Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Roma

Our trip to Rome began in what we would soon discover was typical Italian style: late. After a later than expected arrival into Rome, we made our way from Termini to our (four star!) hotel. It overlooked the Colosseum, and if you stuck your head out of our window and craned your neck, there it was. We spent our first evening walking around it (the Colosseum) and the Arch of Constantine before dining at Luzzi, which was a delicious trattoria near our hotel. The pizza and pasta were excellent, and the service was entertaining.

The next day we went down to Via Appia Antica, one of the original Roman roads. We hired bikes and bounced over the giant paving stones as we marvelled at the well-preserved artifacts alongside the roads. Mostly they were tombs, and on our way back we spent some time down the San Sebastian Catacombs. This was the official Christian burial site for many hundreds of years; only when barbarians desecrated it looking for valuables did they abandon it. It was rediscovered in the 1500s. They weren't as mazelike as you might have thought, but tour groups managed to appear out of nowhere as we wandered down the crypts.

The next day dawned sunny, and we took the short walk down to the Palatine Hill. This is the spiritual home of Rome, supposedly where Romulus and Remus were suckled by the she-wolf. There were ruins of emperors' houses, aqueducts, and a museum containing plenty of statues and other artefacts from the ruins. We spent a dusty morning exploring around there before heading over to the Colosseum. We had a podcast for this which helped to explain what it would have been like in its heyday. In a word: bloodthirsty. Gladiators would kill each other, wild animals, prisoners, dogs would go at porcupines, and Christians were tarred and used as torches to light the spectacle. Still, the games were immensely popular and the aristocrats who funded them were showered with gratitude from the plebs. They probably needed it too -- the awning which sheltered the spectators didn't really cover the well-off, who had ringside seats, so they would have roasted in the sun.

The Colosseum also had an interesting exhibition on the Flavian dynasty that created it -- the well-loved Vespasian, his equally loved son Titus, and Domitian who was so hated that when he finally passed away (after being stabbed by a servant in the belly), the Senate ordered all statues of him be destroyed and inscriptions removed. This must have taken a while, as Domitian was quite the statue builder, commissioning colossal status of his father and brother (as well as himself), and pretty much creating the Flavian cult which deified Emperors.

The next day we were up early to get to the Vatican. We took the Metro over there, which was even more busy than the Underground. We had a squishy ride there before filling in time while we waited for the security guard with the bad haircut to let us go in (Guard: It's too early, come back at 10.10. Leah: But you told us 10am before! Guard: I have a bad haircut, come back in ten minutes).

Once inside though, it was worth the wait. We had a great tour through the museums, where we saw fantastic statues and ceilings and frescoes. There was simply too much to see there -- you could probably spent a week in there alone, rather than the 2 hours we had. The end of the visit was the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which is as grand as everybody says. Especially when you consider how Michaelangelo painted it: standing up, one hand on the small of his back, with paint dripping in his eyes. You weren't meant to take photos, but I (will) present you one of God separating the light from the dark, and creating the Sun and the Moon.

The final stop in the Vatican City was St Peter's Basilica, but we and our camera battery were all so tired we did it the next day. We climbed the cupola first, and got breathtaking views of both the Basilica and Rome. Every painting in the Basilica is actually a mosaic, and the inside of the cupola is covered in them. You can barely see it from the ground, and we had such a fantastic view. The view of Rome was equally good; as we wandered around the dome we saw all the landmarks we were becoming used to as well as a peek into the gardens.

The Basilica itself was just as good from the inside. We were amazed at its grandeur, its mosaics, its statues, and its dead popes. There were markings on the ground to show you were other cathedrals would finish inside, and it's only if you think about them that you realise just how enormous the place really is. Michaelangelo played all sorts of tricks when decorating it, like making the upper statues bigger than the lower statues so it didn't look so high. The altar was also made massive to fill the space up to the ceiling to again make it less intimidating. The thing I remember most about it was the lettering around the roof, which had every quote from Jesus to Peter from the Bible. The lettering was seven feet high.

That morning we had poked around the Forum. Unfortunately it's no longer free, so we paid for our combined Colosseum and Palatine Hill (and Forum) ticket again, and went inside. The Forum was the heart of Roman society, and excavations have revealed all sorts of impressive columns and triumphal arches. It's hard to imagine the place in gleaming white marble now, and it must have been amazing in its heyday. We saw where Julius Caesar's body was burned, the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, an enormous law building (we struggled to get the three smaller arches into one picture), and one of the supposedly many gatto which call the Forum home. We took plenty of pictures, but the area is huge. We also saw the entry to the Cloaca Maxima, which Latin and perhaps Classics students will know is the giant sewer system. The Vestal Virgins' house is next to the temple, and is where they lived from before puberty until they left 30 years later. We also saw the amusingly named Column of Phocas.

Our next day was dedicated to Pompeii. We got up rather early so as not to be late; by now you know the punch line, the train was an hour late. We hurtled down the countryside at 150km/h to Naples, and then rather more sedately to Pompeii itself on the Circumvesuviana (20 stops). Once you got through the boring bits (the audio guide is not recommended unless you like monotonous voices), the city was awesome. While most of the houses were just ruins, there were plenty of surviving frescoes and mosaics that hadn't been shipped off to the museum in Naples. Pompeii had turned on a scorcher, and it was a relief when we happened upon a house which still had a roof. The water fountains were welcome as well, especially as they had cool designs around the tap.

