Monthly Archives: April 2009

Hungarian Easter Holidays

If this blog has been quiet lately, it’s because my Hungarian relatives held me hostage for over a week the second I showed up in the country.  Which I mean in the kindest, most “what do you mean you’re not eating more?!” sort of way one can say of extended family everywhere.  But I couldn’t exactly go on a trip around the world and not succumb to such affections, right?

Anyway, my maternal grandmother, mom’s brother and everyone else affiliated with that side of the family lives in Miskolc, an old industrial city two hours from Budapest in the northeast of the country.  I used to spend every summer here, my brother, sister and me forming a kis banda (“little gang”) with my three cousins-image592Yeah, we were all dorks when we were little.  Especially that little girl on the right whose parents never let her grow her hair long like her sister’s so she looked like a boy throughout childhood.  But I digress.

Anyway, the reason to show up in Hungary at this particular time was Easter- it’s a fairly big holiday in Hungary lasting two days, with a few peculiar customs I’d heard about but had never actually seen because I only ever visited in the summer. (Coincidentally, this also marked the approximate halfway mark of my journey so laying low in familiar territory and buying sorely needed items wasn’t bad either.) However, because I have never been here anytime except summer the weather decided to cooperate with unseasonable warmth, which we were all quite appreciative about but I still feel like I’ve only ever been to Hungary in the summer!

Anyway, Easter.  On Easter Sunday I obviously accompanied my grandmother to her Greek Catholic church, which is an odd mix of Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox religion (they follow the Pope, but the priests are allowed to marry for example)-

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See that red building on the right, by the way?   My mom went to high school there, as did my cousin Judit.

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After church it was time for Easter lunch outside in the garden at my cousins’ house, which you can see looks quite lovely this time of year, but we got a random rainstorm passing through and had to eat inside instead-image5721

Hilariously, due to the space constraints at hand (10 people altogether) we still had a “kids table” and a “grown-ups table” even though the age range at the kids table was 21-28.   Young at heart, right?   I spent most of the lunch really excited about the glass I got to use, which has panda bears on it and I used to love when I was little.   I think this is why it’s important to visit places that were important to you when you were little by the way- to be reminded of things like the importance of an awesome-looking panda bear glass.

After dinner I discovered the first neat thing about a Hungarian holiday- you know how back in the US if you have a huge holiday like Easter or Christmas everyone sits around bored at home because nothing is open?   In Hungary this isn’t the case, as they think it’s supposed  to be a holiday for a reason!   So the cousins and I went to the local park, to hang out and try the Bobsled Hill Of Doom-image576

Built sometime in the last three years, ie the last time I was here, the bobsled course is similar to alpine slides you find in the US- you get a cart and go down a track while controlling your speed with a break as nessecary.   Except this is Hungary and Judit’s boyfriend spent all the time while standing in line reminding us loudly of the potential shoddy workmanship and the time he flipped over on the bobsled course, and as a surgeon he knew what broken bodies looked like and it wasn’t pretty…

And then spent the entire time chasing after me and my cousin Bogi while almost running into us on the course.  I took a video on my camera but almost don’t want to post it on YouTube because the subsequent language would make a sailor blush and there are videos on there already anyway.image5783

My cousins Gyuri (ie George) and Judit, who never wanted to touch the break and hence got paired together for two of the three times we did the bobsled track.

Anyway, once we were done it was time for a  snack!image582

This has got to be the biggest cotton candy I have ever had.   You could have hidden a toddler with it, either via size comparison or the fact that the toddler would have run away after getting dosed with a massive amount of sugar.image583

Obviously, we didn’t need to still be little kids ourselves to act strangely… and then head home, half of Easter holiday over.  I say half because it’s a two-day holiday here…

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What happens on Easter Monday in Hungary  is something I have never heard someone try to connect to Christianity because it’s too out there- quite something for a holiday where a bunny delivers eggs to children.   It’s called the locsolas (“watering”) and goes like this: during the morning the women sit at home with copious amounts of food and alcohol, while the men go calling.  At each house where the guys stop (that of a female relative or a crush or something like that) the gentleman sprinkles perfume on the lady’s head, for which she will give him a painted egg.  I know what you’re thinking and I agree- this has got to be the most symbolically sexual tradition you will ever hear of.

