Archive for the ‘Italy’ category

Renaissance Italy!

April 24, 2009

Crowded and touristy although it may be, Florence remains one of the most entertaining cities to visit in Italy and indeed the entire world. There’s just a lingering mythos about the city which remains present to this very day, a unique vibe I’ve only really encountered in Florence.

Of all the city in Italy Florence was easily my personal favorite, let me just put it that way.

The city is stunning in so many ways, whether it be the detailed and well maintained architecture or the sheer volume of history and the abundance of ‘stories’ that have in the past and continue to flow from the glorious city to this very day.

However that wasn’t always how I felt. Upon first entering the city and finding a place to spend the night my overall view was rather dreary. One quickly becomes used to the unique styles of Italy so much that they alone cease to impress, and the city I’d been to before Florence, Pisa, had been a complete disappointment which no doubt overshadowed any initial goodwill Florence presented…

Perhaps I should actually touch on that a bit before I continue with my little mini-review of Florence. Pisa is above all else a strange sort of tourist city that both thrives on visitors and at the same time resents them with all the hatred and disgust one would normally reserve for invaders and pests. The city just doesn’t like you, that’s the vibe I got, Pisa wants you to get over there, spend yer damned filthy money, see the bloody tower, and get out as quick as you can so you can make room for the next batch of babbling fools from afar. It’s a one trick pony that thrives on the simple novelty of a tower which happens to be leaning and which has somehow become a global symbol towards Italy in general. And it is, I confess, a pretty neat tower. The problem lies in that really that the tower is pretty much all there is of note within an otherwise somewhat surly old city. Everything else is simply a sideshow to this one tower, which leans, and that’s about it! There are some neat Cathedral, a couple cool looking buildings, an old wall, and really that’s about it. It’s also worth noting the city stinks, it really does. I can only presume it still uses the old Roman sewer system in places which sounds neat right up until you have to deal with the overwhelming stench of crap and piss which floods certain parts of the city.

That’s all fine if you’re making a quick day trip out of seeing the Tower. Hell, if you’re in and out quick enough you’ll probably love Pisa! That one tower and its accompanying church and walls are really well preserved and prettied up considerably for us bloody tourists. It’s only when you stray from the path and have to wander the parts of the city you’re not really supposed to see in order to return to a dank cheap little hotel you’re spending the night in that the cities luster not only fades but peels with such drama it’s remarkable.

And so understandably I was in a bit of a darker mood when wandering Florence. Add to that some massive indigestion or stomach cramps or whatever the blazes it was tormenting me throughout the early morning and I was all but determined to hate the ever lovin crap outta Florence. This place was going down! And at first Florence did an admirable job of making me dislike it with its massive crowds and overwhelming heat (I *am* Canadian. I’m better in snow! Hell, my ideal temperature meanders between 10 and -10 depending on my mood. Italy’s weather and I don’t get along well at all really.) , plus every here and there in Florence you’ll get a foul whiff of something unpleasant not unlike Pisa but to a lesser degree. So I saw the Florence Cathedral, or The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore if you wanna be fancy about it, and if you look in Google Maps you’ll find a tiny little dot in a white shirt going ‘Alright, that’s pretty cool, but I’ve seen better!’ which is me. Go ahead and look! I’m the one to the right amid the giant seething mass of tourists that besiege the Cathedral daily in an attempt to re-enact the fall of Rome to foreign barbarians or somesuch witty retort.

So funky smells (The least of which was no doubt me, have I mentioned I don’t do well in heart?), massive crowds, feelin terrible and still resenting Italy for earlier experience? Everything was right on track towards me loathing Florence with a passion in ways which I normally reserve only for Manchester, which is my most disliked city in the world and which with any luck will someday collapse into itself in an epic implosion of self-loathing.

Fortunately Florence had other plans. You see, Florence doesn’t just end with one neat attraction like certain other cities who’s name I’ve already mentioned enough in one day. No, Florence continues to thrive the more you go out and explore it! The people while still not especially nice at least don’t hate your guts and are willing to toss a smile in the direction of a kindly traveler. The city itself is gorgeous in all the ways you’ve been told Florence is supposed to be gorgeous. The parks are clean, the streets crowded but well taken care of, and there is always something to look at and enjoy. Everywhere, everywhere you look painting and statue, historic monument and quaint streets. All well maintained with that certain touch of a people who take pride in their city!

