Sign Hacking in Florence

Next time you visit Florence, take a look up. No, not straight up to the top of the grand dome of the Duomo, or of the fluttering rows of laundry hanging out the windows. Look at the street signs. Since the summer of 2010, Clet Abraham has been plastering stickers to the cities signs, turning something that wouldn’t get a second glance into art.

I happened to notice one sign in passing while roaming the streets of Florence. And then another and another. And then I got interested. And then one rainy morning, I stopped at another sign. Trying to figure out why the camera wouldn’t let me adjust the aperture, Kristin wandered across the street and hit the jackpot. Apparently we just so happened to stop right in front of Clet’s studio on the north bank of Florence.

The young girl inside told us Clet’s story- a french painter and sculptor who’s lived in Italy for the last 20 years. His medium is varied, but in recent years has become semi-famous in different communities for these redesigned street signs.

So often when you travel you find yourself in museums looking at old art or on the street looking at old buildings. But which locals are making their mark right here and now? Who knows, in twenty years people might be flocking to Florence to see Clet. Just remember, you saw it here first.

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People Watching In Pisa

What would it have been if the tower wasn’t leaning? If they decided to destroy it after the first story sank halfway into the ground? How much does tourism do for a city? Why are people so excited by the novelty but in all the excitement they end up acting and doing like everyone else? Would Pisa still exist to travelers without the tower? Would people come to see the city itself? Or would it just turn into a sleepy Italian town filled with more history than tourists?

I guess we will never know because they continued to build it despite the tilt. And when they pushed for stabilization their only condition was that it would still be leaning. I guess it’s safe now, at least for the next 200 years. So get your picture with it while you still can.

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Stop! This is the Empire of Death.

Buried underneath the crowds of Parisians sipping on espresso in neighborhood cafés are miles and miles of tunnels. In the 14th century, the Parisians mined for valuable stones under their very feet, but by the 18th century these underground quarries had long since been forgotten.

As the tunnels lay empty there was a new problem above ground. The Cemetary of Innocents had been in use for nearly ten centuries. Obviously, over this amount of time overcrowding became an issue as much for the cemetery as for the health of the locals who lived around it. In 1785, the city shut the Cemetary down and found a new use for the long abandoned quarries- a new kind of graveyard, now know as the Paris Catacombs.

The bodies were always moved at night- carts of bones covered in black veils, priests singing service to the dead along the way. In all, there’s six to seven million people stacked under the streets of Paris. Artfully arranged five or six feet tall with rows of skulls in between more and more bones. And more spectacularly, since the early 1800’s, it’s been open to the eyes of the public.

We took the walk, eyes wide. Here’s what we saw.

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Translation: Stop! This is the Empire of Death.

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Essential Info

The Paris Catacombs can be found in Square Claude-Nicolas-Ledoux in the 14th arrondissement. It is open daily from 10 – 5 (with last entry at 4) except for Mondays and public holidays. It’s 130 steps down to the 2km long walk and 83 steps back up. €8 entry.

My Monet

Considering the family of artists that I come from you’d think I’d be all over Paris, reciting little know facts of monuments, paintings, relics. But museums have never really stirred me. I struggled through an art history class in college, but all that I’ve learned seems to have left me. As I stared at the Arc de Triomphe my vague memories left nothing for even a crumb of conversation. I couldn’t have had less of a want to get lost in the Louvre for a day. But my conscience started getting the best of me- ‘You were in Paris and didn’t go to the Louvre?!’ I know, I know. But it’s not for everyone and maybe it’s not for me either.

It’s too much. Too big, too overwhelming, too many things to look at, too much history to know to make it meaningful, just too. I need something a little more manageable, a little more me.

And that’s where Monet comes in, or rather, his house. Turns out, Monet lived for much of his life in Giverny, about an hour train ride west of Paris. For me this was my Louvre. A beautiful house (green as the garden), a beautiful garden (as bright as the flowers), some lily pads skimming softly on top of the water and the weeping willows doing what they do, hanging how they hang. This was something I could get excited about; this was something I couldn’t miss.

