Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Honeymooners, Day Three: Rome If You Want To

We started the third morning of our honeymoon adventure by scaling the Spanish Steps.  Holding the honor of being the widest staircase in Europe, the 136 steps span the distance between Piazza di Spagna at the base and Piazza Trinità die Monti and a church of the same name at the top.  

The stairway was built with funds provided by French diplomat Étienne Gueffier in 1723, making my meager donation to the Trevi Fountain seem irrelevant.  But at least it fed the poor right? 

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck made the steps famous in the 1953 film Roman Holiday.  But I used that title for my last post, so we'll just have to move right along and live with the regret of that just-missed opportunity. 

Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of the Ugly Boat), located in the lower plaza, is credited to Pietro Bernini, father of the artist behind the Fountain of Four Rivers.  It is said that Pope Urban VIII requested the installation of this fountain after being impressed by a boat that had been carried to this spot by a flood of the Tiber river.  

Christmas celebrations in Italy begin eight days before Christmas and end after the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th.  It just so happens that the day of our climb up the Spanish Steps was January 6th.  We didn't participate in any such feast but I did snag this photo of a beautiful Nativity scene that had been placed at the top of the steps.

A short distance from the Spanish Steps was the expansive gardens surrounding the Villa Borghese.  There appeared to be some sort of marathon in progress, but the park had more than its fair share of casual Sunday walkers and bikers.  Along the way we came across this statue honoring German writer/poet Wolfang Goethe.  The statue was a gift of friendship from Germany's emperor William II to the city of Rome and was inaugurated in June 1904 in the presence of Italian king Vittorio Emanuele III.  Goethe stands atop the highest pedestal, surrounded by representations of the fields in which he was influential:  philosophy, drama and opera.

Although I was enjoying a leisurely stroll through the park, TJ was a man on a mission.  His plan was for us to charge through Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna (GNAM), Rome's National Gallery of Modern Art, located at one end of the park, go grab lunch at the other end of the park, and then return to the park to hit up another museum, all within a three hour period.  I'll save you the suspense:  we did it.

GNAM is a contemporary gallery featuring exhibits from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century.  It was a surprising oasis of modernity in a desert of antiquity.  Let's take a moment to appreciate some of my favorite pieces.

While waiting for our next destination to open it's doors, we stopped for lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe.  Glorious, delicious, trustworthy Hard Rock Cafe.  Loved by some, hated by others.  Some stop by for shot glasses and then hit the door.  I stop by for shot glasses and stay for the gluttony.  Wherever you go in the world, you know that you can visit the HRC for a consistent menu and free refills.  Below is a photo of a sight that almost brought me to tears.

To the left is the cafe.  To the right is the US Embassy.  You know, where I would work if ever we were assigned to Rome.  Do you know what's across the street from the US Consulate in Jerusalem?   Nothing, that's what.  *cries*

After finishing our lunch, we walked across the street and back into the park.  The Borghese Gallery was built using sketches by Scipione Borghese himself, who used the property as a suburban party villa.  Nowadays, the house provides gallery space for a large portion of the Borghese collection of paintings and sculptures.  The gallery features twenty exhibition rooms spread across two floors.

The gallery contains three stunning works by Gian Lorenzo Bernini:  Apollo and DaphneDavid, and The Rape of Persephone.  Every wall seemed to be wallpapered with art from floor to ceiling.  I had to watch myself, lest I knock over one of countless sculptures adorning elbow high pedestals.  Yet I have no proof of this.

Photography is not allowed inside the gallery, which is a shame as I have a strict policy of "Pics or it Didn't Happen."  I will say that forcing one to put down a camera and truly experience what is in front of him does allow for better appreciation in the moment.  It just doesn't allow for vivid recollection two months later when you finally get around to blogging about it.

The Honeymooners, Day Two: Roman Holiday

Day two of our honeymoon adventure began with a flash flood and ended with a double rainbow.

Well, actually, day two began with a search for a McDonalds (TJ wanted coffee, and for some reason it just had to be McCafé)…but it did lead to a fun little discovery:  an unusual gathering of ruins just sitting in the middle of a plaza.  Excavations are ongoing but the view is, at least for now, free.  

