What should you do while visiting this fabled city? Climb the Eiffel Tower, peruse great art at the Louvre, stroll along the Seine? Absolutely.
But in addition to the above, there is one more place you shouldn’t miss, the Musée d’Orsay.
What is The Musée d’Orsay?
The Musée d’Orsay was voted the best museum in the world by Trip Advisor’s Traveler’s Choice Award in 2018.
It is a marvel of Beaux-Art beauty that houses the world’s largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art.
With works from 1848-1914, the Musée d’Orsay bridges the gap between the works of the Louvre which span a mind-boggling 25 centuries, from the 6th century BC to the end of the 19th century, and the Museum of Modern Art, whose works span from 1905 to the present day.
From Train Station to Art Museum
The building was originally a train station called Gare d’Orsay. It was designed to get visitors to the site of the Universal Exhibition of 1900.
The Gare d’Orsay sat on the left bank of the Seine, across from the Tuileries and kitty-corner from the Louvre. Because of this auspicious location, the exterior was designed to blend in with the existing architecture.
By 1939 the station had become obsolete because of changes in train design. The building was used for various functions including as a mail center during WWII, a theater, and an auction house. Eventually, it was decided that it would become an art museum.
The museum was inaugurated on Dec 1, 1986. Thankfully the beautiful Beaux-Arts style was preserved.
The Louvre vs. Musée d’Orsay
I have been fortunate to visit the Louvre three times and hope to visit it again. I believe that anyone visiting Paris should experience the Louvre at least once. As the world’s largest art museum with a collection that spans so many centuries, you are sure to find something that interests you. But as much as I love visiting the Louvre, I enjoy the Musée d’Orsay more. This is why:
1. It is not intimidating. You can find your way around quite easily and take in a large part of the collection in one day.
Musée d’Orsay has 181,000 sq ft. (almost 17,000 sq. m.) of exhibition space while the Louvre has over 4 times as much. Because of its size, I have always felt a little lost at the Louvre.
To see all 35,000 items on display in the Louvre you would have to walk 9 miles. The Musée d’Orsay displays about 3,000 items at a time.
2. It is not as crowded as the Louvre even though it has over 3 million visitors per year, pandemics notwithstanding. The Louvre has over 10 million visitors per year. We visited Musée d’Orsay on a free day and we didn’t experience the cattle car feeling of the Louvre.
3. I can’t get enough of that gorgeous building.
A Few Pieces From the Collection
This is not the most well-known Starry Night, the one with 2/3 of the canvas filled with flowing and swirling stars and sky. That one can be seen in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Here is more information about these two paintings and the song Vincent by Don McLean.
When Steve and I began our full-time travels in 2018 the first two cities we visited were Barcelona and Paris. Talk about setting the bar high.
Between these two cities, three places ruined us for all others: La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona Versailles (near Paris) Cemetery Montmartre in Paris
You can read about why we think Cemetery Montmartre is the coolest cemetery in Paris here.
But right now it is my pleasure to share our impressions of The Palace and Estate of Versailles with you.
The Versailles We All Know
In 2005 I visited Paris with my daughter Stephanie as part of a school trip. One of the activities was a tour of the Palace of Versailles.
Our tour included the Palace and the Palace Gardens. We marveled at the over-the-top elegance including the hall of mirrors, heard the stories about people using the corners in the palace as restrooms during its heyday, and saw where Marie Antoinette gave birth in front of an audience. Here is an interesting article about royal birthing practices.
Then we spent some time in the palace’s gardens before heading back to Paris.
I came away from that experience amazed by the opulence and overwhelmed by the crowds. Little did I know that I had just scratched the surface of Versailles.
Estate of Versailles includes the Palace, the gardens, the park, the Trianon estate, and several buildings in town. It covers over 800 hectares or almost 2,000 acres.
A Second Look
Flash forward thirteen years to 2018. Steve and I spent a month in Paris as part of our new life as full-time travelers. We first visited Versailles as part of a bicycle tour on a dismal June day.
As we entered the grounds we were surrounded by open fields full a sheep!
We then proceeded to ride through the grounds where we visited the Trianon Estate, viewed several gardens, and enjoyed lunch on the patio at La Flottille.
At the end of our bicycle tour, we saw the Palace of Versailles. It was just as glorious as I remembered and it left a lasting impression on Steve. Every time we have visited a palace or grand home since then he says: “It’s not Versailles”. Indeed, not too many places can match the grandeur and mystique of this amazing building.
A Third Visit
Our tour through the palace during our bicycle tour had been rushed so we decided to go back on our own another day.
After we braved the crowds in the palace once more we spent the rest of the day exploring the grounds. Even after two days of visiting I feel as if we barely got to know it. We hope to one day return to the town of Versailles for an extended time and spend several days exploring the estate.
A (Very) Brief History of Versailles
This phenomenal place began as a simple hunting lodge for King Louis XIII. A small chateau was built on the site in 1624.
The construction of the palace began in 1661 under Louis XIV. The palace and its elaborate gardens were completed in 1710.
In 1687 King Louis XIV had the Grand Trianon Palace built on the palace grounds.
King Louis XV added the Petite Trianon Palace to the grounds in 1768.
In 1783, during the reign of Louis XVI the Queen’s Hamlet (Hameau de la Reine) was built.
The Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I between Germany and the Allies was signed in the Palace of Versaille in 1919.
The Trianon Estate
This section of the estate consists of 3 main areas described below: The Grand Trianon, The Petit Trianon, and The Queen’s Hamlet. The estate grew from the time of Louis XIII through Louis XVI. I find it hard to keep the Louis straight. I wish they had been more original when naming their heirs.
The Grand Trianon
This beautiful creation of pink marble and a type of rock called porphyry is located in the northwest corner of the estate. It was built in 1687 at the request of Louis XIV of France, who was known as The Sun King. He had it built as a place to escape the structures of life in the Palace of Versailles and spend time with his favorite mistress, Marquise de Montespan.
The Palace has two wings which each house a royal apartment. They are connected by a colonnade called The Peristyle.
The furnishings were lost during the French Revolution. They were replaced during the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. Those are mostly what you will see in the palace.
This page on the en.chateauversailles.fr website is full of fascinating information about this palace.
