Without The Mighty Tourism Dollar

Italy is suffering.  Every year — until 2020 — Italy has welcomed millions of tourists from the United States, who spend billions of dollars enjoying the charms of one of the most beautiful countries in the world.  Those tourism dollars are a huge part of the Italian economy and help to keep thousands of people employed.

empty-rome.jpg.1200x800_q85_cropBut . . . it’s 2020, which means everything has changed.  With Italy being a COVID-19 “hot spot” in the early days of the pandemic, and the United States and other countries continuing to deal with coronavirus issues, tourism from America to Italy has plummeted.  The principal hotel association in Rome says 90 percent of the hotels there remain closed, and estimates that the hotel  closure is causing an economic loss of about $115 million per month.  Restaurants are operating at much lower capacity, and the residents of Rome report that it feels almost empty without the throngs of tourists.  It’s hard to imagine Roman landmarks like the Pantheon, shown above, without huge crowds of visitors.  In fact, you might say that this would be an ideal time to visit Italy . . . but for the global pandemic.

And you have to wonder — will there be a long-term impact on tourism and travel, to Italy and elsewhere?  It’s pretty clear that travel helps to spread pandemics, which gives the notion of tourism a kind of risky taint — but once they get going, pandemics are notoriously nondiscriminatory in their impact and eventually are going to hit, and hurt, every country.  If a reliable vaccine is developed — a big if — will Americans go back to favorite destinations like Italy, or France?  Or, will they to stick closer to home for the time being and choose to travel within the U.S., until the dust settles and other tourists returning from their trips give the all-clear to travel overseas?  The Italian tourist industry representatives quoted in the article linked above seem confident American tourists will be back because they just can’t get enough of Rome and the Tuscan sun, but  after 2020 . . . well, who knows?

We’ve got an overseas trip planned for 2021 and certainly hope to be going — but between now and then we are going to be paying pretty close attention to news about vaccines, and outbreaks, and other medical developments that we wouldn’t have even considered before this year.  I’m guessing that we’re not alone.

Rediscovering Pompeii

In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying nearby Pompeii — a thriving Roman village during the height of the Roman Empire — killing the inhabitants, and covering the town in a thick and deep coating of volcanic ash.

pintura-de-gladiadores-e-descoberta-na-antiga-cidade-de-pompeiaHidden under its ashy cloak, Pompeii lay undisturbed, and forgotten, for hundreds of years.  The blanket of ash had the effect of preserving the town as it existed on the date of the eruption.  Excavation of the site at Pompeii didn’t begin until the mid-1700s, and continued haphazardly until the mid-1800s, when systemic, organized preservation efforts began and Pompeii became known as a unique opportunity to get a glimpse of what everyday life was like during the heyday of Rome.

Interestingly, Pompeii is still disclosing her secrets.  A huge, hundred million dollar preservation, restoration, and excavation project is underway at the site, which is aimed at repairing the parts of Pompeii that were crumbling and making new discoveries.  And new discoveries have been made, including uncovering an inscription that helps archaeologists better date the eruption of the volcano, a tavern with a vivid fresco of a bloody but victorious gladiator, and other colorful paintings and decorations.  And there are still areas that remain unexplored where the preservationists hope that excavations will yield additional surprises.

We visited Pompeii on our trip to Italy years ago.  It was a hot day, we stupidly did not bring bottled water with us for the visit, and the combination of broiling temperatures and the volcanic dust that still is found at the site made that day the thirstiest day I think I’ve ever experienced.  Still, it was fascinating to get that peek at life in the distant past.  With new discoveries being made, it may be time to make another visit to the town that time forgot.

Forking Good Pizza

The citizens of New York City are a passionate, opinionated bunch. So, it is not a surprise that they reacted with outrage and ridicule when their new mayor, Bill de Blasio, was shown on TV eating pizza with a knife and fork.

That’s right — a knife and fork. De Blasio went to a well-known Staten Island pizzeria for a sit-down meal, started strong by ordering a sausage and smoked mozzarella pie, and then botched it by carving up his slice with a knife and spearing each piece with a fork. New Yorkers went bonkers, and the media wondered aloud whether de Blasio had lost some of his street cred as a result. For a guy who has presented himself as a two-fisted fighter for the little guy, eating pizza with a knife and fork seems awfully . . . prissy. It’s the sort of thing your great-aunt Gertrude might do with a look of stern disapproval on her face.

