After a brief layover in Munich, Janet and I began our Italian adventure in Venice. We walked a few minutes from the airport to the boat terminals, since the original (and interesting) part of Venice lies upon a bunch of small islands that don’t make for convenient car access. We took a nice water-bus to the islands, and checked in to a classy old hotel.
Although Italy is famous for its pizzas and pastas, each region of Italy actually has its own specialty cuisine. In Venice, they specialize in seafood, especially in risotto. We didn’t waste any time trying out the local specialty, and Janet and I spent our first night walking around the city, finding a great little spot to enjoy some risotto. And it was delicious!
Venice really shines in the morning. The city lives heavily on tourism, and tourists tend to stay up late and sleep in. This leaves the morning streets relatively empty, and since the islands have no cars, the streets stay very peaceful.
Janet and I got going right away to enjoy this Venetian prime-time. We were on our way to make it to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, but on the way we stepped into the Frari Church. They were having mass at the time so we couldn’t go in very far, but we saw a few high-quality statues and paintings in the receiving area. The sculptures there were quite impressive, especially given the unassuming, almost worn-down look of the exterior.
After a quick look at the Frari church, we made it to the Scuola. The building displays lots of beautiful paintings an artist named Tintoretto. The upper room that he designed was particularly breath-taking – some call it Tintoretto’s Sistine Chapel of Venice. He filled the room with Biblical imagery, as well as wooden figures around the walls that represented different virtues and vices.
In the area of the Scuola, we noticed that a neighboring cathedral had posted an advertisement for a Mozart concert that day. It started soon after we finished our time in the Scuola, so we stepped in for a listen. We weren’t able to stay for the whole thing, but we greatly enjoyed listen to a skilled orchestra playing in a Venetian cathedral.
After the orchestra, we wandered around to some other significant sites, seeing the famous Rialto bridge and Rialto market.
We also grabbed lunch at a nice little deli. We both got paninis. It was a bit difficult to order properly though. After the man at the counter asked me “what meat do you want?” I said “Salami.” He responded by saying “just salami?”
I thought to myself “how odd, I guess Venetians usually get multiple kinds of meats in their sandwiches.” Since I didn’t feel like a multi-meat sandwich, I replied “yes, just salami.”
Unfortunately, the man was really asking “do you want anything at all besides salami, such as cheese or vegetables?”
So after I said “just salami,” he went to work putting some salami slices in a piece of bread, and handing me the underdeveloped sandwich. Even though Janet didn’t ask for it, they liked her enough to add some mozzarella, so her experience was far superior to my own. I didn’t want to be that tourist that causes trouble over food, so I accepted the bread and meat, and had our lunch. My lunch tasted as good as a bread-meat combo can, but Venice offers so much more.
Shortly after lunch we had a tour with “City Wonders” through some of the major parts of Venice. Our guide brought us by Marco Polo’s house (he wasn’t home on account of having died long ago), and explained much of the history and origins of the city. After some explanation of different parts of the city, we went into St. Mark’s basilica.
St. Mark’s basilica holds the title of Venice’s most famous church. It overlooks a large square (St. Mark’s square as it turns out) that was absolutely packed with people. Our tour gave us “skip the line” access, which almost made it worth the tour on its own – the lines could last for hours.
The church was beautiful, full of lots of mosaics. It also had a few famous statues – such as 4 copper horses that
shined so bright that authorities eventually ordered someone to scratch them up so that they wouldn’t blind people so much. They also had a statue of 4 emperors holding each other, called the “Tetrarchs.” One of the figures is missing a foot that was eventually found in Istanbul, the original home of the Tetrarchs.
After a short break, we took a tour through Doge’s palace. The palace displays lots of significant art from Venice’s
history and mythology. It also took us through the “Bridge of Sighs” where the condemned would go for interrogation, and would sigh as they saw their last view of Venice before being taken into prisons. That’s the legend anyway. Included in the bridge of sighs was a view of the holding cells for the prisoners. It’s such an unassuming skywalk on the outside, but the tour guides all point it out, so there are always people taking pictures of it, inside and out.
