A European sampler

Photographs by Bob Rozycki

 

Five countries in 12 days.

Spain, France, Monaco, Italy and England. OK, Monaco is technically a principality.

That was our family’s late spring trip and gift to our oldest daughter for graduating from Emerson College in Boston.

You would think it was like a combination of the TV show “The Amazing Race” and the movie “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium,” a send-up of packaged tours of Europe.

But it wasn’t. It was relaxing and I actually learned a lot, from how to pronounce Joan Miró to finding out you don’t have to automatically tip for service. And of course there’s the euro, dollar, pound conversions. (Yikes! And yes, I know there’s an app to make life easier.)

I’ll give you the highlights of the highlights, since there is not enough room here to mention every single astonishing thing that made our eyes widen.

The trip started in Barcelona, a most forward-thinking city when it comes to architecture. Perhaps it was instilled by Antoni Gaudí, whose creations encompassed art nouveau, surrealism, cubism and his own originality. A former apartment building in the downtown, Casa Batlló, is a breathing, undulating structure that belongs in a fairy tale. It’s just a short ways from his massive and towering unfinished creation that’s still being perfected, The Sagrada Familia basilica.

Modern buildings mix with old throughout Barcelona. It’s a feast for eyes. While the building themselves could stand in for public art, there are installations throughout the city that add their own dash of colors and awe. Creations from native son Joan Miró to American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein to some real cool graffiti pop up like magical flowers.

The next day we set out from the port of Barcelona on the cruise ship the Disney Magic, a wonderful vehicle to cruise the Mediterranean. A day at sea and just sitting on the room balcony is a vacation unto itself. But we had places to see – four ports of call: Villefranche, La Spezia, Civitavecchia and Naples.

Nice was a wonderful coastal city where the people take knocks from their northern counterparts for moving too slow. But slow is nice, especially on vacation. Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse loved the scenery too as can be seen in the local museums. Walking along the narrow streets you can breathe in the history as well as the fresh fruits and spices from the small shops.

Just over the mountain from Nice is Monaco. The best way to describe it is an embarrassment of riches. From the Lamborghinis to Bentleys it’s a rappers paradise. (I kid.) It’s the most expensive city in the world to live. A tour guide says rents are about $11,000 a square foot.

The next day was Florence with its Il Duomo di Firenze, the domed cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. It is the largest brick and mortar dome in the world. Its exterior is distinctive for its green and pink marble panels. And now for the wow factor: It took about 140 years to complete. The reason was that the architect died and The Black Death descended and wiped out most of the population.

One scary thing about the dome: If you are able to make it to the walkway up on top, there is some scary artwork of devils doing very nasty things to humans. (Look it up if you dare.)

Speaking of scary … Rome traffic. There are 1 million registered motor scooters in the city. Needless to say, look both ways before crossing a street. I can’t say much about Rome that hasn’t already been said. But it is awe-inspiring with its architecture and statues and obelisks. Over at the Piazza Navona, I learned about the dueling architects Bernini and Borromini. In short, Borromini designed the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone. He also came up with the idea for a fountain representing the four great rivers of the world to be built in front of the church going as far as engineering a viaduct to bring water to the fountain once completed. Instead, his archrival Bernini got the contract to build the fountain. In designing it he made the one major figure look away from the church in disdain, as the legend goes. And another has his hand up as if the church were about to collapse.

Vatican City and St. Peter’s Basilica. You can’t write enough. Add it to your bucket list.

The next day a quick trip to the island of Capri was amazing for the views from atop the island. Use an adjective and all the synonyms for breathtaking.

Returning to Barcelona, we hopped a short flight to Heathrow Airport.

Back to a country where I understood the language, sort of.

To understand England, a trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum is a must.

It bills itself as “The world’s greatest museum of art and design.”

It doesn’t disappoint.

Ya think America is old? You don’t know old until you walk the floors of this huge great museum. I spotted a beautiful leather chest that has withstood the tests of time with the date 1597 stamped on it. A wine glass made in 1689.

To know London, you have to walk it. Hopping aboard one of the open-top double-decker buses is also a great way to take in the city. And don’t forget a boat ride on the Thames.

And since I haven’t mentioned food yet, a hidden gem to eat in Kensington section of London is ffiona’s. Ffiona Reid-Owen is one of the most charming restaurant owners we have ever encountered. She greets you, helps with your selections – from cocktails through dessert – and then sits down and joins you after you have finished your meal to see if you enjoyed it as well as to just chit-chat. And she is not one to hold her tongue.

During our second visit to her place, actor Terence Stamp was eating at a table next to us. As he left to go, Ffiona walked him to the door where he gave her a peck on the cheek.

I got her attention and said you must be good friends with him.

Her reply? “Oh, he’s such a twat.” (In England it rhymes with “hat.”)

The reason for her friendly insult was because the last time the actor was asked by a magazine what his favorite place to eat, he named a competitor of Ffiona’s. She called up Stamp and gave him bloody hell. A bouquet of flowers arrived the next day as apology.

Nothing like a good local story to end a whirlwind vacation.

 

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