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Archive for July, 2010|Monthly archive page

When in Rome

In Uncategorized on July 27, 2010 at 9:18 pm

I got all lazy and tired of blogging about a trip that already ended… But then I saw Rhea’s Eurotrip Facebook albums and I was re-inspired and will commence again! Forgive my absence!

Let’s finish off Rome!

You know someone is very proud of their building if they hire a whistled man in uniform to yell at you for sitting or loitering around on its tall steps. Such is the case with Italians and their National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II. Here lies the unknown soldier. (I can’t help it, but every time I see the Italian flag, I’m reminded of a pizzeria.)

And, you must admit, the Pantheon looks like Two-Face, the Batman villain. Pantheon literally translates to “all gods,” and so it was built as a temple to commemorate all gods. Now it’s a Roman Catholic church. It is roofed by the world/history’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

There’s a large whole in the middle of the dome, so the inside of the church gets wet when it rains (they do have drainage). And believe me, I saw many cracks in that thing – good thing it’s supported by scaffolding.

This happened to be the day that Italy tied New Zealand in the FIFA tourney; I remember the costumed gladiators in front of the Pantheon dancing around and running to restaurants to watch the replays when Italy scored the tying goal. It was not a good day for the country.

We walked to the Spanish Steps and saw another Baroque fountain (by Bernini – who else?), surrounded by tired walkers and a boy shooting his bubble gun (I want one).

Then we noticed that the Spanish Steps were being cordoned off. This was upsetting, because obvs I wanted to climb the longest and widest staircase in Europe. Since there was a crowd, we joined in. There was music too, and this guy was dancing to it.

So apparently we were crowding around to watch a flash dance (their methods were a little unorthodox for such a performance). Whatever, woohoo!

It was a good time but got way better when this guy snuck past the cops to join in the fun.

BTW, I found a cow and named him Cowmic. (Har har!)

That evening, the hostel staff gave us too much wine and biscuits. So we went out with them, and our quirky roommates. Out comes the hitherto useless camera phone. Whoa, Nelly!

Good nights that ruin the next day are such a blessing and a curse when travelling.

On our walk home, we tried to take a photo with both of us AND Castel Sant’Angelo in the background, but we couldn’t quite make it.

We just trod guiltily past St. Peter’s Square and went home. Yup.

Perhaps we still felt guilty – or maybe just because there are so damn many gorgeous churches in Rome – we spent most of the next day visiting them. Forgive me for not remembering their names.

This is an obelisk. It is flanked on both sides by two twin churches that are symmetrical and identical. Hum.

When I see a lion, I can’t resist.

CLEARLY, Jason can’t resist either!!

We climbed higher up to get a better view of the piazza. When I looked down from the balcony, I saw a one-year anniversary love note written for somebody else. How romantic!

Later that day, our favourite Italian corridormate took a train down from Florence to meet us in Rome for a LOVELY afternoon<3. Jason and I were tired of pasta and pizza so we made GIUUULLIAAA eat Chinese food with us!

And we finally got to walk up the Spanish Steps… (I miss her pretty face.)

Oh, by the way, we went to go see the Pope. It was pretty unexciting. DO YOU SEE HIM? CAN YOU SEE?

That’s a lotta people come to see His Holiness. I felt out of place, just a bit.

What does one do with her day after seeing the Pope?

Visit some ruins, why of course! We metro’d out of town to Ostia Antica to see what used to be and now almost isn’t. It was a little port city outside of Rome. Luckily, as it was covered under lots of river silt over the years, it is quite well preserved.

This is an ancient theatre mask carved onto a column. It’s so old that a honey bee decided to build a little honey comb inside its mouth.

An ancient Roman thermopolium is comparable to a modern MacDonald’s or any other fast food joint. This one is preserved so exquisitely well and it was very exciting to look through it.

Ostica is pretty big. Almost the entire town was preserved nicely and is open to visitors, so we spent an entire half day walking around in the hot “town” with only one bottle of water between us – horrendous. We also saw various homes and temples and bakeries and mosaics, like this one.