The Grand Trianon Palace in history:
On June 4, 1920, the Trianon Treaty was signed here. The treaty formally ended World War I between most of the Allies of World War I and the Kingdom of Hungary. The result was that Hungary lost 70% of its land and all of its seaports. It remains a source of sorrow and anger for Hungarians a century later. Learn more about that in the article Hungary: Why is the Trianon Treaty So Controversial? from Kafkadesk.
From 1963 – 1966 the Grand Trianon was restored for use by President Charles de Gaulle.
The Petit Trianon
In the mid-1700s King Louis XV decided to build a chateau in the middle of his gardens. The three-story neoclassical building was completed in 1768. When Louis XV died in 1774 Louis XVI ascended the throne. He gifted the Petit Trianon to his wife, Marie-Antoinette.
The young queen used the Petit Trianon to escape the formality and demands of royal life. It is reported that she was in the garden in October of 1789 when first told of the armed crowd that would force the royal family to Paris during the early part of the French Revolution.
For one year, from 1794-1795, the furniture, artwork, and other valuables were auctioned off.
During the revolution the building was used as a hostel and a tavern, causing it to fall into disrepair. The building was restored by Napoleon I to be used by his sister and by the Empress Marie-Louise.
A century after The Grand Trianon Palace was built, a model village was added to the Trianon Estate. This village of small, rustic buildings formed a crescent around an artificial lake. It included a working farm that was used for the royal children’s education.
The buildings were not built for longevity and suffered from the weather during the French Revolution. From 1810-1812 Napoleon had most of them restored. A few were beyond repair and were demolished.
The hamlet underwent various restoration projects in the 20th century as well. One done in the 1930s was made possible by a donation from John D. Rockefeller.
In 2006 the farm was reconstructed and is currently home to many animals who are looked after by the Foundation for Animal Welfare.
Here is more information about this wonderful hamlet.
And There is Even More!
Did you know that the gardens on the estate boast over 200 statues, making it the largest open-airsculpture museum in the world?
There is also anorangeryfeaturing orange, lemon, pomegranate, palm, and oleander trees. Some of the trees are more than 200 years old. They are housed in the Orangery during the winter and displayed outside in the summer.
As if that weren’t enough, you can visit the Gallery of Coaches in the Great Sables. Here you will marvel at the intricacy of the horse-drawn carriages of the past.
Whoo, That’s a Lot to See
All this information can be overwhelming. One thing is certain, the Estate of Versailles will provide days worth of exploration.
While researching this article I found out how little I know about Versaille’s complex and fascinating history. I have done my best to be accurate. If you find something that is incorrect, kindly let me know. Thank you.
Safe and happy traveling, Linda
One Last Thing
While researching this article I discovered a fundraising campaign on the Chateau de Versailles website to replace funds lost because of reduced attendance during the pandemic. If you love Versailles and can afford to help here is the information.
In the summer of 2018, Steve and I visited Croatia’s capital city of Zagreb. We loved exploring the various museums, relaxing at Jarun Lake, visiting our first cat café, and strolling through the peaceful Zagreb Botanical Garden. But the most memorable place we visited in the city was The Museum of Broken Relationships. To date, it is the most unique museum we have visited.
The museum is a varied collection of items that at one time played a part in a relationship. Each item comes with a short story about the relationship.
A Brief History
The museum is the no-longer-in-love-child of two Zagreb based artists, film producer Olinka Vištica, and sculptor Dražen Grubišić. When their four-year relationship came to an end in 2003 they joked about opening a museum to display the artifacts of their relationship. In 2006 they started collecting items and stories related to their friends’ break-ups.
From 2006 through 2010 the collection was displayed in various cities around the world. During its tour, it collected more artifacts. In 2010 the collection got a permanent home in Zagreb’s first privately owned museum.
In 2011 the museum received the Kenneth Hudson Award. This award is given out by the European Museum Forum to recognize unusual, daring, and controversial exhibits that challenge common perceptions of the role of museums in society.
The judging panel had this to say about the museum:
“The Museum of Broken Relationships encourages discussion and reflection not only on the fragility of human relationships but also on the political, social, and cultural circumstances surrounding the stories being told. The museum respects the audience’s capacity for understanding wider historical, social issues inherent to different cultures and identities and provides a catharsis for donors on a more personal level.”
A Reason to Visit
If for no other reason, the uniqueness of this museum is a great reason to visit. History, art, and science museums can be found in virtually every city. Not so with relationship museums. You may have a chance to see a collection like this elsewhere, but don’t count on it.
There was a Museum of Broken Relationships in Los Angeles, but as of this writing, it is permanently closed. And from March 2019 through March 2020 the York Castle Museum in the United Kingdom had a temporary exhibit.
You should visit it because it’s fun, it’s sad, and it’s a little weird. You can’t begin to anticipate the things you will see here. I guarantee at least one or two of them will remain with you long after your visit.
A word of warning: even though we did take our travel buddy Hedgie, you shouldn’t assume this is appropriate for children. Based on what we saw I would rate it PG-13.
Here are a few examples of the things you will see:
I find this one particularly memorable because I can’t imagine why anyone would want to tear the legs off of a caterpillar, even a toy one.
But Wait, There’s More
The majority of the displays have to do with the death of romantic relationships. But there is one section that deals with the end of non-romantic relationships. These displays included many heartbreaking letters of people wondering why a parent had left them. You might want to bring some tissues.
Where to Find the Museum
The museum is at Ćirilometodska ul. 2, 10000, Zagreb, Croatia. Get all the information you need here.
Safe and happy traveling,
Featured image: Hedgie in one of the display items.
When you repeatedly hear that you are in the pickpocket capital of the world, TAKE IT SERIOUSLY.
Despite the warnings, Steve was confident that if he kept his wallet in his front pocket it would be safe.
During our first week in Barcelona, the first city we visited on our journey throughout the world, Steve was pickpocketed.
How It Happened
It happened on a crowded Metro car on a Friday afternoon. First one woman bumped into him. While she was apologizing another woman bumped him on the other side. As the doors were closing they jumped off the car, taking his passport, forty Euros, and three bank cards with them.
