Ok, so we’re doing this…

Since I’m not sure if I mentioned it in the last post, you should be aware that my first day in Florence I came down with a head cold. Stuffy nose, sinus congestion, that kind of thing. Apart from deciding against a day trip to Lucca in favor of resting, it didn’t affect my trip, but it is critical in understanding this story. 

The day after I visited David (we’re on first-name terms), I was feeling lots better but wasn’t sure I was up to the dome climb. I was going to see Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) and the Baptistry and the museum, but probably was going to skip the climb. 463 steps in both directions is a lot when you’re wheezing to begin with. So I headed over there. 

For two days I had seen a line that wrapped all the way around the building and presumed it was the line for everything Duomo-related. Fortunately that morning I was early(ish) and the Firenze Card line had maybe 10 people in it while the “without reservations” line had at least 100. So I jumped in line. 

*Brief interlude to extol the virtues of Firenze Card: If you plan to be in Florence for two days or more and want to see three or more museums, get the Firenze Card. Kinda pricey (72 euro), but gets you into everything, and you just jump right on into the “with reservations” line whenever you please. Having caught a cold and needing to change plans accordingly, this flexibility was priceless. And I think my longest wait for anything was 15 minutes. David, Duomo, Pitti, Uffizi; never more than 15 minutes. In June. 

Ok, interlude over. So I get in line, wait five whole minutes, and when I get inside I see the line leads to this:

And all I hear in my head is a line from Hamilton, “Ok, so we’re doing this”.  No backing out. I was on the Dome climb, and I’m so glad I did it. Fortunately, I had old(er) people ahead of me, and under the guise of politeness I paced myself and wheezed and stopped for breath along with them. And when we reached the top, it was glorious. 

My local church, Santa Croce. More about this later. 

I got many long minutes to circle the lantern and enjoy the beauty before I decided it was time to descend. On the way down, the two-way traffic jam gave me a sense of what this climb is like if you show up an hour later. Hot tip: Be early in Italy. Let everyone else nurse their hangovers. Get going early and your experience will be private, unhurried and moving. 

Two sights that had no line whatsoever were among my favorites: Santa Croce and the Galileo museum. Something about Santa Croce is inexpressibly graceful. Maybe it’s the stone arches, maybe the gorgeous wood timbered ceiling, or maybe the fact that most of the frescoes are pre-Renaissance. For whatever reason, it is my favorite church so far. Maybe you can see why. 

Michaelangelo’s tomb. Having admired so many of his works to this point, it was a privilege to see where he is buried. 

I resolved to come back for a Sunday evening service. 

The Galileo museum is a welcome break from paintings and sculpture, and gave me a real appreciation for the curiosity and ingenuity of the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment. These guys wanted to understand everything. They came up with ingenious ways to solve problems I now take for granted. For example, this clever gizmo.  It has a sloped plane along which a metal ball descends. There are five bells placed so that the ball triggers each bell at regular intervals. But the bells get farther and farther apart, showing how an object picks up velocity the longer it descends. 

There’s also this primitive FitBit (pedometer). Imagine logging your 10,000 steps with this. 

And these gadgets that are straight out of Frankenstein. 

After a long day of learning in some wonderful museums, I decided to let loose and attend the theatre. What was playing? King Lear. In Italian. Yes I did. 

The show was being performed in Florence’s oldest standing theatre, Teatro Della Pergola. Of course I didn’t know any of this when I bought the ticket. I made a wrong turn, saw the posters, and decided to go for it. The show was really very good. One part performance art to two parts Shakespeare with a female Lear who was really effective. The actors were excellent and the design simple but striking. I loved every minute.  


Ciao Firenze!

“Roma is beautiful but Firenze is a masterpiece “- our Roman waiter, Daniel

So true. This city is unlike any I’ve seen. The colors, the winding narrow streets; the church bells.  The city sings. I know the street musicians are out for the tourists and I don’t care. They’re wonderful. So, a few observations: first, art is everywhere. From the museums to casual works on random walls. 

Second: the dome is always “right over there”. The city isn’t that big. You can walk from one end to the other in about 20 minutes, and as you wind through the labyrinth of streets, that big red dome peeks out between buildings only to disappear again in 20 yards. It’s like playing peek-a-boo with the world’s biggest toddler. 

