Wednesday, September 21, 2011

London vs Paris vs Rome

Back in July 2007 I did a post that compared London vs Paris. Turns out that to this day it is still a popular post and once or twice a week someone Googles “London versus Paris” and reads it. So I figured I'd take the original post and update it for Rome!

Which city did I like better? Well, I figured I'd do a itemized list of things to compare the three cities on, almost like a competition:

Overall look: London has an interesting mix of buildings both old and new but Paris retains much of its architectural charm. Neighbourhood after neighbourhood looks like it is from the late 19th-early 20th century, with four or five storey apartment buildings side by side with the shuttered windows etc. By keeping the architecture consistent the streets of Paris retain a lot of charm.
Rome is similar to Paris with narrow streets and apartment buildings side-by-side but has a lot more “Wow!” buildings and monuments in a small area and great piazzas to discover.

Winner: for someone who likes wandering around and exploring I will have to give Rome the edge over Paris. London gets third.

Cleanliness: none of the cities were immaculate of course but the parks were well-maintained even though busy streets were a little grungy. Overall things were relatively good considering they are both major cities. I had heard that in Paris and Rome there are dog droppings everywhere but I didn’t find that to be the case at all. Still I felt that Rome was a hint “grungier”, especially at popular piazzas and in Trastevere, maybe due to all the tourists wandering around.

Winner: I’ll give London and Paris a tie, with Rome a close third. All of the cities were fine and not as bad as I had heard.

Air quality: Both cities had some air quality problems due to all of the cars but there was something else with the air in London – blowing my nose would result in a tinge of grey, something that didn’t occur in Paris or Rome. I also saw a number of bicycle riders in London wearing masks/filters, something I never saw in Paris or Rome. I had heard that Rome had some pollution problems but the centre of Rome seemed fine to me.

Winner: tie between Paris and Rome. London takes third.

Least expensive: Don’t get me wrong – all of them are prrrriiicey. Hotel costs are brutal (Rome had the best value for money, maybe I lucked out) and food is not cheap either. Overall though I found beer, coffee and most food items cheaper in London, and wine and bread/pastries cheaper in Paris. Food in Rome was comparable if you could find a place with a special deal otherwise I'd say for your average touristy lunch it was probably more expensive than the other two. However London doesn’t charge for most museums and attractions, while in Paris most museums charge 7-10 euro for entry. I only went to one Museum in Rome (Vatican) and entrance was 15 euro. Considering all of the museums these cities have that adds up for someone doing the tourist thing.

Winner: London, thanks to subsidized museums. Rome takes second because of the hotel and Paris third.

Metro: Both the Paris Metro and the London Underground provide great service to anywhere a tourist wants to go. Rome has a much more limited metro that skirts around the edges of the center of Rome (probably because they can't dig under the historical part of the city as they would destroy Roman ruins or valuable buildings). Always make sure wherever it is that you are staying in Paris and London that it is close to a Metro/Underground station and then you can just use a multi-day pass to get around. I barely ever used the Rome Metro but it was definitely the cheapest at 1 euro a ride. Overall I found the Underground a bit easier to navigate, and trains ran a bit more frequently (usually every 2-4 minutes as opposed to 3-7 minutes in Paris). The Underground was a bit cleaner as well, though that isn’t saying much, but the scent of stale urine was definitely to be found in some Paris Metro stations. I put Rome stations equivalent to Paris.

Winner: London. Paris is second and in Rome you might want to study the bus routes if you don't like walking a lot.

Restaurants: Well I certainly didn’t eat everywhere, and wasn’t eating in top-end jacket & tie types of places, but the food in restaurants was generally good in all cities. I recall some service issues in the occasional place in Paris that didn’t occur in London though, and food was more variable in Rome. In some places in Rome the food was pretty “meh” but I did have the best Fettuccine Alfredo I've ever had in my life there and I can think of at least one other place I ate at where the food was great. Try to scope out what the pizzas look like before you order -- I once ordered a “lunch special” pizza that had four toppings and received a pizza cut into quarters with one topping per quarter! (It was still tasty though.)

Here's two stories about Paris service: One memorable one was in a sidewalk café on the Champs de Elysses where the waiter placed down a paper tablecloth, napkins and cutlery on our table but when we just ordered coffees he grabbed the tablecloth, napkins & cutlery and moved them to another table where another couple was sitting! He then had us move to the table next to them – all because we weren’t ordering food. Weird. We and the other couple had a good laugh when we told them where their cutlery had come from (though we did point out that we hadn’t touched it).

