Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

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‘Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience.’ – Francis Bacon

I was not first introduced to the leaning tower of Pisa in Superman III though I loved that scene, in which Superman straightens the leaning tower of Pisa and then leans it back in the end. In one of the many travels of my father he brought a souvenir from Pisa, a replica of the leaning tower that functioned as a lamp and I remember playing with it trying to straight it out.

We arrived in Pisa late in the afternoon to retire for the day in Grand Hotel Duomo Pisa. The building was a bit tired with simple and not exceptionally equipped rooms but with signs of past grandeur. The communal areas are elegant, but what makes it interesting is its position, it’s a stone throw away from the Piazza dei Miracoli (formally known as  Piazza del Duomo), Considered in 1987 as UNESCO World Heritage Site the square is dominated by four great sacred edifices; the Pisa Cathedral, the Pisa Baptistry, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Camposanto Monumentale (Monumental Cemetery). Outside the piazza are souvenirs shops and restaurants where we spent the evening for drinks and snacks. Pisa is more like a sleepy town, laid back and less people, the ambiance is perfect for alfresco dining.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa took 344 years to build, beginning in August 1173. When construction on the second floor had begun in 1173 it begun to lean due to one side sinking into the soft ground. The construction of the tower has seen 2 wars and the building ceased. In 2008 engineers stated that the Tower had stopped moving and will be stable for at least 200 years more. This is the first time in its history that it has not been slowly leaning further to one side.

In the morning we are given ample time to go to Piazza Dei Miracoli – the “field of miracles” to take picture and be captivated of these four masterpieces of medieval architecture that  had a great influence on monumental art in Italy . The facade of grey and marble white stone on partly paved and partly grassed square was such a sight to see. The feeling I had while standing in front of the leaning tower, beholding its’ distinctive tilt is the same feeling I had observing the Statue of Liberty and Eiffel Tower  such world landmarks can give you goosebumps! And of course, I had to buy my own souvenir lamp.


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“When in Rome, do as the Romans do” – St. Ambrose

Vatican City is an enclave of Rome, the capital of Italy and central of the Lazo region, bordered by the Tiber River and lies about 15 miles from the Tyrrhenian Sea. Rome is the oldest continuously populated city in the world referred to as the “Eternal City” as it dates back to 6oo B.C. The Romans were the first civilization to use concrete and arch, they also invented central heating and would warm rooms from under the floor using what was called a hypocaust, literally “heat from below.” Homes of some rich people had both running water and central heating.

The streets of Rome are very pretty with lots of sculptures of gods and fountains that made strolling very inviting and to fill your lungs with Roman air but prior to getting out of the bus our tour guide kept bombarding us with word of caution from pickpockets and mugging. He told us if our valuables got snatched forget about running after the thief because you’ll get mugged in the corner of the street for his additional reinforcements. Also, he told us of the newspaper story of what happened to their travel competitor who lost the whole tourist bus on the visit to this city. Nonetheless this didn’t spoil my visit to Roma.

Our first stop was the Colosseum or the Flavian Amphitheatre, built of concrete and stone, considered one of the greatest works of Roman architecture and engineering, the Colosseum in Italy only took 9 years to build using over 60,000 Jewish slaves. It is the largest amphitheatre in the world and host gladiatorial shows as well as a variety of other events. ‘Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained?’ In the olden days the Colosseum is where to go to, to be entertained. It has over 80 entrances and can accommodate about 50,000 spectators. All Ancient Romans had free entry to the Colosseum for events, and was also fed throughout the show. During its history, it has been estimated that over 500,000 people and over a million animals were killed there. It consisted of a two-level subterranean network of tunnels and cages beneath the arena where gladiators and animals were held before contests began. Today the arena floors was gone, the tunnels and cages beneath are very evident in overview

Just opposite the main entrance to the Colosseum is the Velia Hill where the  Temple of Venus stands dedicated to the goddesses Venus Felix (“Venus the Bringer of Good Fortune”) In between is the The Arch of Constantine, a triumphal arch erected by the Roman Senate to commemorate Constantine I’s victory over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312.After winning his battle, Constantine dutifully converted the Roman Empire to Christianity and, upon his deathbed, converted himself. This arch is similar to the Arch standing in Champs Elysee.

