Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Amalfi Coast

We spent the last four days peeking into the world of the rich and famous along the Amalfi Coast.
We, of course, stayed at a campground in a very old camper/mobile just to be sure we didn’t lose touch with our roots. The weather was cool with spots of drizzle but we did get to see the sun most of the time. It is probably a good thing the weather was not spectacular because we may not have wanted to leave otherwise.

We spent a day on the isle of Capri. This island looked a lot like you could find sirens hiding in alcoves along the coast but, of course we all know they perished when Ulysses tied himself to his mast a sailed on through them, forcing them to think they had lost their substantial charms. There is another island nearby named for Ulysses, probably as a great big thank you. I mean, who wants to perish in the arms of a slinky siren? There may no longer be seductive women creatures luring one in but their seductive song is certainly still there. The island itself seemed pretty close to paradise to me.

Once the coast was free of monsters, the Roman emperors began to take notice of it. Tiberius traded something or other for the rights to call the island his own and lived there for some time. The ruins of his palace are still there. He also made good use of the “Blue Grotto” which some of you may have heard of. This is a cave that can only be entered by lying flat in a small boat and using the waves to help wash you in. Once inside, the light reflects through the water to create an ambient blue colour, highly romantic and a powerful aphrodisiac for the ancient Romans. Perhaps for locals, too? It is thought they may have had statues of Poseidon and other water powers rising out of the water back in the day. We didn’t actually go into this cave. Being the common rabble we are, we watched others enjoy their two minute ride. They were charging around 12 euros for the privilege and for our family that would translate into about $70 for a two minute glimpse. Plus, there’s nothing romantic about packing into a small hole with hordes of tourists.

Although we missed out on the blue cave, we got to see the green cave and the white cave. You don’t lie flat in a boat but they were both pretty spectacular. We also stopped at the island for the day and did lots of walking. We took the chairlift to the top and on our arrival I heard Rhys say to Julia, “Some people would call this paradise”. I’m not sure if that meant he certainly wouldn’t or if he was awed by the amazing scene the same as me. Once again, I was moved to tears. We watched the birds fly around the cliffs below us and felt like we could see clear to the other side of the world. I can well understand why Tiberius called this home. Apparently, Churchill and Eisenhower also met here during the Second World War for a little R&R.

Our second day here we visited Pompeii. It was fantastic. It reminded us all a lot of Ephesus but not as wealthy. The columns here were made of brick covered in marble and the roads were stone with narrow sidewalks. The rich and poor lived all together with no elite neighbourhoods and you could see that this town was a working town. There was evidence of roadwork and restoration that had been happening when the volcano exploded. You can see in the picture the chariot slots in the foreground of the road and then they disappear because the road had been “repaved”. There were stones in the middle of the roads that acted as crosswalks. The chariots were high enough to rise over them. The roads were sunk down lower than sidewalk level and every night the Romans would flood the streets to clean them. The stones would allow people to cross the street without getting their feet wet. Three stones in the middle was a two way street. One stone was a one way street. They also had stones blocking entry into pedestrianized areas like the Forum. These significant features made the city feel real and the lives of the people who lived there seem more like our own. The houses even had stonework out front that took the place of doormats we have today. One said, “Cave Canem” meaning “Beware of Dog” and another said, “Have” meaning “Welcome”.

While the city came alive with these meaningful signs, the whole mood of the town was like Ordour Sur Glane, the French village annihilated by the Nazis. It had the creepy feel of “something bad happened here”. Vesuvius rose ominously in the background. The two bodies on display were eternally frozen in their death throws and it was fascinating in a horrifying way. You could feel the terror of their final moments. I didn’t realize that most of the people here escaped. There were only about 2000 of 20 000 bodies found in the city. Thankfully, most had time to get out.

One of the funnier moments in amongst the solemnity was finding the “Lego” brick. I didn’t know the Romans played with Lego too!

On our final day we drove the famous Amalfi Coast. Tom drove. The rest of us oohed and ahhed. This is a very slow Whistler drive with narrower roads and higher drops. At some points they have police officers helping cars squeeze around corners. It was most interesting being behind a camper because whenever he got around the corner or past the bus, we knew we were fine. Do you know the difference between a French car and an Italian one? The French car has a myriad of small dents and bumps on it. The Italian one has one long scrape along the side. Tom met someone he knew from work while we were in Amalfi. Isn’t Italy just the gathering place for us all? His colleague had just scraped up the side of the rental car trying to squeeze past a bus.

