth your money. Since the Prince resides within the Palace, it is well maintained and will give you a good idea on how royalty lives. However, since it is a private place, no cameras are allowed.

For the religious pilgrims, Lisieux, Lourdes and Nevers should be part of your itinerary. Lisieux is the town of St. Therese of the Child Jesus. While you are there, visit the cathedral of Lisieux and St. Therese’s house. The food there is commendable. Lourdes is to the south of France and will require a longer time for travel. This is the place where St. Bernadette saw the Virgin Mary through several apparitions. You’ll be amazed by the horde of people who gather there to pray and pay tribute to the Lady of Lourdes. Here you should experience the long walk along the station of the cross, wash your face and drink water in the fountains, light a candle for humanity, hear mass at the Miraculous Cave and feel the faith vibrating from the crowd. After Lourdes, it is worth visiting Nevers to see St. Bernadette’s body. Although she died a long time ago, her body is still fresh. I saw a lot of people cry over this miracle.

Other places that are worth visiting include the Loire valley for its abundance of castles. The fortified city of Saint-Malo in Brittany has an atmosphere of timelessness. Be sure to go to Strasbourg. It is a beautiful city and the cathedral is wonderful. On the way to Strasbourg, be sure to pass by Gerardmer to see the beautiful lake below the mountain. Tours should be considered for its food. Go to any restaurant in the town and you will not regret it.

London is very distinct from Paris in that it has more to offer in architectural beauty. I think I say this because simple offices in Paris are very picturesque. Whereas in London, the buildings have modern designs and tend to be more practical than picture-perfect.

During my three weeks stay in London, I had a chance to explore the honey-colored city of Bath, watch The Phantom of the Opera, visit one of the seven wonders of the world : the Stonehenge and stare in awe over the splendor of the Windsor Castle.

Belgium and its chocolates
Bruges is a nice little town which is famous for its chocolates. Here, you’ll get a chance to visit a whole street lined with chocolate shops. Imagine entering a store adorned with different types of chocolates in varying shapes and sizes. The sight and smell can be overwhelming to one’s senses. Besides the chocolates, Bruges has a lot more to offer. The plaza is surrounded by little colored houses that gives the place additional character. The Notre Dame church boast of its Madonna and Child created by Michaelangelo. It was one of the few work of the artist outside of Italy.

Netherland : The land of Windmills
Amsterdam will overwhelm you in a different way. Or maybe it’s because my visit was limited to the red light district and places near it. Visit the red light district at night when blinking lights and music give life to a part of the city that would look so common during daylight. Here you’ll see a horde of people clamoring over glass windows that reveal dancing women in their lingerie. You’ll also stare in wonder at coffee shops that grow marijuana and sell them openly. Talk about getting a real high.

Bella Italia
As a tourist spot, Italy's famous places is at the top of the list of most tourist to Europe. And you can't really blame people for loving beauty and wanting to explore and experience it. The usual and worthwhile places that you can go to in italy are of course Rome, Florence, and Venice. When in Rome, places to visit are the Colloseum, the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hills, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps and The Vatican. Be sure to remember to drop a coin in Trevi Fountain and make a wish as the usual tourists do. In Florence, visit the Piazza del Duomo and take the 472 steps up the stairs to the top of the dome to get a breathtaking view of Florence. Then there's the Piazza della Signoria, home to the famous Palazzo Vecchio. For arts lovers, be sure to book for a ticket to the Galleria degli Uffizi or you might be disappointed and be forced to queue for more than 3 hours to get in. Be sure to see in Venice the Piazza San Marco, Basilica di San Marco, Palazzo Ducale and Ponte dei Sospiri. Visit Scuola Grande di San Rocco and be awed by the painter Tintoretto. Check out the Rialto bridge and compare it against Florence's Ponte Vecchio. When you have enough time, hop on to a ferry and visit the island of Torcello.

Other European features to watch out for
Being in Europe also gives you a chance to explore different types of music from different countries. Sure, most of them are in languages that you probably cannot understand, but sometimes, it seems music can cross language barriers. La Flaca, Sympathique, Onde Sensuelle and Je dis aime are some of the music that I’ve learned to love. La Flaca is a very catchy Spanish song that will have you dancing in a minute. The other three songs are from French artists. In a place where the world of music is ruled over by boy bands and sexy female artists, it is rewarding to discover and explore the music of Europe.

The most important part of going to Europe is the chance to meet all kinds of people with diverse backgrounds. It is a place where people can speak not only one or two languages, but sometimes up to more than five. It is a place where English is not usually the medium of communication and you’d be force to learn their language or be lost in the quandrum of voices going all around. I’ve met a lot of interesting people who one way or another made a mark in my life.

Everything that Europe has to offer
Here in Europe, you can have everything you want and go anywhere you please. The choice is up to you. It can be very expensive but if you plan ahead and research all your possible choices, travelling in Europe can be affordable too.


  • Plan your own travel

  • Use Mappy for driving instructions in Europe

  • Use the train when you can

  • Visit the top rated places in the Michelin guide as they are usually accurate and worth your time

  • Stop being a snob and just enjoy!

Tuesday, October 31, 2000

Ciao Italia

Italy. It is a country that I have loved even before I saw it. I know it is hard to perceive but I developed a love for the place months before my actual visit. I guess you can say that it is ironic because I started to form a longing for Italy when I visited the Louvre Museum in Paris. There I saw wonderful frescoes by Boticelli who, although I’ve heard of before, was virtually a stranger for me. In my interest, I decided to buy a book and learn more about the artist and his works. And there I learned that most of his works are housed in the Uffizi gallery in Florence. The more I read about him, the more I wanted to see his work in person. Thus, I promised myself that I would one day see Florence and see Boticelli’s splendid creations with my own eyes.

