Notes from Stonesthrow

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Italy January 8, 2011

Filed under: Travel — Greg @ 12:40 am

First, let’s briefly acknowledge the slacktitude of this blog and state that I promise to be better.

Now then.

(BTW, some pictures will be below, but all of them can be found on my website, linked to the right, or here; )

We arrived in Italy on 12/26 after a red-eye from Philadelphia. We were Envoy Class on US Airways, so don’t feel bad for us. I’m still undecided whether we should have done it going or leaving, but Rick assures me we would not have slept were we in coach and he’s probably right.

We went to our hotel and found our room ready and amenable.

12/26: Pantheon/Forum/Palatine Hill

  • The Pantheon is impressive and not to be missed; there is something solemn about it, despite the swarms of humanity.
  • The Forum is probably our #1 Rome experience, I think we decided. At a certain point, you have to have a moment where you go, “I’m walking where Julius freaking Caesar walked,” which is amazing and overwhelming. The scale of the Basilica of Maxentius is frankly ridiculous. Again, to think that about its size when it was whole is overwhelming.

  • For both the Pantheon and the Forum (and other sites later) we used Rick Steves’s audio tours (e.g.). Steves is almost intolerably cheesy when he gets on a roll. However, the guy knows how to do a tour that’s just the right amount and covers the important stuff. Largely, I was very pleased with our use of his tours and the Rome and Tuscany guidebooks.
  • The Palatine Hill thing was a great walkthrough of the remains of a palace. It’s really beautiful with great views.
  • We returned to the hotel at that point and met Dad and Erin for dinner nearby (all food discussions will be over at Chicken-Fried Caviar, another to-be-resuscitated blog) and then a relatively early night.

12/27: Vatican

As a soundly lapsed Catholic, I obviously have a complex relationship with the Vatican as a symbol and seat of power. As a place? Holy moley. If they wanted to build it to convince people to be Catholic, they succeeded, because I almost re-upped.

  • The Vatican Museum can become tedious after a while, but the Raphaels and other random rooms (animal statues!) are overall really impressive. Mitigating one’s experience is indeed the hordes of humanity going through it. It’s a hot mess.
  • The Sistine Chapel is really truly all it’s cracked up to be. Rick Steves really helped out here: being able to listen to the descriptions was great and a way to tuning out, again, the masses of humanity surrounding you. It is truly moving and fascinating.
  • We then used a Rick Steves trick to cut past lines into St. Peter’s and headed straight upstairs — literally up 550 stairs to the tippy-top where you can see all of Rome. It was sort of a backwards way of seeing the basilica, but it was sort of cool embracing the external enormity before going inside, which, well, cripes. Again, we were speechless at how impressive it was. Also, this is one of the first places I just started to really consider the amazing marble artistry from the Renaissance — how such a hard surface is made to appear light as a feather:

Just miraculous, which, I suppose is the point.

12/28: Colosseum/Capitoline Museum

  • Relatively early in the morning, we hit the Colosseum. It was interesting, but perhaps my least interesting place, frankly. I mean, I got the enormity of it all, and it was interesting imagining what happened there, but I do wish we could have gone into the lower level to those areas where the “performers” prepared:

  • However, somewhat unexpectedly, the Capitoline Museum was very impressive. In addition to having the She-Wolf and The Dying Gaul, it has the remaining wall of an ancient temple dedicated to Jupiter; for some reason it was really affecting, if only because of how enormous the temple actually was and how little of it remained. I really enjoyed this museum and think it’s probably #3 after the Forum and the Vatican.

12/29: Up to Tuscany

  • This was largely a travel day as we drove up to Vinci, outside of which we stayed at Streda. We popped into the very odd Leonardo museum in Vinci (seriously weird: there was nothing about the man himself, just a bunch of technical stuff about ideas he may or may not have had. Cool building though) before a stupendous dinner with host Claudio and his daughters. A brief tour of the view from Streda:

12/30: Florence

  • We got a ride from Vinci to Empoli, and from there trained to Florence. It might have been the dismal weather or travel fatigue, but I wasn’t overly in love with Florence. Certainly it was a welcome size change from Rome, being smaller and cozier, but I wasn’t all that impressed.
  • Part of that may have been with the Uffizi. Yes, it was something to see Botticelli’s Venus and other amazing works, but there were things lacking. First, the lighting was odd in rooms, with glare on the Venus and other works. Second, the “Tribune” was under construction, one of the more interesting rooms. Third, there were a relatively large amount of annoying people, which is never really good.
  • However, mitigating all of this was seeing the David at the Accademia. Again, I really wasn’t prepared for how affecting seeing this in person was. I really did linger for a long time with the statue, surrounding it, seeing it from various angles. I don’t know what it was, but it was really amazing. I took a picture against the rules with my phone.

  • Almost as interesting as Dave were the “prisoners” — the unfinished works still “trapped” in their blocks of marble. They were fascinating.

12/31: Volterra

  • We weren’t just copying Rick Steves’s suggestion; this hill town is also a favorite of Dad and Erin’s. We happened to go on a market day, so while parking was a pain, the town was excitingly filled with people.
  • I think this is the kind of Italy I’m more interested ultimately — the small town with crazy streets and new things around every corner. It was fun just walking around and coming across a paper store here or an alabaster factory there.
  • It’s also another Italian place that lives so easily with its history. Here’s the 5th Century BC arch that forms part of the wall around the city:

5th Century BC. And right before I took this a car was driving through. Their Roman theater ruins were largely unknown for centuries because it was where people had thrown their trash (not a great Italian trait, btw; the smoky haze from people burning trash around Vinci was a lowlight). It’s just crazy.

  • After Volterra, we returned for a quiet NYE watching a dubbed Independence Day and crazy Italian TV. And drinking. And flipvideo-taking:

1/1: Siena

  • Siena is great. Il Compo is an amazing piazza…where we had pizza. No, but it’s just a really interesting and enormous space:

  • And the town itself is like a hyper-Volterra — not as big as Florence, which I liked. Speaking of interesting, I found Siena’s Duomo to be perhaps my favorite church yet (OK, St. Peter’s probably still wins, but really, it’s not a fair fight). It was just very beautiful inside and out, and had a library with amazing murals and illuminated musical manuscripts. Just very cool. I was even inspired by the place to make an offering, my Catholicism finally erupting after all of the pressure during the trip.
  • Oh and we bought some sick table linens. Seriously.

1/2: Back to Rome

  • Dad and Erin dropped us back in Rome before they headed to Sicily. We tried for another trip to the Borghese Gallery (earlier we thought we had a reservation, but it was for the wrong day). I knew that it was pretty amazing, but I wasn’t really prepared for how much I just loved Bernini. The Apollo and Daphne is just sick.
  • We then went on a Rick Steves night stroll of Rome to conclude our trip. I don’t know if it was normal, but the streets were just jam-packed, and it was very cool to see a city so alive with people and stuff to see and do. The Trevi fountain didn’t disappoint, strangely enough.

Indeed, very little was disappointing on this trip. The sights that I had heard so much about were truly awe-inspiring for the most part. The people were gracious and warm. The travel was largely easy (customs in Philadelphia being the exception). All of that being said, I don’t know if I need to immediately return to the larger cities, having seen much of what I feel like I needed to see. I would go back in a heartbeat though to the smaller towns and to Tuscany to experience that “normal” life of Italy. If you haven’t been to Rome, I think you really must, and I’m so grateful to Erin and Dad for allowing us to do so!


One Response to “Italy”

  1. Melissa Says:

    Oh I just read this and watch your NYE video! It looked a bit more exciting than watching the people across the street from the condo banging pans together.

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