Saturday, March 28, 2015

Paris: the City of Hazy Lights

Ah, Paris. A city I love completely. When you love something or someone completely, you love the good things and the bad things. In the case of Paris, the good things are everywhere: wonderful architecture, history around every corner and in graveyards, great style, delicious food, cheap and tasty wine, brilliant shows! The bad things include constant crowds of tourists in places where you wish you could be alone, an utterly baffling metro system, and abysmal table service in restaurants. On this trip, I found a new addition to the 'bad' list that I wasn't expecting: really bad air quality.

It seems, dear readers, that the beautiful City of Lights has an air pollution problem. Paris sits in a topographical basin, and it seems like usually there is enough of a prevailing wind to take the fumes and exhaust from the millions of vehicles away from the city. Lately, for whatever reason, the wind hasn't been prevailing, so the pollution has been hanging over Paris. The mayor has taken steps like instituting restrictions on when vehicles can be used - even numbered license plates one day, odd numbered plates the next - to try to curb the problem.

An important tip for tourists of the current day: the mayor also, with permission from the government, makes public transit free for everyone for a few days at a time, to encourage people to take transit instead of driving cars. On my most recent trip, transit was free on three out of four days, and my friend and I roamed around the city hopping on and off of buses as much as we pleased. It was a real money-saver, for certain. Though complicated, the transit system in Paris is excellent; metro stations are all over the place, and bus service is fast and frequent. I encourage visitors to take advantage of the system, and to watch out for days when you might be able to use it free of charge.

On this trip, I also visited Versailles for the first time. As a big fan of history, art, architecture, and the story of Marie Antoinette, I was really excited to go. Though Versailles is one of those places that is busy all year 'round, and when you want to be alone in a room to really take in the size and grandeur you will inevitably be smacked on the back of the head with a selfie stick, this great palace does not disappoint.

The Hall of Mirrors - where height is an advantage
It was amazing to walk around the grounds and see all the meticulous work that was put into the landscape architecture. No one really does that anymore, on such an enormous scale. I really liked walking through the royal apartments and the different halls as well. I would love to be allowed to roam free around Versailles, though I know that's not possible. I just want to see the kitchen, and the closets. I mean, at the time of Louis XIV - possibly France's wisest and most insane king - there were around 1000 people living at Versailles at any given time. Louis XIV required the court to be moved to Versailles and for all the nobility and various courtesans (and, therefore, their serving men and women) to live at the palace on a full-time basis. He even made the palace bigger in order to accommodate this. So I really had to wonder when walking around the limited area that tourists are allowed into, 'where did they cook for everyone? did they eat in shifts? where are the closets?' Those puffy dresses that the ladies wore at the time, with the big pannier things on the hips must have taken up some serious real estate, storage-wise. It would have been a fascinating place to be anytime during the reign of Louis XIV or XV, and maybe for the first half of XVI.

Looking over the Grand Canal from
the rear courtyard, Versailles
Versailles takes about 30 minutes to get to on a train from Paris. Even if a visitor doesn't feel like dealing with crowds and selfie sticks in the Hall of Mirrors, the grounds are worth the trip. On a nice day, one can walk around the lakes and through the woods, take a row boat out on the Grand Canal, and have coffee in little cafes that were once out-buildings. Outstandingly beautiful, all of it, and even worth paying for the transit ride.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Verona: Probably Paradise

When people think of paradise, or put photos of it as their desktop background on their work computers, or as inspirational images on their walls, it usually looks like this: white sand, blue water, blue sky, palm trees; thatched-roof hut optional (on stilts, also optional). When I see those images, I don't think 'paradise.' I think, 'totally, that would be sweet for a week... 10 days, tops.' After the 10 day tropical island cut-off, I start to think about isolation, sand lice, hurricanes, spotty Wi-Fi, and what happens if you need to see a doctor?

A view over Verona from the Santuario Maddona di Lourdes
For me, paradise looks more like this: a warm urban environment, big enough to have lots of things happening but small enough to get out of easily into nature; fashion, style, food, music, cocktails and wines; people on bikes, being happy, having fun; people meeting up in parks and public spaces, talking, laughing; people walking dogs and riding scooters in fun colours. It turns out that for me, paradise looks a lot like Verona.

