London, day 3, part 1: Retail therapy

IMG_3030

St. James’ Park

IMG_3033

Buckingham Palace

We started our second morning in London by going to breakfast in Piccadilly at Patisserie Valerie, a chain bakery where we had eaten last trip and had a good experience. On our way to breakfast, we walked through St. James’ Park and looked at the Queen’s waterfowl (ducks, geese and swans). We continued up the Mall and passed by Buckingham Palace. The last time we were there, barricades were up prior to the wedding of Duchess Kate and Prince William, so it was nice to see the palace in its normal state. We meandered by Clarence House and up towards Piccadilly to the restaurant.

IMG_1699

Full English breakfast

I am on a poached egg kick lately and had the same thing I had last time (eggs Florentine). My husband had a full English breakfast (scrambled eggs, baked beans, bacon, sausage and mushrooms).  IMG_1700 We also both had flat whites, our theme of the London trip, it seems. The breakfast was filling and got us off to a good start to what ended up being an extremely long yet fantastic day.

IMG_1701

The fragrance counter at Fortnum and Mason

Bellies full, we began our morning of walking and shopping. Our first stop was the Burlington Arcade, which is an arcade of shops that has been around since 1819. The shops were just opening, and since we were not in the market for haberdashery or cashmere coats, we kept on walking. We stopped into Fortnum and Mason, a beautiful department store that we did not have time to see last visit. We arrived just as the doors were being opened and toured each floor of the store. Being a veteran shopper (apparently my first shopping outing took place at 3 weeks of age at Lord & Taylor), I enjoy seeing beautiful stores and Fortnum and Mason did not disappoint.  Gorgeous as the shop was, we ended up not purchasing anything (though I wanted basically everything in the stationery section–one can never have enough notecards!) and continued on.

IMG_1704

Liberty

We walked up Bond Street and over to Regent Street, ultimately winding up at another national treasure of commerce, Liberty, a department store that was founded in 1875.IMG_1705 The store is famous for its unique fabric prints, which have been parlayed into collaborations with companies such as J.Crew. The building is a tudor-style exterior and has beautiful wood beams IMG_1706and paneling inside. They also have a nice yarn department and I purchased some knitting needles, as I am an avid knitter and they were really nice needles for a relatively reasonable price (£5). I also ended up buying a gift for my sister-in-law, who loves Liberty patterns.

After leaving Liberty, we walked over towards Harrod’s, another iconic luxury London department store. We never made it there during our last trip and wanted to stop in to see what the fuss is about. IMG_1711 IMG_1713 The scene in the food hall lived up to the hype, particularly the elaborate tiled ceilings, however we did not actually eat anything (or buy anything for that matter). The food hall at Harrod’s is filled with indulgent food–there is an entire room devoted to chocolate and an excessively large counter that houses oysters and caviar. I happened upon a leg of Iberico ham that cost £2,800.

IMG_1721

Blinged out Mercedes–covered completely in Swarovski crystals!

We left Harrod’s and walked over to Patricia Roberts, a shop that sells yarn and knitwear. I bought a couple of skeins of pale blue mohair yarn for myself. On the way to the yarn shop, we spied this insane Mercedes. We also walked by Harvey Nichols but I was department store’d out and had subjected my poor husband to enough retail therapy for the day (or month…or year…) so we returned to the hotel to drop off our wares.

Advertisements

London, day 2, part 2: Afternoon tea and a West End musical

IMG_1677

Lobby Lounge and the Baccarat crystal chandelier at the Corinthia Hotel

After a quick rest and wardrobe change, we headed back out and hopped back on the tube. We got off at Embankment and made our way to the Corinthia Hotel for afternoon tea at the Lobby Lounge. 

