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Trip Report Trip Report: Rome, Naples, Pistoia (Florence) and Zurich, May 2011

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Price are as of May 2011 and cannot reflect subsequent inflation or currency fluctuations.

This year we decided to do the Italian/Swiss part of the trip that we had to cancel last year (http://www.fodors.com/com...rt-sicily-april-2010.cfm ). We went to Rome, Naples, Pistoia (Florence) and Zurich. For guiding ourselves in Italy, we used an old Fodor’s for Rome and Florence, TimeOut for Naples and assorted articles culled here and there over the years. Once we landed in Rome, all our travels were by train except for the one day when my cousin took us out to see the environs of Pistoia.

I found round trip tickets from SFO to CDG for $998 per person and then cheap flights from CDG to Rome. That was a very long day, as we had to switch from CDG to Orly. We then took local transportation from the Rome airport to our hotel. I thought I had saved a couple hundred dollars, until I remembered that I was comparing the cost of this travel with an open jaw landing in Naples. I suspect that an open jaw going to Rome would have reduced our travel time for about the same price we paid. But I was so frustrated in not finding any decent prices to Naples that I decided to look at round trips from Paris (we knew that we would leave from Paris) before looking at flights from Paris to Naples. Those were also on the expensive side, which is when I decided that we could start in Rome, as there are cheap flights between Paris and Rome, rather than begin our travels in Naples.

In the Rome airport, the person at the tourist office who sold us the Roma pass suggested that the easiest way to get to our hotel was to take the local train (about 7€ per person) to the Trastevere station and the streetcar to our hotel. He was right, but we had a problem getting a ticket for the streetcar, forgetting that the RR ticket agent would not be selling them, but that we had to by them from the tabacchi next door. There was a problem with the trains, and no announcements. We were told to take the train from one platform but it actually left from another. We finally got on the right train, settled down with our luggage and discovered that we were traveling in rush hour. The train was packed and I felt uncomfortable taking up space with my luggage although no one said anything about it. I was also worried about getting off at the right station, but it turned out that many people were getting off there so that I was able to haul everything off with no problem. We found the streetcar, validated our ticket, got off at the correct stop (the first one after the Tiber) and found ourselves in front of the Prince of Navona, 41 , Via Arenula, Roma. It actually is an apartment in a late 19th early 20th century apartment building.

The entry is quite grand, the elevator is the type that is seen in movies trying to have atmosphere, and the hotel something else. We obtained it through One Travel, and it is the second time that we’ve had bad luck with hotels obtained through brokers. The first time was last year, when the hotel in Naples could not be reached in any timely manner so that they return my mail to the sender so that he could obtain ticket refunds. We were shown a room by the clerk whose English was very limited. A room in an old building could have charm, but this one was redone with the least taste possible. The color of the walls were awful with Kinkadesque paintings hanging from them (http://www.flickr.com/pho...in/set-72157622915079327 ), the floor was either a very cheap and very thin wood veneer or a plastic to look like wood, coming unglued in some places. The furniture was haphazard, and there was a fifties kitchen sink in one corner. The bathroom was very narrow (http://www.flickr.com/pho...n/set-72157622915079327/ ), and would have been OK if the shower had not been a cheap unit that did not even fill the width of the bathroom and did not allow us to bend down should the soap slip out of the hand (no soap dish). We have stayed in rooms with inexpensive furniture, and even places like the EasyHotel had more sense of style than this place. The bed was OK and the room seemed clean enough. Breakfast was around the corner in a café that offered rolls and pastries made with no animal fat. Our breakfast consisted of one coffee and a roll or pastry. We tried various pastries, and none of them were very good. The final straw is when they asked us to move to another hotel for the final night, alleging some plumbing problems. We asked to see the room, and they took us to a standard hotel going toward the Campo de’ Fiori which looked quite nice in the lobby. Another guest was there and said that the rooms were fine. We asked to see our room, but that was impossible because it was currently occupied. We asked to see a similar room, but that was impossible because the room was not in the hotel proper but had direct access to the street around the corner. We said no and heard nothing more about it. For this hotel we paid $515 for four nights.

