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Archive for the ‘Europe 2016’ Category

14 – Trastevere

We said goodbye to Ryan this morning at the Rome airport. His vacation was over but he really seemed to enjoy his 2 weeks with us seeing places he had learned about in his history classes. I will miss his running commentary as we toured different sites and his easy recall of facts and figures. Now I might just have to make up stuff that I can’t remember.

For the rest of the day, Monica and I decided to explore our neighborhood, Trastevere, away from the busy city center. The air is a few degrees cooler here compared to downtown although by noon, it was already pushing 30 degrees. We started with a wonderful seafood lunch not far from the train station. I started with the salmon sushi salad and then the mixed fish risotto with octopus AND squid, clams AND mussels, and 2 kinds of shrimp…one as large as a small lobster. Perhaps the best meal of all on this vacation, so far.

The rest of the afternoon was spent strolling through the streets and into 3 churches to escape the heat and enjoy the artwork. First, Santa Maria in Trastevere claims to be the oldest church in Rome and the first one dedicated to Mary. The exterior isn’t much (like all the buildings in Trastevere) but the interior is astounding.

Next, San Francesco a Ripa with something there very special. A Bernini sculpture “Beata (Blessed) Ludovica Albertoni” of this Roman noble woman who joined the St. Francis order after the death of her husband and devoted the rest of her life to helping the poor. The sculpture portrays her in ecstacy during mystical communication with God. It has similar concept and design features to the one we couldn’t see yesterday because the church was closed. I’m so glad we saw this one. It is exquisite.

Finally, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. This is the first time I have seen anything dedicated to Santa Cecilia, the Patron Saint of music. Another surprise, as we entered this beautiful church, the nuns were singing  their prayer chants at the front of the church. The acoustics were amazing…even though they were singing quietly, the sound carried clearly to all parts of the church. Other tourists were gathered as well… no one making a sound as we all enjoyed their ethereal voices.

We really appreciated the authenticity of this old part of Rome, watching locals going about their Saturday, old men sharing lively debate on park benches, kids playing in the streets, a wedding, begger women seeking a few coins and the lovely Tiber River flowing past it all. Really wonderful.

We finished the day with a stroll to Piazza Garibaldi, high up on the top of Monte Verde at Gianicolo Hill to see the breathtaking panoramic view of Roma. The sun was behind us illuminating the city and we could easily pick out many of the landmarks we had seen over the past three days.

That’s it for Rome. Time now to pack our bags for the next adventure and head south to Capri. We are looking forward to slowing the pace a little, hopefully (wink).



13 – Underneath Rome

Today we had an afternoon tour booked through Walks of Italy called the “Crypts and Catacombs of Rome”. It didn’t start until 2:30 so we had some time to kill. That meant exploring more of the city we hadn’t seen yet.

We caught the train/subway to the north end and started our morning at Piazza del Popolo…. the Plaza of the People. It is the largest urban square in Rome and on this lovely Friday morning, it was not busy or over-run with tourists… just us. It is beautiful, sporting lovely fountains and a center obelisk. Incidently, all the fountains in Rome are drinkable (except Trevi) with pure water flowing into the city from a distant aquaduct. We saw locals filling their water bottles at different fountains, thinking they must be crazy… but in fact we eventually tried it, and it’s great…and cold.

There are 3 main streets leaving the piazza heading south. In ancient times, one led to education (the academy), one to business (the forum) and one to religion (not sure to what). We started with education to see specifically the mosoleum of Augustus. Not much more than a mound of dirt and off limits to the public, it is a sacred place.

Right next to it is the Bascilica of San Carlo, with its gorgeous pink marble, fantastic ceiling and frescoes, many sculptures and most interesting and unusual, the actual preserved heart of Saint Charles (San Carlo). Weird and wonderful.

Moving on to the east, we came once again to the Spanish Steps that we saw yesterday. This time we climbed them just to see the Trinita dei Monti church at the top. It is white, inside and out, top to bottom and really beautiful. I especially liked the Pieta statue by Wilhelm Theodore Ackermann  (1799).