Another time I was at a restaurant/café near the Opera and watched as a waiter cleared tables by stacking all the dirty dishes on one table for two next to the sidewalk. That table was the only empty one. Then for the next 15 minutes, rather than clear the dishes, he turned couples away who were looking for a table -- three times! One couple even pointed to the table with a "we’ll take that table if you clean it” gesture only to have the waiter essentially gesture "sorry, no can do”.

Winner: London, edging out the win due to better service. Rome will get a second due to the variability of food (try to find places locals are eating at -- check out the crowd eating outside of a place for a minute or two), and snarky Paris gets third.

Museums: The British Museum is iconic, and it’s collection of Egyptian antiquities can’t be beat outside of Egypt, but as a museum the Louvre is in a class on its own. You would have to combine the British Museum, the Tate Gallery, and the Victoria & Albert Museum to even come close to the sheer size of the Louvre collection, and the walls and ceilings of many of the Louvre’s galleries are artworks in-and-of themselves, retaining their centuries-old décor. The park and gardens around the Louvre are also spectacular. And I didn’t even see most of the other museums in Paris. In Rome I only went to one Museum, the Vatican Museum, and while it does not have anything Egyptian its collection is incredible, and like the Louvre the walls and ceilings of the galleries are incredibly decorated, and it also has the Sistine Chapel, which by sheer volume beats out the Mona Lisa (which is also an Italian painting so let's give Italy a little extra credit). The Louvre however is bigger, items are better labeled, and you have a lot more flexibility with wandering around.

Winner: close call -- and this really is just a comparison between the Louvre and the Vatican Museum -- but it's all I've got to go on so I'll give Paris the edge over Rome, unless you are a massive fan for all things Egyptian in which case London's third place gets an upgrade. Of course fans of Roman and Renaissance art should go to Rome.

Other attractions: Cruising the Seine beats the Tiber but I think Tiber would edge the Thames. Eiffel Tower is better than the London Eye, Big Ben, or the Monument to Vittorio Emmanuel II. St. Peter’s beats out Westminster Abbey and Notre Dame. St. Paul’s edges out Sacre-Coeur (St. Paul’s is more historical and has more to see, though Sacre-Coeur has a must-see view of Paris). Both beat the Spanish Steps but credit that an average church in Rome easily beats the other two cities. I’ll take hanging out at Trevi Fountain over the Arc de Triumph, and both leave Trafalgar Square in the dust. Finally there is the walk from the Arc de Triumph, down the Champs de Elysees, through numerous parks, past the Obelisk, past some large fountains, until you reach the parks in front of the Louvre. That walk cannot be matched by anything in London, and while I was really impressed with the walk from the Trevi Fountain to the Piazza Navona I will still give Paris that one.

Winner: This is tough! Maybe it's because I was just recently there but I'm going to have to give Rome the first place because there was just so much great stuff to see. Paris gets a close second and London third.

Nightlife: I don’t know much about the quality of nightlife in any of them (I'm not a club type of guy and was usually back in my hotel room by 11) but London is a pub culture so it seemed that anywhere you looked there was a pub or club that you could pop into. In Paris that was a lot harder to find, cafes were much more plentiful. Bars were aplenty in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome but it was restaurants and cafés most other places.

Winner: London, just due to the ease of finding places anywhere you were. Rome second. Paris third.

Safety: All cities have their dodgy neighbourhoods but overall I didn’t have any issues. There were a few beggars here and there in all of them, and the odd homeless guy in the parks or metro stations – nothing to the level you see in cities like Vancouver or LA. Twice in Rome (over four days) some guy tried to give me the long sob story for some money. There were signs warning people about pickpockets in Paris and Rome but I never saw anything or heard any commotion. I've never had anything stolen but my friend Janel traveled with me in Paris and had a pair of earrings stolen from her hotel room, probably by a maid but possibly someone came through the window of her 1st floor room. Another friend of mine visited Rome only once and had his wallet stolen from his jacket while he was at a fancy bar.

Winner: I’ll say London first and Rome and Paris tie for second because I've had friends visit both places once and something got stolen.

