Saturday, April 14, 2012


Spaghetti! Gnocci! Rigatoni! Gelato! Tagliatelle! Gelato! Tortellini! More Gelato!  You get the idea.  Italy is a great travel destination if you're in the mood to eat. 

During Madrid's Semana Santa, I traveled to Italy with my dad, and the first city we visited there was Rome, or Roma, as they say in Italy and Spain.  We chose Italy because this was my dad's first trip to Europe, and he wanted to see Michelangelo's masterpieces and the Colosseum.  The abundance of gelato didn't hurt either.  He even learned a few words in Italian before the trip.  I enjoyed traveling to Rome, Florence, Venice, and Milan with the SHS orchestra in 2004, and love eating pasta, so I was really excited to go back.

Day 1 in Rome - April 1, 2012

In Madrid, we arose dark and early, hopped on a Vueling Airlines flight to Rome-Fiumicino, dropped our suitcases at the hotel, had a pretty colorful bus experience, and eventually ended up in Rome!  Ok, fine, I'll elaborate on the bus deal...  So, Dad and I got on a bus and asked the driver how much tickets cost.  The
Escaped the Bus, Went to Lunch
driver told us we couldn't buy tickets on the bus, but refused to tell us where we could buy tickets.  The driver kindly let us on the bus anyways, and started to drive away toward Rome, when this old man with very few teeth started shouting at us about not having bus tickets.  He continued to shout like a lunatic for about ten straight minutes, and we did our best to ignore him.  It's funny, but Italy is the only place I've ever been where people have given me a hard time like this.  But whatever.  I'm not going to let some bitter, old, toothless dude dent my vacation.


The first amazing Roman structure Dad and I went to check out was the Pantheon, where we saw Raphael's tomb. We marveled at the decorated structures both inside and outside the building.  From there, we walked to the Campo dei Fiori, which was closing.  With our lightning-speed, super shopping skills, we managed to purchase two bags of pasta - one for me and one to send home - before the stands had finished closing for the day.  Eight years ago, I remembered buying a bag of pasta in Italy to bring home, and it was delicious, so we wanted to buy more.
Inside the Pantheon
At the Campo dei Fiori with our Bags of Pasta

Leaving the Campo dei Fiori, Dad and I wandered over to the Piazza Navona, where we watched caricature artists draw portraits of tourists, art vendors sell oil and watercolor prints that they claimed were originals, and a very animated mime draw the crowd's attention.  We watched all of this happen during dinner, which we ate outside at a tourist-trap restaurant right in the Piazza.  Neither of us was satisfied with our dinner, and we resolved to eat away from touristy squares after that.  I had ordered gnocci with a four-cheeses sauce, and am pretty sure it came from some sort of frozen mix because I ate the exact same dish in Salamanca in Spain last November.  I was sitting at this chilly, little table thinking, "C'mon, Rome...can't you do better than this?"  I love gnocci, but this wasn't the fine dining I had hoped to taste in Italy.
Plaza outside the Pantheon
This delicious pastry didn't come
with a cover charge, but it was more
photogenic than those that did.
As our trip progressed, we were displeased to learn that whether or not you refuse the bread at the beginning of the meal, they will still charge you for it.  Additionally, they charge you a cover per person, and a table service charge, even if the server hands you a pastry and slips out of sight forever.  It sucks to get tricked into paying a 3€ cover per person when you're only splitting one 1,50€ croissant.

Vitruvian Man Street Sign
To make matters worse, the receptionist at the hotel kept referring to me as Mrs. Simmons.  You shouldn't be surprised that I gave him a well-deserved death stare for that.

One unexpected, high point in the day was when we happened onto a street sign that you could really only find in Italy: Vitruvian Man crossing!  No joke, we saw a street sign of the Vitruvian Man, and it was awesome.  Like the fabulous tourists we are, we of course took a bunch of pictures.
Fountain at Piazza Navona.
Rome has fountains like this everywhere.

 Day 2 in Rome - April 2, 2012

Outside the Colosseum
For our second day in Rome, Dad and I had scheduled a morning tour of the the ancient Roman ruins through with Dark Tours.  We were pretty excited to see the Colosseum, which the guide told us was originally called the Flavian Amphitheater.  Eight years ago, when I visited, I didn't bring a camera, and I have been dying to take pictures at the Colosseum since I have started to enjoy photography.  Fortunately, the Colosseum, an ancient structure, didn't seem to have changed much over the past eight years.

