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Walking tour & Paris at Night

September 18, 2014 – Thursday – Beaune to Paris, France

We leave the hotel in Beaune this morning and make the short drive to Paris, catching our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. Sylvain drops us off a block away from our hotel and drives away for the last time. He was a great driver and was very good-humoured as well. Hotel Muguet is probably the nicest hotel we have stayed at on the entire trip, and I get to stay two extra nights here, leaving for home on Monday. I have a room facing the courtyard, so it is nice and quiet, and it’s air conditioned, which is needed to cope with Paris’ muggy weather right now.

We arrive a bit after noon, drop our bags off at the hotel, and quickly regroup to go on a walking tour of Paris and get an orientation of how to use the Paris Metro. First stop is Sainte Chapelle, a royal medieval Gothic chapel, located near the Palais de la Cité (City Hall), on the Île de la Cité in the heart of Paris. It is currently being restored, but is very impressive both inside and out. It was built to house Louis IX’s collection of relics of Christ, and functioned as his personal chapel.  It is very ornate inside; decorated in gold and huge stained glass windows.

Map of photos taken in Paris

Map of photos taken in Paris

Next stop is Notre Dame Cathedral, an historic Catholic cathedral on the eastern half of the Île de la Cité. It is huge, and is an example of French Gothic Architecture, but not as impressively decorated inside as Sainte Chapelle. In fact, the interior is rather shabby in spots, showing the wear of so many people trouping through it. It was among the first buildings in the world to use flying buttresses (arched exterior supports), which are particularly spectacular when the building it lit at night. There is a huge plaza in front of the cathedral. We regroup here and take the bridge across the Seine to the Latin Quarter.

We have dinner on our own in the Latin Quarter before regrouping at Pont Neuf for an evening river cruise on the Seine. We see many of the bridges on the Seine lit up at night, as well as Notre Dame Cathedral, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and a multitude of bridges as we cruise along the river. There are huge numbers of people partying along the river. Many are just hanging out with bottles of wine, while others are in semi-organized dances.

The cruise along the Seine at night makes for an impressive end to a very long and tiring day. After returning on the Metro, we are all glad to arrive back at our hotel.

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Florence

September 9, 2014 -Tuesday – Venice to Florence

The cornfields have turned brown and the farmers are harvesting as we drive from Venice to our first rest stop near Bologna, which has Jennifer’s favourite, an AutoGrill. The rest stops on the Italian expressways (Autostradas) serve very tasty food – not a Burger King or McDonalds to be seen thank goodness! As we travel through the Tuscany area, the road has more curves and hills, and we drive through lots of tunnels.

We arrive in Florence early this afternoon. The bus stops in a local square, we unload ourselves and our bags, and walk a few blocks to our hotel, Hotel Accademia Florence. After getting settled, we go on a walking tour of the centre of Florence. We have an Italian guide with us, but Jennifer leads the tour. Apparently, the Italian guide is with us so the Rick Steves tour group doesn’t get hassled for conducting “unauthorized” tours of the city – Italian bureaucracy in action!

JoeTourist: Florence &emdash; Michelangelo's statue of DavidWe line up for the Gallery of the Academy, and after 10 minutes or so get inside to see Michelangelo’s statue of David. I saw the copy of the David statue in the nearby Plazza della Signoria when I was last in Florence in 2006, but there is no comparison to seeing the original inside the museum. David is beautifully lit with both outside light coming through a transparent dome, and also floodlights. Jennifer points out how his expression changes depending on where you gaze upon him. His naked body is exquisite, although his right hand is too large. Jennifer explains that the original plan was to mount David high on the front of the Duomo, which might explain why his hand was bigger than normal…otherwise from the perspective of people on the ground, the hand would not be easily visible.

We go for a group dinner to nearby Trattoria Nella this evening. The food is good, and wine and bottled water is included with most of our Rick Steves group dinners. Our guide Jennifer takes us out for gelato afterwards, so I am really full by the time we return to our hotel.

September 10, 2014 -Wednesday – Florence

I am awoken at 6:30AM by thunder and lightning crashing and booming over the city. The rain comes down hard, however it is all over by 7AM. An exciting start to the day! Several of us go to the Duomo (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore) early this morning and climb up to the top of the dome. It is very close quarters, since the stairs to the top are between the inner dome and the outer dome. We are rewarded with superb views of Florence from the top.

