Our first trip to Europe began in Basel, Switzerland (my niece was graduating from high school and the event offered an excuse to go). The city of Basel is located on the Rhine River, at the junction of Switzerland, France, and Germany, a perfect location for launching an exploration of all three. While in Basel, we walked its charming Old Town, particularly impressed with its red Town Hall (Rathaus) and its numerous fountains.
We took several day trips while staying Basel. One involved traveling east across the border into the Alsace Region of France. We traveled along its famous "Wine Route" through several absolutely charming villages. The most memorable were Kaysersburg, Ribeauville, and Riquewihr. Visitors are truly amazed at the village pride represented by the incredible display of flowers from balconies and window boxes and the immaculate way the towns are kept (see photos).
Another excursion brought us to the beautiful old town of Berne, Switzerland. Highlights here included the impressive Munster (Cathedral) with its intricate carvings of "Heaven" and "Hell" above the doorway, the famous Glockenspiel which heralds each hour with the fascinating movements of several figures (get there early to stake out a good vantage point), and the Bear Pit, at the entrance to the Old Town, where the town mascots are kept. We also walked up to the Rose Garden for a wonderful bird’s eye view of the town and the River Aare which flows beside it.
After Christina’s graduation, we set off on our own to sample some of the best of southern Europe. Our first stop on this memorable journey was the beautiful town of Luzerne, Switzerland. The most dramatic attraction in town is the Kappelbrucke, the covered bridge, which, incredibly, boasts paintings chronicling the history of Switzerland in successive panels under its roof. One section of the bridge boasts a tower which used to be a prison. The entire scene is made even more impressive by Luzerne’s setting on the lake at the base of Mt Pilatus which looms in the distance.
From Luzerne, we traveled southeast through the Bernese Oberland and across the Alps toward Italy. En route we stopped at the lovely lakeside village of Lugano (see photo). We walked along the flower-bedecked paths and soaked up the ambience of this somewhat tropical location at the base of the Alps.
We continued south into Italy and, after a brief stop in Como (not a particularly attractive town), we reached Milan. Milan is a huge, sprawling city, but has several notable attractions which make it a required stop on any northern Italian itinerary. The Duomo (cathedral) is absolutely stunning, with its ornate facade, spires, and statues (see photo). Right across the square is La Scala, perhaps the most famous opera house in the world. Also popular is Da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, located in the Santa Maria della Grazie convent. The painting has become extremely controversial lately because of its significance in the blockbuster movie, The Da Vinci Code.
From Milan, we headed east to Venice, the most unique city in the world. Located on myriad islands, connected by bridges, it is a walker’s dream because no vehicles (only boats) are allowed in the city. Narrow waterways are crossed by stone bridges and the maze of alleys insures that all visitors must get lost. The most important sights of the city are found in the San Marco section and revolve Venice’s incredible square, Piazza San Marco, which has as its focal point the Basilica San Marco, the incredible Byzantine-style church with its elaborate mosaics and multiple domes. Nearby is the Campanile (bell tower) which offers marvelous views of the city and its picturesque lagoon. Beside the church is the Doge’s Palace (Doges were the powerful governors of the city-state) which sports grandiose corridors and rooms and excellent artwork. Visitors are even allowed to cross the Bridge of Sighs into the dark and dank prison.
Of course, the most romantic activity in Venice is a gondola ride, and, despite the expense, it is a must-do for first-timers. It offers a very different perspective on the entire scene — the quiet and solitude of gliding along small, narrow canals without the hordes of people is both tranquil and mesmerizing.
From Venice, we headed southwest to the cradle of the Renaissance, Florence. Here the attractions are all about Art and Architecture. One of the world’s greatest museums, the Uffizi Gallery, was one of our first stops. It possesses the greatest number of paintings from this period in the entire world. Note especially Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. The building itself is spectacular since it once belonged to one of the most powerful families in Italy, the Medici’s.
Another must-see attraction in Florence is its famous Duomo, with its gorgeous facade of pink, green, and white marble. The Campanile and the dome were designed by Brunelleschi — the dome, in particular, was ground-breaking when constructed and has become a recogizable symbol of the city. Another interesting church is Santa Croce, which is remarkable because it contains the tombs of some of the most famous Italians in history, people like Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli.
Perhaps the most famous sculpture in the world, Michelangelo’s David is housed in the Galleria dell’ Academia and impresses because of its size and amazing detail. We had lunch on the Piazza Signoria, near the Uffizi, which displays a copy of the David as well as several other notable sculptures.
We spent some time shopping on the Ponte Vecchio, a covered bridge over the Arno River which is lined with shops and also checked out the Santa Maria Novella Church with its interesting exterior.
Next we headed further south to the Tuscan Hill Town of Siena, whose narrow streets and alleyways are a pleasure to walk. We were extremely impressed by the Duomo which almost rivals Florence in beauty. All life in Siena revolves around the Piazza del Campo, a huge and elegant square which is so large that its actually hosts a horse race twice a year.
Then it was on to the "Eternal City" of Rome. We were awed walking on the same marble blocks which Julius Caesar walked in the Roman Forum. It ends at perhaps the most important attraction in the entire city, the Colosseum, where gladiatorial combat was waged in front of thousands of fans.
What was most charming about Rome was that as we wandered the streets and alleys, we would occasionally emerge at a square which sported an obelisk or sculpture which might be hundreds or thousands of years old.
My favorite building in Rome is the Pantheon, perhaps the best preserved ancient site in the entire city. The multicolored, marble interior is beautiful and in excellent condition. It is still used as a house of worship.
Near Rome’s center, but ironically a separate country is Vatican City, the focal point of world Catholicism since it contains St Peter’s Basilica, one of the largest churches in the world. We marveled at the beautiful dome, designed by Michelangelo, and the incredibly ornate and gilded interior. Also here is the Vatican Museum, which is another of the world’s greatest storehouses of Art and Sculpture. Add to this the unbelievable grandeur of the Sistene Chapel, Michelangelo’s most famous work, and it is no wonder that Rome is one of the most important tourist destinations in the world.
Other notable sights in the city include the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and the Piazza Navona, with Bernini’s famous sculpture, The Four Rivers. We should have spent more time here.
Our next destination was Nice, France and the French Riviera. Along the way, we made a brief stop in Pisa to see the famous Leaning Tower in its glorious setting, the Piazza dei Miracoli (Place of miracles). We were, of course, drawn here by the presence of the iconic tower but were surprised to find an impressive Duomo and Baptistry as well. We were disappointed that we could not climb the tower (construction was in process to prevent its collapse), but today, visitors can once again ascend to the legendary place where Galileo dropped objects to prove that gravity accelerates all falling bodies equally.