To our surprise, our tour guide told us that it only took slaves five years to build the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Arch of Constantine, and nearly everything else in the area.  Today, what you see when you visit the Colosseum is its skeleton because much of the structure and all of the decoration have been stripped away.  Over the centuries, many people stole tiles and rocks from the Colosseum to build churches, according to our tour.  The guide kept showing us different views and asking us if we were disappointed by what we saw.  Though she was clearly disappointed by what had become of the Colosseum, none of the visitors were disappointed.  We all knew what the Colosseum looked like (more or less), we bought the tour tickets, we came all the way there to see it, and we still considered it a splendid and fascinating attraction.
Colosseum - Lower Level
As we walked around the giant ring on the second level of the Colosseum, the guide explained to us that the amphitheater had been used for battles between gladiators and battles against wild animals.  The animals would leap up from the lower, covered level, and they would surprise the gladiators, thus beginning the fight. I imagine it was a bit like a bull fight, in the sense that the provoked, angry animal leaps out from some sort of constraint, and then the bull fighter/gladiator tries to kill it...but with a Roman twist.  That said, I've never been to a bull fight.  According to the guide, when a gladiator retired, if he didn't die in battle first, he was presented with a wooden sword with his name engraved on it.  We learned that these "games" in the Colosseum lasted for weeks, and so the crowd often brought food and entertainment.  Our guide told us that the crowd used to barbecue food in the stands.  Can you imagine hosting a barbecue in the Colosseum?
Colosseum - Great spot for a barbecue!
Leaving the majestic Colosseum, and taking one last look back at the ancient barbecue hot spot, the guide brought us to the Arch of Constantine, which she told us was designed like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.  Even to the untrained visitor's eye, the similarity is obvious.  The difference is that the Arc de Triomphe is
Arch of Constantine
younger, so you can still climb it...if you can figure out how to run through five lanes of roundabout traffic to get to it, or find the near-secret underground passage to the center of the roundabout.  You can't climb the Arch of Constantine, but that's probably for the best.  I don't think you can climb the Arc de Triomphe copy in Barcelona either.  Anyways, the guide told us that the arch was built for Constantine, the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire.  She told us that during his rule, Constantine made Christianity the official religion for everyone in the empire.

Yay for Indulgences...
On one wall near the exit of the Colosseum, our guide went back to point out a cross in the stones.  According to the myth, if you kiss the cross on the wall, you'll get one year and forty days of indulgences.  So of course, back then, everyone did it.  Sounds like a great way to swap diseases.  No wonder the life span was so short back then!

From there, we toured the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, and the basilica, and learned that the basilica doubled as a market when it wasn't sunny enough to do business outside.  Our guide told us the story of how Romulus, Rome's first king, founded Rome in 753 BC.  From there, we were on our way to lunch.

Roman Forum
Trevi Fountain
After we left the ruins, we went to check out the Trevi Fountain.  As the legend goes, if you stand with your back to the fountain and throw a coin in over your shoulder with your right hand, you'll come back to Rome.  I'm pretty sure in 2004 they told us there's a different legend if you throw two coins or three coins, but I can't remember.  I guess it worked in 2004, since I came back in 2012.  This year, I threw in one coin again, but I'd actually prefer to travel to somewhere I have not seen instead of coming to Rome a third time, lovely as it is.

Bringing some Michelangelo to the Trevi Fountain

Top Left to Bottom Right: Stracciatella, Honey, Melon,
Nutella, Cream, Strawberry, Blackberry, and Forest Fruits.
To rest our feet after the morning tour, Dad and I stopped at a gelato stand.  Gelato is like enhanced ice cream - it's really sugary.  Other than that, I'm not sure how they're different.  One cool thing about gelato is that it comes in bright colors and some flavors which are rarely, if ever, found in the United States.  While in Italy, I sampled gelato in these flavors: blackberry, pistachio, tangerine, coffee, hazelnut, walnut, strawberry, forest fruits (like raspberry), mango, dulce de leche, and a few others.  Yes, we ate a lot of gelato.

