Sunday, September 29, 2013

Ancient ruins, frescoes, and gelato

view of Rome from the Copula of St. Peter's Basilica

Italy. Wow. That pretty much sums up my week long adventure, but I'll give you a little more detail then that (actually a lot more detail, so I apologize in advance for the lengthy post). First and foremost, I have four main observations of the country:
  1. Bathrooms- you have to pay to use them, toilet paper is a rarity, and so are toilet seats and hand soap. 
  2. Mopeds- women ride them in heels, it is acceptable for women to drive men around, and for two men to share one.
  3. Gelaterias- gelato is a staple food, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that senza glutine (gluten-free) cones are common and easy to find.
  4. Opulence- the net worth of Vatican City and St. Mark's square, as beautiful as they are,  could probably feed and house a small African country.

I spent Day 1, 7 and 8 1/2 in Rome. Day one I met up with some family and we all hopped on a double decker tour bus and drove by all the typical sights (colosseum, Vatican, Roman Forum, etc). We hopped off at the fountain of Treve a gorgeous fountain built in the early 1700s of Neptune's chariot being led into the sea by sea horses and I threw a coin in to ensure my return to Rome. I also learned that the fountain receives about 3,000 Euro per day in this fashion! We also climbed down the spanish steps where we saw an Italian military marching band. 

Standing inside the Colosseum!

Day 7- we started off at the colosseum, where we roamed through the stadium trying to imagine a time when gladiators stood there. To my surprise I discovered that gladiators didn't fight to the death, but rather the battles were more for show and many of them eventually gained there freedom. Then we headed over to the Palatino to see the ancient ruins where legend has it that Rome was founded and later housed many Roman emperors. The palace used to be covered in marble but it was "borrowed" and taken to the vatican, which seems to be a reoccurring theme in many of Rome's historical architectural sights. From the gardens of the Palatino, we had a great view of the Roman Forum. On our way to St. Peter's square we made a pit stop for gelato at Circo Massimo, the oldest ancient Roman chariot racing stadium. 

Standing on the edge of Circo Massimo with Palatine Hill in the background

At St. Peter's Basilica, the largest and wealthiest church in Rome, we saw the Pieta (Michelangelo's statue of Mary holding the dead body of Jesus). Then we climbed to the top of the dome and from there to the Copula (29 meters high) and it was only 320 steps through an extremely narrow and slanted spiral staircase-but the view at the top was definitely worth the effort! In the evening we headed over to the Pantheon (originally a pagan temple, now converted to a christian church), to see the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. The diameter of the dome is 43.3 meters and was so big that I couldn't get the whole thing in one picture! Afterwards we ate dinner at a cafe in Piazza Navona, a huge plaza full of extravagant fountains, artists, and musicians. Our final day in Italy we rushed (on the city bus) over to the city center to try and squeeze in the Vatican before our afternoon flight. We ran through the vatican museum (literally) to get to the Capella Sistina (Sistine Chapel) to see Michelangleo's ceiling frescoes. They were breathtakingly beautiful, and I even snuck a few pictures in between the guards yelling "silence! no pictures!"
Roof of the Sistine Chapel 

Day two I met up with some more family and we spent the day touring Naples. Again we hopped on a double decker sightseeing tour and drove around the city. We hopped off at castle Nuovo, a 13th century castle complete with a moat. Then we headed to Museo Archeologico Nazionale, a museum that houses many ancient artifacts including several statues that were excavated from Pompeii. We  finished the day in Naples with an underground aqueduct tunnel tour at Napoli Sotterranea. The tour took us 40 meters underground where we explored caves and extremely narrow tunnels by candlelight that were originally created by greeks to channel water from Mt. Vesuvius.

View of the Amalfi Coast from Ravello

Amalfi Coast
Day three we met back up with the rest of the family and headed to the Amalfi coast where we spent the night in Maiori. It was quite the adventure to get there on the winding narrow roads that are on the edge of the cliff the whole way with the ocean at the bottom taunting you. We took a tour to Ravello a quaint town with great views of the coast, where we visited a medieval village. The coast was unbelievably beautiful and you really can't tell where the sky starts and the sea ends from up there.

In Ravello refilling my water bottle from one of the many safe natural water fountains across Italy

Day four we took a guided tour to Mt. Vesuvius, the only active volcano in Europe, and Pompeii an ancient town at the base! Pompeii is famous for the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD that covered the town in ash preserving much of the city which was excavated in the 1700s. Many of the ruins which outline a huge ancient city that was surprisingly advanced are still in good condition and are in there original structure. Not only are the buildings and columns in place, the ash or pumice preserved many bodies in their final positions and a few are on display there! The city also had a brothel complete with beds made of stone and pictures on the walls of sex positions for the clients to choose between. Oh and in case you were wondering how people found the brothel, throughout the city there are pictures of penises pointing them in the right direction. Afterwards, we hiked up to the top of Mt. Vesuvius where you can see the steam seeping out of the giant crater. Fortunately the volcano didn't erupt while we were on it! In the evening we visited a cameo factory, where we saw a Cameo Master hard at work chiseling out a picture of a women on a seashell. We learned that it takes 5 years of school for an apprentice to become a cameo master, and you really can see the difference in the quality of their work, and if you can't it should be abundantly clear by the difference in the price of the jewelry.

Day five, we took a guided tour to Paestum- an Ancient Greek city dating back to the 6th century complete with remains of three greek temples that are still in great condition! Interestingly enough, the city was peacefully taken over by the Romans in 273 BC. The temples were fascinating, especially when you start to think about how old they really are. Not to mention how sturdy, even when the rest of the city and surrounding areas have been destroyed by earthquakes and other natural disasters, the temples still stand. Another interesting thing about the Ancient Greeks that I learned on my tour is that they never had slaves, and all their architecture was built in a collective effort unlike many other ancient civilizations. In the evening we bussed down to Salerno, where we enjoyed some gelato on a barge accompanied by local fisherman and the sunset. Then we took the night train to Venice where my mom and I slept on bunk beds in a cabin with a couple from New Zealand, which was quite the adventure in itself.
Greek temples at Pasteum

Day six, we arrived by train around sunrise in Venice. The sight of this historical floating city that was still asleep was even better then I imagined and it literally took my breathe away! We ate some fruit from the local market for breakfast and sipped on cappuccinos from a cafe where we people and dog watched for a bit as we saw the city come to life. Then we hopped on the ferry and took it to Piazza San Marco or St. Mark's Square, where we got lost in a plethora of pigeons. We walked through the Basilica di San Marco and were overwhelmed by the glow of the gold roofs and gold trimmed mosaics inside. For another small fee we were able to see the Pala d'Oro, which is basically a large painting of biblical figures entirely studded with expensive jewels. Oh and St. Mark's sarcophagus was there too! Then we headed next door to Palazzo Ducale, the Doge's palace (still not sure who that is) and a mansion that housed the Venetian government for several centuries. We also visited the Jewish ghetto, which sadly still needs to be guarded to protect the Jewish families that live there. After traveling back in time to the renaissance era through several old churches, and somewhere in between walks through the alleys and venetian streets freckled with venetian glass shops and over the bridges that make up the labyrinth that is Venice, I fell in love with the place!

Overall Italy was a blur of beautiful churches, mosaics/ frescoes, statues, scenery, sunsets/ sunrises, people, wine, and lots and lots of gelato. Even though I didn't get a chance to see the leaning tower of Pisa, Tuscany, or Florence, I think I did a darn good job at making my week there count. Someday, when the opportunity presents itself, I will go back and finish the job.

Mom and I at the fountain of Treve

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