Italy, 22 - 28 March 2008
So if I'm writing again, you know what's happening, right? I'm on a trip. It's been epic, so far. I hope things will improve.
In the meantime, yes, I'm still working at Air Canada, even though the AC signage is starting to come down, to be replaced by the vague and unappealing logo of ACTS (the abbreviation is also the logo - people think I'm unimaginative). I still have my cushy straight days desk job, though who knows for how much longer. May, possibly. I also have a job offer from 402 for a full time position. It would be okay - more time off, quite a bit less money, maybe more security, but I haven't decided what I'm going to do. Most likely, hang on at AC until the flights run out, in maybe a couple of years. Or maybe they'll make my mind up for me, and lay me off. Or the union will go on strike, whatever. In any case, without flights, the job doesn't have that much appeal anymore.
So speaking of flights, I had a week of vacation this month (March), so I decided to go somewhere, before we lose the option. You may recall I offered to take you somewhere - well, I got one person to accept. I was talking about a weekend trip to somewhere in the US, but Kathryn wanted to go to Greece. So I said okay.
Only problem, AC doesn't fly direct to Greece, so to get there would cost too much and probably take too long. When I had gone to Rome in December, I wanted to get back and see some of the other sites. She accepted my counter-offer, and we're off to see Naples, Pompeii, Venice, Florence, Pisa, and a bit of Rome.
We left on Saturday, caught an earlier than necessary flight to Toronto (just in case the airplane crapped out), arriving at about 2:30. Only seven hours to wait in the Taj Mahal. The flight to Rome looked quite tight on Friday, but opened up all right for us, and we got to sit up front in the "pods", with all the wealthy people. Supper, which was hardly necessary, was linguine with capers, a word I only understand if it's used in the same sentence as "hi-jinks".
I got a chance to try out the lie-flat seats, and found that the best position for me was not flat, but rather more like my car seat when it's reclined well back. I must have slept all right, though, because the next thing I knew, the FA was jarring me awake with "Orange juice or sparkling" something. The tea tasted like coffee.
We landed in Rome on time, caught the first train into the city, dropped off our extra bags (at the Termini, there's a service called Deposito Bagaglio, where you can leave you bags securely for a pretty fair price - E3.80 for the first six hours - available in every train station we saw), and went on an expedition to find a washroom and the metro.
After about an hour, no kidding, of wandering through the terminal, we hopped the subway to the Colisseum. Kathryn would have liked to have gone in, but the line was quite long - probably in the hundreds - and there were many other things to see, so we walked around the outside a bit, then went over to the Forum.
A ticket for the Forum, E11.00, also gets you into the Palatine Hill and the Colisseum. We had a good look around the Forum, in particular the site of Julius Caesar's cremation, the arches of Titus and Septemius Severus, the temple of Saturn, and a different view of the Vestal Virgins garden than I had seen in December.
As we were leaving the Forum, it started to rain. And then it started to pour. The wind whipped up, the rain came down in blocks, and everyone around got soaked. You've never seen so many discarded, broken, umbrellas.
The downpour changed the plan somewhat. Kathryn wanted a place to warm up and dry off, so we went to a restaurant just behind Trajan's Column. Hint to future travellers - don't go into restaurants. The rather sparse meals - 2 cannelloni for my meal, a square of lasagna for hers, plus two glasses of wine - cost E50.00. $75!!! Think I'll stick with pizza.
We spent a bit of time souvenir shopping, and went to visit Trevi Fountain, which is almost worth the trip by itself. The legend is that if you toss a coin into the fountain, you'll come back to Rome. Well, I didn't toss a coin in last time, and it took only three months to come back.
On the way back, I got misdirected looking for a particular subway station, and we wound up missing the train to Naples. Fortunately there was another one not too much later, and that's where I find myself now.
Tomorrow, Pompeii and maybe the Naples National Museum.
Monday 24 March - Naples
We got in just after 11 pm Sunday. The hotel is located just off Garibaldi Piazza in the centre of Naples. Every website I looked at warned against getting a hotel in the area, because it's "crime-ridden" and "scary". However, being close to the terminal was more important, so I booked us at the Hotel San Giorgio.
The walk was mostly in the dark (ie, no streetlights), lots of guys, no women anywhere, garbage piled in the street, but completely safe. After a ten minute walk, we arrived at the hotel, hit the room, and packed it in pretty soon thereafter.