Next, there is a church nearby with a particular Bernini sculpture that I wanted to see (The Ecstacy of St. Therese), so off we went to find it. And we did, but unfortunately it was closed (many churches and businesses close in the early afternoon as Italians take a break from the heat). Disappointed for only a moment because there are many other treasures in the area that we discovered like; the intersection of the 4 fountains, the Chiesa di San Carlino, the Fountain of Moses, the Piazza della Republica and the out-of-this-world Bacilica Santa Maria of the Angels… an ancient church completely redesigned inside by Michaelangelo. Really cool thing about this church is the working sundial inside on the floor. We just happened to be there exactly at 1:00 when the sun spot crossed the brass line on the floor.

Then it was time to find our meeting spot for the catacombs tour… in Piazza Barberini at the Triton Fountain (by Bernini…. Rome’s most famous sculptor).

For the next 3 hours, we along with other families from Australia and Hawaii, led by our guide, Gio (Joy), down under the streets of Rome starting with the Franciscan crypts where the monk’s decorated the walls and ceilings with the bones of 4000 Capuchin brothers (monks) over a period of 300 years. Spooky? Not really. Our guide spun it into a beautiful story of faith and love and it was really quite amazing.

Photos are not allowed in any of the 3 sites we visited so I had to find images online to include in my blog for the afternoon tour.

From there we moved by bus to the Pricilla Catacombs… underground graves created by early Christians at a time when Rome was still pagan and Christians were persecuted (pre-450 AD). These catacombs were dug down into soft volcanic ash which hardens on contact with oxygen… and this particular site is one of the smallest in Rome at only 13 kilometers in total length (the tunnels weave back and forth in a labyrinth). But they are the most important as one of the tombs has the earliest known illustration of Mary and baby Jesus… dated to 250 AD. So amazing to see that along with several other paintings.

The last site on the tour was the Bacilica of San Clemente. It is actually a church today at ground level that you can visit but the real history lies many meters underground where the first church, dating to the 2nd century, was discovered during subway excavation. There is so much history under Rome, the locals fondly refer to it as a lasagna of civilization history.

After the tour, the final shot of the day was of the largest obelisk in Rome in front of the most important church in Rome (remember, St. Peter’s Bacilica is not in Rome… it’s in the Vatican… different country) … the Bacilica di San Giovanni in Laterano…called The Bacilica of Rome. This is “The Seat of the Bishop” … unfortunately it was closed at this time but the outside and the obelisk are impressive.

Wonderful day. Very different. Very educational.

12 – Rome in a Day

Monica had pre-booked a walking tour with “Walks of Italy” called Rome in a Day. It would be an all day adventure so up early and downtown to meet our guide at the Colosseum. Marie Therese was wonderful, so knowledgeable on the history and really added to the day with her lyrical animation of the stories she told.

We started with the Colosseum and Marie Therese took us back 2000 years ago to a time when human slaughter was grand entertainment for the 70,000 citizens who filled this stadiom… animal fights in the morning, executions at lunch, and gladiator battles in the afternoon. This structure is massive and the technology and engineering to build it back then was astounding. The fact that Emperor Constantine raided and destroyed Jerusalem and pillaged all the riches and citizens as slaves to build the Colosseum and work/die in the pits, casts a dark veil over this magnificent Wonder of the Ancient World. When the Roman Empire fell and Christianity became legal, the Colosseum was forgotten for centuries and much of the rock and marble was pillaged to build churches like St. Peter’s.

Continuing on, we walked past the Roman forum. Surprisingly, the ancient forum was only discovered in recent times during subway excavations. It extends for miles but now lies many meters under modern Rome as each new emperor tried to wipe out the memories of the previous one and build upward bigger and grander to glorify themselves.

Next our walk took us past several landmarks like Bernini’s elephant obelisk at the Santa Maria soprano Minerva church. Interestingly, the ancient Romans stole 11 obelisks from Egypt (trophies of war). They now stand in front of 11 churches in Rome and we saw 4 of them today including the one at our next stop, the Pantheon…oldest completely intact building in Rome dating to 2nd century BC. It is simple but beautiful. The sun was streaming through the oculus in the ceiling illuminating some of the statuary. Of special interest is the tomb of Raphael. We also saw the ruins of the ancient senate where Julius Caesar was murdered by the 23 other senators who feared his popularity.