And an old grain refinery or warehouse or something… It’s pretty much just columns surrounding overgrown grass now. Excellent place to fool around in the fields (not like that, perverts).

On our last day, we visited St. Peter’s Basilica again (we went like 3 or 4 times – it really is that amazing!) It’s a good thing we did, or we would have missed the bronze statue of St. Peter whose feet everybody touches and kisses.

After withstanding the devotion of pilgrims for centuries, St. Peter’s feet are a little worn out.

Arrivederci, Italia!

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We no speak Italiano…

In Uncategorized on July 24, 2010 at 9:17 am

When picking hostels, we always select based on location ratings. There are upsides and downsides of living centrally.

Pros: You’re near everything. You waste less time/money on transport. It’s easier to find. It’s easier to go out in the evenings.

Cons: Everything you’re surrounded by is touristy with inflated prices. You don’t get to see the outskirts of the city much.

In Rome, we booked a hostel that was a hundred feet away from the Vatican City. Almost every night we got gelato and ate it by the Vatican walls. It was my favourite hostel. The elevator was old school, with the glass doors that you had to open by yourself. It was slow as a snail.

And St. Peter’s Square is astoundingly serene at night when the cops start sending you home.

I remember our first night in Rome. Our hostel’s latest check-in time was 10:30pm and we ran with our backpacks to make it just at 10:27pm. After putting our stuff on our beds, we went downstairs to look for a place to dine. We saw a sign pointing to a Chinese restaurant; simultaneously and wordlessly we made our way over. Jason ordered ramen and I had donburi. You may know that both of those are actually Japanese, you food connoisseur, you.

The next morning, we woke up bright and early at  10am and strolled over to the Vatican Museum. It’s huge!! I was expecting to just look at some art and then make our way down to the Sistine Chapel, but there is much to see there.

Growing up, you hear a lot about various famous paintings or you see photos of them in books, but you don’t remember where exactly they are. Then, one day you are looking at a wall in the Vatican Museum and you see Raphael’s School of Athens and you totally lose it.

I’ll copy exactly what the info sign in the room read:

In the center, Plato is pointing upward while holding his Timaeus and Aristotle stands next to him with his Etica; on the viewer’s left Socrates, dressed in green, is debating with Alcibiades; Pythagoras, in the foreground, is explaining his diatesseron from a book; Diogenes reclines on the steps with his begging bowl; Euclid appears at the right teaching geometry to his students; Zoroaster holds his celestial sphere, Ptolemy his earthly globe and, on the far right wearing a black beret, Raphael, painted his self portrait.

There he is, hiding in the corner.

But then… you turn around. On the other side of the wall is Raphael’s Triumph of the Church. You lose it again. In fact, all four walls of this room (Room of the Signature) are decorated with Raphael’s works.

The treasures to explore in Rome are endless. Some more brazenly displayed and guarded than others. This one is the centre gem on the crown.

Gorgeous from end to end. The artwork is so beautiful that one could almost forget about the stunning architecture. It was built to resemble Solomon’s Temple from the Old Testament. The chapel features artwork by not only Michelangelo, but Bernini, Raphael, and Botticelli as well. Of course, Michelangelo is the most notable. He didn’t actually want to do the project at first, since he saw himself as primarily a sculptor. It turned out pretty awesome for him.

It was extremely difficult to take photos inside the Sistine Chapel because there were over 20 guards walking around (some in plain clothes) all going, “SHHHH!” and “NO PHOTO!” But I snuck a few, as I do. They are mostly sucky; this one’s okay. I couldn’t get a good one of The Last Judgement.

After the Vatican Museum, we climbed (yes, on foot) to the top of the cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica. Phew! I was so exhausted from the narrow staircases that I could barely take in the view.

St. Peter’s square from the top of St. Peter’s. Not very square-ish.

We found out that the Vatican has it’s own post office and postal stamps. The gift shop was staffed by nuns.

The inside of the basilica is gorgeously decorated, as to be expected. This is the altar, where they think the remains of St. Peter are buried. It’s Late Renaissance in style, with the largest interior of any Christian church. Holds 60, 000. To put that into perspective, Vancouver’s Rogers Arena (formerly GM Place) can hold about 20,000 people, and the Roman Colosseum can hold about 50,000.

