Italy: Venice and Beyond

The final city on our Italian tour was the renowned city of Venice. As its reputation foretold, Venice’s unique beauty lay in its canals weaving in and out of the island neighborhoods. Boats carrying restaurant supplies navigated the brackish waters at dawn, and from early morning to dusk gondoliers gently took tourists on a smooth, relaxed voyage through the city. There were quaint patios hidden throughout the city- quiet refuges from prying eyes- and through the many, many winding alleys you could find private yards sheltered from the hustle and bustle of the tourists’ travels. Its walls shot to the sky, higher than either Rome or Florence, and the streets formed a narrow maze connecting the wide courtyards, a regular Knossos on the Italian peninsula.

I had heard that Venice was smelly, but it was actually very clean; if there was any filth, we would’ve smelled it from a mile away due to the hot summer sun. It’s only downfall was that it was very touristy. The city, just as Rome and Florence, basically relies on tourism to stay afloat (pun intended), so it was even more crowded than the other two cities. We got lucky enough to have an Airbnb in the residential area, so we stayed away from the crowds unless we went to the main sites. However, it was from this that we saw the true face of Venice.

Venice is just like any other city during the day. It was alive and active, even if it was well over 1500 years old. However, the city morphed at night. As the lampposts grew further apart, shadows ascended toward the sky and the buildings closed in from both sides. The twisting maze and murky waters take on a sinister character, and shifting shadows quickly inspired thoughts of Jack the Ripper. We only saw one woman on our way back to our apartment, moving quickly with her head down. Other than that, we only heard the waters calmly lapping against the stone and only saw the occasional glimmer of moonlight bounce off the subdued waves. It was probably one of the creepiest cities I’ve ever seen at night.

Luckily, our tour was during the day. There not much to do in Venice besides take pictures of the canals, ride the gondola, and take the one tour, so of course that is what we did. And eat. We’re still in Italy, after all. I got grilled cuttlefish and my mom got cuttlefish in an ink sauce. Once I pointed out it was ink she couldn’t stomach it, and mine wasn’t so good either. I’ve decided I just can’t handle the rubbery consistency of octopus, eel, or cuttlefish. Oh well, I can now say that I’ve tried cuttlefish.

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A shop devoted to cats!!!

The tour that we took brought us to St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace, the Doge being the chief political leader during Venice’s Republic days. To be honest, there’s only so many churches you can see before their stories start blending together, so all I can remember is that it’s dedicated to St. Mark because he was neither Roman nor Byzantine in origin, because they were trying to assert their independence from these two great superpowers. Oh, and the ceiling is completely glass mosaic and the gold glass is filled with 24 carat gold. It was the first and most important church built in Venice, so of course they took out all the stops. The Doge’s Palace was just as beautiful as the Basilica. However, again, you can only go to so many palaces before it becomes less interesting. It was beautiful, however it’s nothing compared to Rome, so the pictures are sparse.

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Venice was beautiful but brief, and we spent the final two days back in Rome. We saw two more attractions, the Holy Steps and the Pantheon. The Holy Steps are the stairs that Jesus walked up to get to Pontius Pilate. Worshippers are instructed to ascend the steps on their knees, and to say the Nicene Creed, an Our Father, a Glory be, and a Hail Mary, along with a prayer for the Pope. It was moving, even for someone who doesn’t go to Church every week.

The Pantheon was a bit of a letdown because I confused ‘Pantheon’ with ‘Parthenon’. I was expecting a magnificent building on top of a hill that I studied in school, so when we arrived and saw a comparatively rather small temple, I was confused. It is still an architectural marvel—it has the largest unreinforced dome in the world—but it was no Parthenon. In its own way, however, it was beautiful. The name comes from Greek roots- “pan” meaning ‘all’, and “theos” meaning ‘god’, so it was a temple built to worship all Roman gods. The temple, converted to a church in 609, receives light solely from the oculus at the top of the temple, which forms a moving circle of sunlight as the day progresses. It is one of the only pieces of Roman architecture to escape the barbarian raids unscathed, which I find ironic as perhaps it truly was respecting all gods, Roman, barbarian, and Christian. For its historical value it’s worth a visit, however otherwise it’s pretty small and holds less history than the rest of Rome. Though in all fairness comparing anything to ‘the rest of Rome’ will leave a bit desired.

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Our final night we spent in Italy we ate at a local hangout. It was really cute (just look at that menu cover!) and when we said we were sent by our Airbnb host they offered to bring out a buffet of classical Roman dishes, which of course we accepted. Sadly, it wasn’t nearly as good as the night before, and we got the additional perk of hearing the obnoxious horns and occasional burst of yells from the Italy vs. Germany soccer game. Definitely not what I would consider a relaxed ambiance, but what can you do?