We were shocked, angry, and unsure of what to do. A lady who saw what happened suggested we go back to the stop where it happened and check the garbage bags in case the thieves took the cash and threw everything else away. Fortunately, the bags were clear and not too full so they were easy to check. Unfortunately, we didn’t find any of Steve’s items.
We decided to go to the police station but had no idea where it was so we asked a young man on the street. He pointed us in the right direction but we arrived at the station only to find it was permanently closed. Struggling to maintain our composure, we asked for help at a nearby store. The owner helped Steve find the next closest police station while I stood on the street calling our banks.
We easily found that station and couldn’t believe it when we saw a sign that said, “Temporarily Closed for Renovations”. This was truly an “are you kidding me?” moment. Luckily there were several policemen just leaving a meeting and they directed us to a third station. It was a tense walk down the Ramblas as we wondered if it would be open.
And after a short wait, we were able to make a report with a policeman who spoke English. He said we must go to the U.S. Consulate first thing Monday morning to report the stolen passport. He prepared the police report and asked Steve to sign it. It was all in Spanish, but Steve had no choice but to sign it since he needed it to get a replacement passport.
Statistics on the number of pickpocket incidents are hard to come by. We knew the number in Barcelona was high, but we were shocked when the police officer told us that they process 400 reports a day. Of course, not everyone is going to report a pickpocketing incident, especially if the only thing stolen was cash. They know they will never see that again. Sometimes people don’t even realize they have been pickpocketed. They may think they lost their wallet or phone.
Over the weekend Steve looked up information on the consulate. The website said you must make an appointment online, and the next available appointment was more than two weeks away. We opted to go there in person on Monday and plead ignorance about the online scheduling. After all, the police officer did tell us to go first thing Monday.
While at the consulate we met several groups of Americans who had either been pickpocketed or had their rental cars burglarized. We bonded over our misfortune. When it was Steve’s turn he was informed that his passport had been found and was waiting at the Metro station lost and found. Good news since a replacement costs $145.
As frustrating and time consuming as this experience was, it could have been worse. The thieves tried to charge $900 worth of shoes, but our credit card company declined it. Luckily I still had one debit card in my name that we could still use while we waited for our replacement cards. And we had enough cash in our apartment to cover us for several days. The fact that we were still going to be in Barcelona for three more weeks was also good. We would be there when our replacement cards arrived and the loss of Steve’s passport didn’t have immediate repercussions. Several of the people we met at the consulate had to change flight and cruise plans because their passports had been stolen.
After this Steve bought a camera bag that he refers to as his purse and his first money belt. We no longer carry all of our bank cards in the same place.
Cities With the Most Pickpockets
Petty crime can happen anywhere. However, there are several cities that continually make the list of the most pickpocketed cities in the world. This list is from an article published by Clever Travel Companions in 2018:
Pickpocketing scams are limited only by the thieves’ creativity and acting ability. Here are just a few to be aware of:
1. Being offered something out of the blue. A woman offers another woman a pretty flower as if it were a gift. The second woman takes it and quickly finds out that payment is expected. I saw this happen to one woman. The thief was so bold that she tried to take money from the money holder around the tourist’s neck.
2. Being bumped by a person. Of course, you look their way, giving their partner a chance to pickpocket you. This was the one used on Steve.
3. Being asked to fill out a petition, usually by a young, harmless-looking woman. While your attention is on that, her partner in crime is relieving you of your valuables.
4. Being distracted by a shell game. I have not seen this one on any lists I’ve checked, but I believe it has to be a scam. We watched a man running a shell game near the Eiffel Tower. He would pick a spectator and ask him to watch while he moved three cups around. It ended with the spectator making some easy cash. I am sure that easy cash was a pittance compared to what was lifted from other unsuspecting spectators during the game. When we tried to get a photo of the group many of those gathered around covered their faces.
Protecting your valuables from the grubby hands of pickpockets should start before you leave for your trip. Here are three things you can do ahead of time:
1. Make a copy of your passport. When you are sightseeing there is no reason to carry the original. Keep it locked safely away in your lodgings.
2. Record the information on your bank cards: card number, account number it ties to, and the phone numbers for customer service.
3. Activate text or email alerts for your bank cards and accounts.
Continue your vigilance while you are traveling:
1. Don’t carry all your cash and cards in one place. Consider leaving what you don’t need for the day safely in your lodgings.
2. Use money belts or other devices designed to keep your valuables safe. Pockets of pants are not a good choice whether in front or back. The harder it is for you to get to your money or cards, the harder it will be for thieves.
3. Trust no one! I know this goes against how most of us feel, but particularly when you are in a crowded place, make it obvious that you are protecting your bag or backpack. Honest people should not be offended by this. It is not uncommon to see people wearing their backpacks in front in places that are notorious for pickpocketing like Barcelona’s Las Ramblas.
4. Be skeptical. If someone tries to give you something you didn’t ask for or asks you to answer a survey, walk away. Remember that pickpockets can be any age and may look very respectable. They are also great actors.
5. Get aggressive if necessary. While Steve and I were sitting in a nearly empty metro station in Paris a woman approached me and said something in French. I did not understand and let her know. My actions should have made it obvious that I wanted no further interaction. She got closer and I held up my hand in a stop gesture. She continued to get even closer, so I loudly said “get back”. I got some looks, but she got the message.
What to Do If You Are Pickpocketed
If in spite of your best efforts you do become a victim of a pickpocket there are the things you need to do:
1. Take a deep breath and let that anger out.
2. Check nearby trash cans. Most pickpockets are looking for cash. They may toss everything else.
3. File a police report if your passport or insured items were stolen. This will probably be the hardest part since you may not speak the language or have any idea where the nearest police station is. Stay calm. It will all work out. Be aware that you will be required to sign the police report if you need it to get a new passport or file an insurance claim even if you can’t read what you are signing.
4. Call your bank card providers and have your stolen cards canceled. You still have other cards and cash tucked safely away because you have prepared for this, right?
5. Contact your embassy if your passport was stolen to make arrangements for a replacement. Be aware, these are not cheap. All the more reason not to carry your passport if you don’t need to.
6. Contact someone back home if items with your home address were taken. While most pickpockets just want your cash, some may have bigger plans in mind.
I think one of the reasons we find pickpocketing so frustrating is that the chances of a pickpocket being caught are very small. Don’t let these vile creatures ruin your next trip.
