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April 20, 2009

Paris, day 2

Our first full day in Paris together started early, as we hoped to beat some of the Easter crowds at the attractions across the city. We opted to see Musée du Louvre first, figuring the later in the day it was, the busier the museum would be. This again turned out to be a great decision, as we were able to stroll through the Louvre without much problem.

The day began by hopping on the Métro right outside the hotel and getting off at the Louvre stop. We arrived prior to museum opening, and thought a quick bite to eat for breakfast would be wise, considering the busy day ahead. A quick stroll down the streets surrounding the museum led us to a café with a breakfast special, including a croissant with marmalade and a cup of coffee or chocolat chaud (hot chocolate). This was hands-down the best breakfast I've had in years. The buttery croissant combined with the sweet, slightly cool marmalade, combined with a rich, milky chocolate drink...I debated just going home right after eating, as it would be hard for the day to get any better. As you may have guessed, it DID get better.

It was nearing time for the museum to open, so we walked back to the square enclosed by the Louvre Palace. It was a sunny day with a few scattered, streaking clouds, and a bit of a wind every so often. After a short wait, we entered the Lourve through the relatively newly-designed glass pyramid entrance. Personally, I find the entrance stunning; such a stark contrast to the surrounding palace, both perfect in their own right. At the same time, it's quite easy to see why there was such an uproar after it was erected.

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The sun peeks over the pyramid as we wait in line for Musée du Louvre to open.

Our guidebook recommended making a beeline for La Joconda, better known as da Vinci's Mona Lisa. There were only a few other people there, considering the museum had just opened, so we were able to get an amazing view. I had heard prior to visiting that this work was much less impressive than the hype surrounding it; again I can see why one would believe this, however I found it quite impressive. In particular, the contrasts in the masterpiece were captivating -- darks on lights, hard textures juxtaposed next to her soft skin. I suppose, though, the never-ending talk surrounding this work likely contributed to special feeling one feels upon viewing it.

From there, we proceeded back to the main entrance and began the audio tour. This was an excellent way to ensure we saw all the important works while still having enough energy for the rest of the day ahead of us. Exhibits that stood out to me include Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, Michaelangelo's Dying Slave and Rebellious Slave, the Winged Victory of Samothrace (or Nike of Samothrace), among many, many other very impressive works. The sheer size of the museum is enough to completely overwhelm you; it was hard to leave without seeing everything, but this simply is not possible in a half-day visit.

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Annie is impressed by the Winged Victory of Samothrace. A finger from the sculpture, found many years after this section, is displayed to the left of where this picture was taken.

After such an intense tour of one of the world's greatest museums, we had earned ourselves a delicious lunch. The Musée du Louvre borders the Tuileries Garden, which was an ideal spot for a picnic. We stopped at a sidewalk cafe and picked up a couple sandwiches and a salad to share; I must admit it was hard to keep myself from devouring the food on the way to the gardens -- even though they were a 5 minute walk away (between both hunger as well as how delicious the food looked!). Fortunately, I held back until we found a nice spot next to a secluded pond. This was a great spot; it was a bit windy outside and the trees provided some protection. The sun peeked behind the partly cloudy sky every so often, offering a warmth that I had not felt since last Fall. Incredible.

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Our lunch spot in the Tuileries Garden, awaiting the sun to reappear from behind the clouds

Recharged, it was time to see Notre Dame, this time including the interior. When we arrived, there was quite long queue outside. We expected this, and even so it moved relatively quickly. Only once we reached the doors did we find out why there were so many people there: the Crown of Thorns was on display for visitors to kiss as they are blessed. This was a complete coincidence, as this ceremony is held only during Easter and once a month at other times during the year. The entire experience was very special, to say the least, and provided for some wonderful photographic displays.

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From inside Notre Dame, as visitors kiss the Crown of Thorns, beginning the Easter festivities.

We initially planned to ascend the stairs to the outdoor balcony at Notre Dame, but the line barely budged after 15 minutes of waiting. Instead, we took the short path to La Saint-Chapelle -- the Holy Chapel located entirely within the Île de la Cité complex. Hands-down, this was the absolute most stunning site I have seen to this day. The incredible intricate stained glass windows surround you as you enter the chapel, and we were fortunate to be visiting on a sunny day. The entire upper chapel came alive with color before our eyes; I could have easily spent the rest of the day here.