I love this photo! While touring around the Vatican, I couldn’t help but forget that it was a sacred place, and MANY people visit it for different reasons – mostly religious, but even religious pilgrims can be touristy. This is a group of nuns with audioguides, cameras, and a speaking guide, in front of the altar!

And again in front of Michelangelo’s Pietà. This statue has sustained much damage, including an incident in which a deranged geologist tried to chop it to bits with his hammer while shouting, “I am Jesus Christ!” Now it’s behind bullet-proof glass. Wish we could’ve seen it closer up; it looked very intricate.

Inside St. Peter’s, there is even a monument of Queen Christina of Sweden, who abdicated and moved to Rome to convert to Catholicism. She is buried under the basilica with previous Popes. By the way, when she was in Sweden, she was a big fan of René Descartes. She even invited him to come to Sweden. He did. He died from the cold.

Christina was a successful Queen. Ironically, she believed that women were not meant to reign.

The Swiss Guard, ooozing with cool. I love the tri-colour ensemble.

A fountain in the square and some guy who thought this was a comfortable sleeping position.

We have this? Really? …REALLY?

View of the Vatican from Castel Sant’Angelo – once Hadrian’s Mausoleum, later connected to the Vatican by a fortified passage to act as a fortress residence for the Pope. Have you read your Dan Brown?

Senatus Populusque Romanus. “The Senate and People of Rome.”

They say that if you love fountains, Rome is the place for you. Actually, they don’t say that. I love fountains though and there are lots of nice ones in Rome. This is Piazza Navona and it has two very beautiful fountains, as well as lots of local artists and street performers. It’s bustling with life, which is another way of saying “clutch your wallet tightly.”

Hello, night time.

I loved evenings in Rome because… remember what I said about the fountains?

This is the Trevi Fountain, designed by Bernini. Bernini to Rome is like Gaudi to Barcelona. He designed so much of the city, including several fountains, St. Peter’s Square, and lots of other stuff… (Alright, Michelangelo did his part in Rome too.) Tossing a coin into this fountain supposedly ensures that you will return to Rome one day. I happily tossed a coin in.

It’s popular.

Once upon a time, Palatine Hill was marvellous and grand; now it’s rubble. And rubble is rubble, no matter how special. Even so, Jason and I enjoyed climbing around in it. There’s a certain charm in scaling two millennium old temples; I just can’t put my finger on it. We love rubble, especially famous rubble. The rubble in the Forum is really fun. I will limit my photos.

Some things like this sheltered rain water fountain were well-preserved and still really cool.

The Temple of Vesta, Goddess of the hearth and home.

What’s a visit to Rome without checking out the good ol’ Colosseum? Besides, it’s right next to Palatine Hill.

So this is where gladiators killed each other. The underground tunnels you see here were the hypogeum (under the gym) where the gladiators and animals were kept “backstage.” In addition to fighting each other, gladiators often also wrestled with imported exotic animals such as rhinos and crocs. It was also possible to flood the colosseum very quickly to allow for simulated sea battles.

Wish we had such spectacles now…

Goonnndola, GONDOLA!

In Uncategorized on July 19, 2010 at 8:24 am

The fish.

That was the name of our awesome hostel.

It is also the shape of the island. I once wrote that flying off into the Paris night sky was my favourite take off in a plane. Still is. But, flying out of Venice was a close second. This is what Venice looks like from the sky (not my photo). Something fishy?

Visiting Venice is a very unique experience. There is something undeniably magical about the canals and bridges there. The water may be green and murky… but you don’t swim in it, so who gives a rats bum? It’s very picturesque.

According to Lonely Planet’s Europe, everybody gets lost in Venice. Fact!

Maps are utterly useless. There are arrows everywhere on buildings pointing to the big destinations like San Marco’s Square or the train station or the Rialto Bridge, but that’s as far as directions go and they are tricky to follow. No street names, no numbers. Venice is composed of 3 main islands (altogether 117 small ones), around 150 canals, and over 400 bridges (only 3 of which cross the Grand Canal). Getting lost is a great inevitable adventure! But if you disagree, then you will look like this couple.

