ASCOLI PICENO…THE ITALIAN SOUL

After a somewhat longer hiatus than I planned, I am back!!!  First post of 2014 is a guest article written by Stefano Tulli from Ascoli on the Road!  After reading about this amazing Italian city, I can’t wait to visit this summer to experience it first hand.  Enjoy!

1Ascoli Piceno is an amazing and still unknown destination in the very center of Italy…What? Haven’t you ever heard of it?? Follow us and we are sure you’ll get in love with our hometown..

Ok, I don’t know anything about Ascoli..why should I consider it as an option to my trip to Italy??

First of all.. Ascoli Piceno is the perfect essence of everything you are expecting from a trip to Italy.. Ascoli Piceno is a very ancient Italian city, older than Rome! Every corner of this town is art, history and culture..

2Are you looking for Italian history? Ascoli Piceno is divided into 6 districts, each one having a historical beauty.. Roman bridges, arches, amphitheatres, the typical Cardo and Decumano organization of the city map..

Moreover..reach Ascoli Piceno in July and August.. you will witness a great medieval experience, with an ancient joust called QUINTANA (different from Siena). The whole town celebrates the local medieval history with a series of historical events aimed at commemorating Saint Emidio, the local saint..

3Are you looking for Italian art and architecture? Ascoli Piceno is called the travertine city..the 2 main squares are simply breathtaking. The Cathedral, the museums, the ancient houses, the old streets… Ascoli is a great city for art lovers and it’s also demonstrated by the development of a great architecture and design university which hosts many overseas and Erasmus students every year!

Do you want to taste great Italian food and wines?? Well…the most famous local product are the “Stuffed Ascolana olives” and we are sure you have heard of this great fried olive once in your life. Not yet? Trust us and trust every tourist who has tasted them..unforgettable! Probably you will also want to drink something. Apart from the great local wines, you will also taste the incredible local liqueur..the Anisetta Meletti , which has a very delicate and special aroma coming from the quality of the Aniseed, carefully cultivated in certain areas around Ascoli Piceno..

4

Are you looking for a relaxing experience, far away from tons of tourists that visit the most famous places? Well..Ascoli Piceno IS your destination.. Food, art,, history, culture, lifestyle..Hundreds of Americans, russians and northern Europeans had the chance to visit Ascoli and most of them never came back to their hometown..falling in love with our romantic, beautiful and elegant Ascoli Piceno

5“Ok.. Ascoli Piceno could be an option..but how do I get there??”

Easier than you think.. Less than 3 hours from Rome and 1 from Ancona or Pescara Airports, Ascoli can easily be reached by train with the Milan – Lecce/ Bari train: stopping in the city of San Benedetto del Tronto, you can arrive in Ascoli Piceno in less than 20 minutes..

“Well, seems like I can have a trip over Ascoli Piceno..what else should I know and when is the best period?”

Again, the answer is easier than you think. Do you love summer time? Ascoli Piceno is 15 minutes from the Adriatic Sea..Do you love winter? Great mountains are only 30 minutes away from downtown. Are you an autumn lover? Wow.. excursions, walks and pictures during this period are amazing in our city. Do you want to reach Ascoli in spring? Ok, just listen to our final words..there’s nothing better than having a walk in a historical Italian city, taking great pictures and relax in an amazing square drinking your favourite cocktail waiting for the colours of the sunset illuminating the historical buildings of Ascoli Piceno..

Hope you will now be convinced…We are waiting for you!

Guest post written by Stefano Tulli — Ascoli On the Road

www.picenontheroad.com

ascoliontheroad@gmail.com

Sweet Swiss Alps

large_IMG_2141.jpg

Hands down, one of the most spectacular views on Earth is in the Berner Oberland region of the Swiss Alps. The air is so crisp & clean; the snow is fluffy & white; and drinking hot chocolate while looking at people ski or sledge by is oddly comforting. I’ve uploaded a TON of pictures to share because the region is so breathtaking!

SwissIf you ever get to Switzerland (and really…just go because I promise that it’s worth the money), be sure to take the Top of Europe tour. It is worth every cent. My day started at 6am. Once I was up & dressed, I hit Starbucks and then on to the rail station so I could catch the train from Zug to Lucerne. After purchasing my ticket, I had about 10 minutes to wait for the train and you know some crazy man found me. Out of all the people on the platform, he has to come chat with me. I’m not sure if it’s because I was the only person of color and just stood out or what. But, Swissangelo (that’s what I’m calling him) starts speaking German and I was like, “I don’t comprehend that. Sorry.” and thought he’d go about his business. Nope. He apparently is a multi-lingual crazy. How can you be crazy and speak more than 1 language? Seriously? So, he starts mumbling something about songs. I’m half listening until he steps directly in front of me and into my personal space making me take a couple of steps back. Now that he has my full attention, he repeats his early comment about songs and starts singing something in Italian. If you are keeping count, he’s up to 3 languages. I look around and was like, “oh, that was pretty. thanks!” and try to inch away. But no! He starts with, “I wrote 2 songs I want to perform for you!” I was like, “okay.” I mean, at this point, we are already the star attractions for the morning commuters and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He performs one of his “compositions” and Lord help me…liquor + performing = disaster. Save it for the Grammys. I’m looking around slightly embarrassed once he starts getting on one knee and holding out his hand to serenade me. All I want to do is drink my coffee. But, hey, at this point, I figure that I gotta roll with the crazy. I mean, they find me in every country I visit so I might as well be some sort of Ambassador to Sanity for them. Luckily, before he was able to bring the song home with a glory note, the train arrives and he thanks me for listening to his song. Crazy can be sweet. I should know…I’ve dated enough of them.