The Sacred Area of Largo Argentina was uncovered during demolition work that had begun in 1926.  Four temples are visible today, facing a paved square.  The temples, identified as the porticoes of Minucia, were used as distribution centers for grain rationed out to the public, making them a primary point of exchange between the Roman government and her citizens.  A brief stop, this particular site would likely have not found its way into this blog post had later research not show that this was the site of Julius Caesar's assassination on March 15th, 44 BC.  

Moving along (we shall skip the McDonalds portion of the day, but I assure you it was subpar and, therefore, your typical McDonalds experience), we found ourselves in a bustling plaza ripe with fountains, restaurants, and street vendors. 

Piazza Navona stands on what was once the Stadium of Domitian, commissioned by Emperor Domitianus around 80 AD as a gift to the people of Rome.  The stadium, which served primarily as a sports venue, was part of a city expansion project that began in the wake of a devastating fire in 79 AD that left much of the surrounding area in ruins.  Today, the buildings surrounding the plaza incorporate the Stadium's original lower arches, and the plaza itself follows the form of the open space of the stadium.

The big draw in Piazza Navona is the Fountain of Four Rivers, designed by famed sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1651.  This was but one of several works by Bernini that we would see over the course of our vacation, all of them beautiful beyond words.  

The fountain played a critical role in Dan Brown's Angels & Demons, in which it was listed as one of the Altars of Science (Earth, Air, Fire, Water).

An Egyptian obelisk stands dead center.  Many riches were pillaged from Egypt following the war between Octavian and Antony & Cleopatra, and several obelisks litter the modern Roman skyline as a stark reminder of that bloody moment in time.  This particular obelisk was repurposed to include the Pamphili family emblem of a dove holding an olive twig.  The Pamphili family palace faced onto the plaza, as did the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone, of which Pope Innocent X was a member and sponsor, respectively.

Surrounding the obelisk, rocks rise to support river gods that represent major rivers from four continents through which papal authority had spread:

L:  Ganges (Asia), R:  The Danube (Europe)

L:  Río de la Plata (The Americas), R:  The Nile (Africa)

It was while admiring this particular fountain that the floor of Heaven gave way and threatened to ruin our day.  TJ and I had realized just how unprepared we were for inclement weather in the aftermath of the Jerusalem snow storm the previous month.  We promptly ordered rain/snow boots so that we would be prepared the next time.  Checking the weather patterns for our honeymoon, we wisely packed our boots so that we wouldn't be left soggy in what was to be a week of scattered showers.  Those boots were sitting in our hotel closet.  The umbrellas were sitting in the department store, as we never got around to buying them.  Fortunately, the plaza was lined with restaurants.  This seemed like as good a time as any for a quick (or long, depending on the rain) lunch.

We sought refuge in an unassuming little restaurant by the name of Ristorante Vacanze Romane that met our sole requirement:  it was open.   Imagine our surprise when the most amazing looking, and tasting, food began to arrive.

We dined under the safety of the restaurant's covered patio, which afforded us the continued appreciation of the plaza.  And then, like magic, the rain stopped when our tummies were full.

We stopped briefly to appreciate the Fountain of Neptune as we exited the plaza on our way to our next site.  TJ pointed and said "I think this one's called 'Get Off My D--k, You Octopus!'"

Yeah.  That's really all I have to say about this one.  It still makes me giggle when I think about it.

We soon found ourselves at the Pantheon, which was commissioned by Agrippa (Octavian's son-in-law and defense minister) as a temple to all the gods of pagan Rome.  The building's name is derived from the Greek "pantheion," which means "of, relating to, or common to all the gods."  The current Pantheon was built and dedicated between 118 and 125 AD by emperor Hadrian as a replacement for Aggripa's, which was destroyed by fire in 80 AD.

Sixteen corinthian columns adorn the portico leading into the circular building.  Inside, the rotunda features a concrete dome with an oculus
opening to the sky above.  Had we arrived earlier, we would have seen what happens to the Pantheon during a rainstorm.

From its creation in the ancient world to today's era of modern architectural feats, the Pantheon remains owner of the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome (142 feet from floor to oculus, and 142  feet in diameter).

One of the best preserved of Rome's ancient buildings, the Pantheon has been used as a Roman Catholic church since the 7th century.  It is the final resting place of Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I, both kings of Italy, as well as the famed Renaissance painter Raphael.