It took me some time, but I was finally able to go to Italy. It was a tour I made on my own. A decision that would have intimidated the faint-hearted but it only strengthened my resolve. I told myself that if I don’t do this now, I will never be able to go. So, I continued my plans knowing that I will be travelling alone.

My first stop was Rome and I guess it’s only fitting that I first see the Colosseum. It is an impressive structure, one that will not fail to excite one’s heart. Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating since a different person might wonder what the fuss is all about for a bloke of stone. But for me, I felt like threading on one of the greatest places of the history of mankind. And I guess you do just that since the Roman Empire was considered as a great one. Once you are inside, you’ll be humbled by the vastness and intricacy of the place. I then moved on to the Church of San Clemente. It is a medieval basilica, full of paintings and has a beautiful gilded ceiling. One level below is an old Christian church from the 4th century and yet below it is a church of Mithraic origin. I visited next the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva church. This church has a very plain façade made distinct only by an elephant sculpture designed by Bernini. Inside the church, the ceiling is designed with blue and gold and it makes a good contrast to the opulent collection of paintings inside. I then head off to the nearby Pantheon. I arrived there at night so a lot of people are gathered at the fountain outside. When you go in, you’d be awed by the great dome that is open at the top. This is a marvelous example of a great Roman architecture. The place was superbly designed and when you get inside, you get a sense of vast space. The focal point of my day was my visit to the Trevi Fountain. If there is one place in Rome that I would love to see again, this would be it. Nothing can prepare me for the beauty of the Trevi Fountain at night. One minute I was walking in a crowded street, then the next minute I saw this beautiful fountain adorned by lights and surrounded by a lot of people. It was breathtaking and totally romantic.

I also visited the Borghese Museum, famous for its collection of Bernini sculptures. To be truthful, I was enticed to this museum for the Boticelli paintings it supposedly contain. However, when I got inside, I only found a single work by Boticelli. I am glad though for the effort I made as I was able to see a lot of Bernini’s sculptures. There was David posed to throw his stone for Goliath, then there was Apollo and Daphne excellently portrayed as lovers. Bernini’s sculptures are remarkable in that their smoothness and intricate attention to detail give them a quality notable of all of the artist’s work. The nearby Piazza del Popolo is also worth a visit. Here, tourists and residents alike spend the afternoon lounging under the sun. The church of Santa Maria del Popolo at the edge of the plaza merits a visit for its Cappella Chigi, decorated by Raphael.

I also saw the Roman Forum. It is consisted of ruins that will inspire awe in everyone. It is hard to imagine how the place looks like before. Too bad I was not able to get hold of those books where it shows you the ruins as they are and there’s this decorated plastic that you can put on top of it that shows how they were in their original form. Tough luck. The Palatine Hills is a good place to rest after a frantic visit of the Forum. It boasts of a good view of the surrounding areas and of the Roman Forum itself.

Acting like a tourist, I also head off to the famous Spanish Steps. I was expecting more grandeur than what I saw but I was sorely disappointed. Although it is a nice place for a meeting or a tryst. I went up the steps and was rewarded by a good aerial view of the surrounding areas. I then head off to Piazza Navona to see Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers. The sculptures, supposedly depicting the Danube, Nile, Plate and Ganges, are wonderful and moving. It is located in the center of the very lively Piazza Navona and a good place for rest.

The last place I visited in Rome is the Vatican City. It took me more than a good hour before I got inside the Basilica. However, the wait is worth the splendor of the Basilica’s interior. The first sculpture I saw was Michelangelo’s Pieta and it comes up to its reputation well. The bronze altar canopy, created by Bernini, is simply wonderful. The gilded ceilings, the beautiful chapels within the Basilica, are just a few of the good things to expect within. We visited the Vatican Treasures Museum and it is filled with a lot of souvenirs like golden chalices, rings adorned by different types of precious stones, capes and crowns used by prior popes and a lot more riches of the Vatican. Going out of the museum, we were lucky enough to witness a procession of the Bishop who celebrated the mass inside the Basilica. He blessed our little gathering and after they passed, we were allowed to go on our way. I tried my best to see the Vatican Museum particularly the Sistine Chapel. However, by the time I got there, the place is closed for lunch and if I wait, I will miss my flight. I figured that I will definitely go back to Italy anyway, so, I’ll see it the next time I’m there.

The 2nd city I visited is Florence. It is a more intimate city and walking is a nice past time. I am lucky because my hotel is near the train station and near the city center. Thus, I am able to explore the city at my leisure. The first place I visited is the Piazza del Duomo. I saw the colorful Duomo and its Campanile. The multicolored façade is unique and fantastic, a sentiment that one can attribute to the whole city. Directly in front is the oldest building in Florence, the Baptistry, swarmed by tourists for its eastern door, dubbed by Michelangelo as the Gates of Paradise. And Indeed the door is beautiful. It is composed of ten panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament. I entered the Duomo next to see how the interior comes up to its attractive exterior and was disappointed to see that it is too plain in comparison. However, the frescoes adorning the large dome is a colorful interpretation of the Judgement Day. I then queued for the visit to the dome created by Brunelleschi. It was a rigorous 472 steps and frightening for me. I am afraid of heights and I only tried to climb because it was reputed that the view from the top of the dome is incomparable. I was okay at the start because I am able to see someone in front of me and some people were also walking behind me. However, there was a time when I lost sight of people in front and at the back and I was climbing a spiral stairs when I wanted to stop but I can’t for fear of falling. I almost lost my nerve but I continued on because I was too afraid to stop. Whew, just imagine how relieved I was when I got to the top! I was shaking all over and my heart was beating really fast. But I was so glad that I tried to climb because the view from the top is spectacular. It gives you a view of the city of Florence from all sides, including the mountainous towns nearby. Simply breathtaking. I can just imagine how the city looks like at night. Enchanting and totally romantic.

