Visiting Europe: Romance vs Reality

So… this spring I travelled to Paris, France, and locations in Italy. I know, it sounds very glamorous, but I was travelling with 30 teenagers, so… it was actually a working holiday. I’m sharing this experience with you, not to make you jealous. “I got to go and you didn’t!” is not my style. I thought you would be amused to hear the romantic vision compared the realistic version.

We started in France. Our flight departed at 5:30 Toronto time and arrived in Paris at 8:00 am. The arrival time felt like 2:00 am to us. We tried to sleep on the plane, but the food, movies and general discomfort, meant that our first day in Paris followed a sleepless night. This was mediated by a bus tour to get oriented. There was spring weather and the group was hopped up on adrenaline, so we made it through the day.

Our second day in Paris included a visit to the Louvre Museum. We planned to check in on Mona Lisa, offer greetings to Venus de Milo and gaze in awe at Winged Victory. As a tour group we had a timed entrance and thus were able to bypass the long lines. With floor plan maps in hand, we hunted down some of mankind’s most treasured artifacts. We passed hundreds of fabulous works of art as we targeted our destination. As we moved among classical sculptures, we repeatedly saw tourists being photographed mimicking the sculpture’s pose. “I travelled to Paris and look how cute I am standing beside this great work of art.” Sigh

When we reached the room where Mona Lisa resides, disappointment met us at the door. “It’s so small,” was the general reaction. The students fought through the crowd the see her mounted behind bullet-proof glass. Visitors crowding the room were oblivious to The Marriage at Cana, by Paolo Veronese, 1563, the largest painting in the museum at 10m wide, which hangs on the wall opposite Mona Lisa. As we departed that day the young people wondered who gets to decide that one painting is that much more impressive or important that the others in the building. Hmmm… we learned something.

 

We saw the Eiffel Tower, once during the day and again at night. Our group was disappointed, the line to go up was three hours long and hence not doable. We took photos and fended off street vendors who were keen to sell us a wide range of trinkets featuring the tower, mass-produced in some Far East factory. Ahhh Paris.

Our next stop was Florence, Italy. The weather was still fabulous. It was well suited to bargaining in the leather market, eating at outdoor cafes and consuming gelato. We had timed tickets to climb the dome of the Duomo di Fiereze. The view was amazing. When I returned home I binge watched “Medici: Masters of Florence” which features the construction of this amazing cathedral.

We had timed tickets for the Galleria dell’Accademia so we could check out David. It took 20 minutes of our tight schedule to get through the security check. The current political climate resulted in x-ray scanning machines and metal detectors at most venues. The extra virgin olive oil that was in my backpack was considered a threat to David’s welfare and was confiscated… to be retrieved upon departure. He was worth the hassle.

We also took a walking tour. The guide had a microphone connected to our receivers which had earphones. It was a great system as we fought our way down narrow, crowded cobblestone streets. The culmination of the tour was Ponte Vecchio Bridge, which was built over the Amo River in medieval times. The shops, with residences, included on the bridge were originally butcher shops, presumably so refuse could be easily discarded in the river, but now they are high-end jewelry stores. It is a frequently captured image, a romantic location as the above photo by Emiliano Bussi demonstrates. The reality of the location is illustrated by my photo below. Pickpockets were a serious concern and tracking the 30 young souls in our care was a challenge.

In hindsight, Florence was lovely. The crowds there were nothing compared to Rome. We continued to have priority access to all the places we wanted to see. At the Colosseum, we met a local guide with the remote mic. It’s a fascinating place with a dark history that appeals strongly to adolescents, but… we rushed through it. You see, in Rome buses are only allowed to park in designated locations for restricted lengths of time. We were on a tight schedule and the lengthy security process at the Colosseum caused a significant delay. As a result we literally raced through the Forum, where there was another x-ray scanner. It’s a place one could spend days investigating, but we had to make it to our bus on time.

Our afternoon stop was Vatican City. We were fortunate to have a timed group access because the line of civilians went on for blocks. We picked up another guide who gathered us around display boards showing features of the Sistine Chapel’s imagery. We learned about it prior to entering so that we could respect the sacred space once we got there.

The chapel is accessed through the “Gallery of Tapestries.” Elyssa Bernard, of Romewise, said I could show you her image of this elegant space, above. Each large tapestry reveals a complex tale, but our focus was on navigating the crushing crowd. Left is the image I took. No photography is allowed in the chapel itself, so let me describe the scene. It was wall-to-wall people. Many were sneaking selfie upshots of the ceiling. People conversed in many languages while a security guard bellowed, “Silencio!” into a loudspeaker. Hardly the meditative moment we had been hoping for.

 

That evening we walked the streets of Rome. We had tickets to an opera and prior to that we wanted to see the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon, both of which have free access. The Trevi Fountain is massive, comes with a long history of folklore and recent incidents of political activism. Our students could not get near enough to toss coins without hitting the tourists in the front row. They handled this with good humour. This was the last day of our adventure and dealing with crowds had become the norm.

We visited the Pantheon, a temple dedicated by Emperor Hadrian, in 126 AD. By this time we had seen so many architectural wonders that the amazing dome and gold embellishments barely registered. Our young people’s minds focused on the pizza they would have for dinner. Outside the Pantheon musicians played, street vendors sold Italian trinkets and costumed gladiators posed for photos. Yep, that’s me in front of the Pantheon. My youthful travel companions taught me to take what they called an “egghead selfie.” I look exhausted, eh?

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Marion Reidel, Upper Canadian Author with a wicked sense of humour. Buy her book, visit her on tour, and also get the tattoo.

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