Now despite all the flattery if you spent a day in Florence eventually you will begin to get sick of the crowds and tourists. I did, so here I did what I normally do on such occasions with often mixed results. I wander off in a certain direction to see the little spots and the corners where we backpackers aren’t meant to be wandering so freely and locations in which your average tourist will never see. For me this involved a roundabout walk through some tight streets and eventually up numerous picturesque but not all that easily climbed stairs to eventually find myself at the Piazzale Michelangelo, a famous and plaza with a beautiful overall view of Florence. However again, crowds! Not as many as in the historic city below, but still crowds. So I continued onwards and soon found myself at the San Miniato al Monte Basilica (I know, it’s a mouthful!), a much smaller structure than the cities grand Cathedral, but one in which I found much more enjoyable. San Miniato not only rests atop one of the highest points in the city and offers another majestic view of the city of Florence but is also itself one of the most dramatic sights possible within the city, with its ascending stairs upwards and old walls which themselves help create a flat plateau in which numerous old graves and tombs have been built. It is humbling. The interior is dignified and, finally, much less crowded than most other sights in Florence.  It is not as showy or ‘fancy’ as many other Cathedral, but instead presents itself through smooth surface and numerous colourful artworks which cover the walls and pillars in a tasteful manner.

From there I would go on to wander parks and walk down simple but scenic streets, eventually finding my way to ‘Piazza della Calza’, which itself contained the old ‘Porta Romana’ (Why yes I am looking the city up right now on Google Maps and researching names through wikipedia, however did you guess?) which as far as I can figure was an old probably Roman gatehouse judging by the name built as part of the cities old wall. Whatever the case may be I wandered down a smaller more trendy street back towards the more central part of town, and found myself stumbling across ‘Palazzo Pitti’ the local renaissance palace and… You know what? I’m going to stop this now, trying to look up the names of everything I stumbled across that was noteworthy in Florence is exhausting. As I mentioned earlier, Florence is absolutely packed full of history and things to see and experience. Packed! That’s part of the reason I so love the city, it was one of those places I want to revisit and spend a week, a month even just wandering and seeing fully, paying special attention to the things which deserve it and soaking up the abundance of local history.

If you’ve gotta visit one city in Italy, and only one, I’d probably still say Venice because it’s so unique (Betcha weren’t expecting that huh? Go read my writeup on Venice.) but if you could see two I’d add Florence as the other city. Yes, even ahead of Rome. Although above any of those I’d say go see Pompeii… Gah! Italy is just such an incredible little boot shaped country, there’s so much to see there. Hell, even Pisa for all the crap I give it was a pretty neat city at times. Italy as a whole was just so incredible.

Oh, I know how to praise Florence best: If there was one city in which I’d want to ‘live’ in Italy, it would be Florence. My favorite city in Italy.

(By the way I’d post these more often but I’ve actually begun planning my next trip and so have been rather busy lately. On that note Lost on Planet China by Maarten Troost is a fantastic travel book, go read it! Not sure if I myself will be going to China, but it’ll be somewhere in that area methinks, more reading and research will determine exactly where. )

The Legendary Pompeii

March 19, 2009

I’ve written about Pompeii before, but I can’t help but feel I did a pretty shoddy job of it considering just how impressive the location I’m talking about is. And so I’m doing a take two on this, now with more detail and description. More of a narrative historical overview approach rather than the ‘this is what I saw and what I did from last time. Links are all to pictures I took while wandering Pompeii.

Pompeii is a small city in Naples Italy famous for being the most intact Roman ruins in the world and the remains of one of the ancient worlds most grand tragedies. It was almost two thousand years ago the volcano Mt. Vesuvius erupted and in a an event that could only be described as apocalyptic the city of Pompeii was buried in flame and ash. We can imagine it now, the sky a pitch black from ash and smoke. The cities inhabitants running, screaming, illuminated only by the dreary red of flames as ghastly silhouettes amidst the carnage. Those that don’t perish in the fires wishing they had as they are buried in burning ash as it descended from the sky like a terrible hellish snow, those unfortunate souls last moments that of choking on searing ash as they collapse to the ground in agony and perish. People and animals alike dying, being buried alive, burning. Soon not just the people are being buried, but the city itself. And as the volcanoes wrath subsides and the sun can once again be seen in the sky, nothing remains of the city that once was. It’s people, its buildings, all of it simply gone.

