Friday, July 11, 2008

Roma Heat Eterna

So this is our last night in Rome. Tomorrow we fly back to London, and then on to San Francisco on Sunday. But we're not there yet...

On Wednesday we visited the Vatican and didn't have enough time. The line, while enormous, actually moves very quickly, and we got inside St. Peters in about 45 minutes. Once inside, there was no more waiting. We spent a lot of time wandering around the basilica, built during the Renaissance. It is the largest in the world, and you believe it. The ceilings are huge throughout, and the mosaics on the walls really stand out. The high altar seems about 3 stories tall, and is directly over the tomb of the apostle Peter, while the site of his upside-down crucifixion is in the left wing. Michaelangelo's Pieta sculpture is in the right wing, and sits behind bullet-proof glass. It's magnificent.

From there, we could have gone directly to the Sistene Chapel or climbed the Dome, and we decided to climb the Dome first. All the other dome climbing was a warm-up for this 520-step journey. But with all our walking around and climbing, it didn't seem as challenging as it sounds. The most unique thing about it was the utter lack of graffiti on the walls, and some modern steps. (But the fun slanty climb at the top was still there.) The surveillance cameras and easy-to-clean glazed bricks might have something to do with its cleanliness.

Last was the Vatican Museum and Sistene Chapel. It closes surprisingly early and we didn't get enough time, but it was still worth it. The rooms leading up to the chapel are an impressive precursor, with hallways painted with many many maps (each the size of a large room) of the ancient world, and real tapestries. In the rooms themselves (formerly apartments for medieval popes) are frescoes by Raphael including School of Athens (look it up :) ). I wasn't expecting it and almost walked right past it. Finally was the Sistene Chapel with Michaelangelo's restored ceiling, which removed the dust and soot from many centuries, but added no paint. It's surprising how bright and vivid it is. But the guards spend a lot of their time telling people to be quiet and wandering through the crowd to get them to stop taking pictures. Some people!

Yesterday we visited the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, Mamertine Prison, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and the Trevi Fountain. The Colosseum is taller than I expected, but not as wide or long. Unfortunately, we couldn't go out onto the restores arena floor like Tim and Corey did. Also unfortunately, I lost the others near the exit.

After about an hour without seeing them (they thought I was ahead of them and were waiting at the nearby Arch of Constantine), I gave up and went ahead to the arch (they'd already left), and then across the street to the ruins of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, the home of emporers. Most impressive there was the ruins of the Vesta temple and the home of the Vestal Virgin, the preserved Roman Curia (but you can't go inside) and the Arch of Titus, built by conquered Jews after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Equally impressive is that I ran into the others near the end of our time there! Whew!

Mamertine prison is quite a place to be. Both the apostles Paul and Peter were actually imprisoned in its cell (across the alley from the Curia), and you can stand next to the pillar to which Peter was chained. It's very dark and damp and small, but not as small as some of the dungeon cells in the Louvre -- which isn't saying a whole lot.

Later in the day after siesta, we went to the Pantheon. It's got enormous Egyptian pillars. It's this huge imposing round building in a TINY space with other buildings all around. And it's also been a Catholic church for hundreds of years. We could peek through the doors to see the altar table, the walls, part of the inner dome, and the roof's circular hole. It's a complete anachronism because its a perfectly structurally sound ancient building amidst all these other modern buildings that are nearly as tall, obscuring much of the approaching view.

Finally we visited one of my personal highlights from Rome -- the Trevi Fountain. I had no idea that there was so much going on there. The "fountain" is actually a bunch of different waterfalls and spouts all next to each other with a vivid scene of Neptune (I think) in sculpture behind it. And the square is PACKED with people at night. Just a fun, energetic place to be. And yes, I tossed a coin, so I guess I'm going back.

Our plans for today didn't work out too much, but we did go to the Spanish steps. Unfortunately the obelisk in the middle was surrounded by restoration scaffolding which kinda killed the view, but the fountain was cool, and we got relief from the liquefying heat of the day in the shade off to the side. And no, I don't know what's "Spanish" about them.

Tomorrow we'll visit the tombs of the Popes at the Vatican before leaving, and me might (I hope I hope) get to Westminster Abbey on Sunday morning. But that's about it. I expect to post one last time about the things that I'm looking forward to upon my return.

I miss you all and will see you shortly. (Or longly, I suppose, for those of you whom I don't usually see often anyway. Sad, I know.)

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

We made it to Rome, and are checked into our hostel across the street from the Vatican. (I can see the dome of St. Peters outside of the bedroom window.) It's not as comfortable as the last couple of places, and I'm not sure that I'll be able to use the Internet apart from right now, but those set a very high standard. At least we still have our own room. :)

Before leaving Florence today, we had to choose between seeing the original David at the Academia and going to the Effizi. We chose the Effizi, and managed to line up by 8am, which meant we only had to wait an hour instead of three. I must admit, however, that for 10 euro, I was a bit underwhelmed. Perhaps I just didn't have the appropriate background, though. It seemed mostly like 14th century religious paintings -- which started to all look similar after a while. Sorry to any of you who've seen it and loved it.

