Immersive Travel Cusco

Immersive Travel Cusco

Immersive Travel Cusco is the 2nd destination of three in the Peru itinerary. The details related to planning for this destination and the others on the Peru circuit are described in The Peru Travel Planning post.

Cusco was the capital city of the Inca empire. At its height in the early 16th century, just before the Conquistadores arrived, the empire spanned from the Andes in Colombia, to Patagonia in central Chile, the end of the Andes mountain range. The various Inca trails radiated from Cusco to the ends of the empire. The word Cosco (Cusco was more easily pronounced in Castilian) translates to ‘center of the world” from Quechua, the language of the Inca descendants.

Cusco was also the center of Spanish colonial activity throughout the 16th century. Cusco served as the Colonial capital of Peru before it was transitioned to Lima to make for easier communications back to Spain. There was a rich history and architecture left behind by the colonial Spanish conquistadores, and their descendants.

 

Arrival

I hired a taxi for the day to drive to Cusco from Ollantaytambo, with stopovers in Pisac and Sacsayhuamán to visit the Inca ruins there.  We left Ollantaytambo at 9:00am and arrived at our Cusco apartment by 2:30 in the afternoon. The stops at Pisac and Sacsayhuamán were welcome diversions from an otherwise long and bumpy ride on poor quality roads. Peruvian roads experienced on this trip were poorly maintained, and had speed bumps strategically placed, forcing the driver to a near stop to avoid damaging his vehicle.

The first thing I noticed on arrival was my slightly labored breathing. Cusco is at 11,200 feet of elevation – as measured by my iPhone at the apartment. I spent 3 days in Ollantaytombo at 9,000 feet of elevation before I acclimated to that higher altitude. But my arrival in Cusco started my acclimation process all over again. I drank plenty of water, and moved slowly and deliberately when necessary. My altitude related headache returned on arrival to Cusco, but not the bitter, metallic taste in my mouth, or the feeling that I was hungover – mentally fuzzy. Those were the altitude related symptoms I endured in Ollantaytombo.

 

Settling in

The apartment I selected through Booking.com had spectacular views of Cusco and the surrounding mountains. The stunning views were made possible by the apartment’s location – well above the city vertically. But not so far from the city center to become inconvenient. It was an easy 5 minute descent using a staired walkway very close to the apartment to get the center of town. All points of interest were within a few minutes walk because the city center was fairly compact. And the ascent back to the apartment was never necessary because Uber was both available and inexpensive – less than $USD 2 from the city center.

We spent several hours relaxing on arrival, catching up on communications with family and friends back home. And every few minutes re-visited the spectacular views from our apartment’s lounge area. Almost as if to confirm that they were still there. I had previously rented many apartments, and many were interesting and memorable, but none offered views this stunning.

Local Infrastructure

A comment on Cusco’s infrastructure: there isn’t much of it. For example, our apartment had no heating or air conditioning.  And moreover, our apartment was upscale, so these amenities are rarely included in local residences. The reason is related to the climate at 11,000+ feet in the Andes. There is relatively little temperature variation. The highs are in the mid 60s Fahrenheit, and the lows in the Mid 40s.

Water pressure was highly variable. The water sputtered violently out of the tap or the shower head, depending on the time of day. Our upscale apartment had hot water only for the shower, the rest of the taps in the kitchen and bathroom had only cold water. I was advised that a large proportion of residences in Cusco have no hot water at all.

The tap water was not potable unless boiled. And even something as mundane as making tea had to take into consideration both the altitude, and the poor water quality. It took water longer to come to a boil at 11,000 feet, and it must boil longer to render the water drinkable. Different, and indicative of a lesser developed country.

 

Cusco Walkabout

Plaza de Armas

It was an interesting five minute walk to descend the stairs from our apartment perch to get the the central plaza. There was spot on the way down with a nice view of the main square.

Plaza de Armas is also called Plaza Mayor, the most important square in Cusco. We were offered a tour of the plaza and surrounding area by an entrepreneurial Quechuan young man. He described some of the history of the square as dating back to Inca times, originally called Huacaypata. It was the heart of the ancient city, and it looked like the prime gathering place in modern times. The square hosts a series of sixteenth century Spanish Colonial arcades, the massive Cusco Cathedral, and the strikingly ornate church of La Compañía de Jesús.

San Pedro Market

This covered market was a grand slice of life in Cusco. Everything imaginable was sold there. Vegetables, dairy, seafood, butchered meats of all variety, fruits, household goods, handmade textiles, wines, and liquors, all were available at the market. And a food court of sorts was in operation with a variety of stalls offering things I dared not try . The market had a smell that essentially was the commingled aromas of all things for sale there. Not a particularly good one.