I’m glad we came to visit the Amalfi Coast. The towns nestle or cling, depending on where they are located. Most of the coast is cliff but it really doesn’t seem to deter human inhabitation. The area didn’t scream farmland to me, but someone along the way just saw those cliffs as a challenge as you can see by the picture. There isn't much people won't build on the side of a cliff. After catching glimpses of the resorts clinging spectacularly to the sides of the cliffs, I’ve decided our next trip I’d like to come back independently wealthy.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Holly Mother visits the Vatican

The Vatican Museum was truly an inspiration. The statues were endless and mostly fully formed. You actually could see what the statue was meant to be holding. It turns out the Greeks and Romans DID have arms and noses. There were so many statues that one had a sense of being in amongst the people of that time. They were dressed differently and had different hairstyles but in the end, they looked a lot like the people walking down the street today. The statues were all made of various people of the day. There were no cameras so instead you’d have a statue of grandpa in the garden. Sound good, Vern? Ian? We realized we had way too few statues around our house. Guess what you’re all getting for Christmas next year?

We wandered through miles (literally) of rooms filled with amazing art, often the walls and ceiling were amazing art as well. The maps room was wonderful with huge wall maps of various places in Italy. There were rooms with frescoes painted by Raphael with a particularly interesting painting called “School of Athens” in which he honoured various figures of the day by painting them as the ancient great thinkers. Leonardo da Vinci is seen as Plato, for example. Apparently, Raphael included Michelangelo only as an afterthought. The great artists of the time competed for patron money and many didn’t get along because of this. Michelangelo was not known for his charming personality but when Raphael snuck a peek at the Sistine Chapel in progress, he realized he had to include Michelangelo in his work on the wall or so the story goes.

The Sistine Chapel was indeed worth the entry fee. The frescoes are inspirational and the fact that Michelangelo painted this for four years while standing up made my neck hurt. I am surprised that Leonardo da Vinci didn’t get into the game and invent something to support the poor man’s neck while he painted. One of the other surprises was that the chapel was not a dome but an arch over a rectangular room. I’m not sure why we thought it was a dome but it wasn’t…and still isn’t. It was almost overwhelming being in the presence of art that great. We spent about half an hour in the chapel, though I think I could have spent longer, especially if the rest of the yahoo tourists were gone. It must be quite a place when you are alone, with only the artistic visions of a genius to inspire you. Surrounded by all of those great faces and philosophical messages in the silence of your own thoughts would be a heady experience.

After the chapel, we headed over to Saint Peter’s Basilica. I have to say this was my favourite. I just loved the history attached to it. The basilica is huge. Did you know the shape of the Christian church is largely based on the Roman basilica? This particular basilica was built over the bones of Saint Peter. Saint Peter, jazzed by the resurrected Christ, came to Rome to spread the gospel to the pagans here. He was not well received and the emperor of the time, Nero, decided to kill him.

The whole area where Saint Peter’s square and basilica sit used to be a chariot race course (circus) during Roman times. During the half time break at the races, they would provide entertainment. Apparently, killing Christians was considered half time entertainment and Saint Peter was killed here. He was hung upside down on the cross because he didn’t feel worthy of being crucified the way Christ had been. There is a chapel in the basilica that is supposedly the site of this crucifixion. He was buried not far from where he died and the mound was secretly observed as a memorial until Constantine converted the whole empire a couple hundred years later and then the huge basilica was built. There is an Egyptian obelisk in the centre of Saint Peter’s square that watched the crucifixion when the area was a race course. I avoid saying “circus” because let’s face it; if you have visited Saint Peter’s square you know it is still a circus, just not a chariot race track. The obelisk was brought back when Egypt was swallowed into the vast Roman Empire.

Bernini had a hand in most of the architecture and decoration inside the church, although the famous Pieta by Michelangelo also lives there. It is protected by bulletproof glass after some maniac with a hammer tried to add his mark to it. Bernini has a lot of amazing works throughout Rome and would have had more but the Pope who championed him died and the succeeding Pope didn’t like him. Same old story: it’s not what you know but who you know.

We saw two Bernini statues in the Gallery Borghese that were just amazing. The gallery isn’t part of the Vatican and you need a reservation to get in. It was well worth it. One was “The Rape of Proserpine” and the other was “Apollo and Daphne”. I think those may be my favourite works of marble so far. The statue of Hades and Proserpine showed where Hades fingers were biting into Proserpine’s flesh as he held her. That and the tears on her face made the stone practically look alive. Painted, it must have been eerily real. In the statue of Apollo chasing Daphne, Bernini managed to freeze the movement of Apollo in such a way as to make it look real. His clothes are flying out behind him and his foot looks as though he is just pulling it in for another great stride. The leaves on the branches growing around Daphne also look delicate and alive. Rick said they actually make a ringing sound when hit by a hammer. I’d like to know who decided to hit the statue with a hammer.

One other titillating tidbit about the gallery: the Cardinal who was responsible for gathering all the art there was a piece of work in his own right. He stole much of the art there through nefarious means. At least once, he had the owner of the art thrown in prison on a trumped up charge and then offered to let the owner out for a few of the owner’s precious art pieces. Another time the piece disappeared out of a home and reappeared some years later in his, acquired as a “donation” to the church. So you really couldn’t work up too much sympathy when you learned that Napoleon had “purchased” a lot of the collection under force. When Napoleon fell out of favour, the art couldn’t be returned because it had been paid for. It is at the Louvre now. I guess the prohibitive costs of the art prevented even the wealthy from buying it.