My next visit led me to San Lorenzo church and the Medici Chapels. Oddly enough, I can’t recall a distinct work from there except for Michelangelo’s tomb for one of the Medicis. Although, located at the side of the chapel is a leather factory where tourists can view wallets, bags, jackets and other products. There is a large collection of items to choose from but I cannot tell if they are fairly priced. Florence is well known for its leather industry because of their affordable price and soft texture. This is also the city where Salvatore Ferragamo base his business in Italy.

I tried to visit the church of Orsanmichelle to see the supposedly miraculous painting of the Madonna and Child. But I was sorely disappointed for it was closed. I tried to visit it for several days but I was not lucky.

The Piazza della Signoria, home to the famous Palazzo Vecchio, is a lively plaza where tourists gather and residents usually meet. It is adjacent to the Uffizi gallery but I didn’t go there yet as I scheduled it on a different day. Instead, I head off to Ponte Vecchio (old bridge), Florence’s most famous bridge. If you traverse the bridge, you’d wonder what the fuss is all about since what you will see throughout are jewelry shops. Although a lot of tourists flock to this site to look at the goods being offered, you must walk away from the place to see how it looks like. It is good to look at from a distance although I must say that the postcards and books made it look more grand than it seems. I walked towards the direction of the Uffizi gallery as I have to pass here also to get to my next stop, the Santa Croce church. This is a beautiful church, tucked away from the most usual tourist spots. My walk towards it brought me through one of the oldest quarters of the city. It was quiet and relieving after the hustle and bustle of the Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio. In front of the church is the Piazza Santa Croce, where you’ll find a lot of students busy with trying to capture the church through a drawing, and other residents just sitting at the plaza passing their time away. Of course, not a minute passed before a hoard of tourists come along to enter the church. At that time, I was already anxious because I can’t seem to find a church where one can pray. Most of the churches are tourist spots and not conducive for a short meditative prayer. However, the Santa Croce church was able to fit my need for prayer. The church is visited by tourists because a number of famous personalities are buried there. Some of them are Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo and Rossini. The church is also filled with beautiful frescoes from different Italian painters.

Galleria degli Uffizi. The height of my visit in Florence started the next day with my visit to this famous museum. The queue to get inside is horrendous and I was so glad that I made a reservation. It costs more but it’s worth it because it could take about two or three hours before a person without reservation can enter. For this visit, I did not spare any expense. Like a typical tourist, I rented an audio guide for the history of the paintings I am about to see. Up the stairs, through the hallway, I entered the first room of the Uffizi. Room 3 – 6 are mostly works from the Byzantine period. Since I prefer Renaissance art, I quickly moved to the adjoining room to find most of Fra Angelico’s work. Fra Angelico largely influenced Boticelli in his work. And as depicted in the book I read, his paintings are simply magnificent and moving. The paintings depict religious scenes or figures and hearing some of the explanation can really move a person to strengthen their faith. It was good that video camera was allowed inside the gallery as I was able to capture his work through film. Then I moved to room 9 where part of Boticelli’s work is shown. It was a good introduction to rooms 10 – 14 that hold a large collection of the artist’s work. I excitedly moved to the Boticelli room. And it is hard to put into words the gladness that I felt to see his paintings in person. His paintings are simply wonderful. Most of the tourists crowded over The Birth of Venus and La Primavera. However, I got stuck in his painting of the Madonna and child. The way he painted the face of the virgin is beyond beauty. He gave the virgin’s face an ethereal quality that makes it so wonderful to look at. I returned not less than four times to stare at the painting. I cannot explain how wonderful his paintings are. His Birth of Venus and La Primavera live up to their reputation. It is an understatement to say that I was overwhelmed by all his work. I don’t know how else to explain it. I so loved his work that I didn’t want to leave anymore. I returned several times and I think it was noticed by the employee assigned within that room. She recognized me already after my third return and she smiled at me, probably wondering why I kept on returning. One other artist that I noticed in the museum is Titian. His Venus of Urbino is so real and enticingly feminine. The museum is filled with paintings from other famous artists like da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo. However, after seeing Boticelli, my curiosity to see more waned.

I also visited the enchanting church of Santa Maria Novella. The façade is outstanding and colorful. I was hoping to see the Trinity fresco created by Massachio however, the painting is under renovation. It was reputed that this painting was visited by the Florentines in 1427 for the it apparently created a picture of three-dimensional space in a solid wall. It’s a pity that I wasn’t able to see it.

At a time, I found myself at a loss for things to do. I decided to travel out of Florence and visit the beach. I impulsively bought a one-way ticket to Viareggio, a city noted for its beautiful beaches. The travel from Florence to Viareggio took more than an hour. The Italian countryside is breathtaking. There are several towns surrounded by mountains and some are perched on top of hills or at the base of a mountain. They are so beautiful. When I got to Viareggio, I was so unhappy to find that the information center is closed and no one in the station speaks English. Not knowing where to go and how to go to the center, I decided to just go back to Florence instead of subjecting myself to a day of losing direction. However, I so enjoyed the train ride to and from Florence. It was like a rest for me since I’ve been in a sort of a frenzy to see everything at such a limited time.