Although our room gave out to the inner courtyard, there was nothing quiet about it. The doors to the courtyard were opened early in the morning, and the noise from the traffic just reverberated within the courtyard. We were well located in that there was a bus stop practically at the front door for a bus that took us directly to the Termini train station. We were a ten minute walk from the Campo de’ Fiori and just across the river from the Trastevere district.

We were within walking distance of Dar Filettaro a Santa Barbara (OK but not great for what one pays--the review is accurate: http://www.foodinrome.com...bara-filetti-di-baccala/ ) which was filled with locals and even closer was Salumeria Roscioli(reservations desirable)--$175 for two. It was very good, but there is something weird in that they are connected if by name only to a bakery which uses no animal products while they do (obviously). It's a short distance from Campo de’ Fiori going on Via dei Giubbonari towards the Via Arenula (http://www.salumeriarosci...cioli_Eng/restaurant.htm ). We had one meal on the Campo de’ Fiori which was fine but not great. I am surprised at the high price of some items which would be cheaper at the SF Alameda or Civic Center farmer’s market during the same season (for example: artichokes). We had sandwiches at the Galleria Borghese, otherwise I would have been tempted by 7€ or 8€ plat du jour in a little Argentinean (?) café on the Viale Regina Margherita near the Via Tagliamento where we had a drink after visiting Il Quartiere Coppedè (http://www.flickr.com/pho...in/set-72157622915079327 ). We preferred Ripa12 ($150 for two) to the salumeria. It’s oriented toward seafood and fish. It's in the Trastevere. Reviews are mixed, we had an excellent meal (http://www.ripa12.com/ristorante.html ).

For those interested in the menus:
Salumeria Roscioli 122,50€
1 Cannolo alla Siciliana
1 Pane Roscioli
1 Acqua
1 Insalata di Polipo
1 Gamberi e Verdur
1 trancio di spigola
1 Cime de Rapa e Vongole MM
1 Polpette tradizione Romana
2 cesanese ciolli
1 verdicchio gaiospino

Ripa 12 105€
Acqua filette gassata
Chardonnay Jermann
pane
carpaccio di cernia
Calamarata moscardini
Gnocchetti fasioli e [unreadable]
polpette di pesce
Rucola e parmiggiano
Sorbetto al limone

We had been in Rome before when the museums were on strike, and since we were going to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum a few days later, we decided to skip the forum, colosseum, etc. and concentrate on what we had not seen before such as the Galleria Borghese, the Vatican Museum for other than the Sistine Chapel. We wanted to see the ceramics collection of the Museum of the City of Rome, but my wife did not realize that the museum was housed in two separate buildings, one near Piazza Navona and the other in the Trastevere. We picked the wrong one near the piazza Navona which is a series of rooms in a palazzo with some furniture and second-class paintings of views of Rome and portraits of dignitaries to the city.

On our first full day we went to the Galleria Borghese (starting the use of our Roma pass). We had called to make a reservation for 11 a.m., took the bus from the hotel to Termini and from there the metro to the closest stop to the Galleria, which still meant walking through the park. From a planning perspective an earlier reservation would have been preferable; coming out around 1 p.m., we had lunch by buying a couple of sandwiches in the museum cafe. It would have been better to eat elsewhere, but we did not know what we would find on our way to Il Quartiere Coppedè. An earlier visit to the Galleria would have allowed us to be more relaxed about the issue of finding a lunch place. In the afternoon we visited the National Etruscan Museum at the other end of the park.

Somehow we missed the first floor of the Galleria Borghese when we went up the stairs and found ourselves in the picture gallery. It has interesting paintings, but the sculptures on the first floor are much more impressive. By reversing the normal tour, we managed to avoid most of the group crowds--there were a couple of student groups who entered at the same time. It may make sense generally to reverse the order of viewing since most visitors seem to go to the sculpture rooms first. Il Quartiere Coppedè is worthwhile for those who seek unusual architecture. It is located in a section of Rome which appears to have been developed in the late 19th and early 20th century, with otherwise undistinguished architecture from what I could tell. Il Quartiere Coppedè is a short walk from the Galleria Borghese, going away (east?) from the core of tourist Rome. From there we walked back to the National Etruscan Museum which is large, but in my mind less attention grabbing than the smaller Etruscan Museum in Tarquinia (http://www.flickr.com/pho...923/show/with/4201814438 ), perhaps because the museum in Tarquinia was my first encounter with Etruscan art. However, the National Museum has an impressive collection of gold jewelry from Antiquity to the Middle Ages.

