Saturday, December 18, 2010

When in Rome...

**pictures to be added at a later date**

So on Friday, Florence was inundated with snow. It does not snow in Florence. Usually. But that day, what started as a normal dusting of snow quickly escalated to 8 inches. That is significant in most places, but especially in Florence, where they don't have the means to deal with more than a few centimeters of snow. You can't plow on cobblestone. Taxi services stopped running, plane flights were cancelled, trains were delayed or cancelled, and the whole city of Florence retreated into their homes and did the only thing they were equipped to do: wait.

The snow stopped around 6 PM, but there was so much and the sun had set long ago, so there was no chance of the packed snow to magically disappear. Instead, the snow did what it does best in cold weather. It froze.

This was perfect timing, because that was the weekend that most of the students were flying home. There were some stuck at the airport (which closes at 1 AM), more stuck in their apartments, and even more obsessively checking the weather forecasts for Saturday to see if their flights were cancelled as well. I thought the snow was beautiful, but even I was concerned about my train to Rome the next day. However, I hoped for the best and woke the next day, ready for anything.

I woke up at 5:30 and checked the train timetables online. My train was scheduled to leave on time, which was wonderful news. So I packed up the last of my things and went into the kitchen to make breakfast. As I was finishing cooking my eggs, one of my roommates came in and asked me to help her with her luggage. I wasn't particularly willing to help her, since I had not planned for interruptions that morning. But I dragged her stuff down all 72 stairs and consoled her as she panicked about not making her flight. Then I ran upstairs and finished my breakfast (I didn't get to drink my tea), and grabbed what I hope was all my belongings and raced out the door. I skidded and slid and flopped my way to the train station as fast as I could, and still didn't slide into the station until 6:41 (my train was scheduled to leave at 6:40). I saw that there was a train at the platform my train was supposed to depart from, and the departure sign still read to Rome, so I validated my ticket and jumped on the train, so incredibly happy that I had made it. The train pulled out of the station at 6:50. I drifted in and out of sleep on the train, freezing and uncomfortable, but thankful I was headed to Rome.

When I arrived, I stepped off the train into a land of sunshine and rainbows. It was almost 50 degrees (I had left Florence in 18 degree weather), and the sun was blindingly bright. I descended into the metro and made my way to my hostel. The hostel was nice, but odd. It was previously a house, and had been converted into a hostel. The host slept in the same room as where my bed was located, and it was decorated with Minnesota Vikings memorabilia and posters. It was chilly in the room, but the hostel host, Francesco (the same one who was sleeping in my room), gave me a down comforter, which I was grateful for. I still slept in my hoodie, though.

After I checked in, I went to Vatican City. It took me a bit to figure out how to get there with all the metro changes, but I got it, and I made it to the Vatican and situated myself before the tour started. The tour was quite good, and I learned a lot about the Vatican, its history, and the art within the city.

The Vatican City is the smallest state in the world, measuring only 110 acres in area. I walked through the whole state in just a few hours. It is ruled by the Pope.

Half of the state is land dedicated to the gardens. There are many Baroque and Renaissance fountains and sculptures, as well as hedge designs.

The famous artists that were commissioned to decorate the Vatican (or at least the most well known) were Michelangelo and Raphael. They were both Florentine artists, but they were artistic geniuses, and various Popes recognized this and commissioned their work. Raphael's work is in the apartments of the Pope, with his famous work in the Room of Signatures, where the Pope signed all his documents and letters. In that room resides the School of Athens, but the whole room is a lesson in theology. The School of Athens is teaching the viewer about the importance of knowledge. However, simply having knowledge is insufficient. In order to be able to use that knowledge, you must have faith. So the painting opposite School of Athens is Disputa, which depicts the Holy Trinity surrounded by various biblical figures. And the last segment of Raphael's theology lesson is on the wall between the doors to the room, called the Parnassus, which shows what Raphael thought you needed to do once you have knowledge and faith: create beauty (or art). It depicts Apollo, Greek god of the arts, surrounded by influential and famous artists/musicians/writers. So although the School of Athens is widely known, its message as one-third of a triptych is frequently lost.

