I'll try and be as concise as possible, since I'm hoping my pictures speak a little louder. Unfortunately, my camera had a tendency to die in the middle of the afternoon and I had to share my little bro's camera just to get the rest of the shots, however, I wasn't able to get my pictures from him yet. Still, I've got a lot of good ones: close to a 1000!!! Sorry you'll have to wade through the gallery, as I don't want to post it all on here. Also, I'll spare you the ones that are all scenery (hahah!) and post the ones of my face!! XD
There are two other galleries: one of my pretend "lomography" and the other of my current obsession, the "only my head plus sort of a background" gallery. L-R: main gallery, lomo gal, headshot gallery.
We arrived in Rome way too early, around 6am and when we made it to the hotel, after a little fiasco regarding the airport transfer, we made it to our hotel, the Parco Tirreno (Via Aurelia). But we couldn't check in right away; the rooms weren't ready yet! So we left our luggage and found an outdoor mercado (market), where we had our first taste of delicious and REAL Italian Pizza.
Next to our hotel, we discovered a building that had the Christian Brothers slogan printed on it. After some inquiry, my dad discovered it WAS the residence of the brothers and there were people in it who we knew! He even arranged dinner with them the next day.
We were too tired to try anything yet so, finally able to check in, we just napped until the later afternoon after which we dolled up and headed out to take a look at Bernini fountains, Tritone and Fontani di Api (Fountain of the Bees) as well as the Trevi. Nearby, there is a building called the Cruciforum, who keeps the heart and lungs of all the popes preserved in jars for all time's scrutiny. More pizza, first taste of gelato and lots of pictures and coin-tossing later, we headed back to the hotel because early the next morning was the official city tour.
The day starts with the first of a series of "continental" italian hotel breakfasts, which mostly consists of cold bread, cold meat, cold cheese, cold juice, cold fruit...well, you get the idea. The coffee, however, was hot and good I have got to hand it to Italians, they can't make a bad cup of coffee even if they tried.
The first stop on the city tour is the Musei Vaticani. Tour groups have to be there at 8am to beat the people traffic. The museum is open to the general public around 10am. When you first arrive there, the line is just LONG and it wraps around the building. Each tour group is led by their local guide, who speaks to you through an audio device called a "whisper". It's very handy for keeping track of where your guide is without having to keep an eye on her. You know that you've strayed very far if the voice starts to sound real faint or shuts down altogether. Either way, you don't want to miss anything the guide says but this way, they don't have to talk themselves hoarse trying to speak over crowds and to a large group.
The Musei Vaticani, I think, used to be a papal residence so all the popes tried to leave something behind, whether it be a portrait, a bust, their name carved on the wall. And there have been a lot of popes so the building's interior is painted, ceiling to ground with the most beautiful tapestries, maps and archaelogical finds. Also, the frescoes on the ceiling are painted to look 3D in the trompe l'oeil style, so that it looks like it's been carved as a bas relief but it's really flat, with all the shadows painted in.
The end of the Musei Vaticani tour leads into the Sistine Chapel. I consider myself very lucky to have finally seen it at a young age and I was very excited to see it, because Michelangelo is my new hero. It used to be Leonardo da Vinci (who I still admire, for other reasons) but Michelangelo is a true genius of art and having read The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Walsh months before this trip, I'd sort of fallen in love with the idea of being a loner in your craft. And even in Michelangelo's day, it was harder to be a loner than it is to be one now: no one would leave him alone to carve! Popes and families warred for his attention and the church forced him to paint the Sistine ceiling, as well as the facade behind the altar, the Last Judgement. It's depressing to think about how he is more famous for painting which he mostly hated, rather than sculpture which he loved.
Also, seeing how high the ceiling really is, is tremendously breathtaking. It's really, really high. I can't imagine how backbreaking it must've been. Could Michelangelo have had it any easier if he had today's technology to help him work? The root of his genius was really in the agony. It is also interesting to know that the Sistine is where the college of cardinals cast their vote for the next pope. Because the current pope is so old, will I be able to see 2 "vote n' smokes" in my lifetime?
Filing out of the Sistine leads into the St. Peter's Basilica, the last stop of the Vatican tour. On the right hand side of the passage, there is the famous door that the pope gets to open only every 100 years and if you walk into it, your sins get wiped out. Reminds me of Dogma, that movie of Kevin Smith's. And naturally, since fallen angels and the like have all the time in world, you can imagine them blending with the pilgrims for their once every 100 years chance to get back into heaven.