By the way, it should be noted that I never did this at home despite being in a very Hungarian household, except how randomly on Easter Monday my brother would attack me with his water pistol and then demand rights to my Easter candy.  Naturally I grew up thinking this was the stupidest holiday ever.

Anyway, at my grandmother’s house the callers were various male relatives, such as my cousin and uncle in the picture above.  My uncle, it should be pointed out, got me with a water gun instead of perfume.  Some things never change? image5892

But for fun this is by far the cutest caller we had- my second cousin once removed named Vince, who is three years old.  Vince is playing with an old scooter my grandmother passed on to him as a present, which I can attest is old because I remember playing with it when I was three.  I even had this irrational little voice in the back of my head saying “but that’s mine!” that I kept telling to shut up.

And thus I spent the holiday the way it should be spent- amongst a bunch of relatives with a lot of good food.  I knew I kept saying I was going to show up in time for Easter for a reason!

Summary of Italy

Italy is the first country on my travels where I genuinely felt like I could happily settle and live a few very happy years.  Before someone jumps ahead of me this isn’t to say it’s my favorite- I don’t have a favorite, and while I’m very found of Laos for example I couldn’t live there a long stretch- but rather everything was pretty, my personal philosophy meshes well with an Italian lifestyle, and I was pretty good at Italian considering I’d never specifically studied it.

Highlights:

– To elaborate on the last point, I got to the point where I could order food and ask for directions in Italian.  It should be noted, however, that asking directions isn’t the difficult part so much as understanding the answer you’re given.

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– Aniko and Massimo’s kind hospitality to me while staying with them in Urbino.  Koszi megegyszer!

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– Due to the fact that I liked everywhere I went it seems silly to just list all the locations I visited, but the favorites are between Capri and Florence.  If I didn’t promise my Hungarian grandmother I would visit her for Easter, there is a good chance I would still be sitting in Florence.

– Shout out to the two microstates I visited that are completely enclosed by Italian soil, San Marino and Vatican City!

– I loved having all the Roman history right there.  There is something about thinking of how you are walking where Caesar and Brutus and Marcus Aurelius and whoever else did thousands of years past that never completely leaves you.

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– The food- Italy was, after all, the  first country where I could happily eat pizza without missing out on the local fare!   And then the pasta, the cutlets, the house wine, and desert at the end.   Particularly the gelato such as the type pictured above.   It was a tough job thoroughly investigating that facet of culinary culture, but someone has to do it.

– As a final point I want a Vespa, followed second by a three wheeled car and third by one of those smaller than a Smartcar cars.   Does anyone know of a good place to pick one up in the USA?

Lowlights:

– Dear Europeans, you do not need to always drink bottled water!  It’s usually 4 Euro for bottled water in a restaurant, and they never have tap water available.  And it’s not like the water is bad or anything- in Rome the water is from a spring, and is freely available in the streets- but rather everyone is snobbish about this point.  Why you want to spend nearly six bucks to cart water hundreds of miles and generate plastic waste after is just beyond my comprehension.

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– It sounds weird to complain about tourists as a tourist, but my goodness there are a lot of people here.  I don’t think I’d want to come in the summer… The picture above is from Pisa, one of the worst tourist spots around its famous tower.  Second  only to getting into the Uffizi museum in Florence, where you stand in line for several hours if you don’t have a prior reservation.

– It snowed when I first showed up in Italy.   What?  To be fair, it got nice and skirt-weathery afterwards.

Milan

The first sign that Milan is not quite like other places in Italy is that only Eurostar, the most posh and expensive type of train, goes there, and even second class is filled with businessmen a hell of a lot better dressed than I am (as opposed to  the rest of Italy, where everyone is just a lot better dressed).   The city itself is also twice as expensive as anywhere else in Italy as the business capital of the nation, which is why I only spent a day there before catching a budget flight.

