Vatican City & St. Peter’s Cathedral

We visited Vatican City our third day in Rome.  Vatican City is a sovereign city-state within the city of Rome, taking up only 110 acres.  It is home to 800 people, all affiliated with the church and museum.

We were lucky to have Claudia again as our guide, to see the highlights.  With limited time in Rome, and also limited time to plan and research the trip, booking a guided tour was helpful to make sure we got the most out of it.

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View from The Vatican Museum of St. Peter’s in the distance

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The light was just beautiful in Vatican City. The buildings seen here are the galleries leading to the Sistine Chapel.

We started our tour in the Vatican Museum, holding many treasures that they have accumulated from history. The statues were impressive but I much preferred the remarkable ceilings.

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These corridors lead to the Sistine Chapel.  Many people told me they were brought to tears upon seeing Michelangelo’s greatest work.  I read the fictional novel The Agony & The Ecstasy, about Michelangelo’s life many years ago, which detailed that he was not enthused about this assignment – he hated fresco painting and preferred sculpture.  The Pope had required him to live in Rome and complete the works on St. Peter’s.  Not sure if it was that information or the hoards of people shoving us, but I thought it was just okay.  Really cool to see but I did not need any tissues.   Sorry – no photos allowed.

A guard came up to us and told Claudia that they were shutting St. Peter’s in 10 minutes due to New Years’ Eve.   He told her to hurry or we’d miss it.  Whispering a “grazie mille”, we quickly descended into the remarkable church.

If you aren’t familiar with St. Peter’s, it is a church dedicated to St. Peter, built above his grave site.   There was an original church on the same spot, but during Julius II’s reign, he wanted to make it more glorious due to it’s significant dedication and symbolism.   St. Peter was one of Jesus’s disciples, and a very important and influential one.  After Jesus’s death & resurrection, he became the natural leader and made great strides in proclaiming the message of Christianity.  He was persecuted for his teachings under Emperor Nero and when he was given death by crucifixion he requested only to be crucified upside down as he didn’t feel he deserved to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus.

One of the first things we saw within the church was Michelangelo’s pieta, a sculpture of Mother Mary holding the adult crucified Jesus on her lap.  Michelangelo sculpted this emotional masterpiece at 24 years of age.  Can you imagine?  This work of art brought me more emotion than the Sistine Chapel, it was his passion, the sculpture.

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We continued to walk around the basilica.  Notice the light coming in at every vantage point.   Full credit to the hubby for capturing this beautiful essence of the visit with our camera.

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The domes and ceiling were really impressive.  Mid-way through, Gabe said that it was the most impressive religious structured he’d ever seen.  Although I was impressed by others (see list at end of this post) , I’d have to agree.

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Upon leaving, we saw the famous Swiss guard on duty!  The volunteers come from the four Catholic cantons of Switzerland and their mission is to protect the Pope.

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After grabbing lunch, we returned back to the square for experiencing this special place once more.

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About ten minutes after we returned, the guards came, ushering every single person out of St. Peter’s Square for what we think were New Year’s Eve preparations.  So, we can officially say we were kicked out of Vatican City!!

Nonetheless, we we grateful for the visit.  What a remarkable place.

The Coliseum & Roman Forum

On our trip to Rome, visiting The Coliseum was a must.  We booked a three hour tour with Claudia to explore the Coliseum, Palantine Hill, and The Roman Forum.  All of these sites are very close together.

The metro stop Coliseo literally drops you off at this vantage point!  I loved the Christmas tree out front.

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Claudia led us efficiently through, explaining that the Coliseum is in ruins for many reasons.   When the gladiator games stopped due to rulers objecting to their bloody nature, the Coliseum wasn’t as needed so was left deserted.   Earthquakes came in 847 and 1231 which caused significant structural damage.  Finally, when St. Peter’s Basilica was being re-built by Julius II, they used all the marble from the Coliseum to build the church.

The entire thing used to be covered in white marble.   You can see below the places where the marble was attached, leaving holes once it was taken.