Afternoon tea is becoming a theme for our London visits; last visit we had tea at the Palm Court at the Langham Hotel, which set the bar very high. This time, we wanted to have a similar, decadent experience but at a different location. We researched tea options and considered some of the high-hitters including The Goring (closed for renovations during our visit), The Dorchester, Claridge’s, and even our own hotel, St. Ermin’s. A good resource for tea options (and current deals) is www.afternoontea.co.uk. One can find an afternoon tea starting at £15-50 per person. Since we really enjoy the experience, we were not especially budget-conscious when selecting our afternoon tea. We ultimately settled on the Corinthia Hotel, a relatively new London institution, based on reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp as well as its location. We had purchased tickets to Once the Musical, playing at the Phoenix Theatre, and these evening plans somewhat dictated our tea location as we didn’t want to rush tea to make it to the show on time.

Table set for afternoon tea at the Corinthian

Table set for afternoon tea at the Corinthian

IMG_1685

Clotted cream and jams

We actually arrived about 20 minutes prior to our tea reservation and were seated immediately. We were each presented a menu with a selection of teas and descriptions of the finger sandwiches and ‘fancies’ (small cakes and other confections). I informed the server of my dietary preferences and she asked the kitchen to tailor my sandwiches to fit those requirements while serving my husband the normal variety. As is custom at these types of teas, if you enjoy a particular sandwich or sweet, you can put in an order for “complimentary” extras (keep in mind the actual experience itself costs £50 per person so complimentary seems a relative term).  I tend to skew towards black teas with vanilla, chocolate, and/or caramel notes, so I chose the Prince Alexander blend, which fit the bill perfectly. My husband had the Winston Churchill blend, which had a rich, smoky, tobacco flavor and scent to it. Our sandwiches came out (they were okay, fairly run-of-the-mill as I suppose is expected, but I must say that those at the Langham were fantastic so I was a little let down).  The service, however, more than made up for the average tea sandwiches. Our server was kind and attentive, explaining the menu and each sandwich and fancy that came out. She was quick to refill our tea and made sure we were comfortable.

Scones and fancies!

Scones and fancies!

The confections were delicious: scones were tasty (I can’t get enough clotted cream, seriously!) and the tarts and cakes were sumptuous and rich. We happen to be fans of the Great British Baking Show (on PBS–it seems like we watch a lot of PBS! Downton Abbey, I mean…) and now feel like we’re pastry experts (we’re not. I can’t really even bake.) and Mary Berry would probably praise all of these fancies.

IMG_1680

Note Christoph Waltz on the phone (over Dave’s right shoulder…)

Apparently the Corinthia Hotel is the celebrity-spotting destination in London as we saw both Christoph Waltz and Kelly Clarkson in the Lobby Lounge (both actually were sitting in the same chair, maybe 30 minutes apart), both on cell phones and chatting rather loudly. After we had eaten and drank our fill of tea and delicious carbohydrates, we set off for a walk to the theatre.

IMG_1693

Trafalgar Square

We walked up to Trafalgar Square and then along Charing Cross road to reach the Phoenix Theatre. Having already researched some post-theatre dining options, we took advantage of the time before the show to walk around Soho and check out some of the places we were considering, such as 10 Greek Street, The Three Greyhounds, and Busaba Eathai. After locating these restaurants and deciding on Busaba Eathai, we walked through Chinatown. I had not expected to have enough time to see Chinatown, so was pleasantly surprised to be able to fit this in, especially during Chinese New Year.  Stumbling across Chinatown in various cities (New York, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco) seems to be something that I enjoy and I was glad to add London’s Chinatown to the list. Ultimately, we made our way back to the theatre to be seated for the show.

Lanterns in Chinatown

Lanterns in Chinatown

IMG_1694

The stage/bar at the Phoenix Theatre

Once is a musical that takes place in Ireland and is about a busker/vacuum repairman who meets a Czech girl and they fall into a relationship of sorts and make a demo album (the Cliffs Notes version). I saw the movie a few years ago and have the Broadway recording so I know the music quite well.  I often see Broadway musicals (growing up just outside of NYC) but just never made it to the Broadway version and as of January 2015, it closed in New York. The production also came through Philadelphia and I missed that as well, so I was excited to find out that Once was playing in the West End. We purchased tickets online a few weeks prior to our London visit and picked up the tickets at the will-call booth at the Phoenix Theatre.

