Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Mediterranean Highlights

Trip Date: August 2008

In late 2007 Christine and I, once again, got the itch to travel.  She really wanted to go back to Europe and I wasn't opposed to seeing a number of cities in a few countries I'd never visited before.  We decided to go in August of 2008, since I would be off that month and it would be easier for Chris to take time off in the summer.  After quite a bit of research we made up our minds to go see Spain, France, and Italy, with day-trips to both Monaco and Vatican City for a total of five countries in just over three weeks!  We wanted to see and do as much as we possibly could in the time we had.  We booked a tour with Contiki.  Since we wanted to travel to multiple cities along the Mediterranean coast we though jumping on with a tour would be a good idea.  We'd have a guaranteed place to sleep every night and transportation between each of the cities.  The tour was only two weeks long, so we'd have an extra week on our own to travel and explore.  It was going to be a whirlwind vacation!


Our vacation began in Spain.  We would be starting in Madrid and have a quick stop in Zaragoza one afternoon on our way to Barcelona.  Spain, officially known as the Kingdom of Spain, is a country in southwestern Europe on the banks of the Mediterranean Sea.  Spain is part of the European Union and the official language is Spanish.  Spain has a total population of 47.2 million people.  Madrid, the capital city, has 3.2 million people, while Barcelona has 1.6 million, making them one and two respectively as Spain's largest cities.  
Spain (dark green) as part of the European Union (light green)
Our bus for the next two weeks
Our vacation started in Madrid, also known as El Foro or The Forum.  The royal palace in Madrid is above.
It has 1.4 million square-feet of floor space!
Construction on the palace started in 1738
Equestrian statue of Philips IV
Almudena Cathedral.  Construction started in 1883 and wasn't completed until 1993
The interior of the cathedral
Enjoying a frosty Cruzcamp beverage
Estadio Santiago Bernabeu is home of the Real Madrid soccer team and can seat over 85,000 fans!
One of the things I really wanted to see was an authentic Spanish bullfight.  It just so happened that one evening while we were in Madrid there was a bullfight taking place, so we bought tickets.  The ensuing fight was a bit hard to watch because they ultimately kill the bull, or bulls in our case, but from a cultural perspective many people view it as a 'fine art' as opposed to a 'blood sport'.  Either way it was definitely a part of Spanish culture that I wanted to witness in person.

The Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas bullring in Madrid
Outside the bullring
Me and the Bullfighter's Statue
The ring can seat 25,000 people and is considered the home of bullfighting in Spain
Spanish-style bullfighting happens in three distinct stages or "thirds".  Each matador is accompanied by six assistants; two picadores (lancers on horseback), three banderilleros (lesser bullfighters), and one mozo de espadas (sword page).  The bulls are all between four and six years old and weigh no less than 460kg.
The first stage, called The Lancing Third, sees the matador and banderilleros testing the bull for ferocity using the magenta and gold cape.  This allows the matador to see how the bull will perform.
Next a picador enters the ring on horseback carrying a lance.  When the bull charges the horse, the picador stabs the lance into the mound of muscle just above the bull's neck causing the bull's first loss of blood.
The second stage, called The Third of Flags, see each of the three banderillos attempt to plant two razor-sharp barbed sticks (banderillas) into the bull's shoulders.  These anger and agitate, but further weaken, the bull.
The final stage, The Third of Death, is when the matador enters the ring along with his red cape.  It is a common misconception that the colour red infuriates the bull, but in reality bulls are colourblind.  It is thought that the colour red was chosen to mask any of the bull's blood that might end up on the cape.  The matador uses his cape to attract the bull in a series of passes extremely close to his body.  Finally the matador, using his sword, will attempt to deliver the decisive blow through the bull's shoulders directly through the heart.  This was the hardest part to watch, because not all of the matador's pierced the bull's heart with the first try and had to use a number of attempts before killing the animal.
If the matador has performed well he will circle the ring.  The crowd will throw bouquets of flowers that are collected by the matador's assistants.  The crowd may also petition the president to award the matador an ear of the bull by waving white handkerchiefs in the air.  Although very rare, there have been times when the bull's life has been spared.  This happens when the public or the matador feel that the bull has fought extremely bravely, and the president may grant the bull a pardon.  
The main square in Zaragoza
Basilica del Pilar - Cathedral of Our Lady of the Pillar
The bell towers
Christine attempting to move the world
The Pyrenees Mountains on our way to Barcelona, the City of Gaudí
The royal palace in Barcelona
Barcelona's Olympic Stadium from the 1992 Summer Games
The Sagrada Família is a Roman Catholic church designed by Antoni Gaudí.  Construction started in 1882 and is still not finished.  The projected completion date is 2026, the centennial of Gaudí's death.  This is the Nativity Façade, which was directly influenced by Gaudí.
This is the Passion Façade still under construction.  The Glory Façade, which still needs to be completed, will be the largest and most striking of the three.  Although unfinished the cathedral has already been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  
Flamenco dancers at a Flamenco show and dinner in Pueblo Español
Barcelona as viewed from Park Guell
La Rambla is a popular street market and pedestrian mall in Barcelona
The Columbus Monument was built in 1888.  The monument features Christopher Columbus pointing west towards the new world.