We had lunch near the Fontana di Trevi. This is where the famous gelato shop is also located.  This fountain is the most famous and the most beautiful in all in Rome. It was designed as a monumental triumphal arch and built against a wall of the Palazzo Poli. The central figure of the fountain is a large sculpture of Neptune, god of the sea. He rides a shell-shaped chariot that is pulled by two sea horses. Our local tour guide mentioned this old age tradition that you will return to Rome if you throw a coin into the fountain. You should toss it with your right hand over your left shoulder with your back to the fountain without looking behind.

I remember being in senior highs school and studying about Ancient History of Egypt and Rome. Understanding their society and social rules such as not owning slaves was a sign of extreme poverty. Crimes such as treason or desertion were punishable by beheading or crucifixion. Only criminals without Roman citizenship (such as Jesus Christ) were crucified because that death was so slow and painful. A man could lose Roman citizenship if he deserted the army, mutilated himself so he could not serve, or avoided  census to evade taxation. Girls were expected to marry at the age of 13 or 14 in arranged marriages but divorce was quick and easy. Just utter to your partner this Latin phrase “Tuas res tibi habeto.” (“Keep what’s yours for yourself.”) If there were any children, they remained with the father, though the dowry was returned to the woman provided she had not committed adultery. Above all, this is new to me –that Rome has a museum dedicated to pasta. The National Museum of Pasta spans 11 rooms and two floors located behind Piazza Fontana di Trevi at the foot of the Quiranal Hill.

Vatican City

Posted: January 20, 2014 in Italy, Vatican
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Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.” ― Pope John Paul II

I was excited going to our next destination. I was so looking forward to see this city after hearing a lot about it from my childhood up to early adulthood. This is the final destinations of the nuns from my high school and I felt I was sharing their aspirations from long time back being in Vatican and being in smallest possible circumference with the Pope.

Vatican City is the smallest country in the world, an independent city-state that shelters over 100 acres, making it one-eighth the size of New York’s Central Park. The government was an absolute monarchy with the Pope at its head and Latin was used extensively as a language. They have their own mail system, passport system, license plates, and media outlets and have its own flag and anthem.

To keep up with technology today Vatican has a very active presence on the social media circuit with its own website, YouTube channel as well as the Pope’s own Twitter account.

Vatican citizenship comes only with appointment and majority of Vatican City’s 600 citizens live abroad. As of 2011, the number of people with Vatican citizenship totalled 594. That number included 71 cardinals, 109 members of the Swiss Guard, 51 members of the clergy and one nun inside the Vatican walls.

We entered the Vatican gates a day early for Wednesday morning where the Pope holds a Papal Audience, during which he addresses the public in multiple languages and concludes with a final blessing of people and objects held up by members of the crowd. Lots of empty chairs can be seen outside the Pope’s balcony or in front of St Peter’s Basilica for this preparation.

Finally, from all the churches we visited in the whole of Italy we are now given time to enter this late Renaissance church located within Vatican City – St. Peter’s Basilica, The most renowned work of Renaissance architecture and remains one of the largest churches in the world and has been described as the greatest of all churches of Christendom because of historical evidence hold that Saint Peter’s tomb is directly below the altar of this basilica.

The basilica was titanic that I bet it can hold inside hundreds of churches. The interior appears to be elaborately decorated with paintings but our guide said it’s not as every single one of those “paintings” is actually a mosaic, done with so much detail that they appear to be paintings. Inside I saw, Michelangelo’s Pietà is shielded by bullet-proof glass because in 1972, a mentally-disturbed man named Laszlo Toth attacked the sculpture with a hammer; he cracked off Mary’s nose and broke off her arm at the elbow. In the centre of the altar is the baldacchino where St. Peter’s lies directly. It is 96 feet high, made from bronze mostly stripped from ancient Roman monuments such as the Pantheon, and the only person who is permitted to say mass at this altar is the pope.

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“Italy, and the spring and first love all together should suffice to make the gloomiest person happy.” –Bertrand Russell

After Florence we head south to its rival city Siena another UNESCO  World Heritage Site. Before entering this classic medieval city of brick and hill town in Tuscany we made a full stop outside its city walls for a full view of its awe and splendor. It’s like being in the movie really and you know you are not looking at the whole town with a castle of a theme park but people really settled there in 4 century AD

We had lunch in one of the local restaurant in the city (pizza and pasta of course) and we walked around. The walls and gates enclose a city center that is composed of narrow, winding streets and old buildings and arrived at The Siena Cathedral (Duomo). As per our local tour guide, Siena wanted to have one of the biggest cathedrals in Europe. They started to build it in 12th century but they had to stop in 1348 due to plague. Although at present the Duomo is only a small part of what it was intended to be but it’s as beautiful and one of the great examples of Italian Romanesque-Gothic architecture.

