Big City Tales

When in Rome…

December 29, 2011
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A guardian angel welcomes travellers to her fair city of Rome.

…do as the Romans do, or so the saying goes!

The famous Swiss Guards watch over Vatican City.

Thus, on a hot and humid Saturday afternoon, that means hitting the streets and roaming about with the masses.  Along the way, be prepared to stop and gawk at an impressive array of spectacular Roman ruins and to part with some Euros as you indulge in gelato not once, not twice, but three times (did I mention it was hot, and did I mention it was Rome?); as you partake of the most basic, but oh so delicious slice of pizza imaginable; and, as you shop in the discount designer stores and bargain with gypsy vendors along the street – both resulted in purchases of little black dresses, what more could a girl want?

Yes, Rome has a lot to offer and exploring it on foot revealed one historical masterpiece and visual delight after another.

If you toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain legend has it that you will one day return to Rome!

The cascading water in the Trevi Fountain can be heard for blocks, but when you’re traipsing through narrow side streets it’s not immediately apparent where the noise is emanating from until you round a corner and it suddenly appears out of nowhere in all its grandeur and gurgling glory.  Truly, this is one of the most gorgeous fountains to be found anywhere in the world and is a definite must-see that will undoubtedly produce a few more than fine Kodak moments.

The Pope's window where he delivers public blessings from on Sundays.

Photo opps certainly abound in Rome and here are some other highlights to whet your appetite for all this city offers up to feast on:
The Vatican Museum – Smack dab in the centre of Rome lies Vatican City and the elaborate and well-kept museum that pays homage to the current and past Catholic pontiffs.  The luxurious interior with its tapestry-lined walls and painted ceilings is not to be outdone by the luscious exterior that provides a great view of the Pope’s garden and the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.
St. Peter’s Basilica/Square – Michelangelo’s Pieta is the star work of art on the inside, but there are several other impressive statues in the aisles leading up to the exquisitely carved altar, and there are Latin phrases gilded in bronze and placed high along the walls just in case you needed something more to stimulate your eyes before exiting into the awe and splendor that is St. Peter’s Square.  Designed by Bernini, who also provided the inspiration for interior of the Basilica, the most impressive features of the square are the two colonnades that wrap around four columns deep on both sides, and the numerous full height statues that line the top of the roof.  One saintly figure after another is permanently and proudly on display for believers and sightseers alike to behold.

Exterior shot of the Vatican Museum.

The Colosseum / Arch of Constantine – Home of the gladiators who would ‘fight to the death’ and entertain politicians and the public in equal measure, the elliptical structure of the Colosseum could hold over 50,000 spectators that were spread out in four levels of seating accessible by some 80 entrances.   An earthquake in the 800s AD caused the southern portion to collapse and some of these ruins have been used in other buildings around Rome.

The Colosseum's south side was damaged by an earthquake.

The Arch of Constantine celebrates just one of many Roman war victories over the centuries.

Piazza Navona – This is a large public square/plaza area that boasts some of the finest Italian sculptures, fountains, and eating/shopping establishments.  In the middle of the plaza is the famous Four Rivers fountain /Obelisk and on the northern end is the just as famous Neptune fountain that depicts the god fighting with an octopus.
The Pantheon – Originally constructed as a temple for all Roman gods, this structure is one of the best-preserved in all of Rome and was, in fact, undergoing some sort of restoration when I was there in 2010.  It now serves as a church dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs of the Catholic faith.

A small portion of the Pantheon not under restoration.

The dome of St. Peter's Basilica.

The Fountain of Four Rivers in Piazza Navona.

Some of the imperial ruins along the road to the Colosseum.

Ceiling detail at St. Peter's Basilica.

Roof detail at St. Peter's Basilica.

Close-up detail of one of the many sculptures that adorn the Trevi Fountain.

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Voila la ville de Paris…C’etait tres magnifique!

December 27, 2011
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The Louvre Museum attracts crowds from morning `til night--on the inside and the outside!

