Europe 2012

Roman fruit and vegetable market + the end

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Okay, guys, this is the last of our Europe 2012 trip. It sure was fantastic! What better way to spend a week in Rome than to do it celebrating Grandma and Grandpa L’s 50th wedding anniversary! Congratulations, you two!

[Please note: the following accounts are a bit out of chronological order. Deal with it.]

During our last two days in Rome I did some serious clothes shopping. July and February are huge sale months in Rome, apparently. Happily for me, the main street just a block and a piazza away from our apartment overflowed with name-brand shops, most of with which I was unfamiliar, all with “SALDI! SALDI!” plastered across their display windows full of bright summer clothing. Even Gap, the only name I recognized, offered massive sales; they had a racks of clothing for €4 – I’ve never seen prices that low in Gap in the US! Even better than the prices was the clothing itself! While American stores seem to sell clothing tailored to fit inanimate mannequins or shapeless super models, the stores in Rome abounded with clothing that fit! And was comfortable! It was a glorious miracle!

Grandma and Grandpa, Mom and Dad, Aunt Marylu, and I also visited Campo di Fiori, a fresh food market within walking or busing distance from our apartment. Fruit and vegetable markets are one of my favorite parts of international travel. Even though farmers’ markets are slowly popping up here and there at home, nothing beats the well-established tradition of a foreign food market for gorgeous produce flawlessly displayed in beautiful mounds of every imaginable color. I can wander them contentedly  for hours.

Our final museum of the trip wasn’t really a museum at all, at least not in the way that the other ones were with their troves of ancient art treasures. This one displayed some of the hundreds of inventions of Leonardo Da Vinci in working form. Visitors were allowed to touch and manipulate many pieces, most of which were mechanisms for changing one type of motion, say vertical, to another type of motion, perhaps horizontal. Also included were some diving and scuba diving suits. These were all items he never actually made, mind you, so nothing I touched had ever been formed by the hands of Da Vinci himself. Besides the kinesthetic pieces, the museum included a fascinating video display explaining the meaning behind Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man – how its proportions related to the golden ratio and so on. Unlike the short film about Da Vinci’s life, the display was soundless with English subtitles. I didn’t bother with the film’s all-Italian-and-cheesy-acting-and-no-subtitles approach.

The morning of our departure – the morning after a delightful last supper of crispy, thin-crust Italian pizza – our family and the grandparents actually did not have to wake up excessively early, especially compared to everyone else who rose at 3:30am for their 7am flights. Still, at Dad’s insistence we arrived at the airport three hours before our 11:45 flight, and as much as I dislike saying it, particularly when it comes to airport timing, it’s a good thing we did. Dad was right. The line just to enter the ticketing area took forever. Check-in wasn’t too bad, but security was very long. By the time we snagged a speedy breakfast and found our gate, our flight had begun boarding. Perfect timing! And we were only 45 minutes delayed leaving. Excellent end to an excellent trip.


better than Pompeii: Ostia Antica

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I told you earlier:

Herculaneum > Pompeii

Well, you should know something else:

Ostia Antica > Pompeii

The ruins of the pre-Roman port of Ostia Antica are a very reachable 30-minute metro and train trip outside of Rome towards the Mediterranean. Once at the train station, it’s just a brief 10 or so minute walk to the gate at the edge of the ruins. Pay your entry fee and amble on in; there are no crowds to shuffle behind or lines to wait in.

Though I am not sure of its actual size, Ostia Antica felt as large as the ruins of Pompeii, if not larger. Regardless, it is quite evident that the entirety of the ruins have not yet been fully excavated, judging from the walls poking up from the forest floor beyond the already exhumed buildings. Starting at the ruins of graves and mausoleums outside of the town proper, the buildings only grown in size and level of preservation. The impressiveness of the preservation of the structures of Ostia Antica is what makes it better than Pompeii. Just as in Herculaneum, it is easy to imagine Ostia Antica as a throbbing, active port town. No need for verbal or pictorial reconstructions of most buildings; just look at them to know what function they served.

Ostia Antica’s only drawback in comparison to Pompeii is its lack of decorative flair. Its mosaics, incredibly expansive, beautiful, and accurate though they may be, are in black and white as opposed to brilliant color in Pompeii. Its buildings do not display as much marble, ornamental or otherwise, as Pompeii’s toppled temples and tumbled villas. Perhaps it’s just my impression, but I suspect Ostia Antica was not as wealthy as Pompeii. Plus, it is older, so what carved stone and color tile used to exist may have disappeared more completely than in Pompeii, with its sudden burial.