Private cars have limited access inside the city walls, both because of the restricted amount of space and the complex street layout  this allows drivers to leave their cars at the gates of the city while they enjoy themselves in the center where our tour ended. Dominated by a large  shell-shaped square called the Piazza del Campo, which is the focus of Siena’s civic life. Known worldwide for the famous Palio run  or horse race run around the piazza twice every summer. (To be able to relate to this race, watch Quantum of Solace.)

Siena’s original character remains unspoiled and  remains essentially a medieval town as far as I’m concerned. It is the mother of all medieval towns I have ever stepped into with a provincial sophistication ambiance that comes from its long history.  It meant to escape damage during World War II  and survive as a provincial town of great beauty and charm for all tourist to see.

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“Everything about Florence seems to be colored with a mild violet, like diluted wine.” – Henry James

What does sculptor Donatello, painters Rafael and Michelangelo,  Amerigo Vespucci the explorer, Niccolo Macchiavelli the philosopher, Galileo Galilei the astronomer, Florence Nightingale the famous revolutionist in the field of nursing and haute couture fashion designers such as Guccio Gucci, Roberto Cavalli, and Salvatore Ferragamo have in common with Leonardo da Vinci? One word – Florence! They are famous artists and celebrities came from or made Florence their home.

We arrived in capital city of the province of Florence and the Italian region of Tuscany in a gloomy morning and started our tour on a walk from Florence’s Humanist Academy where Michaelangelo (statue of David, ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) studied. Touring Italy made me get more acquainted with famous Renaissance artists’ names far from that of teen-age mutant ninja turtle’s characters I grew up with.

A few minutes stroll more we arrived in Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Our Lady of the Flower), the main church of Florence, Italy. Also known as Il Duomo di Firenze dedicated to Saint Reparata, a virgin martyr denounced as a Christian during the times of persecutions. She was tortured and thrown into a furnace but miraculously survived the flames. She refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods and the Romans beheaded her. You will never miss this humungous church of Florence seeing it standing in a gloomy and Smokey morning was like a dream or a travel back in renaissance era. A prominent on the back wall of the cathedral’s interior was a clock. Paolo Uccello designed this twenty-four hour clock. Paining’s on it depict four male saints. The clock actually works, and its hands run in a “counter clockwise” direction.

Florence’s cathedral ranks as the 3rd largest in terms of length of the church’s nave Christian church in the world. The largest is St. Peter’s in Rome, and second is St. Paul’s in London. Designed by Arnolfo di Cambio and nearly 140 years in the making from September 8, 1296 to the consecration on March 25, 1436

In a few steps that sits directly in front of the Il Duomo stood Florence’s Baptistry, a Romanesque (late Medieval) structure, is an octagonal structure. The Baptistry is renowned for its three sets of artistically important bronze doors with relief sculptures. The south doors were done by Andrea Pisano and the north and east doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti. The east doors were dubbed by Michelangelo the “Gates of Paradise”.

A few meters away were a market or the Il Porcellino (Italian “piglet”) is the local Florentine nickname for the bronze fountain of a boar. We were asked to rub it’s snout for luck.

Near the market was, Ponte Vecchio (Lovers’ Bridge) The Ponte Vecchio is the only bridge in Florence that survived World War II. Hitler said it was too beautiful to destroy. This medieval stone arch bridge over the Arno River was once common. Butchers initially occupied the shops; the present tenants are jewellers, art dealers and souvenir sellers. The Ponte Vecchio’s two neighbouring bridges are the Ponte Santa Trinita and the Ponte alle Grazie. Legend has it that if you and your loved one attach a padlock to any surface of the famous bridge and then throw away the key into the Arno River below, your love will last forever. 5,500 love padlocks affixed to the Ponte Vecchio Bridge were removed by the city council. According to the council the padlocks both pose an aesthetic problem as well as scratch and dent the metal of the bridge. Today, there is a hefty penalty to all who are caught locking or attaching anything to the Ponte Vecchio. These days, lovers simply come to the famous bridge and simply touch the remaining padlocks that have not been removed.