After Barcelona we moved onto France.  We stopped in three different locations in the south of France including, Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, and Nice.  As you will see near the end of this post we ended our vacation in Paris before flying home.  Since I am posting in chronological order you will see the pictures from Paris at the end of this post, instead of being included in this France section.  France, officially known as the French Republic, is the country immediately to the east of Spain in western Europe.  It is a member of the European Union, the official language is French, and the country has a population of 65.3 million people.  The capital, and largest city, is Paris with a population of 2.2 million people.  

France (dark green) as part of the European Union (light green)
The Papal palace in Avignon.  Between 1309 and 1378 seven consecutive Pope's resided in Avignon instead of in Rome due to a conflict between the Papacy and the French crown.
The Avignon Cathedral beside the Papal palace
Chris and I sitting on a fountain at the base of the cathedral
The Saint Bénezet Bridge, also known as, Pont d'Avignon, is a famous medieval bridge on the Rhône River
Part of the stone wall that surrounded the original city of Avignon
Fountain in the town square of Aix-en-Provence
The beach in Nice, the Angels City
A fountain in Nice
Christine along the shoreline
The Mediterranean Sea

Since we were already staying in Nice we decided to venture into Monaco for a day.  Monaco, officially the Principality of Monaco, is the second smallest country in the world by area (2.02 square-kilometres) and the most densely populated one (36,371 people).  Monaco is separated into four traditional quarters, one of these is Monte Carlo, which is likely the most well known and also the largest.  The official language is French.  
Monaco is surrounded by France on three borders and the fourth is the Mediterranean Sea
The Mediterranean coast line on our way to Monaco
Christine and I at one of the view points along the way
The French Riviera
Saint Nicholas Cathedral.  This is where Grace Kelly, an American actress and later Princess of Monaco, is buried.
We had an amazing meal in Monaco
The night wouldn't have been complete without doing a little gambling in the Monte Carlo Casino!