When Steve and I started traveling in 2018 the first two cities we spent a long time in were Barcelona and Paris. Talk about setting the bar high.
Between these two cities there were three places that spoiled us for all others: La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona Versailles near Paris Cemetery Montmartre in Paris
Every time we visit a house of worship, a palace, or a cemetery we can’t help comparing it to these three places.
It is my pleasure to share our impressions of Paris’s Cemetery Montmartre with you. Hopefully you will be inspired to visit it if you haven’t already.
A Fascinating Yet Gruesome Start
The problems caused by overcrowding in Paris’s main cemetery, Cimitiere des Innocents, reached a head in 1780 when a wall of a mass grave collapsed, sending corpses tumbling into an adjacent basement. This was the last straw for Cimitiere des Innocents. This cemetery in Paris’s 1st arrondissement had been a concern because of the vast amount of bodies buried there so close to the populous. The city could no longer continue to add to the body count that had been growing for at least six centuries.
Like something out of a horror movie, the remains from Cimitiere des Innocents were eventually relocated. For two years carts covered with black veils would journey through the streets of Paris at night, accompanied by chanting priests. The new resting place was an abandoned quarry in the 14th arrondissement which is now known as The Catacombs.
When the gruesome work was done, Cimitiere des Innocents was destroyed.
Four New Cemeteries Are Born
During this time dozens of parish graveyards, but the city leaders saw the need for more cemeteries in which to bury the newly dead. They also wanted them to be placed far from the city center.
To fill this need, four cemeteries were founded outside the city limits. Montmartre to the north, Montparnasse to the south, Pere Lachaise to the east, and Passy to the west.
The first of the four new cemeteries to open was Pere Lachaise in 1804. In the approximately 25 years from the closure of the Cimitiere des Innocents until the opening of Pere Lachaise Cemetery, the dead were buried in the existing cemeteries.
Montmartre: Not the Most Celebrated Parisian Cemetery
Many lists of the best cemeteries to visit include Pere Lachaise. It has many famous residents including:
Frederic Chopin – Composer, pianist Jim Morrison – lead singer for The Doors Edith Piaf – singer, songwriter, actress Oscar Wilde – writer
Pere Lachaise is more than double the size of any other cemetery in Paris and about four times the size of Cemetery Montmartre.
It is definitely worth a visit but after visiting both Steve and I preferred Montmartre for three reasons:
First, Montmartre is set on many levels because it is built on an abandoned gypsum quarry. This makes for a more interesting walk and provides more exciting vistas than the flatter Pere Lachaise.
Second, Montmartre is the artistic neighborhood of the same name. Therefore, many of the people buried here were active in the arts, resulting in some unique monuments.
Third, Montmartre is part of its neighborhood. The vibrance of the area (and how can you not love Montmartre?) can be felt since the cemetery is literally in the thick of things.
Cemetery Montmartre History and Facts
Cemetery Montmartre was established in an abandoned gypsum quarry that had been used as a mass grave during the French Revolution. The fact that it was a big hole in the ground accounts for its unique topography.
The cemetery opened January 1, 1825 in Paris’s 18th arrondissement.
Its official name is the Cimetiere du Nord.
Its original name was Cimetière des Grandes Carrieres or the Cemetery of the Large Quarries. Why do things always sound more elegant in French?
Cemetery Montmartre covers over 25 acres (10.48 hectares) and is the third-largest in Paris. Pere Lachaise is the largest, and Montparnasse is the second largest.
The Cemetery has always had just one entrance. It is at 20 Avenue Rachel under Rue Caulaincourt.
In 1888 a bridge, the Pont de Caulaincourt, was built over the cemetery. The original plan was to relocated the burial sites that were under the bridge. Some families objected so the bridge was built over some sites.
Here is an interesting article that explains more of the history of the bridge over the cemetery.
Who’s Buried in Cemetery Montmartre
I knew that the artist Edger Degas was buried in Cemetery Montmartre and I kept this in mind as I strolled past numerous tombs. At one point I passed one the said Famille de Gas. I thought to myself, what an unfortunate last name (thinking of the English “gas”, not the French).
I finally resorted to looking up Degas’s grave using Find a Grave. Famille de Gas WAS Degas’s gravesite.
The French novelist, playwright, and journalist was originally buried in Montmartre. Five years later his remains were relocated to the Pantheon, the mausoleum where many great French leaders, scientists, writers, and artists are interred.
Being from the U.S. I had never heard of Dalida, but her compelling memorial made me want to learn more.
Dalida was the professional name of a famous French singer from 1956 to 1987. She was very successful in Europe even though she did not release her music to the U.S. or U.K. markets.
She faced many struggles in her personal life including the suicides of several people with whom she was close. She committed suicide in 1987 at the age of 54.
The next time you find yourself in Paris be sure to visit Cemetery Montmartre at 20 Avenue Rachel, 75018.
So Many Cemeteries, So Little Time
During the past few years, we have visited cemeteries in several cities. Of all of cemeteries we have seen so far, Cemetery Montmartre continues to hold a special place in our hearts. But the world is big and there is so much more to see.
Have you been to Cemetery Montmartre? Did you fall in love with it too?
Which cemeteries around the world have you visited and have any of them spoiled you for all others?
Boisterous and beautiful. That is Barcelona. This city in northeast Spain is a sight to behold and a privilege to visit. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems.
Here are 6 things you should know before visiting (or revisiting) Barcelona.
1. Gaudi’s Creations Grace the City
Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) was a Catalan architect and a master of the Modernisme (or Catalan Art Nouveau) style of architecture. Modernisme is characterized by organic and botanical motifs, symbolism, rich ornamental details, and curves as opposed to straight lines.
Here is information on 21 sites in Barcelona where you can admire Gaudi’s talents. These are three of the most-visited Gaudi sites:
La Sagrada Familia
La Sagrada Familia (The Sacred Family) is Gaudi’s masterpiece and the culmination of his life’s work. It was so important to him that he chose to be buried inside it. This Roman Catholic minor basilica is the most visited sight in Barcelona.
Stepping into the basilica is a magical experience. The sunlight shining through the stained glass bathes the interior in vibrant colors.