Now you’re probably wondering how I’ve written so much about Venice without mentioning the gondolas. Although we saw plenty of gondolas, (and heard a few gondoliers singing), we didn’t ride one. Instead, after a delicious dinner of squid-ink spaghetti and seafood, we went to row our own boat. There’s a nice tour company that teaches you how to row a batellina coda di gambero, a more traditional boat than a gondola, and much easier to learn. After a short lesson, we rowed our way down the grand canal (rather, I rowed us along as the professional steered us). It was a lovely way to spend our last evening in Venice.
We took advantage of Venice’s prime-time again, taking some early-morning pictures before we had to get traveling to our next destination. After a small scramble to get to the terminal (I learned the hard way that not every terminal sells tickets), we got on a boat bus in time to hop on a train to Cinque Terre.
We spent most of the day on the train, looking out at the beautiful country. Our route took us through Pisa (the home of the famous leaning tower), but we didn’t stop to see it. Soon after passing Pisa, we arrived at Vernazza.
Vernazza is one of the 5 cities that make up the Cinque Terre (which means “5 lands”). Each of the 5 cities are basically small beach towns, and they’re close enough that you can walk along the trails that connect all of them in a single day.
We walked around Vernazza taking beautiful pictures, then found a delicious place to eat called Il Pirata. Cinque Terre is famous for its Pesto, so we had a Pesto pasta with a seafood plate. We also had a cannoli and panna cotta. Yum!
We spend today visiting each of the 5 cities. Vernazza is the 2nd most northern city, so we took the train to get to the southernmost city, Riomaggiore. We grabbed a little quiche breakfast, enjoyed the small town, then intended to walk to the next one. Unfortunately, the path was closed, so we just took the train to the second city, Manarola.
As we did in all of the cities, we visited the little cathedral there, and enjoyed some of the beauty of the small beach town. Then, the real work began.
We decided to hike the trail from Manarola to Corniglia. This isn’t the hardest of the trails to do, but we ended up taking an indirect route that made it much harder. We also spent much of the hike in the heat of mid-day, so it was hot!
After navigating the trail (past a few larger tour groups and many small vineyards), we got lunch in Corniglia – a nice pesto lasagna and gnocchi. We were satisfied with the hike, so we took the train to the northernmost city of Monterosso.
Monterosso is the biggest city of Cinque Terre, and although it feels the most touristy, it had more places to explore. We wandered around some trails that overlooked the city, taking in the gorgeous views. Monterosso also had the best beach to walk along, being both the biggest and the only one with some real sand and swimming.
We got some fish and chips for dinner, then headed back to Vernazza to close our evening in the beachy paradise.
We spent our last morning in Vernazza wandering around and taking pictures. Our train didn’t leave until the early afternoon, so we also had a nice breakfast at Il Pirata.
Then, we got on a train and headed to Florence. We stayed at a fantastic airbnb in Florence, just a block from the Duomo (Florence Cathedral). For lunch, I enjoyed a Florence specialty: tripe. It’s actually not the first time I’ve had tripe since I had some in a soup called menudo when I served a mission for my church. Tripe actually tastes pretty ok, but it does have a bit of a spongy texture that not everyone likes.
We wandered around the local areas of the city for the rest of the day, such as the Piazza della Signoria. This square has one of the three version of Michelangelo’s David (there’s an original, the replica here, and a bronze replica on a hill). There are a bunch of other famous statues there too, both in bronze and marble. It features Sabine women (women that the original Romans legendarily captured to wed), a depiction of Hermes holding the head of Medusa (with a bust of the artist hidden on the back of Hermes’ head), and a few gods. The square also features some modern pieces, in this case, a person riding a giant golden turtle, and some golden man on a ladder holding up a ruler to measure the sky. I tended to like the ancient art more than the modern, but the golden pieces weren’t distasteful in their more revered company.
Our wanderings also took us to the duomo itself, where we admired the bronze doors of the baptistery. Each of the panels depicts a different Biblical event, and they’re done beautifully.
Day 6 started bright and early as we took a tour of some of the most important sights in Florence. We took another “skip-the-lines” tour that started with a look through the Accademia. After a brief look at some unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo, we saw the David. This 17-foot tall masterpiece is probably the single greatest sculpture I saw in Italy. Our tour guide also pointed out some of the peculiarities of the statue.