So, after my 20 minute train ride to Lucerne, I exit the station and start trying to figure out the directions to the tour meeting point. Which weren’t that difficult. While walking around outside, I keep wishing I had brought my big down coat because it was FREEZING! Little did I know that the weather in Lucerne would seem tropical to what it was in the alps.

There are 7 of us on the tour and everybody happens to be in Switzerland on business so we had something in common. We leave Lucerne and take a van to Interlaken (population 5500). Being in Switzerland was a great change of pace after China. Whereas you had 15 million people residing in 1 city, the population for the entire country of Switzerland is around 350K! Another fun fact I learned is that they elect a new president EVERY YEAR! However, this is more for figurehead duties. Apparently, Switzerland is made of up “states” called “cantons” which can have their own language. The government has ministers from all cantons and the presidency rotates between these ministers on a yearly basis based upon a vote.

We ride up to Lauterbrunnen to take the cog-wheel train up to Jungfrau.

IMG_2198.jpg IMG_2129.jpg IMG_2128.jpg
IMG_2072.jpg IMG_2079.jpg IMG_2091.jpg

You can see that they elevation continues to go higher and higher.

IMG_2192.jpg IMG_2130.jpg IMG_2136.jpg

We pass the beautiful town of Wengen!

90_IMG_0075.jpg

A couple of the ladies on the tour with me!

180_IMG_0107.jpg

Ski lifts & skiers & trails.

IMG_2097.jpg IMG_2111.jpgIMG_2118.jpg

Breathtaking beauty!

IMG_2189.jpg270_IMG_2180.jpgIMG_2179.jpgIMG_2156.jpgIMG_2139.jpgIMG_2138.jpg

This is the first time I’ve seen a conveyor belt for skiers! In addition to ski lifts (in the second pic below), they have this conveyor belt (which is partially covered with snow) that brings skiers up the trail in the 2nd pic.

IMG_2204.jpg IMG_2199.jpg

Then I had the chance to go to the Ice Palace!

270_IMG_2164.jpg IMG_2165.jpg IMG_2166.jpg IMG_2167.jpg
IMG_2171.jpg

On the way back, we stop in Gimmelwald.

IMG_2191.jpg IMG_2195.jpg IMG_2196.jpg IMG_2219.jpg IMG_2218.jpg IMG_2217.jpgIMG_2215.jpg

All in all, this has to be on of the best adventures of my life! Totally fell in love with Berner Oberland would like to spend a long weekend in Wengen trying to learn to ski. While looking out over the snow-capped alps, all I could think of was that I am truly blessed to be able to have the opportunity to see so much of this beautiful world we live in.

Fabulous Firenze

English: Michelangelo's David (original statue...

Michelangelo’s David (original statue) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

FRIDAY

Buongiorno!!!  After finishing up work a bit early on Friday afternoon, William (aka Sweet Willy) and I took the train from Genoa to Florence (which was a 4.5 hour train ride along the beautiful Mediterranean and Tuscan countryside).

The train ride was uneventful until we changed trains in La Spezia to transfer to the regional train to Florence.  Of course, I picked the car with crazy in it.  Why does this always happen to me???  When you buy a train ticket in Italy, you are required to validate the ticket in one of the yellow machines on the platform.  If you don’t validate your ticket, you are subject to a fine up to 50 Euro.  So, the train operator lady comes into our railcar to verify that everybody has a validated ticket.  There are only 4 people in our car (me + William + African guy + Italian guy). 

She gets to the Italian guy first who looks completely normal.  He was wearing glasses and reading a book.  All smiles when we got on.  Little did I know that glasses can obscure crazy eyes.  I mean, crazy folks aren’t usually smiling & reading a book.  So, the train operator lady asks him for his ticket…then tells him that he either has the wrong ticket or it’s not properly validated (it was hard to translate).  He was like, “no, no, no…the machina Italian words, foccacia, Italian words, primavera, Italian words” and train lady was like, “yeah, you need to pay 50 Euro because this ticket isn’t properly validated.”  Why did she say that to that man?  Because that set him off and he continues to repeat himself basically saying that he got the ticket out of the fast ticket machine and it’s not his fault if it’s missing something.  The train lady is not sympathetic and now they are both getting heated.  Next thing I know, train lady was like, “pay this fine or I’m calling the police.” Crazy Italian guy was like, “Call’em.  You don’t know me.  I’m real.  I’m wild.  It’s the machine’s fault.  Kick rocks!”  