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Overall, our trip through Italy was a wonderful experience. If I was to do it again, I would go to Venice first, then Rome, then Florence, because Venice was pretty but didn’t have as much to do, Rome was energetic and jam-packed with tours and monuments, and Florence was more relaxed but still had plenty of attractions to keep you occupied. And it was just my favorite. Italy used to be the center of the world: from ancient Rome to the Italian city-states to the Vatican, its rich history and beautiful landscapes are the perfect backdrop to its incredible food and beautiful cities. Whether you’re an adventurer, a foodie, or a history buff, Italy has something for everyone, and I highly recommend considering it if you decide to travel to Europe. I will never forget my wonderful trip (and this blog will certainly help refresh my horrible memory!) and I hope one day to come back and visit more of Italy and Europe. Well, let me re-phrase: if the fates allow (and they do with The Pig!), I will one day come back and visit more of Italy and Europe. But until then, arrivederci, Italia!

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Italy: Florence

As we left Rome with a heavy heart, we didn’t know the magical wonder that awaited us in Florence. We took a 90-minute train ride to get there, and I have to say I am in love with the idea of train hopping through Europe. I know it isn’t quite the glamorous experience from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, however it’s still such a romantic notion to revisit railway travel and live as if globalization and terrorism hadn’t left the world unsafe and ripe for exploration.

As we arrived, I didn’t know what to expect of Florence, especially when compared with Rome. However, it exceeded my wildest dreams. Florence is a down-to-earth Italian city. If Rome is the youngest child- brash, hedonistic, too gaudy for its own good- Florence is the second eldest- easygoing and fun but just a shade darker, a little more serious. Florence is more world-weary, more experienced, and thus more mysterious and sexy. I thoroughly enjoyed Florence because I felt like I could actually live there. It was more reserved than Rome and it had a better nightlife. I need to visit again.

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Florence, or in Italian the beautiful Firenze, has its own rich history apart from Rome. While Rome is known for its part in unifying all of Italy under the Republic and Empire, Florentine history is characterized by its time as a city-state. The action begins with the Medici family. The Medicis essentially controlled the city from behind the scenes, using their patronage and status as official Pope bankers to influence and buy off senators, as Florence was technically a democracy. After the Siege of Florence, the Medicis became official dukes (a rarity considering they did not come from noble blood), and from there the Medicis ruled for two centuries, with monuments and museums to display their power and grandeur. The greatest reason that art flourished during the Renaissance is because of rich patrons like the Medicis. They, personally, had three reasons for donating: (a) art was a status symbol, (b) it was a very public symbol of their generosity and wealth, and (c) it was an ‘indulgence’ of sorts, a way of buying their way into Heaven to atone for their sin of being bankers. All of their wealth and patronage paid off in their lasting legacy, the Uffizi Gallery.

The Uffizi used to be the offices of the Medicis. They devoted part of it, the galleria, or in Italian ‘long hall,’ to their art, which is where the word ‘gallery’ comes from. Thus, the Uffizi became the first art museum in the world. The museum follows the course of art history by bringing you first through Middle Ages art for comparison and then to the bulk of the museum, Renaissance art. The biggest difference between the two is that Middle Ages art was made almost strictly for churches and did not employ perspective. Renaissance art thus became more realistic, and it is still used as an artistic benchmark to this day. The museum features a few famous artists like Botticelli, some of Leonardo da Vinci’s pieces, and Rafael. It is beautiful, and even if you don’t hire a tour guide like we did, you will still recognize many pieces and learn a lot.

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After the Uffizi we went to the highest rated pizzeria in Florence. I have to admit I prefer deep dish, or at least a puffier crust. However, it was still to die for. Italians do know their pizza.

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It was so good

After that, it was more chill. My brothers and dad wanted to go back and nap, so my mother and I hit the town, and we just wandered. Wandering is an art: you have to let your heart lead you, not your mind. The best way to improve your wandering is to not think about it, because once you think about it you can no longer see the small interactions, you can no longer listen to the incomprehensible yet beautiful, lilting Italian, you can no longer feel the city’s pulse. Wandering has no timeline and no itinerary; it’s a chance to give your mind and heart a break. Even if we just walked along our street and surveyed the street vendors’ wares, we experienced the city in a way we never would have on a walking tour or a schedule. It was wonderful.

The next day was a long one. We traveled through the beautiful Tuscan countryside and visited the tourist’s obligatory Leaning Tower of Pisa. The driver was the classic Italian driver, and I felt violently sick for most of the trip. Oh well. We got a few cool pictures out of it.