Queues: Way longer in Paris than in London for all major tourist attractions and Rome was variable. London’s only major queue problem was at Madame Tuseud’s, so we didn’t bother going in. Waited over an hour to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and skipped Notre Dame because of the long line. Crowding was pretty bad at the Louvre as well but the Vatican Museum was worse. The lineup at the Vatican Museum was huge but fast and only took only 25 minutes, Colosseum was 30 minutes, and I gave up on the Foro Romano. I went really early to St. Peter's so didn't wait in a line but I've heard that can get bad as well.

Winner: London. You can see some fantastic churches and things with no line up so I'll give Rome second. Paris is third.

The Overall Winner -- let’s see the results. (firsts, seconds, thirds. Ties get half)

Paris 2, 3.5, 4
London 5.5, 1, 3.5
Rome 2.5, 5.5, 2

In my original London vs Paris post London beat Paris 6-4 but Paris won the major ones: overall look, museums, & other attractions. Because of this Paris won. Adding Rome to the mix competed heavily against Paris's wins but had little impact on the categories London won (metro, queues, cost, nightlife) causing Paris and Rome to “split votes” so to speak. So if Paris beat London in my original assessment, and Rome and Paris are now splitting the vote, logic would say that both Rome and Paris edge out London despite the point tally. Does that seem right though? I'd say so. I'd recommend you do Rome or Paris over London if you're an explorer and love either Renaissance art, Roman art, or artwork in general, but if you have the chance really see all three cities. English speakers with young children (who might get tired of art and museums), or people who love of all things Egyptian, would probably like London better.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Rome Vacation – The Finale

I managed to find a café near the Trevi Fountain that was more for locals than tourists. Everyone who walked in was an Italian businessman who would stop by to have a cappuccino or espresso before heading to the office. So I was pleased to find what I felt was a true Italian cappuccino! Worth the search. (No, I'm not telling you where it is -- I don't want tourists swarming the place) :-p

Now you know that if you are visiting Rome there is one place you have to visit.

You’re in Rome, you have to see the Roman ruins of course.

Oddly enough for some reason when I got there the Colosseum was closed and would not be opening until noon. Not sure why but it even caught tour groups offguard, hundreds and hundreds of people were milling about and wandering around outside. So I decided to go to the rest of the Roman ruins next to the Colosseum (the Foro Romano).

Unfortunately everyone else had the same idea so the lineups were massive. I waited in the hot sun for about 20 minutes and then realized that at the rate the line was moving it would be hours before I got in. Forget that! I wandered over to the fence to take a look at the area.

Would it surprise you if I said as Roman ruins go they were “meh”? I guess because Rome has been occupied continuously since the Roman days the buildings were quickly demolished and buried so are in pretty sad shape. Compare it to this photo from Jerash in Jordan

It's weird to think that some of the best Roman ruins are actually outside of Italy but I guess Jerash was largely abandoned so didn't run into the troubles Rome had.

So because I wasn't that impressed with what I saw I certainly wasn't going to wait a couple of hours to get in. I wandered away to see the Circus Maximus (big disappointment, don't bother) and started wandering back to the hotel to have a break so that I could go see the Colosseum in the afternoon. Along the way was the Piazza del Campidoglio (designed by Michaelangelo),

I didn't have time to go into the museums that line the Piazza but I did stop by a nearby café to have a pizza lunch

I felt refreshed after hanging out at the café so I decided not to go back to the hotel and instead head back to the Colosseum. Took a slightly different route though to go past the Monument to Vittorio Emanuelle II.

The Monument is one of the largest structures in Central Rome and houses a military museum as well as the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
I went inside and wandered around the museum for a bit for continuing on to the Colosseum. After standing in line for about 30 minutes I finally got in.

You know what? I actually think it's more impressive from the outside. Maybe it was because it was the middle of the afternoon and it was dang hot so I didn't feel like wandering around too much. After taking a bunch of pictures I decided to take the Metro back to the hotel for a break from the heat.

While sitting in my wonderfully air-conditioned hotel room I was flipping through guidebooks and saw that there was a church that was supposed to have a really cool crypt. I looked on the map and to my surprise found out it was less than a five-minute walk from the hotel. Off I went to the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini.