Third: the doors are incredible. You could do a whole photo book just on the doors of Florence (and I’m sure many have). They are giant wooden things often with carvings and giant iron knockers. 

And boy do the Florentines love their dolci.  I’ve seen more gelaterias and sweet shops here than any other town I’ve visited. Perhaps it’s for the tourists, or perhaps this is just a city with a big sweet tooth. 

And yes, David is more beautiful than I could have imagined. Get up early, get in line, and go see him. I showed up 30 mins. before opening and was the first in line. There were only a handful of us when I first saw him. He is magnificent. Art books don’t prepare you for the gracefulness of his pose, or for the magnetic qualities of strength and stillness. I agree with those who claim that this is David before the fight. His expression seems to me to be the exact moment of clarity when one sees the possibility in the impossible task. Rock in hand, sling over the shoulder, the calm before the storm. The exact moment when the boy becomes the king. 

Of all the wonderful artists I’ve seen in Italy, Michaelangelo is quickly becoming my favorite. Even his unfinished work is poetic.  

I have two more days in this wonderful city, so for now, I’ll leave you with some photos and say ciao

A day in Papa’s house

Pope Francis, or as he is sweetly called in Italy, Papa Francesco, lives here.

It’s a pretty sweet crib. Fortunately, some of its most holy sites and astounding treasures are open to one and all. We were with our beloved guide Tosca for a half-day tour of the Vatican, and she told us that if we have questions we should ask, and then told us a story about an Egyptian tour group who politely listened to her talk about the Vatican for 45 minutes before asking, “Yes, but Tosca, who is this Jesus”.  Ask questions. Noted.

As soon as we were in the door, we made a beeline for the Sistine Chapel, and thank goodness. There were only about 80 people when we got there, which is nothing. There is room to move around, to sit against three walls, to take 20 minutes and just consider that extraordinary ceiling. Photos are not allowed (though I saw several rule breakers), so I just sat and marveled. 

After the chapel it was back through the Vatican museums with more beautiful artwork and artifacts than you can imagine unless you’ve seen it. 

A portrait of Michaelangelo in the midst of a busy scene by Raphael. 

This mosaic floor was brought to the Vatican from Ostia Antica.  1800 years old and it gets walked on every day.

There is a whole hallway filled with these incredible maps from the 16th century. 

Having looped back through the museums, our exit was through the Sistine again. This time it was packed, and a man with a microphone kept saying “silencio ” and “no photos”.  Not the same at all. We moved on to the Basilica of St. Peter with its tremendous dome. I couldn’t believe the size of it. It is enormous and completely covered in marble. Tosca told us over and over that there are no painted walls in St.Peter’s. Everything is mosaic. 

To give you a sense of scale, the bright glowy center of that stained glass window is five feet across. Yeah. Here’s more amazingness from St. Peter’s. 

Mosaic. That’s a mosaic. 

And of course, no visit would be complete without seeing the Pietà. It just glows. It is so moving. I find it hard to believe that so many criticized it when it was completed, but I guess some people don’t experience art with their heart. 

Because it is a Jubilee Year of Mercy, we entered through the Holy Door. Again, no photos, and that is for the best. Sometimes you just need to be present in the moment. 

After a quick rest at our apartment, we set out to see a few more sights on our last night in Rome. But we were chased into Santa Maria Del Popolo by a sudden rainstorm. As we admired the art by Raphael and Caravaggio, evening mass started, so we stayed to listen before heading off to dinner. After a full and delicious meal, the sky had cleared and we set out for the Trevi fountain. I understand now why it is famous. 

But first, an aperitif. Our charming bartender suggested some local liqueurs. 

The effect of the lights on the water and the fountain are stunning, especially after a very recent (finished a few months ago) restoration. 

I loved the combination of the smooth, sleek figures and the rough natural rock. 

The fountain is massive. So much bigger than I imagined, and yet, tucked away in a small piazza. You’d likely miss it if you weren’t looking for it. It was a perfect end to our beautiful stay in Rome. This is a city I would come back to in a heartbeat, and it will always be home to so many special moments.  But Florence calls, and I must go. 

The Ancient Ways

Among my most highly anticipated days on this trip were the two days we would spend at Ostia Antica and exploring Ancient Rome.  I warn you now, you’re going to see several pictures of the Colosseum.  But first, a quick trip to Ostia.