When you look at the statue from the side, you can see that the chest doesn’t protrude as far as you would expect for a man looking so “chiseled.” Unfortunately, Michelangelo received the piece of marble from another artist who gave up on the work, and too much of the chest area was already gone before Michelangelo got to it. Michelangelo made up for it by working with light and shadow to cut the chest in a way that makes it look bigger from straight on.
If you look at the David’s eyes, you can see that the pupils are heart-shaped. Michelangelo did this to better simulate how light reflects off of a person’s eyes, and even far away it gives the eyes much more life than other statues.
Michelangelo was so great that even his unfinished work gets attention. Michelangelo ended up getting called away from a series of statues in-process, and never had the chance to finish them. These statues are called “prisoners” since it looks like the figures are trapped in the rock, trying to get out. This comes from Michelangelo’s unique style of finishing pieces from front to back, instead of doing everything layer by layer (getting things roughly done everywhere first, before bringing out the next level of smoothness).
The Accademia is also home to some great plaster sculptures, and an original Stradivari violin. We used a little bit of our free time in the museum admiring the instruments, plasters, and other paintings in the gallery.
After the Accademia, we toured the major Duomo in Florence. Although it boasts an impressive facade on the outside, they kept the interior relatively less decorated than some of the other churches. This leaves space for 30,000 people to fit inside – the entire population of the city when they finished it in the 1400’s. The sheer size and beauty of the marble would be decoration enough anyway, though the central cathedral has a gorgeous interior dome.
When we finished with the Duomo, we took a quick stop near the central arch of the city. Our tour guide followed this up with a quick stop by a church building that started as a marketplace. It still has 12 statues standing in its walls around it, each one representing the different trade guild that sponsored it. On this unassuming building, under the base of the statue for the swordsman’s guild, rests the first piece of linear perspective put into marble. Fully-blown scientific perspective won’t be perfected for a few more centuries, but this little footpiece to a swordsman guild represents a big step forward in art.
Our tour took us through a couple other major parts of the city, and then stopped for a lunch break. Janet and I went to get our first pizza of the trip! I loved it!
After lunch, we toured through the Uffizi gallery. This huge gallery would takes weeks to go through thoroughly, but our guide quickly got us to the highlights. We saw many famous statues and paintings, including the original Birth of Venus, and a Boy with Thorn. The Boy with Thorn doesn’t seem like much, but apparently artists and sculptures used it as a bit of a signal of high class and culture. It shows up in lots of old paintings. The gallery also contains works of Leonardo da Vinci, a circle painting of Michelangelo, and a host of other important works.
After the gallery, we rushed over to the Pitti palace. The old palace had a nice garden to walk through, a collection of porcelains, and a costume gallery that was more interesting for its ceiling art than for the costumes themselves.
When we finished up at the palace, we walked up a hill to see a church called Abbazia di San Miniato. Inside the church, we enjoyed the mosaics and paintings, as well as some Gregorian chants. Outside the church, we took in the best view of Florence in the city.
Just a short walk from the church, we also enjoyed the Piazzale Michelangelo. It also provided a nice view of Florence, and contains the bronze replica of Michelangelo’s David.
Halfway through our trip we took a Tuscany bike ride! A tour company picked us up from Florence early in the morning, and we drove out to a little Tuscan city called Castellana. We enjoyed a nice hour in the city, getting some Ribollita soup to warm us up.
After our brief visit, our tour guide brought us to a gelateria where we learned how gelato is made. We didn’t just come for the education though, we also came to try lots of different delicious flavors given to us by the owner. It was delicious!
After the gelato, we grabbed our bikes and started our 12 mile bike ride through Tuscany. Our path stayed downhill about 95% of the time, so it was just a relaxing, beautiful tour through the countryside.
We finished our day in Tuscany at a city called San Gimignano. Our tour guide gave us a couple hours to explore the small city, where I got a nice little leather wallet. There’s also a gelateria there that claims to be the best gelateria in the world (and actually officially holds that title). The lines were long so we didn’t end up getting a gelato there. After that, we went back to Florence.