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When looking for a hotel to stay at near the train station (there is no such thing as a hostel in ritzy Milan) my eye caught this place and immediately knew I needed to stay here.  If you don’t know why a place called the Hotel Monopole receives such a distinction, then you are obviously not geeky enough.

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The number one tourist attraction in Milan is the magnificent cathedral- I’ve seen more cathedrals in the past few weeks than most people do in a lifetime, but I still liked this one!   Just the outside alone was great, here is a close-up of the spires-image5391

The inside was worth a look as well, and frankly felt like a forest of stone columns was growing in there-image537

You can also  go down below the cathedral to view the tombs of various saints, including what are claimed to be their remaining body parts if you’re into that kind of voyeurism.   After I was done with that, though, it was time for a bit of walking about in the bright sunshine.image540

A typical view on Via Dante, one of the main shopping streets in Milan.   I could so happily spend the rest of my trip budget while in Italy on all the lovely clothes I see, until I remember I don’t have anyplace to wear them when I get back  home. (Too much distraction in a physics department; I’m not sure how Lisa Randall does it.)image541And because it was too nice a day to do much else I ended up getting a nice gelato (dark chocolate, mango, and tiramisu) and wandering through one of Milan’s parks to eat it.  Because if you’re lucky enough to spend a lovely spring afternoon walking in Milan eating a gelato, you’re lucky enough.

After cursory inspection, I’ve decided Milan is the sort of city that would probably be nice to live in if you were to stick around long enough to get under its skin.  Provided you had a nice job that brought in twice as many Euros as working elsewhere in the country, of course, as you’d be declaring bankruptcy pretty quickly if  you didn’t.

Pisa, with an inclined tower

I’ve had a few people tell me that going to Pisa isn’t quite worth it because all it is is a leaning tower.  Which seems a little silly to me- how many leaning towers have you ever seen in your life anyway?

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To be fair, yeah, it’s a  little touristy and I doubt Pisa would get half as many visitors if they didn’t have such a famous landmark.   The church behind the tower is quite nice though, for which the leaning tower is the bell tower-

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There is also a baptistery on the other side of the church which I stared at not quite believing my eyes, because it is leaning too! Is this the reward we give for bad engineering, that the town gets tourists flocking from all corners of the globe?  Great carrot and stick approach to get people to abide by building codes, people!

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And because Mark Twain said it better than I ever could, the following quote is from The Innocents Abroad

The Baptistry, which is a few years older than the Leaning Tower, is a stately rotunda, of huge dimensions, and was a costly structure.  In it hangs the lamp whose measured swing suggested to Galileo the pendulum.  It looked an insignificant thing to have conferred upon the world of science and mechanics such a mighty extension of their dominions as it has.  Pondering, in its suggestive presence, I seemed to see a crazy universe of swinging disks, the toiling children of this sedate parent.  He appeared to have an intelligent expression about him of knowing that he was not a lamp at all; that he was a Pendulum; a pendulum disguised, for prodigious and inscrutable purposes of his own deep devising, and not a common pendulum either, but the old original patriarchal Pendulum- the Abraham Pendulum of the world.

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Because there was little else to do in Pisa, I shelled out the 15 Euro to climb the tower.  I wouldn’t recommend it for people who are at all tall and/or claustrophobic though, because as you can see the steps are quite narrow… What is also interesting whilst climbing, of course, is how you can tell what side of the tower you are on based on what side of the steps you’re climbing on.  This is a bit interesting while climbing up but  a bit more unnerving while climbing down the stairs pitched forward- you can’t help but feel like you need to be careful lest you fall down…

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Chilling at the top of the tower with Pisa in the background.  It was fun to walk around the top and entertain yourself with the jarring sight of having a building angled wrong when you looked down, but the effect for me was wrecked by a kid brought up by his parents who freaked out and began screaming.  And was promptly teased by his siblings and ignored by his parents, which exasperated the situation further.  Sigh…

image5101For fun, a view down towards the church with the waiting crowds and trinket stalls.  In this picture  I would bet that 50% are killing time until they can climb the tower as they only let people up every twenty minutes, 20% are taking “leaning against the tower” pictures like the one I have above, 20% are in some stage of purchasing an overpriced trinket, and 10% are pretending to check out the church with interest even though they really belong in the fiirst category.

