Irreverence in Italy
Note: This is the second time that I have published this entry, as I have reason to believe that none of my email notifications were sent last time.
I must confess that this blog entry nearly never happened; in fact, the rest of this trip nearly never happened, ‘cos a few weeks back I decided enough was enough and I wanted to go home to New Zealand. This is what I wrote the day after we landed in London, on our return from Cairo:
What next? I tell you what’s not next: more planes. I am rebelling. I am done with airports, security checks and cattle class seats for the immediate future. If anyone forces me to get on an aircraft any time soon, I am gonna steal a drinks trolley and rampage through Business Class, throwing peanuts and mini pretzels at people’s heads!
The main reason for my airbourne antipathy is that we have simply spent too much time on planes recently. The Egyptian part of the trip took eleven days, and this was our flight schedule:
Day 1: Fly Fuerteventura to Madrid.
Day 2: Fly Madrid to Cairo, then Cairo to Luxor.
Day 7: Fly Aswan to Abu Simbel, return.
Day 8: Fly Aswan to Cairo.
Day 11: Fly Cairo to London.
That’s 7 planes in 11 days! I really do not envy people who have to travel a lot for work. How do you do it and stay sane?
Truth be told, I am not the most patient of people when it comes to flying, especially on long-haul flights. A couple of hours in, I am thoroughly bored and annoyed and spend my time composing letters to people. People like Richard Branson, for example:
I know you have ignored the previous dozen or so letters I have sent you, but I really do think I have a valid business proposition here. Aeroplanes are so yesterday’s technology, and I think that if you put your mind to it you could come up with newer, more exciting methods of transport. For example, have you considered the possibility of using pterodactyl DNA and genetically engineering a fleet of ginormous flying dinosaurs? (I think they explain how to do this in Jurassic Park.) Just stick some saddles on their backs and tattoo the Virgin logo on their foreheads, and there you go.
Alternatively I believe you could do something very interesting with hot air balloons... strap rockets to their baskets, for instance.
Please can you stop wasting time with Hadron Particle Colliders and nanotech and all that, and start seriously researching wormholes as an alternative to air travel? Wormholes are way more environmentally friendly than planes, and, being practically instantaneous, have the added benefit of eliminating air rage and the necessity for passengers to eat airline food. Our stomachs and blood pressure levels thank you in advance.
If things get really desperate, I’ll start writing letters to the Captain:
We are all really bored back here, and I wondered if you and your crew would join us in a little game of make-believe to help the time pass quicker. You could pretend that you’ve just spotted a Gremlin on one of the wings, like in that episode of the Twilight Zone. If you really wanna make things interesting, pretend that you’ve also seen him carrying a spanner or a big wrench or something. The cabin crew could help by pointing out of the windows and squealing occassionally, and tilting to one side when they walk down the aisle to give the illusion of extra weight on one side. (Note: they must decide in advance which way they are going to tilt if the effect is to be realistic.)
If, like all of the other captains on all of the other long-haul flights I have ever suffered through, you don’t want to play, could you at least drop the oxygen masks and pump some helium through ‘em so we can entertain ourselves by doing Alvin and the Chipmunks impressions? It would really help take my mind off the fact that my backside went numb three hours ago, and my concerns that I will never be able to stand up straight again.
The poor human “battery hens” in coach.
p.s. Can you make this thing fly any faster?
Getting back to the point...
As you’ve probably gathered, I was in serious need of a time out. Pete pointed out that it would be silly to go home on a whim. This was a big decision, one that needed further consideration. We decided to think on it, deferred our immediate plans for onward travel and hung out in London for a while. This, as it happened, was just what I needed. I no longer want to go home, and we have decided to blow what’s left of the mortgage before heading back to NZ in September (or thereabouts).
Bizarrely, the trip has now taken on a new, less frenetic pace. Every country we visit feels like a bonus, and we’ve resolved to take our time over things. Instead of the crazy one-week pit-stop in Italy I’d been anticipating, we had a leisurely multi-city break which lasted for three weeks.
This is not our first time in Italy. Pete was here many years ago, and he later took me to Venice and Verona for my 25th birthday. I’d never been abroad before, so Pete booked us first class all the way, just to make sure I had the pleasantest experience possible and would want to travel more. (Was he planning to blow our future mortgage, even then?) It worked. I loved it, and we made a point of visiting a different country pretty much every year thereafter.
I was very excited to be back in Italy, though, especially as we got to visit three new cities: Florence, Rome and Naples (plus day trips to Pisa and Pompeii).
Florence was an absolute delight, all the more so because I never expected to go there. It is a beautiful city, famous for its ice cream (*) architecture and the part it played in the Renaissance, cultivating artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli and Donatello.
Two views of Florence: on the left is the Ponte Vecchio bridge, noteable 'cos it's got shops built along it; on the right is the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. Its huge dome has a fascinating history - the guy who won the commission to build it had no idea whether or not it would collapse under its own weight! It is largest brick dome ever to be constructed.
