Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Four Days in Italy: Rome, Vatican and Pompeii


Italy was our next stop in Europe during our June vacation. We took a quick 2 hour flight from Paris to Rome via Vueling. I'm always amazed at how easy it is travel within Europe via air. We spent four days in Rome in a hotel near the Spanish Steps. Our first day there we my husband downloaded an audio walking tour onto his phone and we set out to explore Rome on foot on our own. It was a very relaxing way to see a lot of things in Rome at our own pace. The week we visited Rome it was very hot and sunny during the day at 28 to 31 ºC (82 to 87 ºF). Three of the four days it was too hot to wear any makeup - I only wore sunscreen on my face. It rained on and off in warm showers but it was more of a light sprinkle.

Walking through Rome felt like we stepped back in time. Ruins and monuments were everywhere and it felt like the entire city was almost like an outdoor museum. Many of the buildings were going through renovations and construction and partially covered, but it was still beautiful to see everything. Most of the Trevi Fountain was covered with scaffolding and the entire area was fenced off.

Our week in Rome was planned more for adventure versus relaxation. Two of the four days were spent hiking and biking outside the city. The areas and sites we visited included the Colosseum, Spanish Steps, Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica, Appian Way, Roman Forums, Trevi Fountain, Palatine Hill, and the Pantheon. We also took a day trip to Naples to visit Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius.

Pantheon

It was really interesting seeing the differences in architecture in Rome after visiting Paris. There are similarities in the classic style that you see throughout the city. The streets in Rome are small and narrow. I was surprised to see that the alleys in between buildings were actually roads - I was seriously impressed to see cars and vans maneuver their way through the tiny roads without hitting motorcycles, other cars, or pedestrians. Many of the cafe tables and chairs were laid out right along the alley - cars would drive up right next to them as they went through the streets.

Beautiful colorful buildings


Some snapshots of Rome

 Roman Forum

 Colosseum





Entry to our hotel on Via Vittoria

We used the iRooms which are more like floors rented out in apartment buildings throughout the city in different buildings. This one is the one near the Spanish Steps. We had a pleasant stay and the rooms were clean with good air conditioning. WiFi was pretty good but we were too tired each night to do any work or internet surfing. Service was excellent but I personally prefer traditional hotels. Our room was used just mainly for sleeping since we spent most of our days outside walking or touring, otherwise I would have felt better if our room had usable windows. (More reviews via TripAdvisor.)

Across the street was the cutest cafe called La Buvette. We ate breakfast here and they had the best café latte that I've had in my entire life. Both my husband and I enjoyed breakfast Italian style where you order a drink and pastry at the counter and eat/drink standing up. Note if you're new to visiting Europe, an American Latte isn't the same in Europe. If you order a "latte" in Rome, you will only get milk. Ask for a Café Latte. The ones in Rome are truly amazing. My husband enjoyed the cappuccinos.


Food in Rome was pure heaven for me as Italian food is my favorite. I could live off pasta and pizza 24/7. The Italians know how to cook pasta perfectly al dente which is firm but still fully cooked. I wish I took more pictures or note of the restaurants we visited. This pizzeria called La Montecarlo was recommended by our tour guide. She said it was the best pizza in Rome. Both my husband and I really enjoyed the food here. I would go back in a heartbeat.


My favorite place out of all the places we went to in Rome was this restaurant called Gusto. There are several variations of the restaurant all within the same block. There is a cafe for drinks and desserts, an outdoor casual cafe, an area just for pizza and a more formal dining area (although the dress isn't formal). We ate here twice for dinner - it was that good.


My favorite place was this gelato and candy store called Venchi. I wish I had bought more candy at this store, best chocolates I've ever had. This was a rare moment when it wasn't packed. It was close to our hotel room and every time we walked by there was a line out the door.


In terms of shopping, we didn't do much. I took a few snapshots of the Valentino windows. I purchased some bath cubes from L'Occitane because I thought they were mini soaps. Oops! Zara seemed very popular - I wish I had stopped inside a few but it was so hot we were in no mood to do any clothes shopping.




For tours we booked three with City Wonders. In general we were happy with the tours. They were easy to find, tour guides were friendly, One was a day trip to Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius which we both really enjoyed. We had three different guides all of which were excellent. The day we went was extremely hot but we both had a lot of fun. Pompeii was incredible. Mount Vesuvius was the highlight of the trip for my husband. I was ok climbing up the hill. It took about 45 minutes to walk to the third gift shop which is the farthest they will let you walk without a special guide. Walking down the hill was another story - to say I have a fear of heights is an understatement - my husband had to hold my hand the entire way down (yes, I'm a big chicken).