I then head off to Padua and Venice. I visited Padua for a single reason only : Saint Anthony. He is the patron saint of our family and to see his basilica in Padua was my second reason for travelling to Italy. When I got to the Basilica, I entered with bated breath. I felt a tension within me heightened by the knowledge that I am finally fulfilling a promise I made to Saint Anthony. I can hardly suppress the emotion I felt that day. I walked around the beautiful basilica in awe of the whole place. When I came to Saint Anthony’s chapel, I felt compelled to enter at once and give respect to our patron saint. There I saw the beautiful sculptures depicting the saint’s life. And in the center is the tomb holding his remains. I queued along with the many others who wanted to touch his tomb. When my chance came, I felt an overwhelming emotion of happiness and gratitude. I am not ashamed to admit that I cried while I was praying to Saint Anthony. I felt happy and content.

Venice is a lovely island. I traveled to Venice by train and as we got closer, I saw that the whole city is surrounded by water. The first thing I did was smile. I love Venice already. A friend of mine commented that we seem to enjoy seeing beaches and other body of water more than landscapes or monuments. Which I believe is true. Although I like seeing towns surrounded by the mountains at one side and the sea at the other side. I think that’s the perfect scenery for me. The first thing I did in Venice is to ride their regular ferry and see their Canal Grande. But of course, in my haste to get to the boat, I didn’t check which boat I was going to. Thus, I found myself traversing the Canale Della Guidecca instead. It’s a good thing that the ferry also goes to Piazza San Marco or it would have been a complete disaster.

I liked riding their ferries. And the water does not smell bad as others thought it does. Although the water’s color is mossy green, it is not pungent. It does not smell like the crisp smell of the sea that you get from other beaches but, it’s not really bad.

I first visited Piazza San Marco, Basilica di San Marco, Palazzo Ducale and Ponte dei Sospiri. The Palazzo Ducale or Doge’s Palace was not only home for the ruling doges, secret police or legal courts, but also to prisons and torture chambers. I read that Casanova was once held in one of the dungeons inside the palace. The Ponte dei Sospiri or the Bridge of Sighs was reputedly named for the sighs of condemned men being led from the palace to the city’s prisons. The Piazza San Marco or St. Mark’s Square is the most famous plaza in Venice. The plaza is dominated by several cafes, reputedly the most expensive in the city. Be warned though that not only is the plaza filled with tourists, its main occupants are pigeons. And they take up a big part of the plaza. If you walk through them, you might find yourself surrounded by several flying birds, which could be very disconcerting. Although some tourists try to walk to them and get the pigeons to stand on their arms. Other features of the plaza are the two columns near the waterfront. The place in between was once an area of execution and Venetians still consider it an unlucky place to walk. The Basilica di San Marco holds the remains of St. Mark. I am not a fan of mosaic art but the mosaics covering the exterior and interior of the basilica are wonderful. It’s a pity because tourists were not allowed to linger inside due to the numerous people who visit the basilica. I did not venture into the Loggia dei Cavalli, St. Mark’s external balcony, or to the museums for lack of time.

I next visited Santa Maria della Salute. The Salute is a beautiful church inside and out. The story says that this church was built in honor of the Virgin for saving the Venetians from the plague. The high altar inside the church features a sculpture of the Virgin Casting Out the Plague. The sacristy is filled with beautiful paintings from Titian, most of them portraits of saints. Notable also is a large painting by Tintoretto called Feast at Cana.

Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. This is a wonderful Gothic church built for the Franciscans. The church contains a large collection of paintings dominated by three great Italian Renaissance paintings. The most noticeable of these three is the large Assumption painting by Titian located at the high altar. It is a glorious painting that totally dominates the whole church. The second painting is Bellini’s Madonna and Child with Saints. There is a restrained beauty in this painting that will not fail to tug at your heart. The third painting is another work of Titian, the Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro. The portraits in this painting are so real and the Virgin is simply beautiful. One other work in this church that left a good impression on me is the Frari’s choir. It is magnificent and unique. The choir is made of wood and contains three level of seats. The most decorative are the highest seats doubly larger than the first two levels. The wood carvings are exquisite. Each seat is decorated with carvings of religious figures.

My guidebook said that a visit to Scuola Grande di San Rocco is a must. I almost skipped this place but I am glad I didn’t. In visiting this place, I chanced upon a great Venetian artist, Tintoretto. The place contains three rooms : Sala dell’Albergo, Sala Grande and lower hall. A collection of 54 paintings from Tintoretto is distributed within the Scuola. The most notorious painting is located at the ceiling of the Sala dell’Albergo, the Glory of St. Roch. A contest was held in Venice for a commission on paintings to decorate the Scuola. Tintoretto won the commission by bringing a finished painting, when his rivals only brought sketches. He secretly had the painting placed in the ceiling before the judges’ arrival. This work though is overshadowed by his large Crucifixion painting, considered as one of Italy’s best. It is a very moving painting and I got another example on how churches use paintings as a medium to strengthen a person’s faith. The Sala Grande will not fail to amaze. Imagine a whole room whose ceilings and walls are filled with paintings. They are made more beautiful by the gilded frames surrounding each one of them. It was breathtaking. The lower hall is equally impressive. Tintoretto was already in his sixties when he created the paintings in this room.