Be warned, La Sagrada Familia will most likely spoil you for all other churches.
The exterior is as astounding as the interior. Its three facades represent three phases in the life of Jesus: nativity, passion, and glory.
Construction began in 1882. The estimated year of completion for all but some decorative elements is 2026. If that deadline is met it will have taken 144 years to build. The year 2026 marks the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death by being run over by a street tram at the age of 74.
La Sagrada Familia gets over 3 million visitors a year. You are unlikely to get in unless you book your visit in advance. You get a 15-minute window to enter the basilica.
Services are held in the crypt every Sunday and can accommodate about 200 people. Mass is held at the main altar only on special holidays.
Here is some information about the structure and symbolism of the basilica.
Casa Mila is another Gaudi work in the Modernisme style. This was built in the early 1900s as a home for husband and wife Pere Mila and Roser Segimon. The locals thought it was ugly and nicknamed it La Pedrera, which means the stone quarry.
The owners lived on the main floor and had apartments above that they rented out. There are people living in some of these apartments today. The building is currently also used as a cultural center, a foundation headquarters, and for commercial space.
The whole building is interesting, but the roof is a delight. This is just one of the many chimneys:
No visit to Barcelona is complete without a stop at yet another Gaudi creation, Park Guell.
This was built in the early 1900s at the behest of Count Eusebi Guell as a luxury planned community. Of the sixty houses planned only two were built. It became a public park in 1926.
The park has two parts; a Monumental Zone and a Free Zone.
The Monumental Zone covers 5% of the park. You must buy a ticket to enter and visitors are limited to 400 every half hour.
It is here you will see the iconic dragon stairway. Be sure to visit the Hypostyle Room. It is an open space featuring a multi-domed, tiled ceiling and 86 Doric columns. I missed the opportunity to get some fab photos. Please don’t make the same mistake.
In this zone you will also see gingerbread-style buildings like the one pictured below, the colorfully tiled Greek Theater (or Nature Square), and the laundry room portico.
The other 95% of the park is free to visit. It consists of many paths through lush vegetation. Warning, this is not a place for a leisurely stroll. It is hilly and very crowded and street vendors take up a good part of the walkway with their wares.
If you persist upward, you will be rewarded with spectacular views of Barcelona.
You can find many non-Gaudi things to entertain you as well. Stroll the beach at Barceloneta, visit the Montserrat Monastery, shop at La Boqueria, or take a day trip to Cadaques to visit the Salvador Dali House Museum.
Here are four of our favorite non-Gaudi attractions:
Labyrinth de la Horta
Our favorite place in Barcelona was the little known Labyrinth de la Horta. This 22-acre park was once a private residence. The park was established in 1791 and donated to the City of Barcelona by the Desvalls family in 1967. It opened to the public four years later.
As the name suggests it includes a labyrinth. As you stroll through the park you will be surprised by unexpected scenes. Each one is a delight.
We recommend this park if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of Barcelona for awhile. For most of our visit we did not see another person.
Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau
A hospital wouldn’t usually be high on our sightseeing list but we’re glad we didn’t miss the Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau. The complex of 16 buildings was constructed from 1905-1930. It showcases the work of Modernisme architect Lluis Montaner.
Montaner believed in the therapeutic properties of nature, color, and form. This belief is reflected in the wealth of details both inside and outside of the buildings, and in the gardens.
The hospital was in use until 2009. A new hospital was built in 2003 and in 2014 this one became a museum and cultural center.
Sitges is a beach town on the Mediterranean Sea 26 miles (42 km) southwest of Barcelona. We first visited it on a tour with included a stop in Tarragona (below). Even though we were there on a drizzly day we found Sitges to be captivating.
Sitges will beguile you with stately mansions along the promenade, as well as twisty side streets and quaint shops. It also has a sassy side as seen in some of these photos. It has just under 30,000 residents, but in the summer the number of people is close to 100,000.
We were charmed enough to visit it again on our own.
Tarragona is 51 miles (82 km) southwest of Barcelona. It is known for its well-preserved Roman ruins.
Cava is the Spanish equivalent of Champagne. Almost all of it is produced in the Catalonian region of Spain.
Cava can be used to make cava sangria. It is especially enjoyable while overlooking the Mediterranean Sea on a sunny day. Be sure to give it a try when you visit the area and let me know what you think.
I tried to make it when we returned to Florida, but it just wasn’t the same. I guess I’ll have to return to Catalonia.
4. It’s Really Crowded
There are simply too many people in Barcelona. One reason is that it is very densely populated. Only 1.6 million people live in the city. However, the population density is 16,000 people per sq. km. (compare this to New York City’s density of 10,700 people per sq. km).
A second reason is that over 30 million people visited Barcelona in 2017. Of these more than 2/3 were day-trippers including cruise passengers visiting the city as one of their ports of call.
Cruise passengers come into the city by the thousands yet usually only visit for the day. They tend to go to the most popular sights like the Gaudi attractions listed above.
In an effort to control tourism the city passed a law in 2017 that forbids the building of new hotels even if they are replacing existing ones. You can read more about that here.
Because Barcelona is so crowded it is also very noisy. The noise is due to the large amount of traffic. Many people ride motorcycles which adds significantly to the road noise. It is not unusual to see people slowly ride their motorcycles onto the sidewalks.
Even with our windows closed we never got a break from the traffic noise.
6. Pickpocketing is a Persistent Problem
When you repeatedly hear that you are in the pickpocket capital of the world, take it seriously.
A quick Google search of several websites show Barcelona is the city in which you are most likely to be pickpocketed, followed by Rome.
While these petty thefts can happen anywhere, the Metro and any crowded tourist attraction or area (think La Sagrada Familia and Las Ramblas), are especially worrisome.
It is not uncommon to see people walking with their backpacks on their chests to keep them safe. Simply put, you can’t be too careful or too paranoid about pickpockets in Barcelona.
Despite the warnings, Steve was confident that if he kept his wallet in his front pocket it would be safe. During our first week in Barcelona Steve was pickpocketed on the Metro.
Because Steve’s passport and several bank cards were taken we had to file a police report. That was easier said than done.
The first police station we went to was permanently closed and the second one was closed for renovations. The third time was the charm.
