2,000 Years Of Fast Food

Pompeii — the Roman town that was buried by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. — continues to tell us some interesting stuff about the everyday lives of the ancient Romans. Excavations have uncovered apparent brothels, bars, homes — and now, a fast food stand, pictured above, that was operating on a busy street corner.

The fast food stand evidently was closed in a hurry as the volcano spewed the ash that buried the town. Archaeologists found the remains of that fateful day’s offerings in some of the pots embedded in the brightly colored food stand. The menu when the volcano blew included duck, pig, goat, snails, fish, fava beans, and a paella-like combo dish. And from that chicken that is painted on the front of the stand, I’m guessing that everybody’s favorite poultry was in one of those pots from time to time, too.

The excavation also uncovered a scenario that might be familiar to modern fast-food stand operators. The remains of a person who was lifting the lid on one of the pots of food were also uncovered — leading archaeologists to speculate that somebody fleeing the eruption couldn’t resist stopping to grab some free food when they should have kept running.

The ancient Romans seem like they were a lot like us, suggesting that the basic motivations of people — and the key concepts of point of purchase advertising that attracts them — haven’t changed that much over thousands of years. The brilliantly decorated food stand, obviously calculated to catch the eye of passersby, with the no doubt delectable smell of simmering food, looks like a modern food truck or an open-air food stand on the street of New York City. The pork, chicken, and fish that was served would be at home in any modern fast-food outlet, too. The only thing that appears to be missing from the Roman stand is a dirty water hot dog.

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.

Magnificent Obsession

Imagine working on one thing for 35 years.

That’s how long it took Italo Gismondi to build a painstakingly realistic model of ancient Rome.  Commissioned by Mussolini to build the model in 1933, Gismondi used a number of ancient maps to create the model and kept adding to it for 35 years.  His finished product is considered to be scrupulously accurate and detailed — so much so that historians apparently use it to give them a better sense of the city as a whole.

5840455090_60b96c9dd9_oThe model reveals a Rome that was beautiful and sprawling, with a glimpse of what an amazing place it must have been when the Colosseum, the Forum, and the other buildings were intact and in use and buildings and people were packed together.  Those of us who have been lucky enough to visit Rome have seen these once-glorious buildings only in ruins and in isolation, without their neighboring buildings to give a complete picture of ancient Rome in full flower.  It must have been a bustling, extraordinary place.

Gismondi’s model depicts Rome as it was in the fourth century AD.  That time period shows Rome, the city, at its height, but was also a time when the Roman Empire was in decline.  Only 100 years later, in 476 AD, the last Roman emperor was toppled by barbarian invaders and the Dark Ages descended in the west.

The Gismondi model is on display at the Museum of Roman Civilization, in Rome.  I didn’t visit that museum on our trip to Italy years ago, but I hope to make it back to Italy one of these days, and when I do that museum will be a must-see stop.

Fountain Art

On the walk between my hotel and my meetings in Houston this week, there is one of these timed fountains. Maybe it’s because I live in fountain-deprived Columbus, but I find it to be fascinating and beautiful. Not in an overpowering, Las Vegas fountain performance to the sounds of Mannheim Steamroller kind of way, but rather for the simplicity of the arcs traced in the air by the controlled bursts of the water.

It makes me wish that Columbus were more like Rome, and that there were more fountains in the world. I’ll take a fountain over a rusting piece of generic abstract art on a corporate plaza any day.

Lost City Beneath The Sea


Once, Baiae was a resort city on the Italian coast for the wealthy patricians of Rome.  Then, volcanic activity caused the city to vanish beneath the waves, as the coastline moved inland.

Divers have now located the town, and discovered that much of the artwork — including statues, tile designs, and mosaics — has been preserved beneath the water.  Pretty cool!  It would be a great place to go for a dive — if my ear drums had not been blown out by prior, ill-fated scuba activity.

Who knows?  Maybe there is something to that Atlantis myth.

