no matter where you go, there you are

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

all journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware - martin buber

When I was young, I developed a love for monkeys. I loved the monkey bars on swingsets and one of my favorite stuffed animals (and for those who know me, it is rare I have a connection with a stuffed animal) was a small Capuchin monkey who's arms and legs had velcro which kept them together so you could wrap him around your limbs. I really liked Capuchin monkeys. Of all the monkeys, they were my favorite.

Upon doing research for my European adventure, Fodors had on their list a Roman church by the name of Santa Maria della Concezione. Rome is a big city and it's a Catholic city. There are a LOT of churches that Fodors has on their website as places worth visiting but Santa Maria della Concezione was different. It's description had the words "bones of some 4,000 dead Capuchin monks." There...I was sold. Especially since I didn't read it correctly and thought it said "dead Capuchin monkeys." Don't ask my why I didn't question it... My love for the capuchin monkey and the fact that I could see all these bones of them fascinated me and this church shot to the top of my "must-see" list.

The "Capuchin monkey crypt" (as I call it now) is a beautiful, visual wonder and is one of my top 5 favorite places from this trip. I don't know if it's in my top 5 ever, but it sits high above a lot of things famously associated with Rome and with Europe. It is the definition of "off the beaten path"...even though it is in Fodors. The church sits high off the street so there are stairs leading to the doors and the crypts entrance is off to the right on the first landing. Because I got there after the church had closed I never made it inside but that didn't matter to me. The crypt was still open and I didn't give a damn about what was inside the actual sanctuary.

The crypt has a "no photographs allowed" policy so I will do my best with a written description of how the crypt is designed. You enter into a very small room which serves as the gift shop and ticket office. The cost is 1Euro and it is sooooo worth it. To the right is the crypt, a narrow hallway extends maybe 150 feet before it dead ends at a concrete wall. And on the left of the hall are 6 individual chapels in a church...maybe 20 feet wide and 15-20 feet deep. Upon stepping up to view the first nook, it took me a few minutes to register what I was looking at. I knew I was going to be viewing bones, but thinking you'd be seeing monkey bones and seeing human ones instead was slightly jarring. In addition, absorbing the absolutely amazing artwork of the bones took a few moments. Like seeing the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame or the Sistine Chapel, this little crypt was so fascinating and jaw-droppingly fabulous that it took my eyes some time to visually adjust to the wonder of it all.

Each nook of the crypt depicts a different image and everything is made out of the bones of Capuchin monks. Some heavily use the femurs and ribs while others use all the shoulder and arm bones. And there's one mostly incorporating only skulls and vertebrae. There are a number of full skeletons as well either positioned on their backs like in a tomb or standing with the monk robe on. In the last nook, there is a full skeleton attached to the ceiling. Speaking of this crypt no two ceilings are alike, and it was the ceilings that kept me staring in absolute awe of this place.

In all the churchs, museums and palaces I was fortunate to visit the ceilings were all ornately carved and designed specifically to work with the overall design of the room. In the "monkey crypt" the ceilings were made the same way. However, instead of carved, the crypt artists used the bones to create the designs. And what amazed me was the designs they created looked extremely similar to those in other Roman churches...just that these were made of bone. So fascinating. I couldn't stop staring and staring and staring. Each piece was artistic and creative. Like the Sistine Chapel, I couldn't comprehend the imagination needed to create something this impressive so staring and drooling over its awesomeness was the only thing I could do.

Though I couldn't take any pictures, I did purchase 2 postcards in order to have a memory of one of the coolest things I've ever seen. My lovely printer doesn't like to scan so I opted for the easy way and took pictures of the postcard to share with you all.

For any of those who read this and watch "Bones"...wouldn't this be the best place for a body to be found? Almost like the "Mummy in the Maze" when they had the corpse in the "House of 1000 Corpses" but better because all these are real skeletons. It would blend in so well. If only the writers were allowed to take ideas from non-staff members...