Michelangelo is the other famous artist of the Vatican. His sculpture of the mourning Virgin Mary holding crucified Christ in her lap (Pieta), resides in St. Peter's Church, and it is actually the only work of art that Michelangelo ever signed. He always considered himself a sculptor, because he thought that sculpture was the superior art. In sculpting, you remove the unnecessary parts in order to free the artwork, where as in painting, you slap paint on canvas however you please. At least, that was Michelangelo's view. However, his frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the Last Judgement behind the altar are some of his most celebrated works. The ceiling of the chapel was originally a blue sky with gold stars painted upon it, which was a typical chapel ceiling design in the 15th century. But later, Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to repaint the ceiling. It took 40 years to complete, and destroyed Michelangelo's sight (due to paint dripping in his eyes), health, and temper. When he painted the Last Judgement (a 5 year endeavor), he made all of his 200 figures naked, except the Virgin and Jesus. A cardinal decided that nudity was indecent in a holy chapel, and thus had all the naughty bits painted over. So underwear was applied to all the characters. Furious, Michelangelo added a devil in the bottom right corner, with the cardinal's face. But he didn't stop there. Not only did he think that the cardinal was as bad as the Devil himself, but Michelangelo painted long donkey ears on the cardinal, to imply that he was stupid as well.

There were many other wonders, such as the original tombs of Constantine (who went on to found Istanbul, now Constantinople) and his mother, Helena. They also have a room full of animal sculptures, and a ceiling that looks like it's carved, but is actually painted and is completely two-dimensional. There is a map room that was made in the 16th century and is still the world's largest pictorial topographical study, as well as about 80% accurate, despite their inability to view topography aerially at that time.

We also were taken around St. Peter's Basilica, the world's largest church. It was beautiful, and everything in the church is made of mosaics. All the "paintings," the "tapestries," and the floors and walls and ceilings. Both the central altar and the altar of the Holy Spirit (which is located at the back of the church) were breathtakingly beautiful. The sculptures were intricate as well. This is where Michelangelo's Pieta is located. It is behind glass, because in 1972, a man came and smashed the sculpture with a hammer, screaming "I am Jesus Christ," and caused substantial damage to the piece.

After the tour, I ascended the Basilica, climbing the 422 steps to the top of the dome. From the top, you could see the entire state of the Vatican City, as well as much of Rome. It was quite a beautiful sight. It was quite amazing to be on top of the largest church in the world, looking over a holy city.

After that, I picked up some food and returned to my hostel. Francesco ordered food for him and me to eat, and my other roommates went out to the bars. I, being exhausted from a long day of travel and tourism, decided to remain at the hostel and go to sleep early. But early turned into 1:30 AM, because I was wasting time on my computer until 1, and then my roommates returned at 1:30 and loudly got ready for bed.

One of my roommates snored loudly throughout the whole night, so I didn't get much sleep. The next day, I rolled out of bed around 10 and began my day. I had a lot that I planned to see, and didn't want to miss out on anything. I wasn't sure if exhaustion would prevent me from seeing what I wanted to see, but I was going to do my best to see everything I could.

I took the metro to the Colosseum, and it was beautiful. You could see the arena and the passageways beneath, as well as the towering stadium seats. There was also a small archeological museum on one of the levels, where you could see the animal bones and prop pieces that they dug up from the arena area. I walked around the city, stopping at most of the tourist locations, like the Roman Forum, Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, and others.

When I was making my way to the Pantheon, it started raining. So I sat inside for part of the mass (for it was, after all, Sunday), and listened to a series of talented pianists play arranged Christmas music. Also, I was able to watch the rain pour in from the central hole in the ceiling, which was beautiful as well.