After visiting Monaco it was time to move onto Italy.  We would be spending a a lot of time in Italy, including stops in Cinque Terre, Pisa, Florence, San Gimignano, Rome, Naples, Capri, Bologna, and Venice.  Our tour would be ending in Rome, but Chris and I had plans to spend a few more days exploring different parts of the country before leaving for Paris and ultimately home.  Italy, officially known as the Italian Republic, is a country in southern Europe.  The official language is Italian and the country is part of the European Union.  Italy has about 60.8 million people, while the capital city of Rome has approximately 2.6 million inhabitants.  
Italy (dark green) as part of the European Union (light green)
Cinque Terre, or "The Five Lands", is a series of five villages along the Italian Riviera coast
We started in Monterosso al Mare and saw the rest of the villages via a boat tour
Travelling from west to east we passed Vernazza and then saw Corniglia (above)
Manarola is the fourth village and Riomaggiore (above) is the fifth and final one
A cross sitting on top of the rock
St. Peter's Church in Porto Venere
Our boat tour ended in the small village of Port Venere east of Cinque Terre
We made a brief stop in Pisa to see the famous tower.  Here is the Baptistery, the Cathedral, and the Leaning Tower
The Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Duomo is the main church in Florence, also called the City of Lilies
The Duomo's bell tower
The Gates of Paradise are the doors on the north side of the Baptistery across from The Duomo
This is the original Statue of David sculpted by Michelangelo between 1501 and 1504
Enjoying a reasonably sized beverage in Florence!
Palazzo Vecchio is the town hall of Florence
The Fountain of Neptune standing outside Palazzo Vecchio
Perseus with the head of Medusa inside Loggia dei Lanzi across from Palazzo Vecchio
The Ponte Vecchio bridge over the Arno River is famous for being the only bridge in Florence to survive World War II
Chris and I on the bridge
Florence, Italy
On our way to a Tuscan dinner
San Gimignano is a small walled town in Tuscany
Also known as The Town of Fine Towers
Medieval architechture
One of the towers and the church
Christine overlooking the Tuscan hills
Rome, The Eternal City
Church of Sant'Angnese in Piazza Navona
The Moro Fountain in Piazza Navona
Sitting on the Spanish Steps during our first night in Rome
The Roman Forum is a rectangular plaza surrounded by the ruins of important buildings and temples
The Temple of Caesar.  It is believed this altar is where Julius Caesar was cremated.
The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina was built in 141AD
House of the Vestals
These pillars are all that remain from the Temple of Castor and Pollux, which was built in 495BC
The Arch of Constantine is the largest of the remaining triumphal arches in Rome
The Colosseum was built between 70 and 80AD
Chris and I outside the Collosseum
It was the largest amphitheatre in the Roman Empire and it is estimated that it could hold 50,000-80,000 spectators
Inside the Colosseum
Castel Sant'Angelo was completed in 139AD and, apparently, there's an underground tunnel directly from Vatican City in case the Pope is ever evacuated
Piazzao del Popolo with the ancient Egyptian Flaminio Obelisk in the centre of the square
The twin churchs of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto are also in Piazza del Popolo
The Spanish Steps lead up to the Trinità dei Monti church
The Trevi Fountain, finished in 1762, is one of the most famous fountains in the world
A traditional legends holds that if you toss a coin into the fountain you are destined to return to Rome.  This came true for Christine, as this was her second time in Rome, so we'll see if it holds true for me!
The Pantheon was built as a temple to all the gods of ancient Rome in 126AD
Granite columns lead you into the Pantheon
The oculus in the dome of the Pantheon
The Vittorio Emanuele II Monument was built to honor the first king of a unified Italy
The chains that bound St. Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem are on display in the Saint Peter in Chains Cathedral
Circus Maximus is an ancient Roman chariot racing stadium
Ruins at Circus Maximus
The House of Augusts on Palatine Hill served as the primary residence for Caesar Augustus during his reign
S.P.Q.R. are the initials from a Latin phrase that translates to "The Senate and the People of Rome".  The letters are often seen beneath Romulus and Remus suckling on the Capitoline Wolf, which are the central characters in Rome's foundation myth.
   Vatican City:

Vatican City, or Vatican City State, is officially the smallest independent country by both size (44 hectares) and population (just over 800) in the world.  The Vatican's territory consists of a walled enclave entirely within the city of Rome in Italy.  The Pope is both Head of State and Government within the Vatican's walls.  The official language is Italian.  

