Indeed, this city is an attraction in and of itself, and it's such an easy target for stereotypes and overgeneralizations. To give you an idea of how stocked the city is, here's a quick rundown of what we experienced in the city...
Le Tour Eiffel or the Eiffel Tower - can there be anything more iconic than this metal structure? Mention Paris, and this is probably the first thing that pops up in your mind! There are many ways to view the structure, including high up in the tower itself where we saw long queues full of people waiting to go up.
Notre Dame Cathedral - for some reason, seeing this grand cathedral and its two rectangular towers really reminded me of Royce Hall at UCLA. If it's indeed the case that we bit off this cathedral, then I guess it's understandable. After all, it's grand and one of the most impressive sights in the city. And judging by the amount of people crowding the area fronting the cathedral, I guess we weren't alone!
St Chapelle Cathedral - if you're queueing up for this cathedral, chances are the reason why you're doing it is for its impressive stained-glass windows. Indeed, the upper chamber is the one with very high ceilings and throughout its vertical length, there's the stained-glass windows.
It's interesting to see how the room lights up differently depending on where and how intense the sun's rays penetrate these colorful windows.
Le Sacre Coeur - this intriguing cathedral is an attractive building in and of itself. However, it also turns out that if you turn around and look away from the building, you'll get a pretty nice view of the city.
When we visited this place on the last night of our France trip, there were many people crowding the stairs, the garden area, and even the street flanked with shops and cafes. We weren't sure what the buzz was all about, but it was certainly an atmospheric place to be.
Le Musée du Louvre or the Louvre Museum - this place is way busier than what the Tom Hanks Da Vinci Code movie would lead you to believe. It's also a huge place. Sitting along the banks of the Seine River, people from all over the world come to see the Mona Lisa within though there are certainly many more historical pieces of art you can enjoy depending on how much time you have.
L'Arc de Triomphe or the Arc of Triumph - this is an impressively large war memorial at the center of a very busy roundabout near the Charles de Gaulle - Etoiles metro stop. Underground walkways let you emerge right at the monument without having to cross the traffic. Apparently, it's also possible to tour the interior of the arc as we saw many people queueing up here.
Once we got through the queue to get the ticket and then the queue to get in the chateau, we walked through various corridors full of high ceilings, murals, chambers, you name it. Perhaps the most impressive part of our visit was the bright Mirror Room where chandeliers hanging from high ceilings full of murals were flanked with mirrors and gold. With such visual displays of opulence, could there be lessons learned from the French Revolution and apply them to your own political situation?
Falaise d'Aval is probably the most picturesque of the three arches. Meanwhile, Manneporte probably has the largest span. With a little care and timing, it's possible to walk through these arches. In addition, it's even possible to walk up to Falaise d'Amont as well as going up the sea cliffs for different views of the town as well as the arches and sea scenery itself.
Adding to the appeal of this place is that all of the attractions are right by the town though viewing Manneporte will require a little more walking (nothing difficult though). If the weather's good, there's even opportunities to catch the soft afternoon light painting the cliffs for that money photo or to catch an unforgettable sunset.
Meanwhile on the island, we were able to enjoy the narrow cobblestone walkways climbing up to the abbey itself. Within the abbey, we explored various arched corridors, dungeons, courtyards, and even some impressive views from high up. On top of that, we enjoyed fantasizing and exploring as many nooks and crannies of the interior that we were allowed access to.
And as if that weren't enough, walking the ramparts and enjoying the views of the channel as well as the towering abbey was like being in a magic kingdom. It's definitely one of those places where you can just let your imagination run wild, and I have to believe a lot of role playing fantasies were probably influenced by places like this!
Most of the action was along and around Rue St Jean. That was where we saw a couple of traboules (hidden passageways that came in handy during troubled times like the Nazi occupation as well as the French Revolution). There was also an impressive cathedral as well as access to the hilltop Notre Dame Cathedral as well. Even eating at a Lyonnais bouchon was a surprise in itself as it was definitely something different than the typical French cuisine we were exposed to up to this point.
Another interesting place was the plaza behind Hotel de Ville. It was a large square with the historic-looking hotel featuring prominently. For an added touch, there was a fountain as well as a few cafes to just chill out and bask in the scenery.