Time To Book That Trip To Europe

If you’ve got a trip to Europe on your “bucket list,” you might want to go for it now.  For Americans, travel in France, Germany, Italy, and the other members of the Eurozone will be as cheap as it has been in years — for the next few months, at least.

IMG_0114The value of the Euro — the collective currency of the Eurozone — has been in free fall against the American dollar over the past few months.  On Friday, the Euro fell to $1.12, which is its lowest level in 11 years.  That’s a very sharp decline from earlier in the year, when the Euro was trading at around $1.40.

European economies are weak, and the European Central Bank has announced that it will be engaged in a “quantitative easing” program that will seek to expand the money supply — and, inevitably, have an inflationary impact — in an effort to spur economic growth.  And because the ECB has just announced its program, and it will take some time for all of the details to be absorbed by the financial markets, we can expect the value of the Euro to continue to fall against the dollar in the near future.

All of this is good news for Americans who are interested in visiting Europe.  Because the  Federal Reserve Board has already completed the quantitative easing program in the U.S. and has announced that it will be raising interest rates in the near future, the dollar should remain very strong against the Euro.  That means American tourist dollars will get better exchange rates at currency stores and will have more buying power on the streets of Paris and Rome — which will bring down the real cost of lodging, meals and museum fees.

Couple that with the ever-present European interest in encouraging tourism, and it’s not hard to forecast that bargain-hunting U.S. travelers will have a field day in 2015.

Last Visit To The Louvre

Today Richard, Russell and I visited the Louvre. I think it will probably be my last visit. If you’ve been to the Louvre, you may understand what I mean. If you’ve never been there, you won’t. You’ll read the guidebooks, and they will tell you that you absolutely must visit the Louvre, and you will go — because you absolutely must visit the Louvre if you come to Paris. I’m betting, though, that you probably won’t enjoy it.

Today we bypassed the long line for tickets because we had a museum pass, which is crucial — otherwise, you could wait for an hour or more just to get a chance to buy a ticket. Once inside, we headed to the wing of the museum that houses the Mona Lisa and thousands of other paintings from the Renaissance. When you get to the room that houses Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, prepare for a scrum. The room is a wild melee of people elbowing to get close to the painting and taking “selfies.” It’s not a positive reflection of humanity, and it’s simply impossible to enjoy the painting in anything approaching quiet contemplation. The experiences in front of the other famous items at the Louvre, like Venus de Milo, are similarly unpleasant mob scenes.

It’s hard to get away from the crowds, and it’s hard to appreciate the artwork when any movement is likely to insert you into a picture taken by another tourist. And there really is too much to see — room after room after room of Egyptian antiquities, or Roman statues, or Greek busts. I found myself thinking that, if I were an Egyptian visitor, I’d be upset that my cultural heritage has been taken and warehoused in faraway Paris, in a place where countless riches from other countries are on display.

005If you want to focus on one area, such as Flemish and Dutch paintings, you could fill an entire day. And be prepared to walk through room after room of hundreds of Madonna and child and Biblical paintings, still life paintings of gutted animal carcasses, landscapes and sea paintings, arranged in rooms where dozens of pieces are on display cheek by jowl and even the ceilings are painted masterpieces. It’s just too much. At the end of our visit I searched for a room that was quiet and suited for enjoying art, and found a room of beautiful medieval tapestries that would have been worth a separate visit if they had been located in virtually any other museum in the world. In the Louvre, however, they are an afterthought — as the picture included with this post indicates.

After a few hours we departed, having walked for miles on marble floors until our feet ached and our necks were tied in knots, and I swore that I had had enough of clustering, clamoring tourists, and walls crammed with paintings, and bustling guides. I think this will be my last visit to the Louvre.

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.

Roman Medicine

Medical texts from the days of ancient Greece and Rome were consulted by physicians in the western world for hundreds of years, well into the Middle Ages.  Now examination of medicine chests found on a long-lost shipwreck is giving us a more tangible glimpse of how the ancients actually practiced medicine.

