Florence Photo Dump

via our Facebook page:

Florence Photo Dump

Lots of great art, and some of the best food in Italy

@ http://www.facebook.com/pages/p/190184244496819

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Rome Photo Dump

via our Facebook page:

Photo dump!

Rome is an awesome city, there is just so much history packed into one place. We’ve felt like our entire trip (the history of all the places we’ve been to) has been based around the rise and fall of the Roman empire. It’s surreal and feels like a completely separate dimension, but nope, it actually happened here!

This past week we’ve been to ruins, catacombs, more churches (I don’t think I can get sick of those), museums, and walked through medieval streets. Bernini is everywhere! We watched an opera rehearsal and a Baroque concert. And we found our favorite gelato place.

We’ll try and write more blog posts when we can!

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The RomaPass – Cost-Savings Analysis

by Karen

In Paris, we purchased the Paris Museum Pass to visit an unlimited number of museums within 6 days, and thought it was our best purchase there. We heard that Rome had something similar, called the RomaPass, and decided to get one. Unfortunately, its rules and usage is not as clear as the Paris pass.

Whereas the Paris Museum Pass allows you to visit any (listed) museum for an unlimited number for times during a set period, the Roma Pass has these rules:

– costs 34€ per person
– activated on your first visit to any site or first use of public transportation, expires at midnight on the third consecutive day
– unlimited use of public transportation (a 16.50€ value)
– allows you to visit your first two museums/attractions for free
– any museum you visit AFTER your first two freebies are subject to a discounted entrance fee
– allows you to skip lines at some museums (not necessary in early December, but I’d imagine crucial in peak season)
– all major attractions & museums are covered, EXCEPT anything inside Vatican City (it’s not a part of Rome!)

Now, this sounds like a really great deal! That is, until you look at the admission fees for these attractions & museums, as well at the cost of public transportation: this stuff’s already pretty cheap! And the discounted prices to museums aren’t really significant. So did we end up saving money buying a Roma Pass?

Here are the general costs of public transportation (as of Dec 2013):
– Single ride ticket: 1.50€
– 1-day Metro pass: 6.00€ (4 rides)
– 3-day Metro pass: 16.50€ (11 rides)
– 7-day Metro pass: 24.00€ (16 rides)

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VIGAMUS – Rome’s neat little video game museum

by Karen

After spending a whole week walking amongst ruins, it was time for a change of pace. We’d heard that there was a video game museum in Rome after looking up Groupons earlier this year. We missed the sale, but still thought it would be fun to go and check out the place.

Onward, to VIGAMUS!
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For those interested, the closest Metro station is Lepanto, close to the Vatican. It’s about a 15-20 minute walk from the station. VIGAMUS is located in the basement of a non-descript office building, but fortunately there was a small banner outside the front door. You’ll also be greeted by a life-sized statue of Katniss Everdeen Lara Croft in the reception area.
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Admission is 8€ per person, and includes unlimited usage of their “interactive areas” (i.e., console & arcade setups), and there is no time limit. They do close at 8pm though. You also get a free membership card that grants you reduced admission for future visits as well as discounts in their store.
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The museum is dedicated to the history of videogames, from the 1960s to early 1980s. It has neat and interesting displays about how videogames started and became popular before, during, and after the crash.
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What is interesting is that the exhibits also slightly focuses on European contributions to the rise of video games in the 70s-80s. Most of the time you hear of American or Japanese contributions, but who knew that the British also produced a console to rival the Commodore 64? (I didn’t, at least!) Many consoles and games are also displayed throughout the hall.
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It doesn’t dwell too much upon modern gaming and systems (since that is substantially covered nowadays by plenty of sources), but they do have display cases with paraphernalia donated by several game studios worldwide.
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Currently, there is an exhibit sponsored by Ubisoft for Assassin’s Creed Black Flag and how it relates to actual world history. There is also an art exhibit featuring sketches and drawings from Grasshopper Manufacture’s various games.
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The biggest highlight for me was the Oculus Rift room. There were several stations set up for people to try the Rift, each with a different demo. I was worried about getting motion sickness, so I skipped the roller coaster demo and opted for the Breakout-ish game demo instead. It was pretty fun, I wish I had more time experimenting with it.
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All in all, if you like video games, their history, and want a small break from ancient ruins and Baroque architecture, this museum is a nice change of pace. We spent 1.5 hours there, and felt rushed, I think another hour would’ve made it even more enjoyable. Although it depends on how much time you’d want to devote to the “interactive areas”. They were actually decently-sized rooms, I had counted 5 of them with various console setups and arcade cabinets.
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Getting lost in the streets of Marrakech