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Northwest Rome: Castel Sant'Angelo, Piazza del Popolo, the Spanish Steps

After leaving the Vatican, my next stop was the Castel Sant'Angelo. Fodors cites this is as being known as the place in Angels and Demons where Langdon finds the hidden passage leading to St. Peter's. The Castel was much more expensive than Fodors had told me, therefore more than I anticipated, so I hoped it was worth it. Upon entering and purchasing my ticket, I got lost. I began to follow signs towards the exit, not the entrance because that's the direction groups were supposed to enter from so I was greatly mistaken. But I fixed my error and went in the correct way.

I have absolutely no idea what the Castel Sant'Angelo was used for. I think it might have been a prison...I'll just wikipedia it. And I'm completely wrong. The Castel Sant'Angelo was built as a mauseleom for the former Roman emperor Hadrian and his family. It was later used as a fortress and now as a museum.

The building is pretty much just a big stone cylinder. The entrance leads you right onto the ramp running along the interior of the cylinder until you get to the first level. There are a few exhibits here and they consist of a variety of artwork from hundreds of years ago. I don't know what centrury. As a whole, the Castel Sant' Angelo had no English signage and no introduction to the place. Therefore, I had no idea where I was, and what I was seeing.

Though I enjoyed the exhibits and whatever history I absorbed from them, the exterior levels were the most interesting part of the building. There were multiple levels to explore, along the perimeter of the Castel. At the top level, though not as high as St. Peter's cupola, the views were awesome! The view of St. Peter's was gorgeous and I finally saw the building as a whole. It was so big that the "big picture" of it was lost on me when standing in the piazza. The top level also had signs pointing to the various landmarks in the city so it was really easy to see where the Colosseum and Pantheon were.

Once I'd spend a good deal of time looking out upon the beauty of Rome, I headed down towards the exit. There were some cool things like cannons and small displays of war things that were pretty cool. Overall, Castel Sant'Angelo was very interesting, especially for the views of the city it offered, but other than that I think it was one of the more overpriced attractions I visited. But it was still a good experience nonetheless. From the Castel I walked past, and successfully avoided, all the vendors hanging out front before crossing the Tiber river and walking north along it towards the Piazza del Popolo.

The Piazza del Popolo is pretty big and really spacious so it wasn't crowded at all which was very nice. The main attraction was the obelisk in the middle of the piazza, and looking up at it with the clear blue sky in the background was gorgeous!

The other attraction of note was the piece of architecture on the eastern side of piazza. I have no idea what it was but it was very beautiful. It had some sort of look-out element to it as I could see people atop it, but it was getting late and I honestly didn't want to bother finding the access point and then hike up the hill or stairs leading to it. But it was gorgeous to look at especially with the beginnings of the setting sun illuminating this mysterious landmark.

Walking from the piazza, I made my way down a narrow shopping street in the direction of the Spanish Steps. For an extremely famous site, I was greatly unimpressed. As a local hangout for the Romans, I see the appeal in the steps; although, since it is a big tourist site, if I were a Roman I would find somewhere else since it was pretty crowded when I got there. And it wasn't even the height of tourist season or the prime time of day. Anyway, at the base of the steps there is a small fountain (Fontana della Barcaccia) that looked like an overlarge bathtub. Nothing really that spectacular about it.

Looking up the steps though was really nice though and probably is what attracts so many people. The Trinita dei Monti is built at the top of the steps with another goregous obelisk. I can't say for certain that the Trinita has a Spanish influence but the architecture was very different from the other buildings I'd seen so far in Rome.

The interior of the church was nice...nothing fancy or terribly different or outstanding compared to the others I'd seen by that point. The view from outside the church at the base of the obelisk was another wonderful view of the city and I could see a silouhette of St. Peter's in the distance. The day was coming to an end and as I still had at least one more stop to make I set off towards the Santa Maria della Concezione...or what I call the Capuchin Monkey crypt.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

i love St. Peter's church. it is an ornament of the earth - ralph waldo emerson

After completing the Vatican Museum, there was only one place left to see in the smallest country in the world: St. Peter's Basilica. Upon entering the piazza from the north side and seeing a massive line heading into the church, I swore in the name of God. Woops, probably not the best place to do that...oh well. The piazza was gorgeous, especially with the crystal clear blue sky shining above. The roman columns were enormous with delicately carved statues situated above them. Latin scripture was carved around the top, adding a final touch of Italian and Catholic culture to the famous piazza. In the first picture, you can kind of see how big it is as the people are just so small.