As I was lying on the floor of the Louvre Museum just outside of the Mona Lisa viewing room it occurred to me that being attended to by an ultra-friendly and very helpful American doctor who was trying to get my blood pressure under control was not in the least how I envisioned this tour going!

The famous Venus de Milo statue is just as beloved as the Mona Lisa painting in the Louvre Museum.

With hundreds of museum visitor eyes staring down at me and frantic museum staff trying to push aside said American doctor and ascertain for themselves what was wrong, I felt like I had become the latest work of art on display, but I wasn`t really interested in being viewed.  In an attempt to maintain some semblance of dignity, I tried to ignore the gathering crowd and instead focus my energy on listening to the kind doctor`s words of instruction so that I could quickly regain my feet and rejoin my tour group.  Mortified as I was, my sense of humour did not leave me and I managed to quip that the Mona Lisa simply took my breath away and at least all of this fuss would make for an interesting story after the fact, and it has!

For those inquiring minds who want to know why I had a dizzy spell in the middle of the Louvre, it was due to a few factors that included being jostled about in the mob mayhem trying to get a picture of Madame Mona Lisa in a tightly packed and very warm room, having to stay in this steam-cooker environment to listen to explanations of other Italian masterpiece paintings as part of the tour, and just the mere fact of my immune system adjusting to being on foreign soil.  The whole incident was over just as quickly as it started for which I was grateful as there was so much more to see in this massive museum, and I had yet to explore the exterior gardens and the other gems of Paris that awaited along the Champs-Elysees.

Youthful, lithe and enticing, The Sun King, Louis XIV, graces the exterior of the Louvre Museum.

While the hysteria and antics at the Louvre have provided some of my Paris story fodder, there were other noteworthy occurrences to speak of such as the two faces of Paris that were revealed on a gloomy morning of wind and rain that turned into a glorious afternoon and evening of hot summer sun.

The contemporary and controversial glass pyramid outside the Louvre Museum.

The Eiffel Tower was first-up on the morning agenda so it didn`t make for great picture-taking from the loftiest height in Paris, but nonetheless the great beauty and sheer expanse of the city was evident in walking the perimeter of the tower`s viewing balconies.

Some of the famous bridges of Paris as seen from the Eiffel Tower looking to the west.

La Grande Roue (Ferris Wheel), Paris.

The Louvre Museum tour followed and, although it was starting to clear by the time the tour ended, the sky was still gray as we exited into the Tuileries Gardens and began the march toward the Champs-Elysees passing the Luxor Obelisk, the Pont Alexandre III, and the National Assembly toward the Arc de Triomphe.

L`Arc de Triomphe.

Close-up of carved relief on the Arc de Triomphe.

It was after a light bistro lunch that the sun finally revealed its warmth and the true colours of Paris were revealed.   There is nothing like a vivid blue, cloudless backdrop of sky to bring stark and stoic buildings to life and provide plenty of photographic inspiration.  My feet may have already been aching after making the trek from the Louvre to the Arc de Triomphe, but Notre Dame Cathedral was beckoning and, feeling well-fueled and no longer light-headed, how could I not return to the sites of the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower to capture these Paris lovelies now bathed in sunlight, so off I went back down the Champs-Elysees.  I admit to hopping a cab between Notre Dame and the Louvre because it was now early evening at this point and the sun was starting to descend in the sky; other than that it was all hoofing it on foot and, yes, I paid the price the next day, but it was oh so worth it to see gay Paris in all its glittering and magnificent glory!

The Eiffel Tower.

Steel detail from the Eiffel Tower.

Notre Dame Cathedral.

Stained-glass window interior shot of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Roof-top detail of the Louvre Museum.

The Coronation of Josephine, David`s masterpiece on display at the Louvre Museum.