Pasta a fagioli

Pasta a fagioli

I go to Trattoria Antellesi for lunch, which is the little trattoria right beside our hotel entrance.  I have a beer and a wonderful soup called pasta a fagioli, which is a vegetable soup made with pasta, beans, vegetables in a rich and creamy broth. It is often thickened with shredded bread.

We go to the Uffizi Gallery this afternoon with a local guide who specializes in the Uffizi. There is a crush of people and groups, so we have to wait about three quarters of an hour to get in. Photos are now allowed inside, but when I checked earlier, there was no indication of this recent change in policy. So I am stuck using my cellphone camera inside. Our local guide tries to maneuver us around the huge crowds inside, with limited success.

Quite a few of us go to Giglio Rosso Ristorante for dinner on our own this evening. Our meals are excellent, and they bring around a dessert cart with some really yummy choices, which virtually all of our group can’t resist!

Tipping in the European countries we visited is not required in restaurants, since servers and other staff are well paid. That said, leaving the change on the table when the bill is paid is considered polite. Americans (and Canadians) have the reputation of leaving too much of a tip, which the Europeans interpret as being too flashy. If exceptional service is rendered, a 10% tip would be in order, but no more. Payment in cash (rather than credit card) is expected, and many restaurants don’t accept credit cards, or charge extra if a credit card is used. So take Euros to pay for your meals, and don’t tip too much!

September 11, 2014 – Thursday – Florence to Rome

I am awoken again this morning at 6AM by thunder and lightning however the rain isn’t coming down hard like yesterday when we walk to meet the bus. Once we are on the Autostrada to Rome, the rain comes down hard, so the views are not great as we travel south. It’s a good time for me to write in my travel journal.

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Venice

September 7, 2014 – Sunday – Austria to Venice, Italy

After parking in the Tronchetto parking area of Venice, we get our bags off the bus and take the Vaporetto (water bus) to the Academia area. Jennifer previously warned us that an historical regatta was happening along the Grand Canal, which means some bridges and portions of the canal are closed to traffic. We schlepp our bags through the crowds, but when we reach the Academia Bridge, it is completely jammed and is complete chaos. At this point we can no longer roll our bags as we squeeze through the crowds. It takes us about 20 minutes to carefully cross to the other side and regroup before continuing our rather stressful walk to our hotel.

The Hotel Serenissima is located just four blocks from St. Marks Square, and not much further to the Rialto Bridge area. My room is the tiniest hotel room I have ever stayed in, however it has a bathroom and a single bed, and is comfortable and quiet, since it faces the inner courtyard instead of the street.

Gondola ride on the Grand Canal at night in Venice

Gondola ride on the Grand Canal at night in Venice

We don’t have much time, but I manage to get cleaned up before we go out for a group dinner at Trattoria alla Madonna. The food and service is very good. The dinner includes salad, main course, wine, dessert, and some entertainment from a trio that wandered in from the street. They made out like bandits from all the tips our group gave them!

Another highlight of the tour comes next: a night time gondola ride through the canals, complete with a singer and accordion player! Our guide Jennifer arranges this extra cost activity for those of us who want to go, so we share in the (reasonable) cost, and end up in four gondolas. It is great to experience this with the group. It is a beautiful night, the Moon is full over the Grand Canal, and the city is alive with people as we glide by listening to our musicians. Jennifer even serves us Prosecco (Italian sparkling wine) before we start the gondola ride!

September 8, 2014 – Monday – Venice

After breakfast at the hotel this morning, we go on an early morning guided walk with a local guide. We see Marco Polo family’s square, then go to the Venice Hospital area, where we have a break. The hospital looks like a church to me. The walk continues wandering through Venice, and we eventually come to a little shop on a canal, which sells Venetian masks. Our guide takes the whole group inside to see how the Moroccan owner makes the masks. I’m not interested, although the rest of the group seem to enjoy it.