The San Blas Neighborhood

The Barrio de los Artesanos, now known as the Artisans Quarter in Cusco. It may be a bit less touristed than the Plaza de Armas, or at least it felt that way. We found a narrow street with stairs heading up, and followed it until we arrived at little residential lanes at the top of our climb. And we found out of the way restaurants, cafes, and shops. While this section of town still catered to tourists, the throng was thinner, as was the din. We spent a wonderfully relaxing, and laid back afternoon exploring, shopping, and indulging in random exploration.

Qoricancha

Qoricancha loosely translates to “Golden Palace” from the Quechua language. It was a grand Inca complex comprising temples dedicated to the Sun, Moon, Venus, Mars, and Rainbow gods. It was built by Pachacuti Inca, the king whose ambition and conquest propelled the Inca to the grand empire it would become over a few generations. The Spanish reported incredible opulence at the temple, with walls of gold, and gardens with golden statuary. All plundered by the Conquistadores. The temple was destroyed, and the Spanish built the Cathedral of Santo Domingo on its foundation.

La Compañía de Jesús Jesuit Church

This church was built by the Jesuits in 1571. It was built on the site of the Inca palace of King Huayana Capac, the last Inca king to rule before the Spanish conquered and divided the empire. This Baroque style church was built to upstage the existing Cusco Cathedral, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption. It was built higher, with a soaring dome, and a grand alter. In my personal opinion, this church simply did not rise to the grandeur of European cathedrals from the same era. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed inside.

The Cusco Cathedral

This was truly a Gothic cathedral to compete with its European counterparts. Unfortunately, they do not allow for pictures or videos once inside. So descriptions will be subjective. The cathedral was built on the foundations of previously destroyed Inca temples. But I think we’re past the notion that the Spaniards were evil. The cathedral had a grand and sweeping internal architecture, with arches and pillars to support its massive frame. A camera would have captured the incredible amount of gold leaf incorporated on statuary, altars, columns, banisters, gates, and various other interior infrastructure. Silver was also prominently displayed in the form of various sculpture pieces, and in great quantity. All of the gold and silver originated from the Inca empire through the ages.

Pisaq

We stopped in Pisaq on our way to Cusco because it was a highly recommended Inca site by my taxi driver/Inca guide, Jose. Pisaq was a much larger Inca community than Machu Picchu. For example, it has been estimated that some 3,000 residents comprised the Pisaq community at its peak. Unlike Machu Picchu, Pisaq was a mixed community of commoners, the priest class, as well as the upper class. It was more difficult getting around Pisaq as compared to Machu Picchu because Pisaq was 12,000 feet of elevation, versus 8,000 for Machu Picchu.

Sacsayhuamán

This was our second stop en route to Cusco, also highly recommended by my taxi driver/Inca guide. This site was an enormous Inca temple, just outside of Cusco. The temple was in high ground with grand views of Cusco and surrounding areas. It was constructed with very large monolithic stones at the base, and ever smaller stones going to the second and third level of complex. The temple was of enormous importance to the Inca, and was dedicated to the sun, snake, puma, condor, and thunder – the most important gods in the Inca pantheon. There were beautiful panoramic views of the city of Cusco from the end of this archaeological site.

 

 

Food Scene

Inkazuela

My wife was not feeling well, and was in the mood for some hot soup. I did a TripAdvisor restaurant search which turned up a lot of restaurants to choose from. Flipping to the map view on the search results, I was able to narrow the search to those restaurants near me. I selected Inkazuela because it was highly rated with good reviews, and their focus was Peruvian soups and stews. I had the chili con carne as my starter, and the alpaca stew as my main. Both were very good, the stew was especially flavorful.

Faustina

We found this place through a TripAdvisor search after getting hungry while walking around. They advertised classical Andean/Peruvian fare, and followed through with the presentation. We were greeted with a serving of Chicha (Peruvian corn beer), in the Quechua tradition. Then we were offered bread, a local cheese, butter, and marmalade, more Quechua tradition. I had the ceviche as a starter, and the grilled trout for the main course. My wife was still nursing a cold, and tried some chicken soup. The food was good, and the service was top notch.

Uchu

This place was recommended to us by our host as a high quality Peruvian steak house. The service was slow, and it got worse from there. I ordered the 20-hour slow-cooked pork ribs, crispy native potatoes, and the meal came with a green salad. My wife was still nursing a cold, and was eating lighter fare – so she ordered the shrimp bruschetta from the appetizer menu. The ribs were too lean, and not tender enough. Definitely not slow- cooked for twenty hours. To complete the disappointment, the potatoes were dry, and the salad was bland because it was served with no dressing. Two thumbs down.

Organika

This lovely little place was recommended to us by our host. It was just down the pedestrian stairwell down to the city center, first place of any significance. They pride themselves on organic, and have their own garden in the Sacred Valley to source the produce. We both chose the omelette, and my wife got the hot chocolate, while I had the foofoo orange, papaya, pineapple juice. The juice was awesome. Freshly prepared, and very tasty. The omelette was to die for good. This was an awesome value at 32 Soles, less than 10 $USD for a two person breakfast.