After spending most of the day there, we hustled back to the Archeological Museum in Naples. This museum has all of the good stuff that was found in Pompeii and the similarly destroyed town of Herculaneum, such as mosaics, vases and frescoes. The museum also has a fine collection of statues, and a room dedicated to ancient porn. Apparently the Romans enjoyed drinking out of suggestive vessels surrounded by suggestive artwork.

The trip back to Rome was just as frustrating as the trip out, though we did get to share a cabin with three Italians who were debating vociferously about something (and regularly opening and closing the window when it got too hot or too loud for them to hear each other).

After a rare sleep in, we headed off for a walking tour featuring one of Rome's great men, Bernini. He was a prolific sculptor and there are lots of his fountains around Rome, and he also designed the Piazza in front of St Peter's Basilica. The tour featured his fountains and sculptures in churches, and also an elephant (which was originally meant to be a joke, but ended up in the centre of a piazza with an obelisk on top). Along the way we had a good look at the Spanish steps and the Piazza Navona, which were both very pretty. We finished our evening with what was meant to be Rome's best pizza (verdict: pretty good) and what used to be Rome's best gelato (verdict: also pretty good).

On our penultimate day we did some more walking, this time around Travestere and the Janiculum Hill. This area is meant to have a very different feel to the rest of Rome, and it was certainly quieter and a bit more relaxed. We enjoyed two delicious cornetti (mine had custard in it and Leah's had chocolate). They are like croissants but but not as flakey. We climbed the hill to see where St Peter was supposedly crucified, and saw the tiny Tempietto, a temple within a church. We went further on and walked through the park on top of the hill, where you could see all of Rome in front of you. There's a lighthouse up there (not sure why), as well as a giant monument of Garibaldi on a horse, as well as busts of all the generals who fought in the war against the French invaders.

From there we walked to the Piazza del Popolo and on into the Pincio and Borghese gardens, where we hired a bike and had an hour of biking around. The bike was electric but we never knew when the motor would kick in, so it was quite an entertaining hour. They also had segways for hire but we couldn't find out where you got them from :(

After that we walked back to the Triton Fountain to find a church which contained rooms decorated with the bones of monks. It had been recommended to us by someone the previous night, and it was certainly interesting. There were five rooms and a corridor covered in bones that had been arranged into patterns and pictures. There were also some complete skeletons, three of which looked like they were from children. You're not allowed to take photos of it but you can have a look on their website.

On our final day in Rome we visited the Capitoline museums which are full of sculptures and paintings, as well as other finds, from the Forum and around Rome. Some of the highlights were the giant pieces from the sculpture of Constantine, including his head and feet, as well as a giant statue of Marcus Aurelius on a horse, the statue of the she-wolf with Romulus and Remus, a statue of Venus, the statue of the Dying Galatian, and many others. (Tip: it looks like the museum website has the audioguides available for download, so you don't have to hire one.)

Then we climbed the Vittoriano monument for a final look over Rome, before getting a late lunch and heading off to the airport. But the fun didn't stop then, we had to make our way through a massive security clearance mob (took over half an hour) before running to our gate just in time to hear them say "this is the last and final boarding call for flight AZ206, would passengers Reeckard, Meeller, ... please make their way to gate 31 for immediate boarding". Then when we were on the plane they announced there would be a delay due to a "technical problem" (just what you want to hear). Anyway, after that we were glad to get home, although we could have spent months in Rome trying to see everything.

Photos to follow soon!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Mainz

At the end of August we took advantage of the Bank Holiday weekend to visit Stuart's brother, Geoffrey, in Germany. He lives in a university town called Mainz, which is about half an hour out of Frankfurt. We were fortunate to have warm sunny weather the whole time, and someone who spoke German to do everything for us :)

Geoffrey had organised bikes for us for the weekend which was excellent, as it made it very easy to get around town, as well as go for longer rides along the Rhein. Mainz seems to be built for cyclists, as there are very wide footpaths with bike lanes on them, and special traffic signals for bikes. Also, cars have to give way to bikes, which was a nice change to dodging cars like we used to do in Auckland.

Highlights of our various cycle trips include:
  • visiting Floersheim and learning how to pronounce it
  • trying to bike up a very steep bridge (and failing)
  • eating a K√§sebrezel (cheese pretzel) - delicious
  • not having to wear a helmet
  • not ever feeling in danger from cars, and in fact hardly ever having to be on the road with them
Disappointments include:
  • not having a bike with a basket on the front
  • discovering that after 6 months of not cycling your bottom gets very sore very quickly :(
We visited an authentic German bar and Stuart had an authentic German beer while Leah tried an authentic German wine/fizzy water mixture. We met the two Johnnies and other people from Geoffrey's university. The German ones spoke English with an American accent.

On the Sunday we went for a boat cruise in the sunshine along the Rhein, and saw lots of castles. There were so many that I can't remember the names of any of them, but you can see what they look like. We also saw a town by the name of Assmannshausen, as well as the statue of Germania, and the Loreley rock. We ended up in St Goar where we looked around the castle there (Burg Rheinfels) before catching the train back to Mainz.

We flew back on Monday night, and had a very uneventful flight. On our flight on the way to Germany we flew over an awesome lightning storm, and we could see the lightning in the tops of the clouds.

Stay tuned for our next post on Rome... (it also features lightning)

See our photos