Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Friends, Romans, Countrymen lend me your ears - Rome, Italy


Destination: Rome, Italy

Days spent: 3

Where we stayed: ???? we have the card but it is in Chinese...email address was romanihao9156@hotmail.com and we were able to bargain the price down from 65 Euro/night to 50 Euro/Night with unlimited wifi with an excellent signal and a pretty lame breakfast

Best restaurant: We were not impressed with Rome restaurants but the wine bar, Cesaretto, had great house wine for 13E per liter in a great outdoor setting near the Spanish Steps! Not really budget style but it was very tasty!

Best of: There is nowhere else on earth with so many sights and so much history in one compact area so well preserved!

Worst of: The crowds in Rome are horrible. Arrive early at the Vatican Museum otherwise most people stand in line for up to two hours.

Most Memorable: Walking right outside the metro and seeing the Colosseum for the first (and second in Tracy's case) time!

Useful Tips: Buy a Roma pass at any Tobacco shop or TI (read below for details); Download Rick Steves audio guides from ITunes onto your IPOD - free and entertaining!

Rome. The name alone evokes tons of famous images - The Colosseum, the Forum and the Pantheon are all famous sights in Rome. Across the river lies the Vatican (technically its own country) ground zero for the Catholic church, the Pope, and all their treasures. The city itself, while cosmopolitan in its own right, lacks the "linger" appeal that so many of its neighbors have (Paris, Amsterdam, etc.) making it a place to hit the big sights and move on to "greener" pastures (see the forthcoming postings on the Tuscany and Umbria regions).

After departing the ship, we took the train into Rome and began our whirlwind tour of the city (4.50 euro/person - much cheaper than the $75 transfer that the ship wanted that still dropped you off at the train station). After checking into our guest house and taking advantage of our free wifi (yay - we missed it after 21 days on a cruise ship) we headed straight to the Colosseum. When we arrived in Rome we purchased the Rome Pass which we highly recommend. It includes entry into a few of the major sites as well as 3 days of public transport. Best of all, it allows you to skip ahead of the line! This is a huge time saver as lines at the Colosseum can be up to 2 hours long. The pass pays for itself (about 25 Euro) if you hit the major attractions and use public transport (which is reliable & faster than fighting traffic in a cab).

The Colosseum represents the most well preserved and largest Roman amphitheater ever built. During Roman times, this was their version of going to the theater or concert. Much like in the movie, The Gladiator, "performers" would come out and battle animals, famous battle scenes would be re-enacted and the crowds could not get enough blood. The part with the thumbs up or down to determine life or death cannot be confirmed, but the Emperor had some form of playing god type fun. Much like in today's concert venues, the prices were less the farther away you got. Hard to imagine, but even above the still existing levels there were even more levels made of wood that were free to the public. The stadium floor, made of wood, was covered in a layer of sand or dirt hiding the trap doors and platforms that would raise the actors into the scene. The sheer size is more impressive that what is left inside, but it's still interesting to walk through and imagine what it was like with thousands of fans screaming and cheering for their favorite gladiator.

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Our ticket to the Colosseum includes entry to the Roman Forum, right across the street so it was our official second stop. As capital of the vast Roman Empire, this area of ancient Rome included temples, the Senate, the Emperors private digs and the main square. It was here that all the decisions were made for the empire, laws were passed and all the wealth flowed here. Although Julius Caesar lived here and the Senate held court across the road, the infamous stabbing on the Senate steps actually happened further away as on that fateful day in March, the senate was being held elsewhere.

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That night we took a walk to see the Victor Emmanuel monument (aka, the wedding cake) and the Spanish Steps. Emmanuel was the first president of Italy and united the country. Well respected and loved by most, his name appears all over on street signs and statues. The Spanish steps gets its name from the Spanish Embassy nearby. With the church at the top and a fountain at the bottom, it serves as a popular meeting spot at night. We enjoyed a carafe of wine nearby before meeting our friends, Tim and Linda for dinner. If you guys are reading this thanks again for dinner, we had a great time! Hopefully we will meet again in Colorado!

