|Falling In Love Again
© Copyright 2002 by Denise Svajlenko
Exploring Europe has been my passion for as long as I can remember. Between establishing a career, buying a home, getting married, and having kids, I just never found the right time or money to pursue it. As our 15th wedding anniversary was approaching, my dream was more alive than ever and my husband and I both agreed that it was finally the right time to go. We knew we couldn't be gone long, as we'd miss our two daughters too much. So, we decided on a 12-day bus tour. We had reservations about travelling just the two of us so far from our home, but all of our inhibitions eventually disappeared. In fact, it was on the plane, boat, cable car, taxi, streets and bus, where I fell in love with my husband, again and again. The following is a journal of our travel experiences.
Day 1 and 2 - Toronto to Rome
We depart Toronto at 8 p.m. via Air Canada. After a very good dinner, including wine, I manage to sleep for about three hours. My husband, Ron, is only able to sleep for an hour. Before I know it, the plane has landed and we search to find our tour company in order to catch a bus to take us from the airport to the hotel. First, my husband must change over some money into liras (Italian currency). He comes back all smiles and says we're rich. He has $80,000 lire and says we can buy a boat. Unfortunately, I learn that 80,000 lire is only worth about $60 Canadian. We eventually find the meeting spot of our tour company. The first touring companion I meet is a short man wining about waiting so long in the airport. I walk away and make a note to avoid him on the tour.
Our hotel is in the heart of downtown Rome, just a couple of blocks away from St. Peter's Basilica. With a map in one hand, bottled water in the other, we quickly set out to explore this ancient city. Our first stop is St. Peter's Square. I'm awed by the architecture. Our next stop is for a piece of pizza and gelato. I know I'll be splurging for lots of gelato while I'm in Italy. We then cross the Angel bridge and take in as much as we can before dinner. We meet the entire tour group at our welcome dinner. What a feast! Antipasto plate, pasta, salad, veal, potatoes, brushetta bread, cheese plate and ice-cream. Our dinner companions are a couple from New York City, Harvey and Heidi, and a couple from Indiana, Rob and Michelle. Both are lots of fun and we share plenty of laughs. Rob, Michelle, Ron and I drink most of the wine, and just as we're on our last bottle, Brigid, our tour guide, advises us that we have to leave. Oh well, I guess we had drank enough wine anyway.
Day 3 - Rome
We board the bus at 8 a.m. and spend the day exploring all the historic sights. We spend a good part of the morning at St. Peter's Basilica and walking around and through the coliseum. Both Ron and I shoot an entire roll of film. Lunch is at an outdoor cafe near St. Peter's Square. The afternoon is spent walking many miles to Piazza di Spagna. We climb hundreds of steps throughout Rome to see spectacular churches and buildings. We catch a taxi from across town back to our hotel, as our bus is leaving for Tivoli in 15 minutes. The taxi driver goes between buses, over curbs, at top speed. I'm hanging on for my life, praying I make it back to the hotel, while my husband is laughing (I think out of fear). We learn that most drivers in Italy drive that way. We arrive in Tivoli, famous for its stunning gardens and water fountains. Unfortunately, it pours rain just as we're finishing our tour. We wait for a clearing and head back to the bus, only to discover we're missing 5 passengers. After an hour search and wait, we learn that they had gotten lost during the rain. We also get caught behind a major accident, traveling down from Tivoli to our restaurant. We're all famished when we finally arrive a couple of hours late. Both the food and wine flowed and we sat with two newly married couples (all second marriages) who were traveling together. Our dinner was typical of an Italian wedding, where gentlemen played instruments while courses were being served. Again, our tour guide interrupts our lively dinner conversations to ensure we traveled back to our hotel on schedule. I have a craving for gelato, so we walk past the brightly lit St. Peter's Basilica, and find a place a couple blocks from our hotel that serves every flavour. Truly, a great way to end our day in Rome.
Day 4 - Rome to Florence
Our drive through the Italian landscape is beautiful. Lots of old homes made of stone and brick, olive fields and grape vines. We make a roadside stop for lunch at The Grille, a restaurant serving homemade pasta, salads, desserts, even wine and beer. Quite a change from our highway fast food establishments at home. We arrive at Florence in time for a tour of the Town Square. Florence is built along River Arno and the architecture is magnificent. Santa Maria Del fiore is a visually breathtaking church, predominantly pink in colour. Cafes, shops, restaurants, and boutiques line small alleyways of cobblestone. There are leather shops everywhere. The original statue of David by Michaelangelo is housed in the Gallery of Fine Arts, but there are replica statues and other magnificent sculptures throughout the Town Square. While walking in Florence, you feel as though you're in a romantic renaissance period. We were told to follow the river to get back to our hotel. By mistake we turn the wrong way and end up miles from our hotel. The view down the river is spectacular and we get to explore the ritzy part of Florence. We are so enthralled with Florence, that we head back down the river after dinner and end up strolling the cobblestone streets and stopping for a drink. Street merchants are still selling goods at 10:30 p.m.