Inside, one immediately sees Michelangelo's Pieta, a more perfect rendering of the Virgin Mary and Christ, his ideal Madonna and Child. The fave of the Virgin is tiny and serene and young because the image of a young mother was very important to Michelangelo, as his own mother died when he was about six, when she was only about 20 years old. The Pieta is behind a thick sheet of glass because a while back, while it was on tour, someone tried to smash it. Historically, I think when the Pieta was first unveiled, someone tried to smash it too, doubting that Michelangelo carved it to begin with and he was so mad, it became the first and only piece of work he chisled his signature on.
Further down the Basilica, there is a big bronze canopy under where an altar for celebrating mass sits. There are stairs that lead underground directly in front of it, as well as a confession area to its left and more altars on each side. The entire church is ablaze with huge statues of saints and other religious iconography and the confession area is multilingual, so people from all over the world can come and confess. The St. Peter's is also the final resting place of all the popes, who are buried in the Vatican crypt, which is below the basilica. But near the entrance, there is one body that is preserved and displayed and that if for one pope who is also a saint. His hands and face are covered in a bronze mask but otherwise, he lies there in state.
The Piazza in front of St. Peter's is open to all and every Wednesday and Sunday, if the pope is available, he says mass and gives his blessings out on that square. Lots of people mill around and hang out there and despite the tourist chaos, it can be kind of peaceful, especially on a beautiful day. There are also lots of Swiss Guard standing around in their goofy and cute uniforms but the Swiss Guard is serious business: they are as highly trained as any Navy Seal or FBI field agent.
The next stop on the Rome city tour is the Roman Forum and walk right through the Arch of Titus to get there. It's in ruins, naturally and tourists are no longer allowed to poke through it. Over looking it is Caesar's palace and Mark Antony's former residence, as well as churches and more churches. To get there, we drove by the Circus Maximus, where many Christians were killed.
The final stop of the city tour is the Colosseum and it's huge but also smaller than I thought! I'm always a little wary of tourist trap places and for sure the Colosseo is one of them but the way it's been made into a tourist trap is funny as hell, with all these burly Italian guys dressing up as gladiators and talking on their celphones between mock battles and such. It has nothing to do with me but there was a tour group that was conducted on these Sequeway scooter things. One is weird enough to look at but there were at least 12 of them.
The one thing about the Colosseum that is striking is how high it is. You huff up 3 stories to get to the top and it is no small feat because it is steep. You don't want to think about what happens if you lose your footing on the steps! The arena is small but deep, because of the wooden platform that used to be laid across a small labyrinth, acting as a stage to entertain the Roman public. People and animals were killed, enough to have made a small sea of blood, had the Romans not been innovative enough to use sand to soak it up.
We left the tour group after that, though mom went back to the hotel with them. Abbi, Raj, Dad and myself were wondering where to go since this would be out last night in Rome before we hit the road for Siena. Since it was Saturday and the place I really wanted to go to, the Jewish ghetto, would be closed for the sabbath, we went on the shortened version of the Angels and Demons tour instead, and went to the church that houses Bernini's The Ecstacy of St. Therese. Dad declares this his favorite statue and I have to say, it is every bit as moving as it is described. We also took a look at Bernini's four fountains that flank an intersection and then we tried to get back as soon as we could because last night we found out the hard way that the Metro closed at 9pm and had to take a cab back.
Dinner this evening would be with Bros. Victor, Dodo and Armin of the De La Salle system. Dad, Raj and I went and we got a table at a place called Joseph near our hotel which was so busy, we could only stay until 9pm because the table was reserved for someone else by that time. The evening ends nicely....with gelato!!!
The next place on the list is Siena, in the Tuscan region and the trip there is broken up with sidetrips to Viterbo (Small Town, Italy) and Orvieto, a hilltop town with a big and beautiful church in the Italian gothic style. Viterbo is nothing more than a pee-and-coffee stop but I have some morning ice cream and we found a cute little gravel park with a funky amusement area for kids, complete with pony rides. It's too early in the day to actually have any action but it's good for a few pictures.
We reach Orvieto after a couple of hours, most of which I spend sleeping. I sleep a lot during the bus as it is usually hard for me to keep my eyes open in a moving vehicle that I don't happen to be driving. But we have a very good bus driver named Carmine. Our first bus driver was named Tonnino but he left and now we have Carmine, which is pronounced /KAR-MI-NEH/ and not "CAR-MINE". Out tour director, Cinzia (/CHIN-TSI-AH/) calls him "Carmincito" (/KAR-MIN-CHI-TOH/) occasionally and uses this to tease him every possible moment.