Anyway, being so close to the Vatican, we walked over to St. Peter's Square after dinner and hung out for a while, relaxing and taking pictures. We also saw our first couple Swiss guards, though they were in slightly more subdued uniforms instead of the colorful ones.

Tomorrow, we're going to see the inside of St. Peters, the museum, and the Sistene Chapel. Then later on the Colosseum and other ancient Roman temples and ruins.

Hopefully I get to post again from Rome, but otherwise I'll see you back in London. We'll be there Saturday night and Sunday morning, so I might just still get to go to Westminster Abbey. Perhaps for a Sunday morning service.


Monday, July 07, 2008

The gelato of Venize and the heights of Firenze

Venice was, I think, the most fun part of the trip so far, which is saying a lot, because we've got to see a lot of incredible things everywhere. We got in Friday afternoon, spent all of Saturday there, and took the train to Florence yesterday.

My enduring memories of Venice will be
  • gelato, gelato everywhere. Every other shop is either that or carnivale masks.
  • succesfully meeting up with Jacob and Jaime Lewis in San Marcos' square. It made me beyond happy. They were catching the train out in the afternoon, but we still got to tour a church together and have lunch.
  • staying in an actual hotel with a nice private bathroom for once. Such a respite.
  • the place has churches everywhere. Like you can't believe.
  • the old married couple arguing about getting the bus ticket machine to work, as we were trying to get from nearby Mestre (our hotel location) to the city of Venice itself.
  • getting lost in town at dusk with John and Camille, because Ken and Megan had the maps. Doh! Venice can be an absolute maze.
  • and last, but most important, the canals themselves. Which have to be seen from the water.
There's even more, but I'll leave others to tell those tales.

Now to Florence. Never go to Florence on a Monday. The Effizi, the Academia (Michelangelo's David) AND Boboli Gardens are closed. We'll try to see at least the Effizi tomorrow before we leave for Rome. But at least today's transportation strike won't affect us.

And we did get to see the Medici Palace, which is still the working location for the Provincial Council. The palace contains some pretty cool tapestries in the working areas and council chambers (which were empty and open for viewing), and a completely frescoed chapel (which we, sadly, could not photograph). We also climbed the Duomo, which provides an amazing view of the whole town. There's also an incredible statuary alley that's been there for a few hundred years. It contains an exact replica of the David, I think because that's where the actual David originally stood, but is subject to the elements.

We've climbed several towers/domes, etc during this trip, and most are all the same regardless of country -- these cramped narrow little stone corridors with short ceilings originally intended for maintenance and construction. And so many people press through that the steps themselves sink in from the erosion of all those feet.

For those of you who've asked, my feet are feeling a lot better. The new shoes have helped. I was able to walk much more easily within about a day of getting them. But I'd still have done it all. The pain was temporary and easily forgotten, but the sights I've seen will last much, much longer in my memory.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Paris -- just a bit less foreign

So... it's hard to believe that I'm nearly halfway through my trip. We've pretty much finished out sightseeing in Paris. We've seen the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur, and of course the Eiffel Tower.

We changed our plans to see it at night. It's so funny ... it really inspires a lot of making out among tourists. haha... They shine blue lights on it after dark, which I got some pictures of, and then at midnight, the small blinky white lights on the tower itself go crazy.

After walking the Champs Elysees today (I stopped at the Addidas store and bought a zip-up hoodie and some new sneakers, 'cause my feet are killing me), we saw something in the distance, and got pulled onto Pont Alexandre III, which is the coolest bridge I've seen in Paris. At the end of it is Napoleon's Tomb which looks incredible from a distance. Definitely going to check it out if I ever return.

Tomorrow we go to Versailles, and tomorrow night I hope to check out this cafe on rue Cler that we ate next to last night. We're finally getting pretty comfortable moving around town, and now we're about to leave. It was like this in the UK, too. Hopefully the learning curve is a bit less steeper in Italy than it was here, though.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Dude... You Gotta See This

What can I say about the Louvre? Words cannot describe. Pictures cannot portray. You must simply go. Look at the ceilings yourself. See the paintings that take up the entire wall. See the ancient sculptures that are finely detailed. Walk right up to them. With no glass or ropes between you. (Except for the Mona Lisa, of course, which has both.) I only wish I had time to see the apartments of Napolean III, but you can't do everything, I guess.