Moscow & St. Petersburg

December 23, 2011
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At this point I am not sure if it will be a river cruise or a Trans-Siberian railway adventure, but whatever the mode of transportation I choose to take between Moscow and St. Petersburg, I am so looking forward to roaming these rustic and rambling Russian cities and soaking up every last bit of their collective histories!

Sights to see in Moscow:

  • Red Square
  • The Kremlin
  • Cathedral of Christ the Saviour
  • Pushkin Museum of Visual Art
  • Tverskya Ulitsa (theatre district)
  • Kuznetsky Most (former meeting place of Moscow’s elite)
  • Izmailovsky Park (where Peter the Great played as a child)

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Sights to see in St. Petersburg:

  • The Hermitage
  • Neva River
  • The Winter Palace, The Summer Palace & other palatial places
  • The Bronze Horseman, The Alexander Column & other grand statues
  • St. Isaac’s Cathedral & other houses of worship
  • The Palace Bridge, The Bank Bridge & other river-spanning feats of engineering
  • Alexander Garden, Catherine Garden & other parks heralding the great tsars of the past

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Minding the Gap in Jolly Ol’ London Town

December 23, 2011
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Even from afar Buckingham Palace has a majestic and royal presence fit for a reigning Queen.

I love London!

OK, so I only had two days to explore this great dame of a city, AND most of it was confined to the luscious and lively west end district, AND it happened to be during the midst of a summer heat wave meaning there wasn’t a single drop of rain to dampen the mood of my visit, but I nonetheless stand firm in my conviction…I love London and here are just a few reasons why:

The British House of Parliament on the Thames River.

The Tube – “Mind the Gap,” you say? “Thank-you, I think I will!”  And with that final piece of advice spoken in unmistakably crisp and clear British diction, my first ride on London’s infamous “Tube” set forth and I was hooked from there.  This amazing feat of British engineering is a labyrinth of long and deep subway tunnels and pedestrian passages that serves locals and tourists well.  Just when you think you can’t possibly go any further toward the centre of the earth’s core, down you go again on another impossibly steep escalator (yes, this is not for the faint of heart or anyone prone to light-headedness!) in search of your platform.  The trains run frequently and overhead digital signs and regular speaker announcements keep passengers well-informed of subway traffic.  The signage and detailed maps also do a great job of getting any wayward travellers back on track!  The Tube is definitely one of the most user-friendly and delightfully polite and pleasant underground systems that I have been on.

Don't be fooled by the cold exterior of this stone gate/archway...a pleasant, pretty and picture-worthy park awaits on the other side!

St. James Park – There’s nothing like spending time in a great green space on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon and that is exactly what jolly ol’ London town served up for the lollygangers and intrepid tourists alike enjoying a stroll about this lovely landmark.   With government buildings/courtyards on one end and Buckingham Palace on the other, there is a lot to take in as you make your way down the wide and scenic pathways.  The ‘Changing of the Guard’ ceremony draws a large and boisterous crowd at the palace, but the park is quiet in other areas for those who just want to sit in repose and soak up the aura of history and nature’s beauty that is all around.

Soaking up the Saturday sun in St. James Park.

Big Ben looms large in all its glory!

Big Ben / House of Parliament Building– Disraeli, Chamberlain, Churchill, Thatcher, Major, Blair…the list of stalwart and strong British Prime Ministers that have graced the parliamentary halls and meandered the streets and alleyways in the government district is impressive indeed!   The House of Parliament stands tall and proud along the Thames River and, not far off at Westminster Palace, Big Ben continues to boom its bell/chimes and maintains its status as one of the most recognizable symbols of London.

Freddie Mercury lives on through the musical We Will Rock You.

The West End Theatre District – From the annals of history to the current day craze of pop culture, there is bound to be a play/musical showing in the West End that captures your interest.  We Will Rock You, celebrating the music of Queen, caught my fancy on this trip and seemed very fitting to join in an audience sing-along of this beloved British band’s greatest hits.  The gleaming, gaudy and golden life-size statue of Freddie Mercury outside of the Dominion Theatre also grabbed my attention!