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The upper chapel of La Saint-Chapelle; absolutely breathtaking.

The weather had cooperated with us until this point, when it began to rain. We sought shelter in a few sidewalk shops, as well as in a nearby garden beneath a canopy. Luckily, the rain quickly subsided and we were on our way once again. I couldn't wait to get going, as the next stop was le Avenue des Champs-Élysées, filled with shops, theaters, and restaurants, and the most expensive strip of real estate in all of Europe.

We entered from the south end, winding our way through the masses of people both walking and standing amongst the trees and street vendors. The ultimate goal was to first make it to Arc de Triomphe (simply to see it at this point...we ended up visiting it again--twice more--later in the trip), and secondly to find a place for dinner. The weather was still rather poor by this time, and so the visit to the Arc was relatively quick, and we had a restaurant in mind since we passed quite a few on our way to the monument.

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Arc de Triomphe, at the far western end of the Champs-Élysées.

Both of us were a little weary about the restaurants directly ON the Avenue, figuring they were likely catering to tourists and would likely provide somewhat bland, mass-produced food. However, the hunger pangs were too strong at this point to explore the maze of side streets, so we settled on a French restaurant near the western end of the Avenue. We sat at a table on the sidewalk, beneath a covered tent, the perfect place to both dine and people-watch as the masses passed. The food was almost exactly what we had guessed it might be, but was still very satisfying -- and quite tasty.

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Annie making her way through the masses on the Champs-Élysées

After a couple more pictures of Arc de Triomphe (now floodlit amidst the nighttime sky), we headed back to the hotel, full of food, wine, and new memories in our new favorite city. Our walk home brought us directly beneath the Eiffel Tower another time, a sight I simply could never become accustomed to -- it is so enchanting, particularly when lit at night. An exciting trip to Versailles awaited us in the morning!

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Annie and I in front of La Joconda/Mona Lisa

Photos: flickr #1
More Photos: flickr #2

April 19, 2009

Paris, Day 1

After such a wonderful trip to Rome, I had been looking forward to Paris during the time between these trips. My flight was a little later than the one to Rome, so I slept slightly more the night before. This turned out to be important, as I arrived in Paris in the early afternoon, meaning more time to start the journey through the "City of Lights."

The flights were just fine, although I had a short layover in Frankfurt and had to run to the gate to make the flight to Paris. Initially I was excited to see Paris-Charles de Gaulle/Roissy Airport; I recall a new terminal was opened in 2003 (and subsequently had ceiling tiles fall and kill 4 pasengers...) that received much fanfare at the time, even being used in a music video for U2. Imagine my surprise to find nothing of the sort upon departing the aircraft -- most of the decor consisted of bland, white walls and tiled floors, with strange moving walkways and escalators within tubes that crisscross like woven cloth. However, it was significantly easier to find my way to the RER, the regional transit system leading from the airport to downtown Paris (and beyond).

Annie flew into Paris-Beauvais airport, and landed an hour prior to my arrival, so I hoped we would have a similar chance encounter like we did in the Roma Termini station. As luck would have it, I exited the train station, and she was standing directly across the street! Fortunately, the hotel let her check into the room and get settled. As I checked in, she grabbed some sandwiches (most delicious!) from a street cafe down the block. The hotel was perfect -- a few blocks from Tour Eiffel (the Eiffel Tower), and just across the street from the subway station.

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Standing outside Musée d'Orsay, Annie is clearly very excited

At this point, it was approximately 4pm, and so we decided to weigh the options. Musée d'Orsay (the art museum containing mainly French art from 1848-1915) was open until 8pm, and hence was the best option. We purchased the Paris Museum Pass here (similar to the Roma Pass), so we could skip ahead of lines for tickets. At this point, I was quite excited to enter, after hearing so many amazing things about both the museum itself and the collection within.

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View from the overlook site at the far end of Musée d'Orsay.