At this point, he starts cursing in Italian and talking to himself after she leaves.  Then, he turns around to plead his case to William and myself (speaking Italian a mile a minute) and we just give him a blank look and the crickets (for those of you who don’t know what “the crickets” are, it means being so silent you can hear crickets chirping).  We weren’t about to get caught up in that mess.  He got the police on him now.  We can’t help you, buddy.  Get your Euros, pay the lady and shut up.  You ain’t gonna win this fight, Giuseppe.  But, you know what?  You can’t reason with crazy.  Why did 2 police men come and he STILL gives the same story about the “machina” messing up his ticket?  They wanted identification and to talk to him in “private” (which was out in the corridor where he is still completely visible and continuing to go off about the machina).  It was high drama and lasted for at least an hour and a half (crazy folks don’t have watches or a sense of time) and the result was that he paid the 50 Euro fine while continuing to fuss and teach me Italian curse words.  I would’ve taken a picture but I didn’t know if crazy Italian man would go all Kanye on me and try to take my camera.

So, we finally arrive to Florence around 6:30pm and get to our hotel where they give you an actual key with a big gold-plated key ring (like we are about to do a breakdance battle) that you have to turn into the front desk when you leave the hotel.  If you ever go to Florence, and are looking for a nice budget hotel with a friendly staff, I highly recommend the Hotel Privilege. 

After we checked in, we went to dinner and had a great meal of lemon flavored penne & meatballs as well as gnocchi with drunk cheese and the house Chianti to drink.  Then a fabulous dessert!

DSCN0097

Angie's Pub

Angie’s Pub

After dinner, we walked around Florence and ate gelato.  Then stumbled upon a really cool lounge named “Angie’s Pub”.  It was packed and they were showing the movie “Scarface” on the wall in the back room.  William and I had a debate on whether or not a patron who came up to the bar was a man or a woman.  My viewpoint was that it was a woman (I didn’t get a good look at her face and couldn’t hear her talking but she seemed built like a woman).  William was insistent that it was a transvestite.

Sweet Willy: That is a man
Me: No it’s not. She looks straight woman.
SW: Look at her! She’s got an Adam ’s apple and a deep voice. That is a man.
Me: Maybe she’s had a hard life. That don’t make her a man.
SW: Are you deaf? His voice is deeper than mine!

So, we agree to disagree because I wasn’t convinced.  However, when William came out of the men’s bathroom, the “lady” was entering so um….he was right.  Then I start to wonder what type of bar we are in because I had already started to notice a certain element but it really seemed to have a broad range of patrons.  And we had a great time talking to people so it really didn’t matter.

SATURDAY

William and I get up Saturday morning and I am really dragging.  It’s been a rough week of long hours at the office and little sleep.  But, I wanted to be up to see as much as we could on our last day in Florence.  So, we check-out of the hotel and make our way to the train station.  It was weird how dead the city was at 11am.  When I visited Florence during the summer 2 years ago, it was packed.  I think the cold weather puts people off sightseeing.  But, that turned into a major advantage for us because we didn’t have to wait in any lines and got to see a lot.

William: Why do the pigeons look homeless?
Me:  Because they are? They look fine to me.
William: Their feathers are all dull and that one looks like it has a tumor on its foot.

First stop was Santa Croce Church.  It’s a 14th century Franciscan church decorated with centuries of precious art and holds the tombs of some great Florentines (such as Galileo Galilei 1564-1642, who was from Pisa but lived his last years under house arrest near Florence because he defied the church and declared the Earth revolved around the sun; also, the tomb of Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1475-1564, famous sculptor of Statue of David and the Pieta and painter of Sistine Chapel).

Santa Croce

Santa Croce

Then, we walked towards the Duomo. Florence’s Gothic cathedral has the third-longest nave in Christendom. The façade from the 1870s is covered with pink, green, and white Tuscan marble. So, you know why I love to look at it. Maybe I can suggest we do the next Boule here?

Duomo

Duomo

Afterwards, we made our way to the train station to check our bags so we could sightsee unencumbered.  We then made our way to the Accademia where we were able to see the Statue of David…if you have never seen this amazing statue in person, buy a ticket to Florence now and go see it.  When you enter the Accademia, you have to walk down a hall then when you turn the corner, you see this magnificent and very large statue.  It’s a sight to behold.  And it is beautiful!  But you can’t take pictures.

Once we left the Accademia, we stopped by this café and had the BEST pasta. I had the gnocchi with Bolognese sauce while William had spaghetti with tuna and peppers. We had planned on leaving for Rome mid-afternoon but once we stopped by the street markets, it was a wrap because the shopping was great. We ended up buying some great souvenirs for friends and family and William bought a fab new coat.  While we were at one store, the sales lady let me know that a pigeon had taken a dump on the back of my coat. Sigh. Really Petey? I defend you when Will calls you homeless but you gonna just use my coat as your Port-a-Potty? That’s how they do in Florence now?

We also noticed that dogs could go anyplace.  Not only the restaurants but into the high-end stores!  Most of them were so well-behaved. It’s a shame Riley will never get to experience that because I can’t be put on a Watch List since he doesn’t know how to act.