I took my spot at the back of the line and ended up standing between two groups of Americans, a position I quickly grew to dislike; more on that later... After 15 long minutes I make it to the head of the line and learn that 2 lowly little metal detectors were the cause of my frustration and slight anxiety. Seeing no line past the security allowed me to breathe a sigh of relief.

Once the St. Peter's workers determined that I had no harmful posessions, I made my way towards the church. Like the wall around the piazza, the church is HUGE! It's columns along the front and the large doorways tower over everyone and you just feel so small. Like with all the other places I've seen so far and others I have yet to see on my trip, I am in awe of how such an architectural feat was accomplished.

The interior of the basilica is just as beautiful as the exterior and in it's own way, is even more outstanding. Marble glistens and statues depicting biblical figures cover every corner. And they're not like any others I have ever seen; they're like 3 times the size of a average person yet none are lacking in detail. Michaelangelo's "La Pieta" is off the the right at the rear of the church and people are surrounding it. Not too crowded, but enough for me to take notice and wonder what this sculpture is. The picture below is the only one I took of it, which goes to show that if things weren't pointed out to tourists, would they really be as popular as they are? Yes, the "La Pieta" was a beautiful piece of art, but everything in the church was gorgeous, so what makes the "La Pieta" different?

Taking my time and absorbing every little thing that catches my eye, I slowly but surely make my way to the center of the church. At this point I still can't get over how large the basilica is. It's enormous! While the Notre Dame was huge, it was much more narrow and gothic in its architecture. St. Peter's was open and airy. Lack of pews and massive amounts of sunlight helped create this feel, but the side areas were larger as well. The altar in the center under the cupola was not surprisingly, gorgeous. Sitting front and center, it immediately attracts the crowds, and getting a picture without someone's random head is a feat. I don't think any of my close-up ones looked good, so I give you a wide shot.

The front altar is also spectacular to view and appreciate, but no one is allowed close to it so I settle for viewing from afar. Because the church is massive, I end up spending much of my time gaping at the intricately decorated ceilings. Sun beams shine through the windows illuminating the space and reflecting off the shiny marble. It is really a sight to behold.

Upon finishing St. Peter's I exited the church to the wonderful view of the piazza. Hundreds of chairs were set up for a mass, I think, but the additions didn't hinder my appreciation of the view. I didn't spend too much time though, since I had a hike to the top of the cupola to get to.
Opting for the cheaper option, I purchased my ticket for walking the entire way instead of using the elevator for half the journey. While the couple in front of me waited for the elevator, I began the ascent and it wasn't nearly as difficult as Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower had been. There aren't really steps as you are walking up at a minimal incline around the elevator shaft so it's doesn't put a strain on you as much. At the top I exited onto the roof of the church and am led to another door which enters the dome. All of a sudden I'm up in the dome looking down on the central altar of St. Peter's. As it was from the floor, the dome is wonderful and seeing the detail of the ceiling art was amazing. I proceed through the next door and here I am met with narrow steps that I know will be a delight to climb.

From the first roof the cupola didn't seem that big, but once I began the stair climbing, it seemed endless. Especially so because the stairwell runs between the ceiling of the dome and the roof so you walking on stairs while having to bend to the shape of the roof. But I prevail and arrive at the top. It's not a large lookout area so it gets crowded quickly and you need to grab any spot you can to snap photos. The view of Rome however, is sensational. I can't pick any landmarks out, but I don't care. I could just stand and look out into the city forever.

As I move from the view facing the piazza and most of the city, I look down and see the Vatican Museum as well as the Vatican gardens. The gardens are bright, green and lush and stand out agains the beige tones of the surrounding architecture.

Deciding that I'd spent enough time gaping in awe and knowing I would never be able to soak it all in, I find the little exit door and head down. Passing across the mid-level roof I am amused to see not only a gift shop, but a restaurant as well. Apparently no one can avoid, or escape, the tourist traps.