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She taught us about the levels of seating.  Even back then, people received a “ticket” with their section and row.  Important people such as Senators and the Imperial Family were on the bottom tier, with protective walls. Then, the upper class in the 2nd tier, the lower class in the 3rd tier, and at the top: the women.  She explained it was common for women to be impressed with the gladiators.  Thus, they were kept at the top, at quite a length.

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The lower class tier. You’ll see people cooking in the stands because these were all day events.

 

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Some of the remaining marble Senatorial seats

If you aren’t familiar with Gladiatorial Games, it is when men fight to the death to entertain the crowd.  The Gladiators are actually slaves / criminals forced to fight.  You might remember from the movie The Gladiator that Maximus was actually a Roman general who became a slave due to the vengeful rule of the Emperor.

The gladiators are unfairly weighted against soldiers with chariots and better weapons.  To keep an element of surprise, wild animals were also released during the fights.  You can see a cross section of the lower part under the main floor, which contained staging areas.

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Cross section demonstrating the area under the floor

They have built a modern floor in the Coliseum today so that you can imagine it as it were, with the underlying area revealing in the ruin of the Coliseum.

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The Coliseum was quite advanced in design.  They had sails that could protect the spectators from the harsh sunlight.

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After being impressed by the Coliseum, we continued to Palantine Hill, the seat of many ancient Roman palaces and onto the Forum.

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The arch of Constantine, in sight of The Coliseum

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A look back at the Coliseum. The Arch of Constantine is the structure in the right hand side.

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The entry arch to The Forum

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A view towards Capitol Hill

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A view of the ruins of The Roman Forum

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The mound where Julius Caesar’s body was burned/cremated

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Everywhere you looked, there was something magnificent

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You know the saying, “All Roads Lead to Rome”? This is mile marker zero in Rome.

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The arch where you exit The Forum

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Leaving The Forum

Just outside The Forum was the jail.  This is the place that Jesus’s disciples, Peter and Paul, where kept before they died.

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If you took Mr. Ward’s Latin class like me in high school, we learned a lot about Romulus & Remus, the twins who were raised by the she-wolf.  A statue stands outside Capitol Hill demonstrating this legend.

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We were really in awe of this area.   Outside of Athens & Greece, no place that we have seen compares to the vast and significant history here in Rome.

The Highest Point in the Valley of Hell

Les-Baux-de-Provence, France, is known for its bloody and ruthless past.  Known for pushing individuals off the rocky cliffs, decapitation, and other cruel methods of death, the lords of Les Baux are not characters you’d want to cross.   Thus, the area was feared.

It is said Dante modeled one of his layers of hell in the Inferno off of the rocky landscape of Les Baux.

I am not sure which contributed to it, but area became known as “The Valley of Hell.”

An omnious sky over Les-Baux-de-Provence

Gabe and I visited Les-Baux-de-Provence on our whirlwind trip to see the lavender this summer. However, short on time, we didn’t climb the entire way to see the castle & fortifications.  Instead, we wandered around the village checking out churches and views from the mid-heights.

However, this time, Mom & I were up for the adventure.

The wind was whipping at the top of Les Baux

Le Mistral, the fierce Provençal wind, also accompanied us.  However, pressing against the bursts had its rewards.  The top was very impressive with bell towers and rooms carved into the face of the stone cliffs.

Rocky facade of the castle

The sky definitely accentuated the scariness

If you go to Les Baux, don’t miss going to the top!

 

Related Links:

The Swiss Watch Blog:  Les Baux de Provence

Schwingen in Switzerland :  We Didn’t Know the Valley of Hell was So Beautiful – Les Baux

Popping some bottles in Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a wine region within Southern France.   The area became notorious in the 14th Century when Avignon, France, became the seat of the Pope during the Catholic schism.  The Popes were lovers of wine and in particular, of Burgundy wines.   However, they needed to find a closer source than Burgundy.  In 1321, Pope John XXII requisitioned wine from this particular area and the production became named ‘Vin du Pape’ for wine of the Pope.  Later the name evolved to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, referencing the wine of the ‘new castle of the Pope’.

