Friday, June 13, 2008

Days 10-19: Romantic Road and ITALY!

Note: The pictures are small to help with the load time of this page, but just click on them to enlarge them to their high resolution glory. Oh, and the normal tech news commentary will return after my vacation.

So the funniest thing happened a couple of days after my last post: the Internet went out in my cousin's neighborhood. About 40 houses were out of Internet and phone, and we were the only ones to complains. The Germans couldn't be bothered! That's just how laid back their lifestyle is. Anyhow, he didn't get the Internet back for another 6 days, so I couldn't post again before we left for Italy and Paris. Hence, I'm going to do two posts: those few days and all of Italy (Rome, Florence, Pisa), and then I'll write another post just for Paris because I had as many pictures from Paris as all 3 cities in Italy. I took over 844 pictures in the past 11 days! I think that's pretty nuts. I've taken over 1000 on this trip total, of course.

On Friday, we hit the Romantic Road and saw a number of cute towns. To start out though, we headed to Dachau for a sobering reminder of the holocaust at a memorial to the first concentration camp. I think that anyone who visits Europe should go to one of these because it's so important that we not forget this horrific incident, especially when there are crackpots claiming that it didn't happen. This was one of my favorite memorials that was out there:

The Romantic Road was beautiful, and since I've already posted pictures from small towns and will put up another one very soon below, I won't bog down this already beefy post. Here is a neat castle (Castle Hamburg) that we ran into though along the way:

The next day, we headed out to Triberg, which is also known as the home of the cuckoo clock. This was immediately apparent when we got out of the car:

The cuckoo clocks there really were quite amazing though. They're definitely proud of their hand-carved wood. I even picked up some hand-carved Christmas ornaments. Here's one of their really fancy (and quite expensive) clocks:

On the way back to Stuttgart, we drove through the Black Forest, which was really quite the sight to take in. It's called the Black Forest, in case you don't know, because the trees are so close together that it's pretty much black when you're inside of it at night because no light is allowed in. It was always cool seeing homes nestled in the valleys of the forest:

On Sunday, we were off to Rothenburg (ob der Tauber), which I believe is also on the Romantic Road. The city still has a wall around much of it, so we were able to get a pretty good panoramic view from one of the towers:

While we were there, we decided to try some Schneeballen ("snowballs"), which were kind of like ball-shaped donuts, but a little different still, and in many different varieties (including Amaretto Marzipan, yum!):

This was, by far, the funniest thing I saw though (unfortunately, the shop was closed so I couldn't poke around to see if they were actually selling this):

What's even more odd is that the shop was displaying mostly swords in its display windows. Anyway, the next morning we jumped on a plane for Rome!

In Rome, we stayed in a hotel that was really just a collection of apartments and it was walking distance from Vatican City. Fortunately, we even had a/c, though that's not common at all despite how hot Rome gets (although it was only in the 80s when we were there). We headed straight for the Vatican City once we unpacked to be treated to the night view of St. Peter's Basilica:

It really is a beautiful church and plaza, and it's amazing to think that it fills up to receive papal blessings and for liturgical holidays because it is really quite and enormous plaza. We actually went inside first thing the following morning and I took several pictures, although the lighting made it hard to get a good shot of anything. Here's just one example of how ornately decorated it was though:

Can anyone explain to me the Greek in the back there? I can't figure out why it would've been written in Greek, but I wasn't a Classics major. Anyhow, I took that picture from above the tomb of St. Peter himself! To see that tomb in person was something incredible to me just as a Christian. On our way out we saw the Pieta, one of Michalangelo's moving masterpieces sculpted at just 25 years-old (it was behind glass):

We spent the rest of the afternoon in the Vatican Museums! By the way, one tip we learned is that museum lines aren't that bad. Don't pay the extra money to make reservations if you can stand to wait an hour in line and don't do these stupid tour things. The tour guides claim that the line will take 2.5 hours but they can get you right in, which is true except for that the lines usually never take that long. We were in line like 2 blocks from the museum and we got in within an hour. I hate the tour groups because they clog up traffic through these museums and they're often not better than an audio guide because you can't go at your own pace until after the tour is done. Plus, they're not cheap. Anyhow, I was most excited to see the sculpture of Laocoon and his sons feeling the wrath of Poseidon (Neptune)!