We awoke to the sound of an enthusiastic marching band. Apparently Easter Monday isn't only a day off for government workers here. The marchers were dressed all in white (men) or white blouses and blue skirts (women). The men were carrying banners that resembled the regimental colours you might see carried by a Roman legion. There was also a float being carried by about 20 guys. It had a model of a church - I guess - and a tall Jesus - guessing again - on it. Every once in a while, they would put it down on bedframe like carrier. Towards the end, they set off fireworks, right in the street, with embers coming down onto parked cars, and just about into the hotel room window. And then a thunderstorm dumped all over them and the parade ended right then.
We were planning to go to Pompeii today, but a) it was raining, again, and b) I found out the museum is closed on Tuesdays. So we went to the museum.
The Naples metro system is not the model of clarity that most others are. It took some figuring out, just to go one stop. Even on the way back, I was guessing at which platform to go to. A better map on the wall on the way in would have made a difference. Fortunately, Kathryn is more inclined to ask people for directions than I am.
Once off the subway, it was a five minute walk to the museum. The museum in question is the National Archeological Museum of Naples, the prime depository of artifacts from Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae. It also has many sculptures from the Farnese collection. Farnese was a pope who started collecting ancient Roman and Greek sculptures, paintings, gems, etc.
The museum is impressive. There are essentially two wings, each with three floors, plus a mezzanine. There is also a courtyard on each side of the main hall (typically Italian design, by the way - most apartment blocks also have a centre courtyard with a garden), with sculptures arrayed around it.
Pompeiian artifacts take up about half the display space. There's an amazing collection of bronze and marble busts, statues, figurines, and other items. There are toys, decorated glass, coins, pots, and a variety of other household items. Most of the famous mosaics that you've probably seen are in this hall. What I didn't see were the plaster casts of the bodies. Part of the Pompeiian exhibit area was closed, so those might have been in there.
There's a 1:100 scale model of Pompeii that was built over a period of 14 years by one archaeologist. It's over twenty feet long, done completely in wood, paper mache, and paper, and has significant historical value, because it depicts some decoration in Pompeii that has now been lost.
There's one other notable room in the Pompeii section. It's devoted to erotic and phallic items. One senses that the Pompeiians were a bit fascinated by such things - not like us now, of course. Penile wall hangings were apparently common, mosaics depicting sex scenes, even sculptures - the one I'm not going to forget is Pan with a sheep. There were lanterns with phalli and terra cotta figurines with huge, ridiculously exaggerated penises (longer than the figure was high).
The Farnese collection is basically in the other half of the building (although some items are with the Pompeii collection). There are some amazing sculptures - busts, statues, animals. Some of the statues are done in different kinds of marble - greys and reds, for example - so it's quite colourful compared to the plain Jane white marble. The Farnese bull was apparently famous even in Roman times. There's a huge statue of Hercules, probably 15' high, that was not on display, wrapped in plastic, the buggers - one of the items I really wanted to see. There are other large statues, too - Flora, a statue of a woman, probably twelve feet.
The basement holds the Egyptian collection. There are tablets with hieroglyphs, a variety of carved figurines (wood, I guess), household items, and three mummies, including a baby. Too much to describe.
Anyway, back at the hotel. We're beat, but still lots to go. Pompeii tomorrow, Venice on Wednesday, Florence and Pisa on Thursday. At least that's the plan.
Tuesday 25 March
We made it down for breakfast in good time, checked out, and got on the road to see Pompeii. To get there, you take the Circumvesuviana train, which is a commuter train that runs through several small communities. The signage is not nearly as clear, and even after asking a couple of people, we still weren't sure we were on the right platform. Turns out we were, though, and after a forty minute train trip, we debarked at Pompeii Scavi (Ruins).
The gate is a short walk down the road to the right, past several food shops and fruit stands, some of which had the largest lemons I've ever seen, bigger than a softball. Inside the gate, we took a spur of the moment decision to go along on a guided tour - E10.00 apiece. The tour lasted just under two hours, hit most of the high points (but missed some important ones), and was otherwise well done and thoroughly enjoyable.
We walked in through the Porta Marina, the gate closest to the sea. The basilica and the forum are just inside. At the time, the basilica was the court and business centre, and the forum was the political and religious centre of town. Most of the buildings' walls are intact, but few have ceilings - not surprising considering the amount of ash and lava that fell on them. In many cases, the floors are in good shape, especially the marble floors, and frescoes and stone decorations have often survived in pretty good shape.
Alongside the forum is a sanctuary to the city lares (lares were your ancestors become gods - Romans engaged in a sort of ancestor worship), with a marble altar for sacrifices. That building also held a couple of body casts, a slave and a merchant. Nearby is a public bath, with eloraborate stone carvings and frescoes in each of the rooms (frigidarium, tepidarium, and calderium, in case you didn't read my note about Ostia Antica back in December). There are beautiful marble tubs in two rooms where they heated the water.