The Papal Palace was located in nearby Avignon

I’m sure Pope John XXII was thrilled when the Beastie Boys crooned the verse,  “Like a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape / I’m fine like wine when I start to rap.”

The rocky terrain in Châteauneuf-du-Pape

In addition to its rich history and presence in Beastie Boys songs, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the wine king of Southern France, claiming price points similar to Burgundy and Bordeaux.  The region is known for the rocky terrain, many meters thick, which was created many years ago when the area was once the bed of the Rhone river.

Now the Rhone rests a few kilometers away and the rocks, galets roulés , serve as heaters and water insulators for the terroir.

I was lucky to get a special glimpse at this wine area with a group traveling from Virginia.    Our first stop on the wine tasting adventure was at Château Beaucastel, a lovely maker of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

The view from Château Beaucastel

The morning we visited, I had just finished the book, Of Wine And War.  Wine was considered France’s national treasure, and the lengths to which the French winemakers went keeping their good wine from the Nazis was really interesting.   From sending the bad vintages, to building faux walls, and even burying in in the soil, they tried everything to preserve the historic vintages for France.   Our guide at Château Beaucastel said not many vintages had likely escaped Nazi hands as there were not many pre-war bottles left today.

Cellars at Château Beaucastel.  I was inspecting for pre-war bottles, but found none.

The group also visited  domaine de la Mordorée, Domaine Grand Veneur, and  La Bastide St. Dominique, all which produce Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

My graduation year

Related Links:

Schwingen in Switzerland: Wine Museum in Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Schwingen in Switzerland:  Châteauneuf-du-Pape rocked us….literally

Art therapy at St-Paul de Mausole

Just south of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence are groves of olive trees and rows of cedars. Driving along the D5 highway, one might miss the Maison de Santé Saint-Paul de Mausole which rests back from the highway. I know our first trip to St-Rémy, we certainly did.

The olive groves off of D5

However, back in the surroundings of this traditional Provençal landscape is a special place of rest.  It is a home for psychiatric patients, individuals with special needs, and the elderly. Art therapy is used with the patients as a method of healing.

Cloister at St-Paul de Mausole

Grounds at St-Paul de Mausole

And one of the patients…Vincent Van Gogh.   The courtyards and grounds are filled with scenes familiar to many.  From an art standpoint, his time in Provence was his most productive period.

Scene for Les Oliviers

Vincent Van Gogh’s, Les Oliviers, image courtesy of Google Images

Scene for Le ravin des Pairoulets

Vincent Van Gogh’s Le ravin des Pairoulets, image courtesy of Google Images

Van Gogh lived here after his stay in Arles, and after the loss of his ear, committed himself.  It is evident the staff appreciated Van Gogh as they let him paint alone outside, a designation not given to many.   In St Rémy, Van Gogh created 143 oil paintings and  100 drawings within one years’ time.

My aunt, Miss Talent, enjoying the grounds at St-Paul de Mausole.

Still today, patients create masterpieces in the form of painting and sculpture. They are for sale in the small shop that sits below Van Gogh’s old room.  It makes you wonder about undiscovered potential, perhaps within one of today’s artists living there.  After all, Vincent maybe earned $100 as an artist before he died.

The Irises, was also painted by Van Gogh at St-Paul de Mausole.   In 1987, it was the most expensive painting ever sold. Image courtesy of Google Images.

Our leader Kay read this quote as we pulled away from the site,

“The world concerns me only in so far as I have a certain debt and duty to it, because I have lived in it for thirty years and owe to it to leave behind some souvenir in the shape of drawings and paintings – not done to please any particular movement, but within which a genuine human sentiment is expressed.” ― Vincent van Gogh

I for one am very glad for his souvenirs.

Neuschwanstein Castle & Bavarian Landscapes

After a full day of beer drinking at Oktoberfest on Friday, we had opted to get out of Munich and do a little sightseeing on Saturday.  This was both a good and bad idea.    The good was that it prevented us from signing up for another day of beer drinking.   The bad was that we had to get up early and  navigate how to get to the little village we’d selected, all whilst suffering from a bout of cocktail fever.