After my touring, I returned to the hostel at 4. My room was deserted, so I laid down to take a nap, hoping to catch up on my sleep and then wake up and discover what to do on a Roman night out. At 4:30, however, Francesco burst into the room, apologized for waking me, and then proceeded to ask if I would like to join him for bowling that night. Surprised that there was something to do other than drink, I accepted. I got ready and we went down the stairs to meet his friend, Domenico. Domenico is a chef at a restaurant in the city center, and meets a lot of his celebrity clientele, like Natalie Portman, Lenny Kravitz, Mel Gibson, and many more. We went bowling, and none of us did very well, but I didn't even break 100 points with both of my scores combined. It was rather embarrassing. However, Italian bowling is slightly different than American bowling. The rules and play are identical, but you get tickets depending on how well you play, and those tickets are cashed in for prizes, similar to a Chuck E Cheese. However, these prizes are not cheap toys. You could get a bike, or a blender, or stereo system, or a whole array of other options. Of course, you needed quite a few points, but at least these prizes were worth saving up for. And the bowling alley was brightly lit and clean, and it felt more like a club (except for the bright lights) with house music and a dance atmosphere than a seedy bowling alley that I am accustomed to in the States. We had a lot of fun, and then we went back to the hostel to eat dinner.

Domenico cooked for us, even though he had worked all day and cooking was the last thing he wanted to do. He made caciopepe, which is a typical Roman dish, and it's essentially pasta in black pepper oil. It was quite good. We then watched Jeff Dunham (a comic ventriloquist) videos on Youtube, subbed in Italian. I had to explain some of the jokes, and it was difficult, because not only did some of the humor not translate well, but the language barrier made it even more difficult to get the joke across. But it was a good exercise in Italian, and we laughed a lot. Francesco and Domenico were going skiing the next day in the Apennines, and invited me along. I was tempted, but couldn't justify the expense or the risk. Also, I didn't have the proper outfit for skiing. So I had to turn them down.

The next morning, Domenico arrived early to pick up Francesco and said goodbye to me. He told me that he would take me skiing the next time I visited, so I had to remember to bring my ski outfit. I told him I would. I went back to sleep for a few more hours and then took the metro to the train station, where I boarded my train back to Florence. As we traveled north, it got noticeably colder and snowy. The train started arriving at stations late, and we arrived in Florence almost 40 minutes later than scheduled. However, I arrived, and was grateful for the fact.

I checked into my hotel and then met up with Liz, who was still stuck in Florence until Wednesday because of flight difficulties. Then I set out all my stuff for the next day, called a taxi, and went to bed, hoping that I wouldn't experience the same nightmares that everyone else seemed to be encountering.

Friday, December 17, 2010


Today, it snowed in Florence. I will upload photos of the snow later, but it was beautiful.

Monday, December 13, 2010

It's a girl, and her name is.... Olga

On Friday, we went to Pisa, to see the Leaning Tower. There isn't much to see in Pisa besides the tower, but there is a tiny church (tiny in height and interior space), a blue palace, and cute streets. Here are some pictures of the town:

Also, we stopped at a pizza place to eat lunch. A cute dog came up to us to beg for food. We tried shooing it away or pushing it, but it kept coming back. Finally, I reached for its collar and read its name.

"What's his name?"
"Well, it's a girl. And her name is... Olga."

Immediately after I said that, the dog gave me a look of panic and bolted. I'm not sure what that was about, but we claim that her cover was blown once we figured out her name and she had to bail.

And that was our daytrip to Pisa.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Beware of High Water

I apologize for the brevity of this post (although perhaps you welcome it because you're sick of my endless blather), but I just wanted to get this up while I still had reliable internet and time to upload this post.

Venice is my favorite city in Italy. I love Florence, but Venice is such a different city, and has a unique charm that is achieved by its canals and twisting streets and beautiful views and exquisitely crafted glasswork. I was blown away by how spectacular the city was. It was cold, but completely worth it.

When we arrived, we boarded a boat to get to the actual city from the mainland. We traveled down the Canal della Giudecca, which is the Jewish canal, so named because of the first Jewish ghetto that was created in the middle of the canal. Then we made our way to Murano, an island close to Venice, which is world-famous for its glass.