Because a lot of the musical takes place in a pub, the stage turns into a fully functioning bar before the show and at intermission, which is a nice, interactive touch. Ronan Keating, an Irish musician and member of a boy-band (Boyzone, which I had never heard of), was headlining and apparently was a big audience draw. I think he did a good job but was a little bit let down by the female lead who I think over-acted the role a bit. I have heard people saying that they thought the stage musical was a bit of a caricature of the film, and I tend to agree. However, the music overall is great–the songs Falling Slowly and Gold remain some of my favorite songs.

After the show let out, we strolled over to Wardour Street to Busaba Eathai, a chain Thai restaurant in London. It was getting a little bit chilly and we were still kind of full from tea, but we can always fit in some Thai food!  Being half-Thai, I am of course somewhat of a harsh Thai food critic but Busaba was pretty good, particularly for a chain. My husband had a bowl of tom kha gai, a coconut milk-based soup, that had a different spin on it by the addition of woon-sen (glass noodles).  My pad thai was fairly bland but was made better when I added in some of my som tum (papaya salad), which was slightly spicy, even for me. The service was quick and we ate at bar-type seating along the front window. Satiated and warm, we walked through Leicester Square and grabbed the tube back to our hotel.

London, day 2, part 1: Hampton Court Palace

The view from our hotel room--Westminster Abbey on the right and the top of Big Ben on the left

The view from our hotel room–Westminster Abbey on the right and the top of Big Ben on the left

We woke up on our first morning in London to find that the rain had cleared and the weather was sunny and clear. Breakfast was on-the-go and consisted of almond croissants and flat whites (basically a cappuccino without foam) from Costa, a UK coffee chain shop right around the corner from our hotel. We stopped into the St. James’ Park tube station to purchase a one-day Travelcard for zones 1-6 (cost: £17 each), which enabled us to take the train out to our destination, Hampton Court (London is divided into six fare zones; Travelcards are available for either zones 1 & 2, 1-4, or 1-6 and can be purchased as peak or off-peak). Because it was a beautiful day and we were ahead of schedule, we walked to the Westminster tube stop, rather than taking the tube from St. James’ Park and switching lines. IMG_2990We took the tube from Westminster to Waterloo, then caught the National Rail for a 30 minute ride to Hampton Court Station. Note: make sure to check the departure time of your train; every other departure stops at Surbiton and you have to change trains to get to Hampton Court. The alternating trains are direct but are about 5 minutes longer.

Hampton Court Palace, one of the homes of Henry VIII, is about a ten-minute walk across a picturesque bridge over the Thames River from the train station. Trains arrive and depart about every 30 minutes to and from London.

The view of Hampton Court from the bridge over the Thames River

The view of Hampton Court from the bridge over the Thames River

Buying a Travelcard (and/or buying the Gatwick Express ticket) allows access to the 2FOR1 Days Out Guide entertainment deals. We ended up taking advantage of these savings twice during this trip–the first time was at Hampton Court Palace. The tickets are £18.20 for two adults (the price of one regular admission ticket). You have to print out a voucher before going to the attraction, so it is best to plan these before you go (as of now, they don’t accept mobile vouchers). When you get to the attraction, you also have to have your train ticket to be able to capitalize on the deal.

Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace

The palace came to its glory under Henry VIII and has a lot of Tudor history (the initial building was started by Cardinal Wolsey, then taken over by Henry VIII). The tour begins in Base Court, a large stone courtyard. You enter the palace initially through an antechamber and pick up the free audio guide. One of my favorite authors, Alison Weir (I have mentioned her in previous posts) narrates the audio guide tour, which was a huge bonus for me. After getting the audio guide, you can put on velvet cloaks to get into the spirit of being a courtier in Henry VIII’s court (and you can wear them throughout your visit, which was a very cute touch, especially for children and families).

Trying on the velvet cloak--royalty suits us!

Trying on the velvet cloak–royalty suits us!