 Pompeii


Mount Vesuvius



Another tour we booked was the Vatican City and Colosseum Duo. We were happy to be able to see both but given the crowds and heat, the tour guides moved us at a fast pace. The heat was unbearable, we almost gave up in the middle of one to skip it, but we stuck with it to walk through the Roman Forum. If you are planning a visit to Rome in the summer, I would recommend checking the weather patterns first before visiting. If it's in the middle of summer, you might want to consider a night tour where it's not as hot. St. Peter's Basilica is amazing - we wanted to visit the catacombs but the tours were booked.




Below is St Peter's Basilica



Last but not least is the highlight of our trip which was biking through the Appian Way with Top Bike Rentals. This was in the top two of my husband's list and although I'm not a fan of biking I decided to try it anyways. I gave a sneak preview in my overview post but to recap, there are a number of bike tours through Rome. We both picked the E-bikes which I highly recommend - they don't have motors but are basically assisted bikes which make it really easy to bike up hills. The tours are very well organized. We took a group tour which had about 10-12 people in it. We biked from center city Rome about 20 minutes to the Appian Way. Before you start biking everything is fitted and adjusted for you and then they take you to a small area to practice as a group. We took the Ancient Appian Way tour that takes you through the Aqueducts Park and St. Callisto Catacombs.


A few more snapshots of Rome






We both fell in love with Rome. June is the beginning of tourist season though so every place we visited was extremely busy and packed (although it was expected for the tourist spots). We considered spending another week in Venice at the end of our trip to be our vacation from our vacation but were concerned about planning too much for one trip so it's been added to our wishlist for upcoming years.


I have my packing post coming up soon but some have asked what shoes I ended up taking with me on the trip. I had two pairs I narrowed down my picks to: these Nike Pre-Montreal shoes and these Puma Suede sneakers. Both are very comfortable - I think hands down Nike is almost always a good pick because of comfort (I usually go up 1/2 a size). Pumas are true to size for me. I brought the Pumas and it took about 2 days to break in. They do run narrow but I have really narrow feet so if yours are normal to wide you probably will want to try something different. The Pumas worked well for street walking, biking, hiking up the dirt and gravel paths and also walking on slippery cobblestone roads. I would have liked to wear prettier shoes (like nice flats) but they wouldn't have survived in Rome. I saw a lot of women (both Italians and tourists) wearing ankle-strap sandals that looked similar in style to like these Franco Sarto, these Steve Maddens and these Sam Edelmans. I considered taking those kinds of styles with me on the trip but given the activities I planned I don't think they would have worked for 1/2 of the things we did. If you have any shoe recommendations for travel in Europe I'm all ears for future trips.


Have you been to Rome before? Any favorites? For Italy any other favorite cities you visited and loved that I should add to my travel wishlist?

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Paris Photo Diary


Here are snapshots from my week in Paris. In the time I visited in June I tried make an effort to put my camera down to make sure I was able to just enjoy the sights, walks, food, people watching and soak in all the beauty that is in France. There are so many places I wish I had taken more pictures of but there are beautiful images in my mind that I will never forget. I've split these into different categories and some overview thoughts on Paris at the end.


Hotels

We started and ended our trip in Paris. The first round we stayed in the Latin Quarter at Select Hotel. We picked hotels based on location, price and reviews. There were a few friends recommended but they were booked for the dates we planned on being in Paris. The hotel rooms were very small but it is something we expected and we thought it was actually really cute. Service was good and the rooms were very clean with good lighting. My husband requested a room that looked into the courtyard, we were on the third floor and right above several cafés but it wasn't too noisy and we were able to sleep easily at night. Our room had a small tub with a shower handle. We liked that it seemed like it was updated and modern inside. You might find the reviews and photos on Trip Advisor helpful. We had a pleasant stay and liked that it was within walking distance to the Notre Dame Cathedral and several restaurants on our list. However most of the items on my Paris list were far - we walked a lot and this one was sometimes a 35 minute walk back to the hotel. It was nice to explore Paris by foot, but the first couple of days we had really sore feet.