Fortunately, there was an English speaking policeman there and he took our information. But, when it came time to sign the report it was in Spanish. We couldn’t read it, but Steve had no choice but to sign it.
We were shocked when the officer told us that they process 400 reports a day. That isn’t including people who don’t report petty theft because they only lost cash.
A few days later we were notified that Steve’s passport had been found. That saved us the $145 replacement cost.
The thieves tried to use one of our credit cards to buy $900 worth of shoes. Thankfully the credit card company denied the charge. Our loss was 40 Euros (about $44 USD) and a lot of time.
Our Personal Take on Barcelona
In two years of travel one thing has been constant. That is the warmth and kindness we have been met with. The one exception was in Barcelona.
For example, we visited a nearby supermarket nearly every day and used our basic Spanish, but never got a smile out of the cashiers. We did not take this personally. As we watched the crowds from our balcony we did not see many smiles.
We enjoyed learning the history behind the famous sights and taking in the beautiful architecture and street art but we didn’t love Barcelona. Were our expectations too high? Were there too many unfriendly people? Did listening to the constant street noise get old really fast? Probably a little of all these things.
We feel fortunate to have experienced Barcelona. In light of the city’s serious issues with overtourism, we will probably not return soon. If we do, it would be to visit nearby towns combined with a shorter stay in Barcelona. And definitely a return trip to Labyrinth de la Horta.
I could picture it so well. The crisp air, the snow-covered pines, the stillness of a landscape blanketed in white. Days spent swooshing down the mountain until exhaustion set in. Nights snuggled up in a cozy apartment watching the snow gently falling outside.
After living in Florida for thirty years I couldn’t wait to spend some time in a winter wonderland. After some research, I found the ski town of Bansko, Bulgaria. Three weeks of skiing there would cost about the same as five days at a U.S. or Canadian ski resort.
We made plans to head there in early January 2020 as the first stop in our third year of full-time travel.
Reality Rears Its Ugly Head
When we arrived in Bansko the winter wonderland was woefully absent. The daily highs in town were in the forties and not a flake of snow nor patch of ice could be found. The mountainside ski slopes fared a little better, but not much. Damn you, global warming!
Throughout our nine weeks there we watched the weather freeze and thaw repeatedly which made the ski slopes very icy.
Even so, we tried to make the best of it. On our first day of skiing, we woke up to rain. The folks at the ski shop assured us that it was not raining on the mountain and they were right. There was a very welcome light snow all day.
Over the first several days we each had a lesson to refresh our skills and a chance to ski on our own. Then we made plans to put our rejuvenated skills to the test by taking a long but easy run together.
A Turn For the Worst
We weren’t more than ten minutes into it when I hit a steep icy section and found myself sliding quickly down the mountain. With repeated reminders to myself to snowplow, lean forward, and remain calm I made it down that part. I stopped to wait for Steve but did not see him.
After a little while, I figured he either passed me and I missed him or he was taking his time and would catch up. When I reached the town at the bottom of the run he was nowhere to be seen. After some hunting, I found him in the doctor’s office with a fractured pelvis! This diagnosis meant he would be hospitalized for about a week then require complete bed rest for two more weeks.
After being checked out by the doctor at the ski resort Steve was transported by ambulance to the hospital in the nearby town of Razlog. He ended up spending nine days there. You can read about that less than ideal experience in Hospitalized in Bulgaria!
Since Steve would need to be transferred to our apartment lying flat we had to leave our Airbnb and I had to find a place that would allow him to be brought in by paramedics.
That was no easy task because virtually every apartment and hotel had either stairs or an elevator that was too small for the stretcher. It took three days but I finally found a place about 10 miles from Bansko at the Redenka Holiday Club. They had the perfect first-floor one-bedroom apartment.
We stayed there for four weeks. It is in the country (my taxi was held up by a herd of cattle crossing the road one night), but it has a spa, indoor pool and hot tub, and a fitness room. Oh darn!
We were able to get the half board, so breakfast and dinner are included. Whoopee, no cooking or dishes!
The staff was friendly and helpful and always asked about Steve. I joked that he was a celebrity even before anyone had met him.
We appreciate all the help the staff gave us and are honored to have left there with several new friends.
Even when things don’t go as planned, there is always something interesting or beautiful to see.
I left the hospital to go to the Telenor store to top up Steve’s SIM card. It was a short walk, and up until then I had only seen the seamier side of Razlog. On my way back I came across this charming scene in a small park.
As I returned to the hospital the road was filled with people in native dress and furry costumes. They were having a grand old time dancing and banging their drums.
A little research told me this is a Kukeri festival. It occurs between New Year’s Day and Lent. Its purpose is to drive away evil spirits and provide a good harvest, health, and happiness during the coming year. Why anyone thought it was a good idea to hold it in front of a hospital is beyond me.
By the way, I didn’t get the SIM card. The store was closed even though Google said it would be open.
We made several friends during this time including this four-legged sweetheart.
Bansko is a dog that hangs out at Redenka but knows better than to enter the buildings. I thought Bansko was a girl. One morning I was telling her what a good girl she is when a guy came by and said: “it’s a boy and he doesn’t understand English”. What ?!?!
No matter what language he understands he is well-loved and well-fed by the staff and guests at Redenka.
In a case of serendipity, I met a physiotherapist one morning at breakfast when I uncharacteristically struck up a conversation with him by asking if he spoke English. It turned out the Dimitar not only spoke English very well but was also incredibly helpful with advice while Steve was still bedridden. He also worked with Steve once he was up and about.
While Steve was in the hospital a young woman who was also a patient struck up a conversation with me. Aleksandra is a student in Bulgaria and a thoughtful and delightful young lady. After Steve became mobile we enjoyed a delicious dinner with her.
And last, but certainly not least, we were privileged to get to know Anna and Tommy Orhan at Succuk Burger House and Cafe. The food is excellent, but the service is what kept us coming back. These two, along with the rest of their family, really care about their customers.
Seeing the Sights
Bansko is a small town ski town (pop. 8,600) so attractions are somewhat limited. However, beauty is everywhere as I discovered on a Sunday morning outing.
A visit to the Neofit Rilski House Museum taught me about this Bulgarian renaissance man. He was a monk, an artist, a translator, and a teacher. He was also the founder of Bulgarian secular education.
