Friday, June 23, 2006

The Little David and Underground Adventure

We saw "Big David" in Firenza. He is massive and Renaissance. But today we move on to a more human-sized David and the Baroque.

The Villa Borghese is just outside the walls of Rome. A metro ride to the Spanish Steps and a walk across the grounds brings us to the Villa proper, which houses the Gallery.

You have to make reservations to get inside, so do so as soon as you arrive in Rome. We joined the English-language tour. This because you are limited to two hours in the Gallery and we wanted to maximize our experience.

There is, once again, too much to take in in one visit. But the two items that stand out in my memory are Bernini's Apollo and Daphne and David. Momma was impressed by the latter, preferring it to Michelangelo's. But it is the Apollo and Daphne that I am most impressed by. The guide carefully walked us around the sculpture, showing us how from the four cardinal points, a different part of the story seems to told. Fascinating.

We then re-board the Metro to travel to south-east Rome (Momma declined to ride the Hot Air Balloon, which would have given us a wonderful view of the city). In a busy commercial centre we board a bus and travel through the outer limits of Rome to the end of the line. We get off and walk a little way to an old stone road: Via Appia Antica. Momma, by now, was beginning to suffer from all the walking we had been doing. So her recollection of this walk is less favourable than mine.

Cypress-lined and just shady enough to keep the worst of the heat off of us. We walk through an ancient gate and on toward St. Callixtus' catacombs. We find some shade and wait for the English-language tour.

Then down into the world of ancient Roman Christians

We then continue our adventurous ways and board a bus to see if we can get to San Giovanni in Laterano on it. I was there in '72 and remember the front. When we get off the bus however, it doesn't look familiar to me.

Later we realize that we have entered by the side. Inside we are suitably awestruck.

When we exit from the front I now recognize the view. We have now visited all four of the four major basilicas of Rome.

We cross the street to visit the Scala Santa. Momma wanted to do the traditional thing and go up the steps on her knees. Perhaps, I was being too worldly, but I'm worried about her arthritic knees and talk her out of it. (This is traditional in Lent and on Fridays--guess which day this was.) So we walk up the side stairs and visit the Sancta Sanctorum. We find our way to a Metro station; back home for Chinese.

"Tomorrow" we travel to Capri.

Back from the Silence

I've been laid low the last week and a half or so, So at least I have an excuse for the lack of blogging. I'm feeling a little better today, so let's try to finish off the travelogue from last year.

This day illustrates another aspect of the Italian adventure: having Lorna experience some of the places that I had seen in '72.

A trip to Assisi on our own would have been more adventurous, but bus trips have countervailing advantages. So we decided on the bus day-trip.

We were picked up by taxi at the Termini station and taken over to the office, across the street, more or less, from Santa Maria Maggiore.

A lovely day to ride through Umbria. Our first stop is Orvieto. In California we would have said that the city is situated on a mesa. The touristy way to get up there is to take the tram.

But there's a road up there since, once we got to the top, we used the bus service to get to the cathedral, the centrepiece of our visit.

The facade is beautiful and fascinating (don't those two go together?). The story of how the cathedral came to be built is also interesting, but a warning is owed to the more, um, spiritual among the readers. Catholicism is way too incarnational for the taste and sensitivities of some. Read on at your own peril.

Eucharistic miracles are plentiful in church history. The ancient belief in Christ's Body and Blood being made present in the Eucharist has challenged many, including those serving the Church as priests. Long story short, a pilgrim priest from "Germany" (so how come his name is Peter of Prague?) has his doubts about the Real Presence resolved when the newly consecrated Host starts bleeding, leaving bloodstains on the corporal. The startled priest goes to nearby Orvieto to see the Pope who orders the cloth to be kept in the cathedral. He orders the city to upgrade the church to reflect the importance of the relic and so we have this wonderful edifice to admire. And now the Church celebrates the feast of Corpus Christi every year as a result of this miracle.