by Karen

Our first full day of Marrakech, we had a simple breakfast of cereal, yogurt, and breads. One of the breads was a flat bread that reminded me of the roti that I’d used to eat as a kid in Malaysia.
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Our guide picked us up at 10 and we proceeded to head out on our half-day tour of Marrakech. The guide was assigned to us by a local company that caters to one-on-one tours of interesting sights of their choosing. Our guide spoke pretty good English, though I had trouble hearing over street noise. We had a choice of going to the north side of the city closest to our riad, which was the markets, or the south side, featuring palaces and a cemetary. We chose the south.

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Our guide hooked us up with a taxi and we were on our way. During the ride he pointed out various buildings of importance, and explained a bit about Islamic culture. Our first stop was in a cemetary for kings. He explained that kings were buried in the capital city during the time of their death, so a few kings were buried in Marrakech (Rabat is currently the capital of Morocco).

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Some quick facts:
– Islamic art features lots of geometric shapes instead of people, so as not to worship idols or images other than god
– Green is a religious color, symbolizing Paradise (which is filled with green grass)
– The dead are buried sideways for efficiency, so bodies don’t have to be measured as much and can be buried ASAP without spectacle.
– Graves are unlabeled except for stones denoting the gender of the deceased. As our guide put it, the dead are dead, there should be no difference in how they are treated from other dead beings
– Cremation is thought to be painful for the soul, at least our guide thought being burned was more painful than being eaten by maggots (the dead can “feel”)

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After the cemetary we walked through more winding roads and came upon a “palace”. It was actually an old French military building (Morocco used to be a French “protectorate”). The architecture was simply beautiful. Many of the doors and rooves were made of cedarwood, with intricate carvings on them. Tiles were arranged in symmetrical geometric patterns.

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The walls are generally made of plaster since they are easier to maintain, and the floors made of tile because they are easier to clean. Many walls had engravings of the Koran etched on a downward angle, so it wouldn’t get so dusty and hard to clean.

Doors are built outside of frames and are secured by outside hinges because it is more difficult to build them in arched doorways, and it takes up more space.
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After touring the building, our guide took us through more winding streets until we came to a large square–the heart of Marrakech, Jemaa-el-Fna. It was a giant marketplace, a complete sensory overload. And our tour guide pretty much dumped us there, without much direction on how to get back, other than a bus number, and the name of the stop. Without a way to call our riad, and with no wi-fi to figure out where we were, we were somewhat stranded. We did manage to find our bus and get off on the correct stop. But then we were really screwed.
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We thought getting lost in Paris was bad–getting lost in the middle of Marrakech with no street signs or familiar landmarks or any semblance of main roads was worse! We were in the middle of a small square that split off into 4 different directions, none of them looking very familiar.
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We were approached by a young man offering to show us the way, so we told him the name of the riad and followed him down a road–our first mistake! It didn’t look familiar at all, and he wanted some change for it. We told him we needed to get change, so he said “follow me” and started walking ahead. We quickly turned around and ran back towards the direction we had come.

After walking down a slightly more familiar path (“hey, that door looks familiar”), we managed to find our way back. Great, we thought, now that we know how to get home, let’s go back and take some pictures of important landmarks in case we get lost again.
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Another young man noticed we were taking pictures and said he could help us find a way. We already knew our way home, so we said “No”. There was an old guy sitting at a shop nearby laughing, and I said “Salam”, and he was happy I said something in Arabic, so he told me that today my name was “Fatima” and Mark’s name was “Sayeed”. The young man wanted to show us a mosque where we could take photos, and the old man gave his blessing, so we said why not. We followed him, found the mosque, and took photos.
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“Now you pay me 100 dirhams.”