(*) I wanna know: Who’s supporting all the gelaterias in Florence? Seriously, I’ve never seen so many ice cream shops in my life! Actually, I can partly answer my own question. During our time there, Pete and I contributed heavily to the gelateria business. It was pure coincidence that we arrived during the weekend of their Gelati Fiesta (honest), but we felt obliged to join in. When in Rome (or Florence), as the saying goes...
Art. You can’t escape it; Italy is full of the stuff. I remember ‘burning out’ on religious artwork last time I was here. I readily admit that I am a philistine about such things. I fall slap-bang in the middle of the “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like” school of art appreciation. I’ve visited a fair few galleries on this trip, but I tend to avoid the guided tours and audio explanations. I much prefer to interpret paintings on my own terms. (I don’t particularly care if I’m right or not – and besides, I think a lot of these so-called experts talk a lot of rubbish. It’s true – even the most bird-brained among us can become art critics these days). But, despite this, the one place I did not want to miss while in Florence was the Uffizi Gallery, one of the oldest art museums in the world.
Note for anyone intending to visit the Uffizi during high season:
High season is, of course, the worst time of year to go anywhere. Every popular attraction is ridiculously packed, and the queues stretch for miles. But your visit can be made less stressful by following a few simple guidelines:
– Don’t queue! Buy your ticket in advance and make sure it specifies a visiting time. (You can either book on the Internet, or ask Tourist Information about other vendors in the city).
- Do not take bottled water with you, as they don’t allow any liquids inside the gallery.
- Don’t take a backpack unless absolutely necessary, because they make you check it (which means waiting in another stupidly long line). Even more irritatingly, they make you remove all cameras and laptops and carry ‘em with you. I would have been exceedingly annoyed if I’d had my Netbook with me, ‘cos it doesn’t have a carry case.
- Wear comfortable shoes and bring a tonne of patience. It will be crowded, people will insist on jostling you and getting in the way, and you will probably have to wait a while to get close to the more popular pieces.
As you might expect, the Uffizi contains a serious amount of religious art. Every other painting has the words ‘Madonna and child’ in the title. My favourite stuff, however, was by Botticelli, primarily this 'un:
Of course, Monty Python fans will recognise this image from one of Terry Gilliam’s cartoons, so then I started thinking about Python sketches and got the giggles. (I think we have already established that I am a philistine, so there’s no need to go through all that again.)
They also had a special exhibition by Carravagio, where I saw this horrible thing. I won't put the actual picture here, due to the serpent-y subject matter (**).
(**) Question for friend Craig: Did you know I hate snakes? Have I mentioned this before? I do, you know. Can’t stand the things. Ought to be banned.
Florence is also convenient for a daytrip to Pisa, taking approximately one hour by train. Incidentally, the tower was intended to be vertical. It started tilting during the early stages of construction, apparently. I dunno why they didn't try and fix it back then - it took two centuries to complete, so they had plenty of time to sort it out!
Here’s a pop quiz for ya. Why did Julie go to Pisa? Was it:
a) For the stunning architecture?
b) To measure the angle of the tower?
c) To see another of the World’s Seven Wonders?
d) To make like Galileo and throw balls off the tower?
e) None of the above?
I am sorry to say that the answer is e). I went to Pisa, not for culture or architecture or history or experimental purposes or anything like that; no, I went for this:
You know you’re in a major city when, within ten minutes of stepping off the train, you’ve been ripped off for 20 euros by yet another taxi driver. (How do these people sleep at night? Do they have to turn in their consciences when they collect their public vehicle licences, or something?) Anyway, a word of advice to anyone who opts for a cheaper hotel on the outskirts of the city: don’t bother asking a taxi driver to lug you and your luggage there. They’ll give you a price, get you in the car, increase the price twice, then change their mind, decide its too far and dump you at the nearest Metro station. (Or, in our case, a station that was two stops before the the train station we’d just left!)
The one consolation in all this is that Rome's Metro service is superb. You pay one euro per ticket, whether you are going two stops or twenty, and the trains run every couple of minutes. We'd booked ourselves into a self-catering apartment in an area called Anagnina, which was right at the end of the line. It worked out well - the apartment was way nicer than anything we could have afforded to rent in the city, and it only took 15 - 20 minutes on the Metro to get to the centre. Win-win!
Rome is, of course, a major tourist destination, packed to its ancient gills with people like me who wanna have a peek at all those famous archeological sites. Although considerably larger and busier than Florence, the city has a lovely feel to it; simply walking around is an adventure ‘cos there is so much amazing architecture.
I had three must-sees here: the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
The Trevi is the largest Baroque fountain in Rome. It marks the end of the Aqua Virgo, an aquaduct built in 19 BC. The original fountain that stood there was deemed too boring, so Pope Urban VIII commissioned an alternative.
Legend has it that if you throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain, you will return to Rome one day. (It worked for Pete!)
The Colosseum was the one place I really wanted to explore, so I was delighted when we discovered we didn’t have to queue for tickets. You can also buy them at the nearby Palatino – well worth the short walk to avoid standing in a line for two hours!
