Monthly Archives: April 2009

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?


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-


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!


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.


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…


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-


The cathedral is even more impressive from the front-


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.


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-


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-


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.


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.


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.


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…


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-


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


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!

Ecce Romani!

Ecce Romani was the name of my first Latin textbook.   When they weren’t telling scintillating stories of Cornelia and Flavia reading under the tree at the country house and how happy Marcus and Sextus were playing ball (ie the Dick and Jane equivalents of the Latin textbook world), they told you things about ancient Rome too.   On the whole these sections were much more interesting, so needless to say I was happily looking forward to my day exploring the sights of ancient Rome.


The Colosseum definitely steals the show so far as appearances go, but my first stop was the Roman Forum.  More history, and the line is a lot shorter for a ticket here!  I spent an inordinate amount of time wandering around the various buildings, sneaking close to tour groups to see if there was anything interesting said that I didn’t already know.  For any of those interested, it is kind of depressing how little one really needs to know in order to be a tour guide in Rome.


Perhaps it doesn’t look like much, but this is one of my favorite spots in the Forum.   It  is the remains of the Temple of Caesar,  on the very spot where he was cremated and where Marc Anthony said his eulogy, and people still leave fresh flowers here for Caesar (this batch was left over from March 15, of course).   Mind the tradition of leaving flowers here can’t be more than 100 years old or so as this temple was buried for most of the past 2,000 years, but that’s not stopping them.

image5331Speaking of being buried, see that door in between the columns?   That’s where the ground level used to be up until a century and a half ago or so when they started digging- the Forum was in a valley that filled up with dirt and water over time when the Roman pumps went into decay.  For years and years no one thought there was anything to the field above the Forum except a few columns the shepard would eat lunch on while tending the flocks that grazed there.

That is one thing about Rome that few people think about by the way- the fact that frankly it was a tiny nondescript town for most of its recent history.   Sure it was big in the heyday of the Roman empire but most people left when the aqueducts were no longer maintained and the city had a population of no more than 20,000 for centuries, finally passing the one million mark again in the late eighteenth century.   In fact, I’ve been reading through Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad lately published in 1869 about his travels, and when he stops bitching about the church’s wealth he describes Rome as just a town there in tribute to the decay of the ancient Empire.

The reason I love this is because it is so delicious to imagine living in Rome in, say, A.D. 700 when the whole civilization is gone and there is nothing left but a few people living amongst the incredible ruins of a lost civilization.   I’m sure it would have been depressing overall, but somehow the thought hasn’t left me.


Posing in the Curia, aka ancient Senate, with a statue of Titus.   The Curia is pretty well preserved actually because it was converted into a church once the pagans cleared out.


A view towards the Forum from the top of the Palatine Hill, which fascinated me because it was something I remember doing twenty years ago.   This in particular is a close-up of the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, the ring of columns previously enclosing the space where the sacred flame was that symbolized the might of Rome.

By the way, to continue my previous thought, the last Vestal Virgin was a woman named Coelia Concordia, as the Emperor ordered the closing of the temple in the late fourth century once pretty much everyone was Christian.   Wouldn’t that be an interesting life story, to be a Vestal Virgin while Rome is collapsing and everyone else has been adopting this new religion instead?image5521

I loved the Palatine Hill too, by the way, not just for the view.  It used to be the site of several affluent villas and gardens and the gardens are still maintained, and this year it was an intoxicating combination of scents from the lilies, flowering trees, and everything else you can imagine this time of year (including more citrus!).

While the Roman Forum is up to its ears in history, though, I confess it was a little difficult to appreciate because so little of it is left- you really need to tax your imagination to think of what it was really like, and how Caesar and Brutus and all the Emperors of Rome had walked where you are.  When it came to the next place, though, luckily a lack of structure certainly wasn’t a problem-


Mark Twain describes the Colosseum of the 18th century of being covered in grass and lizards sunning themselves.   Definitely not the case now with all the tourists, but I didn’t care.   Tourists are sometimes there for good reason, and the reason here is the Colosseum is just too cool.image561

Inside the Colosseum- to the left if you look close you can see a giant cross erected where the Emperor used to sit.  They didn’t actually kill Christians here by the way, that myth started up a few centuries later in the record as frankly the Christians weren’t fighters and hence particularly interesting to Romans wanting to see a good match.  Doesn’t stop the Pope from coming here every Good Friday to say Mass, however.

My other interesting note when it came to the inside of the Colosseum is I was always interested in seeing how big the thing was due to the rumor that they used to flood it and hold mock naval battles.  After inspection, however, I have personally concluded they didn’t.  It’s just not big enough for maneuvering ships, though for watching people and animals kill each other it’s just the right size.

The more I thought about it, actually, the more I couldn’t get over how similar the Colosseum was to any sports stadium I’ve been to elsewhere, except you’re not supposed to explicitly cheer for blood at our games with the exception of maybe ice hockey.  I concluded the reason we all like the Romans so much is because they reveal more about ourselves than we’d ever dare admit up front.


Before anyone worries, yes, all is well despite the magnitude 6.3 earthquake that hit Italy last night.  Although it was pretty close to my current location of Florence (ie in the hundred miles away range) we didn’t feel a thing over here, and in fact first learned about it by logging onto CNN.  I suppose this is another one I can add to my “never been in an earthquake but got close” file.