Day 5 - Florence to Venice
Our drive through the Apennine mountains is breathtaking. Very hilly villages with tiny homes made of stone. We stop for a break at a little village named Ferrara. The town square is comprised of street vendors selling goods and locals riding bikes to buy their fresh produce and goods. Children ride at the front of bikes in carriers. In fact, no cars are allowed in town. As I'm touring this small renaissance village, I imagine coming back some day for a month and biking through the countryside and towns. After a delicious cappuccino, we're back on the bus to Venice. We arrive in Venice in time to have lunch and explore for a few hours before dinner. Ron and I decide to tour Venice on our own, as there was so much we wanted to see. I've never seen a city before like Venice. Tourists from all over the world flock to view the hundreds of canals. Pigeons roam St. Mark's Square. We get a good glimpse of the way Venicians live as we walk across tiny bridges from the canals. The apartments look very small, but many have pretty boxed flowers on their window seals. Gondolas are parked down many of the canals, as water is the main method of transporting the locals. We eventually take a gondola ride with four others from our tour group. Ron and I can't even sit together. This was one of the extra excursions that would have been more romantic, had we booked it on our own. The day was exceptionally hot, so we were in desperate need of a shower when we got to our hotel. We discover, after entering our room, that there is no power. I shower in the dark and later learn at dinner, that you had to put your room key in the slot in a wall in order to keep power on. Almost everyone in our tour also showers in the dark or doesn't bother. After dinner, a group of us gather at the hotel bar in hopes to get to know one another better. Some of us drink a little too much wine.
Day 6 - Florence to Lucerne
Our heads were slightly fuzzy at the sound of our 6:15 a.m. wake up call. After an hour on the bus, Ron remembers he left his suit in the closet at the hotel in Florence. I'm in such a good mood on this trip that I laugh. At home I probably would have exchanged a few not so pleasant words. We pass medieval villages where predominantly fruits and potatoes are grown. We arrive for our lunch stop in Lugana, Switzerland. We learn from our guide that the view around Lake Lugana is one of the most beautiful in the world. In fact, the park gardens surrounding the lake are called Paradiso, which means paradise. Hortenzias of multi colours are grown throughout the park. A mile long walkway allows visitors to walk around part of the lake, and there were plenty of benches for enjoying the view. Homes worth millions of dollars are built up the mountain. In fact, we learn that the owner of Globas lives is Lugano. We would have loved to have stayed longer, but we had to board our bus to get to Lucerne in good time. Our drive from Lugana to Lucerne is the most spectacular of our trip. At one point we drive directly up a Pass that takes us 6,000 feet above sea level. We pass the Roman Bridge that is 2000 years old. The homes in the villages are made of wood with many tiny windows trimmed in white. Cattle are plentiful.
We arrived in Lucerne at dinnertime. The Swiss enjoy rich sauces, and most of the meats are covered in a creamy sauce. After dinner we cross over the famous Wooden Bridge and head to the Town Square. Lucerne is the most beautiful city in the world I've visited. The town has narrow walkways with cobblestone streets where shops and cafes are in abundance. Jewelry, particularly watches, are most popular among shoppers. Swiss chocolate is probably one of the finest in the world. We browse the shops but decide to save buying our souvenirs until tomorrow.
Day 7 - Lucerne
Our first stop in Lucerne is the Lion Monument, a stone sculpture created by Thorwaldsen in honour of the heroic Swiss Guard of Louis XVI. The lion's eyes are very sad. Lucerne can be toured in a day by foot. We find a deal on watches, earrings, and swiss chocolate. On the outskirts of town, along the lake, is the Musegg wall, built originally towards the end of the 12th century. We climb hundreds of stairs for a view of the city from the top. Lunch is at an outdoor cafe along the lake. The food in Switzerland is expensive and not as good as other european countries. Our afternoon is spent up Mount Rigi, a recreation and sports area with panoramic views of the Alps, 5,800 hundred feet above sea level. We board a red train that drives up the steep incline. At times, we feel like we're on the edge of the mountain. At the very top of the mountain is a cattle farm, where cattle wear cow bells. We ride down the mountain on the cable car. Dinner is with our new friends Rob and Michelle. We find a quaint outdoor swiss cafe and all have meat with sauce. We later walk the path along Lake Lucerne. Rob spots a casino and has to stop. Ron and I can't even get in, as we aren't carrying our passports. I give Rob 10 francs and ask him to play the first slot machine for me. He doubles our money so we buy the drinks that night.