On the ground once again, I made my way back to where the ticket window for the cupola was, and entered the tomb of the popes. It was free which was exciting because I thought I'd read it cost like 4Euro. The line for the cupola is now quite long and I'm very happy I went up when I did. The tombs are all very unique for the specific pope buried there and Pope John Paul II's tomb is being bombarded with people praying. I don't care that much to see it and reading the histories of the older popes was much more interesting. A massive group of school kids decided to pass through as well and despite the guard shooshing them numerous times, they couldn't stay quiet. My deepest sympathies went out to the guard as my theater experience with young-ins has taught me its a neverending struggle to get young adolescents to be quiet.

Completing the tomb tour was the last stop on the St. Peter's complex and it was time for me to move on. My next stop was the Castel Sant'Angelo which is very close to St. Peter's and sits right along the river.

Friday, April 9, 2010

the Vatican Museum

I woke up early on my first day in Rome. Well, not horribly early, but earlier than anyone else in my room. Breakfast, and the internet downstairs, opened at a certain hour so I waited until then to head downstairs for food and then out for the day. As I mentioned in my last post, free/already paid for food was vital to maintaining happiness and staying on budget so I was not to miss breakfast. After eating toast or cereal, I can't remember which one, I stole some packaged croissants and headed out for my busy day. I had 2 days to see a LOT of sights so I had to get started.

My plan was to start the day in the Vatican which is on the other side of the city as my hostel so I hopped on the Rome Metro. The metro was nice...clean and not too crowded for being around 9AM. Their ticket machines also took cash...holla! 10 minutes later I emerged from underground and headed in the direction of the Vatican museum. As I came around one corner and saw the Vatican wall for the first time, I was a little floored. It was as if I had came upon a castle trying to keep out any and all people. It was huge!!!

I walked up the block, found the entrance to the Vatican Museum and headed inside. The price of admission was 14Euro ($21) which was the most expensive European museum I visited the entire trip. But it was worth it...almost. Only about half of the exhibits had English translations so that was where it fell short. But the rest was terrific! Having no expectations about it except knowing it was where the Sistine Chapel is located, I think had a definite affect on my opinion towards the museum. Not knowing what others thought or what kinds of things to look out for was very interesting.

The mummy exhibit was very interesting, but very similar to the Lourve so nothing spectacular. Imhotep's tomb is in the Vatican though so my "Mummy" loving heart jumped a little upon seeing that. The museum is a massive maze...I had no idea where in the building I was at any point...I just followed the signs that led me from exhibit to exhibit. I was astounded by all the artwork, especially the collection of statues and sculptures. Not only were there a huge number of them in the open exhibit halls, but I came upon multiple closed off hallways filled with sculptures and items. Really spectacular.

After viewing the mummies, sculptures, bathtubs and the hall of maps the museum led me into Raphael's apartments. What I didn't know until walking into the apartments was that the museum used to be the living quarters of the Pope so Raphael's apartments are the former rooms of the Pope who commissioned Raphael to paint the frescoes in each room. There are 3 or 4 rooms in total and all 4 walls in each large room are painted floor to ceiling. The ceilings also each have a unique depiction painted upon them. For example, some of the paintings showed Raphael's interpretation of the coronations of various Popes. They were fascinating, beautiful and really wonderful to look at. The immense amount of talent needed to do what Raphael and his apprentices did is impossible for me to imagine. So much skill...

Up next after Raphael's apartments was the modern art exhibit. Though I'm not too into modern art, I did enjoy this section as it had many paintings and pieces of art showing the crucifixion of Jesus. Most of the artwork I've seen depicting the crucifixion are realistic looking, fascinating and many of them are hundreds of years old. These modern pieces were just as fascinating, just because they were just so unique and different than what I was used to seeing.

After the modern art exhibit it was finally time to see the Sistine Chapel, the last segment of the Vatican Museum. My knowledge of the Sistine Chapel begins and ends in elementary school. I don't know what grade it was, probably 5th, but I remember seeing a video about Michaelangelo painting the chapel's ceiling. He was laying on his back on top of a lot of scaffolding and paint was dripping in his eye. So that was my pretext to the Sistine Chapel and like I said before, having no expectations was wonderful. The Sistine Chapel is GORGEOUS and indescribable. My jaw dropped the moment I walked in and it took awhile for my brain to gain back function enough to close it.