We started day 8 with an early visit to the Bargello gallery. This museum contains heaps of fantastic sculptures, including a few significant ones by Donatello. Donatello had some interesting ways of depicting David, and especially John the Baptist. It also houses some “application” pieces for the bronze doors of the baptistery mentioned earlier, and a few statues of Bacchus/Dyonisus, the god of wine.
We followed that up with a visit to the Medici Chapel. Michelangelo designed the chapel. The chapel bears the name of the wealthy family that funded it, providing a tomb for some of the major members of the family (though I believe that the most significant family members didn’t end up there). I’m a bit of a sucker for colored marble, so I really enjoyed my time in the chapel.
It had some sketches from Michelangelo too, found in a room that was forgotten for a while.
After the Medici chapel, we explored the Santa Croce. The outside of this chapel looks like a copy of the larger duomo, but has quite a different interior. This church displays monuments to many notable Italians, especially ones from Florence. It contains monuments to Dante, Galileo, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and Enrico Fermi. Some of them are buried there as well (as opposed to just having a monument), but I can’t find a definitive list on which is which, except that Dante and Enrico are buried elsewhere.
The Santa Croce also has a rope from Saint Francis of Asisi, as well as a chapel designed by Donatello. Many other notable works of art and sculpture fill the chapel, and I thought it was one of the more beautiful churches we visited.
We followed up the Santa Croce with a visit to the Galileo museum. This was more of a renaissance science museum than one dedicated exclusively to Galileo, and I enjoyed it. It contains lots of scientific instruments and tools, as well as many demonstration pieces. For a while, it was really cool to go to demonstrations of scientific principles, so scientists built nifty machines to demonstrate them. This isn’t too different from today, I just get my science fix from demonstrations on YouTube instead of the local piazza.
The museum also has a few finger bones and tooth of Galileo. It’s in a glass case though, so you can’t give the brilliant man a posthumous high-five.
After our visit at the Galileo museum, we took a quick pass by the Hospital of the Innocents. There was a market going on in the Piazza S.S. Annunziata Filippo (The Lovely Square) in front of the hospital, so we looked around at lots of pottery and art being sold. The hospital was under construction, so we couldn’t really get a good look at it, but we were able to go into a free exhibit inside. We learned that the hospital used to take in lots of orphans; they even built a sort of wheel into the wall with a slot for mothers to put their unwanted babies in so the nuns could wheel the baby inside without the mother having to reveal herself.
We wrapped up our last day in Florence with a quick visit to a busy square, and a steak dinner. Florence is famous for its Tuscan steak, so we got a good one!
I haven’t mentioned it yet, but I also ate lots of gelato on the trip. We discovered on our last night in Florence that the gelateria we were frequenting is actually on a list of top 10 gelaterias in the world! It certainly tasted like it, but it’s such an unassuming little gelateria that I wouldn’t have guessed. I was quite happy to get another few scoops there to finish our adventure in Florence.
We left Florence via a short bus ride to Siena. Siena feels a bit like the other small Tuscan cities we visited on our bike tour, but with a bit more substance. We explored the major cathedral there, which didn’t lack at all for beauty. This cathedral has lots of images on the flooring, as well as a bust of many of the popes along tops of the walls. We also went through its crypt and baptistery, and a museum connection. The museum has a little roof area to provide a nice view of Siena and the Tuscany region which I loved as well.
In addition to the church, we wandered around the city, took pictures, enjoyed some pasta with wild-boar sauce for lunch, and some “little hats” pasta for dinner.
We only stayed one night in Siena, so we spent our morning wandering to a few other significant sites in the city before we left, primarily Saint Catherine’s Basilica.
When we left, we left for Rome! We had a bit of trouble getting into our airbnb, but when our host finally showed up, we dropped our stuff off, and wandered the city a bit to get our bearings.
Our first stop was the Pantheon. This temple to every god has the widest unsupported dome in the world, religious significance, and the tomb of Rafael. Although it started as a temple to the Roman gods, it was converted to use for Christianity after Constantine made Christianity the nation’s faith.
We continued walking by some important-looking plazas until we got to the Trevi fountain. Although it was shockingly big, it was also shockingly crowded! We manged to squeeze our way through and get a picture in, but I cringe at what that place must look like during the high-tourism season.
We continued on after the fountain until we reached the Spanish Steps. They were very nice steps.