Time passes and the tragedy becomes a memory, then a story, then myth, and is then forgotten entirely.

The story sounds surreal, a work of horrible fiction, but that is the tragic tale behind the small city of Pompeii. It was by accident that the city was rediscovered during the building of a villa for the King of Naples and since then has becomes one of the greatest archaeological sites  in the major world. A city, perfectly preserved for almost two thousand years. Nothing like it exists anywhere else! And so archaeologists flocked to the site and began the massive dig which continues to this day as new rooms are uncovered and explored, new buildings unearthed and locations ancient and wondrous exposed to the light once again.

Of course Pompeii’s most gruesome and yet eerily fascinating claim to fame today is perhaps not so much the city itself, remarkable although it may be, but the inhabitants that once lived there. While excavating archaeologists took note of strange gaps in the ancient ash, holes and shapes they couldn’t rightly explain at first. The idea eventually came to fill these gaps with plaster and to then carve the casts from the earth themselves, preserving the shape of whatever it was that had left this odd cast for archaeologists to study. I’ve no doubt they knew what to expect, yet all the same I can only imagine the mingled emotions which much have greeted those men and women as the first of these shapes emerged from the ground. The mingled fascination and horror as they saw before them the shape of Pompeii’s residents in their final hours of agony and death. Pompeii’s ancient populace once again emerging into the light of day.

With this discovery Pompeii’s claim to fame was complete. You see as the populace was buried in ash it preserved their shapes perfectly, the ash around their still forms hardening over the years even as the bodies themselves rotted away and dissolved, leaving behind eerily detailed casts of those poor souls for mankind to once again discover so very many years later.

You can see them yourselves now if you so choose, many of these forms on display within Pompeii, sometimes even in the locations in which they were found although now preserved and protected by a glass covering but otherwise open to public view. For although Pompeii remains to this day an archaeological site of paramount importance it has also gained fame as a tourists location which anyone with the time and money may visit and admire and beyond any doubt one of the most memorable locations which I have ever visited.

The site itself is easy enough to find as there’s a train stop for the small town of Pompei, the name of the modern town which surrounds its more ancient namesake. Not a bad place itself really with generally friendly people and a nice central park that boasts the impressive visage of the towns basilica which serves the occasional religious pilgrims that visit the area. The historic town of Pompeii (Note two i’s rather than one!) lay only a short walk from that central square and can be entered via a pair of simple booths that stand guard, charging the relatively meager fee of 10 euros for entrance. It’s worth noting that by the looks of it those booths might not be standing there much longer as construction on a much more elaborate and grand entrance was in the works while I took my visit. It’s almost a pity and I can only hope that the city retains its extremely minimalistic tourism style which I found extremely appealing.

You see, Pompeii is quite literally a small town you are given free reign to wander almost anywhere you wish. Some sections are closed, most often for the archaeologists which still work to uncover and study the site or for preservation reasons, but for the most part everything is free to be seen and explored. So big is this small ruined town that street signs adorn the corners and many buildings have been given numbers and names, it is quite literally like wandering a ruined, abandoned town with little more than the ghosts of the past, some stray dogs,  and the occasional fellow tourist to keep you company. There are no fancy displays or gaudy exhibits, just ancient history left as it was found for you to see and experience.

Picture yourself walking along ancient stone roads or across worn dirt paths as you wander amidst the ancient crumbling ruins. Walking beneath arches that have lasted longer than many religions. Entire civilizations of men and women arising and falling while this city stood still in time. And now here you are walking along streets which until recently hadn’t been walked upon for thousands of years, formed of uneven large stones worn smooth and with deep ruts carved into the rock itself from centuries of horse-drawn karts being driven over them. It can make for difficult walking at times, but that’s all part of the experience. For the most part the buildings to either side are rubble, hollow walls that extend outward in strange labyrinth patterns. Crumbling murals still sometimes visible on the deteriorated walls and where floor once lay and roof sheltered now grows grass and weeds. It’s both touching and fascinating. You can tell sometimes which rooms were which; the ruins of what once was a sink in one area and another which could only have been a bedroom, adding a human touch to the mysteries around you.