The best sight by far in Bansko is the Pirin mountains that surround the town. It seems that wherever you go you can see them.
We had an amazing view of them from both the living room and the bedroom at our third apartment and frequently commented on how much we were going to miss them.
When I researching a place to ski for several weeks in January I wanted a place that was affordable and where you don’t need a car. Bansko was one of those places.
The town is compact. You can walk practically anywhere, and taxis are readily available. You also can’t beat the cost. A daily lift ticket is $38 USD and ski rental including a helmet is $30 USD per day. Lodging is also a bargain. We booked an Airbnb for three weeks for less than $900 USD.
Unfortunately, there was so much I didn’t know about skiing there. While the infrastructure is good with well-groomed runs and modern lifts, I found several negative things about it.
As a disclaimer, all my previous skiing had been on the East Coast of the U.S. on very small mountains. It may be that what I found in Bansko is common in Europe. Either way these are the things that made the experience less than ideal:
You have to take a twenty-minute gondola ride up the mountain to get to the ski resort. The gondola itself is not bad, but getting to it is a hassle. Not only are the lines often very long, but you have to go up a long set of stairs to get to the loading area. Not easy to do in ski boots.
The line works well until you get towards the top of the stairs and try to get into a gondola car. At this point it becomes a contact sport, everyone for himself.
The rudeness continues at the entrances to the lifts. There are no lines, only surging crowds.
The other thing I found odd was that the entrances to the lifts were raised up so everyone was trying to move up and into a slot while being pushed and crowded.
I also did not see any information on ski conditions. The only way to see the conditions is to go up the mountain. One day I went up and between the ice and the huge number of inexperienced skiers on the slopes, I felt unsafe and cut it short. Bansko is very popular with new skiers from Europe and the U.K. partly because of the low cost. That also means that the slopes get very crowded.
As Steve’s accident showed, there was no warning of dangerous conditions and runs were kept open even when they had significant icy patches.
The last thing that was frustrating was how lift passes were handled. The company I rented from only sold you a pass if you booked two or more consecutive days with them. I was told to buy one at the bottom of the gondola station.
The gondola starts running at 8:30 a.m. and on a busy day the line is already quite long by that time. The ticket booth doesn’t open until 8:30, so you stand there watching the line to the gondola getting longer by the minute while waiting to get a lift ticket.
But that isn’t inefficient enough. A sign clearly says they accept VISA so I chose to pay that way. The clerk rang up my purchase and I paid. Then she asked if I had 5 leva in cash for the deposit on the lift card. I did, but it was tucked away in my money belt so she rang up a separate charge. All while the line to get the lift ticket was growing and growing. Why they don’t charge it all at once is totally beyond me.
Our trip to Bansko did not turn out as we anticipated, but even so, we left with many warm memories. As we often find, it is the people we meet as we travel that have the greatest impact on us. Hopefully, the feeling is mutual.
Steve has skied his last slope. I, however, intend to try again next winter. I welcome any suggestions about great ski resorts that don’t require you to have a car.
Our next stop is Budapest, Hungary. The coronavirus is already wreaking havoc in parts of the world and we expect some stumbling blocks because of it.
In January of 2020, Steve broke his pelvis while skiing and had to be hospitalized in Bulgaria. It was a painful, frustrating, disappointing, and eye-opening experience.
Our Take On Bulgaria
Before I get into the details I must say this:
Bansko was the fifth city or town we have visited in Bulgaria. In 2018 we enjoyed the capital of Sofia, the second-largest city, Plovdiv, and the smaller towns of Byala and Varna.
All of our experiences in Bulgaria until Steve’s hospitalization have been positive. The people are warm and welcoming, the accommodations and restaurants are clean, and the food is delicious. Many people speak English which we never expect but always appreciate.
That is why our experience in the hospital was a shock.
The Doctor At The Base of The Mountain
As Steve and I were waiting in line to get on the gondola to go up the mountain I noticed a door at the end of a hall. The sign on it said Doctor.
Little did I know that just a few hours later I would be walking through that door to see if Steve was in there after we got separated while skiing and I couldn’t find him anywhere else.
He was lying on the examination table after having x-rays. We were told he had fractured his pelvis.
We were very happy with the care here. The doctor and staff spoke English and explained everything that was going on. They took three x-rays for a cost of $118 USD. Everything else up to this point was covered by the mountain insurance we had as part of our ski rental package.
Given the professionalism of this office, we didn’t balk when the doctor suggested Steve be transported to the hospital in the next town, which is Razlog.
Things Take a Downward Turn
Razlog is a town of 13,000 people about 4 miles (6.2 km) from Bansko. Bankso’s population is 8,600.
When Steve arrived at the hospital he was taken to the emergency department. The area was very run down with tiles missing from the ceiling, holes in the sheets, and what looked like a piece of linoleum laid across the foot of each bed.
It took quite a while for the doctor to be located and for Steve to be registered.
He had been put on a stretcher board to keep his hips immobilized while being transported. He had to lie on this board for several hours after he arrived at the hospital before he was put in a bed. All this time he did not receive any pain medication.
In addition, he was slipping to one side badly enough that I feared he would fall so I stood alongside the stretcher pressing into his side to keep him from falling. No one seemed to care that he was incredibly uncomfortable.
When it finally came time for Steve to be put in a bed there were only two men to do it. It ended up being quite painful for him as he was basically dropped onto the bed.
Things Aren’t Much Better Here
Luckily the floor Steve was transported to from the emergency department was in better shape, though far from what we expect in a hospital.
Even though many people we met in Bansko spoke English, most of the hospital staff did not. Fortunately, one of the doctors treating Steve did.
The only time we were able to get information about Steve’s condition was the few minutes every morning when the doctors came in. The nursing staff was not the least bit helpful and seemed impatient when we stopped them and used Google Translate to ask questions.
This was particularly frustrating because they were not very busy. There were only a few patients on the floor and often when I went looking for help several nurses would be eating, chatting, and watching TV in the break room. Yet they never made any effort to do more than the basics.
I was shocked that patients in the hospital were kept in their own clothes. Unless they change their clothes themselves or have a family member help they are left in the same clothes day after day.