We concluded our first adventure in Rome with a walk to the Trastevere neighborhood for dinner. This neighborhood is famous for having good food, and it didn’t disappoint! I ordered some bucatini all’amatriciana and Janet got spaghetti carbonara, both Roman essentials. We were seated in close quarters to a few other tourists and we had a good time getting to know each other.
I thought the Trevi fountain was crowded, but you don’t know crowded until you go to the Vatican! We started bright and early with another one of our “skip the line” tours, which seems to me to be essential for the Vatican.
Our tour started with an explanation of the Sistine chapel (since explanations are not allowed inside the chapel itself). After the briefing, we started going through some of the immense galleries of art and sculpture on display.
The galleries contain a plaster replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta (which is nice, since you can get much closer to the replica than the original, which makes it easier to admire the detail and mastery of the piece). They also contain many works from Rafael and other masters. The pieces are of a predictably religious nature, and everything in there seemed gorgeous and important.
As part of our tour, we also visited the famous Bramante Staircase. It’s a self-supporting staircase, and not generally open to the public. Anyone can go buy the tour that we did if they want to see it, but most people don’t.
Our tour continued with exhibits of Etruscan artifacts, ancient armor, old statues, rooms designed by Rafael, a huge and beautiful map room (one of the most crowded parts of the day) and many other beautiful works of art. Until eventually, we reached the Sistine chapel.
My first impression of the Sistine chapel was something like “this must be what cattle feels like.” It’s very crowded, and the guards rush you through the room, and herd you to different spots right away. Janet and I were fortunate enough to find an open spot on the bench where we could sit as we admired the room.
Once we got situated and looked up, the chapel looked incredible. The paintings are highly detailed, and we were able to notice lots of the interesting aspects that our guide told us about earlier. My favorite “Easter egg” is a painting of a grumpy-looking man being bitten by a snake in hell. Michelangelo painted this man with the face of the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies who went out of his way to criticize Michelangelo’s work, especially all the nudity. When Biagio da Cesena complained to the Pope about being depicted nude in hell, the Pope allegedly responded that, as the Pope, he didn’t have jurisdiction in hell, so there was nothing he could do.
The chapel is beautiful and an outstanding highlight of the trip. However, if I’m being honest, so many of the ceilings and artwork in Italy look incredible that I’m not sure that I would have pointed to the Sistine chapel as above the rest without everyone telling me.
After that, we went to Saint Peter’s Basilica, the largest and most important Basilica. Although we didn’t have a ton of time in there, we had enough to appreciate the grandeur and beauty. We especially loved the Pieta, though it has been placed behind bullet proof glass after someone damaged the masterpiece with a hammer in the 80’s.
One of the traditional things to do in there is find St. Peter’s statue and touch the foot. So many people have done this over the years that the foot of the bronze statue has been worn down to where the toes are basically gone. You have to be quick though, since there’s a guard there that’s rushing people along to make sure everyone has a chance.
Although the Vatican can be a full day’s worth of adventure on its own, after the basilica we rushed off to another part of town to go through the Borghese gallery. This was one of my favorite galleries. Although Janet knows a bit of art history, I never really learned much on the subject, but our guide did a great job telling the stories of the pieces we saw, as well as the artists behind them.
The highlights from the Borghese were pieces from Caravaggio and Bernini. Caravaggio is a bit of a controversial figure, but there was so much story behind his artwork that it was highly interesting to learn about. I also hadn’t heard of Bernini before (yes, I know that little of art history), but was blown away by his sculptures and paintings.
Bernini did a fantastic job at making the sculptures interesting to look at from all sides. This makes it hard to get a single good picture of them, but they are wonderful to look at. I really enjoyed Bernini’s portrayal of the story of Apollo and Daphne. Apollo made fun of Cupid’s weak arrows one too many times, to which Cupid responded by nailing Apollo with a love arrow while striking Apollo’s love with an anti-love arrow. This meant that Apollo fell madly and impossibly in love with Daphne, who could love no one at all.
Eventually Apollo’s chasing became too much, and Daphne called on her father, the river god Peneus, to change her form so as to be rid of Apollo’s entreaties forever. Peneus responded by turning Daphne into a tree. Bernini’s sculpture captures the very moment with Daphne starts to transform into a tree, with Apollo chasing closely behind. The blend of person and tree, displaying such motion in marble, is amazing.
