Well folks, the time has come, yet again, for me to apologize to you. As per usual, I’ve put too much onto my plate. Lydia and I returned from our trip most recent trip to New Zealand and Tahiti, and I haven’t even written about our previous trip.
Last winter, Lydia and I took our sister act on its first international expedition to Iceland. This winter, we hugged and kissed (well, at least I did) our folks goodbye the day after Christmas, boarded a plane, and headed to Rome for New Years, 2016. The tales recounted here are a little blurred by time, but are the general gist of what occurred.
After a couple long flights and one pretty hectic connection through Paris, we landed in Rome, exhausted, but decided to go try and find food. We talked to hotel management, and realized exactly how far off the beaten path we were. We were going to have to take a bus (which luckily ran fairly frequently) for about 30-40 minutes to St. Peters, get off, and get on one of the variety of other busses which would take us into the middle of Rome, or walk for another 30-40 minutes to get in. We hopped on the bus, assuming there would be some sort of food nearby St. Peter’s. I’m not sure either of us was ready for the immense crowds we found gathered outside. While the immense horseshoe of Greek style pillars and the massive dome of the Basilica were breathtaking, the crowds were unexpected and off-putting. We realized then, I think, the reality of what we had done: come to the holy city right after Christmas. We walked around for maybe 20 minutes, but I think we were too overwhelmed with the city and the crowds, and too jet lagged to really focus. Once we realized we’d kind of just been wandering, we got back on the bus and ate at the hotel restaurant before passing out around five PM.
We got up the next day for the real adventures. The main portion of the day was spent at the Vatican City. Upon arriving, we were bummed to find that the entrance line was wrapped around the corner of Vatican City, so we geared up for standing standing around for a longggggg time. After we had waited a few minutes, we were approached by a man about front of the line passes, and since we were pretty unprepared to stand in the line for the
Vatican Museum and then stand in another one for St. Peter’s Basilica, we went ahead and did it. Our tour group swam like little salmon through the hallways of the Vatican museum, packed to the gills with other tourists. For once, I was happy to have the guided tour because there were so many artifacts to see and so much history to learn about. It would have been really overwhelming to fight the forward push of the crowds to stand and look at something, but with a group stopped we were able to divert the flow of people, and I feel our guide did a pretty nice job prioritizing what were going to spend time looking more in depth at. After the museum, the tour took us through the Sistine Chapel, which felt a little like I imagine the sardines do in the circular tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. People were herded away from the walls, so they just kind of circled the chapel, or ended up stalling out in the middle where we were allowed to stand still. The artwork on the ceiling of the chapel was as incredible as we expected, although surprisingly the chapel itself was a little smaller than textbooks seem to make it appear. Then came the moment that made the front of the line passes worth it: we walked through a hallway adjoining the chapel to the courtyard in front of the Basilica, skipping another three hour line in the process.
We entered through the holy door (sans other religious requirements), which is usually open only every hundredth year, and proceeded to marvel at the spectacular architecture from inside. What we were really excited for though was ascending the steps to the top. We arrived at the top just in time to watch the sunset over Rome, and then battled the crowds to get back down. It was dark by the time we had gotten our fill of narrow stair cases and odd landings overlooking the city, and we decided to walk towards the city center to try and find something for the kid sister that wasn’t covered in prosciutto. We made some random turns down random streets, sort of intending to lose track of our way through the narrow cobblestone alleyways since we didn’t really have a destination in mind. On Lydia’s suggestion, we veered left and ended up suddenly in a quiet and dimly lit alley decorated with red and white umbrellas hanging on string lights zig-zagging into the distance above our heads. Our search for a salad was forgotten for a moment to enjoy the whimsical magic of this moment, which perhaps set the stage for the wonder of the following day.
After returning from our salad adventure, we considered our experience with the crowds and lines at the Vatican and bought advance tickets for entry to the Colosseum, and managed to get out of bed at a reasonable time to beat the majority of people. Our arrival proved to us what noobs we were. We caught a bus into the city, then another, and walked the rest of the way past the capitol building and the Roman Forum. We arrived to see the sun rising over the crippled monstrosity that is the Colosseum, and saw the line stretching in a curve around the side. We were gloating until we realized that there were two lines to go through the security check: one for ticket holders, and one for people purchasing tickets. Of course, the people who already had tickets line was already wrapping around the curve of the building, so people who hadn’t planned ahead were being quickly ushered in while we stood and watched. They only allow a couple hundred people into the Colosseum at a time, but the line moved pretty quickly, and we were grateful for our morning hustle as we watched the line grow steadily behind us. Once we were inside, we were startled by the grandiosity of the whole thing. We beat it up to the top floor to get a view of the whole structure before the sun rose too much more and blinded us, and before all the other people had a chance to get past the artifacts and views from the other two floors. It’s amazing that before the underground system of cells and tunnels was built under the stadium floor, they used to flood it and stage naval battles inside the arena. I pondered imaginings of the massive arena in its prime, covered in marble and full of bored Romans seeking bloody entertainment, as we watched the ruins slowly fill with with selfie sticks and large tour groups. After circumventing the structure at each level and taking a quick look at the informational displays, we decided to beat the crowds and head over to the Roman Forum, since our Colosseum ticket also gained us entry there.