Afterwards we went on two wine tours, and they were really fun. On the first one we had wonderful wine and wonderful food, including the lightest cheesecake I have ever eaten in my life. NYC was put to shame. On the second one, we had pure balsamic vinegar composed of two ingredients: grape juice and white vinegar. I absolutely despise vinegar, to the point that I gag if I can smell it across the room. Even if it’s one ingredient among many, I can usually taste it, and I’ll refuse to eat it. However, this was really good vinegar. His vinegar takes 30+ years to ferment, and it was absolutely divine. That evening we met up with our family friends from before for dinner, and after that I hit the town with my fabulous roommate this upcoming year, Eliana, and her friend Corina, who were both in Italy for a summer opera workshop. Just like eating sushi in Rome, I felt weird going to an Irish pub in Florence; however, it was a really fun time and we met students from Tulsa and San Francisco. I wish we had more time together, however I had an early tour the next day so I had to bid them adieu until September. I count down the days.

Our final day in Florence was another long one and we went on a relatively uninspiring tour to see The David and Il Duomo. The tour guide was born and raised in Italy, and she spoke good but slightly broken English, and even beyond that she did not keep our attention as our other tour guides had. I didn’t learn much from her. However, I have some really cool pictures!

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The final unintentional attraction was a bronze pig hidden away next to a market. We’d passed by the market many times before, however we hadn’t noticed it until said tour guide made it a meeting spot on a gelato stop. This pig has a story. It’s said that if you rub the nose of the pig and slide a coin down its tongue into the grate below that you’re destined to return to Florence. Many went before me with varying returns on investment. On my turn, I put the coin deep in its throat and slid it down its mouth, bouncing a few times before entering the providential drain. I am now fated to return to the wonderful Firenze, and while I have a lot more of the world to see, I can’t wait to fulfill this prophecy.

Italy: Rome

I sleepily awoke in a plush, foreign bed. Rays of golden light pierced through the vines blanketing the window and a haunting, pleading music floated through the slats of the moss-green, ragged doors to the terrace outside. As I walked out into the sunshine, giant seagulls cawed above and down below in the twisting cobblestone alley cars and motorbikes whirred past both locals and foreigners as they went about their day in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I was finally in Rome.

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Rome is a city grand in both history and beauty. Ancient piecemeal urban planning left room for foot travel with the occasional ass-drawn buggy, so the tiny streets could only accommodate so many motorized vehicles. Present-day traffic manifests this, and small taxis zip by pedestrians, buildings, and other vehicles with surgical precision and chariot speeds which left me reflexively flinching as our taxi avoided obstacles by inches. Also, at its heyday 2000 years ago, Rome was home to a remarkable one million people, resulting in an organic cityscape grown from the floor up with shops and restaurants at ground-level and cramped apartments towering above. I doubt this arrangement has changed much.

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Average Roman side street (so basically everything)

Along with the chaotically beautiful urban plan itself, Rome draws its character from its historical journey. Rooted in its culture is religion and food. Reflecting this is the flood of churches stretching from Medieval to modern-day situated on every other corner and the delicious restaurants everywhere in between. Palaces, fountains, and other signifiers of wealth and prestige dot the landscape and confirm that bigger really is better, and everywhere ancient ruins, glinting domes, or magnificent crosses lay on the far reaches of the sun-soaked Italian horizon. All of the architecture along with the merchants, pilgrims, Crusaders, and Saracens alike help write Rome’s wonderful story dating from the 7th century BC, and while school had taught me a little and my curiosity had taught me a little more, with my lectures as the figurative and the writhing streets as the literal background, my own journey through history was about to begin.

 

Our sojourn through Rome began unscripted. After a heavy Italian dinner and some sleep (for me, after over 24 hours awake), we had one day to ourselves, and so we began with a (what we believed to be was) a classic Italian breakfast.

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Add in some bread, and this is what we had practically every morning

The food here lives up to its fame, so I ate a lot, and often. In case you didn’t know, calories don’t count in Italy, especially when you have two more months until classes begin. I’m merely taking advantage of this cosmic loophole.

Our first stop was the famed Trevi fountain, found in many a movie. As we were to find out, it was classically Roman in that it was bigger and more beautiful than the pictures let on. We headed out past the large crowds to a small church in the same square and we were again amazed by just how beautiful it was. This is worthy of fame by itself…what must the legitimately famous churches be like? We had a light lunch of a personal pizza bigger than your face or a dish of heaping pasta, two appetizers, and a liter of beer before heading out to a museum.

This was a much quieter attraction than the Trevi fountain or the further attractions we were to see, even though it was just as beautiful as the rest. It was a personal palace of some Senator or another, and though it was not on The List of Roman attractions, it was nice to find the eye of the hurricane. Besides, there were a few fun paintings.

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Later that night (and I mean later: restaurants generally open for dinner at 8) we went to a highly-recommended restaurant near our house and we saw a young woman giving her signature to other diners. Just as the Trevi fountain is found in many a film, the entire city of Rome is picturesque by its very nature, so in some studio, somewhere, we’re in the blooper clip of a future Italian movie. We think that is where our celebrity is from, but that is still to be determined.