Sumaq Cha’ asqa

OK, not a real meal. But I stopped here in the early afternoon for a cocktail, or two.  We were exploring the San Blas neighborhood in the early afternoon, and stumbled upon this lovely little cafe/bar. We had it all to ourselves, as we arrived a bit early for the locals. Naturally the service was fabulous, because we were the only customers. The beer was cold, as was the Pisco – to my surprise. They did have a menu, which I did not explore.

Limo

Right on the square. The kind of place I wouldn’t normally patronize. But, my host recommended this place for an up-scale experience. We were on their balcony, right in the Plaza de Armas, with nice views. To my surprise, they had a Japanese fusion type of menu, and focused on a Pisco experience for cocktails. I will order octopus every time I have the opportunity – because the opportunity so rarely presents itself. Their presentation did not disappoint. I followed up with the whole grilled trout. It was very good. For dessert I had some sashimi, and this too did not disappoint. The Japanese/Peruvian fusion thing worked. I would highly recommend this restaurant.

Epilogue

Reflections on Cusco. The highlights of Cusco for me start with the sixteenth century Spanish Colonial Architecture surrounding the Plaza de Armas. And continue with the exploration opportunities found in the neighborhoods surrounding the plaza. I especially liked the artisan’s haven barrio of San Blas. And finally I really enjoyed the cuisine in Cusco. The Food Scene section details some wonderful dining experiences. While the apartment had beautiful panoramic views of the city, and we enjoyed our stay there, I never got the Immersive Travel Experience thrill from my time in Cusco. In honest reflection, I think that Cusco’s infrastructure prevents it from rising to a great travel experience.

 

Related Topics

 

Immersive Travel Experience Paris

This destination, which I call Immersive Travel Experience Paris, is the 1st of Four in the France and Italy itinerary. The details related to planning for this destination and the others on the France and Italy circuit are described in The France and Italy Travel Planning post.

Paris is the City of Light, the City of Romance, and my favorite city in Europe. Steeped in history, it is the birthplace of Gothic Architecture. And it has a great variety of architecture, like eye candy throughout the city. There are examples from the French Renaissance, the Classical Revival, Belle Époque, Art Nouveau, and rounded out by the 20th century Art Deco style. The city is beautifully laid out with wide boulevards, dotted with architectural wonders inspired from these periods, waiting to be discovered, and enjoyed. Immersive Travel Experience Paris explores many of these delights.

Beyond history and architecture, Paris is known for a caliber of cuisine found in few places around the world. French cooking is an art form, and French food can be a work of art. Ingredients, presentation and service blended together to make for a dining experience that is distinctly French. Paris is a city where chefs are revered, and it is respectable to be a professional waiter. The many dimensions of Food is at the core of French culture. And Immersive Travel Experience Paris explores the variety of edible art found around the city.

Arrival

We traveled with another couple on this occasion. The direct flight from my home base of Atlanta was a non-eventful (the very best kind) affair that took about 9 hours. The transatlantic flight was fairly endurable with bulkhead seating in what Delta calls their Economy Comfort section. Eating awful food, drinking horrible wine, and watching movies on a tiny outdated screen is how I passed the time. Transportation is what we endure to have an immersive travel experience at our destinations.

We deplaned in a herd, and stampeded to passport control and baggage claim. I find international entry and departure to be more organized and efficient in European airports. And it was the case on this particular occasion, with multiple fast-moving queues at passport control. There was relatively little interaction with the passport control officer, merely a quick stamping of the passports, and we were on our way.

We headed to the ground transportation section of the arrival flight deck with our luggage in tow. The objective was to find a taxi sufficiently large to carry four adults and our luggage. We were directed to a waiting van by an airport employee. Another point of efficiency at European airports is grabbing a taxi. And we set off for central Paris, working our way through mid-afternoon traffic. We arrived at our 1st Arrondissement boutique hotel an hour later, and began our immersive travel experience in Paris.

Settling in

The boutique hotel Le Relais des Halles is located on a quiet, pedestrian only street in the heart of central Paris, the 1st Arrondissement. It was the perfect location for a four night stay, in walking distance to all of the things we wanted to see and do. The taxi driver was able to drop us off in front of the hotel in spite of the fact it’s located on a pedestrian only street. Taxis and service vehicles are exempted.

This boutique hotel, with all of its 19 rooms, was simply charming. It had a 24 hour service desk, a modest, but comfortable lobby, and breakfast was served daily on premises in their medieval looking dining hall. Our Superior Double room was a good size by European standards. The bed was very comfortable, and the bathroom was nicely appointed with an upscale shower. The remainder of the amenities were what should be expected, like good WIFI, an in-room safe, and a reasonably sound-proof room. This was the perfect hotel, with a great location, good amenities, and the personal service found in smaller hotel operations.