De Blasio defended his blunder by saying that in his “ancestral homeland” — his mother is Italian — people eat pizza with a knife and fork. Please! Everyone knows that pizza in its modern form is an American invention, and the American way of eating it is to grab a slice by hand and gobble it down. You end up with fingers that are covered in a greasy orange glaze, a mound of wadded napkins also stained orange, and a contented look on your face for having enjoyed the complete pizza experience. Eating pizza with a knife and fork is not only vaguely insulting, it also misses out on half the fun.

Good Lord! Does de Blasio use a knife and fork to eat a New York dirty water hot dog, or a doughnut? Imagine a Chicago pol using utensils to eat a dripping Italian beef sandwich, or the mayor of the City of Brotherly Love using a fork to finish off a Philly cheesesteak, or Memphis’ mayor using a knife and fork to eat a mound of ribs. It’s unthinkable!

We’ve already established that politicians should never be photographed eating a corn dog. De Blasio’s experience shows that they need to apply similar thoughtfulness when they sit down to enjoy a meal of classic American comfort food.

Spoon Envy

IMG_1445On our way over to our weekly Dinin’ Hall visit, I remarked to Kish — and special guest Russell — that I had a serious hankering for a brothy noodle meal with, perhaps, some pork thrown in for good measure.

Oh, did the food gods ever answer my hungry prayer!  When we arrived the Mashita Noodles cart was there, and cooking.  Their homemade Ramen noodles were exactly what I was craving.  And what intriguing options, too!  I went for the spicy noodles, the Mashita bacon broth, and the Kool-Aid pulled pork.  That’s right — Kool-Aid pulled pork.  Like every Mashita bowl, it came with a soft-boiled egg and some thin cucumber slices on top.  I had to check it out, and I was willing to run the risk that a large, sweaty, anthropomorphic beverage pitcher would come crashing through the wall while I was enjoying my meal

It was an inspired combination and stuffed to the gills with moist, fall-apart, infused-with-broth pulled pork — so good that I found myself thinking strange thoughts as I used chopsticks, and then a plastic soup spoon, to pound it down.  Thoughts like:  why can’t Dinin’ Hall provide larger plastic spoons so I can eat this even faster?  And:  why do they have to make these plastic bowls with the annoying little ridge ringing the bottom, which makes it difficult to get at every last, savory drop?

As I write this, I recognize that I’ve raved about virtually every food item I’ve consumed at Dinin’ Hall.  So be it.  Their food truck vetting process must be flawless.  I’m beginning to suspect that Dinin’ Hall is like Italy — you just can’t get a bad meal there.

Science Behind Bars

In Italy, failing to accurately predict an earthquake apparently is a crime.

Six scientists and a government official were convicted in an Italian court of multiple counts of manslaughter for giving a falsely reassuring statement about a possible earthquake and were sentenced to six years in prison.  The scientists were consulted after tremors were felt in L’Aquila.  At a meeting, they told officials that a major earthquake was not impossible, but it was not likely.  Unfortunately for the scientists, a few days later a massive earthquake struck, killing more than 300 people and leaving the area in ruins.  Prosecutors alleged that many of the casualties stayed in their homes due to the scientists’ advice and died when the buildings collapsed, whereas people who stayed outside survived the upheaval.

The astonishing verdict and sentence have been greeted with richly deserved outrage.  It also is an embarrassment for Italy, the home of the Renaissance and scientific pioneers like Galileo and Leonardo da Vinci.  It’s hard to imagine any modern, enlightened country concluding that scientists can be criminally punished for expressing their scientific opinion — particularly when it involves predicting something as obviously unpredictable as earthquakes.  What’s next for Italian prosecutors?  Criminal charges for inaccurate weather forecasters?

Hitler Wine In A Weird World

Although we sometimes might think so, America doesn’t have an exclusive franchise on nuts and their weird activities.  You can find evidence of the loony element in humanity across the globe.