The wooden boxes were found on a ship that sank off the coast of Tuscany around 130 B.C.  They contain pills made of vegetables, herbs, plants, nuts, and clay, as well as a mortar and pestle and other devices that suggest that a doctor was on board.  The pills were kept in vials that were so well sealed they have been preserved for more than 2,000 years and can now be tested using DNA sequencing technology.  Experts believe the pills were used to treat sailors for dysentery and diarrhea.

The technology of ancient civilizations — which were able to seal containers against the intrusion of sea water for two millennia — continues to amaze, and one wonders what other discoveries may be lurking under the ocean waters, waiting to be discovered.  And, the modern world being what it is, don’t be surprised to see the “all-natural Roman cure” for diarrhea coming soon to an herbal medicine store and a late-night TV screen near you.

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: Rome pt. 1

Uncle Jim posted a comment on my last entry asking where I post from. Usually, I post from internet cafes, which are common in the cities I’ve been to. It’s difficult writing in them because they are mostly visited by immigrants who use Skype to call their families, making them very loud and crowded.

To use internet cafes in Italy, you have to supply your passport. The first time I was asked for mine, I thought I was being scammed, but then I noticed a photocopy of an Italian newspaper article on the wall that had “terrorismo” and “passaporto” in it a lot, and I realized that they take down your information because internet cafes are thought to be used by terrorists to communicate with each other.

Fortunately, the hostel I’m staying at in Rome – the Happy Days hostel – has computers that are free to use, although the owners like to play loud music in the hang-out room, which makes it hard to write here too. It’s hard to complain about a hostel that gives you a room a few blocks from the Vatican for 18 euros a night, though.

The Circus Maximus.

I arrived in Rome on Friday morning. After getting stuck in a few slow-moving crowds of tourists, I decided that I would wait until the weekend was over to go to any of the main tourist sites. I’m spending ten days here, so I have plenty of time. I spent a large part of Friday buying groceries and doing other errands. After getting all that out of the way, I wandered around the city to get a sense of where the major sites and the major roads are. I also checked out the Circus Maximus, where they held chariot races in Ancient Rome. You might remember its depiction in the famous scene from Ben-Hur. None of the original structure is left, but the impression of the track is still in the ground, amazingly.

I spent most of Saturday at the Villa Borghese park, which an English guy in my hostel recommended to me. It is behind the Spanish Steps and the Piazza del Popolo. I’m surprised I didn’t notice it the last two times I was here; it is so large (226 acres) that it looks like a big green stain in the middle of my map of Rome. The park was crowded, but mostly with real Romans just spending time with their families on a Saturday. I walked to each part of the park and read a little bit there, discovering some beautiful areas. My favorite area had lots of an elegant-looking kind of tree that I’ve only seen in Italy. The trunks of these trees are really thin, with no branches until the top, where the foliage looks like a cloud. However, I think the lower branches are cut off to make it look this way.

My favorite area of the Villa Borghese park.

I planned to spend Sunday relaxing in a different park, but I started worrying that I was wasting my precious time in Rome, so I set out for the Baths of Caracalla, which I correctly assumed would not be crowded because they are on the outskirts of the old city and are relatively unknown.

I sort of got what I originally planned for the day anyways, because the baths were like a park (there were even lots of the trees I mentioned above) that included magnificent ruins. I actually took out my book and read on a bench there for an hour. For some reason, the act of relaxing somewhere that was once a place of great importance – that was built at great expense and with a lot of thought and hard work, that was a setting in the lives of thousands of people, and then spent centuries in disuse and decay – really appeals to me.

According to one of the plaques there, the baths were abandoned after the Visigoths blocked Rome’s aqueducts in the early 6th century. It must have been a blow to the Romans that their society, which was capable of such brilliant, ambitious engineering, could be defeated by a bunch of barbarians.

The Baths of Caracalla.

That afternoon, I trekked over to the National Roman Museum, which was included in the 23-euro Rome Archeological Card I bought at the baths. The museum had an interesting collection of early Latin writing, showing how it derived from the Greek alphabet. Also on display were many gravestones and sarcophogases. It is amazing how much you can infer about people’s lives from these. I remember one of a freedman, his wife and his son. The writing next to it explained that the fact that the freedman’s son was shown in his toga shows that the man wanted to emphasize that his son was born free. The boasting in the description of his career, as well as the fact that his grave had elaborate carvings in it, made it clear that he was proud of his success after being freed from slavery.