I like the Rialto Bridge better than Florence’s celebrated Ponte Vecchio. It is more beautiful and more appealing. The bridge was created during the 16th century and is shaped like an inverted V.

Torcello. I was told to move heaven and earth to get to this island. Well, no theatrics was needed as I just had to buy a round trip tickets for the trip. I loved the one hour boat ride. We passed through the San Michele, Venice’s island cemetery. Creepy. Torcello is almost deserted but for a few residential houses and three tourist spots, if you can call them that. The Santa Fosca church is a very simple church and bare of any decoration. Somehow I liked it for its simplicity. Then there’s the Museo dell’ Estuario, Torcello’s art museum. It’s a small museum that’s dedicated to the history of the lagoon. The place that makes visiting Torcello worthwhile is the Santa Maria Assunta church. This small church is filled with fantastic mosaic art. It also has a campanile that gives you a very nice view of Torcello and the nearby Burano. I loved the view from up high. Although I wasn’t able to go out for a better view and my sight was limited to the small windows that are lined with wires, probably placed there to keep out birds.

All in all, the city that most captured my heart is Venice. It is said that this is the city for lovers and I think it is true. As the Austrian guy I talked to said, what could be more romantic than meeting someone at the famous Rialto? Intriguing. There is an old Italian proverb that says, “At Florence, you think; at Rome, you pray; at Venice, you love; at Naples, you look”. I think this proverb says it all.

There are others things to love about Italy. First and foremost are the people. A lot of Italians are so beautiful that you’d wonder if Gods and Goddesses are roaming around the place. I had an experience in Santa Maria del Popolo where I was shocked by the beauty of a gorgeous guy inside the church. There I was innocently looking at the place when suddenly, a guy sitting near a chapel looked up and I was stunned by his angelic face. I probably wouldn’t raise an eyebrow if he announced himself as the Archangel Gabriel. Of course, I would wonder about the man’s sanity but beautiful people are easy to forgive.

Then, there’s the famous gelato. If you go to Italy and never had a taste of their ice cream, then half of the world has been lost to you. Their gelato is the best there is. Never a day passed when I was in Italy that I didn’t treat myself to a gelato. Then there’s their pizza and their pasta. Yummy! They sure know how to make the best pizza and pasta. And of course, the espresso. Someone told me that if a tourist orders a café, he will be given a cappuccino instead of an espresso. I guess I am lucky because I always get the espresso. The Italian coffee is so good. Of course, the serving is so small, you can finish it in one gulp. Which I think is how the locals drink their coffee. But I got used to the French’s way of drinking coffee, slowly savoring the taste. Espresso was always a part of my meal. Just like the gelato, I can’t get enough of it.

My love for Italy extends up to the books that I read. I am now reading Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli. Although I have to read the English version of these books, I believe I am able to capture the thoughts of the Italians who wrote them.

Although I traveled alone, I enjoyed my visit in Italy. There were times when I longed for someone to talk to, to share how I feel about each places I visited. And it was disappointing when you have no one to discuss your emotions with right at the moment when you’re feeling it. However, my tour has got me acquainted with a lot of people from different parts of the world. Most of the people I talked to are Filipinos, either traveling there as tourists or are working there and have lived in Italy for a long time. Others came from the U.S., Canada, Austria. I enjoyed talking to strangers because it cultivates my ability to communicate and sustain a conversation. And I’m glad I had that experience. Most of the people I talked to voiced out their opinion and said that they really enjoyed talking to me. Don’t worry, I was not forcing them or paying them to say that. I guess sometimes, you just have to experience travelling alone and see how you’ll fare on your own.

I know that I will be back again to this country. Not just because I want to but because I have a conviction within me that this will happen. Now that I have seen what Italy has to offer, my love for it has grown stronger than before. I want to explore it more and learn about its people and its culture. Someday, I know I will be back again to see my beloved Italy. And then I would be able to say again Ciao Italia!*

* Ciao in Italy is an informal way of saying hello and goodbye

Saturday, August 05, 2000

Loire and Brittany

Last Saturday, we went to the Loire area. It was now easier for us because a friend of ours here at the office gave us a website that gives you the path to follow from one place to another. We started off with a visit to Orleans where St. Jean D'Arc won her first (and only?) major battle against the English. The place looks a little bit more modern than what we were expecting. Their Cathedral is beautiful. We saw it from afar and the first word that we uttered was "Wow!". It is a good sample of Gothic Architecture. It somewhat reminds me Notre Dame here in Paris. The only bad thing is that it was being fixed so we can't take a picture of it as a whole. We tried to look for the house of Jean D'Arc but we got lost. It seems that it is not a tourist spot or directions would have given us an idea of its relative location. After several tries, we decided to head off to Chenonceaux for our first castle of the day.

The trip to Chenonceaux took a really long time. We arrived at the Chateau de Chenonceau at around 3pm and we still have to eat out lunch. We ate dinner inside the compound of the castle. The food, although well prepared wasn't as I expected. At least the one I ordered wasn't that good. For the others, I think they enjoyed their lunch well.

We had to walk a long way to get to the castle. There is about two kilometers walk from the gate and the pathway is filled with beautifully manicured green grass and tall pine trees. There were also other big trees as well but the pine trees got our attention because they look so much like Christmas trees.

We walked towards the palace through Catherine de Medici's garden. It's a small garden (compared to Versailles) and it's good that they are able to maintain it well. The flowers in the garden is uniform in color : old rose. Thus, they look so nice when you view them as a whole. And we were able to do this because the garden is small enough. The description given to it was that it's intimate. Very apt.