This was my favorite part of our trip. The forum is indescribable, but I’m going to try for those of you who haven’t been. The forum is a collection of ruins of various styles and ages commissioned by various rulers and people of importance. I’m not entirely sure how they all ended up here: if they were brought here to be displayed (for the smaller pieces only, of course) like a museum, or if every bit of the ruins is a remnant of a larger structure or statue which was originally constructed here. If the latter is the case, I quite literally cannot fathom what this place must have looked like in its prime. Even if the smaller bits were brought here in modern day for display only, the large (obviously permanent) buildings alone make this place one of the most eclectic spaces I’ve ever seen. We strolled along the edge of a massive complex which reminded me of a hive or insect mound because from the outside it looks like one huge uniform structure, but then we found that it contained apartments and shops and all kinds of other functional spaces that served individualized purposes and were inhabited by individual people. Then, we stepped into a marble graveyard, where stood the remnants of various statues, random solitary pillars, pieces of fallen pillars, a giant marble arch, and so many other parts. Some of it made sense, and we could kind of see how this space would have been used, but other things just seemed to have been built there randomly. On one side, there was a massive structure with three gigantic openings which we deemed to the “mammoth garage,” but turned out to be the ruins of a basilica, and next door to that, a church, and right in front of it, a collection of large temples to various gods and goddesses of Roman mythology. We were startled just by the variety and magnitude of artifacts, and spent a couple hours just wandering this part. We reached the far side of the marble graveyard to find an entrance to the hive building, and from there gained a view from above, and also the realization that we had a lot of ground left to cover.
We went up, and discovered on top of the hive an orange grove, with a maze of knee to waist tall hedges creating a sort of maze to walk through. I was beginning to feel a little bit like Alice must have when she ate the cake and became a giant when to my surprise a large, floppy-eared rabbit emerged from a hedge and casually crossed the path in front of us, followed by another. Reminded of our moment in the alley of umbrellas the night before, we stopped to watch for a moment, then moved on to the other side of the archaeological site where the remnants of less well-preserved structures similar to the hive remained. We wandered through these for some time, coming across pits where chunks of marble pillars had been thrown apparently as garbage, past the site where brothers Remus and Romulus had allegedly lived when they founded the city, through strange gardens with huge burial mound type features, to overlook Circus Maximus. We realized that we had been in the Forum for almost six hours, and decided to make our way toward the exit and the rest of the day’s adventures.
On the way back, we decided to swing into the capitol building. We had seen people up on top, and thought this would be a good way to chart out possibilities for the following day. We were planning a sort of marathon mad-dash through the city, trying to cover as much ground as possible. We passed the tomb of the unknown soldier, a couple of museum exhibits, and finally made our to the top to survey the city, looking for recognizable landmarks. Off in the distance to one side, we could see St. Peters, and to the other side, the colosseum loomed like a crashed space ship in the afternoon city haze. In between, we eyed the Pantheon, a couple other cathedrals, and tried to map out possible paths to smaller fountains, parks, and monuments which were hidden by the taller buildings. Afterwards, we had one of the more enjoyable meals I think I’ve ever had in Europe. We were in Italy (duh), so of course we needed to find pizza. But, I had read that many places don’t start making fresh pizzas until eight PM, and we were early birds, usually eating around four and going to bed between six and eight. So, we quickly scoured the area, searching for a place with pizzas out that looked good. We found a great spot between the Pantheon and the capitol building, where the pizza looked good and they had lemon gelado. The food was pretty darn tasty, probably my favorite meal we had in Italy, but what made our evening was the massive group of people sitting behind Lydia. We had been sitting and talking for a couple of minutes when a young boy, maybe twelve, turned around and asked us “Are you Americans?” I’m always wary of this question while traveling, but said yes, and he became noticeably more excited, squeaking out an “Oh my god!” before covering his face with a hand and turning quickly away from us. Puzzled, we shrugged and went back to our conversation, until one of his older traveling companions at the table next to us explained in a pidgin of Spanish and English that he loved America and Americans, and not to mind him. We began talking, asking where they were from and what brought them to Rome. They came as part of one of the many large choir groups (the “yellow bags” as we called them, because all carried bright yellow messengers bags), and were from Spain. Pretty soon, the whole restaurant (the patrons were mostly part of their traveling group) joined the conversation, and led to an engaging evening of hilarity, laughter, and vocal harmonies.
We started the next day at the capitol building again, and then made our way towards the Pantheon. We stopped into St. Maria Sopra Minerva Basilica, and marveled at the ornate gothic decoration inside the church. We wandered over to the Pantheon to witness how the internal structure of the building catches and reflects the light spilling through the oculus, a massive hole in the ceiling. Lydia had never been to a palace, so when we randomly stumbled across one as we walking through the streets, we stopped in. It turned out to be a super, super cool art gallery with more paintings than I think I’ve ever seen in a museum, and quite a few wonderful sculptures as well. We reached the end of our city map, past the Spanish Steps, and found what was called the Medici House. We went in, thinking is would be Medici palace, but it actually turned out to be an art school. We saw some truly terrible paintings in their main gallery (by a famous artist, I don’t remember the name, but not a student), and when we found out that the rest of the house and grounds was off limits except by tour, we left. We walked into unknown territory, and discovered a beautiful park, where we viewed some amazing overlooks of the city, and I discovered that the parrot like bird calls I’d been hearing all around the city were indeed large green parrots. We walked through and past many other historical monuments, including Piazza Navona and the Mausoleum of Augustus. It was the last day of the year, however, rather than finding a spot to enjoy the fireworks in the city and have a drink or party, we decided to go back to the hotel, take a nap, and enjoy the view of the fireworks from the window. We figured it would be easier to find a unicorn to ride home than a cab after midnight, and the bus stopped running at midnight. Anyway, we had a train to catch in the morning, to Florence. So, we rung in 2016 grading papers and watching fireworks from the hotel window over some champagne, and a few hours later started a new adventure.
We journeyed early to the transit center, hopped on a bullet train, and were on our way to Florence. As we sped through the countryside, I wished that we had spent less time in Rome, and had gotten a chance to see smaller towns and more of the agricultural lands away from the cities. We arrived in Florence and realized that we were going to be in for quite a day. Since it was the first of year and technically a holiday, many of the museums, shops, and other buildings were closed. At the same time, many people had the day off, so the things which were open were extremely crowded. We had a list of open museums, but the one we were prioritizing didn’t open for a couple more hours. We made our way over to the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella, and then to the Riccardi Medici palace, which houses the Magi Chapel (a collection of incredible frescoes is the main attraction of this tiny chapel) along with some notable works of art. We decided to try and find the Dante house and see if it was open, and found that we were in luck. I picked up a copy of the Inferno from the gift shop, and then waited for quite some time to venture up the narrow staircase and be allowed into the house. It was packed, so we made the decision to make room for someone else and left after a fairly short period. We made our way to Palazzo Vecchio, a 13th century palace turned art museum and the one thing we had chosen as our main destination for the day. It didn’t open until two, but at 1:30 the line was already over an hour wait. We luckily got in line behind an older retired couple from the midwest who spend a significant portion of their year in Italy, and who gave us a ton of amazing tips for traveling in Italy and many other parts of the world as well. After an hour of talking teaching and swapping travel tales, we parted ways. Lydia and I made our way into the museum, which we found out (courtesy of our new friends) was actually completed in there stages by three separate rulers. We toured parts of the newest sections first, the product of one of the many Medici family members, and were relegated by ornately patterned wooden floors, incredible paintings fit into gilded molding in the ceilings, and ornately crafted furniture. I think both of us were more impressed when we came to the portion of the palace which contained the oldest remnants of the architecture, including some really incredible frescoes in a private chapel for one for the young ladies of the family. After perusing the artwork and the collection of statues outside for a little while, we walked down to the river for a quick minute to see the sunset from a medieval stone bridge called Ponte Vecchio, before making our way towards some rather unremarkable food, back past the largest cathedral I’ve ever seen called the Duomo, and back to the train station.
This was more or less the end of our Italian adventures, as the next morning we were in the taxi at dawn headed back to the states. Lydia and I parted ways in the Rome airport: she caught a flight through Paris to San Jose, while I headed back to LAX. After an insanely close connection in Paris and a couple long flights, I was thrilled to be back home with my folks, and eager to embark on the next adventure: New Zealand (plus Tahiti). These will be coming soon, I promise! In the meantime, safe travels.