Orvieto is a much longer stop, made even longer by a mob of excited and rampaging Indians. You have to go up the hill in a tram, much like the one used in Hong Kong to go up to the Peak but much smaller and once you reach the top, there is a tiny shuttle bus who goes around and around and around all by itself all day and his only job is to bring the people to the basilica and back to the tram station. So whoever can cram himself onto the hop-on gets a ride and whoever gets left behind has to stay.
The church is massive and looks even more so by the fact that there are no other larger buildings in the immediate surroundings. The Italian Gothic style is a black basalt, yellow limestone brick that makes it look striped and the facade of the church is covered with statues and reliefs, mostly of the four gospels and the familiar old testament stuff. In contrast, the inside of the church is quite simple but has some important art in it.
We walk around the town, which is less medieval and more renaissance. We have a nice lunch at a small sit down and as usual, my hands grow cold when I look at the prices. There are, however, lovely flowers everywhere and in Italy, instead of ivy, the walls are always covered in sheets and sheets of jasmine, giving off the most beautiful smell. The boar and wine, as usual, is tasty.
We are able to reach Siena with almost an entire afternoon and evening to explore. Siena is home to the famous Palio, which is held in July and August and they have a large piazza that they clear off and use as a racetrack and jockeys race bareback around it at neck-breaking speed. On off-days, people just hang out on it and play football or talk and eat, of course and drink wine at all hours of the day. The legal drinking age in Italy is 16 years old. There are several important churches in the Siena area, the main cathedral of course and the church of St. Catherine of Siena, where you can see her head and a part of her finger displayed. I never made it to the latter, with much regret but the Cathedral of Siena is definitely my favorite church during this entire trip.
While having dinner at a lovely place by the Palio track, Cinzia told us that they would be opening the Cathedral for viewing at 8pm, which is rare and usually spontaneous. Normally, on a Sunday, it's only open for mass and tourists aren't allowed to look inside while the mass is going on but today, with services over, they would be allowed. And I'm telling you, it is absolutely worth it. The floor of the Cathedral is covered by mosaics and cartoons depicting famous battles, historical events, biblical and mythological beings, hints of religious and political commentary, all in one cohesive design. The statues are unlike any other, as rather then portrayed in a serene, static mode, they are animated, usually caught in the act, with the hands reaching out, the mouths hanging open, as if frozen in time. There is a wall covered in memorabilia dedicated to the memories of dead babies and newborns and those who died in motorcycle accidents. I was able to get a book of the church before the shopkeeper closed, just in the nice of time and I think that was very lucky.
Our hotel is called the Moderno and let me tell you, it is anything but. It is down the hill, by the main road and you have to take a series of stairs and escalators down the hill to get there. It's an old style hotel with old bronze hotel keys and as we would discover in the morning, a medieval lack of water. It was through inspired foresight that I have taken a shower the night before.
Breakfast was a tidy "continental" affair but made loads better by the fruity tarts!!! But today we leave Siena for Montecatini Terme, an area that is halfway to Florence and halfway to Venice and where the hotel will be while we explore Florence. The drive there includes a wine-tasting stop at the Castle Vicchimaggio in the Chianti in Greve area where they make Chianti wines.
They walk us through a very cool cellar and tell us all about the process which didn't interest me at all because I like to drink the wine and eat the crostini more. They have a really pretty garden though.
I'm more excited about getting to Montecatini as there is a SUPERMARKET. This is because cafes and side stores are so expensive, you WANT to buy your food at the supermarket. You want to pay only .40 Euro cents for 1.5 liters of water, not 2 Euros. You want to get cheap fruit. You want to get veggies because you discover a severe lack of insalata after all that pizza. You want to cry with happiness when you get soda and Other Fun Stuff like cookies and chips and strawberries and lots of water AND some toiletries for under 8 Euro.
RAJ was just excited because he got a decent bacon burger in town. Italians are not known for their world cuisine, so you won't find a lot of other restaurants around. There is the Chinese one here and there and the Mcdonald's which isn't great, although they do have beer on the menu but seriously, if they can screw up a meal, it'll be the hamburger.
--- To be continued because I'm swamped with work and the first week of school! Also, I've been trying to post this stuff for a while but LJ is being a bitch and won't let me update often.