And that is Pisa.  If it wasn’t really close to Florence it wouldn’t have been worth checking out, but if you’re in the area and have a spare afternoon it’s worth checking out.  My two cents on the matter anyway.

Florence Part 2

When going around Florence you quickly learn to scan the horizon for the Duomo if you get lost.  The thing is enormous and can unexpectedly fall right in front of you when you’re not paying attention-

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The cathedral is even more impressive from the front-

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To be fair this marble facade did not actually exist until fairly recently in the grand scheme of things- the cathedral was built in the sixteenth century, the facade erected in the ninteenth century.  Doesn’t make it any less beautiful though.

You can of course go into the cathedral and throng with the never-ending mass of tourists you find there (where did all these tourists in Florence come from by the way? do you just not notice them in Rome because the city is so much bigger?), but the more fun thing to do is to climb the Duomo itself- that is, the giant dome of the cathedral.  It’s 8 Euro but definitely worth it- for starters you get a magnificent view of the dome’s frescos-kep-006

As this is Florence, home of Dante, this fresco is obviously depicting the Inferno.kep-007

Top of the Duomo!  It’s 460 or so steps up complete with warnings that you shouldn’t attempt it if you have heart problems, but I amazed myself by climbing up without getting winded at all- I guess walking around all day every day does that to a person.

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A close-up of the Florentine houses from above, which I will describe as a bunch of swallow’s nests to the appreciation of my European readers and the confusion of my American ones.kep-008

A broader view of the city- the view was so gorgeous that I confess I must have walked around four times, absorbing it from every angle!

See that church in the distance, by the way?  That’s called Santa Croce.  Let’s go closer to it shall we?kep-011

Santa Croce is the national cathedral of Italy, sort of like Westminster in England.  I say Westminster because if you go inside you can see the tombs of all the most famous Italians-

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Galileo’s grave, which had a “2009 International Year of Astronomy” wreath laid beside it.  I should also note somewhere that there was a really excellent Galileo exhibit in Florence this year, complete with his first telescopes and drawings and other astronomical artifacts of note, but you weren’t allowed any pictures there either so the blog must go without.

kep-012And this is why they shouldn’t let me out in public by the way- see the marker on the left wall?  It’s for the physicist Enrico Fermi meaning I gazed at it quite reverently for several minutes- only to realize after the fact that the reason the crowd was gathered at this spot was da Vinci’s marker on the wall at the right.  To make sure this wasn’t a fluke though I did the same thing upon finding the marker for Marconi- really, I was quite beside myself- only to realize that Michelangelo’s marker was right above it! Oh well, no one said I needed to always enjoy the same bits of culture as everyone else.

Florence Part 1

I spent six nights in Florence, meaning there is no singular good way to write about the city as it was all awesome.  So for lack of any better way to do it, Part 1 is everything not related to a church and Part 2 is everything else.

Getting to Florence was a bit exciting as I learned in the train station in Rome that my bank had decided to hold my card, as apparently when you get to ten countries they start to wonder if you’re really traveling the world.  Then to continue the strain of events that were entertaining but not in a way I prefer the train to Florence broke down, and it took a few more misadventures involving a helpful Italian student and a traveling Indian couple before I finally made it to my final destination.

Within five minutes of arriving in Florence, however, it became obvious to me that I would not leave the city until I absolutely had to.  I was enchanted by its beauty and history and culture, something to be expected when you consider yourself to be a Renaissance woman I guess but there you are-

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One of the reasons I liked Florence right off, it must be said, is because the Hostel Archi Rossi where I stayed was so nice- for 20 Euro in addition to the bed there was a breakfast (good breakfast mind, ie with omlettes on the menu), pizza or pasta for dinner, and free walking tours of the city each morning.  How they stay in business is beyond me… This is the guide on the walking tour I did the first day in the city, discussing the famous golden doors on the Duomo baptistry.