Piazza della Signoria (Signoria Square) the civic centre of Florentine life where large naked statues displayed and surrounded by other important buildings: the Loggia della Signoria and the Palazzo degli Uffizi on the south side, the sixteenth century Palazzo degli Uguccioni on the north side and the Palazzo del Tribunale di Mercanzia (about 1359) on the east side.The David (the original is in the Galleria dell’Accademia) by Michelangelo was placed outside the Palazzo Vecchio as a symbol of the Republic’s defiance of the tyrannical Medici. Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus (1534) to the right of the David were appropriated by the Medici to show their physical power after their return from exile. The Nettuno (1575) by Ammannati celebrates the Medici’s maritime ambitions and Giambologna’s equestrian statue of Duke Cosimo I (1595) is an elegant portrait of the man who brought all of Tuscany under Medici military rule.

St. John is the patron saint of the city, known as the birthplace of the Renaissance due to Florence’s artistic and architectural culture thus, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982.The saying goes that all roads lead to Rome, but the Eternal City wasn’t the first city to have actual roads. In 1339, Florence became the first city in all of Europe to have paved streets. What are the chances that Florence experienced two floods on the same date of November 4 one on 1333 and 1966.

Never in my life I have imagined that one morning I will have a stroll in the cultural epicenter for Early Italian Renaissance art. I felt blessed, the tour doesn’t cover this city but we went anyway even for half a day.

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“Venice is a place where the past is still hanging around, waiting for an appointment with the future; but the future hasn’t shown up. In the meantime it is a kind of no man’s land, given up by default and occupied by irregulars and their dogs.” – Jack Smith 1976

When Venice comes to mind I tend to associate it with gondolas, a flat bottomed rowing boat in black that looked like a curled Turkish slippers floating on the canals and  It is driven by a gondolier who stands facing the bow and rows with a forward or backward stroke. They usually dressed up in white sailor’s suit or a red/navy striped tee shirt with a round straw hat in ribbons belting out tunes in alto as he propelled the lovers into the sunset – I guess I’m watching too much Looney Tunes as this is not the case when I finally set foot in Venice.  Gondolas were the chief means of transportation within Venice and there are usually at least 5 to 10 people in that boat and the driver is not crooning unless you hired a private and pricey water craft to make this impression come true for you.

Venice the capital of the Veneto region is one of the most important tourist destinations in the world for its celebrated art, architecture, the beauty of its setting. Venice is built on an archipelago of 117 islands formed by 177 canals in lagoon, connected by 409 bridges. The city in its entirety is listed as a World Heritage Site, along with its harbor. As per our local guide who’d rather lecture us standing out in the sun whilst we Asians hide in the shade, Venice was not built directly on the surface of the islets, but instead supported by wooden platforms kept together by wooden piles entrenched in the sea bed to support a building on them. For this reason, under the Venice lagoon you can find literally millions of wooden piles.

Marco Polo is number one, the opera composer Antonio Vivaldi and the great lover Casanova are the famous Venetians, and St Mark was buried here as well. What I saw in Venice: St Mark’s Square, St. Mark’s Basilica, The Doge’s Palace, Bridge of Sighs, and Torre dell’Orologio. What I didn’t see in Venice – Venetian blinds! LOLc”,).

Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square)

Is an open space connecting to the waterway of the lagoon. It is one of the few remaining great urban spaces in Europe where human voices prevail over the sounds of motorized traffic – This is how people do a way without microphones in the olden days. It was a big square surrounded by low rise old buildings and the busiest section of Venice

St. Mark’s Basilica

The Piazza is dominated at its eastern end by the great church of St Mark. According to our guide this is where the body of St. Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria lies. It was constructed in 828, when Venetian merchants stole the supposed relics. I don’t know, up to know I’m still wrapping my head on this one. I’m just not comfortable with the word ‘stole’ and build a basilica on the concept of a that negative attribute or I’m just being opinionated probably the old folks had a different mindset for allowing such. Anyways, this is one of the most famous of the city’s churches and the best example of Byzantine architecture. Too bad I didn’t see the interior as we are not allowed to go in unless we have to hear mass and being in a group tour, time is of the essence.

Doge’s Palace

Doge is the Venetian term for leader or the supreme authority, in English means duke – The Doge’s Palace was built in Venetian Gothic style, and one of the main landmarks of the city of Venice

Bridge of Sigh

Ponte dei Sospiri in Italian, there was a lot of brouhaha before our tour guide presented this bridge to us. He spoke of legend that says lovers will be granted eternal love and bliss if they kiss on a gondola at sunset under the Bridge Of Sighs as the bells of St Mark’s Campanile chimed. The enclosed bridge is made of white limestone and has windows with stone bars. It passes over the Rio di Palazzo and connects the New Prison to the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace. The bridge moniker was given by Lord Byron in the 19th century, from the suggestion that prisoners would sigh at their final view of beautiful Venice through the window before being taken down to their cells.