Before starting the tour, a video about Henry VIII’s six wives plays in a small room. The tour takes you through the Great Hall (the center of entertaining and eating) and into a stunning chapel (no photography allowed). One of the last remaining symbols of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn remains, carved into a wood panel. We spent about 15 minutes hunting for this symbol before asking a palace employee to point it out (as it turns out, it was right in front of our faces–so frustrating!).

The elusive Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn wood panel carving

The elusive Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn wood panel carving (HA monogram, top right)

Many actors dressed in Tudor garb walk the halls of the palace, answering questions and doing reenactments every few hours (the daily schedule can be found in your brochure when you obtain tickets).

Tudor courtiers, going about their day

Tudor courtiers, going about their day

Towards the end of the tour, you find yourself in the kitchens of the court, highlighting food storage, preparation, and service. The kitchens of Hampton Court bring to mind the tremendous amount of work required to feed the enormous entourage that comprised the court of Henry VIII. A working fireplace definitely softened the damp chill that probably permeates Hampton Court for the majority of the year. After warming up in front of the fire, we continued on our walk through the palace.

The Great Hall

The Great Hall

Unfortunately, Henry VIII’s tennis courts were closed during our visit, but watching this documentary on PBS (and some episodes of The Tudors) made us feel like we had already seen it, but it was a bummer nonetheless. We stayed at Hampton Court for about three and a half hours and ended our visit by going through the hedge maze in the garden (apparently the oldest surviving hedge maze in the UK–where apparently hedge mazes and their age are a ‘thing’).

Finally! The 'centre' of the maze.

Finally! The ‘centre’ of the maze.

Even though it was mid-February and the hedge was not incredibly dense, the maze was still fairly difficult to get through. Just as claustrophobia was setting in, we found the center of the maze and exited.

We made our way back over the bridge to the train station and caught the train back to London, about 30 minutes ahead of our planned schedule. We made it back to our hotel and changed into our evening attire and made our way back to St. James’ Park tube station.

Coming up: part two of our second day in London–afternoon tea and a West End musical

London, day 1 (take two)

Our day of travel began relatively early and proved to be a marathon involving planes, trains and automobiles (and yes, that is a shout out to an awesome new travel channel, PTA, available on Roku and at many airports). We left Philadelphia and drove to New York, stopping at my parents’ house for dinner and a free ride to the airport, saving us from having to pay for airport transport or parking (thanks, Mom & Dad!). We boarded a 10 pm Emirates flight from JFK to Milan. Tip: Obviously, it is great to try to fly nonstop if finances (or great airfare deals) permit. When flying to Europe, we like to book a red-eye so we can get a little rest on the plane and land in Europe and hit the ground running…or flying in this case!

After landing in Milan (12 pm local time), we cleared immigration, picked up our bags, and checked in to our Easy Jet flight. The Milan Malpensa (literally translated means “bad thought”–odd name for an airport!) airport is divided into two terminals. We landed in Terminal 1 and followed signs to catch the free shuttle bus that took us to Terminal 2. The Easy Jet flight that we took left from Gate E, which has decidedly fewer amenities than the rest of Terminal 2–once you go through, you can’t really go back and you’re stuck with a pretty low-frills cafe and a few vending machines. I took a quick, uncomfortable nap on the hard airport bench seats during our 4-hour layover.  Milan’s airport has free wi-fi, which made the time pass a little bit faster. Finally, we went through passport control (for maybe the fourth time that day) and boarded the flight to London’s Gatwick airport. The flight was pretty packed and I think I passed out for the entire duration of the less than two hour trip.

Welcome to Gatwick!