When good old Queen Victoria was the queen...

Queen Victoria Monument – Drawing inspiration from multiple artistic mediums and materials, the Queen Victoria monument offers much to please the eye at every level that it is observed from.   From the golden glint of the guardian angel perched precariously on one foot at the top, to the stoic, silent and solid stone carving of Queen Victoria herself in the middle, to the glorious green marble guards and lions who sit at the base as the first line of protectors, it is a sight to behold and a worthy tribute to this mighty monarch who ruled for over 60 years in an era of tremendous growth for the British Empire.

Piccadilly Circus / The National Gallery / The Tower of London and so much more – Whether you’re mingling with the mobs of people at Piccadilly Circus, or admiring the myriad of marvelous art pieces at the National Gallery, or crossing London Bridge en route to the magical and mysterious Tower of London there is plenty to see and do, even if you only have two days to explore!

Here are a few more pictures of my short, but oh so sweet, stay in jolly ol’ London town…I will be back!

The Red Telephone Box is a familiar sight on the streets of London.

The London Eye offers great views of the city.

No talking, please! Standing on guard at Buckingham Palace.

An ultra-large 'Ship in a Bottle' on display outside of the National Gallery.

A guardian angel watches over the Queen Victoria monument.

Green marble figures surround the base of the magnificent Queen Victoria monument.


Beautiful, Bold and Brash Buenos Aires

December 20, 2011
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The world-famous Teatro Colon Opera House.

“The Paris of South America” was the enticingly descriptive phrase that first piqued my curiosity about Buenos Aires (BA), but it was also the mystique of the enigmatic and provocative Eva Peron and the intricacy and intimacy of the tantalizing tango that captured my interest and increased my desire to one day visit this South American marvel.

The opportunity to go to BA presented itself in 2011 and I diligently prepared myself with a pile of pre-trip reading and CD-Rom language study to try to learn some basic and critical Spanish words/phrases.   Picking up the language proved to be quite a challenge as having taken French through high school, my tendency was to apply accents and emphasis en francais versus en espangol, so it didn’t come to me as naturally as I thought it would.  With Spanish phrasebook in hand, I hoped for the best and hopped on my BA bound flight via Houston, Texas.

The Obelisk celebrates the 4th centennial of Argentina.

Well, it’s fair to say that most of what I read about beautiful, bold and brash Buenos Aires turned out to be an accurate portrait of the city:

  • Spring in BA is a LOVELY time to visit (i.e. October) – a bit breezy at times but overall not too hot and not too cool (20-25 Celsius on average).

    A lapacho tree in bloom.

  • It is a BUSY, BUSTLING and NOISY metropolis complete with European style and North American flair (to me, it was like a mash of Paris and NYC, particularly the Times Square and Central Park areas).
  • BA has a lot to offer in terms of sports, the arts, and shopping (Florida Street and Santa Fe Avenue have a heavy concentration of leather/shoe stores).
  • Pastry and ice cream shops are everywhere and Argentines have no qualms about spoiling their dinner with a big bowl of gelato after work.
  • The many plazas around BA are luscious green spaces that are a nice reprieve from all of the high-rise concrete buildings.
  • BA’s expansive and impressive skyline is best seen from the river on a ferry-boat heading to Uruguay.

    General San Martin monument.

  • Argentines do like their meat and most dishes offer two large portions along with a side of veggies; Argentines also like their pastries and the traditional Alfajores (stuffed cookies) come in all sorts of delectable variations such as dulce de leche.
  • Handing out leaflets is a civic obsession, be it for the upcoming national election or for an upcoming promotion at a store.
  • The world’s widest avenue (Avenue 9 de Julio) was a wonder to behold and while you could make it across in one trip if you were running at a good clip, it was generally a two trip affair
  • Casa Rosada is indeed a bright pink building and a fitting setting for the delivery of passionate political speeches (too bad that it is often fenced off due to demonstrations).