Slowly, I’ve found, I’m more interested in the backstory – the leading up to it: art, writing, anything – than the actual work itself. To create a great work, you must be inspired, or experience something that breaks open a new world in your head. What is it for the great artists? How did they see the world? Where did they come from? What did their parents do? Their brothers and sisters? What did they choose to study? What did they choose not to study? What did they believe? What did they collect? What did they do when they were bored? Where did it all start and what can I learn from that? And how did all of ‘this’ manifest in their work (painting, drawing, sculpture, novel, short story, musical score, photograph, performance, whatever it may be)?

I’m not sure what my visit to Monet’s house has taught me yet. Maybe it’s how to design a house, an inspiration to learn to garden (even though my thumb is definitely the opposite of green), a better understanding of color palettes, a reminder to find inspiration in the unfamiliar (Monet collected Japanese tiles and paintings, but never actually made it to Japan), and the list could go on, etc. The lesson could be any of those things. Maybe it’s a building block, creating a foundation for another experience, or maybe it’s a mess of all of them. Whatever will come of it, I look forward to pulling these lessons from what is now my past into some kind of significance in the future.

The Green Garden

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The Water Garden

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The House

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Around Vernon & Giverny

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Pick the right day:

– Open from April through October from 9:30am to 6:00pm
– Standard entry (house & garden) is €9.50

Make your way:

– Take the high speed direct train from Paris St. Lazare to Vernon (€13.90 one way)
– From Vernon you can:
+shuttle bus (~€7 round trip)
+walk the 5km
+rent bicycles (€12 each/all day) at one of the shops across the street from the train station

*We rented bicycles and it was a lot of fun. Those give you the added bonus of being able to make your way easily around Vernon or Giverny after visiting Monet*

Getting Familiar with Life on the Road: London Edition

Hyde Park - London, England

There are plenty of people out there that have turned travel into a lifestyle. Endlessly wandering from destination to destination for the best unknown restaurant, hidden alley, or secret spot. These are the people that get offended if they’re called a tourist instead of a traveler- because they’re on the road for something bigger than passport stamps and pictures of Big Ben. These are the people that will offer advice to newbies like us: travel slowly and get off the beaten path. Seems cliche.

But we ignored that advice in London. We walked for hours and hours around to every big site in town. We walked down the South Bank, through the Tate Modern, and sat under the London Eye. We ate our way through Borough Market, stuffing ourselves with smoothies, lentil soup, a roast beef sandwich, a duck confit sandwich, and topped it all off with Turkish coffee and baklava. We went on the hunt for fish and chips and lounged around Trafalgar Square people watching and dodging pigeons. And we drank beer at an old English pub.

We followed the guidebooks in London and all I got were sore feet (and I think I did something to my hip too). I was left feeling like Lonely Planet must be missing something and those well-trodden travelers must be right. The best parts of a trip aren’t written in a guidebook. They are the easily missed, random encounters, and hidden experiences you’ll find by just wandering around. By going slowly.

As it turns out, my favorite memory of London isn’t found within any of the above mentioned excursions. My favorite memory of London was a string of serendipity that happened on the first day we arrived.

Jet-lagged on our first day in London we spent a few hours lounging around the Round Pond in Hyde Park waiting for our room at the hostel to open up. There are stacks of chairs for people to use for a lunchtime picnic or afternoon nap. So we took a seat and just sat there. Watching people walk by, kids running around laughing and playing, and lots and lots of bike riders.

While Kris was busy snapping photos of the lawn chairs, I saw him. The most British guy I’ve ever seen in my life. A slightly rounder Mr. Bean with his brown suit and combed over hair. Perfectly shined shoes, a messenger bag, and scarf, riding his matching 30 year old bike through the park. With no one else as witness to this British spectacle, I felt alone in my amazing British experience. Until later that night . . .

Because when we got back to the hostel we loaded up pictures of the day. And there, as we were flipping through pictures of pavilions and lawn chairs, was Mr. Bean. In perfect alignment and perfectly timed, staring right at us. We’ll never get a better picture by chance.

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We were so, so lucky on this pleasant, sunny afternoon in London.

Getting In and Around London

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I should get into the habit of writing a post like this before we arrive at our destination. But no. It wasn’t until we wasted a few bucks getting into London that I realized that researching transportation options is a good idea. So here it is. To help others figure their way around and avoid my mistakes.

Getting In

Airports

London Heathrow is is London’s largest airport and most likely destination if you’re coming from across the pond. It pushes 70 million people around every single year, making it the third busiest airport in the world.

