Category Archives: Italy

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!

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.
Continue reading

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…


Capri is a half hour ferry ride from Sorrento, which sounds much more idyllic than it was because of the rough seas.  As in the second the ferry left port our craft was battered by two meter swells on average, causing the man sitting next to me to dash for the bathroom in minutes and the woman sitting on my other side to shriek in laughter with me on each plunge for lack of anything better to do. (She was from Turkey, so I learned the delightful detail that “roller coaster” in Turkey is “boogie woogie.”) Even I started actively staring at a point on the horizon by the end of it though, meaning I was more than happy to finally set foot on the firm ground of Capri-


Capri was love at first sight.  It’s gorgeous.  If anyone wants to start a yearly scientific conference there and invite me, I would give you my full support.

Unfortunately due to the rough waters I couldn’t go see the world-famous Blue Grotto, but I settled for a nice walk along the stunning coastline instead.  Because if you can think of anything better to do on a beautiful spring day than a stroll around Capri let’s hear about it.


The Arco Naturale about a half hour walk from the town of Capri, the former mouth of an old grotto.   Capri itself is crowded with lots of tourists and expensive stores (it is the first place I’ve been where there were two Prada stores about 100m apart from each other!) but the coast is pretty desolate  so I loved having it more or less to myself.image4691

A typical view on my walk, with the Italian mainland in the distance.   You know why I think I like Capri?   Because it is surprisingly similar to New Zealand, and anything that reminds me of New Zealand tends to make me very happy.

Another reason I really like Capri is because I saw a sign on a random streetcorner helpfully informing me that the poet Pablo Neruda once stayed the night here, and wrote one of his famous poems.  Any isle where they not only know who Pablo Neruda is but know having him visit is worth mentioning is obviously a place to love.


A shot of the vegetation on the hillside, varying from cacti to wildflowers.  It’s such a variety that I began wondering just where I was…


Wow.  I think this is the point where I started wishing a little that some dashing local Italian would stroll by who I could fall madly in love with, ideally with a villa conveniently positioned to overlook this spot.  If only the Romeos would learn to wash their hair sometimes!

Mind, I later learned that one of my cousins got engaged on Capri, so maybe this is a genetic thing.  Or maybe just a member of the human race who has been to Capri thing.

image483Finally, footsore and getting chilled by the wind, I went for my obligatory investigation into cappuccino culture.  I don’t normally drink the stuff at home unless I’m working on some homework set late into the night, meaning the relative lack of caffeine intake these past few months made this guy murder.  As in I drank this one around 4pm, went for an hour-long sprint of a walk when back on the mainland, and still couldn’t get to sleep until 3am.  And of course they are too delicious to ignore, unlike back home, so we’ll see if I manage to survive Italy without succumbing to caffeine poisoning.  Ciao!



When I was five years old, the year after our family trip to Italy, my parents gave me a children’s book on the destruction of Pompeii by Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Because my preschool teacher clearly needed a child in her charge capable of explaining pyroclastic flow and who Pliny the Younger was this book was my absolute favorite, narrowly edging out other fascinating topics in my library such as the pop-up book explaining how the brain works and the cartoon one focusing on Newton’s Laws.

Yeah, I don’t know how I turned out the way I did either. But long story short ever since I have always had a fondness of volcanoes, ancient Romans, and volcanoes destroying ancient Romans, so keeping all that in mind it was time to visit Pompeii again.


Me in the impressive ancient Pompeii forum, with Vesuvius poking up in the background. It might sound odd saying this about a mountain, but Vesuvius is pretty badass.  It’s erupted quite a few times since the Pompeii-destroying eruption but the last one was in 1944- the longest dormancy period since 79 A.D.  If that wasn’t enough, the area around Vesuvius is estimated to have about 3 million people living there, meaning I am adding Naples to my “stupidest place to build a city because you know it’s going to be destroyed by volcanic activity soon” list (the first entry being Auckland, New Zealand, of course).

With that burst of optimistic sunshine, let us continue.