There’s also a statue of David made by Bernini in the gallery. Bernini took a bit more of an active take on David than Michelangelo, showing David winding up his sling for a shot at Goliath. Although I think I like Bernini’s style more than Michelangelo in general, I do like Michelangelo’s David more.
My camera died near the end of the gallery, which was a good indication that it had been a very fulfilling day. I did continue to take picture with my phone though, since the gallery was too good to not try to capture more of it.
After a brief walk through the Borghese park, we got some gelato at Gelateria Romana (which I LOVE), and then went to the Trastevere again for dinner. I got some delicious pizza!
Day 12 began with a visit to the Capuchin Crypt. This isn’t just an ordinary crypt, but a crypt that uses the bones of hundreds of late Capuchin monks as the decorations. This sounds gross or macabre, but I found it much more peaceful, poignant, and respectful than anticipated. The bones were really placed to perfection, forming geometric and religious patterns, and shock the mind into purposeful pondering. I would highly recommend a visit to anyone in Rome – you just won’t find anything like it elsewhere (to my knowledge).
After that, we went to the Santa Maria della Vittoria church to see Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. This was one of my absolute favorite churches. Not only does it have a masterpiece from Bernini, but the church is filled with different colors of marble in expert patterns. The ceilings are also painted with clouds and shadow effects that make it look like it sticks out from the wall. Very beautiful church!
After that, we went to Scala Sancta. This is a staircase taken from Jerusalem that is believed to be what Jesus walked up to His trial before Pilate. While I in Jerusalem I saw the spot where the steps used to lie, so it was extra special to see the real thing.
You can go up the steps, but you can’t walk – you ascend on your knees, one step at a time, saying a prayer at each step. We decided against ascending them due to time constraints, not knowing the prayer to say, and because I didn’t feel it would be respectful to do when I’m not a Catholic. We did see many people climbing the steps and saying the prayers, so we admired a moment, then looked through the beautiful frescoes on the walls and saw what used to be a Holy of Holies.
Across the street was the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran where our next tour was going to start. We were a little tired, and we had a few minutes before the tour started, so we went into the attached baptistery to take some pictures and sit down. We ended up falling asleep for a few minutes, but nothing too long. During the tour we learned that Constantine was baptized there.
After this, we started a basilica tour at the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. This beautiful church houses ecclesiastical seat of the Roman pontiff, making it the cathedral church of Rome. It had a large interior and beautiful art and mosaics, as is normal for the area.
We followed our visit with another of the 4 ancient, major Papal basilicas, the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. It had been severely damaged in a fire not too long ago, but recently refurbished.
We went through the holy door here, as we did at St. Peter’s, St. John of Lateran, and our last church on our tour, Santa Maria Maggiore. These doors are normally closed, but since Pope Francis declared this year a year of Jubilee, we could step through them.
St. Paul Outside the Walls shared the beauty of the other churches, while also boasting a well-maintained courtyard. The basilicas inside the walls typically don’t have space for much outdoor greenery, so the grass and trees stand out as a particularly nice feature.
We also took advantage of the monk-made chocolate at their gift shop. As if chocolate isn’t sacred enough in my family already…
After that we went to the last church on our tour, Santa Maria Maggiore. As we drove along, we passed by a couple of pillars on the side of the road. Our guide told us that Rome raised those pillars after 9-11 to memorialize the victims.
I really liked Santa Maria Maggiore, as it had lots of chapels on the sides with beautiful artwork. It also includes the burial spot of Bernini, who I discovered I liked during the last couple of days. Surprisingly, Bernini doesn’t have much of a burial spot – it’s just his name on a block. Other famous artists and sculptures ended up with larger memorials, and I would have expected the same for a man who used art to revitalize interest in faith during the Baroque period. I’ve done what I can to verify that this is the Bernini in the picture, but if the Bernini actually does have a more fantastic burial spot somewhere else, and this is just some regular Bernini, let me know!