Walking out of the park from the museum we took a street car to the Piazza del Popolo and from there the shuttle that goes down the Corso to the piazza Colonna. We walked around old Rome (Pantheon, piazza Navona) and ended up having dinner at Dar Filettaro.

The next day we got out of the hotel earlier, which allowed up to pick up picnic items before going to the Vatican museum (bus to Termini and then the metro). We could not find an overall map of the Rome bus system and walking was out of the question. My wife has walking issues even though recovered from the previous year’s accident, and we knew that we would get tired feet just by going through the Vatican museum. We got the picnic items on the Campo de’ Fiori, fruit at the market, meats at the norceria that can’t be missed, and bread from one of the bakeries.

The Vatican museum is a must for the art it contains, but I would cheerfully avoid it because of its crowds. The entrance is as crowded as the Times Square subway area during rush hour, it is just a sea of people. Fortunately there is some thinning out once we get to the galleries, but in essence one is marching with the troops all headed in the same direction. We had intended to skip the Sistine chapel this time around, but that turned out to be impossible. The Raphael rooms are wonderful, and we discovered that the Vatican has a very nice modern art collection tucked into little rooms off one of the through corridors that is skipped by almost everyone on their way to the more important exhibits. Looking at my photographs, I have established that we had seen the map room during our 1995 visit, but neither my wife nor I had a recollection of it, even though it was better lit and less crowded than it is now. It is an interesting example of early cartography where the points of the compass are not constant from map to map. For example, Sicily is upside down (if I recall correctly) because the viewpoint is from the Vatican which is north of the island.

We could not find an appropriate site to picnic on the Vatican side of Rome, so we took the metro back to the piazza del Popolo and walked up to the Villa Borghese (the public park) and found a shady spot where we could have our lunch. After that we took the streetcar to the Parco della Musica to look at the Renzo Piano creation. From there we went back into town to visit two churches by Bernini and Borromeo. I have come to the conclusion that I am not attracted to the Italian Baroque. The two churches are nice, but do not have any special appeal for me. I prefer the Austrian Baroque (http://www.flickr.com/pho...in/set-72157622926792957 ) with its over the top decoration or the Mexican Baroque (http://www.flickr.com/pho...in/set-72157623026204048 ) with a similar exuberance. The Baroque churches have no walk-in appeal to me, which is not the case for a Romanesque church, high French Gothic cathedrals (Chartres, N-D de Paris, Amiens, Troyes, etc.). Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli had a walk-in appeal because it looked like a Romanesque pile of bricks on the outside, of no special size, which turned out to be an enormous attractive space on the inside; but then it is a Michelangelo creation and not Baroque. I am sorry to have missed the hour to see the sun shine on the meridian line. Two churches with wonderful mosaics are Santa Cecilia and Santa Maria in Trastevere.

Rome is not a city to which we need to return. Our language limitation may in part be the cause, but I find the core of the city too tourist oriented. Of course, we do not see the administrative activities that take place in these old palazzi. Perhaps I would feel the same way about Paris if I were as linguistically limited and felt as lost walking in outer neighborhoods. But even in the core tourist area of Paris one has the feeling that the city is not just frozen in time. The MQB is evidence of that as it sticks out in all its modernity, or the Fondation Cartier building also by Jean Nouvel. Whatever the reason, Rome does not do it for us. Here are my pictures of Rome, including those taken on a previous trip: http://www.flickr.com/pho.../sets/72157622915079327/

We took the Regionale to Naples. From the train station we took a taxi to our reserved B&B. The taxi driver got lost, and because of the one way narrow streets he had to drop us off one block from the B&B. We walked to the B&B and entered an old building and climbed a fairly dark staircase with understandable apprehension. Given our Rome experience, we had some misgivings which were totally misplaced. The B&B is wonderful, well located in the old section of town. Breakfast is a little skimpy, although items can be added to the standard breakfast for a price, but I was subsequently told that what was offered with the price of the room (65€ per night, cash only) is a standard Italian breakfast. Prices of add-ons are not outrageous. My recollection is that the price of bottled water in the room refrigerator was the same as in a store. The front desk person was new to her job, so that she could not provide much tourist information (where to catch a bus, location of laundromat, etc.), but she tried hard, and by now is probably more knowledgeable. We needed a taxi for a 6 a.m. train departure at the end of our stay and it was there as requested--we had some worries because once we shut the door to the B&B we had no means of communicating with them if our transportation did not arrive. So if looking for a nice stay in Naples try the B&B Medea (http://www.bebmedea.com/en/index.php ).