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The next morning we headed out bright and early to tour the Vatican Museum. A note to future tourists, go early or you will wait in line for hours!!! The only way to get out of the line is to book a tour which is generally very expensive but many people find it a more enjoyable way to see this major site. If you opt not to take a tour we highly recommend arriving early and downloading the Rick Steves tour for the Sistine Chapel (FREE on ITunes...he also offers one for the Colosseum, Pantheon and the Forum which are excellent as well as various other Italian sites in other cities). We downloaded and listened to all but 1 of his tours on Italy and recommend them all (again, it's FREE)!

The Vatican Museum contains one of the world's largest, if not the largest, collection of art. Amassed over thousands of years of conquering, plundering, pillaging & occasionally purchasing (hey, how else did all these Greek statues get here) the collection is almost over whelming in size. The museum starts with ancient Egyptian art and culminates with Michelangelo's masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Some of the collection highlights include an ancient mummy, an endless sea of Greek statues (many covered with plaster fig leaves during the counter reformation), busts, altarpieces, tapestries and frescoes by masters Raphael & Michelangelo.

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After passing through a seemingly endless maze of rooms with priceless works of art and just before the piece de la resistance you encounter a series of rooms painted by Raphael & his disciples. While Michelangelo won the bid to paint the Sistine Chapel, Raphael got second place and was afforded the opportunity to paint four rooms in the Vatican complex. Imagine that at the same time, there were not one, but two masters painting a room apart and trying to outdo one another! After the unveiling of the first half of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, Raphael recognized his genius and painted him into one of his frescoes.

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After craning our necks to see the Raphael rooms it was next onto the Sistine Chapel! Few things in the world compare to the amazing frescoes painted on the ceiling. Without help and sitting on his back with paint dripping down high above the floor for 7 years, Michelangelo tirelessly slaved over his creation. The ceiling was actually done in two parts. The first half, or the back part of the chapel, has far more detail than the front half. After the scafolding was taken down and revealed the half finished ceiling everyone was in awe and amazed...except for Michelangelo. All the rich detail was lost from the view from the floor so he changed his strategy for the next half - less detail and larger figures so that it would be appreciated from the ground. The overall results leaves one with a stiff neck but a great appreciation for the dedication and talent he had, especially the church. Later in his life, when the counterreformation was beginning to rear it's ugly head (the golden age of concrete fig leaf producers), the church again commissioned Michelangelo to paint the stirring Redemption behind the altar. Serving as a reminder, Jesus doles out justice to the wicked and resurrects the innocent from his lofty perch dead center of the wall while all hell breaks out around him.

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St. Peter's is considered THE church. If you only visit one church in Rome (or the world for that matter), it should be this one. With its stunning dome, Michelangelo's Pieta and magnificent altar housing the bones of St. Peter himself, this church is truly a sight to behold even without a burning camerlingo (Angels and Demons reference).

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After visiting the Vatican and St. Peter's we made a stop at Rome's famous Pantheon. It is considered one of Rome's most impressive structures. It was built over 2500 years ago and it is one of the few fully intact structures from ancient Rome. Even more amazing is the dome itself, a testament to the incredible engineering prowess of the Romans. Without any supports it has survived several earthquakes and still stands as it did 2500 years ago. Some of Rome's most famous citizens are buried under the Pantheon's bright oculus (Raphael, Victor Emmanuel, etc).

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Our day at the Vatican wouldn't be complete without a visit to at least three other churches. Instead of telling you all about them we'll just show you the highlights via photos of each:

Santa Maria Sopra Minnerva with its Michelangelo statue:

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San Ignacio, one of the best examples of Baroque architecture in Rome:

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San Luigi dei Francesi with its magnificent Carravaggio's:

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That night we enjoyed a stroll through the historical center of Rome, complete with tartufo (death by chocolate gelato....incredible)! We stopped by the Pantheon, Piazza Navona with its brilliant fountain by Bernini, the Spanish steps & the famous Trevi fountain. After tossing our coin in the fountain to ensure our return to Rome we headed back for the night! And we didn't even have to rescue the next pope (what can we say, we just saw the movie and both loved the book)!