Chateau de Chenonceau is impressive to behold. It's base is composed of four (or more?) arches and it's covering a small part of a lake. I think that the reason for the arches is for the water to flow continuously. I read that it stand in the exact location of an old mill. Thus, I guess the nearness to a body of water.

We visited a lot of rooms in the castle. This one is in a better state than Versailles. The rooms are well maintained although not as well if someone still lives there. I liked some of the pictures in the room and I had my pictures taken with them. This is the first castle I've been to where cameras are allowed. So, we took advantage of it.

I probably sound like a parrot already because I still prefer Windsor Castle over all the other castles I've seen (i.e. Versailles, Monaco, Chenonceau). For me, it is still the best castle. There's still nothing like it. Of course, my visit of French castles is not yet complete. This weekend, we might have the chance to visit 2 - 4 more castles and maybe I'd change my tune then.

We then head off to Tours to eat dinner. While we were there, we chanced upon another Gothic church. It's very simple but quite nice. The church has three columns and it was funny because the two side columns do not match. Usually, you would expect them to be the same but although they have similarities, closer inspection would produce a lot of differences.

We ate at an Italian restaurant in Tours. I had a Spaghetti Carbonara and it is the best one I ever had in France. I loved the Spaghetti with Salmon in Antibes but nothing compares to the food in Tours. Very, very good!

After dinner, we head off to Paris. Paris is about 3 1/2 - 4 hours drive from Tours. However, we made it in about 2 1/2 hours. Imagine how fast we were.

Then on Sunday, we then head west of Paris to the Brittany area. We were able to visit two places : Le Mont Saint Michel and Saint Malo. Le Mont Saint Michel is a mountain where an abbey for the Archangel Saint Michael is built. The structure is amazing. It is a very striking sight. Part of its attraction is the fact that when the tide is high, the place is totally isolated from neighboring places because it becomes an island. We were able to park quite a far distance from it because the high tide is already over. If not, we would have had to wait until the water subsides before we can go in.

Inside, the place is a disappointment. It's so bare and there's nothing to make up for the FF40 we paid to get in. Even the view from the top is not noteworthy. Well, considering that it was an abbey, I guess we should have expected something really simple. I guess you can't ask for a place like that to be as grand as a castle.

We then head off to Saint Malo. We had to go around several times before we were able to find the centre. They have an Intramuros or a walled city there. Entering the Intramuros is like entering another place in time. It is so beautiful. An officemate recommended that place to us and we are so glad for it. We tried to visit their church but a mass was being held so we didn't have time to visit. We were able to go around the place though and it was nice. The tide at that time was low so we were able to go to a nearby island where a fortress is located.

We had dinner there and although it's already okay, it's not as good as Tours and Lisieux. The drive back to Paris is about 5 hours or more. We made it in about 4 hours or less. We were going as fast as 200 kph. Well, I didn't really know because I was sleeping. Imagine!

Ah well. Anyway, now our weekend visits are going to be neighboring places only so that we won't get tired during the next few days. It should be pretty interesting. Our Saturday will be spent in visiting churches and Sunday will be spent in visiting Castles.

Saturday, July 29, 2000

Lourdes & Biarritz

Last weekend, we went to Lourdes (Pyrenees) and to Biarritz (Cote Basque). These areas are near the Spanish border. The Spanish influence was evident on the structure of the houses in that area. The houses were simple but what's so Spanish about them are their window shutters. I have not seen these in the other places we went to in France. These places are so near Spain that the prices of items were in French Francs and in Spanish Peseta.

Lourdes is a pilgrimage area. When we entered the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, the first thing we noticed was the chapels. There were a lot of chapels there. In fact in one building, there was the chapel for St. Jean D'Arc and another one for St. Anne. We were at the upper part of the basilica. We looked below and was amazed by the number of people in there. There was a mass going on and at one part of the place, we saw a lot of people taking water.

As we were walking down towards the inner part of the Sanctuary, we heard English mass songs. We looked below and saw a large group of people on wheelchair hearing mass together. As I listen to the songs being sung, I felt so touched and I felt tears well up in my eyes. I felt so happy and I felt God's presence in the place.

We then went to a tour of the place. Our first stop was the station of the cross. There is a special place in Lourdes where life-size figures were created to depict the stations of the cross. It was in a hill near the sanctuary. A little rigorous climb but it was worth it. Of course, we prayed during our visit.

After that, we went back to the sanctuary to visit the Miraculous cave where Virgin Mary appeared before Saint Bernadette. There was a long line but it was worth it. It was really a simple cave. There was a small stream inside the cave where the water that Saint Bernadette drank supposedly came from. The stone walls of the cave was cool to the touch and water was coming from small cracks in the cave. The water is surprisingly cold. It felt good to have touched the cave where a miracle happened years back. It felt like you're partaking the blessings out of that miracle also.

Then, our next stop is the candle stand. You won't believe the candles in that place. They were bigger and fatter than me! The candles are eternally lit and continuously re-used. There was an inscription that says that through those candles, our faith will burn forever.

Near the cave are the water/tap stations. There were a lot of taps in the place. From the sign above the water, it said that Mama Mary instructed Bernadette to wash her face and drink the water. This is what we did. The water is so cold and sweet. We actually filled up our bottles and drank the water during our stay. We just refilled them before we left Lourdes.