This is maybe a quarter of what was, in its height in the 3rd century, a bustling port town.  The Mediterranean is four miles to the West, and the ancient Tiber flowed right up to the doorstep of the city.  Due to a massive flood that changed the course of the river in the 1500s it’s now about 3/4 mile away.  Ostia was a port town of about 60,000 people as well as a military encampment to protect the Tiber.  They had everything: apartments, houses, shops, baths, a theatre, entertainment, a cemetery, even a laundry.

Mosaic floors in front of shop space tell us what kind of merchant located here.  Most revolve around fishmongers and navigators/shipping, but some even sold live exotic animals like elephants, boar, and bears.

The theatre was most impressive to me (of course).  Built to hold nearly 10,000 people, from stage level I could be heard perfectly if I spoke in a normal voice.  No projection needed here.  Of course you factor in 10,000 drunk spectators and an actor probably had to work a bit harder than I did.

The wealthy had it especially good (of course).  They had large homes with their own running water, their own toilets and even heated floors.  Interior floors were suspended with a dead space directly below followed by a lower floor under which massive fires would be burning, tended by slaves, presumably.  The hot air rose through terra cotta tubes into the dead space between the two floors.

An ancient marble commode. Pretty but perhaps a bit nippy on the tush.

An example of the heating tubes 

One thing our guide, a lively older Italian lady named Tosca, reinforced constantly was that to Romans, now and then, brick was ugly.  Having spent some time in the Midwest with relatives, I’ve always liked the look of brick, but Romans did/do not. Every brick surface you see would have been covered with stucco and brightly painted fresco or marble.  Damn.

Tosca’s incredible books on Rome that show the ruins as they are on the page and then have a transparent overlay to show you what they would have looked like in their height.  Turns out these books are available in any tourist kiosk in Rome.

After Ostia we headed to the ancient Appian Way to see the catacombs of St. Callixtus.  Due to fatigue, heat, and the fact that you can’t take photos in the catacombs, I’ll just give you some interesting bullet points:

  • The catacombs were land gifted by wealthy Christians as early as 100 AD because Christians did not cremate bodies as the pagans did, and their tombs were regularly raided or desecrated in pagan cemeteries.
  • They were used until about 800 AD, at which point burials started happening at ground level.  They were then abandoned for 800 years before  the first excavations began, and after some initial poking around, were abandoned for a further 200 years.
  • There are 60 catacombs in Rome (you can only visit 5), and if you stretched their tunnels end to end, it would stretch from Rome to Florence.  
  • St. Callixtus alone has 24km of tunnels (An archaeologist once got lost for 3 days) with four burial layers that held 500,000 bodies.
  • St. Cecilia of yesterday’s post was originally buried here until she was interred in the church that now stands on the foundations of her house.

Ok, on to Ancient Rome.  This is how I first saw the Colusseum. In the morning light, straight out of the Metro stop. I’d advise seeing it this way to anyone.

There is no way I can give you even a fraction of the information Tosca related over a four hour tour of the Colosseum, Forum and Palatine hill, so I’ll let pictures do most of the talking.

A view of the Forum from the Palatine Hill.  The hill was where the Emperors had their palaces.  The Forum was a huge public space full of shops, temples, and official building.  I have never wanted a time machine so badly.

Remains of  the palaces.  Remember: brick is ugly.  These ruins would have been covered in marble or painted fresco.

Triumphal arches and columns commemorated great battles and depicted specific deeds of the emperors.

A typical example of Roman roadwork

A recently constructed example of one of the four hundred (!) trap doors/ramps on in the floor of the Colusseum.  They must have had great stage managers.

Brick is ugly.  The Colusseum would have been all marble.

The thing that kept blowing my mind was the way that things were built one on top of the other, like a lasagna.  In the Middle Ages, silt filled in the whole area of the forum.  Columns poked up from underground, but Michaelangelo would have had no idea this existed.

After the ancient sights, it  was time for lunch and a trip to the Pantheon before an evening stroll to catch the view from the Gianicolo.

Lunch at Trattoria Moderna with the very kind (and hot) host, Daniel.

Dude.  That’s my head.  Boundaries.

Panorama of the beautiful Pantheon and the oculus. You can fit a perfect sphere in this building, and the walls are 18 feet thick at the base to support the dome. They are 2 feet thick at the oculus to reduce weight.