Romeo and Juliet, yes. Their houses are there - did you know they were basically neighbours? Shakespeare doesn't say much about this, but Leo and Claire made me think that there was at least a train track separating them. There's basically one medieval alley-way between their houses. (Some people, clearly, also think that they were real humans, and not just characters in a play.)

Roman ruins, yes. There are ruins and Roman colosseums all over Italy, but it never stops being amazing to me to gaze upon structures built 2000 years ago and still standing. I hope that I never get nonchalant about such things. Do we build anything today that could last that long? Certainly not our glass towers. Verona has been occupied for millennia, and the Roman city walls, the colosseum, and a number of other amazing super-old things remain for our digital-photo-taking pleasure.

Dante, yes. Dante Alighieri lived in Verona and began his work on the Divine Comedy there. There's a square dedicated to him, near Romeo's house, and a magnificent statue. He talks about the Montagues and Capulets in the Divine Comedy and about their feud, which is part of why some people think that Romeo and Juliet were real.

The view down Corso Sant'Anastasia
However, these things, as wonderful as they are, do not make Verona a paradise. What makes the city feel that way is the people, the sun, the verve - the living and breathing parts. My first trip to Italy - to Tuscany and Veneto - happened before I started to write this blog, and so my reflections on those places were only aired to friends and family who read my emails (talking about travel is always hard, isn't it?). The overwhelming sense I got then and on this most recent trip is one of calm enjoyment of life. Italians really know what living is about.
A nun climbs the hill to the Santuario

Verona is aesthetically gorgeous, sunny and warm. It is currently 'winter' and people (bless their hearts) were wearing light down parkas and even some toques, but it was 17 degrees Celsius, so let's not joke. I was wandering about with a light sweater on and was obliged to remove it on some of the sunny climbs to various spots overlooking the city. Verona sits at the foot of the Alps and just east of clear blue Lake Garda. It's equidistant between Milan and Venice. The Adriatic sea is close by. The city seems to always be draped in a soft white mist, which may be air pollution, or may be due to the cooler mountain air meeting the warmer air from the plains and the sea.

The bottega del vino
The super-stylish residents of Verona walked and rode their bicycles through the streets, with nary a hair out of place. The bikes were mostly sturdy, festooned with baskets and panniers, with tires wide enough to manage the old cobbles without getting stuck or popping. Gentlemen in jaunty hats, Nuns in their habits, women wearing heels and smart jackets - all popped their purchases into their panniers and coasted away, stopping to greet people, to see friends on foot or to have a glass of wine in the piazza (not the sisters, though). As a cyclist, it's hard for me to describe the intense feeling of joy, wonder, and hope that seeing people like this inspires in me. "We could be like this!" I think to myself, "Toronto could be like this! We could do this!" I think some politicians should go spend time in Italy (and other countries with lots of cycling) to see how it's done.

I met my friend, Elaine, who had been in Italy on a work-related trip, in Verona - our idea was to spend a few days exploring the city together before she travelled home to California. But she was really sick the whole time, and that was really a bummer. Fortunately, we were staying in a gorgeous apartment I found on HomeAway, which was right in the centre of all the beautiful and fun things. Elaine decided she should marry the apartment, and I wish them all happiness! With the incredible location, which we didn't fully appreciate when booking, it was easy for me to go out for walks around the city and come back with food or fizzy water and to see how she was doing. We made it out the first night to a wonderful old wine bar - Antica Bottega del Vino - which was highly recommended and I recommend in turn, and shared Champagne, cheese, and some Veronese specialties. Unfortunatley, that was the longest that Elaine spent outdoors until the day we were leaving. A doctor came to the house (so, this is what happens if you need a doctor in Paradise) and said that Elaine was OK to fly, with the aid of four different kinds of bronchitis-related potions.

There is so much more that we could have done and seen, especially for poor Elaine, who hardly got to see the city at all, that Verona definitely warrants another trip. I think I'll add it to my list of places to live in for a while - I don't think I could ever get tired of this paradise.