Nevertheless, we boarded the correct train at the München Hauptbahnhof towards Fussen.   We marveled at the hoards of people coming in that day for Oktoberfest.

Our train. Direction Fussen.

Revelers, coming in from their villages, ready for the day. You’ll see some good examples of traditional German dress here.

Lederhosen and party hats.  Don’t these guys look like they are 16?

Notice the crates of beer they’d brought with them to consume on the train.

The scene made us glad we weren’t on those trains coming into Munich.   There wasn’t a seat to be had!    Our train was busy, yet seats were available.    We enjoyed the peaceful two hour ride through the Bavarian countryside.

Taking the train through Bavaria

We got off at Fussen and took a cab into the nearby village of  Hohenschwanau.   Towering above the town was the Schloss Hohenschwanau.   This19th Century castle was built by Maximillian II of Bavaria.   It is more famous nowadays for being the childhood home of King Ludwig II who built Neuschwanstein castle, the castle that Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty castle was modeled after.

View from town of Hohenschwanau

View from above of Hohenschwanau and the tiny village

Ludwig II built Neuschwanstein a stone’s leap away from his parent’s house, funded from his own fortune.    He built the castle as a tribute to Richard Wagner, the composer.  He wanted to make it feel like one of Wagner’s pieces had come to life in the castle, to make it a reality.   That, and he fancied living in the Middle Ages.  The castle helped bring these fantasies to life, creating a retreat which resembled Middle Age living, far outside the city of Munich.

Neuschwanstein castle

Sadly, King Ludwig II never was able to live inside his castle.   He was deposed of his throne due to mental incapacity and building stopped.   Only about one-third of the rooms were finished.   Shortly after, he died mysteriously in the shallow waters of a nearby lake.   There is speculation about the medical prognosis due to the sudden and unexplained nature of his death.  Some think that there was a conspiracy to take his crown.   Only the shallow waters know, I suppose.

We were able to tour the castle because Olga had pre-arranged tickets.   For those interested, I’d recommend her approach: buying tickets in advance.  You can only tour the castle with a reservation on one of the official tours.   When we arrived to pick up our reserved tickets, the wait was 4 1/2 hours to get a tour for those who had not.

Walking up to Neuschwanstein

The inside rooms that we saw were miraculous – amazing detail.  Ludwig was very creative in weaving the stories of Wagner’s operas into the artwork, carvings, and castle floors.

We weren’t able to take photos inside, but this photo is courtesy of wikipedia.

Ludwig even thought to construct a man-made cave that lead from his bedroom to his dressing room, to mimic a scene of a cave in one of the operas.   Olga mentioned this was the “original man cave” which drew a lot of chuckles from some of the guys on the tour.

Image courtesy of wikipedia

After the tour, we took a lovely walk through the fall foliage and stood on Marienbrücke, Mary’s bridge, to take pictures.  The bridge is a 15 minute walk from the castle.  If you end up not being able to tour the castle, we would still recommend getting the vantage point from Mary’s bridge.  It was pretty awesome.

Mary’s bridge is the little white horizontal line in the center of the photo. Sorry our point-and-shoot camera isn’t the best at focusing.

This shaky little bridge made me a bit nervous, especially after looking down!

Heidi, Olga, Gabe and me on Mary’s Bridge.

We followed our experience by drinking some King Ludwig beer at the little restaurant Bräustübert, underneath the castles.  As we’d hiked a mile on a steep uphill, had a tour, and made a stop at the bridge, all within lunch hour, we really were ready for some delicious German food.  We all got some form of sausage or schnitzel which did the job of satiating our hungry bellies, along with the delicious beer.

My schnitzel and weissbeir. A good lunch.  

Basilica Cistern

The day before our departure, I mentioned to some Geneva friends that we were going to be traveling to Istanbul for a quick weekend getaway.  J, my friend from South Africa, enthusiastically recommended the underground cisterns that are somewhat underneath or nearby Hagia Sophia.

The Basilica Cistern was built in the 6th Century during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, so it is the same age as Hagia Sophia.   It was originally under a Basilica that no longer stands. It is said that 7000 slaves worked to build the site.