The frescos by Fra Angelico and Signorelli were breathtaking.

We return down the tram to the bus and cross the hilly Umbrian countryside to Assisi.

First we start with the multilevel Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, the renovations of which were completed this year. Again, frescos by Ciimabue and Giotto are worth contemplating. We then walked across the town

to the Church of Saint Clare (a gorgeous pink colour).

We return to the bus and go down the valley to see the Basilica, inside of which, interestingly, the original church (the Porziuncola) assigned to Saint Francis is housed.

A good deal of this day, from Basilica to Church to Basilica, was spent talking is hushed tones and gawking. A pilgrimage day.

I'll pass over the unpleasantness between the driver and the guide. Suffice it to say that there are occasional incidents that illustrate the vices of hyper-masculinity. Otherwise a lovely and edifying day.

"Tomorrow" we feast our eyes and minds at the Villa Borghese, then climb down into the catacombs.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Courage, Fear, Thieves, Deception and Truthfulness

Once again we walked boldly out the lobby in the morning, armed with sixteen words of Italian, our book and plenty of pluck. First we took the Metro to the Ponte Mammolo stop, well north of downtown, and catch a Cotral bus to Tivoli.

Bus drivers in Rome are generally disinterested in their passengers, especially the obviously touristy ones. You pay your fare at kiosks or automated machines. Some of the buses are equipped with readers that you stick the ticket into. The driver has nothing to do with collecting money or tickets. So we were on our own trying to figure out which stop to get off at.

The bus crossed the plains of Lazio, passed by the stop for the Villa Adriana (Momma had announced in no uncertain terms that the Via Sacra and the Roman Forum was the last bit of ancient ruins she ever cared to walk through again) and climbed the hill above. So we knew we were close to Tivoli. But exactly which stop should we get off at? However a lovely Italian gentleman deduced our problem and escorted us off the bus at the appropriate stop, pointing out the Villa d'Este as we parted.

A few pictures to remember this by.

The water organ sounded lovely (it plays once a day), but we were too far away to hear it clearly and it was too short.

A cafeteria style lunch, some shopping at the stores and kiosks outside and we board a bus back to Roma. It didn't help that the bus didn't take the same route back that we had taken there. So there were some anxious minutes before we pulled into the Ponte Mammolo stop again.

Down Metro "B" to Termini, through the subterranean passages to Metro "A" and off to the Vatican. (the Metro crosses Rome like a big "X"'; lines "A" and "B" intersecting at Termini.)

We had learned from yesterday's episode. I had packed some long pants in my backpack. A discrete visit to the men's room and I'm decent. We pass triumphantly through the security and reflexively we join the first line we see. I'm gazing around mildly confused. Why were we standing in line to get into San Pietro? Then I see that the entrance is actually behind us, in the centre of the Portico. So what line are we in?

Gasp! We're in the line-up for the Cupola (Il Cupolone to the locals). My wife strongly dislikes climbing. Oh dear, what to do? So I simply say nothing, waiting for us to be so far along that it would seem a waste to turn away. Once the ticket booth is in sight (a half-hour or so), I'm ready to say, in my best surprised voice, "Oh dear, this the line for the Cupola!" Once assured that there's an elevator (half-way to the top), Momma is satisfied.

While we're waiting in that line I feel a tug on my backpack. So I turn to my left to see if someone behind me is trying to get my attention. But the backpack is stuck on something to my right, which I can't see. By the time I wrench myself free to turn left and see what's going on behind me, I see a green-shirted man disappearing back up the line behind us. We had already been prepared for this; there was nothing of value in the backpack. Still it seemed mildly sacrilegious to be thieving at San Pietro.

I walked up the spiral staircase (on principle) while Momma took the elevator. That put us inside the Cupola looking down at the central altar. After a little while we turned to the exit. I knew from Rick Steves' book that there is a further climb to view Roma from the outside. But honesty prevailed. I read Rick's description from the book:
The staircase...actually winds between the outer shell and the inner one. It 's a sweaty, crowded, claustrophobic, 15-minute, 323-step climb. But worth it.