I drank some wine and had a political discussion with two German medical students that evening at my hostel. Around 11, some Americans asked us if we wanted to go to bars with them, and I went, despite the fact that it was already past my usual bedtime and I had pledged to limit my spending in Rome, where everything seems to have a 150% “being in Rome” tax. I planned to buy a single beer for 4 or 5 euros, but I ended up buying one of the many 15 euro pitchers of beer we consumed over the night.

I woke up the next morning hungover, and I already had plans to go to the Vatican with Bryanna, the American I hung out with in Palermo. I thought the Vatican wouldn’t be crowded at 10 AM on a Monday, but I was wrong. The entire city was one big sea of people that it took skill and stamina to navigate. To enjoy Rome, you have to learn to like being in a crowd of tourists – to like watching them, hearing the different languages, appreciating their energy and the fact that they just want to experience Rome like you do. Unless you make peace with them, you will be frustrated all the time, because they are everywhere.

St. Peter's.

First we went into St. Peter’s. Like the previous times I visited the cathedral, I was struck by how massive and opulent it is – which is not really to my taste. The real jewel of the Vatican, from a tourist’s standpoint, is the Vatican Museum. My body seemed to sense how awesome the museum is, because my hangover temporarily abated while I was inside.

The amount of amazing stuff in the museum is overwhelming. After walking down a hallway of classical sculpture, satisfied that I had read the plaques for all of them and given them all due thought, I would turn the corner to see that I still had three more hallways to go.

Sarcophagus of a Roman boy.

Like in the National Roman Museum, I was moved by many of the examples of Roman stonework. I took a picture of a sarcophagus of a young Roman boy that shows his parents giving him food to take on his journey to the underworld. There were walls and walls of busts and statues of determined-looking Roman statesmen. There were also many busts of Gauls, Parthians, etc., with looks of anguish on their faces, which I suppose the Romans made out of a sense of pride from having defeated them.

A vanquished enemy of Rome.

Some of the statues I admired just for the craftmanship and detail, such as one of a man that represented the river Nile, reclining on a Sphinx, holding a thick batch of wheat, with crocodiles and cherubs swimming around him. I also admired the famous statue of Laocoon and his sons being crushed to death by snakes after he tried to persuade the people of Troy not to let in the Trojan horse, against the will of the gods.

The river Nile.


There are also rooms of Greek and Etruscan art that could constitute the entire collection of a different museum, but that seem sandwiched between the classical sculpture and Renaissance portions of the Vatican Museum.

The Raphael rooms contain dozens of beautiful paintings that illustrate important moments in Christian history and serve as a reminder of the Church’s role in supporting the Renaissance. The four walls of the first room tell the story of the Roman emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity: his vision that he would defeat the enemy in battle if he adopted the sign of the cross; his subsequent victory over Maxentius in the civil war; his baptism by the pope; and his bestowal of Italy to the Church (which was cited by the Church to justify their political power, but didn’t actually happen).

Constantine's vision.

Constantine's victory in battle.

Constantine's baptism.

My favorite Rafael room is probably the most well-known. Used as the pope’s study, its four walls are painted to represent philosophy, poetry, justice, and faith, respectively. The philosophy wall is the famous School of Athens painting. The room makes you feel the love that Renaissance scholars had for knowledge, and the way they connected it to their faith.

The goddesses of poetry, philosophy, justice and faith above the four walls of the pope's study.

We then made our way to the Sistine Chapel. The chapel is at the end of the museum, so once you get there you are exhausted from walking so far, taking in so much information, and being around so many people. Yet, your exhaustion is nothing compared to that which Michelangelo must have felt every day of the four years he toiled to make the ceiling into a moving story of humanity’s downfall that I actually found entertaining to look at. I don’t think Michelangelo had a high opinion of the human race. In the famous Creation of Adam portion, Adam’s posture and facial expression seem to me to be those of a spoiled, lazy brat. The Last Judgement painting on the wall at the end shows Jesus casting most of humanity into the darkness of Hell, where they are tortured by demons with cruel smiles on their faces.