The Hotel Le Relais des Halles

Meandering Along the Seine

We were eager to stretch our legs and explore after the nine-hour transatlantic flight. With the relatively efficient European airport experience behind us, it was time to allow the immersive travel experience in Paris to unfold before us. I thought there would be no better introduction to Paris than unwinding with a glass of wine at a charming Parisian cafe, followed by a stroll along the Seine en route to our first proper meal in Paris.

The first part of the plan was easy because Paris is awash in charming cafes, and they all serve good wine and food on a casual timeline. We found the Cafe L’Amazonial as we proceeded towards the Seine. We had a nice cheese and charcuterie board to go with the bottle of red wine we ordered.

L’Amazonial

The cafe looked like an inviting stop for a snack and a bottle of wine. We had a charcuterie and fromage board, with a nice bottle of red wine. It was a lovely introduction to the Parisian food scene for our friends.

The difference between a cafe and a restaurant in Paris

First time travelers to France need to understand the difference between a cafe and a restaurant. One allows for a very casual experience where drinks alone may be ordered, or in combination with snacks, or even a full meal. There is no expectation on the customer. It is a casual, anything goes sort of affair. A restaurant experience calls for a level of formality, along with a minimal amount of time spent. One would raise eyebrows, and likely would not be served, attempting to order only a bottle of wine and a cheese/charcuterie board at a restaurant.

The stroll along the Seine was an excellent introduction to the architectural eye candy that awaits the visitor in Paris. We crossed the Seine traversing Ile de la Cite via Pont Neuf to get to the left bank – La Rive Gauche. We continued our meandering along the Seine for about an hour, taking in the scenery, and stopping for photo opportunities as the mood struck us.

Pasco

This is a restaurant in a residential neighborhood in the 7th arrondissement where my wife and I celebrated our anniversary ten years earlier. We had such a wonderful time, we decided to share this place with our friends. Pasco had gone upscale since the last time we visited, with the cuisine a bit more on the haut side, and the portions smaller. We sampled a variety of the menu from starters to dessert, and finished the meal with a photo-op with the owner, who had no recollection of our visit ten years earlier.

Champs-Élysées Promenade

This would be a big day of discovery in central Paris, experienced as a grand promenade on our first full day in the city. And like all big days, it must start with an uplifting meal to bring energy, and mood up to proper levels.

Le Pain Quotidient

This breakfast and brunch bistro was recommended to us by the concierge at our boutique hotel, and it turned out to be a chain. We found a second one not far from the hotel on Rue Montorguiel. The food was good, as was the service. Three of us tried the quiche, which was a bit upscale for breakfast by US standards.

Palais Royal

Our Champs-Élysées trek proceeded after breakfast with our first stop at Palais Royal. A lovely example of Parisian architecture, originally designed in the early 18th century to be the home of a cardinal. This Parisian landmark is a bit out of the way, and isn’t particularly easy to find. It has an interesting courtyard, garden and monuments. We had it to ourselves, a testament to how off the beaten tourist path this site still is.

Le Louvre

The Louvre was our next stop en route to the Champs-Élysées promenade. I should mention that museum touring is both logistically simplified, as well as made affordable with a Paris Museum Pass. Avoiding the lines to purchase individual museum entrance tickets is priceless. We did not linger in the Louvre. We strolled through the grand space with the purpose of seeing Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.  A proper tour of the Louvre could easily be a whole day affair, but it’s not what we intended on this particular day. Getting a sense of its grandeur, architecture and history sufficed for our visit. And with that experience behind us, we set off for our next stop.

Jardin de Tuilleries and Musée de l’Orangerie

Continuing our way en route to the Champs-Élysées, we cross the lovely Jardins de Tuilleries. More history unfolds before us as these gardens were created in the 16th century following a Florentine design, as ordered by Catherine de Medici. We continue our stroll to the side of the garden closest to the Place de la Concorde and the Musée de l’Orangerie. Covered by the Paris Museum Pass, this intimate homage to Impressionist painters, is most famous for Claude Monet’s Water Lilies paintings which are permanently displayed here.

Place de la Concorde to Arc de Triomphe

The feature of the day. This elegant promenade should be on everyone’s Parisian itinerary. Ornately groomed sycamores, and exclusive designer shops line both sides of this grand boulevard, which hosts some prominent French events annually, including the finish of Le Tour de France, Bastille Day parades, and New Year’s Eve celebrations.

There is no better people watching opportunity in Paris. With elegant Parisians going about their day, mixed with the visitor crowds from all over the world, it’s like drama unfolding before your eyes as you stroll from the Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe.  Steeped in history, this grand promenade was designed in the early 17th century, so a slow pace to soak it all in is in order. The length of the route is merely 2 kilometers, and can easily be walked in 30 minutes. But with a stop for a proper lunch at one its fine cafes, the journey can be made to linger for a few hours.