I went straight to the crypt. The lady at the front desk recommends a donation of one Euro but if you give more (I gave five Euro) she gives you a postcard that is attached to a small booklet that describes each of the rooms in the Crypt. It was very useful so I recommend it.

What I saw was, um, pretty messed up. If you ever wondered what it would be like to have
Ed Gein
as your interior decorator, wonder no more.

They decided to take the monks’ bones and decorate the walls with them as some sort of festive display!

Seriously, who came up with this idea? I could imagine a bunch of monks debating what to do with all the bodies in the crypt when one comes up with the brilliant idea of dismembering most of the skeletons and making decorative patterns out of them. “It'll be Fabulous!”, he probably said. And everyone agreed!

They must be part of the strangest church in all of Catholicism. I wonder why no one thought this might be a Bad Idea. Seriously, when the Marquis de Sade comes by and tells you he loves what you've done with the place how much more of a hint do you need that it might be time to rethink your interior design! (And yes, the Marquis really did stop by and yes, he really did like it.)

Anyway it was pretty interesting, I'll give it that.

Went off to Piazza Navona for dinner and had the best Fettuccine Alfredo ever. Really, really good.

Afterward I just wandered around and wound up crossing the river to the neighborhood of Trastevere, which is a bit more bohemian and had a ton of bars.

Didn't do much, just wandered around for a while and then went back to the hotel.

The next day the plane wasn't leaving until the afternoon so I spent the morning checking out a few more churches such as the Sant Andrea della Valle

and the Chiesa de Gesu, which had an incredible mural on the ceiling. Thankfully they had a big mirror set up so you could look at it without straining your neck.

See anything weird about it? The painting "escapes" the frame! I thought it was a really cool effect.

And thus my trip to Rome ended. Loved the artwork and architecture, it was really cool having all that stuff such a short walk away from each other, but next time I'll be sure to go in the cooler months.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Rome Vacation -- Part 3

Next up, Castel Saint Angelo, about a 15 minute walk away from St. Peter's Square.

It was a nice castle with rooms used as a museum (no pictures inside though). Nothing as awe-inspiring as what you found in the Vatican Museum. It's unfortunate that after you see the big highlights of Rome that other museums, which anywhere else would probably be a top attraction, is simply "okay".

However up near the top there was a restaurant so I decided to grab a drink

I certainly can't complain about the view from this restaurant, I think I sat here for a good 20 minutes just staring at the view.

The other side also had a nice view of the river and central Rome.

After wandering around the Castel I went to the Spanish Steps, a lengthy series of steps leading to the Trinita dei Monti church that has become a hanging-out place for tourists.

So what did I do? Sat there and hung out of course. Not much in the way of restaurants nearby but there were a lot of guys going around selling drinks.

From there I continued walking to the Piazza del Popolo, a huge square next to Borghese Park. The park is actually a large hill that provides great views of the city, I climbed up to take a view of the piazza.

I wandered through the park and back to the Trevi Fountain and grabbed an okay meal at one of the touristy cafés and hung out a while longer at the Fountain with a gelato.

Strangely enough, nothing weird happened to me the entire day! No drama, no bizarre encounters, no attempt to rip me off, just a mellow day touring around and seeing some damn impressive sights. Has to be a first for a vacation.

One day left (and things do get weird). Stay tuned for part 4.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Rome Vacation – Part 2

I woke up early because I knew my next destination would have long lineups -- the Vatican.

It took about a half hour to walk there but I got to St. Peter's Square before the crowds, now I had to just figure out where the Vatican Museum was. For some reason I thought it was next to St. Peter's so I went to St. Peter's and looked around

Wow, is it ever huge! And of course, tastefully decorated from floor to ceiling with paintings, carvings, marble, etc.

St. Peter's is so big that there are plenty of side chapels that people use for various purposes.

I was still pretty sweaty from the half-hour walk, and there's no A/C and St. Peter's either, so I figured I should get over to the Vatican Museum to cool down. Except I still couldn't figure out where it was? After asking around I found out you had to leave St. Peter's and go north of St. Peter's Square for a good 10+ minutes walk to get to where the lineup would be. Whoops, guess I was way off base thinking it was connected to the square.