Vatican City falls entirely within Rome, Italy
St. Peter's Basilica
These massive Tuscan colonnades, four columns deep surround St. Peter's square in "God's Arms"
A section of the pillars in God's Arms
St. Peter's Basilica as viewed from the square.  The Pope's balcony is the one directly in the centre.
St. Peter's Square as viewed from the steps of St. Peter's Basilica.  The Vatican Obelisk in the centre of the square is a 4,000 year-old Egyption obelisk erected here in 1568.  
Carlo Maderno's granite fountain within the square circa 1613.  Gian Lorenzo Bernini matched Maderno's fountain in 1675, so there is now an identical pair on either side of the obelisk.  
The Swiss Guard are the Pope's personal bodyguards and soldiers.  If they are in Vatican City the Pope must be as well.
Statue of St. Peter inside the basilica
Entrance into the Vatican Museums, which were established in 1506
The Sistine Chapel
The famous ceiling by Michelangelo.  You are not allowed to take photos within the chapel, so these are pictures I found online.
From Rome we traveled by train to Naples, Bologna, and finally Venice
Naples is also known as the City of the Sun.  The castle above is Castel Nuovo and it was built in 1279.
Naples is also traditionally thought to be the birthplace of the pizza!
From Naples we took a boat to the island of Capri, which is a tourist destination for both locals and foreigners
We took a very slow chair lift up Mt. Solaro for some incredible views
We stayed in the town of Anacapri on the island
Looking down at the island from the top of Mt. Solaro
Faraglioni, Italian for rock stacks, are these famous islands off the coast of Capri
Sitting at the top with the Tyrrhenian Sea in the background
Faro Punta Carena.  This was supposed to be a public beach for swimming, but because the ocean was so rough they closed every beach on the island.
Chris and I soaking up some sun instead of swimming
After Capri we moved onto Bologna, the Red City.  This is the Basilica di San Petronio
The Two Towers, also known as Donkey Towers, are the main symbol of Bologna
This is Palazzo Re Enzo, a palace in Bologna, that was built in 1245
Our last Italian city was Venice, the Bride of the Sea.  This is the Grand Canal.
Christine and I enjoying Venice
The Rialto Bridge
It is the oldest of the four bridges that span the Grand Canal
St. Mark's Square is dominated by St. Mark's Basilica (left) and St. Mark's Campanile (right)
There was an absurd number of pigeons in the square
One of the side "streets" in Venice 
Venice, Italy
The entire city of Venice is listed as a World Heritage Site
From Venice we caught a flight to Paris, which has many nicknames, such as the City of Love and the City of Light.  We would be spending a few days in Paris before heading back home.  

The Louvre Museum is one of the world's largest and most visited museums.  It holds nearly 35,000 objects.
The Louvre Pyramid marks the main entrance to the museum
Winged Victory of Samothrace is a sculpture featuring the headless Greek Goddess of Victory, Nike
Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa
Venus de Milo
The Inverted Pyramid.  According to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, the remains of Mary Magdalene are buried in a secret chamber beneath the small stone pyramid.
Notre-Dame Cathedral
The garden behind Notre-Dame.  The cathedral was completed in 1345.
The Seine River
Eiffel Tower
It was erected in 1889 as the entrance arch to the 1889 World's Fair.  The tower stands 324m tall.
The Arc de Triomphe honors those who fought and died for France in the French Revolution and Napoleonic War
Basilica of Sacré-Cœur or the Sacred Heart of Paris
It stands on top of the highest point in Paris in Montmarte
The Eiffel Tower at night was lit up to resemble the European Union flag
As you can tell we had a pretty amazing vacation and were able to see a lot of different sites and visit quite a few cities.  After we got back we were both exhausted and needed another vacation to recover from our original vacation!  We both agreed that we may have bit off more than we could chew on this trip.  Although we saw and did a lot, it may have been too much crammed into a short period of time.  I think if we were to do it over again we would spend less time travelling between places and spend a little more time exploring the cities.  Sometimes less can be more!

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