After shopping and realizing that time is about to expire to pick up our checked luggage, we start walking back towards the train station and realize there were more markets. Then, it was like the heavens opened up and I saw the most fabulous coat!  It was hand-stitched with fox fur trim.  The sales guy says, “I’ll give you a 50% discount so it’s only $1900.”  Wait…what?  $1900 U.S. dollars?  What currency are we talking about because I can only afford that denomination in pesos.  He confirmed U.S. dollars so I was like, “that’s okay, playa.”  Still, I couldn’t resist trying it on.

Me:  Man, I love this coat. Will you get it for me?
William: Uh, sure. Let’s ask about their layaway plan. I’ll see if they will let me pay 20 Euro a month for 4 years.  If I put down 50 Euro in good faith, they may let you walk off with the coat.
Sales guy: *crickets* [then puts his hand out to take the coat back]
Me:  I really love that coat.  I need it in my life.
William: Yeah, that  coat is hot.  You’d have a closet full of death with the fox-mink. With the leather you just bought and this fur, you’d have your own pet cemetery. Because you know they had to kill those animals to make that coat you love.
Me: *crickets* {walking away dejected}

We rush to the train station, get our bags and just make the train to Rome.  We meet 2 ladies on the train who are artists from NY but own second homes in Umbria that they visit every 3 months or so.  I just had one question…how can I do that?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The “Norway in a Nutshell” Experience

“God dag” from Norway! A couple of months ago, I saw a picture of a Norwegian fjord on Pinterest.  It was so breathtaking that I promised myself that one day I would visit.  I was blessed to have a business trip here so I added a couple of days to experience as much as I could of this country.  Getting to the fjords isn’t as easy you think.  You need to take a series of trains, buses and ferries.  After a lot of research, I found that the easiest way is to take the “Norway in a Nutshell” tour.

This tour is a series of pretty well-organized connections from Oslo to Bergen (and back) via rail, bus and ferry.  Along the way, you will take a train halfway across a mountain, then ride the Flamsbana train down to the Sognefjord for a ferry ride thru 2 off-shoot fjords (Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord). There are also other city & fjord combinations (for more information, check out Fjord Tours). You can buy your ticket directly from Fjord Tours or at the train stations.  One of the great things about this tour is that if one segment is delayed, your next segment will wait as they are all connected.  Since we are short on time, we decided to do the roundtrip tour from Oslo to Bergen…which was 22 hours long! During the summer, you have more options for a shorter tour.

Schedule
8:11 = Train leaves Oslo S train station
12:53 = Arrive in Myrdal
13:02 = Flamsbana train departs Myrdal
14:00 = Arrive in Flåm
15:10 = Boat/Ferry departs Flåm (cruise the Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord)
17:00 = Arrive in Gudvangen
17:25 = Bus departs Gudvangen
18:20 = Bus arrives in Voss
19:20 = Train departs Voss
20:34 = Train arrives in Bergen
22:58 = Night Train departs Bergen
6:26 = Arrive in Oslo

How was the Sognefjord created?

“The process began during the ice age about 3 million years ago.  A glacier about 6,500 feet thick slid downhill an inch an hour following a former river valley on its way to the sea.  Rocks embedded in the glacier gouged out a steep, U-shaped valley, displacing enough rock material to form a mountain 13 miles high.  When the climate warmed, the ice age came to an end.  The melted glaciers retreated and the sea level rose nearly 300 feet flooding the valley now known as the Sognefjord.  The fjord is more than a mile deep, flanked by 3,000-foot mountains (for a total relief of 9,300 feet).” [quote from Rick Steves’ Scandinavia]

Oslo – Myrdal Train

Rick Steves’ Scandinavia describes this as “the most spectacular train ride in Northern Europe.”  You are climbing over Norway’s “mountainous spine” where the scenery gets more dramatic the higher you go.  Honestly, I didn’t find it all that spectacular.  Of course, I fell asleep about an hour into the ride so take it for what it’s worth.  It may actually be spectacular in the summer when the land isn’t barren.  For a beautiful train ride through a winter wonderland, you should check out Interlaken, Switzerland.

Flamsbana Train

Now this train ride had beautiful scenery.  Waterfalls frozen mid-stream, bubbling creeks, snow-capped mountains and rustic little towns.

    

Flåm

This small town is really catered to tourists.  During the winter, most of the restaurants are closed (we were able to find 1 that was open for lunch).  The souvenir shop was open from 1-3pm.

  

Fjord Cruise

This is the real star of the entire tour!  The cruise takes you through Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord (which is the narrowest fjord).  While it was very windy and cold, you easily are caught up in the beauty and serenity of the area.

   

Gudvangen

Rick Steves’ says it best, “Gudvangen is little more than a boat dock with a giant kiosk.”  Seriously…there is nothing more than that (other than a bridge and a bus stop).

  

Voss

This is a plain town that has a beautiful church and a lovely lake.  There isn’t much to do other than walk around while waiting for the next train out.

  

Bergen

I really can’t review this city.  We arrived at night while it was raining and just found a restaurant for a quick bite to eat.  It is a bigger city and recommended as a stop-over by Rick Steves.