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The next morning we headed to the Borghese in hopes of scoring an unused ticket. Unfortunately none were available so we headed back across town to the National Museum. Rome's National Museum houses one of the world's greatest collections of ancient mosaics, frescoes, Greek & Roman marble statues and several fascinating sarcophagi.

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After our tour of the National Museum we grabbed our bags and headed to the train station for a two hour (non-airconditioned and very, very hot) train ride to Orvieto!

To see more photos of Rome click here!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Life from the 1st century to 21st Italy: Naples & Pompeii, Italy


Destination: Pompeii & Naples, Italy

Where we stayed: Crown Princess

Best restaurant: Antica Pizzeria da Michele - serving just two types of pizzas (margherita and marinara, basically a no cheese pizza) this little place is packed with locals and tourists with a line out the door. Vastly different than pizza in the states; the gooey, cheesy and thin pizza is best eaten folded over and some of the best we have ever had.

Best of: The most well preserved frescoes of Pompeii exist in the Brothel, read into that what you wish. The gooey goodness of Antica's (above) famous pies.

Worst of: Almost all of the artifacts from Pompeii are in a museum in Naples which we didn't have time to see. If you came to see all the pottery, "cement" men and other moveable objects save time for the Archaeological Museum in Naples.

We started the morning in Pompeii. This ancient city is one of the finest and intact examples of everyday life during Roman times. It was a bustling port city up until 79 AD when everything changed. Mount Vesuvius blew her top and completely covered the city in 30 feet of hot ash leaving it virtually intact and as it was on that day. Although most of the precious artifacts are in a museum in Naples, the city still provides a good overall glimpse into the daily life.

Serving an estimated 20,000 people, Pompeii had over 40 bakeries, 120 bars, lots of hotels and restaurants and of course, the oldest profession in the world - over 30 brothels. As a reminder of how the Earth is constantly changing, you enter through the old port where the ocean once lapped up to the walls, now nearly 30 miles away. Their famous "concrete" men were created when excavators found pockets of air buried in the ash they filled the holes with cement leaving a mold of how the victims perished in their various poses. Most of them are in the museum, but a couple are found here to explain the process.

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The raised stones in the street served as stepping stones for pedestrians. Everyday the people would wash out the streets (no toilets back then) so these stones kept them high and dry. There are also remains of Egyptian temples and a synagague (yet to be uncovered) providing a glimpse into the diversity and tolerance for other cultures this city had.

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Even the mosaics here are copies (the originals in the museum as well) but the copies give you context. "Have" means "Hail to Thee" in Latin, or basically, your 2000 year old door mat.

The best preserved frescoes in Pompeii are found in one of the Brothels. These small frescoes line the top of the walls as if reading like a menu of services. Scratched into the walls are the exotic names of the workers with comments filled in below like signing the guest book.

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After Pompeii's exposure to the 1st century we headed back to the 20th century in Napes. As the third largest city in Italy, and the most densely populated in all of Europe, many visitors find Naples unappealing. We however found it quite enjoyable. With no real gangbuster sights (aside from the Museum) the appealing part is the humanity. We took a stroll through the older part of town stopping at a couple of places along the way. Hungry from Pompeii, we hit the pizza joint first (mentioned above), grabbed a drink from the convenience store, and sat in the "park". One down side of Naples is the lack of green space, but we made the best of it by finding a flower pot to sit on in a tiny plaza. From our spot we watched the people go about their day. Families lean out from balconies. As a side business, these homes sell various items and send them down to the street in buckets. Two guys sat on their motorbikes talking more with their hands than their mouths. Locals sat in the little cafe enjoying their long, leisurely lunches, sipping on coffee and smoking away. Ladies in stiletto heels and Gucci bags (perhaps knock offs?) buzzed through the street on Vespas. Children chased after one another. This is the real Italy. No tourist sights, no famous paintings, just the buzzing of life in a concrete world.

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We made our way back to the ship for one last night of three course meals and the comforts of English speakers all around. Next stop, the end of our cruise and the sight packed city of Rome!

To see more pictures of Naples & Pompeii click here.