After a gelato break, we continued on past the parliament buildings and the huge column depicting the life of Marc Anthony, the general of Julius Caesar who is known for helping to establish the Roman empire. The column is exquisitely carved with scenes from his life… there are thousands of images.

Our group along with several other groups continued along the narrow cobblestone streets past high end shopping stores toward the Piazza di Spagna to see the Spanish Steps. Built in the 1700’s, the 135 white marble steps are currently under cleaning restoration. At the foot of the steps is Bernini’s boat fountain and at the top is Trinita dei Montei church (with obelisk).

Next and just around the corner, we came to the world’s most famous fountain, Trevi Fountain. Built in the mid 1700’s by Nicole Salva at the junction of 3 roads (tre vie) where and ancient aquaduct brings water into the city, is is a stunning white marble masterpiece depicting Neptune flanked by 2 tritons on merhorses. The crowd there was hugh so we couldn’t get great shots or get close enough to toss a coin for luck.

Lunch time! It felt good to sit down and relax for an hour. Because, the next 2.5 hours were to tour the Vatican.

We started in the Vatican gardens behind the Pope’s apartments and then toured the museums. Of the 22 museums in the Vatican, we saw only the 3 most important ending with the Sistine Chapel. We learned so much and I can’t possibly relay it here. Suffice to say it is beyond wonderful, beyond magnificent, beyond important to human culture and history. It tells the story of Christianity in all its glory and all its shame. Exiting the museum, we entered St. Peter’s Square (huge obelisk in the center) and toured the basilica, one of the largest churches in the world. I don’t have an adjective that would property convey the grandure. It is special.

That took us till 5:00 and concluded the tour. Our guide was amazing and deserves a healthy tip. I highly recommend taking such a walking tour. We will do another one with “Walks of Italy” tomorrow (stay tuned… it should be a hoot) and again later on our trip in Sienna.

Tired and hot, we bussed home to chill before a fantastic dinner at Trattoria Osteria just up the street from us.

11 – Rome arriving

We arrived at noon on this lovely sunny day and caught the subway/bus combo to our apartment in the beautiful Monte Verde region of south-west Rome. This neighborhood might be comparable to the Hollywood heights of L.A. We would explore it later. Getting there took us past Circus Maximus and the Colosseum…. I was bouncing in the bus seat with excitement! By the way, roughest bus ride of my life (accounting for much of the bouncing). The shocks on the buses are all beat out from the cobblestone roads.

After a quick settle into our apartment, we headed back downtown to the old city for an afternoon of exploring. Easy walking and tolerable crowds (unlike previous cities) we first came to the ruins of Trajan’s market. Built in 100 AD by Emperor Trajan, it is a multi-leveled market-administrative complex and is considered the world’s first shopping mall.

Next we slipped inside Chiesa Santissimo Nome di Maria al Ford Triana (that’s a mouthful) for a cool moment to marvel at the guilded altar and frescoed dome.

Immediately next door is the beautiful monument and museum to Victor Emanuel II, the first king of a unified Italy. The building is gorgeous, covered inside and out with statues and marble porticos. Around to the back of the museum, we climbed the rampart to Capitoline Hill and the Piazza Nuovo and got a sweeping views of the Roman forum. So incredible and evocative in the 2000 year old history that lays in ruins in front of you. If time prevails, we may be back later for a tour.

The afternoon was waning and tummies started rumbling for dinner, so we retraced our walk to the bus stop for home. On the way, we got great shots of the Colosseum fully illuminated in the sun (we are touring this tomorrow), Constantine’s Arch (315 AD and the largest triumphant arch in Italy), and Circus Maximus where chariot races were held.

A fantastic start to our visit of Rome. Ryan is in his glory. There is a bounce in his step we have not seen until now and he is impatient for us slow pokes to keep pace with him. It’s so nice to see him living his history dreams.