We visited several private houses. One, the House of the Dancing Faun, is pretty well known by all the artwork recovered from it. The owner was obviously well off. Amongst other things, he had a 20 x 30' mosaic depicting Alexander's victory over Darius in 333 BC. The mosaic uses over a million pieces of stone to make up the image.
We also stopped by a bakery, a brothel (with stone beds - I assume they had mattresses), the theatre, with seating for 20,000, and a smaller, formerly enclosed theatre that could seat 1,000 people, and may have been used for auditions. Somewhere along the way, it began to rain, of course. By the time the tour finished in the small theatre, everyone was pretty wet. Kathryn retreated to the restaurant, but I carried on for a couple more hours.
On my own, I walked to the eastern end of town, coming across several interesting buildings, including a place that rivalled the House of the Dancing Faun. The House of Octtavio Quattro had a large garden with a fountain, several frescoes in pretty good shape, and the lay-out of the house was easy to see.
The amphitheatre is a large oval shaped arena where the gladiator fights were held. There are large entrances at either end. It's also typical of other Roman buildings in that the important people sat close to the field, and those of lesser importance sat further away. The upper class had essentially box seats with a private entrance.
Beside the amphitheatre, there is also a large sports field with a portico around three sides, that was used as a public gymnasium. There's a swimming pool in the middle of the field.
Anyway, I was thoroughly soaked by this point, and it was time to head back, anyway. Water streamed through the streets - the Romans placed large blocks in the streets in such a way that you could use them as stepping stones, but so that they didn't block the chariots and carts. Kathryn had eaten (and wasn't impressed by the quality or the price), so we decided to have a bite at one of the places outside the gate. That was a good choice, as we both had a decent meal, and the owner had the heat on.
Getting back to Naples was no big deal - in fact the train trip took only twenty minutes, and we made it back by 7 pm. The plan was to get a reservation on a night train to Venice, sleep on the train, and arrive in Venice early and in good shape.
Unfortunately, the trip to Venice does not make a good advertisement for train travel. We tried to get a reservation, but the ticket agent said we didn't need one - and he showed me the computer screen, and that's what it looked like to me, too. So he said just get on board, the rail pass should be all we needed. With a certain amount of doubt, we decided to do that.
Sure enough, we weren't thirty minutes out before some officious person threw us out of the compartment we had settled into, and ordered us into a different section of the train. She wasn't just rude, she was also impatient, like she's single-handedly saving Italy from the tourist interlopers. Thank god for her.
Anyway, we squeezed into a crowded first class compartment. Six business class type airline seats in there, five people, and not really enough room to stretch out. Not the way I wanted to spend the night, but...
It got worse. We stopped in Rome, and a bunch of people got on, including someone who had a reservation for my seat. So for the next hour, I got to stand in the aisle and think unkind thoughts about Eurail. Fortunately, at about 1 am, the conductor came by, found some people who were in first class seats but only had second class tickets, and booted them out. Then I got a seat for the rest of the night. A long way from ideal, though, and not what I had planned.
Wednesday 26 March
We rolled into Venice at 5:50 am, with no shower, no change of clothes, and very close to no rest. We dropped off our bags, and hung around the terminal for an hour until things started to open. We found a nice little restaurant for breakfast, and things started to look better.
Venice, if you don't know, is a number of islands connected by bridges. The main waterway is the Grand Canal, which splits the land into two big pieces. Using bridges and water taxis, it's possible to go back and forth to the different parts of town. There is no motorised traffic in Venice, other than boats. There are also several nearby islands, which we didn't visit, including Murano, famous for its glass works.
We started off by walking down one of the main roads, paralleling the Grand Canal, and slowly making our way towards the main square, Piazza San Marco. Along the way, we passed a number of smaller canals, lots of interesting buildings, and stores with pretty cool window displays, most of which weren't open yet.
The Piazza San Marco has four main buildings. There's a campanile (a bell tower, erected in 1902 after an earlier one collapsed), the Palace of the Doces (formerly the palace), the Libreria, which has more of the same interesting shops on the ground level, and the church, called the Basilica of San Marco. The church holds what are presumed to be the remains of St Mark the apostle. In the tenth century, the church was destroyed by fire, but the remains miraculously re-appeared almost 100 years afterwards, when the new church was consecrated. Yeah, sure. The architechure of all of these buildings is distinct, done in Byzantine, Gothic, or Baroque styles, so ornate that it probably couldn't be done today. It would be worthwhile to spend a day just looking around these buildings - we didn't get into the church, the campanile, or the palace, but looking at the tour books, it would be worth the time.