The next day began the real tours, beginning with Palatine Hill. The Palatine Hill is the Roman equivalent of the White House. It lays atop the Seven Hills of Rome and surveys the Roman Forum and the Circus Maximus, fitting and prophetic symbols for the Republic’s eventual end. Furthermore, the entire structure is beautiful and impressive, both in grandeur and in technological prowess. Digital recreations of the buildings demonstrate rooms intentionally meant to seem to be stretching to the Heavens, and the fact that it still stands is testament to its much stronger brick technology. Overall, it is simply stunning, and a wonderful visual representation of the strength and greatness of the lost Empire.

The next tour spot was the famed Coliseum. As everyone knows, the Coliseum was the entertainment center of the city. Think of a much bloodier Broadway and Big House rolled into one. It was the largest such coliseum in the Empire and in its first season it is said that 5,000 people and 9,000 animals lost their lives. The entire structure was elaborate. The basement held slave-operated elevators that shuttled gladiators, actors, or animals to their act, sometimes their final one. The closest and best seats were allotted to the Emperor, the Senators, the priesthood, and the Vestal Virgins to indicate their high status, and a series of defenses including nets, spinning blocks, and, finally, soldiers peering through arrow slits, protected the important patrons from stray spears or crazed animals. The upper levels of the Coliseum were open to free citizens, and it held as many as 80,000 people, according to archaeologists’ estimates. As they say, the Republic fell to the Empire when the Roman citizens only cared about bread and circuses, and the Coliseum definitely represents the latter. Our day ended with sushi in Italy. Nontraditional, yes, but delicious nonetheless.

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Our final day in Rome consisted of a tour of Vatican City. Vatican City, even though it’s the smallest country in the world, is still one of the most important as it is the religious and political headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. The always-reliable Wikipedia claims there are over 1 ¼ billion Catholics in the world, an astounding 17% of our global population. If you add all non-Catholic Christians to that number, Christianity is the world’s largest religion by a whopping 600 million people, over the next most prominent, Islam. That makes the Vatican rather important and, by extension, wealthy, and its history shows it.

Vatican City (which includes The Vatican and the Vatican Bank) is worth a (conservatively) estimated $10 billion. By my calculations and using the most recent figures, that means that if the country was as big as the US, it would be 1809.37 times as wealthy! I don’t know how they calculate the countries’ values, however the Pope is certainly not strapped for cash.

The Vatican Museums house some of the most recognizable artwork in the history of the world. From the Pythian Apollo to Laocoön and His Sons to The School of Athens, the Vatican artwork includes the originals of many priceless classical Roman pieces, along with some more modern pieces. However, we all know no one’s coming to the Vatican to see some charcoal lines resembling Mary and Jesus.

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Part of the Museums is the Sistine Chapel. Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed in the sacred space. However, it is truly a sight to behold. Everyone knows that the center ceiling fresco is of God reaching fervently to a reclining, passive Adam. However, the rest of the ceiling is covered with frescoes, too, and even the walls are painted (though they’re designed to look like curtains. Nothing interesting there). As with all of Rome, pictures do not do it justice, so if you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend waiting in the massively congested and sweaty crowds to reach the fabulous masterpiece.

Our final stop in Rome was again in Vatican City: St. Peter’s Basilica. Its namesake- St. Peter- was the first Pope of the Church and one of Jesus’ 12 Apostles. The high altar, where only the Pope can hold a religious service, is said to be placed directly over the burial place of Peter after his crucifixion, and later archaeological evidence confirms that an important man was in fact buried at that exact spot (traces of gold suggest the corpse was buried with a gold cloth). It is the largest Church in all of Catholicism and second in floor space only to the Mormon Conference Center, and it is tradition that no building in Rome may be built taller than its highest point. Just as the rest of Rome was bigger than I thought, this Church is massive. Its size is impossible to describe in words, which I guess is the point. It is beautiful, intricate, and ornate, and it holds the tombs of many previous Popes and holy people. (It even has a preserved Pope in a glass coffin!) Another cool feature was that we were able to walk through the Holy Door. The Holy Door is usually only opened every 25 years on Jubilee years, the last one being opened in 2000. However, Pope Francis opened the Door December 8th and thus began the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, markedly 50 years to the day after the closing of Vatican II.

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We rounded out our time in Rome as we began: eating. Some family friends were visiting Italy at the exact time as us, and we had a fun dinner in a quaint, rustic Italian bar. The booze and the chatter was free-flowing, and we spent many hours with each other as Italy would have wanted: eating, but most importantly eating together. We finished with a free round of limoncello and a picture, and our time in Rome (at least until I return) had come to an end.