10 – Florence

We arrived in Florence in the afternoon so just took it easy getting our bearings and making plans for next day. Our apartment was lovely just a 15 minute walk from the train station. The landlord very accommodating  (he had a bottle of wine waiting for us) and he suggested a downtown restaurant for dinner.

After dinner (which was excellent, we all had different steaks and sides), we caught a bus to the Piazzelle Michaelangelo, across the river and high up on a hill for a commanding view of Florence at night. It is gorgeous up there with some of the artist’s better known works (copies) on display.

Next morning, we headed first to the duomo with hopes of beating the crowd. Forget that…there were more people here than Venice! The outside of the duomo is unbelievable. Begun in 1296 it took 240 years to complete and had (at the time) the largest unsupported dome in the world. The exterior has a distinctive striped green, pink and white marble facade. The inside is less impressive but still beyond grand, especially the frescoes in the dome.

The duomo itself is free but we had to buy tickets for the baptistry right next door (which is astounding with its frescoed ceilings and incredible bronze doors). The tickets actually get you into 5 museums; the Baptistry, the duomo museum (also a must see), the crypts (my least favorite), the dome (we did not go up although I wished I had) and the bell tower (also we did not go up… at over a 400-step climb, our feet tanked us for passing).

Next we had 2:30 reserved tickets for the Ufizzi Gallery, reputed to be Italy’s most important museum… and I can believe it. Just to get in we had to go through three separate line-ups and wait nearly an hour. We spelled each other off waiting and wandered around taking photos of lovely side streets and the Piazza della Signoria to admire several famous statues including a copy of Michaelangelo’s David (same as we saw last night on the hill).

The Ufizzi Gallery really blew us away. Whereas in many other galleries we have visited where you might see one piece by a famous artist, here there are entire rooms dedicated to just one artist with several paintings or sculptures. I tried to limit my photo gallery for this post to a few of my favorites and some of the better known works. I left out 10 times as many photos as I included. It is incredible and I’m so glad we visited.

A quick stroll across the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge lined with high end and low end jewellry shops and to get the money shot of the bridge in the late afternoon sun, and we started to wind down the afternoon. We made our way back to the apartment to find some dinner.

Our landlord had recommended a pizzeria just around the corner. We got there at 6pm. Italians eat late and this restaurant didn’t open yet for another hour…. what to do? Right next to it was a wine store! So we bought some for a pre-dinner happy hour…. they sell it right out of the barrel and fill a 3-L box for 10 euros. Can’t beat that… plus it was good.

Dinner was one of the best meals we have had yet (see the photos). We laughed and reminisced the evening away. Other families arrived and it got quite raucous… as is the Italian way. Thoroughly enjoyable.

9 – Verona

This was a quick layover for us and we arrived after dark, taxi to the hotel, a bite to eat (fat meat, OMG Ryan!) and off to bed.

We had 4 hours next morning to see what sights we could before we had to catch the train south. That was just enough time and luckily, Verona is a small city and easily walked. So off we went to explore the walled city. First we arrived at Castlevecchio.  Built in the 1300’s entirely of brick with imposing guard towers and iron gates, it was a military stronghold to protect Verona, a wealthy city in its day. Pont Scaligero, the bridge through the castle and across the Adige River River, is now a city thorough fare but traffic was very quiet on this Monday morning.. .. great view down and up river from here.

Onward to the center to see the ancient coluseum. Built in 30 AD, it is 50 years older than the coluseum in Rome and is still used today for concerts and plays.

Next we came to Piazza Erbe  (named for the famous herbs once sold here 2 millenia ago). Now filled with souvenir venders, it is still a very vibrant place in the heart of the city. Streets radiate outward from the piazza signifying it was the main center long ago.

Nearby the piazza is the much visited fictional house of Juliette from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette. Here in a tiny courtyard off the street we found the statue of Juliette and the famous balcony where Romeo wooed her. There were a few tourists but nothing compared to Venice and although completely fictional, was enchanting beautiful. Surrounding her statue, visitors have left their personal love notes to their loved one. Kind of neat in a touristy way.