It was one of the most beautiful, ornate buildings I have ever seen.  Despite it's small, simple, and open nature (it's a single room supported by columns) I found it very easy to get lost.  Looking up, down, and all around, it took me a while to realize that I had no idea where TJ was.  I finally found him, also lost in thought, sitting on a bench looking towards the altar.

The Pantheon is a part of a "bulk offering" of UNESCO World Heritage sites that includes the Forums and Trajan's Column, which we had seen the previous day. The whole thing is listed by UNESCO as "Historic Centre of Rome, the Properties of the Holy See in that City Enjoying Extraterritorial Rights and San Paolo Fuori le Mura."  That just rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it?

Up next was Trevi Fountain, the largest Baroque fountain in the city.  Legend tells that visitors who throw a coin into the fountain are ensured a return trip to Rome.  You're supposed to stand facing away from the fountain and throw the coin over your left shoulder.  Being the amateur that I am, I just made a wish and threw it in the old-fashioned way.  That's okay.  Following our time in Rome, we embarked on a cruise through the Mediterranean that safely returned us to Rome.  So, technically, I already got that return trip.  In yo' face, tradition.

An estimated $4,000 USD makes its way into the fountain DAILY.  Caritas, a Roman Catholic charity, uses the coins to fund a supermarket and other programs for low income families.

Slowly meandering our way through the city on a path that would ultimate return us to the hotel for a much needed rest, we stumbled across something that we had seen on a Travel Channel program right before our trip:  a tiny museum containing the Ara Pacis Augustae, or the Altar of Augustan Peace.  In Roman mythology, Pax was a goddess venerated by Augustus.  The altar was commissioned by the Roman Senate on July 4, 13 BC to honor Augustus's return to Rome following a three year campaign in Hispania and Gaul, and in celebration of the peace brought to the empire by his military victories.  Overall, it's pretty but not worth the price of admission (€ 8,50) unless you've just got to see it because you once saw a television program about it.  Since I called TJ out for currency confusion in my last post, I feel it only fair to note that when  I went to pay I handed the cashier twenty shekels and he looked at me as if I was the stupidest person he'd seen all day.

Our final stop of the day wasn't so much a stop as it was a second refuge from a late afternoon mini-storm.  Rome's Palace of Justice sits at the head of the Piazza die Tribunali, and if you ever find yourself seeking a dry spot in the shadow of a building that contains no awnings but is so tall that it acts as an umbrella anyway, then you could do far worse than finding one across the street from this beauty.  The storm only lasted a few minutes, but we spent the entire time gawking at this architectural marvel, built between 1888 and 1910.  Being a Sunday, the building was closed for the public.

All there was to do was admire the outside, and then turn around and see the aforementioned double rainbow, which brings us full circle and to a lovely stopping place.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Honeymooners, Day One: All Roads Lead To Rome

January 9th marked our first wedding anniversary, and we decided to celebrate in style by taking the honeymoon that had been denied us due to having married on an "Admin Wednesday" in the middle of Arabic training.  For those not in the know, administrative days are a magical time of week in which Foreign Service Officers (and their spouses, should they also be inclined to take classes at the Foreign Service Institute) are allowed to leave at lunchtime under the pretense of studying or taking care of paperwork, travel arrangements, medical appointments, etc…because there is a strict no-vacation policy during language training.  

Our two week Mediterranean adventure began in Rome, which has been on my to-do list ever since a college study abroad trip found me traveling through Italy on my way from Nice to Munich during a year so long ago that the Italian lira had not yet been discarded in favor of the euro.  Our group stopped for a potty break at an Italian gas station in the middle of nowhere and I almost fainted when I saw that a pack of gum cost 1400 ITL.  Recovering, I did some quick math and realized that this was only about 0.75 USD.  I then got back on the bus and continued my journey.  That was it.  No sightseeing.  No lunch.  I didn't even buy the gum!

That was the summer of 2001.  I guess you could say I was about due, eh?