Overall

The Norway in a Nutshell tour was fine.  I wish there were an easier way to reach the fjords because, for me, that was truly the highlight of the trip.  Other than the Flamsbana train ride and the fjord cruise, I could have been okay with not doing the rest of the tour.  However, during the summer, it is probably very good as the land will be lush and the days longer.

The night train back to Oslo was great though.  We upgraded to a sleeper car (totally worth the extra 850 Kronor!).  I was so well-rested upon arrival that I didn’t even bother with a nap today.  This tour is a bit expensive (2240 Kronor = approximately 390 USD (without the sleeper car)) but you do have a fully packed day.  While this is officially a “tour”, there is no actual guide.  You receive your tickets and a schedule.  I highly recommend bringing along a guidebook (Rick Steves’ Scandinavia has an excellent step-by-step guide of this tour which helps you to understand what you are seeing and what to expect next).

Looking for a hotel in Oslo?  Check out my review of the Thon Hotel Astoria here.

One Day in Paris

December 29, 2011

What would you do if you had only 1 day to experience the enchanting city of Paris?

Bonjour!  Aaron, Joyce, Stefanie, Luciana (“The Crew”) and I decide to take a day trip to Paris from London.  While this is my third trip to this intoxicating city, it’s the first visit for my co-travellers.  The great thing about this city is that you can always find something new to discover!  We ended up fitting about 3 days worth of sightseeing into 11 hours.  It was glorious!  If you plan to do a day trip, be sure to get lots of sleep and wear comfortable shoes because it will wear you out!  I’ve covered Paris in 3 other blog posts so most of the info in this post will be high-level (with links throughout to posts with more detail). 

* Just a quick note that this post is going to get risqué by the end since I will be recapping my visit to the Museum of Erotica…you’ve been warned 🙂

Our schedule for the day:

7:01 Depart London St.-Pancras, set our watch 1 hour ahead
10:17 Arrive in Paris, take Metro to Notre-Dame
10:30 Explore Notre-Dame
11:00 Lunch at a French cafe in Ile de la Cite
12:00 Walking tour of the Latin Quarter, Tuileries Gardens, the Louvre, Ile de la Cite/Ile St. Louis, Saint-Chappelle, Deportation Memorial, Pont Neuf, La Comedie Francaise, Opera Garnier, Palais Royale, Place de La Concorde, Palais de Justice, Pantheon, Champs-Elysees. 
3:00 Visit Montmartre area (Sacre-Coeur, Moulin Rouge and Musee de l’erotisme)
6:00 Visit the Eiffel Tower
7:00 Dinner at a French cafe.  Be back at Gare du Nord (train station) by 8:25pm.
9:13 Depart Paris for London (arrive in London at 10:36)

The Crew & I are up at 4:30am to get dressed and take the Tube to St. Pancras station to catch the 7:01am train to Paris.  OMG, it’s early y’all.  Eurostar requires you to check-in at least 30 minutes prior to the train leaving (you also need to account for time to go through security…so budget about 45 minutes or so).  After we check-in, we get breakfast and hang out until it’s time to leave.

 

Once we board the train, it’s about 2 1/2 hour ride to Paris.  We decide to use this time to take a nap.

   

We arrive in Paris around 10:30am (Paris is 1 hour ahead of London) and get on the Paris Metro.  Quick tip:  I purchased our Metro tickets in advance thru Rail Europe (at the same time as our train tickets) and this saved us so much time.  The lines for tickets had about a 20 minute wait.  I just bought day passes so we wouldn’t have to worry about purchasing travel tickets each time we rode the Metro.  It definitely helped us spend more time sightseeing than worrying about logistics.

We hop on the Metro and head towards the Notre Dame stop.  As we exit the train station, we come upon Palais de Justice.

  

Our first stop was the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral (also known as Our Lady of Paris).  This magnificent cathedral took 185 years to complete (1160 – 1345).  The builders used the popular Gothic style and it’s noted for its flying buttresses.  It has been thru many alterations since completion in order to keep it current with modern conveniences. 

In 1793, during the French Revolution, the cathedral was rededicated to the Cult of Reason, and then to the Cult of the Supreme Being. During this time, many of the treasures of the cathedral were either destroyed or plundered. The statues of biblical kings of Judah (erroneously thought to be kings of France) were beheaded. Many of the heads were found during a 1977 excavation nearby and are on display at the Musée de Cluny. For a time, Lady Liberty replaced the Virgin Mary on several altars. The cathedral’s great bells managed to avoid being melted down. The cathedral came to be used as a warehouse for the storage of food (source Wikipedia).  I find the French Revolution fascinating (I mean, seriously, how out of touch did the royals have to be?).  You can read my comical take on the origins of the French Revolution in my Versailles recap titled E True Versailles Story:  Royals Gone Wild.

The exterior of the church is absolutely breathtaking.  You can see the kings of Judah as well as the Virgin Mary holding Baby Jesus.

   

The inside of the cathedral was beautiful and serene.  All cathedrals have the same layout (in the form of a cross).  It’s a very overwhelming and calming experience.