Immediately upon entering, my eyes shot skyward to admire the atrium ceiling, a glass-concrete canopy that once served as a former railway station. When its design became obsolete, Parisians had a choice on their hands: raze the building and begin anew with another station, or preserve the building for another purpose. After serving as a backdrop for multiple films as well as housing a hotel, the French government wisely decided to convert it to a museum. I easily could have spent a few hours exploring the building alone -- many platforms, side rooms, and intricate designs almost detract from the masterpieces it houses.

Utilizing an audio guide, we wandered the halls, mesmerized by the elaborate sculptures and magnificent paintings. I took photographs of just a few of the sculptures and none of the paintings; the experience of being in the presence of these works is simply too powerful to convey with a still, flat image. A few that stood out for me include Renoir's Bal au moulin de la Galette, Montmartre, Van Gogh's Starry Night Over the Rhone (clearly!), and many of the multiple sculptures in the central display floor. The museum also has a charming rooftop patio overlooking the River Seine.

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Beautiful Parisian sunset while strolling along the River Seine.

Leaving the museum, I was ready to explore Paris with Annie. Most of the museums were closed at this point, and it was still a little early for dinner. Strolling past the street vendors selling everything from miniature Eiffel Tower models to classic French literature, we strolled towards Notre Dame. It was after visiting hours, so I took a few pictures, then we continued on our stroll. The sun was just beginning to set, providing a beautiful backdrop for some photos along the river.

After a day of travel, a museum visit, and a long stroll, the next task was to find a restaurant. We were in an area that likely would be classified as a tourist area, so there were many, many options to chose from. We settled on Chez Clement, a cute little (well, actually quite large...) French restaurant decorated like a grand mansion. The menu offered a delicious-sounding prix fixe option, and we both had a 3-course meal with wine. A delicious, crisp salad, followed by a light fish plate with asparagus, and 3 kinds of sorbet for dessert made for a romantic meal. I must say, Annie's ability to speak and understand some French made both this meal and the entire trip incredibly better -- each and every interaction we had with the French people was so pleasant.

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Strolling the streets of Paris on our way to Notre Dame.

The searchlight atop the Eiffel Tower beckoned as we left the restaurant, and even though it was about a 2 mile walk from where we stood, I decided I simply could not wait any longer and had to see it up close. It was a clear night with an almost-full moon shining above us, and with each block I was more and more excited. Just as we reached the base, the flashing lights lit up the steel structure for 5 minutes, signaling the top of the hour (these lights go off every hour until midnight).

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Tour Eiffel by night, the last stop of our evening walk.

Exhausted but incredibly happy, we headed back to the hotel for some rest. I couldn't wait to wake up and see what the adventures of the next day would bring!

As you will come to see in my subsequent posts, this trip turned out to be filled with wonderful surprises and chance timing. On multiple occasions, we would stumble upon something amazing, simply by dumb luck. It was an unbelievable experience that I hope to relive sometime in the (distant, or maybe not-so-distant!) future.

Photos: flickr #1
More Photos: flickr #2

April 15, 2009

Bonjour, Paris!

As you may have guessed, the long break between posts is because of another European excursion...this time, to Paris! I have just finished uploading select photos from the trip. I will post details of the trip in the coming days -- 4 exciting, wonderful days in Paris full of delicious foods, incredible churches and monuments, and of course, a little history. I can't wait to share it.

I had to create a second photo account because I reached the monthly data limits on the first, so be sure to check both pages for new photos!

Photos: Flickr #1
MORE Photos: Flickr #2

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April 6, 2009

Roma: Days 3-4, and back to Stockholm

It would have been quite easy to sleep the entire day after our previous days in Roma, especially considering our hotel had opaque window covers that blocked out both light AND sound! However, with just one full day left, we knew we had to start early. After a quick breakfast in the hotel (well, this also included a tasty pastry from the bakery on the corner...I simply couldn't resist), we headed out again.