Wheeling “big red” through Gatwick

IMG_1666

St. Ermin’s Hotel by night

We arrived in London at Gatwick airport around 5 pm. We had booked seats on the Gatwick Express (non-stop train from Gatwick to London’s Victoria Station) in advance from home to save money (there are deals if you book online on their website) but it seemed easy to secure tickets at the airport train station. The tickets can be used within five days of the intended date for the outward ticket and within one month for the return ticket to Gatwick. Because we purchased the Gatwick Express tickets, we were eligible for the 2FOR1 entertainment deals from the Days Out Guide (these deals can also be accessed if you purchase a Travelcard). The trip to Victoria Station takes about 30 minutes and the trains come every 15 minutes and are pretty cushy, though are not inexpensive. Cost: £62 per couple (round trip using “web duo” fare online). These fares change often–at time of writing this post, the cost has gone down to £44 per couple. Tip: Prior to leaving, we obtained a chip and pin credit card to facilitate transactions in Europe. Many US cards are going this route and the banks informed us they were about to send us our chip and pin card anyway when we called to request one.

We arrived at Victoria Station just around 7 pm and walked to our hotel, which was about 15 minutes from the station. It was raining a little bit, but not so heavily that we felt the need to take any more public transportation…we were sort of tapped out on the public transport front for the day. We checked into St. Ermin’s Hotel (a Marriott property, which we had booked using Marriott rewards points alone so it was essentially free–major plus!).

The lobby at St. Ermin's Hotel

The lobby at St. Ermin’s Hotel

Fish and chips at The Feathers pub

This hotel has a rich history and is gorgeous, maybe made even more so to the bone-weary eyes of exhausted travelers and the fact that our stay was free! St. Ermin’s Hotel is located in Westminster, just around the corner from the St James’ Park tube station, which proved to be an extraordinarily convenient location. It was quiet and off the beaten path but so easily accessible to major sights (Westminster Abbey, Parliament, etc) and so close to the tube. We checked in to our room and quickly changed (even though we had not slept for innumerable hours) and headed out to a nearby pub called The Feathers for a pint and a warm, deep-fried meal on this cold, damp night.  Because our last trip (see London 2011 posts) ended without us being able to have proper pub fare, dining (and let’s face it, drinking) at a pub was one of the driving forces behind our return voyage to London.  We chose The Feathers for its proximity to the hotel and for the pretty good reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor. This being our first pub meal, we were unfamiliar with the ordering method. Rather than being seated, you order at the bar (drink and food), pay first, then find a table (sometimes you find a table first, then tell the barkeep where you are sitting). It’s really refreshing not to have to wait for someone to take your order or to have to wait for the bill! I had fish and chips and my husband had some type of meat pie and we each had a pint.  Cost: £30 for two meals and two pints.

IMG_1641

London Eye

One would think we would be ready to drop, but not us; rather, we needed to eke out every last drop of our first day. We were giddy at being back in London so we decided to walk around Westminster to greet our old friends, Big Ben, Parliament, the London Eye, and Westminster Abbey. We traipsed around in the light rain for awhile and took some photos before heading back to the hotel around 11 pm to finally get some sleep.

IMG_1642

Big Ben

Back at it–London, Rome and Milan, here we come!

IMG_1732

The view of Rome from above

 

After an almost 4 year traveling hiatus, we decided to plan a trip again. Vacation days, amazing airfare, and severe wanderlust all serendipitously intersected and thus began our trip!

A little bit of background: my husband and I have our finger on the pulse of airfare and our bags are half-packed (I’m partly joking) so that we can take off pretty much at a moment’s notice (more on packing later). Over the past year, I have been working on my Italian skills for this very purpose by listening to Berlitz and Pimsleur courses and taking continuing adult education Italian lessons as time permits. Ultimately, my Italian teacher told me that I just needed to go to Italy and speak. With that decree tipping the scales, it was time to plan a trip.

We knew that we wanted to go and had an idea of when, but airfare was just not cooperating. We are located in the Philadelphia area and constantly watch airfares to Europe out of NYC, Newark, and Philly airports using airfarewatchdog.com. One of the best ways to keep an eye on this is via Twitter, but the site also sends out fare alerts via emails for particular routes.  Always ones to jump on a good deal, we found airfare on Emirates for $400 round trip per person from NYC to Milan–nonstop. Game on.

