Sunday, May 18, 2008
Our trip to Italy;
What an amazing ten days! The months of planning, organizing and making reservations was worth it, as the entire trip went off with out any problems. We made many early morning train trips, and ended up with very soar feet, but the experiences we shared, the art that we viewed, and the time we spent together outweighed the tiredness and blisters.
It all started on Monday, when we boarded an early flight to Rome.
We did little more then check in to our first hotel (we changed hotels do to the length of our stay) and walk around Rome to get our bearings. On our walk across the city, we did arrive at Vatican City and got our first look at the outside of St. Paul's Basilica.
Tuesday was our first official day in Rome. We woke up early, and headed out in to the city. Our destination was the Vatican museum, but on our way we got a glimpse of the Colosseum, and passed the Pantheon.
There is always a long line to get in the Vatican museum , mainly because the Sistine Chapel can only be viewed by first walking through the entire museum. A person can arrive at the entrance before it opens, and still find themselves waiting in line for hours. To avoid this, I singed us up for a "tour group" that I found online. The only point of the tour group was to beat the line. It worked like this; we show up at the meeting point, the "tour guide" took the group in, she gave every one their tickets and a map and then we were left on our own.
As an independent museum, I was not very impressed. While there was a lot of art, not much of it was "important" art. I did enjoy The School of Athens (I had seen the original sketch in Milan), and a few other smaller frescos. I am sorry to say that I was disappointed by the Sistine Chapel. Like most works of art, my imagination had expected a much larger room. The amount of frescoes in the Chapel was astonishing, for every inch of the walls are also painted. I brought my binoculars with me to get a more detailed look, but I found my self more amused by the hole in the ceiling where the chimney is set up during conclave. There is no smell in the chapel. Nothing to hint at its age, or use. When you walk in to the room, it is a surprise. The entrance is right off of the museum, and we suddenly found ourselves the chapel. There is no sense of presentation, and in a way we felt like we were just in another room of the museum. I have always been a fan of the Sistine Chapel's back wall image of The Last Judgment. However seeing it in person also left me less then inspired. It seems that I enjoy the history and the story of the back wall, more then the image itself. Sadly the entire room is more impressive on TV then in person.
After we had explored the museum, we headed to the Basilica itself. The basilica is immense, yet simple to navigate and find the main points of the church. Immediately to right as you enter the main doors, we found the most famous Pieta (a pieta is any sculpture of Mary holding the body of Jesus after the crucifixion) made by a very young Michelangelo. The sculpture is protected behind bullet proof glass, and the crowds are kept at a far distance ever since the statue was attacked with a hammer in 1972. I was able to get a closer look using the zoom on my camera and my binoculars. Although not my favorite sculpture, the piece is simply stunning.
Further in to the Basilica, we viewed Michelangelo's dome, and Bernini's Baldacchino. We were going to descend into the crypt, but unfortunately, it was closed the day we visited.
Before leaving the Vatican we walked around the plaza, viewing it from all angels. While it is a lovely space, the extremely large screens set up at the front of the plaza for viewing mass, seem extremely out of place. The front half of the plaza is also filled with hundreds of chairs for the Sunday and Wednesday services. Although the chairs are modern in design, they seem to fit in perfectly with the atmosphere and the history of the space.
On our walk back to the hotel, we passed by some old structures/ ruins that are being excavated. The small block sized area is gated off to the crowds, but seem to now be home to stray cats. A shelter spays/ neuters, and vaccinates the cats before returning them to the ruins. They keep water available to the cats and passing tourists are encouraged to feed them. Some of the cats walk up to the fences to be petted, while others just sleep in the sun. The cats are all available for adoption if you visit the shelter.
Wednesday was a travel day. We arrived at the train station at 6 am to catch a train to Florence. Before arriving in Italy, I had bought a four day "Rail Pass" for Ben and myself. The Rail Pass is basically an any time train ticket. The pass allows unlimited train travel on the rail system for one day. We could use our four days when ever we want, over a six month period, and go where ever we want in Italy.
We arrived in Florence after a two hour train ride. Our first stop was to the Ponte Vecchio Bridge. It is the oldest bridge in the city and is covered with gold and silver shops. There is an old passage way above the shops, that nobles used to use as a safe way to cross the bridge, away from possible thieves.