The Last Judgment (not taken by me).

After leaving the Vatican, my hangover returned stronger than it was in the morning. I spent the rest of the night laying in bed. I always feel stupid when I’m hungover, but I felt especially stupid when it was preventing me from making good use of my time in Rome.

Eurotrip 2011:  Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  The Journey to Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul

Save The Sistine Chapel

The chief of the Vatican Museums has raised concerns that the enormous number of sweaty, dirty, dusty visitors to the Sistine Chapel are posing risks to Michelangelo’s monumental masterpiece.  His comments raise the possibility that climate and dust controls, access controls, and other techniques may be instituted in hopes of preventing harm to the artwork.

Kish, Richard, Russell and I were among the sweaty, dirty, dusty visitors who has the privilege to gape in awe at the Sistine Chapel during our wonderful Italian trip.  It is a staggering, mind-boggling experience.  It is difficult to believe that a human being was able to create something so majestic and otherworldly — but Michelangelo obviously did.  I would be in favor of doing whatever is necessary to ensure the the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and Micheleangelo’s Last Judgment are preserved for many future generations to enjoy.  They are an irreplaceable artistic triumph.

Italian Journal, Day 4

Russell and I take a break in Assisi

Russell and I take a break in Assisi

June 12, 2003:

Today was close to a perfect travel day. It began in Rome and ended in Assisi — not far as the crow flies, but a significant difference in feel and attitude.

We left the Hotel Carriage after suffering through another sweltering breakfast. (In fairness, no one but me seemed to think the breakfast room was like a sauna, but what the heck! As soon as I sit down in there I feel like a melting candle.) We took a cab to Avis and got our rent-a-car. I have to say, I approached the car issue with a lot of trepidation after observing Rome traffic and the infernal scooters darting in and out. However, Avis is fortunately located close to the Rome ring road, and we we able to get out of Rome without much difficulty or bother.

The drive to Assisi is pretty basic. Italian roads (particularly the Autostrade) seem to be well-marked and accessible. We made it to Assisi with only one wrong turn, and lucked out by finding our hotel on the main road into town. It’s a nice place, although the heat continues to pester us. Once in Assisi we had a quick lunch (for which we were gouged) and then went to the Basilica of St. Francis. It is an interesting place, perched on a hill at the edge of town. However, it is not difficult to reach a sort of overload on large, overpowering cathedrals. One thing that I noted was the ornately carved chairs — for what purpose, who knows? — but each was distinct and lovely, and probably the product of months of labor by a medieval craftsman.

After St. Francis’ Basilica, we walked back to the hotel so Kish could take a break. The boys and I then set out to the Cathedral of the Poor Clares, which seems to be crumbling away, and the large castle at the top of the town. The Cathedral of the Poor Clares was very thought-provoking. At some point, it appears to have been greatly decorated with frescoes, but the frescoes seem to have fallen apart or faded away, and much of the walls are now whitewash. It made me think about the nature of religious faith and fervor, and how there are probably not nearly as many purely devout believers as there used to be. At some point, churches like the Cathedral of the Poor Clares were probably packed with pious worshipers; now the Cathedral seems to be largely a tourist attraction.

The castle was very cool, because it has a commanding view in three directions and is probably 1000 feet above the center of town. The boys and I took lots of pictures and climbed to the top of the towers. A very striking view of the scenic, rolling Italian countryside, under a bright blue sky. There were some German kids up at the castle with us, and they were acting like punks — loud and uncaring. As we walked back, they would shout “Achtung!” and then roll their large water bottle down the steep hill leading up to the castle.