Airfare to Milan booked, we began planning our itinerary. We seem to be developing a pattern: we visit a city, stay for a few days, then yearn to go back. Our last trip to Europe included one previously-seen city (Paris) and added on a new one (London). This time around, we decided to revisit London and Rome, then tack on Milan and Orvieto. Some people may want to see as many cities as possible during a trip, others like to stay in one place, but we wanted to mix it up a little bit. We both loved Rome and London and felt that we had more to see and do in each city, which is why we decided to go back.

Our itinerary was as follows: fly from NYC into Milan, then transfer to an EasyJet flight to London without even leaving the airport. Spend three nights in London, then take an EasyJet flight from London to Rome. After spending 4 nights in Rome (day-tripping to Orvieto by train), we planned to take a train from Rome to Milan, then spend a night in Milan and fly out the following day. We decided to stay in Milan not only to see the city but to not have to rush before catching our flight and risk missing it due to some unforeseen train strike (as so often occurs in Italy…).

Full report to follow!

Our first day in Rome!

Many of my friends have recently traveled to Italy or are planning a trip, which has made me nostalgic about our honeymoon in May-June 2010. We traveled to Rome, Siena, Florence,Venice and Paris for 11 days total and took close to 1,000 photos and kept a good little travel journal while we were away so my recall of our trip should be pretty accurate! Tip: When we go away, we keep all of our ticket stubs, pamphlets, receipts and brochures and try to scribble down our days’ events when we get back to the hotel in the evening so we have some sort of record of our trip.

We left for Rome on a red-eye flight from JFK the day after our wedding. The late flight is something we repeated on our most recent trip and is becoming our modus operandi for traveling to Europe. We took a 5 pm nonstop flight from New York that got us into Rome at around 8 am on a Monday morning. Red eye flights can be a little bit annoying, but our feeling is that we hit the ground running and get a full day in our destination city without having to “waste” time or money on hotels and allowing us to maximize our time away. If time or money were unlimited, it is nice to get to a hotel at check-in time, relax for a bit before hitting the sights, but traveling on a budget (both financial and time) makes the red-eye a more economical choice.

We arrived at Rome’s Fiumicino airport and got our luggage quickly, then made our way upstairs towards the train (Leonardo Express, € 14 each). Just near the train platform was a grouping of shops, including train ticket sales and small caffes. We purchased two tickets for the train from the ticket office and moved to the platform. Note: On trains across Italy, you have to get your ticket validated before you get on the train (I have no idea why). You will see a smallish, not always conveniently placed yellow box near the platform, and you have to put your ticket in to get stamped. If in doubt, make sure you have plenty of time before your train and watch locals get their ticket stamped, or you can ask one of the station employees. Worst case, you will go to board your train and the conductor will tell you that you have to run all the way back to get your ticket stamped (happened to us in Florence…ugh!). So try to get it validated off the bat!

The Leonardo Express links the airport to Rome’s Termini station, which is the main train station. The ride takes about 30 minutes and there are no stops in between. The trains come every 30 minutes, so it is a very easy way to get to and from the airport, and probably cheaper and more direct than taking a taxi. When we got to Termini station, we joined up with the morning rush and got onto the metro. Rome’s metro system is incredibly easy, especially compared to cities like New York, Paris, or London (who also all have fantastic undergrounds!). It is broken into two lines, A and B (easy enough!) and like all public transportation, you have to know which direction you are traveling in. Our hotel was situated just near the Spagna (pronounced span-ya) stop, so that became our home base. We took the A line towards Batitstini and got to the Spagna stop. Navigating the system is easy, but hauling two 50-lb bags of luggage and two carry-ons is the hard part, especially since there is a massive shortage of escalators and elevators. The adrenaline of being in Rome fueled me to be able to schlep my own bags initially, but by the 4th or 5th set of steps (and all of the rush-hour commuters, which I found hilarious because by this point, it was about 10 am, well past rush hour in the States!), I grew tired and my poor husband took the job of hauling our bags. As I have mentioned in previous posts, we have bags by a company called High Sierra, which are huge rolling duffel bags that can be turned into backpacks. We bought these specifically for this purpose, since carrying a backpack is easier than hauling a bag. We got through this leg without needing the backpack yet (but wait until Florence…).