Consider the fact that, in northern Italy, a winery makes and sells vintages with labels featuring Hitler on the label.  A couple from America found the wine being sold in a grocery store in Garda, Italy and reported it to the authorities.  Local prosecutors reacting to the report have opened an inquiry, but one prosecutor noted that the only possible crime that could have been committed through the sale of “Fuhrerwein” was the crime of “apologizing for fascism” — because Italy made “apologizing for fascism” a crime in 1952.

So, a winery bottles and distributes what is undoubtedly their worst vintage in bottles with Hitler’s pictures, no doubt hoping that they can sell the swill to fascist sympathizers or tourists who will buy the bottles and take them home to show friends as odd curiosities.  The grocery store owner, for his part, says he views the wine as some kind of historical artifact and stocks it, even though he doesn’t sell much, so that people will remember the bad things that Hitler did.  Sure!  The wine probably is stored in the “dictators and genocidal maniacs” aisle of the store, near the Mao Zedong popcorn and the Josef Stalin laundry detergent.

And, perhaps strangest of all, we learn that Italy made apologizing for fascism a crime in 1952.  Perhaps if it weren’t illegal to remember the horrors that were produced by fascist ideology, and express regret and ask forgiveness for them, Italians would have a better understanding of the idiocy and offensiveness of peddling consumer products with Hitler’s image in the first place.

Saving The Trevi Fountain

If you’ve been to Rome, you’ve likely seen the Trevi Fountain.  It is a magnificent attraction, with its depiction of Neptune and sea horses and other sea creatures atop craggy rocks.  When we visited Rome during a very hot summer some years ago, the Trevi Fountain was a delightful place to sit, enjoy the spray of the cool water, and appreciate the beauty while taking a break from sightseeing.

Unfortunately, the Trevi Fountain is badly in need of repair.  Earlier this year, some pieces of the 250-year-old fountain — commissioned by one of those civic-minded Popes, Clement XII — broke off.  Fortunately, an Italian mineral water company, Acqua Claudia, has agreed to foot the $250,000 cost of the immediately needed restorations.  Whether funding will be located for the more long-term repair work on the fountain that is desperately needed is another question.

The condition of the Trevi Fountain is  symptomatic of a larger problem in countries with significant cultural sites.  Italy, Greece, and Spain, to name just a few, are terribly cash-strapped.  It’s hard to believe that such countries, which reap huge economic benefits from tourism, would neglect the sites that attract those tourists in the first place, but paying to maintain crumbling monuments, old buildings, fountains, and churches, is pushing budgets to the limit.

I hope that other companies step up, as Acqua Claudia has, to help the Italian government maintain Italy’s many irreplaceable architectural and artistic landmarks.  Generations to come should have the chance to see the Trevi Fountain in all its glory, rather than a heap of dust and rubble.

Adverse To Austerity

Elections have occurred in Greece, France, and Italy in the past few days, and voters have cast their ballots against the austerity measures that were imposed to try to put a brake on the European debt crisis and, in Greece and France, have thrown out the governments that agreed to those measures.

In France, the flamboyant Nikolas Sarkozy was replaced by a Socialist, Francois Hollande, who says he seeks an alternative to austerity and vows to increase taxes and spending.  In Greece, voters deserted the parties that had dominated the political landscape for decades and splintered their support among a broad range of parties, including the disturbingly neo-Nazi “Golden Dawn”.  The same trends were seen in local elections in Italy.

No one should be surprised by these results.  Austerity is hard; Europeans are soft.  They’ve become accustomed to rich benefits, lots of vacation time, a short work week, and generous pensions that allow them to retire at an early age.  The problem is that their lifestyle has been financed by debt, and now people are only willing to lend them more if they agree to actions that will bring their fiscal house in order.  The fact that Greek voters and French voters don’t like the austerity doesn’t change that result.  Why would you want to lend money to someone who hasn’t shown the responsibility or willpower necessary to pay you back?