The purpose was to provide water for the Great Palace.  It even continued to provide the water source for Topkapi Palace after the Ottaman takeover in 1453.

The ceiling is supported by 336 marble columns. Historians believe many are ‘recycled’ from older buildings all over the Ottoman Empire.   The water-tight wall is 4 meters / 13 feet wide.   The cistern was filled with water from Belgrade Forest and was transported via aqueducts.   It can store 100,000 tons of water!

There was such a peaceful feeling in the cistern.   I delighted in the fact that there were huge fish still swimming around.   I also enjoyed the two mysterious Medusa head columns – one on its side and one upside down.

Gabe said it looked familiar when we walked through.   And, for good reason….this enchanting underground site was featured in James Bond From Russia with Love and The International.

There was not a lot about this site in our guidebooks, so I really appreciated the unique recommendation.

The Blue Mosque

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is most commonly called “The Blue Mosque” because of the 20,000 handmade blue-colored tiles that decorate the interior of its dome.

It was built by Sultan Ahmed from 1609-1616 so is around 400 years old.    The mosque dominates the skyline of Sultanmet.  One of my books said that if Sultan Ahmed could see how many hotels advertise “Blue Mosque” views, then he would be pleased.  His intention was to build a structure more magnificent than Hagia Sophia.

Tourists are allowed to go in, as long as it is not a worship time.  We visited Sunday between their worship services, which occur five times daily.

They have scarfs and skirts to borrow if you aren’t dressed in accordance to the requirements for the mosque which require modest attire and no shoes.  I’d dressed in a longer dress that covered my knees and had cap sleeves, based on my typical preparation for Italy.  I also brought a scarf for a head wrap, hearing from friends that they are required.   However, both Gabe and I had to borrow Velcro “skirts” to make sure our legs were covered.

The tile/dome was quite beautiful.  However, I think Hagia Sophia was more impressive to me based on the fact it was built 1000 years before.   The fact it was the first dome of its kind still wows me.

It happened to be the last night of Ramadan when we were in Istanbul.  We thought Istanbul was busy before, but as night fell on Saturday indicating the end of the 30 day period of daytime fasting, the city came alive.   Since 99% of the Turkish population is Muslim, literally everyone was out and about.

The light sign on Blue Mosque reads, “Say Goodbye to Ramadan”

Hagia Sophia

From our hotel room at Burckin, we had a lovely view of Hagia Sophia, standing out in the Sultanmet skyline.

Hagia Sophia at night, from our room

View of Hagia Sophia at breakfast

 

Hagia Sophia, meaning Divine Wisdom, has a very interesting past.   Three churches have held the name on the very same spot.   The Hagia Sophia that stands today was finished in the year 537, during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian.  It is the oldest church in the world, and was also the largest church in the world for 1000 years, until Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520.

It was a Christian church for most of its existence, but in the 1453 Fall of Constantinople (Istanbul was previous named for Constantine), it was converted to a mosque by Sultan Mehmed II.

Turkey’s first president, Ataturk, secularized it and converted the Istanbul gem to a museum, re-opening it in 1935, as it was a treasure for both Muslims and Christians based on its rich historical past.

What is most striking to me is the dome.   This amazing feat in Byzantine style is said to have changed the history of architecture.  I had flashbacks to 6th grade when we all had to attempt to build a dome in model-size.  Our teacher had given us this exercise to show us how difficult it is to construct this type of structure.  I can’t imagine the talent and skill it took back in the 6th Century.   1000 skilled tradesman and 10,000 workers were needed to complete Hagia Sophia.

And….it was magnificent to walk beneath it.

We had the opportunity to walk up a winding ramp to the top to get a different angle.

Hagia Sophia falls at the toop of my impressive religious structures list we have seen.  Others making the list are:

  • The Duomo of Florence
  • The Duomo of Milan
  • The Duomo of Siena
  • Lyon’s Basilica
  • The Emerald Buddha & surrounding temples at Grand Palace, Bangkok
  • Notre Dame in Paris

Impressed with Hagia Sophia

Canal Wars: The best canals in Europe?