Behind the Palace of the Doces is the Bridge of Sighs, a beautiful bridge that led into the town prison (hence the name). I didn't see it, because I couldn't find it on the map, and my guide book let me down (the only time, really) by not giving a location (although now that I'm back, I see it is in there).
We wandered back along the same road, stopping in some of the various shops, looking for loot. Lots of interesting stuff here, and not all of it made in China. If you had lots of money, you could buy some colourful glass figurines from Murano, or some nice clothes from Milan. We decided to take a tour using the water taxi. E6.00 got you an hour of hop on, hop off service up and down the Grand Canal. We left from the railway station, and travelled all the way down to the church Santa Maria della Salute, an impressive church that unfortunately had some scaffolding blocking the view. The church is nearly at the sea, and just about across from the Piazza San Marco. The trip along the canal was excellent, you get a great view of a lot of the buildings. It's interesting to see the boat traffic, too. Everything travels by boat in Venice - we saw police boats, an ambulance boat in a hurry, lots of government boats, so many, in fact, that we wondered if private boats are allowed on the canal. We saw lots of gondolas, with lots of tourists paying E50.00 for a forty-five minute ride. We passed on that.
Kathryn was worn out by this point, so I abandoned her at the train station and headed into the south end of town, where we hadn't been. Some fairly aimless walking brought me back to the Rialto bridge. From there, I headed south for a bit, then back towards the train station. I found lots of interesting buildings along the way, lots of churches, interesting shops, small canals, and bridges.
After a full day of walking around Venice, we hopped on the train to go to our next destination, Florence. We got into Florence around 9 pm, and got stiffed twice in the space of ten minutes. First, since I couldn't see the hotel nearby, we caught a cab to take us there. The cab driver however, stiffed us for E10 for what was basically a drive around the block (and the meter read E4.80 when he shut it off). Jerk. Anyway, he got us to the hotel, an unassuming hole in the wall kind of place.
When I rang the bell, the clerk informed us that the plumbing in our room was broken, but they'd arranged a room in another hotel around the corner and down the street. Of course, it wasn't as clear as that, and so the clerk eventually came down and showed us where to go.
The new place was more of a bed and breakfast than a hotel. It wasn't anything great, but after a bit of a hassle about towels (no towels in the room) and beds (only one bed in the room), we got things straightened out, and it turned out more or less all right. I even managed to pick up a weak internet connection.
Thursday 27 March
Thursday was to be a busy day. The intent was to see Michangelo's David, the Duomo, and then catch a bus tour to Pisa. If there was any time left, or we couldn't do something, we could hit the Uffizi gallery, best known as the home of Botticelli's Birth of Venus (naked woman riding a clam, in Simpsons' parlance).
We got going after breakfast at the original hotel (it looked pretty good, from what I could see). By 10 am, there was a pretty long line at the Academy, with the usual collection of hawkers selling crap along the line. It took probably close to an hour to get in (it opens at 8:30, I would try to be there earlier than 10). It's a fairly small place, with a couple of wings. The first room has several Renaissance era paintings that give an interesting view of the development of perspective and the use of colour. An annex of sorts contains several musical instruments dating back to the 1500s, and I would have liked a bit more time there.
The other wing contains five sculptures by Michaelangelo, including David, some more paintings, and a side room with more modern sculptures. The first four sculptures are a series that he did for a pope's tomb, called the Prisoners. The figures are trying to free themselves from the rock. At the end of the hall is the sculpture of David. It's immense, and stunning. It must be eighteen feet high on its base, and anatomically correct, except that the hands seem rather large. He carries his sling in his left hand, and slung over the shoulder. In his right is a rock, I think. The detail is amazing. The muscle tone seems exactly right, the expression is pensive.
There are some more paintings along the walls leading to the side room, all with religious themes, of course. The side room has mostly plaster casts of marble statues - the artist would have created the cast first, and then sculpted the marble. The sculptures mostly date from the 1800s, though many were of classical subjects. Apparently it was the thing for the wealthy folks to put their faces onto classical statues.
Leaving the Academy, we could see the Duomo (duomo just means cathedral), properly named the Santa Maria del Fiore, down the street. A five minute walk brought us out onto the square, where we faced a huge church, done up in green, white, and red marble, and topped with a massive red tiled dome. I've seen photos of it often enough, and the colours don't really stand out, for some reason. Standing in front of it, it's striking. The front of the church has the usual decorations, statues and paintings, huge bronze doors. The style of the church is similar to, but substantially predates, rococco, an elaborately overdone style.