Before lunch we went to a glass blowing factory. Well it did make sense for us to go there as Venice was famous for their (Venetian) glass made primarily on the island of Murano. It is world-renowned for being colourful, elaborate, and mastered a variety of decorative techniques. During the demo I found out the glass are made from (melted) sands. The lecture consisted of showing us how a vase was made by blowing a heated glass from a long iron stick. We then head out to calle Larga San Marco to have lunch at Tratoria Ai Leoncini located at the corner of piazza in a shiny building which stands out against the more run-down backdrop of the famous San Marco Square. This was recommended by our tour guide, a little bit pricey but the it was the best seafood spaghetti I have ever tasted and my mouth waters just thinking about it.

We are given much time to roam around Venice and went off to San Barbarino Factory outlet 30 km outside of Florence. It’s similar to the ones in the US but you can find out of season Italian brands especially Prada really cheap. Some of my favourite brand reduced from 30% to 70% and the big kicker was shopping is Tax free for international tourists!

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“O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.” –Juliet’s famous lines in the play Romeo and Juliet

One of the benefits of travelling apart from widening your horizon is to make you aware and separate fact from fiction like this 2nd city we visited on Day 2 of our Euro Tour – Verona, synonymous to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Juliet’s Balcony

Verona is very real and is located in the Venetian region of Northern Italy that gave birth to the legend of Romeo and Juliet, despite the fact that there is little evidence that the couple ever existed a house claiming to be the Capulets’ has been turned into a tourist attraction. Casa di Giulietta  features the balcony, and in the small courtyard, a bronze statue of Juliet. Beneath the balcony was where Juliet is supposed to have been wooed by Romeo.  Historians say there is almost nothing to connect the house to Shakespeare’s tragic love story and that the celebrated balcony was constructed out of pieces of a medieval sarcophagus in the 17th century. The only shred of a connection is the fact that the house was probably once the abode of the Cappello family — who may have been the model for the Capulets of Romeo and Juliet.

Letters addressed to Juliet keep arriving in Verona, more than 5,000 letters are received each year, most are from American teenagers. These letters are read and replied by local volunteers known as Club DI Giulietta (Juliet’s Club). Our tour manager mentioned this 2010 movie to refer how this club works. ‘Letters to Juliet’, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Amanda Seyfried. I have seen this film it’s a tale of a young American tourist who stumbles on one such missive shoved behind a loose brick in the courtyard below Juliet’s balcony. She reveals that it was written by Redgrave’s character more than 50 years earlier, expressing sorrow that she left behind a handsome young Italian, Lorenzo, to return home to England.

As per our local guide it’s customary to do the following while in the court.

  1. Stroke the right metal breast of Juliet’s statue, and you will have good luck. Seriously, I pity Juiliet’s statue, I’m guessing she wants to shout from the countless hands that fondled her now discolored  right breast. Anyways, this hasn’t stopped me from striking a pose while caressing her worn-out chest.
  2.  Write your name and the name of your beloved on the ramparts of the entrance.  Many think that writing on Juliet’s wall will make their love everlasting. But  the local tourist guide made this disclaimer  “that everlasting love is only applicable in Verona,  outside Verona I don’t care!.”
  3. Put small love letters on the walls, lock it  and throw away the key but our ‘mood killer’ tour manager warned us that there’s a master key that opened up all those locks to clean the wall for next day tourists

Arena di Verona

Not far from Juliet’s balcony we walked and reached The Verona Arena (Arena DI Verona) is a Roman amphitheatre in Piazza Bra. There’s not much I can say about this auditorium because it was closed and under renovation. Our tourist guide mentioned that the place was  internationally famous for the large-scale opera performances and it is one of the best preserved ancient structures of its kind.

The city of Verona has been awarded World Heritage Site status by UNESCO because of its urban structure and architecture.A United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site is a place (such as a forest, mountain, lake, island, desert, monument, building, complex, or city) that is listed by the UNESCO as of special cultural or physical significance.While each World Heritage Site remains part of the legal territory of the state wherein the site is located, UNESCO considers it in the interest of the international community to preserve each site.There are 981 World Heritage Sites, Italy has the most number totalling 49.