       

After we leave Notre Dame, we walk to Ile St. Louis (“St. Louis island) and stop for lunch at a little cafe called Le Flore en L’Ile (where they serve the famous Berthillon ice cream).  Ile St. Louis is the high-rent residential area of Paris (Johnny Depp has an apartment here!).

 

We walk past the back of the Notre-Dame and go to the Deportation Memorial.  I’ve been to this area twice before and never noticed this garden nestled among the trees.  The Memorial de la Deportation is a memorial to the 200,000 French victims of Nazi concentration camps. 

Then we cross the Seine…

  

…and see the “love locks”.  Couples who marry place locks along the bridge and throw the key into the river to signify that their love cannot be broken.  No idea what the folks do who have combination locks (maybe those signify pre-nups). 

 

We walk along the Seine towards the Louvre and pass thru the Latin Quarter.  I cover my tour of the Louvre pretty thoroughly in my Paris Ooh La La post (it also includes a recap of the Paris Ghost Tour which was so entertaining).

  

While Joyce & Stefanie toured the Louvre; Aaron, Ciana and I took the Metro to Montmartre to visit Sacre-Coeur.  “The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, commonly known as Sacré-Cœur Basilica, is a Roman Catholic church and minor basilica.   A popular landmark, the basilica is located at the summit of the butte Montmartre, the highest point in the city. Sacré-Cœur is a double monument, political and cultural, both a national penance for the supposed excesses of the Second Empire and socialist Paris Commune of 1871 crowning its most rebellious neighborhood, and an embodiment of conservative moral order, publicly dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which was an increasingly popular vision of a loving and sympathetic Christ.  The Sacré-Cœur Basilica was designed by Paul Abadie. Construction began in 1875 and was finished in 1914. It was consecrated after the end of World War I in 1919.” (source, Wikipedia)

Climbing up the steps to reach Sacre-Coeur is a workout in and of itself.  My glutes were on fire!  But the view is phenomenal and well worth it.

  

While the view is fantastic, let me warn you that the pickpockets are out in full effect.  Due to this area being extremely crowded, thieves are always on the lookout for something free.  Sigh.  I covered my own “attempted” pickpocket experience in  The Wonderful World of Paris post.  You already know I had a “I wish a mutha-*&!@ would pickpocket me today!” attitude.  Ha!

After we leave Sacre-Coeur, we decided to stroll through the artsy Montmartre neighborhood.  An interesting fun fact to know is that many artists had studios or worked around the community of Montmartre (such as Salvador DalíClaude MonetPablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh).

We pass by a sweet shop and couldn’t resist going in.  I love how happy sugar-filled shops are 🙂

 

As we were chatting and walking down Boulevard de Clichy, I started to notice something.  Every store seemed to have a theme.  Now, if you have tender sensibilities, are under the age of 18 or are my Mom, stop reading, k?  If you want to read but don’t want to admit to your inner freak, then go on and close the door.  I’ll wait.

  

Wait…what?  Does the sign on that store say “Pussy’s”?  I don’t see any cats.  Is that a pimp leaning up against the wall?  OMG, this is the French “Hustle & Flow”.  Now I’ve got that “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” song in my head and I’m gonna be saying ‘mane’ like Terrence Howard. FRACK.  I HATE THAT SONG! 

How did we stumble into the freak nasty section of Paris?  Why didn’t I see this in Rick Steves?  What startled me was that you just kinda came up on it and it was like, “BAM…take off your drawers/panties.”  If you have a heavy sexual appetite, this smorgasbord of sex is for you.  When I was in Amsterdam, I expected freak fest (and let’s be honest…you know you would’ve been all over this too, k?). 

We had about 30 minutes to kill until we met back up with Joyce & Stefanie so we end up going to the Musee de l’erotisme (Museum of Erotica) which was about 10 Euro.  Let me just say that you are not ready for this place.  Seriously.  I thought it would be some sort of campy “museum” but this turned out to be a full-on 7 level museum dedicated to all forms of erotica.  And, it took us much longer than 30 minutes to go through the entire place.  I am not ashamed to admit I learned something!  For those of you “innocents” out there, this is the time for you to put on some pearls so you can get to clutching.

I was not ready.  And, y’all aren’t either.  Which is why I’m taking you on the tour with me (yes, I was *that girl* who whipped out the camera and giggled or said “shut the front door!” while taking pictures for y’all.  You’re welcome).

So let’s get started.  First, let me say that this turned into my birthday present for my cousin, Aaron (since we were in Paris on his special day).  Second, even he was shocked which is saying something.  Third — Mom, are you still reading this?  Aaron made me go in.  I was fine with visiting the cathedrals 🙂

This is the first thing I see when we enter the museum…

Um, what kind of chair is this?  And, is it for sale?

Then it was on to these gems:

   

Each floor as a “theme”.  They start you off tame…then it gets freakier each level you ascend.  The first floor was dedicated to the “religious” and cultural aspects of sex across the world.  The big dildo you see above?  That’s “prayer wood”.  HAHAHAHAHAHA.  Wooo, stop it.  I cannot see taking that to Zion Hill Baptist Church and shouting out “CALLING ALL PRAYER WARRIORS!” 