Our journey began in the wee hours of the morning on Saturday, January 4th.  With a flight scheduled to depart from Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport at 5:50AM, it was important for us to depart our Jerusalem abode no later than 2:30AM to ensure we arrived in plenty of time to complete the always-lenghty international check-in process.  We called and reserved a cab in advance, yet 2:30 rolled around and there was no cab waiting outside.  Five minutes later, two cabs pulled up in front of us.  When asked if either was from the company that we had made our reservation through, both drivers answered in the affirmative.  I brief discussion was held in hushed, rapid Arabic between the two drivers before one sped off and the other triumphantly tossed our luggage into the trunk of his car.  Three city blocks later, after receiving a price fifty shekels higher than we had been quoted over the phone, we found ourselves parked, patiently listening to a telephone conversation between the driver and an unknown entity.  Seconds later we were standing on the street watching, perplexed, as our luggage was loaded into the back of a third cab, presumably belonging to our person on the other end of that phone exchange.  The price remained the same (fifty higher than the quote), but we were on our way.  We arrived at the airport in plenty of time to check in and eat a hamburger because, dammit, we were on vacation and we could eat hamburgers at 4:45 in morning if we wanted to.  

We touched down at Rome's Fiumicino Airport shortly before 9AM (please see obligatory wing photo, left) and made quick work of purchasing fare to Roma Termini, the city's central train station.  We boarded the train right before it departed and spent the next 35 minutes in total fear as we had, in our haste to board, neglected to validate our tickets on the platform.  Correction:  We spent 10 minutes arguing over the merits of a validate-before-departure system if someone is going to come around and re-validate them anyway, and then the remaining 25 minutes worrying about said secondary validation.  We had nothing to worry about; I guess the attendants don't like busting heads before their morning coffee.  

A "quick" 30 minute stroll later and we found ourselves in the lobby of the Hotel Cosmopolita, where our Expedia rewards had snagged us a nifty upgrade.  Our room wouldn't be ready until 1PM but we were allowed to leave our luggage in the broom closet and use the public restroom to freshen up a bit.

Our first stop (not counting the super cool three-story toy store that I made a reluctant TJ peruse...) was
the Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland), located around the corner from our hotel in Piazza Venezia.  Also known as the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II (National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II), this particular site wasn't necessarily on our to-do list, but it was nearby and pretty, so what the hey?  The monument, built to honor Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a unified Italy, stirred up quite a controversy during its construction due to the fact that a significant portion of the Capitoline Hill's northern slope had to be destroyed to make way for it.  In its heyday, The Capitoline Hill was simultaneously the smallest and most important of ancient Rome's seven hills.  It contained the citadel of the earliest Romans and acted as the political and religious heart of Rome.  

The monument is perhaps most well known as the home of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  The tomb contains the body of one unidentified soldier, chosen at random on October 26, 1921 by a woman who had lost her only child in World War I.   His body was never recovered.  The tomb is located below this statue of Dea Roma, a deity who personified the city of Rome and the entirety of the Roman state.  

The monument also houses the museum of Italian Unification, though we didn't stop long enough to go in. We were off to the forums!  Or fora, if you wish to be fancy.  

First up were the Imperial Fora (okay, so I wish to be fancy), a series of public squares constructed over a period of one and a half centuries (46BC-113AD).  They were the center of the Roman Republic and of the Roman Empire. 

As we are apt to do, we started where we should have ended, at Trajan's Forum, the last of the Imperial forums to be built.  Constructed on the order of emperor Trajan using the spoils from the conquest of Dacia (modern day Romania and Moldova), the forum itself was inaugurated in 112, with the inauguration of Trajan's Column following a year later.  A continuous relief wraps around the column illustrating Trajan's two victorious military campaigns against the Dacians.  This is the backside of the column.  We somehow never made our way around to the front.  Oh well.  Guess we will have to go back some day.  Construction of the forum required, in what appears to be a recurring theme, the destruction of parts of the Capitoline and Quirinal Hills. 

Next up was the Forum of Augustus.  The forum, was inaugurated in 2 BC following 40 years of construction.  The triumvir Octavian vowed to build a temple honoring Mars, God of War, during the battle of Philippi in 42 BC.  Octavian, with the help of Mark Antony and Lepidus, won the battle and avenged the political assassination of his adoptive father Julius Caesar.  When Octavian became the first emperor of Rome in 27 BC, the young ruler, now known as Augustus planned for the temple to be built in a new forum named in his own honor.  Once built, the Temple occupied the center of the eastern side of the Forum of Augustus, though it was completely destroyed sometime between 494 and 526 AD.  