So, the Paris I saw today was a bit cleaner than the Paris that I saw yesterday. After taking the metro down to the Louvre, and spending a few hours there, we ate a late lunch at a cafe across the street, where I successfully requested menus from the waiter in French. It probably sounded awful to him, and after that I could barely figure out how to say anything else. But lunch was good, and we then wandered over to Pont Neuf, enjoying excellent views of the River Seine, the Eiffel Tower, and le Ile de la Cite. The island splits the river and was itself the original city of Paris.

We spent the rest of the afternoon on the island, walking from the east tip west to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. We didn't go up into the towers, but enjoyed plenty of time inside. I spent €3 to visit the Treasury which included a lot of religious relics mounted in some very impressive gold-and-jewel devices, as well as impressive gifts from monarchs of long ago, including the coronation crown of (I think) Charles I, and a decorative ceremonial orb donated by Napoleon I to celebrate his coronation by the Pope in the Cathedral itself. (There's a painting of this event in the Louvre.)

We had meant to stop at Chatelet on the way to Pont Neuf, but never noticed it until walking back over Pont Neuf. It's a pillar in the middle of the park across the river's frontage street from the bridge that has (I kid you not) four sphinxes spouting water in all four directions. Uh, yeah, okay. :)

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Bonjour mon amis!

Welcome to... Paris! City of lights! (and, um, a lot of litter. what the heck?!)

The past two days have been WAY too busy, so I'm just glad that we successfully got through the Paris metro and checked in to our hostel on rue de Crimee, just west of Pont Crimee.

Quick review, yesterday we used the London Pass to get in to a tour of the Globe Theatre (highly recommended), St. Paul's Cathedral (way highly recommended), the Tower of London (highly recommended), and the Tower Bridge (waste of time).

Yeah, I was surprised, the Tower Bridge is far more interesting to simply look at than it is to visit. Going to the Globe Theatre was like a Shakespearian pilgrimmage, so if that's your interest, you must do it. St. Paul's Cathedral was simply MONUMENTAL. I cannot get over it. It's like giants worship there. However, I will say that I was more impressed by the stained glass work at the Bath Abbey.

The Tower of London is a complete anachronism. A real medieval castle in the middle of London. Even amongst many very old, historic structures, it stands out as from a completely earlier time. I mean, the central White Tower was built by William the Conquerer -- still standing 964 years later. And most of it was finished by the year 1400. And the Crown Jewels cannot be missed. The strangest item had to be William's golden Coronation Spoon. Almost a thousand years old, and it looks brand new. They actually walk you through a giant two-room safe.

So on to Paris. I'll try to be brief.

Last night, we took the train to Portsmouth. I wouldn't say we got "lost", but we were given some very poor directions with badly estimated walking time. The police helped redirect us as we walked in pitch black darkness along the shorefront. And then a bit later we finally got a taxi. Then this morning we went to the wrong ferry, and had to take another taxi to the correct port. We made it right at check-in time, which was good, because the ferry left way early.

We landed near Caen, France around 10am, then took the train to Bayeux to see Normandy. Which was basically closed, because it's Sunday. We still could have seen the Bayeux Tapestry (google it), and Omaha Beach, but the train station didn't have lockers, and the buses weren't running. So we said, "forget this. Let's go to Paris and rest." That was a good idea.

By the time the train arrived in Paris, we had strongly realized that if you take the SNCF (France national rail), you need to reserve a seat ahead of time. Or you will have to stand. For a long, loooong time. From there, we figured out enough French to communicate the purchase of the metro tickets and navigated the metro to the hostel.

Two things: One, I was really glad we built our subway skills in London first, so we understood what the metro was trying to make us do. Second, the hostel (St. Christopher's Paris) is like an oasis of a Paris littered with trash all over the ground. It's the only place so far in all of France that I've seen that isn't sketch. I hope it's not like that around the Louvre and Notre Dame tomorrow. I'm kinda "homesick" for London.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Stonehenge, Bath, and the Tower of London

Hopefully I can write this in seven minutes... :)

Today we check out of our hostel in London. We're going to see the Tower of London, the Globe Theatre, and St. Paul's Cathedral. After all that, we take the train to Portsmouth on the southern coast, and spend the night there, so that we can make it to the ferry by 6:15 tomorrow morning. That ferry will take us to Caen, France, so that we can see Normandy on our way in to Paris.

Yesterday we went to Stonehenge and Bath. Stonehenge was neat, but about what I expected. Bath was absolutely incredible. One of the top couple highlights on the trip so far. If you ever get the chance, you must go. The whole town was built in Roman-style architecture even BEFORE they discovered the ancient Roman baths. And there are decorated pigs everywhere, as a historical reference. They remind me of the fish that decorated the streets of SLO. But these at least make sense. :)

One strange note: the quotation mark and "at" (@) symbol keys are switched on the keyboards. Very inconvenient. :)

Love y'all.