This likely means that the Eurozone concept will fail.  Appeals for continental unity only go so far, and hardworking and thrifty German and Dutch voters aren’t going to support the unrestrained spending of the Greek and Italian and Portuguese governments forever.  The Euro will end as a unified currency, the responsible northern European countries will return to their highly valued local currencies, and the southern European countries will slink back to their devalued and debased drachmas and lire, look around for new saps to loan them money with no hope of being repaid, and find there are no takers.  At that point, the current days of “austerity” might begin to look pretty good, in retrospect.

There’s a lesson in here somewhere for America.

 

Europe Is Still There, And Its Problems Are Getting Worse

In America, we have the ability to just ignore the rest of the world now and then.  When the news from abroad is too depressing, we turn it off and focus on more interesting American things instead, like a celebrity scandal or  the new iPhone or a weirdly viral YouTube video.

I think most Americans have tuned out the debt crisis in Europe.  It has been going on forever.  There’s no end in sight.  Lots of different, faraway countries are involved. The Europeans appear to be dealing with it.  So why should we care?  Look, a squirrel!

On Friday Standard & Poor’s cut the credit ratings for the debt issued by nine European countries.  France, Europe’s second-largest economy, lost its AAA status, Italy’s debt is now rated the same as that of Kazakhstan, and Portugal’s debt is down to junk bond status.  Even worse, it looks like Greece won’t be able to reach agreement with its creditors, which would mean that the latest Eurozone effort to address the Greek debt crisis would fail and Greece would be facing default and bankruptcy in March.

In the modern world, the economies of countries are connected in countless ways.  We sell lots of good and services to Europe; if its economies crash, those markets vanish and American businesses will suffer.  American banks, mutual funds, and investors have purchased the sovereign debt of European countries and would experience huge losses in the event of defaults.  And, of course, Europe’s current predicament is just a peek at America’s likely future if we don’t deal promptly with our governmental debt problems.  European countries that are saddled with enormous debt are now at the mercy of ratings agencies, creditors, and faceless bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund.

So, we can be distracted if we choose — but Europe is still there, and its problems are, too.  They may be our problems soon, if we don’t start paying attention.

Giving Thanks — And Ignoring The Falling Dominoes

We Americans have many reasons to be thankful this year, and one of the reasons is that we aren’t Italy — yet.

I’ve written before about the debt problems in Europe.  Things keep getting worse there.  The dominoes are slowly falling and threatening to knock over larger and larger economies.

The latest country to teeter on the brink is Italy.  Today it offered six-month debt obligations, and had trouble selling them even at an unsustainable 6.5 percent interest rate.   The financial markets obviously feel there is significant risk that Italy will default, and therefore they require an ever-higher interest rate to compensate for that risk.

Why should we care, here in the U.S. of A.?  Because the same thing could happen to us.  At some point, our debt load could pass an as-yet-unknown, magic threshold that makes investors feel insecure.  Once the investors start to demand high interest rates as a result, our problems with balancing the budget get immeasurably worse.

It’s boring and depressing to think about such things.  That’s why President Obama doesn’t focus on our debt problems, and Congress is happy to ignore them, too.  We’re whistling past the graveyard, and in the meantime the spending and debt accumulation continues without any let-up — and the dominoes in Europe keep toppling.

Cain And Italy

The news coverage for the last few days has been dominated by allegations of sexual harassment by Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain.  The steady drip, drip, drip of new information and accusations has knocked all other news off the front page.

I don’t mean to downplay the importance of dealing properly with incidents of sexual harassment, nor do I mean to be insensitive to the issue of potential misconduct by a presidential candidate — but I think it is ludicrous that the Cain story has commanded more attention than, say, the ongoing debt problems in Italy that have toppled a government and threaten to send one of the largest economies in the world into a default that would be devastating for the global economy.

In America, we always seem to fixate on tawdry tales of misconduct by political figures.  Our recent history is littered with characters like Elizabeth Ray, Fannie Fox, and Donna Rice.  Once they were featured in headlines; now they are forgotten.

The Cain story deals with incidents that allegedly happened more than a decade ago. Cain himself is merely one of eight candidates for the Republican nomination who hasn’t received even one vote yet, because no primary will occur for weeks.  The Italian problem, in contrast, could cause crippling losses on the part of banks that hold Italian debt and thereby plunge the world into another recession.  Which story is more important?