Our next destination was the Uffizi Gallery. This museum is a bit small, but is home to Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Primavera. We were also able to view a few da Vinchies, and three Rembrents. Since the museum began its life as a palace, all of the ceilings were covered with lovely frescos. Unfortunately staring at the ceiling every few minuets, tended to give us soar necks before we were half way through the museum. This museum is always crowded, so we made reservations to beat the long line.
After we rested our necks, We made a quick stop to the Santa Croce church. Here we were able to view the tombs of Michelangelo, and Galileo.
After lunch and a bit of shopping, we arrived at the Accademia Gallery, where we also had a reservation. The main reason to view this gallery, is that it is home to Michelangelo's David. The gallery did a wonderful job of presenting the statue. The room was designed just to home the enormous piece, and incorporated arches to "frame" the statue. As soon as you turn the corner in to the room, you instantly can see it from a few hundred feet away. The time it takes to walk up to the statue allows you to acclimate yourself to it, and study the masterpiece. Benches all around the base of the sculpture allows you to consider the piece at your own pace. This piece is only one of two works that have exceeded my expectations. Contrary to most famous art piece we have seen, this one was much larger then I had expected. It is one of the most extraordinary works of art I have ever had the privilege of seeing.
We returned to the train station and headed back to Rome. We passed the time by trying to capture an acceptable picture of the country side through the window. It was harder then it sounds because as soon as you see the possibility of a good shot, and positioned the camera, a bunch of trees or a wall would replace the Tuscan scenery. By the time the obstruction passed, she shot was gone.
Thursday's destination was a thrill for me. We were going to be exploring the ruins of Pompeii. We boarded an early train to the city of Naples, and upon our arrival, took the subway train to the site.
It was a beautiful clear day and we could clearly see Mt Vesuvius looming on the horizon. We walked about a block from the subway stop, to the entrance of Pompeii.
I had an amazing time wondering around the ruins of homes and gardens. Where ever I could, I would scurry up the walls that ran in to hills. We took hundreds of photos of the structures, arenas, fountains and alleyways. There were stray dogs looming around the restaurant, and quick lizards scurrying around under foot. We ate the picnic lunch we had brought with us before heading to the main attractions; the people and mosaics. We spent hours exploring all the nooks and crannies of the site.
It was an amazing experience that was one of the high points of the entire trip. We made our way by the subway, back to Naples and the train to Rome. Pompeii was a long and tiring day that was the source of many of our blisters. However a little foot pain was definitely worth a day like that.
Friday morning we were scheduled to move to a new hotel just two floors up from the first one. This hotel was a small bed and breakfast and we would stay there for the rest of our trip. After checking in we headed out to the city, heading towards the Spanish Steps. The steps were full of tourists, all trying to get the same photos in the same spots. It was also full of souvenir booths and street vendors trying very fours-fully to sell you something.
We slowly (for the sake of our tired feet) made our way to the Borghese Gardens. We had our packed lunch and roamed the grounds until it was our appointed time to visit the Borghese Gallery. This museum is by reservation only, and is booked at least a week in advance. Two of my favorite sculptures are on display in this Gallery, Bernini's Apollo and Daphne, and his Rape of Proserpina. Although small, the gallery has a wealth of amazing art in both canvas and sculpture.
After, we made our way to the Plaza dell Popolo to view another Bernini sculpture at Saint Maria's. We then started our long walk back to the hotel. By this time our feet were really suffering from the days outings. Laying on a bed in our hotel never felt so good.
Saturday morning we were served a filling breakfast before we headed out. Our first destination was to San Pietro in Vincoli, to see Michelanglo's Moses in Chains. We then made our way to the Colosseum.
The ticket line is always long at the Colosseum, but we knew a trick. You can buy your ticket at Palatine Hill, since both sites are included in the ticket price. After going through the short line for our Colosseum tickets, we walked past the long line at the Colosseum and walked right in.
We spent a few hours walking along the two different levels, and taking lots of photos. It was fun to "people watch" as they wondered around and interacting with those they were traveling with. Out side the Colosseum we observed a handful of brides and grooms on their wedding day, taking professional photos with the Colosseum as a background. We could only imagine it was a local tradition.
We then made our way to the church of Santa Maria in Cosmdein to see the Mouth of Truth. The Mouth of Truth is a sculpture that is thought to be part of an ancient Roman fountain or perhaps a manhole cover, portraying one of several possible pagan gods.