Afterwards, we went to Le Pic de Jur. It's a really high place on top of a mountain. We rode a tram (similar to ones used for mining) and ascended the cliff. It was actually frightening to be so high up. There was a grotto (cave) that we have to pass through to get to the highest point. The inside of the cave is really cold, like it was air conditioned. But I guess it was cold because there were water coming from small cracks in the crevices of the caves. A lot of good places to take pictures but we can't understand the notes as they are in French. We then had to climb through a rugged path to get to the highest point. We were in a little bit of a hurry because there is a schedule for the last train coming out of the place. If we miss it, we'll have to spend the whole night at the top. And man, that would be a disaster. When we arrive at the top, we got a good view of the Pyrenees area. The view is very good. Of course, after seeing a lot of places like this, it could become so bland. Well, not for me. I love seeing God's creation in all its splendor. I always wonder how God thought of creating the world when I see beautiful places like this. It's so wonderful.

The other places we visited were disasters. There was nothing to see. Thus, for the next day, we decided to drive to a really far place to see an area in Cote Basque : Biarritz. This is part of the Basque country in France. Typical of the French beach area, the place is charming and more importantly (for the boys!), full of topless girls. :) The place is like the California of Europe. It lives up to this reputation. Jack and Dolly who have been to California, likes the place a lot and said that it really resembles California. There were a lot of natural rock formation near the beach so, they served as good picture places. We had to go back early to Lourdes to buy some more souvenirs and to eat dinner. It was also a long way from Biarritz so we had to leave early.

Our travel back to Paris was uneventful. Just like on our way to Lourdes, we had the cabin to ourselves. Thus, we were able to sleep as late as we want. It was just so tiring because again, we had to report for work afterwards.

Friday, July 21, 2000

Adventures in Cote D’Azur

We went to Cote D'Azur during the weekend. We took an overnight train from Paris to Nice. There were five in our group : Darwin, Maridol, Jack, Dran and myself. The cabin we were in have couchettes or beds but each cabin has 6 each. Thus, we were forced to sleep early because our companion wanted to sleep early. Ah well. Originally, our companion was a young American guy (cute!) but when he learned that we were all together, he requested someone else to stay with us. This time, we got a middle-aged French guy who was so snobbish. He didn't even say good evening to us.

After spending an hour to get a car (Avis in Nice was so slow!), we went to Mc Donalds for breakfast. Now, I don't know where they get their idea of fast food but they definitely suck at it. It took us about more than 30 minutes to get our meal and the food was worse than expected. I guess the French are just not used to the idea of fast food. Well, I guess that's typical since from my observation, it takes them more than an hour to finish lunch because they follow a set of rules during lunch or dinner.

We then went to the "Le Chateau". A chateau in French, is a castle. However, the place we went to isn't really a castle but a place where an old castle used to stand. It's in a really high place that gives a very good view of Nice. Very breathtaking. I really love seeing panoramas like this. God's creation is so good to the eyes. Of course, the guys noticed the people lying at the beach and when they saw that some of them are topless, whoa! They suddenly have this urge to walk along the beach. This we did. We wandered around the "Promenade des Anglais". Imagine the five of us, wearing non-swimming clothes, walking along the beach ogling at all the people lying there. The culture here is really so different from ours. They are so at ease in lying topless on the beach, something that you'd find so taboo in Manila. What's so amazing is sometimes, a whole family where the mother and the daughters are topless would be there along with the male relatives. Maybe it's our culture or the way we've been brought up, but we just find this idea so different and so not Filipino.

Anyway, we also went to Antibes in Juan Les Pins and ate our lunch there. I had a very good lunch : spaghetti aux saumon fumee. That's spaghetti with smoked salmon. Yummy. After seeing Nice's beach (it was very clean but they have stones instead of sand), the guys just don't like Antibes. Maybe it's because they can't see much of the topless girls in the beach or what, I don't know. We decided to go to Cap d'Antibes. Supposedly, the Eden Roc, famed to be the most beautiful hotel in the world is there and the place was supposed to be filled with a lot of beautiful houses. I don't know. Maybe we were then again busy looking at the people on the beach and we just forgot to look at our surroundings. The Eden Roc was a disappointment though. Or maybe we were just not able to go in to see it. Ah well.

Afterwards, we then head off to Cannes. As expected, we went to the beach again (we never got tired of it!). We stayed for a while at the beach. There was a part of the beach lined up by big rocks. We went near the sea through these rocks and as expected, I got afraid again. It wasn't really high. But, because I can see the cracks in between the rocks, I just got afraid again. At one time, they left me all alone standing in one of the rocks and I shouted! I asked them to come fetch me already because I'm beginning to panic. Ah well. What can I do? I love indoor rock climbing but when I'm faced by a simple task of going over small rocks (well, not so small), I feel afraid again. We went to the Cannes International Film Festival theater and had our pictures taken there. We were also able to go to the Le Suquet, it's an old village high up in the mountain. We got lost on our way there but it was fun. The view is spectacular.

It was a little bit early so we decided to go to another village near that place. However, we got lost so we ended up going to Grasse. We were planning on going to the perfume factories there but since it was already late, they were already closed. We just decided to eat dinner there and head back to Nice. On our way back, we were planning to go to a small village that they said have a medieval theme. However, the place towards the place was so dark that it's so creepy! We decided to turn around and just go back to Nice.

The next day, we visited Place de Massena. It was a very nice Park in the middle of Nice. We then head off to Monte Carlo, Monaco. I love Monaco. We went to the Palais de Prince or to the Prince's Palace. Just like Windsor's castle, the place was well kept. Again, I believe it's because the place is still being lived in. It's the permanent residence of the Prince of Monaco. Well, it was very beautiful, but I still believe that Windsor Castle in England is more beautiful. We then went to the Casino. Ooh la la. The casino is very nice. We went to an observation place there overlooking the sea and it was so wonderful. Ah well. I'm sorry for gushing over the different places we go to but I just love the French Riviera.