Most streets are bustling with vendors. Tourism seems to be the sole reason for this place’s existence. People who work in Venice typically can’t afford to live there. All these qualities make this place a surreal destination for any traveller.

The canals are a little bit spooky at night. I carried a flashlight with me always while in Venice because once it’s night time there’s very little light. Some “streets” end suddenly with a drop into a canal. Thanks to a neat congenital skill known as night vision, I never really needed it.

During our travels, Jason and I have developed a tendency to always eat at a nice nearby restaurant for the first night whenever we go somewhere new, even if it is not exactly in our price range. I think these were our most worthy splurges. When you arrive somewhere new, you are tired and hungry, you don’t know the place well, you don’t know where to find cheaper eats and you don’t want to walk far. We decided that if we were going to splurge on any meal, it would be the first. (Until the end of the trip, when we decided to splurge everywhere just because our 6 month extended vacation was coming to an end).

But when morning comes, we’re back on a budget.

I am going to post a lot of scenic photos of Venice because it’s a very pretty city.

The history of the gondola is extremely fascinating! I’ll try to summarize it here.

Gondolas are flat-bottomed rowing boats that are well-suited for Venetian waters. They used to be a central means of transport, and there were maybe 8-10 thousand gondolas around in the 17th to 18th century; now there are only around 400, most of which are used for hire by tourists. They are rowed by (handsome) gondoliers – the front and back of the boat are not perfectly aligned to compensate for the rowing of the gondolier on one side of the boat only! As I understand, to become a gondolier is a tricky process. Not only do you have to inherit a boat, you need to be accepted into the guild that controls the profession. They only accept like 3 new members a year, and you get licensed only after rigorous training, apprenticeships, and exams (history, landmarks, boat-handling, etc).

Almost all gondoliers in Venice are currently men; one female exception is only allowed to give rides to people from the hotel she is contracted with. Rides are about 100EUR so we opted to take vaporettis instead (like a water bus).

As mentioned in a previous post, it is now illegal to feed pigeons in the popular San Marco square in Venice because the city was spending too much on bird poop cleaning. Trust me, you wouldn’t even want to feed pigeons here, unless you like getting beaten up by hundreds of birds. The first time we visited the square to see La Basilica di San Marco, it was raining.

The basilica was very nice. We saw what we came to see. In perfect honesty (and I am a little bit ashamed to admit it) I was a little tired of churches by that point. When we left the square, we got lost immediately and found ourselves at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection along the Grand Canal about an hour later. It is a small museum, but one of the most important in Italy. It houses some important 20th cent works (Picasso and Pollock, Mondrian and Klee, etc), and it was at one point a very impressive private collection.

We had the most fun playing with the lawn installations…

My friend Alex once told me that if you’ve seen Venice for a day, you’ve seen it all. I guess this is very true for the canals and buildings, but it’s not literal truth. Every time we got lost, we happened upon an alley or bridge that we’d never seen before. No matter where you went there were always bead stores and glass stores and carnival mask stores and Venetian stationery stores and lots of lights and romantic bridges and water – the city of my dreams!

Mmmmm wine with dessert. Tiramisu, a nice change from pizza and pasta and gelato (which I miss).

At the fish market, I saw a nun buying some fish.

And a swordfish!

So many scenic bridges! I constantly had to make Jason stop and take photos of me to satisfy my egotistical love for photos in cool settings. Oh what, did I just sound like every girl you know?

And we found a really cool mini pier that led into the Grand Canal to take a short rest on.

We came back to San Marco’s square lots of times when it wasn’t rainy. There was a sign that said don’t climb the lions, but I didn’t see it… I am mid-chew a bite of pizza slice that was twice the size of my head before I ate it all. Look at how touristy this place is!

This adorable kid was flying after pigeons for a long time while his parents ate lunch.

A fleet of gondolas!! I’ve noticed that gondoliers spend a lot of time drinking coffee with other gondoliers, slightly less time standing by bridges shouting, “Goonnndola, GONDOLA!” and the rest of their time actually rowing boats.