The most famous characteristic of the Mouth, however, is its role as a lie detector. Starting from the Middle ages it was believed that if you told a lie with your hand in the mouth of the sculpture, it would be bitten off. Of course it is now a photo opportunity for tourist to come and have their photo taken with their hand in the mouth (yes we did this too).
Sunday marked our six year wedding anniversary. We spent the morning on a three hour train journey to the city of Pisa. When we had arrived, we strolled down the streets of a market while eating gelato. Pisa looks just like all the European cities that are depicted in television and movies. It is small, quite and quint. While we made our way to the Leaning Tower, we passed the route of a foot race that was being held all day. It had stopped or re routed all the traffic, so walking became very simple.
We took lots of photos when we arrived at the tower, and yes we posed with the tower to make it look like we were holding it up. I had made a reservation for a time slot to climb to the top of the tower (necessary in the high season). So at our appointed time, we lined up at the base of the tower. One of the most interesting things about the tower is the stair case inside. It is a winding stair, and as you climb you can figure our where in the angle of the tower you are. As you approach the slanted side off the tower, the wear patter on the stairs is close to the wall. As you approach the other side of the tower, the wear pattern is in the center of the stair case. The view at the top of the tower was spectacular. You could see little homes with red roofs all the way to the mountains in the distance.
We decided to take a different route back to Rome when we arrived at the train station. A direct train to Rome was going to take four hours. This meant that we would not get in to the city until almost 10 p.m.. Instead we took a train to Florence, and from there hopped on a second train to Rome. We were glad we changed our train plans (and that we had Rail Pass to allow it) since we arrived in Rome at 7:10. We were asleep in bed before the original train made it to the station.
Monday was a very exciting and fun day. We once again took an early train to Naples and then the subway to Pompeii. Today however, we were going to climb Mt Vesuvius. Once we arrived at the subway stop, we walked down the hill to a bus stop. There is a bus that runs from the city, to the base of the volcano, which means you must walk up the last 1.5 km to the crater. We found the bus with no problem and we were soon on our way.
It was a cloudy day, and very windy at the base. The path up the volcano is very steep at first, but gets easer the closer you get to the top. It was little nerve racking where is some places the fence along the path had smashed holes in it. These holes had been made by large rocks that had recently falling down the side of the volcano.
Although there was allot of clouds and mist at the top of the crater, it created a mystical environment where people ahead of you suddenly disagreed in to the fog. I have always loved climbing rocks, so I had a great time climbing up and down the rock face (although I do not think I was suppose to do that). We captured some amazing photos all the way to to crater, and half way around the top. Just when we had begun our descent, the clouds parted and we had a great view of the city below. We were also able to see the entire crater. We were even lucky enough to see some of the steam escaping from the vents inside the crater.
We made our way back down the volcano a rested while we waited for our bus. We were soon back in Pompeii, waiting for the subway to take us back to Naples. It was also the last day of our Rail Passes and we boarded the train to Rome, knowing it was the last time we would see the Italian country side.
Tuesday was a slow relaxing day.
After breakfast we started our day visiting the Trevi Fountain. I did the traditional throwing of a coin, and took lots of photos.
Our next stop was to the Pantheon , and while we were there, we saw the tomb of Raphael. We walked to Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, to see Michelangelo's Christ Carrying the Cross. We then made our way to see the Four Rivers Fountain.
I was disappointed upon our arrival to discover that the fountain was being restored. The entire structure was behind a fence, and plastic viewing windows. Half of the fountain was covered in a protective cover, so I could only see two of the rivers, and get a good photo of only one statue.
We went to dinner at a restaurant in the train station. It was called "The Road House" and it was styled to be an "American" restaurant. I told Ben that Italians must look at "The Olive Garden" the same way we saw the "Road House". It was filled with every Western stereotype you can imagine.
Wednesday was our free day. We roamed around the city, stopping off at an interesting church. The bones of hundreds of monks had been set up in the crypt in an artistic fashion. At the end of the crypt was a sing with the eery message, "Where you are now, we used to be. Where we are now, you will be". We walked around the street markets and did a little shopping. We sat by a pond and fed the ducks. We headed back to the hotel and we took a noon time nap. When we woke up, we walked down by the Trevi Fountain, for a gelato before returning to the hotel for the night.
Over all, our trip was fantastic. I did a great job of planning out all the trains and reservations so that we never had any problems. It was wonderful to spend our anniversary seeing so many masterpieces and seeing so many beautiful areas. It could not have been a better experience.