Uh Oh (Again)

The news from Europe has not been good for some time now — but today may be a turning point into even more negative territory.  As the United States enjoyed the Labor Day holiday, equity markets across Europe plunged by an average of 4 percentGermany’s DAX took the hardest hit, falling by more than 5 percent.

It’s not hard to understand why European investors are troubled.  Greece, Spain, and Portugal all are struggling with serious debt problems, and recently Italy, one of Europe’s biggest economies, also has tumbled into distressed territory.  In the meantime, the large, more solvent northern European countries — particularly Germany — have had to prop up their profligate southern European partners.  Germany’s financial support of free-spending Eurozone countries hasn’t gone down well with German voters, who delivered a stinging rebuke to the ruling party in regional elections.

Interestingly, some political leaders in Germany and elsewhere seem to see the ongoing problems as a reason for an even closer political and economic union between the nations of Europe — whereas European citizens, in contrast, appear to be yearning for more control over the destinies of their own countries.  The depths of the Eurozone debt problems are not yet fully understood, and analysts wonder how much worthless debt is held by European banks and whether the piecemeal bailout efforts will ever staunch the outflow of investor confidence.  Given all of these circumstances, it’s not hard to foresee more hard times ahead in the Eurozone.

Eurotrip 2011: Florence and Pisa

The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, a.k.a. the Duomo.

While I was in Florence, the dominant thought in my mind was that I was glad to be there. However, there was also a voice telling me how stupid I was to have spent ten nights in Rome and only six in Florence, which I like better.

Every corner of Rome seems to be covered with a tourist sheen, while Florence feels more like a normal city that has a few tourist hotspots. It’s smaller, more intimate, and more peaceful than Rome. Sometimes when you turn onto a street in Florence you are the only person in sight, which never happened to me in Rome. Also, many Florentines ride their bikes to get around, which helps create a friendly atmosphere, although the people there still drive like sociopaths.

Florence isn’t as agonizingly expensive as Rome, but it’s still much worse than Athens and Istanbul. I miss being able to buy an overflowing kebab pita for 1.5 euros. In Florence, I started the habit of buying a large Moretti beer every night for only 1.30 euros from a little convenience store near the Duomo and drinking it on one of the bridges.

I enjoyed my hostel in Florence much more than the one in Rome. I stayed at the Sette Santi hostel, which is in a quiet neighborhood about a 25-minute walk from the center of Florence. It used to be a convent, and it’s still next to a church, the ringing bells of which were one of the few annoyances I had to put up with there. Unlike my hostel in Rome, it was quiet and spacious, with the wide, echoing hallways you would expect in a convent, and enough showers so that some were always free. There was a nice hang-out area outside with plenty of seats and picnic tables. The walk to the city was annoying when I had to do it multiple times a day, but that was due to my own poor planning.

My only major complaint is that there wasn’t a kitchen. In Italy, where it’s hard to find a meal for less than 7 euros, a kitchen is a big plus.

Most of the guests at the hostel were American college students traveling around Europe during a break from their study abroad programs. I hate to criticize my fellow countrymen, but I did not enjoy having so many Americans around. They have a super-cheerful attitude that is somehow offensive to a long-term traveler like me. They tend to arrive in groups, so they have little interest in making new friends at the hostel.

A building in Florence.

One of my favorite things about Florence is that it has its own style of architecture. I noticed a few common characteristics in buildings in Florence. Many old buildings have detailed images painted on the outside, something I haven’t seen anywhere else in Italy. I also saw many buildings that had a distinctive contrast between white walls and dark grey stone that looks like clay that hasn’t dried yet. Many of the buildings of the famous Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi have that look, including the inside of the Duomo and the Santo Spirito cathedrals.

The inside of the Duomo.

Paintings inside a church in Florence from an early Renaissance painter.

I prefer the cathedrals in Florence to those in Rome because they are less ornate inside, which makes them feel more spiritual to me. They give the impression of having been built by a community instead of by the Catholic Church. They have a subtle but unique style, which paintings and sculptures from local artists. The exteriors of the churches often have the red and green stripe style seen on the Duomo.