Select Hotel at 1 Place de la Sorbonne


View from our room at the Select Hotel

On our trip back to the US we spent one night at Hotel Brighton on Rue de Rivoli right across from the Tuileries Garden. It's also within close walking distance to a number of shops, minutes away from Angelina and the Louvre. I browsed through the Louis Vuitton Paris City Guide (which I really liked but my husband did not because it doesn't have any pictures) and found this one. It seemed reasonable in price and also mentioned they stocked Nuxe toiletries and I was sold. Our room itself and the bathroom were both very spacious for Paris standards. The concierge and staff were all extremely friendly, helpful and polite. Location and service is excellent. We didn't try the breakfast since Angelina was down the street. I would definitely consider going back to this one because of the location.

Paris stops

We stopped at a number of touristy places including the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Tuileries Garden, Jardin du Luxembourg, Sacré-Cœur. In our two trips we took two different hop-on-hop-off buses. We took them mainly as a means of getting around the city easily, at our own pace without having to worry about finding the metro stops or getting lost on different lines. For the tours, both have pre-recorded narration which isn't great, but it's a nice way to relax and see Paris from the second level of the bus. We used Big Bus Paris and Open Tour Paris. We preferred the routes of the Open Tour Bus because it seemed to have more variety. We also wanted to try the night tour but there was a musical festival so all the night routes were cancelled.


Arc de Triomphe


Eiffel Tower

 Louvre at night

 Louvre during the day - I recommend buying tickets ahead of time, also note there is more than one entrance to the Louvre, this blog post has them mapped out. We didn't buy our tickets ahead of time but used the Carousel Entrance and wait time was only about 20 minutes.


Somewhere around the corner from Jardin du Luxembourg

Notre Dame Cathedral at night

Moulin Rouge


View from Sacre Coeur
Our favorite place to sit and relax in Paris, Tuileries Garden


A rare sight to see any empty chairs the days we were in Paris, it was sunny and hot the first week of June and the gardens were packed with people in the chairs, on some lawns, in the park cafes and along all the fountains.

We really liked the mini Paul kiosk in the middle of the Tuileries Garden/Louvre, the chocolate croissants were soooo good. I just about died after seeing the tiny cups. So cute!

Fashion and Accessories

The larger department stores Printemps and Galeries Lafayette both have a large selection of luxury clothing and accessories. I saw several Zara stores scattered around the city. Le Bon Marche shopping bags also seemed to be carried all around the city. I stopped by a few stores. Chanel on Rue Cambon and Hermes on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré were both extremely busy. I have never seen a Chanel store so packed. I quickly stopped inside the Goyard store on Rue Saint Honoré but it was very small and only one person appeared to be on the floor with the several customers waiting so I decided to skip it entirely since items can be purchased in the US.

 Tom Ford on Rue Saint Honoré

 Hermes Paris was so amazing, it's like heaven inside, but there was a very long line for the purses. Still other areas had associates that were very helpful, patient and friendly.

 Fauré Le Page Boutique on Rue Cambon (there is also a store in Galeries Lafayette Haussmann), for more on this brand, check out The Purse Forum Fauré Le Page Thread or some posts on Feather Factor).


Louis Vuitton window in the 5th arrondisment

Trying new food, desserts and the coffee in Paris was probably the highlight of our vacation. We were surprised we didn't gain weight while in Paris - it was probably a mix of lots of walking, healthier food and smaller portions compared to the US. Here are some of our favorite eats, macarons and cafes.

Angelina

I've been dreaming about Angelina for years ever since I first saw pictures. I tried the hot chocolate based on recommendations - it's truly out of this world. The tea is quite good too. We ate breakfast here twice. I think their butter croissants are the best I've ever had. I bought some of the hazelnut spread and jellies. After reading reviews of long lines we decided to try these early. On both occasions we did not have any wait time (as in maybe 5 minutes max from the time we walked in, looked around, were greeted and then seated) and we were really happy since we read about 45 minute lines.




Below is Pierre Hermé. Macaron lovers each have their favorite. I only tried two brands while in Paris. Pierre Hermé are truly very special. They have unique flavors and pretty patterns. They are super soft and moist. I bought a box of seven to take home to the US with me - they lasted only 1 hour on the airplane before I ate them all without realizing it. I can't say whether or not they are better than Laduree, they are simply different. 


Bread and Roses was a cute little breakfast café within walking distance from our first hotel (Select Hotel). My husband picked this based on reviews from Trip Advisor. Everything was fresh and delicious. I had the quiche and it was to die for. They made him a mix of juice which had grapefruit, lemon and orange juice, I'm not sure if there is a specific name for it, but it was really really good. It's located on 7 Rue de Fleurus (by the Luxembourg Garden).