Ah. We fell for it hook line and sinker. To be honest, we didn’t have any bills smaller than 500DH, and we didn’t want to give him anything bigger, so we told him we had no cash. He argued with us the whole way home, calling us crazy, shouting at us, and insisting that we give him money. We offered him all our coins, but he wanted bills. We got back to the shop with the old man, who smiled and shook his head with a look of “just ignore him.” As we walked back to our riad, he cursed us and turned around and left. It was actually a bit stressful, but our riad hostess assured it was a common occurrence, that it was best to not give them money to discourage their behavior.
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After a bit of rest, we chatted with our hostess and she gave us a map (yay!) and directions on where to go and eat. As we walked down the street towards the square, we noticed some new graffiti near our riad that said “CRAZY CHINEES”. We eventually did bump into our “friend” again, and this time we gave him 20DH (the equivalent of $2.45) to leave us alone. He happily accepted it and went on his merry way. Lesson learned–don’t follow strangers, and don’t look so lost!

Now that we had a map, we were very careful about where we’d bring it out. Whenever we’d get lost, we’d find a bank or post office, go inside, and ask a security guard for directions. Bringing out a map or looking lost on the street causes young men everywhere to descend upon us like vultures, offering to show us where to go (of course, they all assume to know where we are going). We think it’s a ploy to get us even more lost, so we have to pay them to take us back out.

The rest of the day went by pretty smoothly, now that we had better directions and followed straight paths. After a few winding roads and ignoring cries of “this way, follow me!” and “where are you going?”, by sunset we found our way back to the giant square again.
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We ate at a restaurant facing the square called Chegourani, recommended by our hostess. The prices were reasonable, and the food was amazing. We had chicken, raisin, and almond tajine, along with Moroccan soup and some veggie couscous. I noticed how in all the cities we’ve been to so far, our favorite foods involved Middle Eastern or Arabic cuisines (our favorite meal in London was Lebanese; in Paris it was Turkish). We washed it down with some strong Moroccan mint tea (needed a lot of sugar), and watched the crowds pop up as the sun went down.
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After dinner, we decided to get lost in the souks. There was just so much color everywhere. We must’ve wandered around for hours, the stalls went on for miles in every direction. Eventually we decided to go back to our riad (but not without getting slightly lost). Thankfully, the photos we took of important landmarks during the day came very much in handy, as they helped us find our way home.
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Paris – Musée Carnavalet

by Mark

via our Facebook page:

Musée Carnavalet is a haphazard assortment of Parisian history. However it displays one of my favorite museum rooms in Paris, a replica of Alphonse Mucha’s jewlery shop.

With Mucha art nouveau explosion writhing through every centimeter of the room, I had to take pictures of everything.

Links to interactive 360 panoramas:
http://360.io/ZuyckX
http://360.io/Z5gUpM

@ http://www.facebook.com/pages/p/190184244496819

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Paris Museums – Passes, Costs, Audioguides, and Scheduling

by Karen

Paris Museum Pass
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Mark & I ended up getting a 6-day Paris Museum pass for 69€. With it, you can go to any one of the 60 museums listed in their pamphlet, and there are a lot of major ones in there. I think the pass is well worth it, if you plan on going to a lot of museums, but you should probably figure out the costs before going. The pass is also sold as a 2-day (29€) pass and a 4-day (49€) pass. Even if you are a few euros shy of making up the cost of the pass, the convenience of skipping ticket lines altogether or going through a “fast lane” will help convince you of its value (you’re only in Paris for a limited amount of time, and your time is very valuable!).

Sometimes, a museum will have a special, temporary exhibition. Your Paris Museum Pass may or may not allow you free access into the exhibition as well, so it doesn’t hurt to stroll up to the exhibition bouncer and flash your pass.

You can buy your pass ahead of time online, but we bought it in Paris a few days before we used it. They are sold at major train stations (like Gare du Nord, look specifically for a tourist info booth), or at the museums themselves (look online for info). We were fortunate that one of our residences was near a museum on the list (Musée de Arts et Métiers), and it’s a small and quiet museum, so there was no fuss to get one. I wouldn’t recommend getting one at the major museums (i.e., Louvre) unless you go super early. There will be long lines for it as well.

When you get the pass (it’s really a thick pamphlet folded up to the size of a business card), you’ll see there’s a place to write your name and the date. DO NOT WRITE IN THE DATE. As soon as you write in the date, the pass is “activated”. Rather, you can just present your pass at the museum and someone will stamp it for you.
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Cost Savings Analysis

Here’s the breakdown of costs for each individual museum we attended whose admission is covered by the pass:
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Thus, if we hadn’t bought a museum pass, we would’ve had to pay a total of 102€ for all our entrance fees (I didn’t include the museums where we got in for free).