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The Medici palace, ie ruling family of Florence during their heyday and whom I decided I wouldn’t mind being a member of in the grand scheme of things (as you could casually refer to your favorite Boticelli when visiting your second-largest Tuscan villa or what not).  I also liked their palace because nowadays everyone just hangs out in the front of it chilling or sunning themselves, so I took a light nap here for two hours.  Quite nice indeed.

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The famous Ponte Veccio over the Arno River, connecting the Uffizi Gallery to the Medici palace (which is in turn connected to the Florentine town hall, lest the Medici rulers need to venture outside in bad weather).  You can’t really tell it’s a bridge while on it due to all the shops lining it, save in the very middle.

And a word about the Uffizi before I forget (and seeing the famous David statue whilst at the Academia)- you need to trust me that these are all incredibly lovely but you aren’t allowed to take pictures of any of them.  So I will just conclude by saying if you ever want to get tired of looking at Michelangelos and da Vincis and whatever else, come to Florence.kep-003

Back to the Ponte Veccio this is what you find all the stores are- jewelry shop after jewelry shop.  If you are a female you spend an inordinate amount of time crossing this bridge as a rule, meaning I always felt sorry for the gaggle of husbands waiting on either side for their wives to cross (though I suppose not as sorry as you feel for the ones being dragged into the stores to empty their wallets!).

The girl in this picture is Laura, one of two American students studying abroad in Spain who I became friends with.  Laura and Christina were a bit impressed by my travels (as I am a frood who always knows where her towel is) and I was doubly impressed with their close touch to what people in civilized society do.  I mean whoa, girls actually wear makeup and put on a different top when they go out at night?!kep-015

“Duff beer for me, Duff beer for you, I’ll have a Duff, you have one too!”

You’d think the wine would have clinched this spot but no, my greatest alcoholic discovery in Italy was the fact that they had Duff beer (a la The Simpsons) in Florence.  Turns out it’s Belgian.kep-016As a final thing, here is the City Hall of Florence lit up at night.  The reason I have this picture here is because this past weekend was a worldwide event called “100 Hours of Astronomy” urging as many people as possible to look into a telescope, and a few local astronomers set up here in the main square.  I went for a little while to help out and to get a few nice glances of the Moon and Saturn (too bright in the main square to see much else), which was fun because I haven’t done much astronomy while on the road obviously.

And then because this is Italy and because the astronomers vouched for him, I got a ride home from a long-haired Italian named Antonio on his Vespa.  Yes, this description could not have been more stereotypical but there are some stereotypes that are too good to mess with, and riding through the streets of Florence on a Vespa is one of them!

The Holy See

The following is, I assure you, a true story.  It harks back to that oft-mentioned trip when I was four years old to Italy, which was a lot of fun but frankly there are only so many things in Italy a four year old can appreciate.  The Vatican Museum was one such place- after what seemed like forever of going and standing and going again we finally got to stand for a long time in a big room, which I realized later was the Sistine Chapel.  Assuming that the grown-ups were just doing one of those boring grown-up things again, I sat and stared at the floor (the floor of the Sistine Chapel has a lot of beautiful geometric designs on it actually).

I remember my mom finally coaxing me to look at the ceiling, pointing out the panel with Adam and Eve and explaining to me how Eve was bad because she ate the apple but she wasn’t supposed to.  I don’t remember the part right after, but according to my dad I then asked the standard four year old question of “did that really happen?”

My dad responded “not really.”  There’s really nothing I can say that can add to that succinct response, so let’s go on.

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Anyway, Vatican City.   Here is the infamous line into the Vatican Museum- you hear a lot of horror stories of several hour waits,  which might be true in the summer but just plain isn’t this time of year.   I got inside in about ten minutes, thus leaving me to conclude that the line hype is mainly something strummed up by the tourist companies trying to get you to sign up with them (the evidence being that they hawk like mad on the walk to the museum line, but are nowhere near once you actually see the museum line).