Café Madeleine is a restaurant we stopped by because it was just around the corner from one of the bus stops. This one is on 1 Rue Tronchet. Our lunch here was phenomenal. They had the best lasagne I've ever had (it was on special). The potatoes were also really interesting - they were cut in a curved way so they were perfectly crisp on the outside but thick and fluffy in the middle. I joked with my husband once we finished lunch that we should come back in 30 minutes for dinner because it was so good. In the interest of exploring and trying as much as we could we didn't go back.


Les Deux Magots (6 Place Saint-Germain des Prés) came highly recommended by a long-time friend. We both enjoyed dinner here. 


Right across from Les Deux Magots is Brasserie Lipp (151 Boulevard Saint-Germain), another phenomenal restaurant. We sat in the front on the covered patio. Reviews on Trip Advisor and Yelp have all been mixed, we had a really good experience here. My favorite part was dessert. Also close by is Cafe de Flore which I was hoping to try but we never made it back to the area.


Ladurée on the Champs-Élysées was really fun. Trying the macarons was at the top of my list. We had breakfast there which was delicious. I fell in love with the Ladurée tea and bought two boxes to bring home with me and a couple of the chocolate bars (wish I had bought more than just tea!). Service was excellent and the ambiance was amazing. We sat in the front area inside the restaurant and had so much fun people watching. The macarons are very good. I was in heaven here.


On the nails, Dior Sunkissed (reviewed + swatched here)

Some more random pictures of Paris. I was completely head over heels in love with all the balconies.














We had a lovely time in Paris. In the 7 days we spent in total we felt like we saw a lot but paced ourselves well after the first day. You can get lost in the beauty of Paris - on the first day we lost track of time and walked everywhere and didn't realize until 12 hours later we had walked too much. Our favorite place in Paris was the Tuileries Garden - it's such a beautiful place to walk through. We liked the chairs scattered around and the trees offered shade on the really hot days.

On my wish list of places to see and visit, I didn't get to all on my shopping list but it was something I expected. Paris was our first stop (out of a dozen) and I planned on window shopping or seeing things in person. As you can see from my overview post, we had a lot of flights and cities on our itinerary so I didn't want to have to carry things all over Europe, plus our carry-on only situation limited what I decided to purchase. For the touristy spots, we skipped going up the Eiffel Tower - the lines were just too long and we opted for the Arc de Triomphe, Trocadero Square and Sacre Coeur all have really good views of Paris (some will argue better views compared to the Eiffel Tower). If your time in Paris is limited, I would say skip the Louvre and opt for one of the other museums if you want to do a 1/4-1/2 day in a museum. We walked through a few small ones that were beautiful. I do think the Louvre is must at least once, but it can get very crowded and busy.

For planning your trip to Paris, I do recommend mapping out all the sights, museums, shops and restaurants first before picking a hotel. We really enjoyed walking so it's nice to have a hotel within close walking distance. I've been told the metro is easy to navigate once you figure it out. Both my husband and I are familiar with underground subways in a number of cities (both in the US and internationally) but we preferred to walk above ground. Subways can get very crowded and we wanted to avoid any possible pickpocket situations.

In terms of planning in general this trip was kind of last minute. We did a couple months of research about hotels and flights about 2 months before we left, but didn't finalize our plans until 2 weeks before we left and didn't book our flight or hotel until 8 days before we left. We had a long list of places to visit and kept trying to figure out how to make everything work in a month's time. We cut out a stay in London, New York and Venice which is why we waited so long to pull the trigger to book our tickets. For planning I think every one is different. Even with our last minute planning everything worked out just fine. Of all the cities Paris is the one where I think you can go without any plans and enjoy the city everyday just simply by picking a place on the map and going there whether it's by foot, taxi or metro.

If there is one thing I regret not doing, it's not waiting to buy a few pairs of Repetto flats in one of the stores. It was very busy and associates were helping multiple customers. After waiting about 15 minutes I realized it would probably be at least another 15 minutes before someone was free to assist. It was one of those moments where I thought to myself, "I'll just come back later." But there is always next time. 

Three blogs I found really helpful and fun to read while planning my Paris trip include World of Wanderlust, Café Makeup, Feather Factor. I highly recommend all three.

Hope you enjoyed these snapshots of Paris. I've received a number of questions about my carry-on, what specific items I brought with me for the trip, what I brought back to the US from Europe and hauls. All will be covered in upcoming posts. I'm organizing topics into different posts to make the reading easier to follow by category. Up next - Rome, stay tuned!

 

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