We got to watch a glassblower make a vase and a horse, and then we got to tour the factory and see the huge glass chandeliers and sculptures and table settings.

Then we made our way to Burano, which is what people actually see when they look at pictures of "beautiful Venice." The houses are all painted different, bright colors, and lace is made there. When we arrived, the water had just receded and shopkeepers were putting their products out again. They have to do that every day, because the water floods the island in the morning with the high tide. We also saw a chicken foot that had washed into a gutter.

After that, we went back to the main island of Venice and went to St. Mark's Square and St. Mark's Cathedral. It was beautiful, and the cathedral contains the most mosaic tiles in one location, in the world. During the tour, we learned that a lot of the objects in and around the cathedral were actually objects obtained through victory in war and had little to do with religion.

It was really cold there, so Liz and I went to get some cappuccinos, and after we got them, we walked outside and I thought it would be a brilliant time to put on my gloves. But instead of handing off my cappuccino, I tried to maneuver around it. And failed. I epically doused myself in hot coffee, which was not hot enough to burn myself (and I had enough layers between me and the coffee anyway), but it was embarrassing and inconvenient nonetheless. So I had to take off my gloves and walk into the café, dripping, to get some napkins to clean myself.

Then we went to the Rialto Bridge, which is the oldest bridge crossing the canal. It is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and is located over the Grand Canal.

We went to our hotel afterward and had dinner, which was vegetable risotto, salad, calamari, and tiramisu for dessert. They served us Pinot Grigio, which is a white wine from Venetian vineyards. The dinner was very good, and we had a great table and some great dinner conversation. After dinner, they took us to our rooms. We had room 30, which was in a back alley, under the stairs. It wasn't a bad room, but it was small and the roof was slanted. I felt a little like Harry Potter. However, we discovered at the end of the trip that we actually had the nicest room in the hotel...

The next morning, we started on our way, but had to take several detours due to high water. All the shops were flooded and the streets were too, and there were little catwalks erected all along the streets for people to walk on and get through the flood. I also saw some people with tall plastic boots wading through the waters.

But we made our way around the flood and went to the Peggy Guggenheim Modern Museum, where we saw a lot of great modern art. We learned about the history of the museum and about how eccentric Peggy was (she would sometimes sunbathe naked on her roof to annoy the hotel residents on either side of her house, and she would take Giacometti' s sculptures out on her gondola and ride around with them). We also saw works by the futurist Boccioni, the painter Max Ernst (her husband), Dali, Picasso, Pollock, Rothko, and many more. It was really awesome to see.

After that, we had some time to look around Venice on our own, and so Liz and I walked around the city, taking pictures and soaking in the beauty and serenity. We picked up some food for lunch and took it to a piazza, where we sat on a bench and ate. There were lots of birds walking around, so I trained one of the little ones to eat out of my hand. We named him Federico.

Our last stop was at the Duke's Palace, which is right next to St. Mark's Church. We walked through and saw the Golden staircase (the main stairs leading up the palace; the ceiling is sculpted out of gold), the Giant's staircase (where the Duke would address the nation, flanked by the Roman gods Mars and Neptune (or Ares and Poseidon of Greek mythology), the Lion's Mouth (where people posted anonymous letters that revealed terrorists of the state), and the rooms of Parliament. We also saw the armory, where there is an extensive collection of Renaissance weaponry and armor, and the Bridge of Sighs, which leads to the prisons. The Bridge of Sighs is named such because the prisoners would let out sighs of sorrow, knowing that by crossing this bridge, they were most likely walking to their deaths. The prisons were cold and cramped, and had no regard for prisoner well-being. The roof was made of lead, meaning that in the summer, the prisons would be boiling hot, and in the winter, the prison would freeze. Many prisoners died due to these extreme conditions.

Then we took a boat back to the mainland and boarded the bus home. It was a great trip and I wish I could see it in the summer (or just the warmer months), because Venice definitely seems like a summer city. The city was still beautiful and wonderful, but subdued, and I would like to return to Venice again.