As I expected Momma declined, but agreed to wait for me down in the Church proper. She followed me a few steps up so she could take a picture out a window in the Dome. I plunged on. Rick Steves' description is no exaggeration. Some Europeans, perhaps Austrians were in front of me. So while I huffed and puffed behind them they kept looking back nervously, apparently waiting for me to have a cardiac arrest. But, lungs bursting, I made it to the top. I slowly made my way around the outside, crowded and friendly. I thought to myself that I would go slowly in order to be able to tell Momma that I had given her time to follow me. Ha! As if!

Nearly all the way around and ready to start back down again who do I meet? Smiling, no hint of the labour just accomplished: Momma! She attributes this to divine intervention and I'm in no position to disagree. Anyway, it was the perfect day and the best possible view of Rome.

We walk through the Basilica in complete awe: the Pieta; the altars, the bodies of saintly popes (there were one or two) inside some of them; the main altar. Just like the Vatican Museum, it was all too much to take in.

"Tomorrow" we take a day trip to Assisi. Saint Francis pray for us.

Do-Overs, Flexibility and Scandal

We arrived bright and early after our continental breakfast (which we grew to look forward to) in the lobby looking forward to a real adventure. We would take the Metro north of Rome, connect to a bus line and ride for twenty miles or so to the town of Tivoli, with the famous gardens.

I should confess now that a good deal of what we did and how we did it in Italy was a Do-Over for me. I had visited Italy in the Summer of '72, a foolish, hasty young man. Five days in Rome, were spent wandering around aimlessly, avoiding any activities the people I was with were doing. One of the trips I had foregone was a trip to Tivoli. That was in the back of my mind when I planned this trip.

However, this is an adventure, and that requires flexibility. And this is Italy, which requires a certain detachment from time schedules and plans. Anyway, in the lobby as we about to head for the Metro stop a nun (of the order who owns the Villa), who was talking to the nice young lady behind the desk, said something (in L'Italiano) that caught our attention. So we enquired. The Metro is on strike.

First, we experience a wave of disappointment, then we ask: how we get around Rome if the Metro is on strike? Answer: the train. The station is only three blocks away and it is still running. And we can cross over the Tiber through Trestavere and get off at a stop not far from the Vatican. So off we go.

We once again choose to ignore the bus system once we get off the train and walk several blocks to the Vatican. We enter from the south side, cross over the Piazza San Pietro to the north side looking for the entrance to the Vatican Museum. And here we begin a major do-over for me. Thirty-three years ago I had realized that I hadn't seen the Museum as our five days fled away. So I rushed over one afternoon, practically ran through the exhibits, rushed into the Sistine, looked up, and rushed out. Today we will do it right.

Now I was a little bit anxious because I had dressed in the morning for Tivoli, not the Vatican, where there is is a dress code. I had some longish shorts on. So I slid the pants down as far as modesty would allow, nearly covering my knees and entered. No problems.

I won't include a lot of pictures, we took so many. But a few points I'd like to make. We walked slowly for the entire time (about three hours all told), but it still wasn't near enough. Several visits of several hours each might suffice.

Anyway, we looked out at the Pope's private gardens behind Saint Peter's.

We gawked at the wealth of antiquities

and objet d'art.

It was overwhelming. We cross over to the Stanza di Raffaello for even more.

And the Sistine Chapel: we walked in, clutching our Rick Steves's book, with it's description of the Chapel. We sidled over to the wooden bench in the wall and waited patiently for a spot to open up for us. Then we sat down and strained our necks looking around. A constant flow of humanity passed by us, murmuring and shuffling. We whispered occasionally and pointed to various aspects of Chapel. When we were satisfied that we had soaked up as much as we could (twenty minutes or so), we took a "secret" exit that deposited us right in the Portico of Saint Peter's. (You would normally have to take the regular exit, going all the way back, entering the Piazza San Pietro and go through line-ups and security again).