Not all is ruin however. Some buildings have been rebuilt and strengthened with modern aid with new beams of wood supporting the ancient rooftop, the floors still sporting beautiful murals and paintings across the walls. And some few rare structures have survived all these years intact and can be walked within today, casting a glimpse into the unaltered state of how it once stood so long ago. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this being the Roman Bath House which still boasts some absolutely gorgeous murals and carvings across walls and roof alike as well as specially placed holes in the ceiling which cast down beams of light into places where once water would have been and people would have laughed and relaxed. Haunting. Then there’s the amphitheater and the small theater as well as various other fairly complete structures.

You may wander among the ancient grave site, down the residential avenue, along the vast green courtyard of the temple district and more! Yet for all its size there’s still more to be uncovered as another estimated third of the original Pompeii remains buried, you can see it as the ruins end with a stark wall of buildings seemingly emerging from the grassy dirt field beyond. Walls half uncovered half buried, streets that lead into nothing. There’s still so much left to be uncovered and for future archaeologists to discover (Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the vast majority of money to the site is dedicated to preservation rather than continued excavation, so it’s unlikely much more of the city will be uncovered for a very long time to come, if ever.). Indeed it’s a vast and wondrous feeling, and can at moments casts a feel of adventure which most popular tourist sites fail to create. It can just feel so incredibly adventurous to be wandering amidst the rubble, regardless of the fact thousands have been there before. A glimpse into a time long gone.

Pompeii may not be for everyone; There was a group of American tourists, I’m guessing Texan or something of the like judging by their accents, who frankly I found disgusting. Every second word a swear, spitting, kicking walls, laughing like bloody idiots as they flaunted their ignorance “What the F#%k is this? I dunno! Stupid Italians! Huh huh!” all while wandering like idiots and talking as loudly as possible. Sadly such is the norm in any tourist location, although in a location such as Pompeii behavior like that I found particularly distasteful and disrespectful. Fortunately Pompeii is so large I only saw the group twice, and the other visitors to the site were much more appreciative. I can only hope such is the norm.

You wont find a beach or any stylish attractions in Pompeii, and if you just want to see ‘the bodies’ you’d be better off simply looking pictures up online (I only took one picture, which I wont post. It felt… wrong somehow to be snapping pictures of such things.) as they are not that numerous nor will they hold your attention for long unless you’re the particularly morbid type. No, the real star of Pompeii is the town itself, and for those with a love of history or even simply a sense of exploration and a respect for the past Pompeii is one of the most grand places you might ever visit. There simply is not another experience like it!

The modern town of Pompei is small but friendly and scenic, the historic site is wondrous beyond words, and honestly the entire experience does not cost nearly as much as most would think. Pompei is easy to reach via train by Naples, a large nearby city which itself I never got to see, and the view from the train is as wondrous as I’d come to expect from Italy.  That part of Italy is particularly gorgeous by any standards.

So why not? Go. Visit one of the worlds most amazing historical sites. Pompeii is a place to be remembered!

A most unique city: Venice

March 1, 2009

If there is one city in this world that I would recommend you visit as soon as possible, it is Venice.

The reason why is as simple as it is tragic: Venice is one of the most unique locations in the world. There is no other city quite like it, not in Italy nor anywhere else. However Venice will not remain the way it is now much longer. It is only a matter of time till something happens, some catalyst of change occurs, and the city as it stands today is forever changed. Whether it be the rising waters tides as the city sinks, bit by bit, or some catastrophe we cannot predict. Maybe something as simple as a wealthy corporation deciding that ‘they’ would be the first to build a skyscraper somehow and other corporation follow suit, who knows? I do not. But no matter how resistant to change the people who live in Venice might be (And they are very, very resistant to change. Just look up the controversy over the cities ‘newest’ bridge!) change will come, and Venice as we know it now will never be the same.

And so I say go, go and visit Venice. Right now!

As I wrote above, Venice truly is unique among cities. You’ve undoubtedly heard of it and seen pictures, perhaps watched James Bond as he ran along the beautiful city streets or seen boats chase each other down its narrow waterways in the Italian Job. It’s in countless movies and innumerable stories. Venice is, well, legendary! And it is a deserved status as the city itself, glamor aside, is stunningly gorgeous and special all itself.