Photographs are not allowed inside the chapel, but in all honesty any pictures I could have taken would not have done it any justice. The chapel is the tourist mecca for the entire museum so it was crowded when I arrived. Not horribly, claustrophobic crowded but there were enough people to make me not want to stand in the middle. They have benches lining the walls so you can sit and look up; I took a seat on a bench along the back wall and it was the perfect view. I could see the entire ceiling well enough and I had a full view of the frescoe on the wall behind the altar. It was that frescoe that I spent at least 5 minutes staring at it as it was so beautiful. So gorgeous. There were just so many elements to it to look at and admire and soak in. I didn't know what any of it meant, but it didn't matter.

After telling myself multiple times "just 1 more minute of staring" I finally, and reluctantly, got up off the bench and exited the chapel, looking back at the gorgeous work of art one last time. There was still much to see.

Friday, April 2, 2010

food, glorious food! fooooooood, glorious fooooooood!

the belly rules the mind ~ spanish proverb

Eating is a necessary process the body must succumb to in order to survive. So is keeping oneself hydrated, but water is free out of a bathroom sink so that is irrelevant. Eating, especially on a budget, was where my struggles lay as I galavanted across central Europe. Although it shouldn't have had such a domination over my thoughts, every Euro I spent had me converting that to dollars and got me to have a minor mental freakout that I would never have spent that much on an item at home. Anyway, the financial deal with my parents for my trip was that they would pay for any expense I had while visiting with Anne. Therefore my first week in Europe was all on me and I had some interesting "meals" to say the least.

My flight from Boston filled me up pretty well so that I wasn't hungry until 11 or 12 my first morning in Paris and because I didn't want to spend time sitting in a restaurant and everything pre-made in delis etc seemed like it cost a fortune, I settled for buying items such as pudding, apples, bread and cheese at markets and eating little snacks throughout the day. This worked for the first day...almost. By the time I returned to the Eiffel Tower for my bike tour, I was starving and so I spent almost $7 on a candy bar and a bag of chips. Fulfilling, but not part of the plan.

This kind of situation continued to happen over the next few days as I completed my France sightseeing and moved onto Italy. Another problem I ran into was that I budgeted for a certain amount to be spent on small groceries that should last me a little while, and sometimes I ended up spending too much so I had to make it last longer than I originally intended. Which is how I ended up in Rome eating bread and cheese for the majority of 3 days. Gelato, and the hostel's free breakfast and dinners helped to quell the stomach growls as best they could.

One perk about starving yourself and eating so little is that when you finally get a chance to eat a real meal, it probably tastes even better than it should. I can say no bad things about the spaghetti or homeade gnocchi bolognese that I had in Florence and Venice. Man, that stuff was DELICIOUS!! Once I began traveling with Anne, the food issue became easier for me to work around so when we parted after Italy I then had a much easier time filling the belly in Munich and Western Austria.

In writing this post I wanted to reflect on my food consumption habits, but also write a few tidbits of advice for anyone reading who cares about how to ration your food you do have, and what types of food are affordable and fulfilling as well.
1A) Stay at hostels with free food - Many hostels have breakfast included and the breakfasts can range from poor (bad rolls and crappy spreads for the bad rolls) to excellent (cereals, toast, different beverages). And some hostels may even have dinner included. Take advantage of these included meals. They're included so you've already spent the're just getting your money's worth out of it. Which leads me to...
1B) Steal the free food...aka get your money's worth - I know this sounds bad, and my parents gave me slightly disapproving looks when I told them how fun taking the free food was, but it really was awesome. When no one is looking, throw a few extra rolls into your bag. Buy some cheese at a market and you've got lunch for 2-3 days. Works wonders and saves you a ton. Depending on the food, they'll probably have to throw it out at the end of the day if it's not eaten, so why not save the bread for yourself for later? I think the best time I had with this was when, at our hostel in Salzburg, I wasn't going to pay for breakfast so Anne paid for the "all you can eat" option and then she got cereal and bread for me and we stole 6 rolls. I wanted to try and get 8 but Anne wasn't cool with that. Ahhh, good times...and I had my lunch for the rest of the trip.
2) Gelato is GOD - Gelato is amazing. Just putting that out there. It's fantastic and cheap and when your tummy's a growling, there's no better way to make it feel better.
3) Instead of meals, buy small grocery items...and ration them well - Grocery items, like fruit, granola bars, bread and cheese last quite a while depending on how you ration them and cost about the same as one prepared meal you may buy at a deli or restaurant. For rationing food, I would suggest doing it by eating a sampling of things like a pudding and roll with a little cheese one day and an apple with a granola bar another. Mix it up, and don't eat it all at once, hence the term ration. Though you may want to because you're not feeling overly stuffed, try your best not to. Because if you eat it all, you then have to pay more to buy more. Small items are also best because they're easy to carry.
4) Bring a water bottle and fill it up every morning in the hostel. - Though one bottle might not get you through the day, there are places you can find to refill as long as tap water from the bathroom is acceptable. Water is free, cheap and healthy. It keeps you hydrated and that's the goal when you're spending 8-10 hours a day walking around.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living – miriam beard