We arrived on a Saturday which gave us a full experience of life in the historic section of Naples. Narrow streets with crowds everywhere and few tourists. We asked for a restaurant recommendation at the B&B, and the consensus (the receptionist asked around) was that we should go to Sorbillo which has the best pizza in Naples. We found it, with a throng blocking the whole street in front of it waiting for names to be called out to be seated. We did not want to wait that long. But it has at least one more establishment two doors down, less appealing in design, and clearly intended for the family rather than the hip crowd. That’s where we ate. Perhaps it is a different kitchen, although I had the impression that the two establishments had a common kitchen, but we were not impressed. The best pizza in Naples did not match pizzas we had in Sicily or that we would subsequently have in Pistoia. It was not bad, but it was not exceptional.

Obviously we had no great expectations when we ate in the cafeteria in Pompeii, but its sandwiches were acceptable. We had a mediocre meal in Ercolani, and OK pizza on the piazza Trieste a Trento. But we also had very good meals. The most expensive was at the

Palazzo Petrucci Ristorante 123€
Mozzarella e Gamberi
Pane con Calamaro arrostito
Passatina di Finocchio
Linguine con Asparagi
Pescato des Giorno
Guancia vitello al Porro
Acqua Lete
Greco di Tufo 08 Poggi Reali

One would think that reservations are necessary, but we walked in, were seated immediately, and at no time was the restaurant full. The meal was excellent except for one mishap/misunderstanding. My wife ordered the fish of the day, which was in the sea bass family. The fish was to be broiled and seared and it came with a vegetable we did not know, almost like thin string bean size seaweed coming out of a single stalk. That was supposed to be at room temperature, but the fish also came at room temperature, and with the linguistic problems, it escalated to outrage on my wife’s part. I think that with no language problem, the kitchen would have taken the dish back without question. As it was, it left a sour note to an otherwise enjoyable evening.

We had an enjoyable meal at La Locanda del Grifo, but for us the find was a vegetarian restaurant, which was the cheapest restaurant, bistro style. We were coming back from the National Archeological Museum when tucked in a corner of the piazza Vincenzo Bellini I saw a handwritten sign for a vegetarian/vegan (and organic) restaurant: Un Sorriso Integrale, Vico S. Pietro a Majella 6, Napoli, Naples, Italy 80138 (http://www.sorrisointegrale.com/ ). When we travel, the one thing we find missing from our meals is vegetables. Vegetables are almost garnishes, something to highlight the meat. The ratio of vegetables to meat in most restaurants is in inverse proportion to what we eat at home. We do not normally look for vegetarian restaurants, but falling upon one is an opportunity not to be missed. It defined itself as Italian vegetarian and pretty much stays away from the tofu dishes. However, they had a very good combination plate and claim to change the menu every day. We ate there twice, and the second time I ordered individual dishes rather than the plat du jour. I think that the plat du jour is a better deal. The restaurant has its own organic farm and one of the servers claimed that it was the largest exporter of butternut squash to England, providing the item to one of the big chain stores, which led to the creation of a branch of the restaurant in London (http://www.amicobio.co.uk/Home ).

We needed to do a laundry in Naples. We asked at the desk and they referred us to their laundry service down the street, which took a quick look at our laundry and said that they do not do underwear; they really do only sheets and towels, and mainly for local B&Bs and hotels. But they gave us the address of a laundromat on the other side of the historic center. It is located on the same square as the new Santa Maria Donnaregina, but it is not self-service. For 7€ we had our laundry washed, dried and folded, and we picked it up later in the afternoon.

We went to Naples to see antiquities, and we did. We visited Pompeii and Herculaneum, and while Pompeii is impressive to the point of being grandiose by its sheer size, we preferred Herculaneum--the impression is that it has more in situ frescoes than Pompeii. What is lacking in Herculaneum is the official public space. I suspect that it is under the modern city, may have been explored via tunnels, but is unavailable to the general public. Pompeii will require more time, and there is a cafeteria on the grounds which serves acceptable sandwiches, pizza, etc. Both were reached via the Circumvesuviana, an easy commute from Naples’ central station.