Something that we thought was well worth the money and time was exploring the chateau within the walled city, which also included a walk along its ramparts. For it was here that we were able to get impressive views of the modern city of Carcassonne surrounding La Cité as well as a different perspective of the interior city itself.
While doing the ramparts, don't forget to walk the northern ramparts, which has a separate set of steps to go up. It has more views of the city while also providing that rare experience of walking the narrow battlements.
Among the towns that Julie and I visited that characterized our time in Provence were Avignon, Gordes, and Rousillon. Avignon's old center featured a Pope's Palace that provided nice views of the city as well as access to that bridge that doesn't go across the river (that seems to be symbolic of Avignon).
When we went to Gordes, we saw a charming centuries-old town nestled against a hillside high above the vineyards surrounding it. Much of the buildings were made of the same kind of rocks that were prevalent in the neighboring Village of Bories, which made it distinct from other medieval-looking structures seen elsewhere in France.
And even though we didn't see lavendar during our May visit, the Abbey of the Senanque was also nearby (though with the blooming lavendar, it would've taken on a charm of its own).
Then, we visited Rousillon. Most of the buildings comprising this charming town was made of the red ochre that is prevalent here. I almost think of it like a miniature Bryce Canyon or Cedar Breaks with a Provencal town nestled within. We walked part of the trail of the ochres as well as getting creative with taking photos of the artisan streets and wildflowers that were in bloom.
In any case, this city features azure-blue waters (there's a reason why the French call this region the Cote d'Azure) by its pebble beaches while also featuring dramatic corniches, which are winding roads with views of the Mediterranean while going between mountain and cliff-clinging buildings. Within the bustle of the city, we also managed to visit Old Nice with its colorful buildings and fruit market. I'm sure we could've benefitted from spending a night in this city, but given the time and budget constraints, that'll have to wait for another time.
But once we set foot amongst the canals, we were instantly charmed by how it was like Venice meets the French Alps. It's hard to describe, but it's just one of those things that just has to be seen to be believed. In addition to the canals, there were plenty of narrow walkways and arcades flanked with shops, stands, cafes, and restaurants. It was certainly atmospheric in addition to scenic.
As if that weren't enough, we even had a chance to take walks along the shores of Lake Annecy, which was picture perfect given the serene lake backed by towering snow-topped mountains with villas and towns clinging to their sides. Add it all up and we were certainly glad that we chose to spend a couple of nights here despite how difficult it was to park!
While this place is more of a Winter destination, the late Spring and Summer months also offered some sightseeing and hiking activities as well. Had we had the time, we probably could've visited La Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) given that the weather seemed to have been cooperating. I'm sure it might've been something similar to Jungfraujoch in Switzerland.
It was a pleasant little town to go for a stroll while people watching at a cafe. We even spent some time on the jetty looking back towards town or looking off in the distance at snow-covered mountains towering over a neighboring town below in the distance. The town itself featured a shiny church, a garden and chateau, as well as arched wall entrances that seemed to be typical of medieval towns like this. We could totally see why this place was so popular, especially since day tours from Geneva seemed convenient and readily available.
While the island has multiple attractions to keep you occupied (including ruins of Ancient Thira and the traditional settlement of Megalohori), there are a couple of popular towns facing the scenic caldera where I'm sure most of the photos are taken from. And they're Fira and Oia. Fira seems to be fairly busy as it has a cable car as well as numerous shops and even a museum as well as a handful of accommodations from luxury hotels to mid-range apartments.
However, if you're after that quintessential Santorini experience, you'll have to go all the way to the top of the island at the town of Oia (pronounced "EE-uh"). For here, it's quieter, charming, mostly vehicle free, and perhaps the best place to see the sunset. Julie and I still think about this place for it's hard to forget something so unique and beautiful.
Outside the Acropolis, it's worth checking out the National Archaeological Museum (in the gritty part of town though) where you can see some of the famous statues you might have come across in your European History textbooks. This includes an Athena Statue, a balanced statue, and even a Zeus statue throwing a lightning bolt. A cool thing about the journey to get to the museum from the main CBD of Athens is that the train station by the CBD is almost like a cross between a subway station and a museum.