Once you’ve arrived you’ll have a few rail options to get into central London:

  1. Heathrow Express – the fastest train into town, leaving every 15 minutes and taking just 15 minutes to get to Paddington. The speed will cost you though – £20 one-way (~$32 at the time of this post) and £34 return.
  2. Heathrow Connect – this is what we ended up taking. Not because it’s the best option, but because we didn’t know what we were doing. It runs every 30 minutes and is a 25 minute ride. £9.50 one-way.
  3. Piccadilly Underground – the first choice for getting into town for the budget traveler. Departs from terminals 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 and takes just under an hour. £5.50 Cash and £3.00 on an Oyster Card (read more about the Oyster Card below).

Chances are you may also fly into on of London’s other major airports. Since I’m no expert on travel from these airports, I’ll just point you in the right direction. But from whatever airport you transfer from, only take a taxi if you’ve got money to blow.

Train Stations

If you’re coming from Paris or Brussels, the Eurostar is a great option. This high speed train will have you whizzing through the country side at nearly 200mph, under the water through the Channel Tunnel, and into London St. Pancras in about 2 hours from either city. If you’re flexible on days and times, you’ll find a good deal. We paid the lowest advertised fare of $66 one-way by adding a day to our London stay and leaving around 6pm on a Monday.

Getting Around

Underground

We were shocked at the price of a tube ride when we first saw it. £4.50 cash for just one ride. That’s over $7! How do these Brits afford this?

Well there are some better options. And they all involve the Oyster Card. Plan on getting one no matter what. It will pay for itself in just one ride. In fact, they are free if you’re willing to stand in line to return the card when you leave London in order to get back your £5 deposit.

Give some thought to how much you may travel by train around town. It’s you’re most viable option and if you’re moving fast like us, you’ll easily fit in 6 to 8 trips a day. And you’ll likely stay around the central part of the city keeping you in Zones 1-2 on the fare charts. Keep that in mind as you weigh your options.

  1. Option 1: Pay As You Go – Pay for every trip that you take. Reduces the trip cost to £2.10 in Zone 1 and £2.80 in Zone 1-2 as compared to cash.
  2. Option 2: Buy a 1 Day Anytime Travelcard – a one-day pass will cost you £8.80 in Zones 1-2.
  3. Option 3: Buy a 7 Day Travelcard – will put you back £30.40 in Zones 1-2.
  4. Option 4: Buy a Visitor Oyster Card – don’t do this. It’s for folks that want to be super prepared and have a card in hand before they visit London. It works on a pay as you go system and is no better than buying an Oyster Card when you get to London.

Now do the math based on the costs above.

  • A 7 Day Travelcard is better than a 1 Day Travelcard if you’ll be in London for 4 days or more.
  • A 1 Day Travelcard is better than pay as you go if you plan on taking 4 or more trips a day in Zones 1-2 and 5 or more trips a day in Zone 1.
  • Otherwise, just add some credit to your Oyster Card and plan on getting a refund on your remaining funds and your deposit once you leave town.

Bicycle

Just before we left Chicago, we saw the Divvy bike stands literally pop up overnight. Around every other corner was a shared bike stand to allow tourists and locals alike to cruise through the city at reasonable rates.

London’s got a Barclays sponsored system and here’s how it works:

  1. Decide on the time period you may want to use the bike share system. 24 hours – £2, 7 days – £10, and Annual – £90.
  2. Find a bike stand and decide where you are going.
  3. Don’t plan on riding these bikes all around town.
  4. Keep it under a 30 minute ride to avoid additional costs to the access charges you already paid. If you go over 30 minutes, plan on giving up some additional dough. Between 30 minutes and 1 hour – £1, Up to 1 hour and 30 minutes – £4, Up to 2 hours – £6, Up to 2 hours and 30 minutes – £10, Up to 3 hours – £15, Up to 6 hours – £35, Up to 24 hours – £50, and Over 24 hours – £150.

Take a look at those additional charges closely. The costs go up significantly the longer you keep the bike. There’s a reason for this. These bikes are meant for point to point transportation and not leisurely rides around town. Use it to get to where you need to go, drop it off at another bike rack, and pick up another one when you’re ready to move along.

Used the right way, biking around town can be cheaper than one ride on the tube and a whole lot more fun. Be safe!