Finally, we exited the Spagna station and it sunk in–we were really here, in Rome! After being on the ground for 2+ hours, we were outside and could take in a breath of Roman air! We arrived at our hotel, the Marriott Grand Flora Roma Park on the via Veneto, not far from the Spanish Steps and just next to the Villa Borghese (more on that later…). It was about 10:30 by the time we got to the hotel, which was too early for check-in and our room was not ready (as we had anticipated). We stashed our bags with the front desk in their locked room, freshened up in the hotel’s bathroom, and headed out into the Roman air.

After leaving the hotel, we walked down the via Veneto and stopped in a tabacchi (small tobacco shop) to buy our Roma Pass. Tip: In large cities such as Rome and Paris, there are passes that you can buy to gain access to sights and jump to the front of the line. Each pass is specific to the city, so it is worth doing some research before you go. For the Roma pass, which costs € 25 each, you get unlimited access to the Rome metro system (which was great for us) and free admission to two “museums or archaeological sites,” according to the website. They can be purchased online, at any museum, or at a tourist information site (PIT), listed on the website.

We continued to walk down the via Veneto and just reveled in being in Rome as we walked. Something about the city just made me feel like I was…home. Maybe some of it had to do with the fact that we had Google-mapped a lot of it and our planned walks around the city, or that I have seen Roman Holiday like 20 times, or that my great grandparents are from Abruzzo, the region just east of Rome, but it felt so familiar and perfetto! The other thing that struck us as we were walking was just how walkable Rome really is–it is much smaller than I had thought, looking at a map. My husband had a whole itinerary planned that I thought was overly ambitious, but once we started walking, I realized how doable it actually was.

We rounded a corner and I heard it: the rush of water and noticed that we were nowhere near the only people walking towards a common destination. Before I knew it, the Trevi Fountain was looming right before me. Tons of tourists swarmed around the fountain, throwing in coins and taking pictures, but I was able to tune those distractions out and focus on the beauty of this immense fountain carved into the side of a building. We marveled in the immensity of the Trevi fountain, but knew we would pass by it a lot on our travels, so we headed over to the Pantheon.

The Pantheon was initially built as a temple to all of the gods (pan = all, theon = gods) and is now for all intents and purposes a church where many people are buried (including the artist Raphael and several kings). Admission is free and it is definitely worth seeing. One of the most spectacular things is the oculus, which is essentially an opening at the top of the dome that lets in light (as well as air, rain, snow, birds, etc). A drain in the bottom of the Pantheon takes care of any rainwater that may have accumulated.

We left the Pantheon and walked over to our first of many churches: Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Afterwards, we walked to St. Ignatius church to admire the trompe l’oeil dome. We were starting to drag a little, so we went to Caffe Sant’Eustachio, where we each got their famous grancaffe, a secret blend of espresso beans that is delicious and caffeine-packed!

We walked to our next destination: San Luigi dei Francesci (St. Luigi’s church), which is the French church in Rome and marveled at the gilded ceiling there. After we left the church, we happened upon my favorite piazza ever: Piazza Navona. The buildings surrounding the perimeter of the piazza are relatively short, which enables you to see the sky well and makes it feel like you are on a movie set!

We headed over to the Largo di Argentina, an archaeological site not far from the Piazza Navona that houses many of Rome’s stray gatti (cats). Having five of our own cats, we especially wanted to stop by and see these. The ruins are below street level, so the cats are safely shielded from the traffic of the busy streets nearby. They are cared for by a group of people who have them spayed/neutered and vaccinated and are fed daily (the nonprofit group is run on donations).

After bidding the cats arrivederci, we realized how hungry we were and decided to stop for lunch for our first meal in Italy. We had found Enoteca Corsi (on the via dei Gesu) on TripAdvisor and went there for lunch. We had a quartino (1/4 liter) of red house wine (when in Rome…) and I had a caprese salad (mozzarella, tomato & basil–an entire ball of mozzarella!) while my husband had some type of meat (we had no idea what it was…) which were delicious. We ended up spending about €27.50 on lunch, which includes service in Europe (almost always). When we got home, we saw an old episode of “$40 a Day” with Rachael Ray from 2002 and she had visited there as well!