Have you been looking for some new sandals for the summer?  Well here you go.

Oh yes, you are seeing right.  Dildo sandals.  I believe they may be multi-purpose.

Then we get to the Japanese proverbs.  This stuff is golden.  I heard a guy saying “this is deep, man.” (you can click on the photos to enlarge).

Then there was the “pillow book”which is basically a how-to manual to subjugate women *eye roll*…

 

Next is the Chinese version of the “Kama Sutra”.

We then head to the next level which is all about brothels. 

 

You can see photos of some of the “working girls” and the ledger of how much pimps/madams made.

Below is an excerpt of a book which basically said that prostitutes became lesbians out of boredom or because they hated how they were treated by men.

Keep in mind that there are a lot of photos but I only took a handful on each floor…didn’t want to seem like a sex-crazed pervert.  We then head upstairs.  Each landing has some sort of erotic art like…

As we come to the top of the stairs, I notice a large flat screen tv and couches with some lighted scented candles.  The tv wasn’t showing anything at that time but I assumed it was a video about the history of erotica.  

Wrong.

So wrong.

Ciana, Aaron and I had been walking around and looking at all the statues, pictures, etc.  I got caught up looking at something (I can’t even remember…I was constantly lagging behind due to taking pictures).  As I walk back towards the stairs, I see the video has started and Ciana & Aaron are slack-jawed.  Apparently, I had just missed what I assumed was the informational video but a new one is starting.  There is a crowd with people sitting on the couch and standing around. 

I turn to look at the tv screen and see it’s a silent movie…and it’s porn.  That’s right, silent porn.  With subtitles…black and white…and looks to have been filmed in the 1920s.  The film was set in a monastery with a “monk” making dinner for 2 “nuns”.  And, I swear that the subtitle said “the sisters decided to have each other for “hors d’oeuvres”.  Wait…what?  Next thing I know, the “sisters” have ripped off each others “habits” and are going to town on each other!  WHAT?  The subtitles keep popping up because apparently you need to be told the continuing storyline in case you got lost.  The “monk” was peeping thru a window and then another “monk” comes up behind him, snatches his pants down and starts having sex with him.  I was done.  I couldn’t watch anymore…in a room full of folks…with a storyline set in church.  I’m trying to see Jesus some day and I don’t have time to explain my visit to the Museum of Erotica to Peter.  I already have way too much to account for.  Which now includes this visit because you know I didn’t leave. 

We turned quickly and went up to the next level…which was “porn thru the years”.  There were 3 smaller tv’s on each table set in a triangle pattern.  This apparently is for more intimate viewing.  But you are still at a table with other folks.  Really?  They had porn from every culture thru a span of 50 or 60 years.  Even interviews with adult film stars.  As we are walking up to the 6th level, we see photos of different “genres” of porn…like vampire porn.  *hangs head*

The 6th floor is dedicated to what I’m gonna call “cartoon” porn.  I’m sure it has some sort of slick name but it’s freaky stuff in cartoon fashion.  Like they needed to draw up Smurfette getting it on with Papa Smurf.  There’s something for everybody here.

The last floor focused on “doll” porn.  Poor Barbie.  She’s a ho.

 

By the time we reached Bimbo Barbie, I was exhausted.  Who knew that looking at all that erotica would wear you out?  We ended up taking the elevator down to the first floor and saw this magnificent display at the exit.

Afterwards, I felt like I needed to smoke a cigarette.  Woooo!  Thanks, Paris.

We leave the museum and head towards Moulin Rouge

Then take the Metro back to the Louvre to meet up with Joyce & Stef.

We all walk from the Louvre thru the Tuleries Garden and see that there is a huge ferris wheel!

 

By this point, our feet are killing us but we still have one more stop before dinner…and that is to the Eiffel Tower!

Then finally, it was time to rest and eat.  We ended up eating at a cafe across the street from the train station.  Which was a good thing because we almost missed our train!  Overall, it was a great day trip.  We were able to see a lot.  I would definitely recommend staying for more than a day because Paris at night is fabulous!  Looking for things to do in Paris?  Check out my post The Top 10 Things to do in Paris.  Au revoir!

Swiss Miss: The Olympic Museum & Lovely Lausanne (Switzerland)

While visiting Geneva, I decided to take a quick trip to Lausanne (which is 40 minutes from Geneva, 30 minutes from Chillon).  Lausanne is MUCH better than Geneva so my advice is to skip Geneva and spend your time visiting Lausanne, Montreux and Chillon.

Lake Geneva is in the southwest corner of Switzerland and separates the country from France.  This area is known as the Swiss Riviera and the predominant language is French.  Lausanne calls itself the “Olympic Capital” (it has been the home to the International Olympic Committee since 1915).  This colorful city was first founded on the lakefront by the Romans (and really, what city didn’t they discover???).  Once Rome fell, the original Lausanners fled to the hills to escape the barbarians and established what is today referred to as “vieille ville” (old town).  Lausanne has 2 parts:  1) the lakefront Ouchy (which has restaurants & the Olympic Museum) and 2) old town which has an Old World charm and other museums (i.e. Collection de l’Art Brut).  These two areas are connected by the Metro funicular (source Rick Steves’ “Switzerland”).