However, aesthetic quibbles aside, Ostia Antica’s mosaics, underground tunnels, towering amphitheater, and endlessly interconnected houses are excellent fun, especially since very few areas are roped off. I explored every corner and turn of nearly every building with which I came in contact for the first two and a half hours I we were inside the ruins. Of course, I never finished seeing everything. To do that you would need a good five or six hours, I think. As it was, our 4 hours or so in the ruins felt sufficient. I enjoyed it.

Go to Ostia Antica, people.


atop St. Peter’s + my favorite sculptor

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Wednesday the 18th of July found us beginning to split up for visits and re-visits to some less necessary, but still very popular, locations in Rome.

Mom, Dad, and I got up and left the apartment around 8 in order to beat the crowds to St. Peter’s to climb to the top of the dome and have another look around. Climbing St. Peter’s has a price, of course: 7€ per person. I think it was worth the price. Several hundred winding stairs brought us first to the inside of the larger, lower dome to inspect the huge mosaics and for areal view of some of the chapels of the ground floor of the basilica, populated by early mass attendees. More steps deposited us on the outside of the smaller, higher dome from which we could see the entire sprawl of Rome. St. Peter’s is the tallest building in Rome; we were atop of the center of the ancient world.

Once we descended the steps, we wandered the inside of St. Peter’s, which was still mercifully free of tour groups. I visited the crypt where most of the popes – and, supposedly, Peter the apostle – are buried. Though most of the crypt was roped off, it was incredible to see the tombs of popes inscribed with dates in the 1200s and 1300s. So long ago! Also, while I was down there, a choir was singing somewhere in or above the crypt, and their a capella voices drifted through the stone corridors to me. It was beautiful.

I headed home for a leisurely lunch and some blog post work while Mom et al walked down to some building that did not interest me. Assuming Mom and Dad would come home and eat before the three of us headed to the Borghese Gallery for our 1:00 entrance time, I did not check my phone until it seemed rather late for them to have time to eat. Whoops. They wanted me to meet them at the metro station. I stuffed the rest of my wonderful sandwich down my throat, – alas, I wished I could have enjoyed it properly – grabbed my bag, and ran to the metro station, arriving just as they appeared from underground. No time to work out a route on our bus map, we power walked through a dry, dusty, and water fountain-less section of the Borghese Gardens and, thanks to Dad’s iPad GPS, straight to the Borghese Villa Gallery and to the back of the line out in the sun.

Mrs. Bowman told us to go to the Borghese. She said it was her favorite Museum in Italy. That’s why we were there. That, and Mom’s guidebook said if we only visited one museum in Rome, it should be the Borghese Gallery. But, we went on Mrs. Bowman’s insistence. And she did not steer us wrong. The museum allows only a certain number of people inside for two hours at a time, so its rooms are not at all crowded. In fact, it is possible to be alone in a room, just you and the art. Oh, and it’s properly air conditioned. That was a first and last for any of the museums we visited on our entire trip.

Despite its manifold attractions, I admit I was unimpressed with the Borghese at first. I felt art-saturated, and the the art in the first few rooms on the second story, though impressive in its own right, I’m sure, was just more of the same. I chortled to myself that the Borghese was probably Mrs. Bowman’s favorite museum because it was air conditioned, uncrowded, and relatively small – the perfect combination for someone who loves art museums as little as Mrs. Bowman – and myself, truth be told. However, after I breezed through the first few rooms of stereotypical paintings and small sculptures, I discovered an incredibly intricate mosaic, then a decorative fireplace, and finally a statue by Bernini, and another, and another, and another! I was impressed,  – I’m sorry I doubted you Mrs. Bowman! – very impressed with Bernini’s statues. Though he lived and sculpted more than a century after Michelangelo, Bernini’s work, in my mind, is as incredible as Michelangelo’s, if not more. I circled and wondered and stared at his David, Pluto and Proserpina, Apollo and Daphne, and unfinished Truth Unveiled by Time for longer than I have ever spent inspecting any art, excepting, perhaps, Michelangelo’s David itself. I even listened to the audio guide for the sculptures! And that never happens. In his sculptures Bernini successfully, convincingly transformed marble into delicate leaves, flowing cloth, rough bark, strong fingers, taut rope, soft flesh, plated armor, and sinewy muscle. His figures are dynamic, frozen mid-stride or mid-swing. I don’t think I used to have a favorite artist/sculptor. I do now, though: Bernini. You really should flip through Google images of his sculptures. Really. Do it.