After the tour, we passed by Trajan’s column. We didn’t know much about why it was important at the time, but since returning I’ve made it through Trajan’s rule on the History of Rome. It turns out that Trajan is one of the most venerated Roman emperors, and that much of what we know about him came from the column. Good thing we snapped a quick picture!
On day 13, we took a road trip south. We met up with a tour group, hopped on a bus, and traveled down to Pompeii.
On the bus ride down, our tour guides briefed us on the history of the area, often timing their stories with significant landmarks. Most notably, they recounted the traditional story of Romulus and Remus.
Essentially, these two brothers are sent to be executed while still babies. The one given the dark task satisfies himself with simply abandoning them in the wilderness where a wolf suckles them until a farmer takes the children in. Lots of other things happen, until Romulus and Remus get in an argument over which hill they should found their up-and-coming city on, and Romulus wins the argument (kills his brother).
Right about the time we passed the famed hill where the climax happened, our tour guide pointed out the window at the crests of the two hills in question. However valid or not the story may be, we could see the legend with our own eyes and live another part of history.
After a 3 hour bus ride, we finally arrived at Pompeii. We joined with an archaeologist who showed us around the violently preserved ancient city. Once covered in 60 feet of ash after Mount Vesuvius exploded in approximately 78 BC, it has now been unearthed and prepared for the curiosity of hordes of tourists like us.
We were guided around the theaters, the gladiator training ground, their major streets, shops, homes, and a brothel (our guide was most excited to show us the brothel). We learned about their way of life, plumbing systems, modes of transportation, and the relative modernity of the city.
Pompeii’s greatest claim to fame are the plaster casts of the human remains at the city. Due to the intense heat and volume of ash that nearly instantaneously flooded the city, many unfortunate residents died quick, but painful deaths in the ash. As their bodies decomposed, they ended up leaving gaps in the earth that stayed structurally sound enough for archaeologists to fill the gaps with plaster and reveal the final resting positions of the inhabitants. Many of the casts were scattered to museums around the world, but Pompeii kept three for itself: a crouching adult with a hand over its face, a baby, and a dog.
After our Pompeii adventure, we went to a restaurant to enjoy some Neapolitan pizza as close to Naples as we ever got. Pizza as we know it was born in Naples – the original specialty being the Margarita (so the story goes). It was deliciously authentic!
When we finished lunch, we got back on the bus to climb up Mt. Vesuvius. This was not a comfortable bus ride, as much of the road seemed hardly wide enough for one car, but was forced to accommodate two buses at regular intervals. Just before our bus reached the trailhead, we got caught in a massive traffic jam, and ended up getting off the bus early to let all of the vehicles figure themselves out while we climbed the volcano.
Or rather, attempted to climb the volcano. The weather got bad as we were driving up, and by the time we arrived at the trailhead Jupiter was casting his thunder and lightning about. This caused the official to close the trail for our safety. It seemed a bit funny to close an active volcano for a little bad weather—especially since the volcano is due to erupt in a Pompeii-destroying fashion any month now—but close the trail they did, so we just had to wait for the buses to figure themselves out and head home. We may not have seen the crest of Vesuvius, but we did walk on its shoulder.
Halfway through the bus ride home we took a break at a decent rest stop. As the tour guides provided everyone else with wine, Janet and I made our way to some samples of different flavored chocolate, and grabbed a few bars to my delight.
For dinner that night, we walked through the rain to the Jewish Ghetto. The Ghetto is famous for its food, especially its fried artichokes, so we got one of those for an appetizer, and enjoyed some Saltimbocca and orange ravioli for our main courses. The fried artichokes really are good – they taste a lot like French fries.
The rain that cancelled our climb up Vesuvius wasn’t done with us yet. We got up early to go on a tour of the Coliseum and Roman forum. Unfortunately, the rain rendered the ticketing and security systems inoperable, forcing a day-long cancellation of visits to the ancient sites. Disappointed as we were, we managed to reschedule our tour for the next day, and rushed off to visit ancient sites that have learned how to manage the inevitable case of mild precipitation.
We started with the Capitoline museum. This was another museum so filled with paintings and sculptures that one could fairly easily spend nearly a whole day there. I certainly won’t remember all of the significant and beautiful paintings we saw. Although it was hard to navigate, we managed to find a head of medusa made by Bernini, a statue called “The Dying Gaul,” and the bronze she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus. The museum also provided an overlook of the Roman forum, so we grabbed a sneak-preview of where we would wander the next day.