Having visited and re-visited some of the best canal towns in Europe this summer, I thought I would share our thoughts on the highlights of each.

My ranking scale is done with 10 being a good rating and 1 being a bad rating.

Venice

The entire city is an island full of canals.

The grand canal in Venice

There really is nothing like Venice.  So, it really is a must-do in your lifetime. However, since everyone has it on their bucket list, it is over-crowded, and with the typical summer heat, it can be quite claustrophobic.

Uniqueness:                 10 – there is nothing like it in the world

Quaintness:                  5 – when you get into the back canals, this score could improve to a 7 or 8

Crowdedness:               1 – awful.  When mixed with heat, it’s a -1!

Ability to live there:     2 – couldn’t deal with crowds

Tips: Venice is best seen in the evening, when the sun is setting.  This provides both a more refreshing experience as the heat is less, as well as there is a decrease in some of the cruise ship travelers.  For the budget conscious, take vaporetti #1 or #2 (public transportation boat) and vie for a place on the edge.   Big spenders could go for a evening gondola but this sets you back around 200 euros or $250 USD.  In two trips to Venice, I still haven’t ‘invested’ in this, as I don’t think it is worth the price.

Amsterdam

Dark wooded and chock full of 17th century gabled architecture, this city is romantic and beautiful.   When you add the adorable local shops and restaurants lining its cross streets, its downright perfect.

Amsterdam in the Fall. I have painted this scene three times :)

Uniqueness:                   9

Quaintness:                   8

Crowdedness:                8 in Fall, 4 in Summer

Ability to live there:     9, I’d move there in a heartbeat

Tips:  I favored Amsterdam in the fall, when the leaves had fallen and we had better views of the charming architecture when strolling or biking down the canal.   This most recent trip, we took a summer canal tour, which was average.  I far preferred biking down the canals as the best way to see the the beauty and character of this city. 

Burano, Italy

This little island is off of Venice, but it is so different that I thought I would include it as a separate town.

Colorful Burano

Uniqueness:                   7

Quaintness:                   7

Crowdedness:                7 in Summer

Ability to live there:     5, too hot and isolated

Tips:  Quieter than its neighbor, this picturesque canal island is a nice side trip from Venice.   You can catch a boat that is included with the vaporetti pass. 

Brugge

Tiny and medieval, this city makes you say the word “cute” at least 10 times an hour.

Brugge is so CUTE!

Uniqueness:                  8

Quaintness:                   9.5

Crowdedness:                7, wasn’t that bad, even in the summer

Ability to live there:      8 – I’d adore a home on the canal.  But it’s a small town and maybe it could get mundane quickly without big-city appeal & activities?  Plus, I wouldn’t be able to fit in my pants with all the chocolate, fries, beer and waffles!

Notes: our favorite time was walking the canals at dusk, as the sun was setting.   The reflections were magical and ideal for photography. We did a canal tour the following day, but in the middle of the afternoon, it wasn’t as cool as a relaxing stroll our evening before.   

Copenhagen

A merge of classical and modern forward-thinking Danish design, this city was hip and fashionable while maintaining its priority one – Mother Earth.

Copenhagen’s Nyhavn harbor

Uniqueness:                   8

Quaintness:                    5

Crowdedness:                9 – not at all crowded

Ability to live there:      7– I could do it, Danes are said to be the most content people in the world

Tips:  this city had a few canals but was more completely surrounded by a vast body of water vs. small canals.   The architecture and vibe were cool and fresh, but cute/quaint is best reserved for neighboring Amsterdam and Brugge.   We did a canal tour which was a great way to see the city since a lot of it isn’t accessible by walking/biking.

The Verdict

As you can see, the ultimate decision is up to you, depending on how your preferences.    If you love fresh, clean, and green – Copenhagen should be your destination.   If you don’t mind crowds & souvenir stands, for unrivaled uniqueness, go Venice.    For a romantic & charming locale, Brugge is the best pick.   For vibrant color, sunny weather, and photo ops, Burano is a great choice.   And for the most character and culture, I’d always select Amsterdam in the Fall.