We all know that the city rests above water, that’s one of the cities main claims to fame: That long long ago Romans fleeing the destruction of the empire around them built their city in the farthest reaches of their lands, in the last place anyone would ever think to look for a city. And yet somehow, some way, not only did it manage to work but the city thrived and grew and now stands a marble pinnacle of wealth and power. A marble city resting lightly above the waves. It’s a fairytale come true, it doesn’t sound like it should ever have come to be! However you can go there, walk the streets yourself and see in person that this particular story is no fiction but fact. This isn’t a city where you’ll exclaim “Oh look, there’s a couple houses that stretch over the waterline, just like in the brochures!”. No! The entire city, all of it, is above the water. Venice doesn’t simply live up to the tales, it exceeds them.

The results of this strange past and design are evident everywhere you go in Venice. Because of the cities rather unusual location, where most cities grow, expand, and change over the course of years Venice, well, Venice is pretty much the same as ever. Oh sure there’s McDonald’s there now and shopping centers, tourist shops beyond counting. But those fancy new places? Either inside the renovated buildings of old themselves or standing out starkly as a strange new pimple upon the face of history as its modern design clashes with the antique buildings to either side that seem to themselves glower upon this new aberration and ignore it out of dislike. The city doesn’t just have a neat historical section or a few classical designs, the entire city is one massive glimpse into a time long gone. You glower at me, say ‘You exaggerate!’, and I do slightly for the sake of drama, but allow me to explain further.

There are no cars in Venice. You can enter the city via vehicle as there’s a bridge that extends to the ‘isle’ of Venice (The train also extends to Venice.) and presumably there’s a parking lot somewhere, but other than that? Nothing. Venice is a pedestrians paradise, a city designed for walking and traveling by foot in a way that went out of fashion everywhere else with the advent of vehicles. This helps set a particular mood for the city as you walk along its narrow streets and across the numerous picturesque bridges. It can get crowded at times, which is to be expected, but stray from the usual tourist areas and you’re likely to find yourself alone but for the sound of water gently lapping against the walkways and the antique buildings which surround you.

Ah, the antique buildings. There are many sights to see and famous locals to explore in Venice, but for the most part I found simply wandering randomly through the less crowded sections of the city to be much more enjoyable than the more famous touristy sections. Why? Because again, the entire city is a massive historical monument itself. One in which people still live and enjoy to this day. Even in the quiet little corners away from it all you’ll find unusual sights to see and oddities to explore. The sheer volume of historical church and the like is mind-boggling, ensuring that although Venice is not a very large city all things considered, you’re never at a loss for things to see and enjoy.

To add to the cities interest Venice itself also boasts a slew of its own unique personality traits. You’ve undoubtedly seen pictures of the Venetian masks and parties, the remarkably detailed and extravagant feathers and costumes. You’ll find many shops along the many avenue which cater towards selling these, small booths along main streets selling cheap plastic knockoffs for the tourists and the more dignified locations from which you can buy the ‘real thing’ so to speak. I found simply looking through the windows and wandering the shops which sold these to be its own pleasure as the craftsmanship and imagination which go into these projects is fascinating. Then there’s the architecture! In a city where nearly every building is historic in some way, there’s a love of flourished and embellishments which I haven’t quite seen the like of anywhere else. I can only presume it’s the locals equivalent to the more mundane ‘who’s got the greener lawn’ contest. Also remarkable is that for a city built above water, parks and gardening are amazingly common. Baskets containing herbs and pretty flowers hanging from windows, small but well kept and particularly green parks. It’s not something I’d really expected to see considering Venice’s unusual location.

Venice is beyond any doubt one of the most unique places in the world, one which everyone with a love of travel and history should see. To walk along its historic avenue, peer into the shops selling Venetian masks or to stare in wonder at the facade of a grand church before you. It’s stunning!

Once upon a time in Rome.

January 11, 2009

Once upon a time there was a city named Rome, and it was the center of the world! It’s power stretched across almost all of Europe and into strange, foreign lands of beauty and danger. From the icy north-lands to the vast desert stretches, all answered to Rome. Grandest city in the known world.