Beside the church is the campanile, done in the same style. Opposite is the baptistry. The baptistry features bronze doors with scenes from the Old Testament in each panel.
Near the church, there is the original church of Florence, San Lorenzo, which incorporates the Medici family chapel. A plainer style, but still featuring the large red tiled domed roof, it's a bigger complex than I thought. Besides the chapel and the church, there's a garden and a couple of other buildings. I didn't have time to go in, though, which was too bad.
We walked to the Piazza dell'Unitia Italia, where we found the double decker tour bus that would take us, and about twenty others, to Pisa. The drive is just over an hour, and included a bit of a tour of Florence, which was nice, as we wouldn't have seen those parts otherwise. The highway to Pisa goes through the Tuscan countryside, which Kathryn really wanted to see - although she didn't get nearly enough of it on the tour. There are some beautiful houses and scenery along the way. A running narrative was provided by our tour guide, Lisa, a Florentine girl with a great voice, who also spoke Spanish (about half the group was Spanish speakers). The town of Lucca has a military jet on a pedestal, an Italian made bizjet called the P.188D. Didn't get to go see it, though.
Upon arrival in Pisa, Lisa handed us off to Carlo, a Pisan. He was a very enthusiastic sort, with a flair for dramatic and humourous speech. We walked through the gate, and there it was, the Leaning Tower, and two other buildings I bet you didn't know existed, the church and the baptistry. The church is huge, and beautifully constructed in mostly grey marble. We got a tour inside the church with Carlo, where he pointed out the spectacular altar, the unusual decorative motif (alternating bands of grey and black marble, in the Moorish style), and the huge mosaic, called Christ in Majesty, with Jesus, Mary, and John the Evangelist (same guy as John the Baptist? John the apostle? I don't know) at the apse. The church also holds the body of the patron saint of Pisa, Pope Ranieri. Another notable item is the chandelier. Suspended from the ceiling on a long cable, Gallileo was in church one day and noticed it swinging slightly in the breeze. He started timing the swing, and realised that the period was exactly the same on both sides of centre. This led him, not directly, of course, to the discovery of planetary motion and the eventual upsetting of the whole "Earth is the centre of the universe" applecart.
The baptistry is done in the same style as the church. It's possible to go inside for a small fee, but I didn't. Carlo mentioned that the acoustics are so good that you can get six or seven echoes. Every half hour, one of the staff sings a few words to demonstrate the effect. The baptistry was originally open at the top, to allow rainwater to fill the baptismal. However, they closed it off with an unusual double dome.
The tower is the main draw, of course. In the mid-'90's, it was closed off, and surrounded by supports, because it looked like the thing would fall over. They put in hydraulic jacks underground, and it's now as stable as it's ever been. It's open to the public again, and you can climb to the top, if you have time (which I didn't). Tours go in every 35 minutes. It takes about 15 minutes to climb to the top - looks really cool, I should have done it. The tilt is dramatic, and it must be a little unnerving to walk to the lower side. There are railings, but ... Walking around it, I came across many people "holding up the tower", which I find hokey beyond belief. Yeah, I know, it's just for fun. In case you didn't know, the tower is a campanile, a bell tower for the church.
We returned to Florence along the same route. Kathryn wanted to do a bit of shopping - she was still looking for for a replacement umbrella for the one destroyed in the Roman thunderstorm. There's a little strip mall under the train station, so we checked that out, and were surprised to find the stores all closed at 7 or 7:30 (which is apparently pretty standard throughout Italy). So no umbrella. We headed toward the hotel, and found a nice little cafe where we had dinner. The owner spoke good English, and had not just been to Canada, several times, but had even been in Winnipeg once - in January.
On Friday morning, we got up early and caught the 8 am train to Rome. It was a nice trip, through the Tuscan countryside - all our previous trips had been after sunset, so we hadn't seen any scenery. We got into Rome with a half-hour to spare (more unsuccessful umbrella shopping), then caught the train to the airport. The trip back was uneventful. We arrived in Toronto in time to catch an earlier flight - basically off the airplane, through customs, got a boarding pass, through security, and onto the airplane with about 10 minutes of waiting. We arrived back in Winnipeg at 8:45 pm, where Kathryn's friend Wayne was waiting to drive us home.
The cats seemed pretty happy to have me back. It took a week to get over the jetlag - or maybe it was just the job.
2 weeks ago