After a very pleasant train journey from Zurich we arrived at our lovely hotel in Montreaux on the Lake Geneva shoreline. The Swiss Alps were off in the distance keeping a watchful eye and, as it was the middle of spring, everything was bright green and all the flowers were in bloom.
Thanks to my sales success I had won an all expense paid trip to Switzerland which was a good thing because this is probably the most expensive country in the world and you need to have an expense account to visit here. But the country was so clean you could eat off the streets and, with our view of Lake Geneva, the Alps, and a wonderful flower lined lake shore promenade, you couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful and tranquil place to relax.
Next day we were off to the old medieval town of Bern and capital of Switzerland where we enjoyed the spectacular farmland and vineyard scenery enroute and then explored the city itself with it's poor namesake bears in the Bear Pit, that has thankfully since been removed, and its famous clock the Zyglogge in the heart of the old town.
Got together with all my colleagues for an evening boat cruise on the lake which of course was a fun evening of eating, drinking, dancing, and live music.
The best way to explore Monteaux though was on bicycle and, after finding a local rental shop, we were soon on our way to see the sights and enjoy the views.
And after all the sightseeing, what better way to cap off a delightful visit than by having a traditional fondue dinner with friends and colleagues.
Caught the TGV to Paris which only took a couple of hours travelling at 300+ km/hr on an incredibly smooth and comfortable ride that took us right into the downtown Gare de Lyon train station. This high speed rail network that first started operation in 1981 has since expanded throughout Europe and offers travel times from downtown to downtown that are as fast or faster than airplanes. After the usual train station chaos we caught the Metro to our funky little hotel in the heart of the 6th Arrondissement (Saint Germain-des-Pres) the birthplace of French existentialism. A bit too funky perhaps but very lively and very conveniently located for exploring the principal sights of Paris.
Paris is a city of monuments and museums, probably more than any other city and it can be overwhelming trying to see them all. Starting with the 8th arrondissement the first stop of course is to the top of the Eiffel Tower with its magnificent views of the city and the River Seine spread out below. First museum is the Hotel des Invalides where Napoleon's tomb is located under the gold dome of the chapel.
Walking along the left bank of the Seine you will then come to the Musee d'Orsay which has the world's largest collection of impressionist painters including works by Monet, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne, Seurat, Gauguin, Van Gogh and others. Further along the waterfront you will come to a statue of Voltaire, one of France's most celebrated writers of the Enlightenment.
As your feet start to tire from all the walking and deceptive distances, remember this is only the first day and you need time to get in shape. Fortunately there is no shortage of places offering refreshment and once you get your second wind it's nice to wander the streets and check out the colourful local sights including the medieval abbey that gives the Saint-Germain area its name or the Church of Saint-Sulpice, the second only to Notre Dame in size. You may also want to check out one of the famous cafes like Le Deux Magots along the Boulevard Saint-Germain where Sartre, Camus and Simone de Beauvoir hung out.
The neighbourhood next door is the famous Latin Quarter or 5th arrondisement, home to the Sorbonne, Pantheon and innumerable cafes. The Pantheon is a mausoleum for the remains of France's most distinguished citizens including; Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Pierre & Marie Curie, Alexander Dumas, Louis Braille, and Toussaint Louverture. The Sorbonne is one of the first universities in the world and one of the top ranked ones today having won 32 Nobel prizes over the years. It's also a good place to get a sweatshirt.
After tromping through the Sorbonne and the Pantheon a good place to rest up while enjoying the view is the Luxembourg Palace and Gardens.
Working your way along the Boulevard Saint Michel towards the Isle of the Cite, where the famous Notre Dame Cathedral is located, you will pass by the Fountain of Saint-Michel that depicts the Archangel's fight with Satan and also features a pair of winged dragons on either side.
The other funky neighbourhood in Paris is located in Montmarte a large hill in the Northern section of the city or 18th arrondisement where the famous Moulin Rouge nightclub (birthplace of the French cancan) is located as well as the landmark Basilica Sacre-Coeur. During the Belle Epoque many famous painters had their studios here including Monet, Renoir, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, and Van Gogh. A great place to check out for seedy shops and sidewalk cafes.
Now is a good time to catch the Metro to the Arc de Triomphe where 12 avenues intersect at the Place Charles de Gaulle. One of these avenues is called the Champs Elysees, probably the most famous street in Paris, a 230 foot wide, 2 km long roadway that connects to the Place de la Concorde. The Place de la Concorde is the largest square in Paris and during the French revolution a guillotine was set up here for the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette amongst others. Today there is a giant 75 foot high obelisk in the centre donated by Egypt to exalt the reign of Ramses II. Lined with fashionable shops and restaurants this majestic promenade has hosted numerous military parades and is the finish of the Tour de France.