So we made it inside for the first time. And what do we decide to do: eat. We promptly leave, find an expensive but ordinary lunch. Then we return looking for the English-language tour. A seminarian on his day off (probably from the North American College) was in charge. Once the group is large enough we proceed to the security area.

So, again, I slide my scandalous shorts down to cover my knees. I was confidant because we had done it once already and many attractive women with short skirts were getting through. And we made it.

But just inside the great Portico as we're beginning the tour proper, I hear a voice: "No!". I turn around and there is a grim-faced official wagging his finger and pointing me to the exit. Oh well, the girls did have nicer looking legs. We'll just have to come back another day.

We wandered back to the train station and noticed the bus loop there. The Metro strike was scheduled to end at 5 p.m., so we decided to go downtown and wander around until then. This put is on Bus #64 (sessantaquattro), which leads to a fine tour of Rome, if you don't mind pickpockets and being packed like sardines. We got a seat so we didn't.

We stop a couple of blocks short of Termini to visit the Museo Nazionale Romano. More gorgeous antiquities, but by now our feet are complaining. So back to Termini, on the Metro and back home, by way of Chinese food.

Tomorrow we will attempt Tivoli again.

What Do You Do After Laundry?

"Walk" was our answer. We took the Metro downtown to do our laundry in the morning. We returned for lunch in our favourite restaurant. (Ordering spaghetti in Il Ristorante Cinese gets you something different from the conventional Italian dish).

I had wanted to do the Evening stroll through Rome we saw in Rick Steves' book. And since we hadn't actually gone inside the Colosseum as yet, that seemed a good afternoon activity.

First we passed by the Arch of Constantine,

and through the Arch of Titus.

Then we went along the Via Sacra and marvelled at the ancient ruins of the Roman Forum.

The start of the "Night Walk Across Rome" starts in Campo de' Fiori, which was still some distance away. So I suggested a taxi, but Momma, who despite disliking walking, insisted this would be a waste of money.

So at the end of Via Sacra we climbed (did I mention she intensely dislikes climbing?) up and over the Capitoline Hill and around to the front of the Victor Emmanuel Monument.

From here we crossed the Piazza Venezia and turned left. We passed by the Gesu (under wraps as they refurbish it) and came to the Largo Argentina. It's a deep excavation about the size of city block in the middle of a the busy downtown area.

Here we turned left again and paused for Gelati. Then we headed off in search of Campo de' Fiori.

Now the walking begins in earnest, with the Romans, doing their customary evening stroll, joining us. Just the highlights from here. From Campo de' Fiori to Piazza Navona; to the Pantheon;

To the Trevi Fountain,

And, after a quiet dinner and some wandering around, the Piazza di Spagna

and the Spanish Steps.

This should have been the end of a very long walk, but just as we entered the Metro Station there Security closed it down. Again, Momma objected to a taxi ride so we walked under the Quirinale Hill and after several rest breaks, passing by the Baths of Diocletian all the way to Termini. Almost a complete circuit of downtown Roma on foot.

I don't think Momma's feet ever quite recovered from this marathon. "Tomorrow" we are planning to go the the Tivoli Gardens, but Roma had something else in mind.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Lord's Day

We spent our first Sunday in Rome visiting churches. Very appropriate don't you think?

The first church was for Mass, the local parish church Chiesa di Santa Galla. The wife was little self-conscious as the only Asian in a sea of Italians. After eating a light lunch in the neighbourhood, we boarded the Metro and headed north to Termini.

From this central hub of the Roman transportation system we walked to Santa Maria Maggiore, another one of the great Basilicas of Rome. We also wandered around this area and visted several more churches, including Santa Prassede.

Then we worked our way back towards the Colosseum, first climbing up to San Pietro in Vincoli, where we admired the chains of Saint Peter and Michelangelo's Moses. Then we walked by the Colosseum on our way to San Clemente, so old that it was ten or more feet below the street level.