Day 8 - Lucerne to Paris
Today we prepare ourselves for our longest bus ride. Leaving the mountains, we are at the french border in an hour. While on the bus, we can't stop cuddling, holding hands, sleeping in each other's arms, and sneaking kisses just because we feel like it. We act like we're giddy teens again, with no worries or responsibilities in the world. The scenery is pleasant, but nothing in comparison to our mountain adventures in Switzerland. Many of us would love to sleep, but our Tour Guide talks constantly on the microphone. Most of what she says is of little interest to any of us. We arrive in Paris in time for a dinner with our tour group as part of an additional excursion. We eat scampi and two kinds of fish at a parisian restaurant. Harvey has us laughing so loud that our Tour Guide is anxious to speed us up. We then load the bus after dark to tour the lights of Paris. The main attractions, such as the Eiffel Tower and Louvre are lit brilliantly. We now know why they call Paris the most romantic city in the world. Of course, fine french wine also helps set the mood.
Day 9 - Paris
Our morning is spent touring past all the highlights and famous districts: Place de la Concorde (Circle), Avenue Des Champs Elyses, Louvre, Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower, Hotel des Invalides, Palais de Justice. We stopped for lunch in the district of the Opera House. Nina's sandwiches are the best I've ever eaten. Our afternoon is spent touring Verseilles. In 1668, Louis XIV was responsible for the creation of this mansion. It took 50 years to complete, but today, there are over 800 rooms and 2,000 acres of gardens. We only are allowed to tour through eight rooms, including the famous Hall of Mirrors. Each room takes its name from various mythological subjects painted in the frescoes on the ceiling. Marble, paintings, crystal chandeliers, and gold accents are prominent in each room. It's hard to believe people lived with that type of wealth, when others in town were starving to death. We leave Versailles and head back to our hotel for a rest before dinner. We set out on foot to find a typical french bistros. By accident, we end up on Rue Mouffetard, a mile long cobblestone street with shops, cafes, bistros, bars, and an outdoor market that is closing. We stop at the centre circle where musicians play for french francs as we sip drinks outdoors. We then find a bistros with Table d'hôte service. I have 12 escargots, still in shells, mouthwatering filet mignon, french bread, and dessert. The tables are so close that you can join in the conversations of people dining beside you. We meet a pilot with american airlines who has brought his date for dinner in Paris. I hope their night was as romantic as ours.
Day 10 - Paris to London
We load the bus early, unload in Calais, and hop on the ferry to Dover, England. We then have several hours of travel before arriving in London for dinner. Our hotel is located across the street from one of the entrances to Hyde Park. It pours rain, so we settle for dinner at a german restaurant close to our hotel. I have my heart set on greasy fish and chips, but the schnitzel turned out to be quite good.
Day 11 - London
At my suggestion, Rob, Michelle, Ron and I decide to purchase a 24 hour bus pass to tour all of London on an open double decker bus. There is a stop for the Big Bus Company right in front of our hotel, so our hotel manager sells us tickets for $15 pounds (about $30 canadian). With the ticket, we can hop on and off the bus on any of the three routes, as well as see London sights via River Cruise along the Thames. Our first stop is walking through glorious Hyde Park, the home of Kensington Palace. There's beautiful gardens, rows of oak and sycamore trees, a multitude of walking and jogging paths, Round Pond and The Serpentine (an artificial lake). We then hop on the bus and spend the entire day viewing all the sights: Big Ben, The Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Houses of Parliament, Tower Bridge, Harrods, etc. We pass all the famous districts, including Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Mayfair, Soho, etc. Lunch is at a typical upscale english pub. I try the shepherds pie (too much gravy), but Michelle tells us that the fish and chips were delicious. The Brits are exceptionally friendly, pleasant, witty people. We found all services to be very well organized. After a rest at our hotel, Ron and I decide we'd go for another walk in Hyde Park before enjoying the last dinner of our tour. We walk for several hours and end up on the second story of a restaurant that overlooks Piccadilly Sqaure. There is an eclectic mix of people roaming the square and theater district. It's often difficult to walk together because of the crowds. By 11 p.m. my feet are swollen, so we flag down a cab to take us back to our hotel.
Day 12 - London to Toronto
After a day of exploring
London, it's time to board our plane home. We reflect on our incredible
travel experiences. We had seen and done so much in such a short period
of time. The memories of the adventures and time spent falling in love
again with my husband have found a place so deep within my heart, that
I will treasure our european experiences for the rest of my life. And if
I forget even for one moment, I've got hundreds of pictures to take me
back to all those very special places that will never escape my soul.
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