I can still remember Professor Johnson at UT telling us the story of how he tried to warn the Trojans of the Trojan Horse and was killed in the process because Poseidon sided with the Greeks. Of course, it was also intensely exciting and rewarding to see the Sistine Chapel, but they didn't allow pictures of that. There's just so much to see in that fresco, but we kept seeing amazing frescos where ever we went, it seemed, because of how well-decorated these European churches are. Anyhow, they still weren't as good as the Sistine Chapel (several parts of the Sistine Chapel other than the actual famous chapel had frescos on the ceilings, by the way). Here's a picture to give you an idea of how well decorated some of the rooms leading up to the Sistine Chapel were:

The other supremely famous piece in the Vatican Museums was the Belvedere Apollo:

They're not sure who it actually is, but the torso work inspired many other pieces of art so it is rather important. I was stunned to finally see the School of Athens, which I keep seeing again and again as an example of how the understanding of perspective progressed in classical art:

I have to end my collage of Vatican pictures with the nifty spiral staircase, of course:

Tuesday was mostly dominated by the ancient center of Rome. We went up the Capitoline Hill to see the Campidoglio and were treated with a fantastic view of the Roman Forum:

The Forum of Augustus was under excavation (as were parts of the Roman Forum), but we could still see it from afar. Anyhow, I took many pictures here that I won't bore you with except for that of the house of the Vestal Virgins, who maintained the fire in the temple to Vesta (Hesta), goddess of fire, lest they be whipped and stayed chaste lest they be killed:

That's just one tidbit o the many pieces of history that you can see in these ruins. I had my little Eyewitness Italy book that I borrowed from my cousin and gave an excellent walkthrough map fo the Forum. Oh, and here's another tip: go to the Forum before Palatine Hill and the Colosseum because it has the shortest line but it provides a ticket for all three.

Our next stop, after lunch, was the Colosseum:

It may not seem to be in the picture, but it's quite colossal (that's probably not why it was named that though; it was probably named that because of a statue of Colossus). You can also see a side profile of the Arch of Constantine in that picture (celebrates Constantine's victory over Maxentius). Inside, you could see that they dug up the area below the main platform to see the service area and probably where they kept prisoners, as well:

Oh, I forgot to mention another tip: the water in the fountains all over Rome (and I believe other parts of Italy, as well) are drinkable! They look old because they are, but unless it says "aqua non potabile" they are safe to drink. Here's an example of one:

Europe does not have water fountains in general, not even at restrooms (some of which you have to pay for, by the way), so this was so awesome. Some of the water, I believe, actually comes from Roman aquaducts! Some have been replaced with pipes because of damage that Roman has sustained over time from invasions.

Anyhow, our next stop was Palatine Hill, which was even bigger than the Roman Forum! The ruins seemed to be more intact here than at the Forum though:

The Forum was more of the central town marketplace filled with basilicas and temples and stuff whereas Palatine Hill was for the elite. In fact, we even went into the House of Augustus! It's incredible to think that I walked in the same halls as Augustus Caesar and that I saw pieces of buildings that existed before Jesus was even born. I enjoyed the view greatly that we got as we climbed the hill of some of the ancient center:

That was not enough stuff to fill our day though ;) We proceeded on the subway, which was simple and had few stops (it was mainly intended for commuters; the bus system is also quite good), and headed for the Spanish Steps:

It's sad that our view of the magnificent church atop the steps was blocked by the restoration of the obelisk in front of it, but the view from the top was excellent (for the sake of not killing your Internet, I decided to not show these because I have plenty of scenic shots that I've been showing as it is). Our next stop was the Trevi Fountain, which is the biggest fountain and Rome and quite grander in person that this picture can possibly convey:

Besides being massive, the sculptures themselves are just impressive. Supposedly, there's a girl sculpted here who it may have been named after that showed thirsty Roman soldiers this source of pure water. It looks nice at night, but my night shot is a tad blurry and not as good as the one above. Also, the crowd in front of this fountain was huge and did not recede as the night went on! What I loved about the are around it though and the area around the Spanish Steps is that it was so modern-city-like in the midst of all this history that was so fun to just walk around in (despite the expensive boutiques near the Spanish Steps that most Italians can't possibly afford). If I had to live in any city outside the U.S., it'd probably be Rome. I just love classical history too much.

Our last day in Rome was mostly just seeing odds and ends, like the Pantheon:

It wasn't all that great on the inside (I was hoping to see a temple inside, not a church), but it wasn't bad. We saw a few churches afterwards in the area near there (and we also saw the Piazza Navona, though I didn't get any exceptional shots of it), and this was painted on this ceiling of a Jesuit church that we saw:

It was not uncommon to see grand frescos like this on ceilings of cupolas or the churches themselves, although most Catholics in America have probably not seen such grandeur which much be totally pedestrian to people here. Or maybe they still appreciate the awesomeness of this artwork; I couldn't really say.

