Monday, January 23, 2012

Old rocks and polisci nerd alert

Sunday was my last full day in Rome and we made the most of it.

Ally, Jordan and I met Vincenzo at the Colosseum and we were off. Ally had met him years ago on a different trip to Rome and he gave us a free tour of the Forums and the Colosseum.

We had learned during the domus tour that there were actually several forums in the area. It's now surrounded by the ruins of ancient government buildings and the current city buildings are above it.

In ancient times it was the center of public life as a venue for public speeches, trials, elections, commercial affairs and more.

Ceasar's body was also publicly burned in the area, using any timber the Romans could find, including the roof of the Roman Senate.

We went into the original Roman Senate, as it's still largely intact and the roof was replaced. There's currently an exhibition on Nero inside. That's where I learned the origins of "body politic" and "head of state." Seriously, how had I not heard those before?

The Romans had headless statues that represent the institution, the "body politic," and they would change the head as the emperor changed, leading to "head of state." That showed that to the Romans, the institution was more important than the man, a similar concept to the American political system. So much for my polisci degree, don't remember learning that!

But, standing in there and seeing an ancient stack of bricks (I kid, it's amazing), made me realize, yet again, how little I know or remember about ancient Rome and how it influences us today. I will be making some library visits this weekend or parking myself at the bookstore and giving myself a history lesson.

They think Ceasar's cremated remains might be buried somewhere in the area of the forum, but no one has found them yet. It's one of Rome's great mysteries.

We walked on the original walk ways, or Sacred Way, where many ancient stones remain. Cool for the history factor, miserable to walk on for very long. You find yourself silently yelling at yourself to LOOK UP instead of concentrating on the stones, so you have to move slowly so as not to break your ankle but to also take in the ancient ruins.

We made our way to the Colosseum next and really, it's one of those things that you see the pictures and then you see it in real life. It looks just like the pictures, but still takes your breath away and you have a major "I am here" moment. I love those moments.

Interesting that we build stadiums pretty much the same way they built the Colosseum, minus the massive rocks and the fact that we have modern technology to speed construction. And yet, the Colosseum still stands.

Many statues and pieces are missing, the statues were mostly stolen. Some was disrepair and after the Colosseum ceased to be used for public events, people basically squatted in the vacant space.

We learned about the brutality of the gladiator matches, but also the killing of animals and the people that were killed by the animals, largely for sport. The emperor paid to build the Colosseum and also for the activities there. It was free entertainment, food and drink for the Romans. The guide told us it was in many ways to keep people happy with the emperor, keep them entertained and keep them aware of having to fight invaders/enemies at any time.

But, it was brutal and we asked if anyone had ethical issues with the activities, this was before PETA after all. Vincenzo told us that there were reports of a friar who stood between two gladiators at one match. The friar was killed, but the matches stopped after that. No one really knows if it was the friars actions that stopped the matches, or if the emperor ran out of money, or something else entirely.

The views from the top of the Colosseum are incredible and not to be missed. Taking in all of the Forums and part of Palatine Hill from there was just amazing.

Vincenzo had to catch another tour so we headed to Palatine Hill on our own. A little tougher to figure out without a guide, but still amazing. It's where the emperors lived and Augustus was the first, I think. We found some of the rooms that were part of his house and some of the frescoes are still visible. If you see the pictures on Facebook, there's a few where you can see the frescoes.

We found some more awesome views of the city from the hill and wandered around the ruins for awhile, eavesdropping on another tour now and then to figure out what we were looking at.

By then we were starving and passed Circus Maximus (very anticlimactic) on our way to the Jewish Quarter for lunch at a place that came highly recommended by Jordan's host mom. Ba'Ghetto and it is in fact amazing. Amazing! We had falafel and I had a pasta with cheese and a bowl of baked cheese. Seriously. It was like the pasta never ended. I struggled a bit, but managed to pretty much clear my plate.