When in Rome…

You have no idea how many times I was about to say this to a fellow traveler in Rome, but stopped myself because I knew it would be a joke I didn’t intend to make.  I suspect I just say this a lot when someone complains that they don’t like to drink wine but everyone here  does, or everyone eats out too late, or whatever the traveler’s complaint is against the local population.

Anyway, Rome.   My very first afternoon here I head out for my walk, and within five minutes I run into this-image523

Ooooh, a protest!   Let’s go wander around in it! (Really, when they’re taking up the main thoroughfare there isn’t much choice anyway.)image525

Lots of communist flags and the like- I find it interesting that in Italy aligning with the communist party is still a relatively mainstream political view.  As people my age know English here pretty well I ask what’s going on, and a girl tells me they are upset with the way the government is handling the economy.  I nod, remembering that the G20 summit was within a few days.


And then I run into the line of riot police, with several paddy wagons just waiting for the arrested masses, and decided to leave as the Italian prison system is one bit of culture I can do without exploring.  Saw a few filled ones blaring their way through the streets later though.

Beyond communist protests there were a lot of tourist sites seen as well, but the ancient Roman stuff and the Vatican deserve their own posts.  So here are a few other Roman things I saw, in pouring rain no less as the weather wasn’t cooperating and I needed my umbrella for the first time since Japan-


Spanish Steps, which would have been more interesting in sunshine with a bunch of Romans on them eating gelato.  As is, during the rain the steps are really just a bunch of steps.


Another vitally important stop was, of course, the Trevi Fountain to throw in coins, rain or no rain!  The way this works is you’re supposed to throw the coins with your right hand over your left shoulder- one means you will come back to Rome, two means you will fall in love with a beautiful Roman guy/girl, and three means you will marry said beautiful Roman in Rome itself.

I threw three, on the grounds that it could always be the guy who has his summer villa in Capri.  As long as I am wishing why not make it a good one?

And because everyone feels the urge to warn me about them, a word on Italian men- in short, their reputation is a bit overblown as you get more distracting advances in a physics department.  To be fair I don’t know what the old Italian men are saying to me on the street, but the younger ones will just say they like your appearance and ask if you want a drink and move their merry way if you turn them down.  It’s quite respectfully done so it really doesn’t feel like harassment, they just have a more forward way of doing things if that makes sense. (I once saw an Italian guy confused that he upset an American girl by saying she was pretty, with a sincere “but you are!”)

And that is the brief overview of Rome until I delve into the details, as Italy has been very bad at giving me down-time to update this blog.  What a terrible country with all these opportunities for fun to be had…

The Rated-X Pompeii Post

As anyone who has seen the HBO series Rome knows, the Romans were definitely not prudes.  This was to the point where most of the artwork in this post was off-limits to the public until just a few years ago, so if you are conservative it’s probably best to stop reading this post now.
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In Napoli, Where Love is King…


I admit I was a little nervous going into Naples.  This is because everyone likes to scare you off the place by telling you stories of how the guys harass women even more there, how you need to watch your bag because guys on Vespas will steal them, and a myraid of other terrors that leave you thinking this city is one of the worst out there.  But what do you find upon arriving?  A nicely bustling metropolis where you get around without trouble and all the women have purses like it’s no big deal (albeit the kind you strap around your shoulder).  The whole thing reminded me of New York City honestly, and being a home-grown American that’s probably why I didn’t blink and the Europeans think Naples is some unsafe, scary place.  Conclude what you will.


A typical narrow Neapolitan street, incidentally the one my hostel was on. (By the way, I love that someone from Naples is called Neapolitan- it makes them all sound like delicious confectionery that comes in three flavors.)  I had two goals in Naples, to find some great authentic pizza and see the Archaeological Museum, and since the first was managed by just walking into the street I will focus on the second-


The great ballroom in the Archaeological Museum, built in the past by one of Naples’ kings.  I liked it because it was originally supposed to be an astronomical observatory (how I haven’t figured out) so there’s still a zodiac on the floor, and the roof has the fresco of angels holding a message telling you to think of all the poor paintings not on display.  Think indeed, because the collection they have is amazing-


The Museum is essentially where they placed all the beautiful finds from all over Italy dating to the Roman times, most famously stuff unearthed at Pompeii and Herculaneum.  Imagine, just hall after never-ending hall of the stuff!  Granted, the sculpture hall inevitably leads to some of this-


Yes, that’s right, chilling with Marc Anthony.   It’s disturbing how many pictures I have like this.  Moving on…


They have a wonderful display set up for all the gear used in gladiatorial combat.   Neat stuff.


This picture I include here because it was immediately recognizable to me.   After all, it was on the cover of my Latin book in high school!  I also realized now how whenever I studied classics the books would always have the tagline after the famous picture “On Display at the Archaeological Museum in Naples” and, you know, I was finally seeing all that stuff.  Too cool.

image5011My favorites, though, were undoubtedly the mosaics.  Pompeii and Herculaneum were absolutely filled with mosaic after beautiful mosaic, some on the walls, most on the floor, like the giant above.  Because you can’t see the details, here is a close-up of another one-


Doesn’t it look like the Romans just figured out pointilism a few thousand years before the Impressionists?  Because that’s what never left my mind.

But the Museum wasn’t done so easy.  No, it was time to enter the entertaining place known as the Secret Room…