We moved on to the Castle St. Angelo, which I liked because I had never been in a castle before and we saw some neat things, like the Pope's treasure room and a genuine catapult, but the view made it really nice (one of those views that's better in person than in a picture, so I didn't post any of those). The church looked kind of like a big ship to me on the outside, but the path to is was lined quite nicely with angelic statues:

The last thing we saw in Rome was the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, which is one of the four papal basilicas of Rome. We didn't know this ahead of time, so we were surprised to find a cardinal saying a mass in one of the chapels! I didn't know this until the procession ending mass, so I missed out on the final blessing (for those of you who don't know, the hierarchy is priest -> bishop/archbishop -> cardinal -> pope). It was definitely one of my favorite churches in all of Europe (thus far, at least), but I'll just show you a picture of the dome in the gorgeous chapel the cardinal gave mass in (where I believe Pope Pius V's tomb is):

The Latin inscription at the top, from what I can understand, reads "Always Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus Christ" and then just Pope Pius V (it was his chapel), though I'm not sure the word order (it could be "Mary, Mother of Christ, Always Virgin" I suppose).

On Friday, we were off to Florence, home of many great Italian artists and also Dante Alighieri, the famed writer of the Divine Comedy, which is considered the greatest piece of literature written in Italian and, I thought, in the world, but I can't find proof of that. Anyhow, one thing you can't miss is the Duomo, which is the 4th largest church in all of Europe. The characteristic dome is definitely gigantic:

Inside the church, there wasn't a whole lot to look at, though it did have a famous painting of Dante showing Purgatory, Hell, and Paradise. You can see the campanile off to the side in that picture and behind the church is the baptistry (not pictured), which had Ghiberti's "Gates of Paradise" doors (as it was named by Michelangelo). The real doors are in a nearby museum, but even the copy looked incredible:

The other cool sight in Florence was the Piazza della Signoria, which actually was adjacent to the Uffizi (the greatest art gallery in Italy, and one of the finest in the world). It has some really awesome original sculptures, including the moving, famous "Rape of the Sabine Woman" by Giambologna. Here is an angle you probably don't normally see of it:

The piazza was physically dominated by the Palazzo Vecchio:

Another cool statue that I saw there, but is not particularly famous, is one of Hercules killing the centaur in one his Twelve Labors. I just happened to really like the sculpture and the poignancy it displays:

I debated whether to post this next picture, but I just thought it was kind of funny. The buses there and in Rome (as well as the subway in Rome) often had TVs overhead to warn of pickpockets and display ads and such. One such screen shows its true colors: it was running Windows XP Embedded and encountered some serious runtime errors:

I figure that WorseThanFailure wouldn't post it, so I thought that it deserved a mention at least from me.

Saturday, we saw the Uffizi and the Accademia, which were truly incredible museums. I think I preferred the Accademia simply for David and the room of busts it had that just totally blew me away. It was a lot of female nudity, but it made me understand why people call that art and not just pornography. It takes seeing a lot of nude art to understand what's beautiful about it, and it's really not possible for me to put it in words because it's more than just saying that it's because the female form is beautiful. Anyway, it made me a lot more appreciative of sculptures, and the Uffizi had a lot of sculptures in the hallways and a ton of paintings (though they're expanding it by probably a solid 30 minutes of walking around). We couldn't take pictures in either museum so that's why I can't show you any. That night, we made a long trek to the Piazzale Michelangelo, across the Arno River, for possibly the most spectacular panoramic view of Florence available, and right at dusk, too:

It ended up producing one of my favorite pictures from the trip (though I know I'll get marked as a snob for enjoying this picture so much):

That's a bronze copy of Michelangelo's David (the original is in the Uffizi and another copy is in the Piazza della Signoria).

On Sunday, we made a short trip to Pisa, where we actually got lost for a bit, to mainly see the famed leaning tower there, which was meant to be a bell tower for Pisa's Duomo. As you can tell from this picture, it leans quite a bit:

It's larger than you may think from pictures you've seen, and it was built off and on over a period of a couple hundred years, the last portion of which is where the tilt happened just as a strange property of the ground it was sitting on. And yes, the tilt is actually hurting the building itself and they've been working hard to preserve it from these compressive forces. The town of Pisa itself isn't that bad either (though plenty of street peddlers try to take advantage of its tourism, of course) to look at:

We went back to Florence afterwards (only a 1 hour train ride away) to catch an overnight train for Paris. And I will continue with a post on our four days in Paris tomorrow (it's like 3AM here right now).

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