When we finally got back to town, the kids went to the hotel, and I decided to duck into one last church. It was a small church, but it is where I have had my best travel moment of the trip so far. I came into the church dripping with sweat. There was no one in there, save for a monk in brown robes and a rope belt and sandals, who was doing some chores. A CD of Gregorian Chants was playing softly, and the church was dark and cool. I sat on one of the pews and drank in the atmosphere. I was along for a few minutes and simply let my thoughts wander over the simple paintings and decorations, all as the Gregorian Chants played low in the background. A Supreme Moment!

Kish and the boys and I then went out for a drink before dinner (after Kish had lost our debit card to a machine) and the kids discovered some shaved ice concoction. We had dinner at the hotel, which was a fine, multi-course affair, then we walked back up the hill to the castle, with Russell towing Kish a good part of the way. We later strolled back to the town square, where Kish and the boys had another shaved ice concoction. We are now back in our hotel room. It is hot, and the window is wide open. It sounds like there is lots of activity on the square, and we are hoping that things finally cool down. It was another bright, cloudless, very hot day.

The castle at Assisi

The castle at Assisi

Italian Journal, Day 3

Richard on the bridge to the Castel Sant'Angelo

Richard on the bridge to the Castel Sant'Angelo

June 11, 2003:

Today is our last day in Rome, and we split up to do different things. Kish went shopping, and the boys and I headed off to see some of the famous churches . But first, breakfast at the Hotel Carriage — which means, for me, rivers of sweat as I try to eat something. I’m not sure what it is, but eating in that room at that time causes the pores to open and the sweat to flow like crazy.

The Hotel Carriage has some good points — reasonably priced (for Rome), excellent location only yards away from the Spanish Steps and the Metro, good restaurants in the vicinity, a pleasant enough staff — but it gets incredibly hot on a hot day, and stays hot into the night. It’s a nice enough place, but I wouldn’t come here again in the summer.

After my sweaty breakfast, the boys and I headed off to St. Giovanni Lateran and San Clemente. St. Giovanni is bigger and fancier (although its neighborhood is questionable), but I preferred San Clemente. (After visiting St. Giovanni, the boys and I took a wrong turn, and we walked through what appeared to be a market for fenced goods.) St. Giovanni is magnificant, but not very memorable. San Clemente is is less ostentatious, but much more memorable because it is a 16th century church that sits on an 11th century church, which in turn sits on a 4th century building devoted to the cult of Mithra. One of the fascinating aspects was that debris from the Roman Empire period — marble heads, chipped cornices, pedestals, etc. — was used as a kind of fill when the 16th century church was built. Apparently there was so much of the stuff floating around it was like quarry stone for construction purposes. What a comedown from the Roman Empire days!

After San Clemente the boys and I took a long, hot walk to find the Appian Way (big deal!) then took the Metro back to our hotel. On our last ride, I finally got the automatic coin-operated ticket machine to work, and felt a sense of great accomplishment. It like the Rome Metro, although it is hot down there. However, it is easy to find your way around.

Russell, Kish and I then had a nice, leisurely lunch which Richard took it easy. After the lunch, Richard and I walked around to see the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Vatican again (although we couldn’t go in because Richard was wearing shorts) and then wandered back to the Pantheon, after stopping at two churches that were spectacular but not in any guidebook. What a bummer for a church to be beautiful and moving and awesome, but not quite enough to make the cut for Frommer’s in view of the competition! Rome is a city of churches, and it becomes a bit numbing after a while.

After Richard and I got back, we walked down to the Forum ruins one last time. Seeing the ruins as the sun sets is the best time, I think. We then had a pleasant dinner at a neighborhood restaurant, sat on the Spanish Steps for a spell, and had some gelato before returning to the hotel. Tomorrow we leave Rome, and I face the challenge of Italian driving. I have to admit I have some trepidation about it. We’ll see.

My top Roman sites:

1. Ruins of ancient Rome

2. Sistine Chapel

3. Pantheon

4. St. Peter’s Basilica

5. Trevi Fountain

I would definitely return to Rome, but would like to come when it is not quite so warm. I bet the average temperature has been about 85 degrees while we have been here. That makes it difficult for a city largely without air conditioning or ice. Other than the heat, though, Rome has been great!