Gap Rome
While strolling, we found a Gap store!  I made this hypothesis: If there's a Gap store in the country to which I'm traveling, then I will find it and go shopping.  Well, it's not really a hypothesis since I know, without any doubt, that it's true.  Anyways, Dad and I went in to see if they sold Gap Rome shirts, which of course they did.  They looked just like the Gap Paris shirts!  And they were having a sale!  Yes, I should have been shopping in an Italian store since I was in Italy, but I just love shopping at the Gap.  In my experience, the Gap's employees have consistently been friendly and helpful, and the quality of the clothes is excellent.  I'm a fan of Banana Republic and Old Navy too.  In terms of Italian stores, we passed Gucci, D&G, and plenty more stores of that sort.  But let's not pretend that I would go on even a mini shopping spree there.  D&G's sunglasses were super-cute on me, but I'm sort of partial to the ones I got for 3€ at Djemaa el fna, a market square in Marrakesh.  I know, it's really classy of me to put this all together in the same paragraph.

Ok, back to Italy...just in time for dinner!  While wandering through the network of Italian, designer stores, some French stores, and the Gap, Dad and I happened onto this restaurant that looked better than the one where we ate the prior night.  Luckily, it was.  We split a plate of pasta with pomodoro sauce, and a vegetable pizza.

Of course we had to deal with that awful cover charge and table service charge again, but at least the food was good.  As you can see in the video at the beginning of this post, we had a great time sprinkling parmesan cheese over the pasta.  The food was so good that we ordered chocolate profiteroles for dessert.

Day 3 in Rome - April 3, 2012

On our third day in Rome, Dad and I went on Dark Tours' guided visit of the Vatican, the world's tiniest country.  I think it's about one square mile.  According to our guide, the Vatican was founded in 1929 because Mussolini wanted the Pope to be neutral during WWII.  So technically, the Vatican is a country, but it is completely dependent on the city of Rome.  While the Vatican has its own post office and stamps, it relies heavily on Rome's cleaning crew and other public services.
Sphere in a Sphere
One more abstract sculpture in the Vatican, which resides in the main courtyard, is a copper-colored sphere with a smaller sphere emerging from it.  The former is said to represent the world, and the latter is said to represent Christianity within the world.  I like this sculpture because it acknowledges both that Christianity is a large part of the world, and that it's not the entire world.  Or it's breaking the world.  Or it's emerging to fill a gaping hole in the world.  Or it's rising out of that gaping hole.  There are different interpretations.  Pick one you like.  To my surprise, our tour guide told us the sculpture, like the real world, spins, and she hopped over the fence and pushed on the giant sculpture, making it spin counterclockwise - the correct direction.
Sphere in a Sphere - Other Side
On our tour, we passed through the Hall of Chandeliers, the Hall of Tapestries, the Hall of Maps, Raphael's rooms, the courtyards, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter's Basilica.  We learned that all the tapestries in the Hall of Tapestries had come from a factory in Belgium, which was known to produce the best tapestries of the time.  The royal tapestries at Wawel Castle in Krakow also came from Belgium.  The guide pointed out the high thread count in the tapestries, and showed us where gold and silver threads had been woven in.