So of course by the time I arrive there was a massive lineup but I had little choice but to stand in the heat. Lots of "tour guides" were walking up and down the queue trying to get people to pay extra to have a tour with them and skip the line (you get to go to a different line if you're on a tour). One of these guides was telling someone that the lineup was at least an hour. Big surprise -- it was actually 20 minutes. One of them tried talking to me but I pretended I didn't understand English and instead spoke to them in Arabic guessing, rightly, that he wouldn't know the language. He left me alone. (I used this tactic again a couple of days later at the train station against a beggar with one of those long tales of woe. Worked great.)

Anyway, into the Museum.

As an aside in most of the Museum there is also no A/C. In fact in many of the galleries they simply opened the windows. I'm starting to wonder if all this museum conservation with climate control and dust control etc. is a way for conservators to keep themselves employed. No one in Italy seemed too concerned about making sure priceless artworks were in hermetically-sealed climate-controlled rooms.

The Vatican Museum is fairly linear and you go from one room to another in a specific order. There are a couple of deviations you can do, and a "short tour" so you can go to the Sistine Chapel pretty quick, which apparently is what most people do. I didn't, so started with the first set of halls with the Greek and Roman statuary.

Here's a couple of examples of some of the hundreds of sculptures, I can't believe the amount of work these carvers did.

I also briefly went through a hall of Etruscan vases (not really my thing), and took a picture of the view from the window.

From there we went into the tapestry hall, it's clearly getting a little more crowded.

The tapestries were interesting enough, I found this particular one (titled "The Murder of the Innocents") a little disturbing but well done for a tapestry.

From there we went to a gallery I'll call the Map Room. It has various centuries-old maps painted on the wall. Check out the crowds compared to the sculpture room. This is because the short tour has to go through here.

After that I took another detour to some halls that had far fewer people, including murals by Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists.

There was also a series of small galleries with modern art that had a Christian theme. I'm generally not a fan of modern art but I will always take time to stop and look at a Salvador Dali.

As for the Sistine Chapel you are not allowed to take any pictures in there but I think you already have a pretty good idea what some of the paintings in it are.

After sitting in the Chapel for about 20 minutes admiring the paintings it was time to go.

And have lunch!

Next up, part 3.


Friday, September 09, 2011

Rome Vacation – Part 1

Here is my tale of Rome. I got in around 10am (all-night flight) but my hotel room wasn't ready yet so I left my luggage at the hotel and wandered around. The hotel was near the Trevi Fountain so that was my first stop.

The Fountain is a really nice place to just sit and relax, when you can finally find a seat. It's always crowded with tourists but I still found myself coming here many times over the course of my trip to chill out and eat the occasional gelato.

I wandered around for a couple more hours, first to the Pantheon

It’s an old Roman temple that was converted to a church, then during the Renaissance also used as a tomb for important artists and citizens. It contains the tombs of some of the Italian royal family, such as Victor Emmanuel II (the first king of a united Italy).

Then I went to a nearby French cathedral, San Luigi dei Francesi,

This is the first church I went into in Rome and as you can see it looks amazing. Little did I realize that all churches in Rome look like this, covered floor to ceiling with murals and paintings and statuary. Absolutely mind blowing. In this particular church there is one chapel that had a series of paintings of Saint Matthew by the Baroque master Caravaggio.

From there I went past the Piazza Navona

to a nearby café for a bit of lunch.

I then returned to my hotel, checked in, and slept for a couple hours. After an all-night flight I need to get a couple of hours sleep during the day to be functional and I figured sleeping through the heat of the afternoon would make it easier for walking around in the evening.

After I got up I spent the rest of the day wandering around the streets looking at various buildings and piazzas. Finally stopped at a restaurant in Piazza Colonna for dinner. It was packed and looked like a lot of locals were eating there so I figured the food would be authentic and good. I was right.

I had a very nice carpaccio followed by pasta. As you can see pasta portions are more reasonable than what you would get in North America. In Rome, pasta is generally considered just one course of a nice dinner (appetizer, pasta, entrée, dessert), not the entire meal, so you don't get a heaving plate of spaghetti when you order pasta.

Then I meandered back through the streets to the Trevi Fountain and relaxed for a while.

While I was there a young man proposed to his girlfriend. She was clearly surprised by the proposal (but with joy, she said yes), and everyone cheered, clapped, and yelled congratulations as the couple left. If you are going to find somewhere romantic to propose marriage the Trevi Fountain is certainly a cool option.

Stay tuned for Part 2.