The night train from Paris arrives in Milan right on time. I'd slept for most of the trip so I am as rested as can be after sleeping on a fake bed. I hang out in the Milan train station for about 20 minutes before my train headed for Rome begins to board. I hop on and since Europe isn't late because it's awesome, we depart and arrive in Rome right on schedule. Anne, my sister, and Lauren, her roommate are waiting at the end of the platform since their train back to Vienna is about to begin boarding. We talk and catch up in the 10 minutes we have together but then they must leave and I need to drop my bag off at the hostel.

The hostel is only a 5 minute walk from the train terminal but its a little hard to find as there is no sign outside the entryway. After a short backtracking moment though I figure it all out and go through the process of dropping my bag off. Then it's back to the train terminals and onto a train down to Naples. And from there I hop on another train to Pompei. Based on my research I did beforehand, I knew there were 2 train stops you can get off of...1 nearer to the center of the town and the other at the ruins. But I was running out of time if I wanted to spend a few hours at the site, so I get on the first train headed to Pompei...going only to the center of town. I'll have to find my way from there I guess...

The farther you get from big cities, the less they speak English. Therefore I get no help with directions to the Pompei Ruins from the station attendant in Pompei. I have the general direction in mind so I head that way and somehow end up at the entrance. And as I think it's the front entrance it takes me a little while to understand the map the site gave me for the ruins. None of the roads exist where I think they do...and that's cuz I had come through the back way. Once I get my bearings though I head off through the ruins.

There's no words to describe the fascinating and enormous ruins of Pompei. Mt. Vesuvius, which I could just see through the clouds, erupted a ton of years ago encasing and preserving an entire civilization in dirt, ash, lava etc. So when you hear that one (or maybe just me) might think "ok, it'll all be old stone things that are falling apart and are hard to appreciate because I can't imagine what it was supposed to be like." Nope, I was WRONG. Yes, there are a lot of old stone things, some of which may be considered falling apart.

But there are also a lot of stone and brick buildings that almost look new and flawless. The artwork has been preserved fantastically and though outside all the time and exposed to the forces of nature, the colors are still bright and distinct.

The tiling in the ceilings, walls and floors looks almost new. Or maybe not new, but really close to it. My jaw drops seeing all these things that are thousands of years old yet appearing less than a hundred.
It's almost like the people of the city of Pompei wanted to create their own Plimoth Plantation without actors and using all real things, not replications or duplicates. So outstanding. And HUGE -- it's 164 acres which is like 150-160 football fields.

I don't remember any of the names of the Temples or the houses and the histories behind any of them so I will leave you with the rest of my favorite pictures I took and let you try and take in and appreciate the amazingness. But like I said, it's really hard to capture how truly outstanding Pompei is without being there yourself.

The sun set fast by the end of my 3 or so hours there. Even though it had been that long the time had flown by as there was so much to see and take in. As I'm walking back to the train station a homeless dog starts to follow me and I don't want it to. Just when I think it's been distracted enough by trash it catches up to me. I get nervous for a second that it will follow me onto the train as I'm getting close to the station but it gets sidetracked once more and so I cross the street and speed my step in order to throw it off. Thankfully, it works. I arrive back in Rome around 7 or 8 and am extremely tired. My room is really nice and big and I have 5 roommates but it's so spread out it's not a bad situation at all. I take a shower which feels so wonderful since it's been almost 2 days without one and I get ready for touring the next day. Rome, here I come.