In addition, there's the Ancient Agora where you can see more ruins with the Acropolis still perched above the large park. Within the complex, there's the Temple of Hephaistos, which might remind you of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. Perhaps now, you can see where some of America's historical monuments get their inspiration from!
There's definitely lots to do in Athens, and that's why Julie and I spent three nights here. But where else can you get such an unusual mix of ancient culture mixed with modern life?
Outside the main part of the archaeological complex, a short walk yields a visit to the Temple of Athena. Here, there are three restored columns, while the remainder are left to the elements. The standing pillars are supposed to give you an idea of what the temple was originally supposed to look like.
In addition to see the monasteries from afar, you can visit a handful of these places. It depends on the schedule as some monasteries are open on days that others are not. But when you go inside one of these things, you not only get more views of other monasteries as well as the modern towns further below of Kalampaki and Kastraki, but you also get to see some of the religiously-influenced halls and corridors making these monasteries very atmospheric.
Strangely, Julie and I didn't see much Turkish influence in the foods except for some of the desserts. We're not sure why that is, but you definitely do see similarities in architecture between some of the ruins here and some of those we've seen on TV or in pictures of Turkey.
Obviously we're not the only ones that think this place is charming for everyday it seems to be consistently overrun by mass tourism. Fortunately, you can chill by dining at one of the cafes or having a drink and just people watch. It's real easy to do within the tight quarters of town. Still, when night time rolls around, this place seems to really come alive as the bars and cafes seem to open into wee hours of the night which attract young party-goers (keeping light sleepers staying within the palace awake thanks to the tight quarters).
Julie and I spent a couple of nights here, and it almost felt as if you could play hide-and-seek within the Palace itself as it's so compact yet be full of hidden nooks and crannies.
One excursion that is probably worth the fairly hefty price is the walk along the city walls. It's actually a fairly long excursion as you can walk the entire perimeter of town looking over the sea of red-tiled roofs with the odd tower poking above the masses. Sure it might be a hot and tiring stroll (especially if it's a sunny day), but the views both within the walls and outside towards the blue-green Aegean are mindblowing.
Finally, if you have a chance to stay within the city walls, we highly recommend doing so. For when the tour groups leave for the day, this becomes your chance to experience the place when the sun goes down or to stroll among the silence in the early morning. Either way, it's one of those places where you'll remember it as a highlight of your trip to Hrvatska.
Of course, this type of place does have its drawbacks. The big one is that it's only worth your while and money (it's very expensive to come up here) if the weather's clear. But given the fickle nature of the weather, it's a real roll of the dice. So you'll have to rely on webcams online or check out TV stations in Interlaken to get an idea of whether you should commit to going or not.
Another big drawback is the thin air. If you're pregnant or you haven't acclimated, it's quite easy to go dizzy or out-of-breath. That was certainly the case with us as we didn't have to exert ourselves much before we found ourselves starting to feel lightheaded.
Finally, there's also nice alpine views to be had as you make the fairly long half-day journey to the top of Europe. There's even a pair of train stops at Eismeer and Eigerwand offering up views of glaciers as well as birds eye views above neighboring mountaintops...
If the elements become a bit much to stay outside in the typically freezing weather, you can retreat inside where there's a rotating cafe providing you 360 degree views without having to walk around and twist your neck.
In addition to the history, the city also features a captive bear family that seems to be a hit with both local and foreign tourists. Moreover, you've got the Grossmunster Cathedral and the Rosengarten where you get gorgeous panoramic views of the whole city. Hard to believe that this is Switzerland's capital city!
Perhaps other cities like Luzern (Lucerne) tried to be as charming as this place, but I think Stein am Rhein has the compact size and the lack of overdoing it on the commercial front. Even though we thought we "discovered" this place on a lark, we did see quite a few tour buses so obviously it's on the itineraries of many of the packaged tours.
Well, regardless of whether it has gotten any pub or not, we thoroughly enjoyed this place, and now we think of this place when it comes to charming Swiss towns.
Have A Great Story Or Comment You'd Like To Share?
Here's your chance to share them (as well as post a picture)!