Needless to say, Rome isn’t quite like that anymore. But it made for a dramatic introduction to this short article and it sets a proper mood for reading about Rome. Why? Because Rome is all about the past. It’s about the empires of the past and the mighty people who ran them. It’s a persistent vibe throughout the city that truly sets it apart from any other capital city in the world.

But let us begin somewhere more grounded, shall we? Departing from the train system into Romes main terminal is a bit of a mess really. It’s crowded and not terribly traveler friendly. Indeed the city itself is not very kind to backpackers at all. Between a complete lack of any useful tourism information that’s easily accessible for your average unprepared random wanderers like myself, and the abundance of rather grumpy and unfriendly people, first impressions were not the best sort. I still harbor a few particular grudges towards some events that took place in Rome. But I wont dwell on these things, promise, I’m simply stating the blunt truth to try and set a grim but necessary foundation for my brief description of Rome.

Once you have found a place to spend the night and a safe location for your things, you’ll want to wander and see the city proper. And this is where Rome begins to shine! Despite everything said above Rome is actually one of the few major cities where to get the proper experience I’d say walking worked best. Whether you’re strolling between the fashionable tight Italian alleys or staring up in awe at some of the magnificent works of art that fill the city to near burst, it all feels ‘right’ to be on foot and most of the things you’ll want to see as a tourist are within walking distance of one another.

And there are many things you’ll want to see in Rome. You’re probably thinking of the coliseum right now, but once that awe inspiring moment where you stand at the structures base and stare up at it for the first time thinking “I can’t believe I’m seeing this in person!” passes, I quickly found the coliseum to be one of the lesser sights of Rome. Surrounded by fencing and crowded beyond belief. Loud with pushy tourists and locals and vendors and who knows who else all over the place. Eug. I was if anything a bit relieved to walk away from that particular famous attraction. Luckily Rome has many, many more to offer. Some just as famous, others not as much. Luckily even simply walking down the street in Rome can offer all sorts of sights and sounds. This is one of those rare places where it’s common to find archaeological digs interrupting streets or where you find yourself by accident wandering across some famous relic from the past you’d forgotten till just then. For example; You’re walking down a narrow street on your way to the Pantheon and find yourself stumbling across Trevi Fountain on the way, which you’d forgotten was even in Rome. Or walking across a bridge to see the Vatican and finding yourself staring up in awe at the amazing Castel Sant’Angelo, or Hadrian’s Tomb as it’s also known, with it’s dozens of angels watching its way. It’s an amazing thing for one city to be so full of such amazing things.

Which brings us to The Vatican, most well known for its main structure Saint Peter’s Basilica, which from a glance is extremely big and quite impressive. Although truthfully there are other cathedrals and churches which I’d say lent to a better first impression despite being nowhere near the Basilica’s size. The vast Saint Peter’s Square and the journey leading up to Basilica entrance is certainly something you’ll remember, but it’s the inside, the sheer size and… opulence of Saint Peter’s Basilica seen from the inside which is nothing less than humbling. I am not a religious man, I’ve said so before and I say so again. And yet the majesty and glory of Saint Peter’s Basilica is something to appreciate regardless of your religious beliefs. I marvel at the time and craftsmanship it must have taken to build such a structure, and the costs of maintenance must be beyond belief.

Here, let me describe my experience better instead of simply saying how amazing it was. In the square outside leading to the Basilica there is a long lineup that stretches across one end of the area. Usually there are hundreds of people there, patiently waiting in line. Luckily it is a quick line as I found the heat while waiting nearly unbearable. To this end unfortunately you ‘must’ cook to a certain degree, as in a nod to the Basilica’s tradition and history there are armed guards who look over every person before you are allowed to pass, making sure you wear the appropriate amount of clothing befitting the nature of the church you’re entering. Many are given a cheap but effective paper shawl to wear inside if their clothing is not conservative enough to pass muster, but not revealing enough to outright deny entry as they can and will do if your clothing is simply that scant. Slowly you’ll move forward and eventually find yourself inside, passing through the catacombs and past the tombs of the popes past. It sounds more glamorous than it is really, and in truth the catacomb is a stately white area with orderly niche for tombs. The last pope’s tomb, John Paul II, with a vigilant guard standing nearby. Eventually you’ll be led up a small circular stairwell, and finally into the Basilica proper where you’re free to wander as you see fit.