Up next, we took a look at the Victor Emmanuel monument (or as the Romans call it, the Wedding Cake, due to its much whiter appearance than the buildings around it). This was made a bit more recently, being completed in 1925. It commemorates the first king of a unified Italy in the modern era. More than anything, it provided some nice views, and displayed some good sculptures.
After grabbing lunch in the Jewish Ghetto (with some more fried artichoke), we made our way to the church of St. Peter in Chains. It wasn’t our favorite church, but it houses a sculpture of Moses made by Michelangelo. The church just didn’t have any seating, and it charged a Euro to turn on the lights to the sculpture. Interestingly, it did have lots of sculptures with skeletons featured, which we didn’t really see anywhere else.
Since we hadn’t really purchased a souvenir yet, we walked back to the Vatican to see if we could find a nice miniature of La Pieta by Michelangelo. They had a few miniatures, but nothing that provided a decent enough copy of the masterpiece for me to fall in love with. We did, however, find a great plaster copy of the centerpiece of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel where Adam reaches out to touch the finger of God. I haven’t yet convinced Janet to let me mount the souvenir on our own ceiling, so for now, it hangs on the wall.
We followed our souvenir purchase with a return to my favorite gelateria in Rome, where this time, we each got our own cone. Then we dropped our plaster off at our airBnB, and went back to the Trastevere for dinner at the same place we went on our first night in Rome. It was just as delicious as the first time, and a great last dinner in Rome.
On this, our last day in Rome, we kicked it off with a tour through the Flavian amphitheater, or as most people know it: the Coliseum. Our guide quickly dispelled a couple of the most common myths about the amphitheater, namely that it held chariot races, and that it was a popular place for Christian martyrdom. The Coliseum is too small for chariots, and Christians were martyred for being Christians elsewhere in the city; any Christians that died in the Coliseum died as part of being a gladiator for other reasons rather than for religious persecution.
The building really is huge, and stands in spite of much of it being harvested for construction materials over the last millennia and a half. Even after all the damage, you can still see the complex system of trapdoors and aisles exposed underneath what used to be the main platform, and you can get a decent idea of how expansive the seats and walls were. We managed to get some nice pictures of the stadium.
After seeing the Coliseum, we went to the Roman Forum. This is where the senate met during Rome’s republican days. This also brought us to the remains of the Temple of Vesta (one of the oldest structure in the city, dating to the 7th century BCE), and the Triumphal Arch for Titus. Titus’ triumphal arch depicts many Judean artifacts, since it celebrates Titus’ victory over the Jewish revolt in 66-73AD, and included the sacking of Herod’s temple in Jerusalem. On the arch you can see the triumphal procession carrying a Menorah from the temple, much like the one I saw in Jerusalem prepared by the Temple Institute.
After touring through the forum, we concluded our visit on the palatine hill – so named because this hill had lots of palaces on it. The palace remains provide sufficient evidence to say that the original structure was enormous. It even included a mini hippodrome in it, in in addition to also overlooking the main Circus. We walked through many of the rooms, until our tour concluded.
Without a moment to spare, Janet and I rushed off to the Jewish quarter one more time for our last meal in Rome. We got fried artichoke again, and had lasagna and some sort of pasta (called “griglia” or something like that) for lunch.
Once we finished lunch, we grabbed our bags from our AirBnB, called a taxi, and made it to the train station in time for one more gelato before boarding our train to Venice. We didn’t love the teenage soccer team that shared our car, but after their coach finished flirting with one of the other passengers, the boys calmed down, and departed a few stops before we reached Venice.
We didn’t have time or opportunity to explore Venice any more – we just went to our hotel, and had a pizza dinner in the hotel restaurant. It was good, but it wasn’t Neapolitan or Roman.
Our flight was early in the morning, so we grabbed an early breakfast, and went to the airport. We didn’t have any major hiccups on the way back – we just grabbed a sausage at our layover in Frankfurt and watched Captain America on the way back. No more fitting way to get back into the American spirit than watching Red, White, and Blue sock Hitler on the jaw!
Keep seeking truth.
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