The Colosseum is largest ampitheatre in the Roman Empire, and was used for gladatorial games and other public shows. (They even used to flood the place and hold mock naval battles!) It could seat up to 50,000 spectators.
(Left) The building is an entirely free-standing structure, but large sections of the exterior wall have been damaged by earthquakes over the years.
(Right) The arena itself was a large wooden floor covered with sand. Beneath the floor was a network of tunnels and cages, where the galdiators and animals were kept before the games began.
I was gonna feed Pete to the lions, but apparently such a thing never happened. According to the historian Tacitus, Christians were generally ripped apart by dogs, crucified, or burned alive - no lions! Still pretty gory, though, eh?
By the way, Pete and I were both philistines that day, quoting Monty Python’s Life of Brian (***) and basically behaving like a couple of five year olds. Well, there’s no law against it, is there?
(***) See blog title. You watch the scene in question here, if you like.
The Vatican Museums contain the humungous collection of art belonging to the Catholic Church. It all started in the early 1500s with a statue of Apollo, donated by Pope Julius II della Rovere; 500 years later, the museums house thousands of sculptures and paintings – way too much to explore in one day. It’s an impressive collection that really does defy description.
Of course, the main reason I wanted to visit the Vatican was take a peek at the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel (****). This provides me with one last chance to be a philistine, and I’m gonna take it:
You have no idea how much I enjoyed that.
(****) Note: you can’t take pictures inside, unfortunately, so I cheated; I bought a postcard and photographed that instead!
One last thing:
Most of the things we saw in Italy were popular tourist attractions, so, before we left Rome, we made a point of searching out something that most people would likely not see. We found a museum that was both tiny and bizarre: the Museum of Purgatory, located in the Church of the Sacred Heart near the Vatican. It’s little more than one wall of objects in a small room, but each of those objects supposedly shows evidence of contact made by souls trapped in Purgatory!
The theory is this: a dead soul who is trapped between earth and the afterlife can get to heaven faster if the living pray for them. The weird marks on these objects have been interpreted as ‘messages’ from beyond the grave - requests for prayers from the deceased.
The wall and its spooky collection, plus a fiery handprint left by Joseph Schitz on his brother’s prayer book. The man was believed to be asking forgiveness for his lack of piety during his time on earth.
Now, I am a card-carrying skeptic when it comes to the supernatural, but I had a hard time finding rational explanations for some of those exhibits. There were books which clearly had hand/finger prints burned onto the pages. Are they fakes or miracles? I really don’t know.
Naples, by comparison, was disappointing. I think part of me was expecting it to be a bit like Florence. It wasn’t. Oh, it had the winding streets and old buildings, etc., but the place was, to put it politely, grotty in the extreme. Many of the buildings were run down, and practically every square inch of wall from ground to eye level had been covered with graffitti (as had statues, train carriages, and even rocks by the sea!) The streets were also filthy, with litter piled everywhere. It’s a shame; what could be a very pleasant city has been spoiled by the seeming lack of concern of its residents and council.
And the freakin’ Vespas! I have been totally lied to about Italians and their Vespas. Admittedly they drive slightly better than they did in Vietnam, but only just. You are still in danger of being run over walking along the pavement.
Anyway, no matter. The only reason we ended up in that region at all is because it was convenient for Pompeii.
Back in 79 AD, the town of Pompeii was destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted. The eruption lasted for two days, burying everything under 22 meters of ash and pumice. Many people realised the danger when the ash first began to fall and tried to escape, but not everyone made it. Experts believe that the residents (including the animals) died either from asphyxiation or thermal shock:
Their bodies lay undiscovered for more than 1,600 years.
This account of the disaster was given by one of the survivors, Pliny the Younger, an eighteen year old who lived in the town of Misenum:
Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly. I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood.'Let us leave the road while we can still see,' I said, 'or we shall be knocked down and trampled underfoot in the dark by the crowd behind.' We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.
You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.
Today a large part of Pompeii has been excavated, revealing an incredibly well-preserved town. Many of the buildings are still standing, and as you walk along the cobblestone roads it seems hard to believe that the place was once buried under layers of ash and soil.
These days vulcanologists keep a very close eye on Mount Vesuvius. Since the destruction of Pompeii, there have been many more eruptions (between 30 and 50, depending on which sources you believe). The last one occurred in 1944, and the volcano has been quiet ever since.
If it does erupt again, the outcome will hopefully be less traumatic than it was in 79 AD. Today eruptions can be predicted up to two weeks in advance, and the Italian government has an emergency evacuation plan for the 600,000 people who currently live in the danger zone. They are actually actively trying to reduce the number of people who live there by demolishing buildings and paying people to move away!
So, this is the end of my rather long (and silly and irreverent) entry about Italy. Although it was not one of the most exotic locations we’ve been to on this tour, it will certainly be amongst the most memorable.
My next post will be from Malta - hopefully very soon!
'Bye for now...