St. Peter’s Basilica is awe inspiringly big from the inside, crowded shoulder to shoulder with tourists and staff more often than not, and with nearly every square inch of the walls decorated with some sort of elaborate art. Paintings and carvings are so plentiful it’s impossible to count, all done with that particular renaissance style that the church has grown associated with. What I found particularly stunning were the ceiling murals and the way it seemed every window was designed just right to create beams of shimmering light that reached down like, well, godly beams. Extremely impressive to say the least. Humbling to be allowed near the seat of such wealth and power.

And that was simply the Vatican, Rome has much more to offer. Another notable experience which springs to mind is of probably the single most massive monument in Rome, the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, first king of a united Italy. This structure also holds the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a monument to the Italian soldiers lost in World War I. To say it is big is an understatement, the structure, all a pure white marble, is simply breathtaking. You’re allowed to climb the marble steps, past the unknown soldiers tomb and the eternal flame, to the top where you’ll find a small museum dedicated to the unification of Italy. What’s interesting is that there are armed guards who watch the monument and who will stop anyone from sitting or spitting or anything of the sort anywhere upon the monument. More than once I saw a tired tourist pause for a moment while climbing the steps, and try to take a seat only to have a guard whistle in their direction and gesture for them to continue moving.

But I could write forever on the many, many, many sights of Rome (And The Vatican, since it’s really its own city-state! Tiny one, but city-state nonetheless.). The true experience is simply to walk its streets, visit the cafe and relax in the shade. Saunter along next to a field where once lay a famous hippodrome, or to count the cats that climb about an ancient Roman temple now turned into a preserve of sorts within the middle of a busy intersection. Each famous monument is on its own impressive, but it’s that they’re all collected into one city that truly amazes. Rome is, truth be told, not a city I would live in. It is however a city I’d recommend for all to visit, especially for anyone with even a remote love of history.

Rome. Beautiful and ancient!

Extremely meandering post that eventually leads to Pompeii.

September 29, 2008

I’ve been trying to type things out in order from when I visited em but you know what? That’s boring! It’s late right now and I feel like typing, just not about the next place I’d visited after Birmingham. (Hint: York) Not that I wont write on York later. Nice place really, I’m just not in a Yorkie mood… speaking of which damn those are good chocolate bars, Yorkie bars. Luckily I’ve found a couple places in Calgary that sell em and I stock up when I can. Just plain chocolate, nothing fancy, and that’s what is so damn brilliant about em! One thing I’ve wondered however is why they advertise Yorkies as ‘no girls allowed?’ I gave one to my younger sister not too long ago and she failed to violently explode or grow a mustache, so why no girls?… I’ve gotten sidetracked haven’t I? That’s the problem with writing late at night, or morning really if I want to be technical about it, my mind wanders. Unfortunately that’s also when I feel the most creative and up to typing. Most of what I’ve typed has been written sometime between midnight and 6:00 AM, it’s my creative time, damned if I know why. Logically on those occasions when my sleeping habits are somewhat normal my ‘creative’ time oughta be at a different more respectable hour, but it just doesn’t seem to work that way. Ah well!

So, what was this all about? Oh yeah, Pompeii, or Pompei as the modern town there is now called in what I presume is a clever ploy to trick Mt. Vesuvius into not erupting again out of confusion whether it’s already destroyed this town or not. Let us talk about that, shall we?

To get there you can simply take the train as there’s a stop named Pompei which I’d thought was more for tourism than anything. I was wrong. You see, there’s a modern town situated there now, something which I honestly never knew but really should have guessed now that I think about it. Quaint little town truth be told, little being the key word as it’s literally little more than a collection of Hotels and restaurants circling a central square park and surprisingly nice cathedral/city hall/quite beautiful building which even now, looking online, I can’t find out what exactly it was. I presume church because of the big cross and angels blowing trumpets but you can never really be sure, although through the magic of the Internet I can link to a picture I took of it that turned out extremely well if I do say so myself. Behold! Nice eh? There is more to the town than that, but it’s quite spread out and for the most part that’s what you’ll see of it.