After leaving lunch, we walked through the Jewish quarter and across the Tiber river to Trastevere, which is sort of off the beaten track of downtown Rome. We crossed over the Isola Tiberina, a small island in the middle of the river that houses a hospital on our way there. Once in Trastevere, we went to Santa Maria in Trastevere, another church. There is a statue of Saint Anthony there, who was my grandma’s favorite saint who she prayed to all the time, so I felt compelled to light a candle. Many people go there to pray to San Antonio as well, and you can write him letters with your prayers on them and leave them at his feet, which I did as well.

We wandered around the maze-like streets of Trastevere for a little while longer before heading across the Ponte Palatino and back towards downtown Rome.

Last day of London/Paris 2011!

We woke up at 4 am on our last day in Europe and took the tube back to St. Pancras to catch the Eurostar. The tube resumes service at 5:40 am, and we were on the first train. We arrived at St. Pancras and made our way back to the Eurostar tracks, where we had to go through passport control and had a few minutes to spare before our train arrived.

This train was much different than our Paris to London train–there was a group of rowdy British schoolchildren (probably around age 10) on the train who were likely going to Paris for a day trip (so insane that this is even a possibility!) so we were not really able to rest at all during the ride.

Finally, we got to Garde du Nord, where we changed trains and took the RER-B to Charles de Gaulle (there was no track work being done this way, so we did not have to switch to a bus or anything). This can definitely get a bit tricky: once you get the right train, you have to know which terminal you are going to…which we got wrong. On the RER-B line, there are two stops for CDG: CDG-1 and CDG-2. These do not correspond (exactly) to which terminal you are going to. Also, hold on to your RER ticket as you will not be able to enter the airport/get out of the train station without it (a little piece of information we picked up via trial-and-error during our first trip…more about that later).

The airport has three terminals: 1, 2, and 3. Easy enough, right? Nope. Terminal 2 is the largest: it is broken up into terminals 2A through 2G, and each of these terminals is its own terminal. If you get off the train at CDG-1, you will actually be let off into terminal 3, and you would need to take a tram called CDGVAL to terminal 1. If you get off at CDG-2, you are actually being let off into terminal 2. Historically, terminal 2 was used by Air France, but other airlines use it now. Terminal 3 houses smaller airlines, such as EasyJet. The best website I’ve found is www.paris-cdg.com, which breaks down each of the terminals and which airlines are there.

The airport is so spread out and it’s definitely time consuming to get to another terminal if you are let off at the wrong one (and who needs additional time stress when you’re trying to catch a flight?).  It is ridiculously easy to get mixed up and turned around and to go to the wrong terminal so be careful! Downloading maps of the airport is definitely worth it before you get to the airport so you know where you’re supposed to go.

During our first trip to Paris, we ended up getting off at the right train stop (CDG-2–it’s the end of the line, so you can’t really go wrong if you decide not to get off at CDG-1 anyway) but could not find our tickets to get out of the station. Another group had the same problem, so we ended up throwing our luggage over the turnstile and fighting our way through the closing doors–not pretty (and not legal either)! After all that, our flight was delayed 8 hours anyway…

This time around, we vowed that wouldn’t happen. However, we accidentally got off at CDG-1 and took the monorail to Terminal 3, which happened not to list our flight at all on the monitors, so we realized we were in the wrong place. We found an Information stand and found out that we were supposed to be at Terminal 2C…oops. So we took the monorail back to Terminal 2 and found our airline and eventually were able to check in. Fortunately, our flight was on time (and the vending machine malfunctioned and gave me a free bottle of water to boot).

Our trip had ended–action-packed until the very end! Although it was short, we saw a lot and had an amazing time and are already looking forward to our next European adventure. Our wish list: more time in London as well as another trip to Italy (maybe back to Rome, then south to Positano).