We had planned to go to three more museums as well, but we were just too tired so we decided to take an off-day. But even in 5 days, we’ve more than made up the cost of our passes.

(Note: If you are under 26 years old, these prices don’t apply to you, you’ll probably get in for free to all museums in Paris. Double-check to make sure!)

Free Museums / Attractions

Worth having its own section. These are all free to the public, and no pass is required:
– Musée Carnavalet, a museum about the history of Paris
– Notre-Dame Cathedral (not the Tower)
– Sacre-Coeur Basilica
– The Tuileries Gardens
– Walking around (but not going up) the Eiffel Tower
– Musée des Arts et Métiers (free after 6pm on Thursdays only)

Scheduling Our 6 Days

It is worth noting that different museums in Paris close on certain days, particularly Mondays & Tuesdays. You will have to check each museum’s schedule.

In addition, some of the same museums are open late on different days, so you will want to check on that too. Here is an incomplete list:

– Louvre – Open til 9:45p Weds & Fri
– Arc de Triomphe – Open til 10:20p daily
– Musée Rodin – Open til 8:45p Weds
– Musée d’Orsay – Open til 9:45p Thurs
– Musée des Arts et Métiers – Open til 9:45p Thurs

In order to fully take advantage of these hours (the term “min-maxing” comes to mind), we structured our schedule as thus:

Day 1, Sunday – Louvre (full-day), Arc de Triomphe (1hr)
Day 2, Monday – Louvre (full-day), Sacre-Coeur
Day 3, Tuesday – Notre-Dame Tower, Notre-Dame Crypts, Cluny Off-day
Day 4, Wednesday – Musée de l’Armée (5hrs), Musée Rodin (2.5hrs)
Day 5, Thursday – Musée l’Orangerie (4hrs), Musée d’Orsay (5hrs)
Day 6, Friday – Versailles (full-day)
Previous week: Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame Cathedral, Musée des Arts et Métiers (free)

On days when museums were open late, we’d schedule half a day for one museum, and go to the other museum at night. It was a system that worked pretty well, since many museums usually close around 5pm.

There were other museums that we found interesting that weren’t covered by the pass; however, we didn’t go to them for lack of time, and will probably try again when we come back:

– Paris Catacombs – 8€
– Museum of Erotica – 8€
– Montparnasse Tower – 12€

Skipping Lines
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One of the main draws of the pass was the ability for us to skip ticket lines. This is true for a majority of museums, but for others we still had to wait. You’re pretty much waiting for the metal detector and bag check more than anything, and in most places you can’t skip this.

In particular:
– Musée l’Orangerie – had to wait in line for an hour, there is a “fast lane” for passholders, but it merges with the regular line. (There was a temp special exhibition going on though, so tons of people around)
– Musée d’Orsay – Separate line in the back, maybe a 15 min wait
– Louvre – passholder entrance is in the underground mall (Carrousel du Louvre), just walk right in.

Audioguides

We used a few audioguides while we were in the museums, including our free Rick Steves guides.

Here’s a review of them:

– Louvre – OH GOD YES, rent the 3DS, best audioguide ever. Lasts 6hrs on one charge. Includes 3 excellent guided tours. It also knows where you are in the museum via magical wifi properties. We had our own. Rick Steves had a good guide for this too, but we loved the 3DS so much more.
– Orangerie – it was ok, the museum is fairly small, so it depends on whether you feel an audioguide is worth it. Uses a standard audioguide handset. We shared one.
– Orsay – an iPod touch, worth it, but battery life sucks, expect to go back to the station and exchange your machine every few hours. The UI could be a bit better. We each had our own. Rick Steves’ podcast is very outdated, as the rooms have changed, but you can still listen to his commentary on the pieces, which are out of order.
– Armée – also an iPod touch, battery life sucked, had to exchange 3x. While it was good for the medieval armor section, it was not very good for the Louis XIV-Napoleon section (it essentially read the information placards throughout the museum, which are all readily available in English). We each had our own.
– Rodin – also a small museum, uses standard handset, but worth it, although we shared one.
– Versailles – it’s free, just get one! We used both Versailles’ official handset and Rick Steves’ guide, and both were pretty good.