Gold decorated wall and ceiling murals in St. Marks Cathedral

Gold decorated wall and ceiling murals in St. Marks Cathedral

Our last stop on the tour is the famous St. Marks Cathedral on St. Marks Square (Piazza San Marco), where our guides leave us. Timing is important, since at 11:30AM, the lights illuminating the ceiling inside the church are turned on. This is new for the cathedral and well worth planning for, since the ceiling comes alive with the extra light, and photography of the ceiling detail is much more rewarding. I decide to pay extra to see the famous golden horses, which are upstairs in the museum part of the church. This turns out very well, since I also have access to the balcony over the main entrance, which gives an unobstructed view of the flooded St. Marks Square, the Doges Palace, and the nearby islands and canals. I skip touring the Doges Palace, since I saw it last time I was here in 2006.

I get my shoes soaked as I try to dodge the water in the square on my way back to the hotel. After a nap in my room, I go out walking around the Rialto Bridge and the Grand Canal, take some photos, and just enjoy my free time in Venice. I join a couple in the tour group for dinner at a nice outdoor restaurant with a great view of a canal near the Rialto Bridge. Now that the cruise ship passengers have left Venice, the place is civilized again!

September 9, 2014 – Tuesday – Venice to Florence

We don’t encounter any problems taking the Vaporetto back to the Tronchetto parking area of Venice this morning, since the Regatta is over – things are back to normal.

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Santa Marta, Colombia

Friday, November 25, 2011 – Day 5 – Santa Marta, Colombia

I get up early to take a tour to Taroya Park, which involves walking through Colombia’s jungle. The ship arrives on time and the tour bus takes the highway out of town on the way to the park, but soon comes to a stop because there is a protest blocking the road. Police are there, and apparently the protesters are upset over not having power in their neighbourhood, despite having the wiring in place. Eventually our guide comes back with the news we can’t proceed, since this is the only road to the park. Our guide gives us three options: return to the ship and get a full refund, be dropped off for the day at the resort hotel, or take a city tour. Both the city tour and the resort option include a folkloric dance at the Irotama Beach Resort.

Like most on the bus I choose the city tour, since in addition to the folkloric dance, we will see the main cathedral in town as well as the Gold Museum. Our first stop is the Irotama Beach Resort, which is 20 minutes out of town near a resort area. They have a beautiful beach, and offer us refreshments before the show starts. I choose a Colombian beer, which tastes very nice as I sip it under the palm trees. The folkloric dancers look quite similar to the ones I previously saw in Costa Rica and Martinique, but the young dancers do a great job. Apparently all Colombian children learn three folkloric dances when they are in school.

Our next stop is the main cathedral back in the centre of the city. Santa Marta is very much a third world city with dirty ditches lining the streets, narrow sidewalks, fruit vendors and old buildings with rickety balconies overhanging the streets below. As we enter the cathedral, our guide talks about Simon Bolivar, who liberated several Central and South American countries in his time, including Colombia. He is very much revered for his selfless sacrifice, since he died in this city from tuberculosis when he was in his early forties. The cathedral is impressive, with many alters decorated beautifully, however I’m most impressed with the large plaza surrounding the cathedral. It is a lovely civic space with no cars, shade trees, and some nice shops on the perimeter.

Our final stop of the day is the botanical gardens. We see lots of native flora and fauna, include the obligatory iguanas in the trees, butterflies, and there are several monuments to Simon Bolivar. Our guide shows us an old sugar cane plantation home where Simon Bolivar died, including the actual bedroom with original furniture. I learned about Simon Bolivar in grade school, but didn’t appreciate how much the people in Central and South American countries revere him. He was someone who bucked the system and believed in people power.

Our guide has some interesting things to say about Columbia and the reputation the country has with the drug trade. He feels the major cities are safe for citizens to go about their business and for tourists, and illustrates the point by asking us a question. What are the two major industries of Medellin? The obvious answer is Drugs, but the real answer is: Shipping tropical flowers to the United States, and being a centre of excellence for plastic surgery! He tells an interesting story on the second point. Apparently the two largest markets for plastic surgery in Medellin are women from the United States and Brazil. Another major market are young Colombian women who want breast implants. Apparently they often get their parents to pay for the surgery!

Julian Gargiulo

Julian Gargiulo

After the ship departs port and we have a wonderful dinner in the main dining room, I go to see the entertainment in the main show lounge. Julian Gargiulo is a classically trained pianist and does a great job playing the grand piano centre stage. He showcases some of his own compositions along with Chopin, and finishes with a classic Beethoven piece.