We visited a very popular bakery that was pretty much cleared out by then, but Ally picked up some sort of pastry thing that included jellied fruits. Interesting, but surprisingly tasty. With our baked goods to power us on, we walked (more walking!) to the church with the Mouth of Truth, or Bocca della Verita. Again, some pictures on Facebook. It's where they would bring accused adulterers and have them put their hands in the mouth and if you were guilty, priests were on the other side to hit your hand. This tradition apparently came from Venice, where people would write and submit their accusations into slots that looked like mouths throughout the city.

After pictures with the Mouth of Truth, we went into the church that had a sign in which a translation went awry: "Dress whit dignity."

Language barriers aside, the church, Santa Maria in Cosmedin was beautiful. Probably my favorite. This is where I really noticed how much the tile mosaics looked like the one we saw in the domus tour on Saturday. And where my obsession with this tile really took hold. Seriously, there are lots of pictures of it on my phone that I need to upload.

With time to kill before dinner, we crossed the river to Trastevere for some exploring. We ended up in one of the earliest churches in Rome, Santa Maria. The support columns inside were "repurposed" from other Roman sites.

After a day of history, we wrapped up with dinner at the site where Ceasar was stabbed. Seems fitting to have already seen his cremation and possible burial site. It is, after all, all about Ceasar.

Live like Romans

After being thoroughly creeped out, we went back into the land of the living.

We walked (always walking!) to Piazza Navona so I could look for some art. I visited every vendor in the piazza and most things looked roughly the same, but I was amazed at the price differences. Sort of like Eastern Market really, but less variety. One vendor would say, "Just 10 euros for that one."

Why would I pay 10 when the guy over there is selling it for 7?

Ended up with exactly what I wanted for 15. Not the cheapest, but it was the perfect take away for the trip and will go on the wall as soon as I find the right size frame. Same goes for the similar art I bought in we'll see if I can speed the process up this time.

We found fun books in a shop off the piazza and jumped when a crazy old woman broke a tile and the store clerk shouted in Italian, but the gestures were universal. I had to laugh, mostly because it wasn't me who broke it.

We also found some great histories of Rome and if they weren't so huge, I probably would have bought one there. But really, a history of Rome, even just ancient Rome, is like a large brick that you then have to cart back over several oceans. Enter or Amazon.

Despite the fact that our fingers were cold, we passed San Crispino, a gelato place that was mentioned in Eat, Pray, Love. Excellent gelato (I had ginger and cinnamon and pear), even if we don't really care for the book. Seriously, our various issues with the book came up multiple times over the weekend.

Ally, Jordan and I met the other girls at one of the bridges and made a quick grocery stop in the Prati district before heading to Ally's host home to cook our own dinner.

I'm used to traveling alone and though I meet locals, this trip felt more like an authentic experience in that we did things based on recommendations from what the host families recommended, cooked and ate in their home. Since Ally and the girls have been living there for months, it was more like visiting a friend who lives in another town, versus running off to a foreign country for the weekend.

Again, met one of my travel goals for the year, break out of your travel routine.

We couldn't find fresh pasta, ridiculous we know, but store bought from an Italian store counts just as well. Jordan made the best bread, that I will be recreating at Italian dinner night this weekend.

Just add wine, chocolate cake and friends. Presto, fabulous night in an actual Italian home.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Okay, I hear you, I'll seize the day

In a switch from the Bernini statue, we headed over to the Church of the Immaculate and the Crypt of the Capuchins.

The Capuchin friars, who took their name from the "capuche," or hood, attached to their religious habit, left the friary of St. Bonaventure near Trevi Fountain in 1631 and moved to the present one. Only the church and crypt remain of the friary.

The remains of deceased friars were transported to the new friary and laid underneath the present church, where their bones were arranged along the walls. The friars began to bury their own dead here and poor Romans. Those tombs were under the floor for of the current Mass chapel. This is where the Capuchins would come to pray and reflect before bed each night.

Alterations to the space and placement of the bones on the walls continued until 1870, resulting in the art visible today. The remains of more than 4,000 friars are included in the crypt.

At first, all you really see are bones. Lots and lots of bones. But then you start to look closer and you can see various scenes and messages depicted in the art. In several places you will see an hour glass shape made out of bones, some also have wings made from shoulder blades.

In another section, there's a skeleton secured to the ceiling and it holds a scythe in its right hand and scales in the left. There's also a design of a clock with the single face indicating the continuity of life, in time and in eternity (according to the informational postcard I bought).

It's a fascinating thing to see, but the longer you stand in there, the more you really think about how you are surrounded with human remains and well, that starts to get to you. We also noticed that some of the skeletons were placed, intact, in friar's habits and appeared to still have flesh on them. It was treated in some fashion, because it looked hardened and didn't smell but we noticed that on most of those, the weren't just bones.

We decided that when we died, we really didn't want our remains made into art work for people to pay one euro to see. Beyond that, I haven't given much thought to my wishes after death, but I now know that I do not want to be made into public art work.

You're not supposed to take pictures in the crypt, so I bought a postcard with images. I'll try to scan and post those later. But, here's a photo from the Capuchin's blog...hold on, friars blog?

At the end, there's a stone inscription, in multiple languages, that reads: "What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be."

A somewhat morbid Carpe Diem message, but it certainly gets the point across. Loud and clear. So get to work friends, seize the day. The friars are talking to all of us.

Visions of God

The group broke up after the domus tour and Ally, Jordan and I swung by the hostel. Jordan had brought a little piece of home (Kraft mac and cheese) for our dinner that night.

The Santa Maria della Vittoria church was nearby so we stopped there to see another Bernini statue, the Ecstasy of St. Theresa in the Cornaro Chapel of the church.

The church made her a saint because of the spiritual visions she experienced in the 16th century in Spain.

You can put some change in an offering box to light the sculpture, which we did.

Laminated sheets on the banister in front of the sculpture contain excerpts from St. Theresa's book and this is how she describes her experience with visions of angels:

"Beside me, on the left, appeared an angel in bodily form...He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire...In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times to that it penetrated my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one's soul content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it--even a considerable share."

Well, alright then.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"You might fall through the floor...into history!"

On Saturday, we all went for coffee at Campo de Fiori. All, being myself, Ally and her au pair friends Jordan and Becca and their other friend who lives/works in Rome.

We were just sitting and chatting, enjoying our coffee and at one point a strange, old man with a bag snuck up on us and shook the bag and made this awful loud sound. At first I thought he had a bird in the bag, but he was just making the sound. He scared the living daylights out of us and hovered for a bit. No idea what he was saying or doing, so we paid our bill and explored the open air market to get away from him.

I picked up some Murano glass jewelry for myself and a gift, as well as a wine stopper of Murano glass in the shape of a dolphin. I love it. Love it!

Ally bought her favorite Italian version of trail mix that included candied tomatoes. I hate tomatoes in most forms, but she made me try it. Doesn't taste that much like a tomato. Odd.

By then it was time for lunch and we grabbed pizza (I ordered in Italian, yikes!) at Forno and then headed across town for our tour. The pizza was amazing!

The tour was of Le Domus Romane, or Roman house. It's a tour of the archaeological remains of ancient Roman houses found under Palazzo Valentini, which has been the seat of the Province of Rome since 1873.

When you walk in, you walk down a few stairs made of glass onto a glass floor to look at the ruins below. It's a bit unsettling to walk on the glass and it messes with your head for awhile.

They use lights and multimedia to show you where the remains of various rooms are and what they would have looked like in 3-D video presentations. It's the No. 1 thing to do in Rome according to Trip Advisor (another great find by Ally) and we all highly recommend it!

They also show you what Rome would have looked like in ancient times with 3-D multimedia technology and it's incredible. We were like little kids watching this and taking it in. At several times we said things like "woah" and "cool!"

The house was one of a wealthy Roman family based on the designs, artifacts found and the number of baths and pools they found. It seems like all the Romans did was sit around and take baths. Not really, but they had a hot water bath, then a cold water bath and also a recreational pool, in one house! The bedrooms were small as they were only used as sleeping quarters apparently. They even found a dish in the kitchen area that still had food remains on it, including egg yolks, bones and they found a turtle shell. They said something about eating peacocks and well, that doesn't sound especially appealing.

They also found the most incredible mosaic that was cut in half by a foundation wall of a 17th century era structure. But the mosaic is largely in tact and the designs again signify the wealth of the ancient family because of its intricacy. I later saw similar designs in the Vatican museum, the first church built in Rome and another church. It was everywhere. I love it. I'll probably spend the rest of my life trying to recreate it.

Rome was also hit by an earthquake and massive fires causing destruction to parts of the house that are evident in the archaeological remains.

Eventually, we mostly adjusted to the glass floor, but at one point one of the girls was worried about the glass breaking.

"You might fall through the floor."

Ally: "Into history!"

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"You look like a diplomat. Do you work at the UN?"

Seriously. That happened.

While I was in the Vatican on Friday, I stumbled upon the Historic Art Museum of the Treasury of St. Peter's.

Honestly, it wasn't worth the 7 euros I paid, mistakenly thinking I was at the actual Vatican Museum. But, while I was in there, looking at all the gold, jewels, garmets and other finery of the Vatican, one of the museum staffers started talking to me.

He opened with "Are your feet cold?" Because I had on flat shoes with no socks. It was actually fairly warm that day and I was indoors with a coat on. No, I'm not cold.

Him: Where are you from?

Me: The U.S.

Him: Which state?

Me: Washington, D.C.

Him: Are you a diplomat? You look like you work at the UN. Your style and how you carry yourself and the way you are looking at things, you look very smart and important.

Me: Uh, thanks. No, I work at a museum.

He keeps talking to me, while I'm trying to read the labels painfully lacking of detail and quickly realizing I am not in the right museum.

He keeps talking, but finally lets me move on.

Later, he finds me in another part of the small museum that was at least moderately interesting to me, despite the incredible lack of detail on the descriptions. Seriously, a label for a ring would say something like "Gold ring with rubies." No kidding, I can see that. How old is it, who wore it, why is it here? Tell me something!

Museum man keeps talking to me.

"Really, who are you. You must be important."

Me: No, I work at a museum. Just a person in a very big city.

Him: Are you sure?

Me: Yes.

He goes on to tell me his life story about where he went to school, he apparently has a doctorate and worked in politics, so why he's working at a less than awesome museum in a city full of incredible museums, I'm not sure.

But, he tells me that I should wait five minutes for him to go on his break and he'll take me to the dome free of charge. He also tells me I should come back on Sunday and meet him and he'll take me for a behind the scenes tour after the Pope's appearance and take me to see the Sistine Chapel without paying 15 euros.

Okay, sure. For that, I'll deal with some absurd small talk with a non-Italian who speaks Italian but not much English.

So I hover waiting for his break, which comes and goes and his boss calls him to do something else. He says he can't take me now but to come back.

Yeah, sure. Because I have loads of time to operate on a stranger's schedule.

I'm done with this and go back into the basillica and find the dome and cupola all by myself. Maybe 5 euros poorer, but I don't have time to waste. I'm in Rome! Must explore! Now! Plus, we had a packed schedule planned for Sunday and I wasn't going to miss a minute of that for anything less than a sure thing.

He did e-mail me, but alas, I was having bellinis and dinner in a great wine bar with great friends and having a lovely time, so I didn't see it.

After dinner, we ran into a British au pair friend of my friends. They had met some Aussies and the group somehow made it over to Campo de'Fiori, picking up some more Brits in the process.

They were in town for an IT conference and failing to find a proper bar, so we helped them out. And by we, I mean the British au pair, the rest of us were largely tag alongs.

We chatted for awhile in the piazza and at one point we were talking about professions. I said I was a journalist, despite the fact that I currently do social media for a museum, I'm still a journalist and will be again.

One of the Brits: "Ding, ding, ding! I found the real grown up. The one with a proper job!"

She then told the rest of her group that I was a journalist and they were all fascinated, for some odd reason. One had a friend or relative who worked for the Daily Mail, had I heard of it? Yes. I have.

That was the same Brit who asked Ally, from Kansas, what the closest NHL team was to her. Ha.

I don't think I've ever had a day in which I was so important and proper or been called a real grown up. Good thing I dressed up a bit to go to the Vatican!

Of course, after that we were accosted by very odd Italian guys. We're not entirely sure what was happening there. They loved, and I mean were entralled, by the buttons on Ally's coat. My style was just okay, compared to the buttons.

Ah, knocked back down to my proper place in life.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cue Catholic guilt.

Spent most of Friday taking in the splendor of the Catholic Church's wealth at the Vatican.

It's amazing. There's definitely a moment when you walk in and it literally takes your breath away. Although I kept it classy, far better than a few other tourists around me who acted like school children with their ooos and ahhs. Get it together people.

St. Peter's Basillica is enormous. Enormous, I tell you! Kym Klass and a few others will understand what I mean when I say it's the C-130 of churches. I really should have had something to eat before I went in because it takes all day. But, I somehow timed it perfectly so I didn't spend too long in line.

After lots of wandering, I found this spot where they let you go under a statue and it takes you to the grottoes and you walk amongst dead popes. Very interesting and enlightening to read about each Pope as you look at where he is buried. The entire visit made me realize how little I know about the Church and its history, despite growing up Catholic.

When you come out the other side of the grottoes, it spits you out right at the line for the dome and cupola. It took me a minute to figure it out, but of course I wanted to go up.

They charge you 5 euro to take the stairs and 7 if you want to take the elevator. But, the signs warn you that after the elevator you still have 320 steps to go so if you have a heart condition or are frail, you might want to consider that. What they don't tell you is how narrow and steep the stairs are and that they actually go on forever so that even if you don't have a heart condition and have actually been going to the gym, this little adventure might kill you. So of course I decided to save 2 euros and take the stairs.

By the time I got to the dome, I felt like I had run a few miles straight up hill. Rough. Thankfully a few people around me were struggling even more. But when you step out of there into the dome and look into the basillica and at the people down below, it is amazing. You get to hang out up there for a few minutes and then it's back to the stairs.

To the cupola is the worst set of stairs ever quite possibly. Although I know I've said that about places in Peru and Slovenia, but I'm not sure these stairs will be topped anytime soon.

But when you walk out and see the entire city of Rome below you, at sunset, totally worth it. Even if you're worried you might collapse or fall over the edge somehow. Of course by now my camera has died, I'm two for two with camera batteries in Italy. Must improve. But got some shots on my phone, all is not lost.

On the way down I thought my legs might give out at any second and I took a break wandering the roof of the basillica at the halfway-ish point. Bought a few gifts from nuns for the more holy family members and then there was no more stalling as it was getting cold, back to the damn stairs.

Made it to the bottom without collapsing somehow and the route spits you out back in the church, meaning I could make mass.

So I went to Friday night mass. You know, at the Vatican.

I'm pretty sure it was a cardinal who said mass, in Italian, but gave a brief homily in English, about how God will forgive your sins and just try to follow in his way. Did he know I was there toting my crazy Catholic guilt?

Haven't seen the Sistine Chapel yet, but I won't give up, plan to try that tomorrow.

So much more to write, but must go, meeting Jordan to make our way to the Colesseum to meet Ally. More exploring and fun to be had!


Friday, January 13, 2012

"You're very lucky."

Only not really.

At the Spanish Steps last night, while I was waiting to meet Ally, a street vendor handed me three long stem roses. I said "No, thank you," which is what you pretty much always say while touristing. But he said, "No, no, for you."

This eventually digressed to something like this:

Me: Okay thank you. (Walk away)

Him: Miss, you very lucky. You give me something. Something money.

Me: No thanks, why don't you take the flowers back.

Him: No, no, for you. You give me something. Something money.

Me: I don't have anything to give you. Take the flowers.

Him: No, no, for you. You very lucky. You give me something, anything you like.

Me: Okay, here's the flowers.

Him: No, no. For you.

Me: Okay. I'm going to walk away now.

Him: Miss. Miss. Okay, I take the flowers.

That's what I thought, flower man. We won't be playing that game again.


Landed around 7 a.m. yesterday (local time, meaning it was 1 a.m. my time) after a long flight of not sleeping. Finished an entire book but with an aisle seat and the man next to me taking up a lot of space, no sleep. So it goes.

It was a bit odd that also in my row was another American girl with long red hair. From the back, you might not be able to tell us apart. Really, on a flight full of Italians, the two red headed American girls are in the same row?

There was much screaming and crying from children, and no, it doesn't sound much better in Italian.

Going through passport control in Italy is far less stressful to me than going through customs to return to my own country. Once I had my bag I wandered off to find the bus or train to the city, despite every single taxi driver asking if i wanted a ride, more than once. I walked down to the bus station, but though cheaper, the next bus wasn't for another 45 minutes and takes an hour to get to the city. So I opted for the express train that only took about half an hour for 14 euro.

On the train, I met a very nice man who spoke little English and I speak little Italian (seriously, my Italian is crap). But he asked where I was from, warned me about pick pockets and at one point I thought he told me he had lived in San Diego, but after a few more words I didn't understand, I don't think that's what he meant.

Made it to the hostel after missing it on my first pass down the street and got situated there.

Ally and I met in St. Peter's Square and got busy touristing. First up, coffee and breakfast at a cafe near Piazza del Popola. We chatted and caught up on the last two years since we met at Fort Leavenworth for a military reporting workshop.

We spent the next several hours, HOURS!, walking the city. Hiked up the Spanish Steps, took in the views, looked at Villa Borghese, climbed back down the steps and took photos of the fountain at the bottom of the steps. We went to the Pantheon, which is amazing, saw the monument that was a sacrificial alter that I already forgot the name of again, saw the Four Rivers fountain which the legend goes that the sculptor didn't like the Bernini at the other end of the Piazza Navona , so he scuplted one of the men with his head turned away and buried under a cloth. Also tossed a coin in the Trevi Fountain, which is believed to ensure a return to Rome.

Gelato was also in order as you can't come to Italy and not have gelato. We went to Ally's favorite spot and I got a scoop of rasberry and a scoop of pear and cinamoon. Delicious!

Ally had to go to work so we split up for a bit and by the time I got to the hostel I don't think I would have made it another step. I did what I almost never do while traveling, I took a nap. But I think it's fair considering by then I hadn't slept in about 36 hours, maybe more, and walked most of Rome.

Dinner was at a great place in Trastevere with Ally and her friend. I'll have to check the name of it, but it was fantastic. They go there often and the staff knows them and sometimes gives them free drinks, like last night. Pasta, dessert and a dessert wine, how can you go wrong?

Getting back on the bus was a slight challenge as I think I did something wrong and ended up going further than I needed to and then back in a circle, I think. Was hard to tell, all I know is one bus driver was going exceptionally fast, on a bus, on cobblestone streets. Yikes!

Alright, back to exploring!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


I'm making good on my promise to myself for more travel this year.

This afternoon I'm boarding a plane bound for Rome.

I've never been and I'm stoked. I've been to Venice and loved it, so I imagine I'll also love Rome.

I'll be meeting a friend who is spending the year in Rome and blogging about it too. You should check out her blog!

This weekend is shaping up to be amazing. That's right, just a few days in Rome. What else would I do with a federal holiday but leave town, or the country? Here's the map Ally has made for us with a good chunk of what we'll be doing.

Of course, my flight leaves in a few hours and I'm just now packing for myself and getting Grover ready for the kennel. He requires more packing than I do!

A few of the must-dos on my list are the Vatican, Colosseum, Forum and Palatine. Ally, wonderfully playing the part of tour guide, has come up with a fantastic list of things to do and it's going to be a fabulous time!

So, check back here and I'll post updates and hopefully photos. For now, must make sure all electronic necessities are charged and find my international adapter kit that Abbie gave me after my camera died in Venice the last time!