L’Alsace

This is a Champs-Elysees cafe/restaurant about half way between Place de la Concorde and L’Arc de Triomphe. This was our lunch stop after a bit of discovery trekking on day two in Paris. We had a variety of seafood, including mussels, escargot and fish, along with a nice bottle of rose wine. The rose wine would become a theme for this trip.

Arc de Triomphe

Naturally we must stop and tour this grand Napoleonic monument at the terminus of our climatic Parisian stroll. Built by Napoleon at the height of his influence in the early 19th century, the Arc is the place from which 12 avenues radiate out. A roundabout surrounds it where some of the most chaotic driving known to humanity can be observed. The Arc is a quintessential Parisian landmark, with only the Eiffel Tower having greater recognition.

L’Escargot Montorgueil

We finished our grand day of exploration with dinner at this restaurant, just around the corner from our hotel. I introduced our friends to escargot at lunch earlier in the day, and they wanted to try a full course for themselves. We had a variety of main dishes, like veal, beef, and duck, but the highlight was the escargot. And in particular the escargot with foie gras was the hit of the evening. I asked the waiter, because the combination was new to me. He said that the French considered it déclassé, but the tourists loved it – so it stayed on the menu. I thought it was interesting that the restaurant accommodated visitor demand in light of the local sentiment. Apparently supply and demand worked in France.

Île de la Cité Promenade

Île de la Cité is the larger of the two islands in the Seine River, the other being Île Saint-Louis. La Cité remains the center of Paris, and all road distances are still measured from the 0 km center point located in the square facing Notre-Dame’s western towers, called the Place du Parvis de Notre-Dame. This island was the original ancient “Paris” in Roman times, up through the early medieval era.

La Sainte-Chapelle

An easy walk of less than 3 kilometers leads onto the main island across Le Pont du Change to the first destination – Sainte-Chapelle. This Gothic Holy Royal Chapel is the highlight of the medieval Palais de la Cité, with its stunning stained glass display. This is the most beautiful stained glass I’ve seen in all of my travels.

Notre Dame de Paris

Our next stop would be the grand medieval Cathedral of Notre Dame, among the best examples of Gothic architecture in the world. Flying buttresses were necessary to support its walls, and prevent them from bulging out because the original design had the walls too thin for the height of the cathedral. The design flaw turned into a key attribute of this architecture, making Notre Dame de Paris easily recognizable. The famous gargoyle statuary was placed at strategic locations around the outside of the cathedral to serve as column supports and water spouts.

The cathedral  houses some of the most important relics from Christendom, including the Crown of Thorns, a fragment from the crucifixion cross of Christ, and one of the Holy Nails. None of these are on display, of course.

 

Île Saint-Louis

We crossed the le Pont Saint-Louis to enter the residential oasis in the heart of Paris called Ile Saint-Louis. The smaller of the two natural islands in the Seine, it has narrow one lane roads, with cafe/restaurants sprinkled here and there, and of course – the renowned Berthillion ice cream shop.

Berthillon

This little place is the pinnacle of ice cream in Paris. Sadly, Raymond Berthillon passed away in 2014, but left behind a French ice cream legacy. There is nothing better than a Berthillon cone after a long stroll on Ile Saint Louis, visiting the Notre Dame cathedral, and Sainte Chapelle.

Le Jules Verne

This was dinner at the end our Île de la Cite/Saint-Louis promenade, at the unusually named restaurant comprising most of the 2nd deck on the Eiffel Tower. The restaurant’s namesake and Gustave Eiffel were best friends. This meal was meant to be the highlight of our experience in Paris. I planned to be seated before sunset, and linger over dinner to watch the Parisian skyline light up before my eyes. This meal was comprised of six courses of haute cuisine, each paired with a wine selection. The food was memorable, the service was a white-glove affair, and the entire experience was a perfect punctuation to our evening in Paris, and worth every centime.

Rue Montorgueil

This little slice of central Parisian life is called Rue Montorgueil. Two hundred meters from our boutique hotel lies this pedestrian only street, lined with cafes, restaurants and produce vendors. We walked its length more than once, which is why it’s worth mentioning. We visited restaurants and cafes here. I stopped on occasion to buy fresh berries, and snacked as I explored sights and sounds of the local experience. No matter what part of Paris you spend your nights, spend one afternoon wandering this little gem of a street.

Le Petit Carreaux

We discovered this little street-side cafe as we strolled up Rue Montorguiel taking in the sights and rubbing elbows with the locals. En route to this cafe, I bought some plump and fresh looking raspberries from a street vendor and snacked as I wandered. We had confit du canard – which is one of my favorite Parisian cafe staples, salmon, and somebody had to order the ubiquitous cheeseburger – and they did it right.