On our way back to Nice, we were planning to go to the medieval village of Eze. However, there was no parking space so we had to leave. We tried to go to the Greek village of Kyrelos but we will be late for our train so we had to go back.

And of course, our visit would not be complete unless we got lost along the way. We got lost several times. But unlike in Lisieux, we were not able to find our way back easily. We also got lost trying to return the car. It was so funny one time because we saw the station ahead of us but then we had to go through a street to get to it and then as were crossing the street, we saw the station behind us, everybody was shouting that we're losing the place again! Finally, we made it and were able to get a quick dinner before we catch our ride back to Paris.

Our cabinmate this time is a French lady who speaks good English. She was kind enough to exchange places with one of us so that we can be together. The travel back to Paris was uneventful so there's not much to say. Of course, we were so tired because we had to go back to our apartments and then report for work at once.

Ah well. The consequence is overweighed by the fun we had during the weekend.

Friday, July 14, 2000

Vernon, Giverny, Deauville, Lisieux, Etretat

Last Friday was a holiday here. Thus, we had a long weekend. For this week, we decided to rent a car (at the project's expense of course) and drive through the French countryside. We went to the Normandy area. It was fun. We went to Vernon where we had a chance to feed swans in the Seine river. Then, we went to Giverny where Claude Monet was born. His garden is amazing. It has a collection of almost every flower you can imagine. It was wonderful. His water lily pond, where he based his famous "water lily" paintings was exactly as it was depicted in his paintings. Amazing. I loved it there.

We got lost on our way to Deauville and we asked some natives how to get there. We were advised to go through Lisieux to get to Deauville. When we arrived at Deauville, we learned that there's no more hotel room available. The place is good but were not able to explore it more. We ate dinner there and then left to go back to Lisieux.

As it turned out, Lisieux is the town of St. Therese of the child Jesus and of the holy face. She's also known as St. Therese of Lisieux. Imagine! I guess, it was through God's guidance that led us to Lisieux. We visited the Basilique and St. Therese's house. They are wonderful. Really amazing, actually. Imagine, we're walking in the same streets where St. Therese walked. We had a very good lunch in one of the restaurants at the town and checked-in into another hotel before heading off to Etretat.

Etretat is a really small but nice town. We didn't tour around the town but went directly to its famous cliffs. The view is spectacular. Beside the beach, there were two cliffs overlooking the sea, one at the left and one at the right. We went up the peak of the right cliff because there's a church there. There was a wedding at the time and it was nice to watch. The view is really, really amazing. It was well worth the climb. We went down a very rugged part of the cliff and I was afraid. Thus, I held on to Lito (one of the people I'm with) and I wasn't looking anywhere else. Going up, I arrogantly said that I will climb on my own because there are handrails that I can hold on to. However, somewhere in between, there was a part where there's no handrail to hold on to and I panicked. I shouted and I was laughing in my nervousness. I was hoping to hold on to Dran but he was way above me and too far from me. It's a good thing that Lito was right behind me or I don't know what I would have done. Well, it was an experience.

After that, we head off back to Lisieux and had a very good dinner. Well, I spent a lot but the meal was really, really good. The next day, Sunday, was spent also in Lisieux. We went to the crypt and to an exposition in the Basilique of St. Therese. We also went to Carmel where a replica of St. Therese is. Afterwards, we watched a diorama of St. Therese's life. It was very moving.

I really think that we were guided to Lisieux. It was not part of our plan but somehow, we spent a lot of our time there.

Sunday, March 12, 2000

Windsor Castle

One of the things I like about the movie “American Beauty” is the poetic lines uttered by one of the supporting actors. He said something about beauty being all around us and that sometimes, it’s hard to keep everything within. Sometimes, it’s too great, he felt like his heart will burst.

I was at Windsor castle this afternoon and got a glimpse of immense splendor. The palace is a living testimony to the English’s appreciation of beauty. Windsor castle from the outside is a great edifice to behold. It bespoke of magnificence, strength, pride and endurance. For a castle that was built 900 years ago, it is well kept and still worthy to be the residence of the Queen of England.

Upon entering the castle, one gets a glimpse of the exquisiteness that is a common sight for the royalty. The entrance is filled with a lot of war memorabilia : swords, guns, lances and suits of armors. Picture taking is strictly prohibited and I felt a great disappointment for not being able to capture the grandeur of the place.

One by one, we visited the many rooms of the castle. One of the most glorious rooms I’ve seen was the St. George’s Hall. Here all of England’s coat of arms are proudly displayed, witness to the awe that people bestow upon the place.

The paintings, china collection, furniture, tapestries, everything within each room bespoke of a fine sense of appreciation for loveliness. Looking at them, I remembered that moment from American Beauty. The exquisiteness of it all felt too much for my poor heart. I wanted to rebel against their rule of not taking pictures but I dared not do something about it for fear of the consequences.

If it were possible for a heart to burst from such magnificence, surely mine would have burst into pieces a long time ago. Of course, what I consider to be grand is a common sight to the royalty. What a pity that they cannot experience the awe that people feel when introduced to such splendor .

I am starting to love England and I feel like it’s taking a hold on me. I could grow old in here and spend the rest of my days praising its beauty. But, one day, I too have to go and all I’ll have of England is the memories of days spent in its glorious company.