In the evening the whole family – all 13 of us! – traveled by bus, cab, and foot to the Piazza Navona to wander what I assumed was an ever-present art fair and to eat out as a group for once. On the way we somewhat accidentally came upon the Pantheon, so of course we popped inside for a quick, jaw-dropping look around and some pictures. Once we arrived at Piazza Navona we split up for 20 minutes to explore and allow someone to find a restaurant able to accommodate our numbers and offering an adequate selection of both pizza and pasta. Dinner, once the location was decided upon, was scrumptious. I accomplished my goal of eating real, Italian gnocchi – which I make on occasion – by consuming an obscene amount of the soft, potato pasta drowning in four-cheese sauce; it must have contained enough calories to fuel an olympic athlete. The day ended with – what else? – gelato.

St. Peter’s, the Vatican, and its museum

[click to enlarge the pictures]

Almost all of us, even Grandpa, left the apartment by 9 on the morning of Tuesday the 17th. We wormed our way into the packed metro cars and rode the few stops to the stop just outside the Vatican City, and followed the crowds to the arched entrance through the thick, brick walls of the Vatican into the columns surrounding St. Peter’s Square.

When Grandma and Grandpa were in Rome three years ago, Grandma discovered that a free – totally free; not even tips accepted! – tour of St. Peter’s occurs three mornings a week. An advertisement for the tour is apparently posted on the wall of St. Peter’s information and gift shop, but people must just miss the information, because very few people take the tour, considering the excellent price, that is. The tour meets just outside the the shop to the left of St. Peter’s at 9:45 am.

After we followed her to skirt the large line to enter the basilica, the wonderful English lady, a resident of Rome for 40 years, guided us up and down the length of the church, providing historical facts, art identification, and anecdotes from her own long history with St. Peter’s and the Catholic church. It was an excellent tour.

The main lesson from our tour was that St. Peter’s is one grand optical illusion. As one of the main architects and designers, Michelangelo, mindful of the huge scale of the building, worked to make St. Peter’s feel like a much less overwhelming, much more personal building that it actually is. Statues are larger in size the higher up they are placed, so all the statues seem the same size and appear close. Each of  the letters of the John 21 passage that runs around the cathedral is about six feet tall. The arched ceiling, though obviously lofty, does not seem nearly as high as it is. The illusion is quite impressive, once you know the actual measurements of the various structures within the building. But really, you have to see it to understand. Go see it! It’s worth the trip.

As for the Vatican Museum, I have the popes, who pillaged, plundered, and threatened their way  through the centuries to acquiring a world-class art collection, to thank for my visit. The museum overflows with art on the floors, walls, and ceilings of sprawling rooms and 1/4-mile long hallways. My favorite part of the museum was being able to see Rafael’s The School of Athens in context with the other paintings in the room. There are four, relatively small frescos on the ceiling of the room that depict poetry, philosophy, justice, and theology. On the walls corresponding with their respective sides of the ceiling are painted scenes depicting those four types of knowledge. Besides The School of Athens, clearly portraying philosophy, a picture of Greek and Roman gods reflects poetry, while a vision heaven filled with Christian philosophers, Catholic saints, and the Trinity represents theology. I found the small fresco of justice rather uninteresting. However, on the whole it was fascinating to discover that The School of Athens is not a stand-alone fresco, as I previously imagined, but rather part of a larger cohesive unit of frescos meant to be seen as a whole piece. Who knew!

Of course, seeing the Sistine Chapel again was very nice. But, I did not stay long in the chapel. Besides the discomfort of tilting my neck back at a 45-degree angle to stare at the ceiling, my mouth hanging unceremoniously open in the effort, the room was absolutely packed. There was barely room to stand, let alone be seated on the benches along the wall, which is the only place you are allowed to sit. In addition, the museum guards were incessantly and somewhat ironically yelling, “Silencio!” and “No photo!” at us, the rowdy mass of visitors. The low roar would quiet almost imperceptibly for a split second before returning to its accustomed volume, that of 200 people whispering comments to their neighbors or reading guidebooks aloud to their children. It was quite an experience.