This is a storeroom just off the forum for the archaeological finds that have yet to be cataloged.  They also have a few of the infamous plaster casts here of people who died in the eruption.  These casts exist because of a stroke of genius in my opinion- after the bodies were covered with volcanic ash they decayed, leaving a space in the rock, and someone realized if you poured plaster of Paris in when finding one of these depressions you’d find the shape of the person as they died (or, in the case of another morbidly interesting cast, a dog who was left tied up to his chain).


This is Pompeii’s genius moment number two- they restored all the old fountains so water still comes out of them.  Heck, there are still depressions on either side from where people rested their jars when collecting water!  The particular gent in this picture was a construction worker in Pompeii (restoration is a never-ending task around here) who was cleaning his espresso maker.  This juxtaposition of old vs new culture seemed just perfect to me.


A typical street in Pompeii- most are like this, and it actually takes about a half hour to just walk from one side to the other!  I also love the raised stones you can see in the street before the fence- in short the road at that time was no place to step, what with all the sewage and nastiness running in it, so they put stones in that were low enough for the carts to go over but high enough that you can step across.  A built-in zebra crossing!  You can see lots of the wheel ruts in the stones on the road as well, which are pretty neat to see.


The old Colosseum in Pompeii with a shot of some of the ten million schoolchildren there on field trips (trust me, you don’t have to imagine what ancient Pompeii sounds like thanks to these kids!).  I liked this place because it’s the most vivid Pompeii memory I have from when I was four years old- I remember running up and down the steps of the Colosseum with energy I’m not certain how I possessed considering this time around I needed to sit in the grass for a break.  You can’t go up into the steps anymore either though, so good thing I remember the last time!

As a teaser though, I’m not done with Pompeii.  You see, one advantage of no longer being four is how I could now go to the ancient brothel filled these days primarily by giggling Japanese tourists, and I’m not sure what to do with those pictures yet.  Probably combine them with the ones from the “Secret Room” at the Archaeological Museum in Naples when I get to it, but until then I will tell you that the ancient Romans definitely weren’t prudes!


I bid goodbye to Aniko and Massimo and their kind hospitality to head on a winding bus journey to the south of Italy.  Massimo had come up with a detailed itinerary for me as to follow throughout the country and Aniko gave me a giant bag of food in a final effort to fatten me up, and after a long day I reached Sorrento-


Sorrento and the surrounding region is, undoubtedly and unquestionably, another lovely spot of the world.  So much, that they grow citrus here!


A view into a lemon grove which was nicely scented with that lemony aroma.  There is something so lovely and exotic about a lemon grove, let alone having them ubiquitous, that I was absolutely enchanted.


Me in another citrus garden, home of lemon, orange and apple trees (not citrus, but to explain the flowering trees).  I must say perhaps I’m doing things wrong by not coming in the official season- most of the hotels are closed, and I had my room at the amazing Seven Hostel all to myself- but if you ask me it’s perfect.  No crowds, and perfectly ripe citrus and flowering trees everywhere!


By the way, this vehicle is something I have only ever seen in Italy but love immensely: a three-wheeled truck!  The steering is actually like that you see on a motorbike and they’re use for agricculture, though Aniko said they are a problem because you can drive one at thirteen and not need  a license.   Thus people who have their license revoked will go around in these or irresponsible parents buy them for their teenagers, so you need to be a little wary whenever seeing one on the road.

I don’t care though, as I really, really want a three-wheeled truck now.

image430And as a final picture, a view from the top of the cliffs down to the port in Sorrento.  I must say though, the weirdest thing about being here is looking down from the ciffs into the water.  The reason for that is the first time I did it I realized “but wait, I’ve done this before!” in a most odd moment of deja vu, until I realized I have a memory of staring down at the ocean from the top of a cliff when I was young.  No doubt on that long-ago childhood trip to Italy.

There is more to write, as always, but the night is young and the wine is cheap and the two statements must be brought together.  Until later then…