Lausanne is absolutely beautiful and very serene.  You can walk along Lake Geneva during the breathtaking sunset.

  

Or, stop to view the flower displays as you stroll the main boulevard.

   

We arrive in Lausanne and take a taxi to the Olympic Museum (which is AWESOME!).  This museum is interesting to both Olympic enthusiasts and those of us who like to watch the games every 2 years.  As you enter the museum, you will pass by the Olympic store which has shirts, posters, etc. from previous games (and the future London 2012 games).  After you pay the entrance fee, you are given a ticket which you will need to insert into the turnstiles to enter each exhibit.

They have several small theaters which recount the history of the Olympics.  In 1894, Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee and restarted the games after a 1,500 year lapse.  Barron de Coubertin was a teacher who was born into a French aristocratic family.  He was really into physical fitness and channelled that passion into restarting the games.  During the film, you hear him ask the nations that will take part in the games to respect each other.  Now, I do have to give Mr. de Coubertin the side-eye because he felt that the inclusion of women would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect.”  Whatever, Pierre.  Women eventually were allowed to compete in the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris. 

The ground floor traces the history of the Olympics from its start in Greece through about a century’s worth of ceremonial olympic torches.

 

Upstairs has medals and information/highlights from each Olympics.

Muhammad Ali’s shoe from his gold medal win in boxing at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.

Wilma Rudolph’s track shoe that she wore to win three Olympic titles (the 100 m, 200 m and the 4 x 100 m relay) at the same 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome as Muhammad Ali.

The basketball signed by the U.S. “Dream Team” led by Michael Jordan at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

And, Shannon Miller’s leotard from her gold medal win for balance beam at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Travel Tip #2: Champagne Vacations on a Boones Farm Budget

Have you been dreaming about a destination that seems out of reach financially? Where there is a will, there is a way. With smart research & proper planning, you can save a ton of money on your dream vacation. Here are few things to consider:

1. Plan ahead. Know your destination, approximate dates of travel (even if it’s just a preferred month) and your budget. This will allow you to take advantage of a great deal when the opportunity is presented.

2. Airline tickets — When should you buy airline tickets?
    a. For domestic & off-peak international travel, I recommend booking 3 months to 14 days prior. If you are flying international during peak season, you should be prepared to buy your ticket 4-9 months before your trip. I’ve noticed a trend of discounted airfares offered late summer for fall & winter travel to Europe.

    b. DO’s & DONT’s

        i. DO be flexible. You can save a couple of hundred dollars by being able to move your departure or return date by 1 or 2 days.
       ii. DON’T buy a ticket on the weekends. Ticket prices are highest during this time. 
       iii. DO buy your ticket on a Tuesday around 3pm. Pricing trends have shown that many sales are launched on Monday nights which offer discounts of 15%-25%. Competitors tend to match these offers on Tuesday morning. By 3pm, fares are as cheap as they are going to get for the week. Deals usually expire by Thursday or Friday so snap up a good deal no later than Thursday.
      iv. DON’T fly on a Monday, Friday or Sunday as these are the most expensive tickets.
       v. DO fly on Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday to get the cheapest flight.

    c. Get the social media edge by “liking” (on Facebook) or following (on Twitter) airlines. They have started to tweet & post hour-long airfare sales which can be to your advantage.

    d. Available resources: Check out Bing Travel
        i. This site aggregates information from online travel sites (Priceline, Expedia, Travelocity, Hotwire and BookingBuddy).
       ii. It also has Price Predictor — a tool that is based on historical pricing trends. Has a green, yellow, red stoplight theme which will recommend to either buy now or wait.
      iii. It posts last minute deals. You can get a good deal with last minute deals but it’s a huge gamble. This is really for those who decide today they want to go someplace this weekend.

3. Hotel or Vacation Rental? You can generally save a ton of money by renting an apartment, flat, house of villa. Vacation Rentals typically require you book for a minimum number of nights. You can purchase food & make your own breakfast & lunch (which will save you a ton). Most usually have washers & dryers so you can do a load of laundry which will keep your luggage lighter (and guarantees no over-the-limit baggage fees). I’ve booked a flat in London for 5 people for New Years Eve and we are paying only $250 per person for 5 nights. I will cover the ins and outs of vacation rentals in Tip #5.

4. Buy train tickets in advance. You can take advantage of great deals which can save you up to 50%.

5. Dining. Eat at local Mom & Pop restaurants in non-touristy parts of the city. The food is phenomenal and 1/3 of the price you will pay for average fare next to a famous monument.

6. Tours. Check out last-minute tours on Viator. This site is great and they usually have tours that are 20% off the day before or of.

7. Consider a cruise. It’s an all-inclusive which makes it cheaper than doing a land-only vacation. Plus, it allows you to hit several locations in a short amount of time.

Bottom line…organization & planning will save you a good amount of money. Money that you can spend on your next vacation!