Vatican City also gets bonus points for being its own country, and thus being the first place within the past few weeks where I can get a student discount.  I always loved the concept of student discounts in Europe- you are young and uncultured, so we’ll give you incentive to visit so you at least won’t be quite as uncultured and perhaps able to join the rest of society some day- but Italy has a rule that this only applies to E.U. citizens.  Despite my best Italian and attempts to pretend to be Hungarian I have never secured a discount in this country, and apparently only will by literally going to another one.  Sigh…

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So what’s so cool about this Museum?   Well to start off the collections- the Popes over the centuries collected various artistic and archaeological pieces usually for no better reason than the fun of it, meaning there are aisles of Greek and Roman statues alone to get through.   This particular collection contains Etruscan artifacts, ie the civilization on the Italian peninsula before the Romans showed up (and who we don’t know much about due to a language barrier).image578

A sphinx outside the Egyptian collection.   Oh, I forgot, there’s an Egyptian collection too, which any museum would kill for due to all the papyrus scrolls and the mummies but here is just ho-hum.image5891

Once you get past those you get into the various rooms decorated for various Popes of yore.   This here is my favorite called the Map Room, with maps of Italy on the sides and the most detailed ceiling you can imagine-image590

A hall running a few hundred meters just covered like this!   Gorgeous.image595

Then there are a few indescribably lovely rooms decorated by Raphael.  I have concluded Raphael is my favorite Renaissance painter by the way, because in Italian galleries whenever I particularly like a painting and get closer to see who did it it’s always Raphael.  I am also insanely jealous of the Pope who commissioned these rooms as he used them for mundane things like his office and his sitting room, though I have no idea how you would get work done in a room with decor like  this!

After this there are a few rooms of bad modern art that everyone breezes through quickly on their way to the Sistine Chapel.   You can’t take pictures in there but you’ve all seen it and know what I’m talking about- even if you’ve seen a million pictures of it though you still need to sit for a really long time just drinking it in.  It’s beyond lovely.image5962

After the Sistine Chapel most people breeze through the Vatican Library part, which is a shame because they miss out on a lot of cool things.   This was my favorite- a map of the New World dated to 1530!  I love how they just don’t know what’s there yet, as this is about forty years after Columbus…image600

The lovely double staircase to leave the Vatican Museum, at the top of which I stopped to write my sister a postcard.  We have this thing where I am supposed to send her a card from every country I visit, except I’m behind because some countries I have yet to send the card.   Vatican City is country #10 so far on this trip though counting the USA, so I hope I get some slack on this.

Postcard mailed, it was time to set off for St. Peter’s-

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St. Peter’s is, obviously, very very big.   Here’s what it looks like inside-

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Getting people for scale is a bit hard here, but if you look close you see a small line of them toward the front…

I won’t post any other pictures of the inside because there frankly isn’t enough lighting in there.   However, you must believe me that it is big enough to drive a truck in St. Peter’s and I know this because they were in fact driving one in there, carting chairs and barriers from point A to B.   I also went down into the crypt to see  the various papal tombs, Pope John Paul II’s being the most noteworthy as it has a near-perpetual crowd around his and you can hardly see it over the flowers and other offerings.image608And finally probably the two most-photographed people in Vatican City, the only two Swiss guard visible to tourists.  I know this is not an original observation, but has Vatican City ever considered changing the uniform?  I know Michelangelo designed them but I always assume defense is one of those areas where you need to modernize, and frankly it’s hard to take a guy in pajamas seriously.  Or perhaps that’s part of their nefarious scheme, what would I know.

As a final note, it really is hard to get over how opulent two thousand years of accumulated history can be.  I imagine you could go countless times to the Vatican Museum and still see something you have never seen before, though frankly it makes me wonder what the current papal digs are like if this is what they let the tourists see!