For the statuary one needs to go to the National Archeological Museum, which has wonderful art objects but few objects of daily life. There is the notorious Secret Cabinet, for which individuals do not need a reservation, at least not when we were there. But even if missed, a more limited selection of erotica will be seen in Pompeii’s Lupanare.

The only other large museum we visited was the Museo di Capodimonte, which has a fine collection of art from the Medieval period to the 18th century--maybe later, but we were tired by that time. We picnicked in its park. Otherwise we wandered through the old section of Naples, rode the funicular to get a view of the city, walked down to see the Galleria Umberto I, peeked inside this church or that one, visited the underground Roman market, and probably did not use our time most efficiently. We missed the ceramics museum which was on our list of things to do. Generally we much preferred Naples to Rome because it gave us the feeling of a city that is not oriented exclusively toward tourism; we saw relatively few (nos semblables, nos frères) in the centro storico. There were mounds of trash on the streets, especially along the Corso Umberto I when we were driven to the B&B. In part it was because Berlusconi had visited the city a few days earlier, so the Neapolitans put out even more trash as a reminder that he had claimed much earlier that he would clean up the trash in just a few days. A couple of days later that avenue was clean of trash. The mound near the post office on Via Monteoliveto was ugly, but otherwise the trash mounds, while not attractive, had no smell--it was not garbage.

Here are the pictures of Naples, Pompeii and Herculaneum: http://www.flickr.com/pho.../sets/72157627058744325/

From Naples we took the Regionale to Pistoia, changing in Rome and Florence. We stayed with relatives, who treated us very well. But the day we arrived was their pizza day--take-out. Again there was a complete lack of vegetables aside from the tomato sauce on the pizza; not even a salad. We offered to cook a meal, went shopping in a large Coop supermarket which had everything but at a price--I think that food is cheaper in the States. I purchased small artichokes, fresh peas, fresh favas and a fennel. I did a variant of La Frittedda (Marcella Hazan, Vol. II, p. 360) which went over fairly well. The girls did not eat it, but they eat no vegetables, and the husband had decided to prepare his Sardinian mother’s fava dish, which we had the another day and did not match up. But my cousin just inhaled the vegetables, even though her own cooking had relatively little. The other notable meal we had I described in a previous posting:

I just came back from a restaurant in Spazzavento, just outside Pistoia. Here's the menu we had:

6 coperto
pizze (a dry flat bread with olive oil)
antipasti
3 primi (one was tripled and cost 19.50)
4 secondi (2 were doubled and cost 29.60 and 14)
one contorni
5 drinks including a full bottle of red wine, 4 liters of acqua, a large glass of beer (50 cl) and a pitcher of beer

total 127 euros for six

It was a nice community atmosphere. The one problem is that Togliatti was watching over us. It was at the Casa del Popolo di Spazzavento. They make an exceptional pizza according to the people who took us there, although we did not order it. All the food, especially the various versions of veal chops and steak were excellent. But it might bother some that the proceeds go to the CP. I got a free polo shirt to boot because I came from California.

I would anyone staying close by to consider this place. It really is for the locals, is a lot of fun and the food is good. Unfortunately it is not very accessible to travelers who might be staying in Florence since a car is necessary to get there. Our others meals in Florence and Lucca were OK. We had one picnic on some church steps on the other side of the Arno--benches are rare in Florence.

We spent two days in Florence and two days outside the city. We had reservations for the Uffizi. As in the Vatican, although to a lesser degree, the crowds were incredible. It does not make for quiet contemplation of art, but seeing this art and the art in Rome does clearly imprint in the mind the change from Medieval art to Renaissance art. There are wonderful paintings in there, although the long galleries of the Uffizi are almost as impressive in their decoration; and what really impressed me were the frescoes on the Bruneschelli dome (one has to have binoculars or climb up to the dome to really see them) and the mosaics of the Baptistry. There are lines for the cathedral and to climb the dome. But the real surprise was the Chapel of the Magi in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. It should not be missed; it is a small jewel of one piece, and there were no lines or crowds. The central market is worth a visit; it is divided between stands for tourists (wine shops, specialty items, sandwiches) and stands for local shoppers (butchers, green grocers etc.). We picked up lunch items there.