 

Les Galeries Lafayette

Is there such a thing as going to Paris without shopping? I think not! And, this is the place to shop. Plenty of floors of high grade Haute Couture, many of the most recognized brands in the world. The kind of place where a silk scarf will set you back a month’s mortgage payment on your high-end hacienda.

There is a roof-top cafe above Les Galeries Lafayette. There is no charge to walk up and take in the view, so the roof-top area is rather crowded. The views of Paris were spectacular. The cocktails were pricy, but the charge was mostly for the view, not the drinks. Worth the price. Also good for people watching.

 

Side Trip to Versailles

Twenty kilometers south of central Paris lies the Palace and Gardens of Versailles. Once the seat of French power as Louis XIV had relocated the royal court away from Paris. The palace was the standard of grandeur, opulence, and royal showmanship across Europe in its time. And still today, few buildings in the world stand up to Versailles in stature.

It was an easy thirty minute Uber ride from Central Paris to Versailles. In addition to the opportunity to tour the Palace and Gardens, the road trip itself to Versailles was interesting. It gave us the opportunity to see the modern day suburb of Versailles, along with its reputation at the higher end of the economic spectrum.

As seen from the photos, the palace itself can be crowded. We visited at the end of May, before the high season. But there may not be a low season to visit Versailles because it is very popular with tourists. However, the gardens are expansive, allowing for a less dense visiting experience. I very much enjoyed the visit, in particular the gardens with the gravity fed fountains – superbly engineered, and still perform well to this day without any hydraulic systems.

Le Petite Venise

This restaurant was in a garden area on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. There were few dining opportunities of any kind on the grounds, and so this place was packed. We were fortunate to be seated, having arrived early. The seabream fillets, and the risotto were very good.

 

Epilogue

Reflections on Paris. To be fair, this was my 5th Paris experience – and I enjoyed it more than the previous four. Ooooh la la! What a grand time it was!  I don’t know that a more immersive travel experience can be had, but I’m willing to try, naturally. Four days in Paris is a start. It’s just enough to kindle the desire for the rest of the city. Paris requires a month of exploration to appreciate what it has to offer. Four nights is the appetizer that would bring the first time visitor back for a second serving – count me in for four servings after my first. Its draw is alluring and reels the traveler back – charmingly.

Related Topics

 

France and Italy Travel Planning – Highlights of Europe

Travel Planning France and Italy.

Motivation – France and Italy Travel Planning

A long-time friend of mine asked to join me for one of my immersive travel experiences. More clearly, he asked that he and his wife join my wife and I for one of our immersive travel experiences. I had to give the idea some thought before I agreed because these trips were intimate experiences for me, and I do them my way. I wasn’t sure others would find my approach to travel to be their cup of tea. So I went on to share my approach with my long-time friend, and he showed even more interest. And in fact, some of the inspiration to put together this web site came from the France and Italy Travel Planning experience we shared.

Why France and Italy? My friend and his wife had not previously traveled outside of the United States. I wanted to share with them what in my view were the highlights of Europe.  And along with the highlights, a good cross-section as well. For example, Simply spending time in Paris and Rome wouldn’t do, as they’re both large city experiences – very different from each other to be sure, but big city experiences nonetheless.

To truly experience Europe, and especially France and Italy, a visit to the countryside is a must. Smaller towns and villages need to be explored to get a proper sense of the culture and history of a country. A different pace of life can be found in smaller cities and towns. Even the food is different, as cuisine varies by by geography even within the same country.

It’s About the Contrast

France and Italy Travel Planning would be an exercise in comparing and contrasting two of the most interesting countries and cultures in Europe. Similar because both languages are Latin based. Similar because they’re both grand vintners, producing some of best wine in the world. They’re both similar with cuisine being a tremendous cultural focus, and chef being among the most respected profession in each country.

And yet, for each category of similarity, there are so many differences – some profound, but all very interesting. For example, cuisine – truly an art form in each country, but very different in delightful ways. Another example would be the world-class wines each produce. But even a novice wine palate could discern the differences between French and Italian wines.

Itinerary – France and Italy Travel Planning

The selection of destinations is important because I needed to highlight the similarities and differences, and expose them to be consumed as experiences by my traveling companions. Even the order of countries visited is important. Consider experiencing Saint Peter’s Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel, then visiting Notre Dame de Paris, and Sainte Chappelle in that order. Both are memorable experiences, but Notre Dame and Sainte Chappelle would be less impressive if visited after Saint Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel.

There was no doubt in my mind that France had to come first on this travel planning exercise to maximize impact – the “wow” factor. At the risk of insulting or demeaning the French, Italy just has more wow to it, as compared to France. They are both steeped in history, but Italy is made of history. They both have beautiful outdoors. Artists have made Provence in France a pilgrimage destination to seek its light. But Italy’s outdoors are sweeping, dramatic, and awe inspiring. The experience of this itinerary would indeed be diminished if visited in the incorrect order, with Italy first.