This is a very special wedding gondola; it’s gorgeous!

Look who we met up with in Venice? The lovely Elena! Our Italian friend from Lund! She gave us a wonderful tour of the city and also introduced us to Spritz, a delicious Italian aperitif.

After hanging out with Elena for the afternoon, we went back to San Marco again to see it at night. There were live bands playing in the restaurants, and the lit up square was enchanting.

Ma, look what I can do with my camera!

So stunning at night.

This bridge is the entrance to our beautiful hostel with a beautiful balcony that passers-by loved to take photos of. Highly recommended accommodation if you want a (relatively) cheap place to (try to) sleep in Venice.

On our last morning, we visited the small island of Murano that is world-renowned for glassmaking. History is that all the glassmakers of Venice were banished to Murano to localize the risk of fires, and glass has been the island’s main livelihood ever since. It’s the boringest island ever unless you love buying glass. That’s all they have there. We watched a glass-blowing demonstration and it was the same as every other glass-blowing demonstration I’ve seen. My feet started to bleed from my shoes. Bad morning. Boooo.

The island was pleasant, but so touristy and dull.

Before we knew it, we were off to Marco Polo  airport to set off for ROME!

Star-crossed Lovers

In Uncategorized on July 17, 2010 at 4:41 am

Shakespeare has many a brilliant work, but my favourite is the simple Rome and Juliet, so tragic and classic. Their fateful romance is the stuff tween dreams are made of (Twilight, anyone?), but their story of brief lust and loyalty has become somehow synonymous with true and everlasting love. I was determined that we pass through Verona for a day trip while travelling between Milan and Venice.

Aside from being the setting of the tragedy, Verona’s other claim to fame is its colosseum, which has been renovated to hold modern audiences for outdoor opera performances. Sadly, we were there 2 days before the season premier of Aida (Henry’s mom sung this in The Time Traveler’s Wife!), so we didn’t get to watch a show.

Verona’s pedestrian shopping street is one of the nicest I’ve seen.

Of course, Slam Jam – the one store Jason was set out to find, was not on this street. It was in some hard-to-find alley where shops had a very long siesta and hours that didn’t correspond with their signs. Good thing Jason is exceptionally good with maps (a very useful skill to have in a travel companion).

In due time, we arrived at Casa di Giulietta. For decades, lovers have made pilgrimages to this site. They’ve left plenty of love notes.

Others leave locks, which we did also.

The famous balcony itself is not that fabulous. Romeo and Juliet were not real people (sorry you had to learn that from me). Juliet didn’t really live here. They built the balcony to appease the tourists, which we are.

Below the balcony is a bronze statue of Juliet. Her right breast shows quite a bit of wear… That’s because it’s a well-known fact that if you rub her right breast, you will soon be blessed with a new lover! Jason let me rub it to tempt fate, which we love to do.

Another one of Verona’s more popular sites is the Roman theatre. It also has a monastery. It’s pretty cool, if you like scaling old crumpled ruins, which we do.

There are also about a bajillion churches in this tiny city. Some of them are much grander than others; we tried to visit those. They are also pretty cool, unless you’ve seen way cooler churches, which we have.

That was Verona. We spent maybe 6 hours there, then we were back on a train. Destination: Venice!

This isn’t D&G; this is Dolce and Gabbana

In Uncategorized on July 15, 2010 at 10:02 am

Milan was our first stop after leaving Lund. It kicked off our 5 weeks of travelling before returning home to Vancouver. Fashion and boredom capital of Italy. Super expeeze. Jason and I decided to walk into like a million couture stores just to browse – phew! Why on earth would you spend $4000 on a bag when you can fly to Europe and back, thrice?

They do have a few nice sights.

And I found this guy who made the coolest things out of roots! Definitely gave him some change.

The Duomo is the fabulous gothic cathedral in Milan, built over 5 centuries and 4th largest in the world. It’s an awe-inspiring sight, especially with the million pigeons in the square in front of it, and with every second person in the square being a hawker trying to sell you stuff you don’t need.

Beautiful on the inside as well, of course.

And right next to the Duomo are the Galleries, where the big brands live.