Patients and their families were also on their own for basic care like washing, brushing teeth, and tending to more personal needs.
I fear for anyone who should find himself in this hospital without someone to help him.
I realized that the only way to get the nurses on our side was to kill them with kindness. It worked with some of them but not all.
I walked into Steve’s room on his second day there and he proudly showed me his newest possession. A long piece of PVC pipe.
Unlike U.S. hospitals where the patient is tethered to multiple machines, the only thing Steve had was an I.V. He was lying in bed the first night watching the fluid in the I.V. bag getting too close to the end. He wanted to alert a nurse, but the call button was on the wall a few feet away from his bed. Fearing an air bubble entering his bloodstream, he threw the I.V. bag to the floor and used the stand to hit the call button.
After this, he got a pole so he could reach the button. You can see it in the first photo. That pole came in handy for many things. I am still amazed that someone was able to get the pole for him.
Most shocking to us was the lack of hygiene. Steve was in a room with three beds, but until the last few days, he was the only patient. The room didn’t have its own bathroom, but it did have a sink. However, there wasn’t any soap or towels so I brought some from home.
There were three restrooms on the floor. The women’s room did not have toilet paper or soap. The second one was not marked male or female and surprisingly it had soap. But it was still BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper). I didn’t check the men’s room.
Then there was the food. Breakfast consisted of two slices of bread with a large blob of butter but nothing to spread the butter with. It sometimes came with a hard-boiled egg or some cheese.
Lunch was soup and bread, but no spoon to eat the soup with. And even if he had a spoon Steve would not have been able to eat it since he was lying flat and could not sit up.
Even worse than the lack of utensils or care about being able to eat was the fact that the bread that came with the soup was not on a plate, it was carried in by hand and set on the bedside table.
Dinner was, you guessed it, more bread, this time with cheese, both wrapped in a plastic bag.
At one point Steve watched a nurse drop a piece of his bread on the floor and return it to the table
Needless to say, he did not eat the food they provided. What little he ate during his stay was all brought from home.
There’s Always Something Positive
While dealing with the hospital situation was unpleasant, there were good things as a result.
While in the hospital I met a lovely young woman named Aleksandra from Razlog who had recently had surgery. She is a university student who wishes to visit the U.S. someday. We will stay in touch through Facebook.
I also got to meet Anna and her family at Succuk Burger House and Cafe in Bansko where I enjoyed the cheeseburgers and fries way too much. They were so gracious in helping me with taxis and even arranging a ride to the hospital one day. If you are ever in Bansko make sure to visit Succuk Burger House and Cafe and meet these wonderful people.
Our luck with people continued once we settled into our new apartment. I struck up a conversation with Dimitar at breakfast one morning and it turns out he is a physiotherapist. He has already offered several helpful suggestions.
For the life of me, I don’t understand why the hospital personnel are lacking in the friendliness and hospitality the most everyone else around here has in abundance.
A Goodbye Argument
Release day finally arrived. We knew Steve would be transferred by ambulance to the apartment where he would be recuperating. We requested four people to help because he is a large man and we didn’t want a repeat of the fiasco that occurred when he was transferred into the bed.
Around lunchtime, two men arrived with a stretcher. We were surprised that they did not have the stretcher board to keep his hips immobilized while they lifted him. We really don’t know how they intended to move him from the bed to the stretcher without causing pain or aggravating his injury.
We used Google Translate to let the paramedics know that we were expecting four people and we wanted Steve on a stretcher board. This request led to a ten-minute discussion with four paramedics and two nurses all talking at once.
After getting everyone to quiet down we said Steve was not leaving unless he was on a board. They finally brought a board in and we were on our way.
Thankfully the ride was only about eight minutes long. Not only was Steve not strapped to the stretcher, but the stretcher was also not locked down in the ambulance.
You know the old saying “you get what you pay for” meaning if something is inexpensive you can’t expect much. This has not been true for anything we bought in Bulgaria except for the hospital care.
We had no frame of reference as to what a nine-day stay would cost. I was pleasantly surprised when I paid the bill. It included the ambulance ride to the hospital, nine days of “care” including X-rays, two ultrasounds, and medications and the ambulance ride home from the hospital. The cost for all of this was just under $2,000 USD!
We do not carry a medical travel policy because in most cases medical care outside of the U.S. is very affordable by our standards. We do however have evacuation insurance through Medjet to get us back to the U.S. in case of a serious accident or injury.
We didn’t expect much when we submitted a claim to our U.S. medical insurance company since our treatment was out-of-network. We were delighted to receive a check from them for $1,800 USD, leaving our out-of-pocket hospital and doctor costs at $300.
What Could We Have Done Differently?
I have read several accounts of U.S. citizens’ experiences with medical care while traveling abroad. They were all positive, but none of them had taken place in a small town in Bulgaria.
Once we saw the situation at the hospital I asked Steve if he wanted to be transported to Sofia on the assumption that the hospitals in the capital would be superior to this one. He was adamant that he did not want to be moved because he was in so much pain.
Looking back, I wish that I had asked the doctor what the different options were and where he would send one of his family members.
So the only other thing we could have done differently would have been to not ski in this area. I doubt that any warning about the lack of quality medical care would have deterred us. No one expects to get hurt.
Our travels have taken us to some off the beaten path places and will no doubt continue to do so. In order to keep exploring we have to believe that things will work out for the best.
All’s Well That Ends Well
It was a challenge to find a place to stay for four weeks while Steve recuperated. We needed somewhere that would allow him to be brought in on a stretcher and placed in bed. I spent several days looking online, sending emails, and visiting hotels before I found a suitable place two days before he was due to be released.
We ended up at the Redenka Holiday Club about 6 miles (or 10 km) from the center of Bansko. Luckily they weren’t particularly busy and had some first-floor apartments available.
Our four-week stay includes not only the apartment but also breakfast and dinner every day for about $2,000 USD. There is also a gym, indoor pool with jacuzzi, and a spa. Hopefully, Steve will have a chance to enjoy them like I have been doing.
As of this writing, Steve is recuperating well. He has been improving every day and has just been able to be upright with crutches for a short period of time. We are thankful that he left the hospital without becoming sick.
His spirits have remained high and he is looking forward to seeing something besides the ceiling.