Next time…The Vatican

A Day To Wander

YouTube will tell you that this Italian hand gesture means “Look at that idiot!”  I found it amusing that this statue is located right in a prime tourist location.

First things first: a trip to the local outdoor market, which is barely a block from our flat.  Determined to make better use of my limited Italian  I set off with my shopping list.  As I stepped out the door, a truck driver called “Scusi, signora” and began asking for directions.  From me.  He thought I was Italian.  Hooray!  That is, he thought I was Italian until I opened my mouth and said what I’m sure sounded like “Me no speak good.  I is sorry.” He gave me a “you don’t say” look and asked someone else.  

The market vendors were all friendly, patient and very sweet.  They responded with a smile to my pointing and asked where I was from.  It occurred to me at that moment that the response “Sono di California” accompanied by a                       ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ gesture would excuse me from giving directions and might justify any social blunders in the future.  Duly noted. Except for a small quantity mishap (I didn’t really need a kilo of carrots) all went well, and we set off for a walk through Trastevere and the old Jewish quarter.  

Of course one must have a caffè, so we stopped at the local bar.  The owner had several photos of dogs over the bar, including pugs!  I showed him a photo of my parents’ pug, Mina, and that is how we learned the Italian word for pug: Carlino.

Mom and Dad. Awwwww.

We descended the steps into Trastevere and made an immediate beeline for the river.  The Tiber.  We were standing over the Tiber.  Seeing that storied river was the first time I realized that I was really here in an ancient and beautiful place, retracing the footsteps of the Caesars.  I have to admit, it brought me to tears.

We strolled along the riverbank where they were setting all sorts of food stalls and entertainment spaces.  A nice Roman named Federico stopped to warn us about the fresh paint and explained that a festival for visitors and locals would be taking place in mid-June through July.  When we complimented his English and thanked him for stopping us he just said, “You’re welcome.  I like to do this”.

At the next opportunity we crossed the Tiber (!) and ran straight into an extensive excavation: the Theatre of Marcellus.

I don’t know how to properly convey the size of it. Massive. Looming.  

Everywhere I looked, I had to take a photo.

The way the new construction was built around and on top of the ancient sections seemed a perfect metaphor for Rome, or life, or something.  It was overwhelming.  The scale of the ruins, the busy traffic and even the man playing his accordion felt just perfect.  

We wandered, taking photos of everything, and all of my concern about looking like a tourist vanished.  Who cares? How could I not look like a tourist with my mouth open in wonder, exclaiming “Wow. WOW!” at everything.

After a cheap and cheerful pizza lunch we recrossed the river into Trastevere. We wound through the tiniest streets with cars zipping by us with inches to spare until we came to the church of Santa Cecilia. From what I understand (again, the Italian is sketchy), St. Cecilia was martyred in the year 246 in a pretty nasty way. Exposed to intense steam for three days and then struck on the neck with a sword three times, she was eventually left to die in the street when these attempts to kill her failed. 

The church itself dates from the 3rd century, and evidence of it being a home prior to that are seen in the excavations in the crypt. 

A pagan shrine to the goddess Minerva in the crypt of Santa Cecilia

Stone fragments from the third century line the exterior, with interior wall frescoes which date from the 12th century, and a beautiful ceiling depiction of St. Cecilia from the 15th. 

Much of the decorative plasterwork was restored in the 18th century, and the excavation and building of the crypt was completed in the 20th.

When we arrived, a small choir of nuns were singing and there had clearly been a wedding as each row of chairs had flowers and two pristine white knee lees were front and center.  The whole place was lovely and very moving, even for my father who has never been religious.

We headed back up the hill to Monteverde and after a wrong turn that had us walking into someone’s back yard, we arrived happy and footsore at the flat.  I cooked up a dinner of prosciutto, pea and tomato spaghetti, and then we toddled off for an evening gelato at the local dolci.  Perfetto!

Ciao Roma!

For the first time in nine years (due mainly to budgetary restrictions…booooo) I find myself overseas.  That exhilarating combination of new surroundings, visiting the places I’d only experienced through books or film, and not quite being able to communicate has set in again.  My parents and I are taking a month in Italy, the longest vacation I’ve ever had, and before we left, we made two crucial decisions:

1: We would take some Italian lessons and

2: We would fly Business Class on the way over so Mom’s back wouldn’t throw a fit at the start o the trip.