I made a point of seeing Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel because I remembered my history professor giving a lecture about it in college, describing how Brunelleschi tried to give it ideal classical proportions. I thought it was a beautiful, creative little church, and there weren’t many tourists there, which was a bonus.

The Pazzi Chapel.

Another Florence landmark with the wet-stone style is the Laurentian library, designed by Michelangelo for the Medici family. On the outsides of the benches you can see in the photograph are lists of the manuscripts that used to be chained to them. The entrance to the library is a famous staircase that looks like stone oozing out the door. My visit to the library was a nice break from an itinerary consisting almost entirely of churches. It was nice to see a brilliant Renaissance design used solely in the service of knowledge, like the pope’s study in the Vatican museum (one of the Raphael rooms).

The Laurentian library.

Michelangelos famous staircase.

On Wednesday I took a train to Pisa with Dhika, an Indonesian girl from my hostel. The train only took an hour, and it was free with my Eurail pass. I got to check the Leaning Tower off my list of “famous sights I haven’t seen.” The community of Pisa surely appreciates the tourist dollars the tower brings in now, but it must have been embarrassing for them when it started tilting over centuries ago. It doesn’t look good when the tallest building in your city looks like it’s about to fall over.

I liked the parts of Pisa you don’t see painted on the walls of pizza restaurants. The cathedral next to the tower was the first Romanesque-style one I’ve seen. The city itself was like Florence except even more peaceful. It had the Italian beauty without the obnoxious motorbikes. There were almost no tourists outside the cathedral area. It was cheap, also, which led us to get a meal in a restaurant – the first time I’d been waited on since Istanbul.

Pisas tower and cathedral.

Pisas riverfront.

On Thursday I made the mandatory trips to the Uffizi and Academia art galleries. I happened to arrive in Florence during “culture week”, when all the museums were free. The Uffizi gallery helps you appreciate how much art changed during the Renaissance. From the early 1300s to the 1400s, it seems to me, art in Florence went from conservative Byzantine-style mosaics to idiosyncratic works by artists like Botticelli, beautiful in unique ways and covering diverse subjects. In the Uffizi gallery, you can see this happening when you walk from one room to the next. It’s worth the two-hour wait.

Thursday evening, Dhika gave me a McDonald’s hamburger when she returned to the hostel. I pledged not to eat fast food on my trip, but I ate it anyway because I’m not one to turn down free food. McDonald’s tastes the same everywhere, and I won’t pretend I don’t like that familiar taste. Today I took a train from Florence to Interlaken, Switzerland, and during my layover in Milan, the cheapest lunch option by far was McDonald’s, so I got a double cheeseburger there. Hopefully, it will be my last.

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011:  Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 2

I had a conversation with a guy at my hostel about people who ponder for a long time at historical sights. He thought these people are “full of shit.” Although he enjoys going to historical sights and recognizes the significance of them, he sees no reason to spend a long time thinking about them, and he thinks that people who do so are being pretentious.

I used to believe that, but now I think that it requires a lot of mental effort to take in historical sights the right way. When looking at a centuries-old structure, our instinct – or mine, at least – is to think “that’s cool” or “that’s pretty.” We admire the craftmanship, then we get bored and want to move on. It takes more thought to realize that what we’re looking at once meant a lot to people, and to figure out how.

When I went inside the Coliseum six years ago, I admired the magnificence of it for a few minutes before I got bored and wanted to leave. When I visited it last Wednesday, I forced myself to consider that it was the site of millions of human experiences over centuries – experiences that ranged from that of a Roman senator and his family enjoying good food and entertainment in reserved seats in the front row, to that of a criminal whose last moments of life were spent being attacked by an exotic animal in front of a bloodthirsty crowd of forty thousand people. I wondered what people were thinking when they walked into such a beautiful, perfectly-proportioned building to watch people and animals die.

The inside of the Coliseum.

Wednesday was my “ancient Rome” day. After going to the Coliseum, I went to the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill. Unfortunately, so little remains of the buildings that it’s hard to imagine what they originally looked like. I just got a sense of an area that was neglected and pilfered for a thousand years. I would like to think that the fact that the forum area was not built over, at least, means that medieval Romans showed it some respect, but it seems more likely that it was too difficult to remove the ruins so that new buildings could be put there.