And that leads us to the last (and what should have been our first) of the Imperial Fora:  The Forum of Caesar was built as an extension of the Roman Forum (which was to be our next stop, so maybe  we did this in the right order after all?).  The forum was inaugurated in 46 BC, though it was likely incomplete and later finished by Augustus.  The forum acted as a celebration of Caesar's power and also as a replacement venue to the Roman Forum for public affairs and government.  

Located just beyond the Forum of Caesar was the Roman Forum itself, a rectangular plaza surrounded by the ruins of numerous ancient and important government buildings.  The form was the city center from which ancient Rome developed. If there was a parade, an election, a public speech, a trial, or a gladiatorial match to be found, it was very likely found here.  And since I feel that I've already been, and will continue to be, very verbose in this post, I'll (mostly shut up) for a moment, and you can just look at  some photos.

(Left) Temple of Saturn
(Right) Some Random Randomness

(Left) Temple of Antoninus and Faustina
(Right) "So-Called" Temple of Romulus

This monstrosity is the Arch of Titus.   The inscription records the dedication of this arch by the Senate and people of Rome to the emperor after his victory over Judea (70 AD).

 Scenes from the conquest are sculpted on the inside:  one panel shows the procession with the booty taken from Jerusalem, including the menorah; on the other is Titus on his chariot, followed by Victory and personifications of the people and the Senate.

On the outside is the procession of the defeated Jews.  Kind of a chilling sight, having just left Israel that very morning.

Moving further into the Forum, we reached the Paletine Hill, standing 40 meters above the ruins we had spent the afternoon exploring.  The Paletine is the centermost of Rome's Seven Hills and one of the most ancient parts of the city.  According to legend, Romulus founded Rome in 754 BCE on the slopes of the Paletine.  

Gorgeous view from the Paletine Hill.  Many thanks to the birdie that modeled for me.  
Totally makes the shot.

Next up was the biggie.  The one EVERYONE thinks about when they think about Rome:  The

Colosseum.  In 72 AD Emperor Vespasian used the riches he had gained from his war in Judea to build Rome's first permanent amphitheater to host hunting spectacles and 
gladiatorial combats.  Built on land that Nero had privatized for the construction of his new palace, the venue was inaugurated in 80 AD by Vespasian's son Titus with 100 days of festivities that were concluded by his successor, Domitian.  The Colosseum operated for approximately five centuries before a devastating fire seriously compromised the structure's stability.  It would be closed for renovations for the next five years.  Gladiatorial combat was abolished in the 5th century, though combat with wild beasts would continue until around 523 AD, when efforts were made to dismantle the building in an effort to harvest it's construction materials…a travesty that haunts much of the ancient world.  What remained of the Colosseum was consecrated by the Church in the 18th century in memory of the Christian martyrs believed to have been killed there, though these rumors are unsubstantiated.  

The Colosseum was inscribed into UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites in 1980.  In 2007, it was proclaimed one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.  That makes two down, five to go!

Our final stop of the day was a relaxing dinner filled with antipasti, lasagna, and spaghetti at Gustando Roma, an Italian (shocker!) restaurant located within short walking distance of the Colosseum.   It was a total tourist trap complete with a tacky painting of Russell Crowe decked out in his Gladiator attire adorning the walls.  That does not, however, change the fact that the food was delicious.  

Finally returning to the hotel, we found our luggage safe and sound, sitting right where we had left it.  The attendant rolled our bags over to us and made to walk away when suddenly TJ reached into his pocket and the attendant whipped around with a hungry look in his eyes.  With a flourish, TJ handed over a twenty and said "Thanks!"  The hotel employee thanked us and scurried off as if he knew he'd just gotten away with robbing a bank.  What follows is a recreation of the ensuing conversation.

"What was that?"
"I tipped him."
"For what?"
"Watching our luggage."
"Well, yes.  But usually they would have to at least carry your bags up to the room to deserve such a tip."
"What?  Why?  It was only twenty."
"Yeah.  Euros.  Not shekels.  Euros."
"As in twenty-six dollars."
"Oh.  "
"Um.  Well, then, just how much was that dinner we just ate?!?"
"I don't care.  I'm on vacation."