Upon arriving there I admit I was confused, I mean… this is Pompei right? Where were the ruins and why is this small town here? No help was forthcoming as the train terminal was a sparse as they come, so in a daring maneuver I call ‘asking for help’ I walked to the nearest Hotel and asked the person where exactly the ruins are and whether they had any rooms available. Unfortunately no rooms were forthcoming, luckily she spoke a smattering of English and was able to give me an idea which direction to head in, the town of Pompeii actually being part of the town of Pompei, go figure. My companion and I wandered for a bit with a vague idea of where everything was and eventually found a decent little hotel to spend the night in then using what I’ve come to think of as the universal language of babbling, pointing, waving my arms and smiling politely when they say something I can’t understand while nodding managed to rent the room from the kindly old lady who spoke neither English nor french for the night before wandering out in the general direction of where the ruins were supposed to be.

Ah, the ruins. For the price of 10euros to the extremely sour woman behind the counter (Whether she is or isn’t there may vary, that she was extremely rude and grumpy will not!) you are given access to an amazing vast slice of the past. Worth any frustration I’d had finding the place and certainly worth the entrance price. I’d go so far as to say anyone with even a remote vague interest in the past should visit this place right now. Go on, get going. I’ll wait till you get back. Back now? Excellent, so you’ll know what I’m writing about when I say wasn’t that damn incredible? The way once you’re past the gates you’re given free reign of what amount to a small ancient town almost completely open to exploration and wandering, so big that this ancient town actually has street signs and directions to help people not get lost, wasn’t that amazing?

Walking along the uneven smooth stone pathway with the cart wheel grooves worn into it from hundreds of years of horse-drawn carts being navigated down these narrow streets. The distinct red-brick roman buildings that vary from simply rubble to almost completely intact, often even still boasting the original floor tiles and wall murals from almost 2000 years ago. The fact you’re often simply allowed to walk around these places without guide, taking your time and looking over the individual details of a wall painting that predates almost everything you’ve ever known if you want, or simply skip to other places like the amphitheater or teatro, or if you’re the more gruesome type, the casts of the people who died in this place so very long ago. Yes, there are quite a few of those on display, some covered by glass cases still resting where they died so long ago but most having been moved to various places throughout the town and either put out as a grim display of the towns history or stored away in dark corners you can kinda see when peering inside the various storage buildings which also contain ancient vase, murals and statue and lots and lots of red roof tiles. Personally I have to admit the sight of those body cast made me queasy and I never really sought them out after the first few, the amount of detail on some and the positions they’re often in speak volumes of the misery of those last few livings moments, almost voyeuristic. Casts of dogs were also available, contorted into unnatural shapes from those last moments of agony I presume. Gruesome. Enough detail for you? Good. Moving onto other sights of Pompeii now that the mandatory mention of the inhabitants is aside.

As I mentioned above the quality and condition of the buildings tended to vary between complete ruin and amazingly intact, some even boasting complete roof and decorations. The experience of walking down these streets with Roman ruins to either side, the stark outline of Mt. Vesuvius in the distance and the bright sun overhead, birds singing in the distance accompanied by the occasional dogs bark and the murmur of other tourist groups passing by, it’s all very surreal. Other tourists weren’t actually all that common in my experience, perhaps simply the sheer size of the attraction spreads them out to such a degree that I felt isolated. You’d think Pompeii would be a massive tourist destination but it never felt that way. Hell, like I said you’re pretty much given the freedom to wander as you like, but you will also often stumble across parts closed to the public; scaffolds set up and various archaeologists tools sitting about, perhaps even one of the elusive archaeologist breed actually kneeling nearby hard at work. It all lends a certain informal feel to the place as though rather than a tourist you’re a guest being allowed to enter if you promise nicely not to touch anything. I feel I should add here that while I was there construction was in the works on a new more fancy modern tourists center as opposed to the simple booths I encountered, so who knows what Pompeii will be like a couple years down the line. For now however, it’s a surprisingly relaxed experience.

Pompeii was incredible, I’ll say that again and again and probably years from now will still be using those words to describe visiting there, Pompeii was incredible. Nighttime came and we were shooed out of the ruins by bored guards that were doing a search pattern along the streets to make sure not to miss any wandering sightseers, after that nothing eventful and the next day was back onto the train to another town. But damn, Pompeii was incredible (Warned you I’d say it over and over again!) and it was easily one of the most interesting places I’ve ever seen. So. Damn. Incredible.