City and Countryside Contrast

So France and Italy travel planning needs both city and countryside destinations. My choice for the French city experience can be none other than Paris, the city of light, romance, culture, and some of the best food in the world. Paris should be at the top of the list of French cities for a first time visitor.

The Loire Valley, and its Chateaux were my choice for the French countryside destination. I selected the lovely little town of Amboise – right on the Loire River. From there, chateau visiting would be a lovely day trip experience. And the city promised some high caliber French cuisine, including a Michelin starred restaurant.

Rome had to be the logical choice for an Italian city experience. There is no other city like it in the world. Not only steeped in history, it is made of history, with 2,000+ year old monuments and buildings peppered throughout. In-progress archaeological digs may still be found in the city. And the city surrounds the tiny Vatican, with its treasures of Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Museum.

Sorrento, with its proximity to the Amalfi coast, and lovely little towns dotting the coastline, was my destination choice for the Italian countryside. A side trip to Ravelo, climbing the legendary twists and turns to get a view of the grand coastline, was definitely in the plan. And a ferry ride to Capri to tour the island and explore its wind swept heights was also a must do.

Paris – 4 Nights

Amboise – 2 Nights

Rome – 4 nights

Sorrento – 2 Nights

Logistics – France and Italy Travel Planning

The logistics here are fairly straight forward. A direct flight from my home base in Atlanta to Paris Charles de Gall airport is as convenient as it gets for air transportation. A connecting flight to Rome from Charles de Gall was necessary for the Italian portion of the itinerary. And finally, a direct flight from Rome Fiumicino airport to Atlanta at the end of trip completed all air transportation requirements, optimizing for time and convenience.

This is the first Immersive Travel Planning post that does not recommend an apartment to catalyze an immersive travel experience. Traveling as a foursome is different than traveling as a couple. There are complexities that need to be considered, as well as the need for individual space, and independent time apart. All can be better accomplished with individual hotel rooms.

Hotel rooms, yes – but not hotel rooms at a multi-national chain, or away from the city center. The objective is to go local, and enjoy an immersive travel experience. That is better achieved by staying in smaller, boutique hotels, in the city center, where all of the things we need to do are within walking distance from our hotel. All of the details related to the hotels selected are in the Immersive Travel Experience posts related to this France and Italy Travel Planning post, with the links at the bottom of this page.

Car rental was necessary. Getting to the countryside in both France and Italy was accomplished by vehicle.  And this was yet another wonderful contrast between France and Italy – driving the French roads versus driving the Italian roads, and Italian drivers contrasted with French drivers.

Resources – France and Italy Travel Planning

Indispensable for planning purposes: Google flights. It works well with mainstream carriers, as well as the puddle jumpers.  I use it to analyze costs related to date ranges, as well as stopover options for those destinations unreachable directly from my home airport – like Lisbon.  

I relied on  booking.com for researching boutique hotels in France and Italy.  TripAdvisor was also very handy for hotel research, with lots of community ratings and commentary.

Google maps is a staple, and I use it on every trip for a variety of needs.  On this trip, I mainly used it for navigating to restaurants and points of interest while on my discovery treks.

With Google translate on my phone at the ready, I fear no language barrier. I did end up in places where English was not spoken, so this phone app was very handy.

Sixt is my first choice for car rental in Europe. They are a competent company, typically delivering road worthy German cars. On this particular occasion, I reserved a larger Volvo V60 in France, and a VW Tiguan in Italy, to accommodate 4 adults and all of their luggage.

Epilogue – France and Italy Travel Planning

Reflections on France and Italy. This was truly a wonderfully memorable itinerary, made even more memorable with the company of great friends. Our companions thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and had an experience like no other in their lives. This trip opened their minds to other cultures, the further possibility of traveling on their own in the future. It was a spectacular introduction to the possibilities of Immersive Travel.

 

Related Topics – France and Italy Travel Planning

Lisbon

This is the 2nd destination of two in the Portugal itinerary. The details related to planning for this destination and the others on the Portugal circuit are described in The Portugal Travel Planning post.

Lisbon must be visited on a first trip to Portugal. As the seat of Portugal’s maritime empire spanning from the 1500s through the 1800s, Lisbon is deeply steeped in history and tradition. Nestled on seven hills on the Tagus River, the city has some of most breathtaking views from these hillsides – called Miradouros. The first time visitor will be enchanted with all that Lisbon has to offer, especially the high quality, very affordable food scene. Lisbon is a seafood lovers delight, especially for anyone on a budget.

 

Arrival

As the second stop on the Portugal itinerary, we arrived by train from Porto in just over three hours in the early afternoon on December 26. The train ride was uneventful, with the countryside whistling by as the train made steady progress towards Lisbon. We arrived at the Lisboa Rossio train station, relatively close to our apartment – just a five minute taxi ride away. In fact, it took longer to hail the taxi than it took to get to our destination.