A brief word about my first experience with Business Class.  I believe everyone should be treated this way on any flight over four hours.  Never has anyone been so concerned with my comfort and refreshment as those flight attendants.  I arrived as refreshed and in as good a mood as is possible after crossing an ocean.  The trip back will be a crushing return to reality after my brief encounter with luxury, I suspect.

Our dinner menu. And that’s not even the wine list. Good lord.

Upon arriving in Rome, we shuttled to an apartment in the Monteverde area which we had booked on AirBnB, another first and another success.  I mean, look at this place.

Monteverde is up the hill from the Trastevere neighborhood and as such is just off the edge of any useful map of Rome.  A thirty minute walk gave us our bearings, especially once we stumbled onto the map, and treated us to a spectacular view.

And even though we doubted we could ever eat as late as the Italians (sometimes 9 or 10 pm), at 9:30 we found ourselves having a delicious meal in a tiny but classy restaurant.  All the Italian I’d learned seemed to desert me as I tried to communicate with the waitress, but we had arrived safely in a beautiful place.  We had a roof and full tummies.  The rest could wait until morning.

One Positive Thing

     As 2013 comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting on the lessons of the year.  A take-away from the last twelve months, you might say.  This year, my take-away is a technique that I have employed often on the trail, yet somehow failed to apply to my daily life until this year.  When backpacking or hiking, I often reach a point where I become fatigued and frustrated.  My body wants to quit, my brain wants to shut down and I can feel myself on the verge of a bad decision made in anger.  At this point, I will ask myself, “What is one thing you can do right now to improve the situation?”  It doesn’t have to be a big thing.  It doesn’t have to make everything better in an instant.  Often it is something small, like stopping for a snack or taking a sip of water or looking at the map and setting some mini-goals to encourage myself.  It has never failed to improve the situation at least a little, and often puts me in a constructive frame of mind.  

    This year I took this lesson from the trail and used it in my daily life.  When the government shutdown hit, I felt absolutely powerless until I realized that with my connections in the outdoor industry and the marvels of social media, I might be able to salvage some vacations.  I started a Facebook page, created a resource on this blog, and got busy making calls around the country to get information.  The response was incredibly positive.  I couldn’t believe the support and encouragement I got from complete strangers.  Because of this small gesture, my experience of a terrible chapter in our history was far more positive and restorative than it had any right to be.  So I started to make small, positive decisions in my personal and professional life.  In addition to making the immediate situation marginally better, I found that each positive action often led to another.  And tonight, I had one more.  Every year, my co-worker, Peter, goes to Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles with volunteers from the Sierra Club.  They take backpacks loaded with donated warm clothing and toiletries through this desperate neighborhood in the middle of the night and distribute them to the homeless population.  Given the proximity to Christmas, I am usually working early the next morning, so I don’t go on the hike, but I raid my closet every year for items to give.  

      This year, I was feeling the Christmas blues a bit, so to improve the situation, I decided to support Peter’s efforts.  I love Christmas caroling and have been frustrated that in this great big city, the only opportunity to carol seems to be at a sing-a-long with the Philharmonic, held on the weekends of course, when I have to be at work.  So I decided to get some friends together who have expressed a similar desire to go caroling.  I made a songbook and picked two neighborhoods where the residents have plenty, but seem fun and game for something new.  I distributed flyers explaining that we would be caroling on a specific night and time and collecting donations for Peter’s hike.  If they wanted us to come by, they should tie the attached ribbon to their door.  I had no idea what kind of response we would get, if any.  My budget only allowed me to make up about fifty flyers for each neighborhood, and I figured if we got one in twenty to participate, it would be a success.  Tonight was the first night, and we received donations from about five or six houses, some of whom even offered us cookies.  I have a trunk full of sweaters, blankets, and toiletries, and most of all, my Christmas blues are long gone.  Sometimes, if you can’t find a positive action of your own, the best thing you can do is support someone else’s.

           The holiday season always makes me  a little nostalgic and reflective, and this year, for the first time in a long time, I feel truly good about nearly all of the decisions I’ve made.  When I was frustrated, I chose comfort.  When I was sad, I chose to be joyful, and when I felt bitterness, I chose to show love.  Not always, and not always successfully, but in choosing to do one positive thing, I have made a year of wonderful memories.  I hope that your holidays and new year bring you joy, peace and love.

Stay Wild!