For something completely different it can be fun to check out the Paris Flea Market or Les Puces located at Porte de Clignancourt. Open only on weekends it is reputedly the largest antique market in the world and covers 7 hectares. Lots of great things to buy after a little haggling with the vendors.
Paris is also close to a number of nearby towns with all sorts of cultural and historic attractions and one of them is Angers. An important stronghold in Northwestern France it became one of the intellectual centres of Europe during the reign of Rene of Anjou in the 15th century. Once again hopping onboard the TGV we were there in no time and spent a pleasant day wandering through the castle and local shops.
On days when the weather is iffy it's a perfect time to stay indoors checking out the museums and in Paris two of the most famous are the Louvre and the Pompidou Centre. The Louvre, a restored fortress and royal residence from the 14th - 17th century, is the world's largest art museum containing over 400,000 historic art objects and 7,500 paintings of which only a fraction are on display among the various galleries. The Pompidou Centre on the other hand is a very modern hi-tech design and is the largest modern art museum in Europe.
Approaching the entrance one starts to get an appreciation of the size and scale of the place but it isn't until you get inside that you really get a sense of what it must have been like to live there especially when you see the Hall of Mirrors and imagine the parties and masked balls that must have occurred.
But it's the gardens that really take your breath away. Seeming to go on forever with a perspective that reaches to the horizon, and meant to illustrate the king's complete dominance over nature, these 800 hectares of immaculately maintained lawns, shrubbery, fountains, and sculptures are also a perfect place to have a picnic after making sure to pick up all the requisite ingredients in the town itself by the train station. As two modern day peasants sitting there in respectful awe it was hard to imagine what life must have been like for either the rich or the poor at that time.
Evenings in Paris were usually spent at a jazz/blues bar and/or going for a Seine river cruise and admiring all those magnificent monuments lit up in the dark. But for our final evening we finished up at our favourite restaurant.
Rome, like Paris, has most of its interesting monuments, museums, and other places of interest conveniently located in a downtown area that is easily accessible by walking and fortunately our hotel was right in the centre of all the action.
Practically on our doorstop was the Trevi Fountain, perhaps the most famous fountain in the world. The terminal point of one of the aqueducts that supplied Rome with water for 400 years. A commission to design and build a more impressive fountain was finished in 1762 and now over 3,000 Euros a day are thrown into the fountain as people wish for good luck and remember the famous scene in Dolce Vita when Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni frolicked in the fountain. The money is collected daily to support a food bank for the needy.
One of the most impressive buildings located in the heart of ancient Rome is the modern Victor Emmanuel II monument aka The Wedding Cake. Built to honour the first king of a united Italy following the centuries of fragmentation after the dissolution of the Roman Empire, the building was finally completed in 1935.
But the most impressive monuments of course are the ruins of the Forum and Colosseum which can easily occupy a day of exploration. The Forum was the centre of ancient Rome and wandering through the grounds filled with ancient government buildings, temples, and statues you can see what a lively place it must have been. The Colosseum which was the largest amphitheatre ever built at the time held more than 65,000 people to watch gladiator battles and other events.
The Spanish Steps are a stairway of 135 steps linking the Piazza di Spagna and its Fontana della Barcaccia to Trinita dei Monti church at the top. For some reason hundreds of people like to congregate here for selfies, people watching and a cold beer.
To get away from all the people and heat you can't beat a visit to the Borghese Gardens where a two seater bicycle rental makes it easier to cover the 80 hectare beautifully maintained grounds filled with museums and galleries.
The Piazza del Popolo or People's Plaza was like the Place de la Concorde in Paris in that it was also used for public executions and has an Egyptian obelisk in the centre. It also has a large fountain of course, in this case the Fountain of Neptune, and it leads to the starting point of the Via Flaminia, one of the main roads out of the city.
Another important building is the Pantheon, originally a temple to the gods but later converted to a church, that has been in continuous use since its completion in 126 AD and is the best preserved building of ancient Rome. It also contains the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome and of course the Fontana del Pantheon.
Originally built by the Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family the building was later taken over by popes as a fortress and a castle before being converted to a museum.
Walking alongside the Tiber River soon leads to the Vatican City, the independent city state and smallest sovereign state in the world. Home to the head of the Catholic Church the complex includes St. Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Fountains of St. Peter's Square.
One last great meal of osso bucco followed by a gelato.
One last fountain, the Fountain of the Naiads.
In Rome the streets are alive with people, cars and music, and there are statues and spectacular fountains at nearly every intersection. With everyone making a conscious effort to dress and look his or her best, while eating, drinking and laughing on every street corner, it was easy to see how this city coined the phrase the Dolce Vita.