The contrast between Porto, and Lisbon on arrival was both immediate and obvious. Porto was a fraction of the size of Lisbon, had an intimate feel to it, people seemed friendly and approachable, the pace of life was slower, and even the restaurants and cafes felt more familiar. Lisbon was a larger, more diversified city, definitely with a charm all its own, and more of everything than Porto – museums, parks, monuments, restaurants – waiting to be discovered. Lisbon felt a little more rough around the edges, perhaps a little more gritty than Porto. Different, yet charming.

 

Settling in

I booked the Lisbon apartment through Homeaway, my go-to resource for high quality apartments in some of the best locations. This particular apartment was booked nine months in advance, and was in a residential neighborhood, with easy walking access to all of the interesting parts of town. It had wonderful views over the rooftops of the city from the back of the apartment. We had our own Miradouro right inside the apartment.

The apartment was spacious with over 1,000 square feet of interior space, which is relatively large by European standards for a single bedroom dwelling. It was fully equipped with a washer/dryer, WIFI, a bed that might have been a bit more comfortable, and a shower with ample hot water. Five nights in Lisbon were comfortably spent, with all that a traveling couple would need.  And the best – there was a true Miradouro just outside the apartment overlooking the city all the way to the water: The Miradouro of Our Lady of the Mount.

The photos below are some of the views we had from our lovely apartment, and the video is from the Miradouro of Our Lady of the Mount, just outside the apartment.

 

Discovery Trek

Continuing the leisurely pace we started in Porto, upon arrival in Lisbon we set out to discover the city and its neighborhoods. The first local point of interest we sought out was the port of Lisbon and its centrally located Praca do Comercio, or Commerce Square.

 

We eventually found our way to Costelo Sao Jorge while strolling through the twists and turns of the medieval streets of the Alfama. This neighborhood has been in existence for a thousand years, and people still sell fish from their door stoops – a throwback to medieval times.  The Costelo is the very top of the climb in the Alfama, and is one of the more impressive Mirodouros in Lisbon, with spectacular views.

 

We taxied to Almada to see the impressive statue of Christ, essentially an homage to the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. Very impressive was the Ponte 25 de Abril, the enormous suspension bridge built by the same American company that built the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge, and looks remarkably similar to the Golden Gate Bridge.

 

Still a bit off the beaten path of tourism, and something mostly the locals would see, we visited Estufa Fria, the botanical garden in the center of Parque Eduardo VII which was started in 1910.

 

We took a marvelous walk starting at Campo Santa Clara, and terminating in Praca do Imperio in Belem. We visited the National Pantheon at Campo Santa Clara, which included the final resting place of historical Portuguese figures, most notable among them was Vasco da Gama. It was at least a ten mile walk round trip on a beautifully blustery, sunny day in Lisbon at the end of December.

 

On our last day in Lisbon, we took tram 28, which stopped close to our apartment, to places unknown, simply following our sense of discovery. We found a wonderful 800 year old former monastery, turned into a brewery, then into a restaurant – see the food scene below.  We also found a Port wine tasting cafe with a huge variety of the good stuff. I tried a 40 year old vintage Port, which was a wonderful aperitif leading up to dinner.We spent our last full day in Lisbon simply discovering, and meandering.

 

Day Trip to Sintra and Cascais

With five nights in Lisbon, we were afforded the opportunity to get out of the city to explore interesting destinations nearby.  The Moorish designed Sintra National Palace, richly decorated in period tile is the major attraction for visitors near Sintra. The nearby Pena National Palace, perched on a hilltop, is a Mirodouro all unto itself – with sweeping panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. All of this scenery was an easy short train ride from Lisbon.

 

Cascais is a beach resort town, in the vicinity of Sintra, and we taxied over for a visit from Sintra. This town is home to the medieval Nossa Senhora da Luz Fort and the Citadel Palace, although neither of these two were accessible during our visit. It was still nice, further exploring a bit away from the big city of Lisbon, and enjoying a beer on the beach in December.

 

 

Food Scene

Matas – Lunch

This was a little mom and pop cafe, with a couple of tables indoors, and a couple of umbrella covered tables outdoors. They specialized in seafood, and everything was fresh. The prices were unbelievably affordable. We both ordered the grilled octopus with potatoes for lunch. It was very good.

 

Matas – Dinner

Lunch was so good, we simply couldn’t resist going back for dinner. We noticed how extensive the fish menu was at lunch, and decided to give it a try for dinner. We had a couple bowls of soup as appetizers, with grilled seabass, and grilled bream for the main course. It was like a home cooked meal. Very local, and very good a second time.

 

Chapito a Mesa

This little restaurant was discovered on our way back from Castelo Sao Jorge. They had an outside seating area with incredible views overlooking the city.  We ordered mountain smoked ham, and grilled shrimp with tropical fruit and vinaigrette. Snacking with a view.