Sunday, March 23, 2008

Italy Stop #1: Rome

First destination of my trip to Italy was Rome. It has the feel of any large city, but with very historical overtones. Everywhere something with either historical significance appears in view or at least seems to be very very old. The exterior of my hotel, Prime Hotel Saint John, blended into the side street's aged look, yet the interior was completely modern at every turn. The hotel was quite clean and as quiet as a city center hotel can be. Within easy walking distance there were a few restaurants and bakeries, plus a restaurant at the hotel.

All the hotels we stayed at in Italy had really exceptional breakfasts. We generally didn't stop our touring for lunch, so by dinner that evening I was quite thankful for the good breakfast. Most notable was the Orange juice. First, it wasn't orange in color at all, it was red. It was also really really good. As was the Pompeii grapefruit juice and some concoction they called "ACE," a blend that involved orange, carrot and I don't recall was else. It wasn't something I'd have expected to like, but while in Italy I wanted to try anything new I could get.

Something I discovered about the food overall that didn't really strike me until I returned home was the lack of salt and sugar. For about the first week after I got back, everything tasted like it was heavily salted or had way too much sugar. I promptly adjusted my habits here at home and have for the most part kept the salt cut back when cooking. I should have caught the clue that the salt was so much lighter by two of my traveling companions actions... they were reaching for the salt at every meal. I think I might have added a touch to some eggs, once. It's amazing how little I missed the salt and how much I noticed it's presence at home.

Back to the tourist must-see bits. The Coliseum is truly a sight to see. In a word, it's gargantuan. It's impossible to get across the sheer size and the awe inspiring technology the builders and designers employed. Getting a guided tour was the way to go for this as the guide provided more explanation as to what things were, how they were used and how the building has come to be in the condition it's in today.

Visible from the Coliseum as well as just a short walk away are both the Arch of Constantine and the Roman Forum & Senate. We didn't take any special tour of either, but again the sheer size of both was impressive. Just from walking around and seeing what is there now, it's easy to tell this was the central hub of activity for a thriving metropolis. Like the coliseum, it's amazing the technology that was needed and used to build such tall and imposing structures using solid stone and even concrete.

The easiest way for us to see the city was to take a bus tour. They are inexpensive and were plentiful, and we could just hop off at whatever stop we liked. Our stop was the Vatican. Starting with the Vatican museum, we walked through hall after all of paintings, artwork, tapestries, statues, carvings... the list goes on and on. Everywhere I turned there was art. A window frame? Can't leave it as is, it must be heavily decorated with painting and textures. From the floors of flawless stone to the ceilings painstakingly painted by masters such as Michelangelo, every inch is a piece of art. And then, in the middle of these hallways lies the Sistine Chapel. My only wish there was for better lighting. It's large and some of the more famous artwork adorns the ceiling of this chapel. Despite a crowd of visitors, it was relatively quiet in the room. I can only imagine what visiting the Vatican must be like for a Catholic; just the sense of patience and devotion required by the artists alone to create their artwork is enough to me. It's also very obvious that the current caretakers are taking their jobs seriously, and if the original artists were here today I am sure they'd be quite appreciative.

After a few days in Rome, we packed up and took a train trip to Florence for a few days. More of that coming soon!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Crossing the Atlantic

I just returned from what I expect will be my first of many trips to Europe. The whole experience can be summed up in one word: Wow. It's the little differences that I found most facinating, but there are plenty of big ones you can't miss either.

Let's start with the overview of the trip. Nine days with a group of three other women, taking a traveling view of Italy. Transportation would include plane, taxi, bus, metro, local train, Eurostar, water bus and the most often used mode would be walking, a lot of walking. Plans were to visit Rome, Pisa, Florence, Naples and Venice if time and energy allowed for them all.

Just getting there was entertaining. We took a direct flight from Chicago to Rome Fiumicino airport. We were able to get Business Class seats for the trip, which sounded great to me. Then I saw what that entailed... woah. First class on domestic flights pales in comparison to this. Going anywhere internationally, this is the way to travel. Each passenger has plenty of space and seats that have more adjustments than a Mercedes. Once in flight, the attendants provided the laptop-sized personal tv's that had a sizable selection of movies and currently running tv shows. Those came with your personal Bose noise-canceling headphones too. As a relatively frequent traveler, my husband discovered those a few years ago and we haven't had a flight without them since. But to have them provided, that was a surprise. Also each seat was equipped with a cigarette-lighter style power plug, so I arrived with my Ipod charged and ready to go after using it as much as I wanted on the flight. The 5 course meal provided on real china, with real silverware was actually good. I know, airline food... good? Rarely do the two go together, but in this case it was an accurate, if surprising, statement. But enough about the flight already...

On one hand, Rome is just another big city. However, the staggering amount of well preserved and documented history found in this city does change that a bit. Everywhere is history. Considering that "old" there takes on an entirely different meaning than we find in the USA, it really is something to see and simply absorb. After arriving in Rome about 10am, we checked our luggage at the hotel and went for a short stroll to see a few things. A few blocks from our hotel was the Colosseum. Just the sight of this massive structure was a wake-up call... "Yes, you really are looking at what you've previously only seen in photos." We would wait until the next day for a tour, but just to stand in the piazza and see it, the Arch of Constantine and the Roman Forum nearby was indescribable.

Some general observances I made very quickly about Rome proved themselves true over the days we were there. The cars fascinated me, probably a bit to the annoyance of my traveling companions. My own cars at home would seem ghastly and big in contrast with the city cars that populated the roman streets. Smart cars were everywhere, as well as all the small sized vehicle offerings from Fiat, Peugeot, Citroen, Mercedes, the occasional Ford and some I didn't recognize at all. The vast majority were models not sold in the US at all, and would be nearly laughed at on the street as looking like "toys." But at nearly $8 a gallon for gas, who can blame them for wanting the most fuel efficiency possible? Toss into the mix at least one scooter for every three cars on the road as well. With this crush of compact cars and 2 wheeled cheap transportation on the road, traffic was lunacy. Lanes? What lanes? Drivers simply drove wherever they wanted, the idea of lanes was merely a suggestion. Scooter riders were the real daredevils, splitting the suggested lanes at every opportunity, taking full advantage of their narrow size and ability to drive over most any obstacle in the way, including pedestrians. Traffic and the drivers there are simply insane. Maybe outside of the city center it's not that way, but inside, pandemonium rules the road.

I'll be posting more of the experience including a few pictures... coming soon!