Continuing on to the Hall of Maps, the guide pointed out that some of the maps were upside down.  The maps show different locations from Rome's point of view.  Our guide pointed out where her family was from on one of the maps.  Even more impressive in this hall than the maps, is the tunnel of frescoes, lined in gold, on the ceiling.  The Pope has a really nice house.
The Vatican: Hall of Maps
Leaving the gold coated hallway, we explored Raphael's rooms.  Raphael was a famous Renaissance painter, and painted at the Vatican while Michelangelo painted there.  Michelangelo appears in some of Raphael's paintings, but not in a friendly way.  Raphael painted him wearing boots while all the other people in the paintings were barefoot.  The guide explained that Raphael painted Michelangelo as sort of a weird loner.
By Raphael
Before we went into the Sistine Chapel, our guide told us that the original ceiling was a night sky done in blue wax and gold leaf, but that after twenty-five years, it cracked, so Michelangelo was hired to redo it in 1506.  The job took him four years to complete, and our guide told us that Michelangelo mixed his own paint in order to get exactly the right colors.  He mixed blue for the background from crushed lapis lazuli.  We were told that the ceiling was Michelangelo's first fresco, which honestly, I have a hard time believing since the ceiling is so breathtaking.  Actually, the guide told us that Michelangelo refused the job at first, claiming that he couldn't paint.  I guess he was modest.  Really, really modest.  I was interested to hear the guide say that Michelangelo did not paint the ceiling on his back, since I had heard he did paint it on his back 8 years ago when I toured the Vatican with a different guide.  Anyone know the real story?
The Vatican: Michelangelo's ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo's frescoes of The Creation of Adam, and The Last Judgement, and the entire room are incredible, but the experience of visiting the Sistine Chapel is sort of unpleasant because of the guards who bellow, "SILENCE," every ten or fifteen seconds.  The room is always filled with people shoving you in all directions and snapping photos, which provokes the guards to screech, "NO PHOTO!  IS FORBIDDEN INSIDE SISTINE CHAPEL TO TAKE PHOTO!"  Everyone takes photos in there.  The guides all tell the visitors that the only reason photography is prohibited is because someone bought the copyright to all the Sistine Chapel photos.  So, all the visitors, thinking this is a lame reason to prohibit photography, continue to take photos - without flash, of course, in order to protect the art.  If photography were prohibited for preservation reasons, then I certainly would have respected that.  I didn't like any of the copyrighted photos in the gift shop, so I took one quick photo too.  My one photo is my memory of how I saw the Sistine Chapel - and it's quite different from how the copyright holder sees it.  I didn't want to be the one respectful visitor that came away regretting not taking a photo.  And the guards can all relax - it's not like I'm going to sell it.

Extra Chairs for Easter
Taking one last look at the Sistine Chapel, we followed our group to the last stop on our tour, St. Peter's Basilica, the largest church in the world.  The place is massive, and houses some incredible art, and of course, lots of gold.  The guide told us that the gold on the altar was all solid gold, not even gold leaf.  Like I said, the Pope has a nice house.  We visited just before Easter, so they were setting up thousands of chairs for the crowds that would be there soon.

The Vatican: Michelangelo's Pieta

For me, the highlight of St. Peter's Basilica was seeing the Pieta, another of Michelangelo's masterpieces.  The Pieta is a sculpture, carved entirely from one block of marble, and it portrays Mary and Jesus.  One of the amazing parts of the sculpture is that the folds in the fabric on Mary's clothes really look like soft, draped fabric.  The hardness of the marble disappears, and makes the visitor almost believe that the fabric could blow in the breeze.  The guide told us this was Michelangelo's first sculpture of this sort and made a joke about beginner's luck.  I'm not well-versed on the history of Michaelangelo's education, but looking at yet another masterpiece, I had a tough time believing this was beginner's luck.  Like Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, the masterpiece is behind glass, making it really difficult to photograph.

Mosaic Floor in Raphael's Rooms
Another cool thing about the St. Peter's Basilica is that there are no frescoes.  Everything that looks like a fresco,  like the ceiling, is actually a mosaic.  The floors in Raphael's rooms were also mosaics.  In places, the floor is blocked off in order to part the crowd so that visitors can admire the mosaic designs.  In addition to the multitude of masterpieces, the mosaic floors were one of my favorite parts of the Vatican back when I visited in 2004.  This year, I marveled just as much at all the tiny tiles which together formed flowers, patterns, angels, and full scenes.

For the rest of the afternoon, Dad and I explored the area around the Vatican, checking out all the winding streets.  You know how you find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?  Well in Italy, you find a gelato shop at the end of the winding street.  (By the way, I could see the entire rainbow, including both ends, in San Sebastián, and there was no pot of gold.  Sad, right?)

Ba"Ghetto Restaurant
Eventually, we were pleasantly surprised to happen onto the former Jewish Ghetto, which is only one tiny street with some restaurants and souvenir shops.  They sell Vatican souvenirs's weird.  In any case, we asked one of the shop owners for a recommendation of where to eat dinner, and she told us to eat at Ba"Ghetto across the street from her shop.  It turned out to be an excellent recommendation, and a nice break from pizza and pasta.  After dinner, we caught a cab back to the hotel and packed our bags for Florence! 

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