I think we also caught the Pride Parade while we were there.

One time, in a metro station, I sat in a hole in the wall.

We found a creperie named The Crescent. So we ate there. The dishes were hardly crepes, the crepes were just there for an excuse to load a bunch of deliciousness on it. Heaviest meal ever.

We got really lucky one morning in Milan. Right before we left for Milan we were devastated to find out that you could only see Da Vinci’s The Last Supper if you booked several weeks in advance… They only let a very small group of visitors in at a time to see the fresco (well, it’s not technically a fresco). We had not booked. So we went one morning to see if they had cancellations for the day. The sign said that there were no cancellations for the next 2 weeks. We were about to turn away dejected with a guy in the office shouted at us that there were 2 tickets available for the next round of visitors in 10 minutes!

So we got to go see The Last Supper and it was beautiful and huge!! Much more amazing than Dan Brown’s description of it! No photos allowed, obviously, so I stole this one off the Interwebs =).

After that phenomenal experience, we set off for Lago di Como – a large lake of glacial origin in Lombardy, near the Swiss border. The lake is famously beautiful, and this fact was immediately evident when we arrived there. We were really excited to get on the water, but the boat to Bellagio (the city that inspired the Bellagio hotel/casino of Vegas) was not for a few hours, so we hopped into one of these in the meanwhile!

Peddle my boat.

Then, the boat ride to Bellagio was very bella-tiful in itself. I could so see myself living here…

When we reached the little town, we only had a few hours to wander around before having to go back, so we just strolled through the picturesque streets and had dinner at a cute little restaurant wherein we were the only customers – not sketch at all!

I think Jason could have a career in modelling, yes?

Back in Milan, we did quite a bit of shopping. I’ve noticed that shopping is an activity that makes your feet especially hurt, more than regular walking. Maybe it’s the extra weight of the bags, or the constant stand-walk-stairs cycle, but my feet never hurt as much as when I go shopping. When we got tired of shopping, we climbed the Duomo and just sat there while doing some people-watching, which is a lot of fun in the fashion capital of Italy.

All in all, Milan was a very laid-back start to our 5 week post-exchange adventure.

Let’s begin with the End

In Uncategorized on July 13, 2010 at 11:13 pm

I just read what I wrote about airplanes in my last post. Interesting, upon reflection. Yesterday, I was wishing so hard that the plane would stop and reverse when we were taking off on the tarmac in Istanbul. I really didn’t want to be carried away and thrust back into reality. But here I am. Home Sweet Vancouver.

Woohoo!

I was in my own bed last night and the small luxury bewildered me. Why is this bed so comfortable? Do people always sleep like this? It’s so quiet. Is this heaven? zzzz…

Anyway, now that I’m back I’ve had the time to rest and think and play with some numbers. Mental closure to the best 6 months of my life.

12 countries; 6 months and one day. All over Europe: London to Istanbul, Stockholm to Mykonos. Countless airplanes, trains, taxis, boats, buses, four-wheelers. Altogether, I’ve spent much more money than I would’ve liked, it was undoubtedly worth every penny. I’d do it all over again, easily.

As promised, I’m going to stick photos in your face. I’ll start with my last days in Lund. The weather was beautiful but the atmosphere miserable. Everybody was leaving behind their new families of 5 months, and one by one the dorm rooms would empty and the corridors got quieter and slower. We had our last hurrahs.

I don’t know what this is about, I just like the picture.

Ditto with this one. The lake is nice.

Okay this is a good one. These are some of the special people who made my exchange awesome. Brunch is a meal with a magical quality.

The best way to say goodbye to a place is to revisit it and stroll around with some ice cream. Bonus if there is sun. Extra bonus if the ice cream has more than one flavour.

Adios, librarios, which I’ve stepped foot in but once.

Goodbye, kitchen and unsafe food handling.

The Swedes have a lovely tradition of high school graduation celebration. They rent trucks and decorate them, then dress up as sailors and roll through the streets blasting pop music and blowing whistles, whilst brimming with drink. Quite fantastic. This went on for about a week and there were 4 or 5 of these trucks driving around one day!

I will miss you so much, Lund!