    The May Pyramid in Plaza de Mayo was the first national monument erected.

  • Recoleta Cemetery is one amazing mausoleum after the next and a “who`s who of Argentine society” is buried here – it is a great history and architecture lesson at the same time.

    A Guardian Angel in the serene Recoleta Cemetery.

     

  • The legacy of Eva Peron still resonates in some circles and there are many monuments and tributes to her around BA; her family crypt in Recoleta Cemetery is the most visited and multiple bouquets of flowers are still placed outside of it daily.
  • The subway system is efficient and cheap/easy to use based on a colour coded scheme.
  • Soccer is VERY popular (the matches for the much-loved Boca Juniors are broadcast on no less than four local TV stations).
  • The barrio of La Boca lives up to its billing as a `colourful` and cultural hot spot; Puerto Madero is the ‘it’ barrio to be in and features a walking bridge designed by the famous Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava.
  • The Congresso (National Assembly building) rivals Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
  • The San Telmo Antiques and Craft Market stretches for blocks on Sunday afternoon;  Florida Street is just plain crazy every day of the week (like Times Square on crack with some sort of visual or audio stimuli to jar your senses at every turn).

All in all, it was a good trip and I can safely say that I had the full BA experience complete with traffic jams on the ride in and out of the city, having to change hotels because of a water shut down, avoiding poop piles in the many park areas and marvelling at the hired dog walkers who manage up to 20 dogs at a time, sampling many delectable ice creams and pastries and empanadas and meat entrees (veal, chicken and pork), admiring the many statues and stately buildings, and, much to my chagrin, falling prey to a camera thief.

Lush greenery frames a detailed sculpture in Plaza San Martin.

While I was fully prepared to deal with situations that could arise within busy, crowded streets (and had successfully navigated through the Recoleta Artisan Market, the San Telmo Market, Avenue 9 de Julio, Corrientes Avenue (like 42ndStreet in Broadway), and the open air Florida Street Mall before the incident occurred), what my travel books failed to mention was to watch out for bike bandits roaming the many green space plazas around the city.  Apparently, it’s not enough to just be concerned about being jostled about/pick-pocketed in the busy market /street areas by the pros who make themselves out to be ordinary citizens/business people who are experts at pulling the innocent bump into, distract and snatch manoeuvre; you also have to be on guard even in a quiet and safe park area.

Corrientes Avenue is in the heart of the theatre district.

The Kavanagh Building overlooks Plaza San Martin.

Lesson to all of the travellers out there:  NEVER, NEVER, NEVER let yourself get too comfortable and be fooled by what on the surface appears to be a safe environment because that can quickly change in a matter of seconds as I sadly came to realize.  In less than a minute,  a bike bandit silently rode up behind me like a stealth bomber, grabbed my camera and made an expedient get away.   I still have no idea where he came from – chances are he could have been watching me from afar – but he may well just have appeared out of nowhere and it was the perfect crime of opportunity sadly made entirely possible by myself in committing not one, not two, but likely multiple cardinal sins of being an over-confident and cocky tourist!   Granted, it could have been worse and, at the end of it all, the only thing that was really hurt was my pride in being so grossly taken advantage of out of my own stupidity and vanity as a ‘seasoned traveller’ who knows better.   Yes, this was a big (and costly!) lesson learned and while I was really miffed about losing all the great digital pictures I had taken prior to the incident, I’m thankful that I was able to find a drugstore chain that sold 35mm disposable cameras.  This technology is going the way of the dinosaur but nonetheless provided some half-decent pictures.

Resting in peace at Recoleta Cemetery.

As the famed Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, conveys in his many essays/poems devoted to his beloved homeland:

  • Morning is an overwhelming blue, a swift and massive surprise spanning the sky, a crystallizing, a lavish outpouring of sunlight that piles up in squares….
  • The day is a playing field for our endeavors or for our idleness…
  • …Hard to believe Buenos Aires had any beginning.  I feel it to be as eternal as air and water.