Next and only 5 minutes away, we came to the magnificent duomo with its outstanding carvings, sculptures and frescoes. As I wandered the interior I was aware that I was viewing famous antiquities that I didn’t even know the artist or the significance. I would love to return someday with better research and a guide book in hand. Nevertheless, happy with just my camera and my appreciation for ancient beauty.

Leaving the duomo, we crossed the river and saw the ancient Roman theater on the east hillside. Now in complete ruins, it is slowly being over taken by residences but you can still make out the shape of the semi-circular ampitheater.

Continuing around the north wall back toward our hotel, we came to what our hotel receptionist referred to as “the most beautiful church in all of northern Italy”, San Zeno Maggiore. Built in the early 1100’s, it has a distinctive striped facade of brick and marble and fascinating bronze doors depicting the life of San Zeno, Patron Saint of Fishermen. No stained glass but incredible statuary inside. The wall frescoes are deteriorated but still evident. Outside is a beautiful cloister offering perfect photo opps.

And we were done and it was time to go. It only took is three hours in Verona…just enough to see some highlights and make you aware you just got a taste.

8 – Venice

The would be a 7-hours day trip for us to the city. It was bright and beautiful and already over 25 degrees at 10:30 when we pulled into the train station. Off to the side we could see 2 cruise ships docked so we knew it would be a busy day.

We caught the water bus (#1 – the slow one that makes a dozen stops) and thoroughly enjoyed a 20 minute ride down the Grand Canal. The architecture is marvelous and no two houses are the same. The grandeur is evident from a time when Venice was the financial capital of Italy in the middle ages.

Our first stop was the beautiful domed Santa Maria della Salut church at the end of the Grand Canal. It is magnificent and filled with priceless treasures. Bonus, the 6000 cruise ship tourists were on the other side of the canal swarming to get a shot of the Bridge of Sighs beside the Doge’s Palace.

So where was our next stop can you guess? Across the canal to get a shot of the Bridge of Sighs. I wiggled my way through the throng, climbed the stairs, held my camera high over my head (lucky I’m 6 feet) and got a decent shot of this famous little bridge linking the justice courts in the Doge’s Palace with the prison across the canal. It is said you could head the inmates moaning as they were marched over the bridge to be judged.

San Marco Piazza, the San Marco Bascilica and the Doge’s Palace are all here together. This was the main business district of Venice back then and everything about it is massive. The Bascilica is free to tour but no photos allowed. Too bad, since it is truly stunning with the interior completely covered with mosaics made of small 1″ pieces of glass, gold being a prominent color.

Feeling a bit crowded and hungry,  we slipped into one of the many little streets and found a quiet restaurant for some lunch. I had the anchovy salad ☺. The waiter was hilarious with a dry since of humor.

Back into the piazza to tour the Doge’s Palace. The Doge was the leader of Venice in the day and his palace is nothing short of the most magnificent display of wealth and power. Room after room of richly carved woodwork, frescoed ceilings and walls, marble floors and hand crafted furniture. It is a gorgeous museum that gives a glimpse into Medieval nobility life. The tour takes you across the Bridge of Sighs and into the prison. What a contrast from one side of the canal to the other…from having everything to having nothing.

From there, we strolled through streets with souvenir shops toward the Rialto bridge. I didn’t get a good shot as the entire zone was packed with tourists…streets literally packed. From 1000 feet up, it must be quite a sight with the streets “flowing” alongside the canals. Nevertheless, we managed to have a gelato icecream in the midst of it all.

Next we visited another church, Santa Maria Gloriosa del Frari. Built in the mid 1200, it’s size rivals that of San Marco and it’s art treasures perhaps exceed it with works by Bellini, Titian and Donatello. Plus it is dark and cool inside.. a wonderful retreat from the heat and crowds.

The afternoon was waning and soon we would need to make for the train station. The shots I most wanted of Venice never happened. I was looking for quiet little cul-de-sac streets with a courtyard at the end shared by several families and a marble fountain in the center. I know they are there somewhere and with more time, I would have found one. But we did get some nice shots of the canals with no people blocking the view so, I’m good with that.

It was a beautiful day… almost magical. I hated to leave but was glad to escape the crowds… and looked forward to our night destination, Verona.