Bottom line of this post: if you go St. Peter’s Basilica, take the free tour. 

the glory days: the Colosseum and Roman Forum

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

[Well, guys, I’m behind. I have eight or so posts in the works. Descriptions are going to be short and to the point.]

Despite being gradually dismembered by earthquakes and Romans looking for disused stone for their own construction projects, the Colosseum remains quite an impressive structure. The thing is huge. It certainly was a good investment, though. What with five hundred or so years of gruesome entertainment, a stint as a church and another as housing for squatters, and finally as a wildly popular tourist destination now and for hundreds of years to come, surely, the building has amassed as much use as could ever be expected from any construction.

It’s admittedly difficult to imagine what Rome must have been like judging from the Roman Forum. A column sticks up here to mark a massive temple; a crumbling wall stands there reminding people that dozens of shops once inhabited the area; a piece marble, a bit of travertine, some piles of bricks – the rest is left up to the imagination and the descriptions of guidebooks. Nevertheless, it is clear that for centuries ancient historical events piled themselves on top of even more ancient history in mad succession, until Rome finally fell and plunged its soaring architecture into centuries of disuse, disrepair, and, finally, destruction and burial by the elements.

So much history is bound up in the Colosseum and Roman Forum and the area surrounding the two. It’s incredible. I love ancient history. American history is so boring and brief. Even paving stones and water fountains in Rome are older than the United States.



catacombs, bones, and lots of travertine

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

First whole day in Rome:

  • We visited some empty catacombs off the ancient Roman road, the Appian Way. They were empty due to destructive looting by invading barbarians many hundreds of years ago. Bones were re-buried in mass graves later, though still hundreds of years ago. Our 30-minute tour barely touched the 20 kilometers and four levels of passages. No pictures were allowed below ground.
  • Due to a slight misdirection on our bus ride home from the catacombs, we accidentally came upon the Pope’s Cathedral, the church of which the pope is actually bishop. More proper name: Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran.
  • After lunch I unwittingly joined an excursion to a horrifying crypt of several rooms of human bones arranged in “artistic” patterns – the Capuchin Crypt. Google for pictures. Centuries ago some disturbed monk, observant of the available skeletons of some three or four thousand dead and buried monks, requested permission to turn their remains into art. The higher-ups let him. The skeletal remain, which had been peacefully resting, were dismembered and tacked up, piled, and wired together in chains, small chandeliers, looping swirls, and symmetrical piles of identical bones. It is passed off as a sober contemplation of death. Nope. I don’t buy it. It was and is horrible, disrespectful, and gross.
  • We had pizza – ordered and fetched by the boys from a cafe down the road – and salad for supper. Italian food is wonderful.


Other information:

  • Mel Gibson once stayed in the apartment in which we reside here in Rome.
  • Travertine, a type of whiteish limestone, is absolutely everywhere in Rome. It’s a bit of a shame, as its natural pores and crevices fill with grime, producing a perpetually dirty appearance.  However, I’m sure it must have been readily available, and it seems to have held up reasonably well through the centuries.

water and sunshine on the Amalfi Coast

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We took a day off the day after we visited Pompeii and Herculaneum, Friday. I mostly blogged, hung around the house, cooked part of lunch, and generally did nothing in particular. It was great to relax after ceaseless daily activities since arriving in Europe.

Our day of rest did not extend to the next morning however. We were packed up and in the car on our way out of Sorrento by 8:20, though we could have been ready earlier had the hotel office been open for checkout. Mom scheduled a boating, swimming, and snorkeling excursion in the Mediterranean along the Amalfi Coast, starting in Positano.

The sun beat down on the black sand and pebble beach as we waited for our little rubber boat to arrive. When it arrived our driver helped us on and grabbed the stack of towels thrown at him by another employee of the tour company. For the next three hours we boated between calm coves and cool grottos, snorkeling and swimming as we pleased. Eventually we boated far enough down to see Amalfi itself from the boat. We enjoyed the  glistening, perfectly clear and impossibly blue water and quaint towns with their staircases down the cliffs to the water.

After an unsatisfactory rinse-off in some outdoor showers across feet-burning sand, we drove straight to the airport in Rome to drop off our rental car. From there we took a taxi to our apartment in Rome, where everyone else had already assembled.

And the week in Rome began.