After our previous whining about the high costs and mediocre quality of museums in Rome, we realized we had saved the best for last. Skip the rest of the museums and blow your art budget at the Vatican and the Gallery Borghese.

Roman Vacation

We found a cheap apartment just outside Rome which was nice but increased travel time. The good news was we didn’t have to drive. Drivers in Italy push insane European driving to new heights. Just when you think you have seen it all, someone does something else. You think the North American drivers are pushy and sometimes rude? A red light here may mean stop to some or simply a challenge to work on their Mario gaming skills to others. Signaling someone behind you that you will be merging into their lane is unnecessary because they can’t see your rear bumper anyhow.

Motorcycles are above the law, needing neither to stop nor follow lines on the road. They can ride between lanes. They can come up in front of traffic at a red light and scoot on through. They can merge into your lane and out again without even looking to see if you noticed and usually not one but many do this at a time. They are never-ending ribbons that wave through traffic; ribbons that you mustn’t hit but you never quite know where they will blow. It adds a unique challenge to the driving task.

Our travel time into Rome without a car was about half an hour…after we figured out the multiple trains, subways and buses to take. Prior to that, it varied to up to two hours. It was all good, though. When you are on vacation, time isn’t really important. We have nowhere to be at any particular time so if it takes two hours, we just get to see more interesting places.

We visited the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill on day one. The Colosseum was anticlimactic. We had seen so many already and the audioguide in Nimes, France really couldn’t be beat. This was just review. Palatine Hill is where the Roman Emperors lived. Each one built another palace to try to outdo the one before. There isn’t much left of these today but the Hill is quite lovely. The Forum was my favourite part. Just walking down the stones that the emperors and Romans had trod so many centuries earlier was quite a thrill. We saw the burial memorial to Julius Caesar. His assassination took place elsewhere in the city as the senate was meeting at an alternate location that day.

The best part was the Hall of the Vestal Virgins. They were charged with keeping the “home fire” of Rome burning. This tradition had come from a time when fire was hard to come by. The earlier Romans (pre-Empire) lived in huts and kept a central fire tended 24/7. This tradition had been saved even though Rome was now greater than its collection of tribal huts. The virgins were interesting too. They were selected at around 6 years old and had to live in this location for thirty years. They were not allowed to have sex and if they were faithful to their task they would receive a huge dowry at the end. If not, they were tied to a funeral car and paraded through town, then taken to a crypt and buried alive. It wasn’t completely heartless though. They were given a lamp and a loaf of bread before they went into the crypt. Seems like a bit of an incentive to stay true to the cause to me but apparently several didn’t make it.

We visited many churches which were just over the top amazing. The ceilings and walls were still painted and the statues were exquisite. We saw Saint Theresa in Ecstasy by Bernini. He even had a hole in the ceiling so light would shine down on the statue. It was great. We saw the Pantheon where the empress Marguerita is buried. She’s the one who gave her name to the pizza. We saw the first church named after Saint Mary.

We did both of Rick’s walks around town. They were excellent and the high point of our time in the city. We found the admission prices had gone up significantly and some of the museums were not worth the price. The Trajan Market museum was nothing but a couple of videos, really. The rest of it you could see from the outside. That cost the family 22 Euros WITH the Roma Pass. The Capitoline Museums cost the family 40 Euros after the 18% discount with Roma Pass and while it was good, it didn’t have the bang of the Vatican. Kids didn’t get discounts and with the admissions being so high it left a bitter taste in our mouths. We found the statues and architecture outside were just as interesting. The Roma Pass was 25 Euros each and while it was worth it because of the transportation included, it really didn’t pay after the first two sights. Paris was much cheaper with a family.

The fountains and monuments on the streets of Rome are eye candy. We saw the Trevi fountain and made our wish while throwing a coin over our shoulder. It was built right on the side of a palace. Imagine having that water sound in your home all day. I wonder what it would look like on our house? We saw the Four Rivers fountain by Bernini. Each statue around the fountain represented a major river on one of the four known continents at the time. There was the Ganges, the Nile, the Danube and the Rio do la Plata. Heard of the Rio? It’s in Uruguay. We saw the Victor Emmanuel Monument, built to celebrate the unification of Italy in the late 1800’s. They took a long time to unify. Portugal got to it around 1100. At any rate, the monument is huge and white and looks like a poorly matched denture in amongst the faded grandeur of the real pearls. It is quite a controversial piece and while it is fantastic in its own right, it borders on tacky and boastful rather than glorious. Then again, how do you top the amazing historical monuments of an empire to celebrate bringing a country together? We sat on the Spanish Steps with the hordes of teenagers, lovers or otherwise. We ate at the first McDonalds in Italy.

And of course, we visited the Vatican and Saint Peter’s Basilica. We’ll save those for another blog.