We return "home" via the Metro, eat at our favourite Italian Restaurant (Il Ristorante Cinese) and go to bed. Tomorrow is our laundry day (we found a coin-operated laundry "today"near Termini). But it will be a memorable day, nonetheless.

Friday, June 16, 2006

How Time Flies!

So we wake up, call a taxi and go to the Piramide district of Rome to see our new home for the first time: Villa Benedetta.

Once we had claimed our room, our first order of business was to acquaint ourselves with the neighbourhood. So we walked around a little, seeing the Pyramid the district got it's name from. We then boarded the Metro and travelled south a couple of stops. We wanted to see the great Basilica San Paolo Fuori le Mura.

After enjoying this thoroughly, we decided to walk up the Via Ostiense to see a museum associated with the Capitoline (which is downtown). It is a former power station with ancient sculptures and sarcophaghi.

(These are from San Paolo, but you get the idea.)

We walked back to the Villa, discovering two interesting things. First, we were only two blocks from a Metro stop, which we would use extensively during our stay. Two, right across the street from the Metro stop was Il Ristorante Cinese (in L'inglese: a Chinese restaurant). After sixteen days at sea and five days of busing around Italy, my Filipina wife suddenly remembers she's Oriental and has cravings for rice and proper Oriental food. We ate there everyday for the rest of our stay.

Tomorrow we tackle downtown Rome all by ourselves.

It's Tomorrow Already

Given that I'm a couple of weeks behind, I'll try to wrap up this day-by-day journal of last year's trip expeditiously.

The major difference between the bus tour and the rest of our trip (the cruise and the stay in Rome) was the almost complete lack of adventure. While we focused on avoiding the tour groups and going our own way during those phases, here, while away from Rome, we concentrated on all the tours. That's the advantage of bus tours: risk is minimized, value (touristically speaking) maximized. Remember, adventures can be both good and bad.

In keeping with the theory that we would never be coming this way again, we decided to take the San Gimignano tour rather than wander around Firenza. Ah Tuscany!

"Hill town" means climbing, even after the bus parks. At the height of the town, facing the main square, Piazza Duomo, was the main tower and the Duomo. I climbed the tower and admired the People's Palace,

while Momma visited the Church.

We then climbed to the height of the town and admired the surrounding Tuscan countryside. One last view of the Tuscan hills from San Gimignano.

Some Gelati and a couple of bottles of wine (purchased , not drank) later, we climbed back down the hill.

So we board the bus, return to Firenza to pick up the adventurers and go to Rome. Tomorrow we say good-bye to our guide, driver, and travel-mates. Tonight we skip the Farewell Dinner and walk with some fellow tourists to the Italian equivalent of a small strip-mall. (We were still on the outskirts of Roma where things North American are being tenuously introduced.) We ate at a a pizza joint called That's Amore. Given we spoke almost no Italian and they spoke no English, it was fun. Unfortunately, the multiplex theatre didn't have any English-subtitled versions of Star Wars 3. You have to go downtown for English-language movies. We returned for our last night in a First Class Hotel, eager and anxious about the our nine-day Roman expedition.

"Tomorrow" the adventure resumes.

The Big David

We'll talk about the small David another day. But first Firenza.

We stopped first at the Piazza Michelangelo outside and above the city, just across the river Arno. Here there was a bronze copy of Michelangelo's David.

Then we re-board the bus and go the Academia museum where the original and magnificent David is housed. Then a walk through the city, including il Duomo, the Baptistery, the Piazza della Signoria, which contains the Fountain of Neptune.

Alas, we didn't have time to see the Uffizi or the Bargello. But we did enjoy Santa Croce.

Afterwards, a demonstration at a leather store and gelati at a store recommended by the Tour Guide. Then we settle in to our hotel by the banks of the Arno. Tomorrow (I know, I'm a couple of weeks behind) San Gimignano.