One building in the forum is still intact, however – the Roman senate building, which was converted to a church after the empire fell.

The forum, with the Roman senate building in the center.

The only other ancient building in Rome that is still in use – the Pantheon – also survived because it was converted into a church. It makes you wish there had been a greater need for churches in the dark ages so that more of the Roman buildings could be saved. Of all the ancient Roman buildings I’ve seen, the Pantheon is the best reminder of the brilliance of Roman engineering. It still holds the record for the largest unreinforced concrete dome, although its almost two thousand years old. The dome is so large that it was visible in Rome’s skyline from every viewpoint I visited – an honor shared by only a few other churches and the reviled Monument to Vittorio Emmanuele II (popularly called the “wedding cake building”) that you can see jostling its way into the picture above. I sat down inside for a while to watch the sunshine from the oculus at the top of the dome make its progress across the ceiling.

The inside of the Pantheon.

After consulting the Wikitravel article on Rome, I decided to visit all of the four basilicas that pilgrims to Rome were expected to visit – St. Peter’s (which I had already visited), San Giovanni, Santa Maria Maggiore, and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. They were all as spectacular as you would expect major churches in Rome to be. My favorite of them was St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, which was originally founded by the emperor Constantine over the burial place of St. Paul. It has a beautiful facade with a colorful mosaic, surrounded by a courtyard. It’s on the outskirts of Rome, so there aren’t as many tourists inside.

St. Paul's Outside the Walls

On Friday I took a train to Ostia Antica, which was once the port of Ancient Rome, but is now over a mile from the shore due to silt  from the Tiber building up over the centuries. Ostia is astonishingly well-preserved for an ancient city that wasn’t buried in ashes. Some of the buildings have exteriors that are fully preserved, making it easier to imagine what the town was once like. I spent an hour reading at the town’s theater, where high schoolers from various countries were goofing around.

An ancient apartment building in Ostia.

An ancient restaurant with a visual menu.

The ancient theater in Ostia.

By the time I left Ostia, I was tired of wandering around ancient ruins and imagining what they originally looked like. I was also tired of visiting churches. I thought I was giving myself a big treat when I booked ten nights at a hostel in Rome, but by the seventh or eighth day there I wished I could move on. The density of historical sites in Rome makes it one of the greatest cities in the world, but also makes it crowded and touristy. I missed the feeling I got in Istanbul, Athens, and Palermo, of being a guest in the city, instead of being just one of a horde of tourists, as I felt in Rome.

I also didn’t like my hostel much. It was obnoxiously crowded and loud, especially on weekends, and you had to leave from 11-5 every day so they could clean. These characteristics made it hard for me to make close friends like I did in other hostels. It also seemed to attract a different crowd from the other hostels I’ve stayed in. The guests weren’t the backpacker type; more the American college student studying abroad taking a quick trip around Europe and partying it up type.

I spent my last day in Rome reading in the Villa Borghese park. The day I left, I got up really early to go to St. Peter’s before it got crowded. Then, I went to the train station and boarded a train for Florence.

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome Pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011:  Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  The Journey to Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul

Eurotrip 2011: Palermo

After finally checking into our hostel in Palermo, Bryanna and I indulged in a meal at a nearby restaurant. I think my excitement over being in Italy and my exhaustion from the journey made me forget my usual obsession with spending as little money as possible. I spent eleven euros on a pizza and a beer, including five euros just for the beer. Afterwards, I was disgusted with myself. Five euros for a beer? I could have bought three meals of street food for that.

I restored my miser cred at the grocery store after the meal, buying the usual cheap backpacker staples: baguettes, bananas, carrots, cheese, and cans of tuna.

As I mentioned in my last post, our hostel, the Youth Hostel Baia del Corallo, was far from Palermo’s center, in the much less hectic Sferracavallo neighborhood on the shore of the Mediterranean. Although I didn’t like having to take an hour-long bus ride to get to the city (or longer, depending on how long it took for the buses to come), Sferracavallo had a lot to offer, with a good selection of stores and restaurants, and a nice boardwalk. The hostel itself was right on the shore, with an excellent view of the bay.