The day prior, we purchased advance tickets to Musei Vaticani, which turned out to be a wise decision, as this meant we could skip the lines once arriving at the museum. However, our entry time was not until 1pm (again, nice, because most of the guided tour groups start much earlier in the morning and have left by this time -- for lunch). Since we had some time before then, it seemed wise to start with sites and places near the hotel. Literally across the street was the National Museum of Rome, the next stop on our grand tour.

Unfortunately, the National Museum contains multiple buildings; I suppose this is in fact a good thing, however our tour began in a building that housed mainly coins and various artifacts that would likely be of great interest to archeologists or history professors. We felt guilty leaving after just a short visit, but with so little time, we wanted to be sure to hit the main exhibits. The main museum building (Palazzo Massimo) was just a short distance down the road.

Immediately apparent after beginning the museum tour was just how much of ancient Roman society was stolen from other cultures, particularly the Greeks. Some of the highlights of the tour included sculptures that were exact replicas of famous Greek creations (see Myron's Discobolo). Yet, we were both captivated by this collection, and found it unfortunate we began the day at the other site as we had to leave to make our tour at the Vatican. Sites in the museum that I found particularly interesting were The Boxer at Rest (from 1st century B.C.), Apollo (a classic, and also stolen from the Greeks), many of the incredibly elaborate sarcophagi, and the entire basement -- devoted to tracing the coins used in Rome from Ancient times to the Euro. (As a side note, I would have taken more pictures, however it seems odd -- and arguably even somewhat disrespectful -- to take a photograph of something someone put so much time into, and was meant to be experienced in person).

We quickly wandered through the Baths of the Diocletian on the way to the Metro -- again, ideally we would have loved to stay longer, but time was not on our side. The next stop was the Vatican, after a subway ride under the Tiber to the Città del Vaticano. It was a bit confusing as to where the entrance was to the Vatican; we first entered at St. Peter's Square, which was nowhere near the entrance to the Vatican Museum. A 15 minute walk later, and we arrived at the entrance right on time.

We began by entering the Pinacoteca, the painting gallery separate from the actual Museum. Filled with many beautiful paintings, it is pretty easy to choose one that stands out: Raphael's (and likely partly Romano's) The Transfiguration. I do not have words to describe this masterpiece; I had to sit down to fully appreciate this work, and likely could have stayed much longer than the 20 minutes spent. Without a doubt, this is the most stunning piece I had ever seen (despite not visiting the Sistine Chapel at that point, I still would make this statement).

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Annie in the Cortile Della Pigna. As much as I like the globe in the background, it seems a little misplaced.

In a daze from the true genius of the works in the Pinacoteca (which also included work by da Vinci and Caravaggio), we headed to the museum entrance. The whirlwind tour through the history of humanity began with pieces from Egypt, and Greece (3000-1000 B.C.), and included a mummy and many statues. Sculptures from Greece and Rome (500 B.C.-A.D. 500) followed next, with some outdoors -- all incredibly beautiful in their own right. It is hard to believe all of these pieces were collected through time by the Popes as decorations for their dwelling. After many rooms filled with too many statues to list and the most elegant tapestries I'd ever seen, we reached the Renaissance art section: the Raphael Rooms.

It comes as no surprise that I was again almost breathless at the genius of Raphael's work...and it was all done on the ceilings and walls of quite large rooms. Particularly impressive included the Liberation of St. Peter (Raphael mixed 4 different kinds of lighting in this painting, including natural light from the window below), the School of Athens, the Disputa, and the Triumph of Christianity. It is a little amusing to me that Raphael was unsure of his work after sneaking a peak at the Sistine Chapel (where Michelangelo was working while Raphael worked on these rooms), and so he increased the detail and emotion depicted in his work from that point forward.

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Raphael's The School of Athens.

A seemingly endless maze came next, leading up to the pinnacle of the tour: the Sistine Chapel. Immediately upon entering, a strange feeling of being in the presence of something great overcame my body. My eyes shot to the ceiling, and I had an immediate loss for words. The faces on the Saints, the story each panel depicted, the symbolism and absolute power of the images above me...unbelievable. I couldn't help but find it unfortunate the Vatican guards had to continually remind the guests that pictures were not allowed, and silence was greatly appreciated (constant shushing seemed to work for, maybe 5-10 seconds at best). Again, I simply could not bring myself to take a photograph of the ceiling -- one touch of a button to capture something that took a good 4 years (and another couple 35 years later) and almost cost Michelangelo his life seems almost blasphemous. It is a site -- an experience -- you simply must be there to take in, to absorb. We left (all too soon, but about 50 minutes after entering!) feeling surprisingly happy, in light of the sheer terror invokes by the face of Jesus in The Last Judgement.

Next, we headed for St. Peter's Basilica. After thinking I could not possibly feel any smaller after being surrounded by the works of a true genius, again I was stunned. The sheer size is enough to swallow you whole; in the same breath, it is quite easy to see why a young man by the name of Martin Luther was a little upset at the opulence of the Church. Obviously, I was anything but upset at this point. We began by simply taking in the massive structure while standing at the entrance. A short stroll revealed just how large this church is...markings on the floor identify the size of other churches of the world. Highlights included the area around the tomb of St. Peter (we unfortunately did not get to go into the crypts, as mass began just as we were entering), the Apse (Bernini's dove window is quite inspiring), and the statue of St. Peter (we both rubbed his toes in reverence).

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The Dome of St. Peter's Basilica. This is essentially the dome of the Pantheon (on which it was based), with the oculus filled in.

The area of the church that truly captivated me, though, was Michelangelo's Pietà. Simply astounding. It is almost embarrassing that he completed this masterpiece at age 24...and I am still learning how to tie a tie correctly at age 26. The love of Mary, the weight of Jesus' body under her limbs, the contrast between the cloth and skin, Mary's hand turned upward as if to say, "Why could they have done this to you?"...I was at an absolute loss for words. It is truly unfortunate that in 1972 a crazed man took a hammer to the sculpture and hacked away at the Pietà without a second thought. The sculpture was repaired, but now sits behind bulletproof glass.

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Michelangelo's Pietà

Both Annie and I were absolutely drained at this point, both physcially and emotionally. The tour to the top of the dome (323 steps after an elevator ride) closed 15 minutes before we left the church, so we were left to recuperate in St. Peter's Square. Just as we were leaving, a light sprinkle began to fall, an almost fitting end to an amazing tour -- sadness in leaving.

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St. Peter's Square, with a light drizzle

Starving by now, we headed to Via del Corso for a delicious meal. At one point, a small band of elderly men began serenading the diners, which was such a nice touch. We strolled the streets, starting at PIazza del Popolo, then headed south along Via del Corso, passed the Masoleum of Augustus, Piazza Colonna, Piazza Venezia, again saw the Victor Emmanuel Monument, and ended at the Trevi Fountain (it is so captivating, we had to return to take in one last look, smell, the sounds, the energy...).

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Annie in Piazza del Popolo, the start of our last evening walk through bella Roma (for this trip, at least...).

On the train back to the hotel, I though it might be fun to have a quick look at the Colosseum at night since we had visited during the day (plus, the structure is just a few steps from the metro stop). This seemed like the perfect end to an incredible trip that left me happy, inquisitive, excited, and downright stunned.

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Il Colosseo, by night

I saw Annie off to her airport shuttle (she left from the smaller, southern airport), then took the Leonardo express to the airport. After an uneventful flight home with a stop in Germany, I returned to Stockholm, the Venice of the North, ready to begin my rotation the next day. What an amazing 4 days!

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Continuing with the sign tradition: Liederhosen are NOT allowed in the Vatican. Annie sad! :(

More photos: flickr

April 5, 2009

Roma: Day 2

Whew. After a busy first half-day, we went to bed early and got up early (honestly, though, the jet lag hadn't worn off yet....and then we realized that Saturday night was Daylight Savings in Europe -- just to mess us up a little bit more!) We caught the metro to the Colosseo stop, and as soon as you exit, it's THERE. Of all the sites in Rome, this was the one I was truly looking forward to.

After a few pics outside the Colosseum, we headed for the entrance (got to skip the line w/the Roma pass!) and started to wander inside. I think I could have spent an entire day there...It's just so hard to believe it had been around 2000 years ago. And the activities that took place inside -- one can picture the stands filled and fighters battling it out, but for some reason it was difficult for me to conceptualize this as reality rather than just a story from history. The manpower, design, and intellect that went into making this building is nothing short of astounding.

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Il Colosseo. I took many, many pictures (see the flickr account), but this was one is a good overview, with Annie!

From there, we stopped at the Arch of Constantine (celebrating the legalization of Christianity) and headed to the Forum next door. This was also breathtaking, to think it was all actually in use 2000 years ago and some of it continues to stand today. Obviously this is quite a large area; a few of the stops that stood out to me were the site where Julius Caesar's body was cremated, the Basilica of Constantine remains (even with just the side arches standing, this place must have been incredible), and the Curia (Senate House). So rich in history, again I easily could have spent many days here. I also found myself wondering what treasures were beneath the pedestrian paths running through the plot, as I'm sure a little digging would reveal yet another amazing discovery.

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A nice overview of the forum (high-def!), as taken from the Renaissance gardens of the Farnese family (in Palatine Hill).

The next stop was Palatine Hill, where the Emperors lived and worked. Again, so rich in history. Much less of this area is preserved -- many of the stops are down to just a few bricks. But the footprints of buildings allowed us to get an idea of how massive the complex was. I really liked the Emperor's private Stadium (depressed into the ground), the views from the complex (Circus Maximus behind, Forum in front, Il Colosseo just south), and the House of Livia and Augustus. Hard to believe this was where Augustus actually lived, and a lot of it is still standing!

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Emperor Annie! ...atop the site where Emperors used to sit.

Next came a stroll to Trajan's column/Forum/Market, the Victor Emmanuel Monument (to the first King of the United Italian Republic), Santa Maria in Aracoeli Church, Capitol Hill Square (with the statue of the She-Wolf and il nasone -- a drinking fountain that apparently looks like a nose). A quick stop at a sidewalk cafe (great prosciutto!) for lunch came next. Hard to believe we could still stand at this point, but we still had a lot ahead of us. The Pantheon is stunning, especially since it is still in use -- the only building continually in use since it was built. It is also essentially the most impressive dome ever constructed, and has served as a model for most churches (Including St. Peter's Basilica) and many buildings (U.S. Capitol building).

Around this time, hunger took over any interest in seeing more sites. We headed for the Campo de' Fiori (field of flowers), a square with many restaurants, and also the site of Julius Caesar's stabbing. We had some of the best pasta ever, a great recharge just before a romantic walk across Rome. The guidebook we were using had a night walk planned, which ended up being the perfect way to end the day. Stops included the Pantheon (again), Piazza Novana (wonderful fountain here, called the Four Rivers, with statues celebrating the four river gods representing the four continents known in 1650 -- this fountain was Annie's favorite stop until a little later on...), Piazza Colonna (yet another Egyptian obelisk), the Trevi Fountain, and ending at the Spanish Steps.

The Trevi Fountain is simply amazing. A large part of this (in my opinion) was that it is situated a bit away from streets, a welcomed escape from the city, especially after a long night. The only downside was the extremely aggressive street workers trying to sell garbage to tourists. We had some gelato and stayed here for quite awhile -- it soon topped the Four Rivers Fountain as Annie's favorite.

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Playing with shutter speeds in Campo de' Fiori. Caesar was stabbed just behind where this photo was taken.

Finally, we headed to the Spanish Steps, a short walk from the Trevi Fountain. There were quite a lot of young people here, many singing very loudly -- obnoxious. Right next to the steps is the house where Keats died of TB (he moved to Italy from London at the suggestion of doctors, thinking a warmer climate would provide relief) -- it is now a museum. By this time, we were ready to collapse, and headed for the metro and a quick ride back to the hotel.

Despite all the sites visited, we obviously missed quite a few also. But, I was really happy we were able to see so many things I've heard about for many years. A key piece of advice that really made this day great was to book a hotel that provided a quiet atmosphere for rest after long days -- we passed out just after getting back, and awoke the next day ready for more...the perfect lead-in to the next post!

More photos: flickr