We went to Lucca for a day, and while the oval piazza is lovely, I was not impressed by the town wall which apparently had the effect of keeping the core of the city intact. We also took a family outing to Serravalle Pistoiese and Montecatini, the high town and the thermal one. The first town is very small, just worth a little walk and a climb in one of the remaining castle towers, giving a nice view over the town and the countryside. Montecatini has an old town on top of the hill, with a cute piazza. The thermal part is a 19th century hotel and spa town. These are visits for those who seek some escape from the crowds of Florence, but they are not a priority. Pistoia has a nice main piazza and some interesting churches and the Renaissance Hospital Del Ceppo (still in use, at least as a day clinic). In my mind it is as interesting as Lucca.

Here are the pictures, including those from our first 1967 visit to Florence and Pisa:

http://www.flickr.com/pho.../sets/72157627066754871/

From Pistoia we went to Zurich to visit another set of cousins. We found a 25 CHF per person ticket from Milano to Zurich, and saw some comments about reduced tickets on Italian trains. I sent the information to my Pistoia cousin’s husband who got the tickets for me. But since we were going to be in Pistoia, he did not forward them to me in Naples, like last year when the hotel dropped out of sight and we were never able to retrieve the prepaid tickets. Mailing them to me this year would probably have been fine, because the B&B stayed in touch with me via e-mail before we arrived.

There was a little incident on the Swiss border. A man sitting across the aisle from us was asked for his papers by the Swiss border guards, he fished around for various documentation and was ultimately escorted off the train and put on a train going in back to Italy along with a half dozen persons who had been previously detained. The border guards never asked for our papers.

Switzerland is expensive. Its residents are probably the only ones who could travel to Norway and find it relatively inexpensive. We paid 25 CHF from Milan to Zurich, but 23 CHF from Zurich to Luzern and 30 CHF from Luzern to Winterthur. When I purchased the tickets in Zurich, the dreaded DCC monster reared its head. I asked to be charged in CHF and had no problems getting the billing changed. I took my cousins out for dinner to a local pizzeria, and the bill for the 5 of us came out to 269.50 CHF ($306.69) with no extravagant items. The same meal might have cost $80 at an upscale pizzeria like Pauline’s in San Francisco. Fortunately we were treated for all other meals in Zurich with the exception of quick food meals.

We did have a couple of good meals. One was absolutely non-tourist as we ate in the nursing home where one of my cousin resides near Luzern. Having had two parents in different nursing homes in NYC, both recommended as being very good, I can only say that the Swiss standard far surpasses what New York has to offer. The nursing home is free to the residents of that particular community and outsiders have to pay. It is perhaps unusual in its layout and amenities because that particular community attracts the richissimes, a couple of whom donated millions to the construction of the home and senior housing on the same grounds. The other very good meal was in a restaurant called HILTL (http://www.flickr.com/pho...in/set-72157622927438333 ), which has an enormous vegetarian buffet on the ground floor and a service restaurant upstairs. We went upstairs and I think we should have stayed downstairs. The food was very good, but the buffet looked better. A peculiarity was that the servers refused to bring us water--we had to get it ourselves--as if they are not obligated to bring to the table anything that is free.

Our time in Zurich was spent in the following manner. We spent one day with my Berlin cousin just wandering around the old part of the town on the right bank of the Limmat. It was an opportunity to catch up on news. We went to visit my cousin in Luzern, and give moral support to her companion because the rest of the family does not approve his placing her in the nursing home--the best thing that could have happened given the circumstances. From Luzern we went to Winterthur to attend a concert of modern Polish music in which my Zurich cousin’s girlfriend was performing. The next day, my wife and I were on our own and we went to the Zurich art museum (not a destination, but worthwhile if you happen to be in Zurich) and walked around the old town on the left bank of the Limmat. That evening my cousin and family took us to a crêperie, which was fine.

These are my Switzerland pictures, taken over a number of years:

http://www.flickr.com/pho...7438333/with/5963913121/

We left Switzerland via Basel, going to Bordeaux with EasyJet. The French portion will be another but shorter trip report.

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