I hope the pictures that I have included capture the glory of the expansive sky, the places where you can play, and the eternal appeal of Buenos Aires…beautiful, bold and brash all at once and delightfully so!

One of many Argentine national hero monuments along Avenue 9 de Julio, the world's widest avenue.


It All Began With a Trip to Los Angeles…

December 16, 2011
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From London to Paris to Rome and beyond…every big city has a tale to tell and through this blog I would like to share a few of mine.

Where all the news that's fit to read is printed.

I have been fortunate to visit all of these iconic cities in recent years, but my fascination with large concrete jungles actually began when I was in my late teens on a trip to Los Angeles for a Christmas holiday.  As luck would have it, my first flight to the City of Angels was at night and soaring over the seemingly never-ending coastline to get to LAX gave me ample opportunity to ooh and ahhh from my window seat at the mesmerizing and breathtaking bright lights (fortunately not shrouded in smog on this glorious evening!) that dot the landscape for miles.  This first foray to LA was all too short and was really more about having fun at Disneyland with my high school friend than gaining a true appreciation for the beauty of this big city, but my first impression from the air at night was nonetheless a strong and lasting one.

Walt Disney Concert Hall: Bright and shiny on the outside; pitch-perfect sound on the inside!

In subsequent years I travelled through LAX on many occasions en route to other destinations but always vowed that I would one day return to see LA through adult eyes.  I finally accomplished this in 2011 and my return visit did not disappoint.

A light mist of fog/smog lingers after a morning rain shower.

The Omni Hotel located in the heart of the theatre district proved to be a perfect central location to embark upon my grown-up LA sightseeing adventure as it provided quick and easy access to everywhere I wanted to go.  With Disneyland not being on the agenda this time around, my activities included going to a Lakers game; strolling around the historic East LA/City Hall/LA Cathedral areas; visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art and The Getty Center; attending a one-man play by John Lithgow and a choral concert celebration at Walt Disney Concert Hall; and touring Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Hollywood Boulevard and Universal Studios.  Aside from one half-day of clouds and rain, the weather was a picture-perfect California postcard of blue skies and warm sun making for a fantastic few days exploring the diverse range of architecture, sporting and cultural activities that LA has to offer and then some.

An eclectic and colourful building in East LA.

The Angels Flight Tram still operates in downtown LA.

No trip to LA is complete without star-spotting and my exposure to local celebrities included the aforementioned John Lithgow, but I also saw Jack Nicholson sporting his typical blazer, pants, slicked back hair and tinted glasses court side at the Lakers game; I encountered two movie/TV shoots in progress (one involving a tear gas explosion at a church in East LA); and Keith Carradine sat right behind me at the Lithgow play.  If he wasn’t surrounded by an entourage of his ‘people’, I would have turned around and engaged him in conversation as, being a fan of Criminal Minds, I was literally dying to ask him if playing the part of the highly twisted serial killer Frank (who was the arch nemesis of Gideon) had anything to do with John Lithgow taking on the award-winning role of Arthur Mitchell in the Dexter series (also a very dark and disturbed character).  Alas, not wanting to impose on what was clearly a night out for Keith and his family/friends to show support for his longtime industry friend, John, I did not voice my question but took great delight in hearing Keith’s bellowing laughter as he reacted to the humour in the well-written and acted play paying tribute to John’s father.

All told, it was a great return visit to this grand, glorious and great big American city.  Long overdue, rest assured, but well worth the wait and affirmed my belief that LA has a lot to offer from the sky and from the ground.   Here are some more pictures that I hope give you a sense of what I’m so enamored with – enjoy!

Historic Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

The Staples Center: Home of the NBA's World Champion LA Lakers.

The marble exterior of the elegant and expansive Getty Center glistens in the morning mist and dew.

LA Opera: Placido Domingo's home away from home.

The reflection of City Hall softens the modern exterior of LAPD headquarters.