Italian Journal, Day 2

St. Peter's

St. Peter's

June 10, 2003:

We got up at about 9 a.m. (which is really sleeping in for me) and after our gratis continental breakfast we hopped onto the Metro and headed toward the Vatican. The Metro is somewhat mystifying — for some reason you can’t get change for your fare money from the machines — and the train itself was hot and stuffy. However, we only had to go 3 stops, and when we got off we had only a few blocks’ walk to the Vatican. It was another extremely hot day, with temperatures in the high 80s or low 90s and not a cloud in the sky.

The Vatican tour began with St. Peter’s Basilica, which is superb. The epic scale of the building, the monumental statuary, the extraordinary paintings and artwork all combine to have an overwhelming effect. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the crowd of loud tourists clad in shorts and flip-flops help to return the celestial to the mundane. For every Pieta there is a loud, profane tourist who seems to be unaware that the basic thrust of St. Peter’s is to be a church.

One of the more interesting things about St Peter’s is the statuary of the Popes over time. Many of the Popes, as I understand it, were cynical and corrupt politicians, advancing the narrow agendas of their families and often responsible for fomenting conflict and war. Nevertheless, all Popes, good and bad, are pictured with hands templed in prayer and faces turned toward the heavens with looks of beatific pleasure. The Catholic Church apparently makes no effort to separate good from bad when it comes to Popes.

We then went to the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum. The Museum, like the Louvre in Paris, is a case of sensory overload. Too many tapestries, ancient maps, globes, and painted cabinets to properly absorb and appreciate. The Sistine Chapel, however, cuts through the sensory overload and makes an indelible impression. The sheer beauty of the paintings on the ceiling is hard to grasp, and even more hard to fathom is the idea behind the paintings — such as the notion that there should be a minute bap between the fingers of God and Adam in the Creation of Man panel. That artistic judgment alone confirms Michelangelo’s genius. Sitting in the Sistine Chapel, surrounded by such brilliance, is an awesome and humbling experience. Kish managed to put it all in perspective, however, by falling asleep on one of the benches at the rear of the Chapel.

After the Sistine Chapel we left the Vatican Museum, had lunch at a neighborhood trattoria, and returned to our hotel. Kish and the boys decided to hang out at the hotel, and I decided to strike off on my own. With the digital camera in tow, I went to the Fountain of Triton — a bit of a disappointment — and then the churches of St. Mary Maggiore and St. Peter in Chains. Both churchs were fine, but in different ways. St. Mary Maggiore was an ornate, overpowering-type church, with statuary and gilt and huge paintings and multiple apses and chapels. St. Peter in Chains was much simpler, and seemed more like a real church. I preferred the latter, and not just because of Michelangelo’s Moses, which is magnificent. St. Peter in Chains had a certain and atractive dignity and solemnity that befits a true, operating church.

I was amazed, as we visited various churches today, at the boorish behavior of other tourists as they visited these religious institutions. They wear clothes that seem inappropriate and talk much too loudly. I would like to see these visitors show more respect for the idea behind these churches. These are placed of deep faith and religious meaning. Is it asking too much to have visitors dress and act appropriately?

After St. Peter in Chains I saw that I was close to the Colisseum, and I found myself drawn irresistably to the Roman ruins once again. I took many more pictures and stumbled across the plain of crumbling ruins, once again awed and humbled by the age of the ruins, by the ideas they represent, and by the sheer chance that separates one preserved block of stone from another that was taken away or crumbled to dust hundreds of years ago. I could easily spend hours at the Forum and Capitoline Hill.

After I strolled back to our hotel Kish and the boys and I walked over to Piazza Navono, where we sat in a cafe and enjoyed an appropriate beverage, then we came back to the neighborhood of our hotel for dinner. My entree was selected by the waiter and was excellent. After only two days in Rome, I can say I like it a great deal — the pace, the food, the antiquity found cheek to jowl with more modern buildings. It has been hot, and dirty, and filled with graffiti, but those attributes cannot mask its other charms.