I’m glad I met Bryanna on the train, because there weren’t many other people in the hostel to hang out with. My roommate was a Spanish fellow who wasn’t very talkative. Bryanna had her room to herself most of the time.

I just gave the hostel a good review on hostelworld.com. They didn’t make me pay for the first night’s reservation I missed, even though they could have according to the contract. However, the breakfast they offered was horrible – a fluffy little croissant, some crackers, a tiny bit of jelly, and coffee. It was obvious they wanted to be able to advertise that they provided breakfast, then they did it as cheaply as possible.

A street in downtown Palermo.

After getting settled and getting a good night’s rest, I finally had the presence of mind to make some observations about Italy. My first thought was that Italy has the highest density of charm in the world.  In my post about Athens, I remarked that nearly all the buildings were 20th-century concrete-and-stucco moderns that were nevertheless made beautiful by the human inhabitants. Italian cities are different: the buildings don’t need to be beautified, because they were built with artistic flourish. The average apartment building in Palermo was constructed in the 18th or 19th century (according to my estimate) in a distinctive Italian style, with styled columns, curved iron rails on the balconies, and marble busts and statues sticking out of the corners. Any one of these buildings would be a marvel in most cities, but in Italy they are commonplace.

Also, there seems to be a beautiful Renaissance-style church on every block, with a brilliant design and examples of superb craftmanship that lose their power when surrounded by other equally brilliant buildings.

A 17th-century church in Palermo.

Due to centuries of Muslim occupation, many of the oldest buildings in Palermo have a unique hybrid style. On Tuesday, Bryanna and I visited one of these, the San Cataldo church. Built in the 12th century as a monastery, the church is so humble that it’s hard to find among the larger buildings next to it. I had trouble taking a good picture because most of the front is blocked by a tree. The red Islamic-style domes are striking, however, and there are beautiful Byzantine mosaics and a serene garden inside.

Chiesa di San Cataldo.

Near the Chiesa di San Cataldo is the Pallazzo dei Normanni, a.k.a Norman Palace, which was built during Sicily’s occupation by the Normans. On one side of the palace are statues that seem to depict the vanquished former Muslim rulers of the city. A few blocks away from the palace, there is a cathedral built by the Norman rulers that is also in the Arab-Norman-Byzantine style. Unlike the other churchs we visited in Palermo, it is modestly decorated inside, with very little gold and very few paintings and mosaics. Whether this was an artistic decision or an economic measure, I don’t know, but in my opinion it gave the church a more spiritual air.

Part of the Pallazzo dei Normanni.

Palermo's cathedral.

On Wednesday, Bryanna and I went to the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. Walking through the hallways with corpses of citizens of Palermo hanging from the walls, I wished I had read more about the site beforehand. Why would anyone want to be put in such a position after dying – standing with their jaw agape, looking as if their skeleton could collapse at any moment, with flakes of skin curling off their skull? It seemed to be the opposite of the normal human desire to be in a position of rest after the end of life. According to Wikipedia, the catacombs began as a tradition of mummifying monks, and later became a status symbol among the people of Palermo.  I wonder if it would have been such a status symbol if they knew that their skeletons would be gawked at by tourists a hundred years later.

That afternoon, we took a bus to the top of the Monte Pellegrino, where the sunshine and the excellent view of Palermo helped us shake off the morbid vibes we got from the catacombs. At the top of the mountain, there was a church built into a cave.

The church at the top of Monte Pellegrino.

People spoke less English in Palermo than in Greece, which I liked, strangely. I studied a little Italian about six years ago, so I could communicate simple ideas like “when does bus 101 arrive” and “how much for a beer?” It felt nice when an Italian word that I wasn’t even aware I knew came out of my mouth. The lack of English speakers in Palermo might be due to the fact that there aren’t many tourists there. We saw very few fellow tourists during our time in Palermo, especially outside of the hostel. Indeed, there were only a few hostels to choose from, compared to dozens in cities like Athens, Istanbul and Rome. If you’re looking for an Italian city that has not yet been made into a tourist theme park, Palermo is a good place to go.

Eurotrip 2011:  The Journey to Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul