Monday, November 7, 2011

Rome, if you want to...

Rome...was not at the top of my "Favourite Places to Visit, Ever. Or Again." I found it almost immediately unwelcoming (taxi driver at the train station laughed at us; our hotel was too close for him to bother. Never mind that it was a 20+ minute walk, with luggage, for us...) It's a big, grungy, noisy, busy city, teeming with insane drivers, and crawling with tourists (not travelers, and I swear to Bob there's a distinction! We try really hard to fall into the  latter category!)

By the time we got to the hotel, I wanted to crawl into bed and not come out until it was time to get to the airport. (We had an argument with our host about that, too - he tried to convince us we wanted to leave too early, and then he set us up with a ride for the time we wanted....only we found out, when we got to the airport, that we could have paid about 10-15 Euros less...)

However, we were only a few short blocks from the Coliseum, and Mr.Q had been looking forward to this all summer and fall, as the capstone of our trip. So, I had a bit of a lie-down, and we went out in search of Ancient History. 

To get there, we had to run a gauntlet of very aggressive vendors, and make our way through a huge crowd of tourists. To top it all off, there was a line at least an hour long to get in. We fortified ourselves with a colossal donut at the top of the hill, before making our way down to the far end of the Very Long Line.


We had to stop on the way so Mr.Q could fondle the columns.... 

As we were walking to the back of the line, we were approached by a tour rep, who told us that for a small fee, we could join a tour group, which would allow us to bypass the line, and get a guided tour inside. It was a pretty sweet little gig for them, and we could see a number of other tours doing a brisk business with the same  set-up. We decided we'd buck up for the convenience factor, and it turned out to be worth it. Our guide really knew his stuff, and was quite obviously passionate about what he did. 

Also, it meant we got to see a Gladiator!

Coming up to the entrance:

A cool mosaic:

An elevator rig:

View from which point it was patently obvious that a) the extra fee to get in was well worth it; and b) this place was Really Fucking Cool. MASSIVE, and mind-melty at the ingenuity of the human brain.


By this point, it was getting really hot and muggy, and I had definitely had enough of People. We made our way back to the hotel, via a corner store for a bottle of cold white wine. I cracked it as soon as we got in the door, with the intention of really hiding for the rest of the day. However, we got a message shortly after - Mr.Q's band-mates were, coincidentally, on the same flight we were, and had arrived in Rome the day before, having had their own adventures after Berlin. Would we be interested in dinner together, on our collective last night in Europe?

I have to say, the wine greatly improved my mood, and we met up for a wander in search of dinner. Which we found on a side-street a few blocks from the hotel...We did our  best to replicate the feasts of glory days gone by...

(And, I'm pretty sure, got shafted by the waiters; the bill was rather larger than it ought to have been. I had already come to expect that as par for the course in this city, so I just let it go.) Off for a bit of a walk in the warm night...a few last souvenirs, some cheesy Polaroid photos at Trevi Fountain...

A talk on the Spanish Steps (and a few more unpleasant interactions with waiters and street vendors trying to rip off the tourists...fortunately, there had been more wine with dinner, so I was somewhat inoculated.)  A too-late night, and a too-early morning, made somewhat more bearable by the surprisingly efficient and pleasant navigation of the airport; we had been led to expect much more chaos than there was. And we were on a flight home again.

Greenland, from the plane - in darkness on the way over; beautiful on the way home:

Getting through customs at YVR was fast and painless. When we finally got home, the cats were (mostly) glad to see their regular food supply, though clearly they had not suffered neglect or deprivation in our absence! Jet lag wasn't too bad (fortunately, as we both jumped right back into work the next day!) though it was nice to have the weekend without much to do, and an extra hour of sleep!

(We did go up to Commercial Drive on Saturday for espresso in one of the many Italian cafes. Funny, to look at the 4-ft plaster David and think: That's so much tinier than the real thing!)

It's good to be home! Though we're already talking about the next Grand Adventure. He wants Scandinavia; I'd love to see Morocco. Or Prague. Or Paris...Les Miserables! There's my literary connection there...

Under the Tuscan Sun

We went up to Fiesole one sunny morning, looking for George Emerson in a field of flowers. We didn't find him, but we did find some very cool Roman & Etruscan ruins: an amphiteatre, baths, and a Roman temple built atop an Etruscan one. There were a couple of small (very well-behaved!) school groups there at the same time, and I thought: how cool is that, to have something like this in your back yard for field trips? It would make history lessons so much more interesting! We also watched a group do a recital of sorts for their chaperone,  standing in a line at centre "stage"...which we watched while sitting on 2000+ year-old seats, and thought: I wonder how many times these stones have seen something like that? Then we spent a couple of hours climbing around the grounds and getting a sunburn.

Then we had lunch: a picnic of pizza, pears, pecorino, and pastries. Perfect!

Amphiteatre (we never did figure out which pile of stones was the vomitorium...sad!):

The baths (I believe the arches were the entrance to the latrines.)

Temple: Etruscan altar:

Temple ruins:

From the hill top, baths: 
And amphitheatre: 

Olives! From a tree! And here I thought they came from a bucket at the Italian deli...

And finally, lunch!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Italy's pernicious charm...

When we arrived in Firenze, I had Expectations.

Expectations of being seduced by a magical Renaissance city. (Instead, I got crazy traffic, near-death pedestrian experiences, and loud drunken arguments keeping us up all night. Also, it was near-impossible to navigate.)

Of taking a day trip or two out into the hills of Tuscany, and wandering through vineyards and olive groves. (Spendy, the weather was somewhat crap, and we had to make reservations for the main galleries, which seriously cut into our available wandering time. And trying to navigate the English transit website required arcane knowledge which we lacked, and possibly a sacrifice to Neptune or something.)

Of spending hours sitting outside a cafe in one Piazza or another, sipping espresso and watching Italy go by. (There are very few benches or public sitting space, and you get charged way more for sitting down in a cafe; we got absolutely fleeced once or twice. And there were too many tourists between us and our view of Italy.)

Of course, by the time we arrived in Florence, we were tired and a little overwhelmed by all the Stuff we'd seen and done in a mere 10 days. (Also, I managed to get us rather lost on the way from the train station to the hotel....oops!) So it's no wonder the city was a bit of a let-down.

At first.

We got to our room, were warmly greeted by our host (who sort of reminded me of an ADHD chipmunk on speed) and had a bit of a rest before heading out to get ourselves oriented.

We kept it pretty mellow the first day, and the next morning we had reservations for the Uffizi gallery...Seeing the Botticelli paintings up close and personal was pretty cool, if a bit high-brow for us non-artists. Mr.Q was more interested in the statuary, and I was more interested in finding a good cup of coffee. Since it was a cold, rainy day, we decided to pop into the Galileo Science Museum around the corner.

That's about when things started to shift. My mind, it was blown. All kinds of old scientific instruments - astrolabes, compasses, maps, globes - terrestrial and celestial, hygrometers, thermometers (some of them 2m high)...all beautifully handcrafted, often engraved or otherwise decorated with delicate, intricate designs. Instruments of beauty as well as functionality. Behind one glass case: two of the telescopes that Galileo built, with his own hands. Under another piece of glass: part of Galileo's right hand. As in, actual bones and a fingernail and fragments of tissue. It would have been morbid, except looking from that back to the telescopes across the room, and considering what impact those bones and tubes had on our felt more like visiting a shrine, with a saint's relic on display. At that point, I quit trying to "understand" Florence, and just started to sponge it up. 

While we were in the museum, the sun came out, and we exited into a very different city.

It was...a jumble. So much to absorb: windy streets, old architecture, art, science, artisanal genius (we walked by a violin-maker's tiny shop, and could see him at work through the window...there was also a cobbler, with wooden forms hanging from string in the window...paper-makers, leather work, print-makers, book-binders, bakers, chocolatiers...)

We spent one very early morning at the Galleria Accademia, which houses the David...Again, mind-blowing to see that in person! So perfect in all the tiny details: sinews, veins, knobbly knees and ugly feet. (I liked that a lot, actually: many of the paintings and sculptures we saw featured Ideal Beauty in the form of perfectly-sculpted forms, clear-skinned goddesses with knowing smiles, etc...but they all had feet that looked like...feet.) 

Better than the David, though, was the gauntlet of unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo, that you had to walk through to get to the featured exhibit. There were maybe 8 or 10 enormous blocks of marble, with rudimentary forms starting to emerge through the rough chisel gouges, as though they were frozen in the act of trying to burst out of the stone. It was one thing to see the perfect, polished, final statue of David. It was something else, literally awe-some, to stand there and think: "That gouge, right there, and that one, and that one...were actually made by Michelangelo's own hand."

After that, any plans beyond the book photo-op  went out the window, and we spent four days wandering wherever the city took us. An afternoon meandering through the artisans' quarter ended up in a picnic lunch on a bench. A morning in Fiesole with a view of the city from one side; the same evening, a lurching bus ride up the hills on the other side of the city, to see the Duomo at sunset. We became regulars at the Fratelli Degl' Innocenti cafe, down the street from our hostel, and at one particular baker's stand at the Central Mercato. A quest for all the record stores in Florence (there are three worth visiting, apparently) led to the discovery of a paper-maker's studio/shop, where I found the marbled paper I'd been looking for; and at much better prices than the Big Name shops on the more touristy streets. Finding Santa Croce (and the tombs of both Michelangelo and Galileo, among others), we also found real, live Rom (Gypsy) street musicians: a jazz trio, featuring a violinist who could make you dance while he broke your heart under the sunny sky.

A jumble of images....

A view of Fiesole from our room (We had a Room With a View! And it was all painted and tiled in blue. Perfect!)
Piazza della Republica, featuring a carousel, street vendors, street musicians, artists...
Street art, in the artisans' quarter:
An odd door:
View from Oltrarno (the "other side" of the Arno)
Ponte Vecchio:
Florence at dusk, from the Piazzele Michelangiolo:
Galileo's tomb, inside Santa Croce (the irony of a church-sanctioned tomb, with figures representing Astronomy, was not lost on me!)
Mr.Q in the Piazza di Santa Croce, listening to the Rom band - he got to play the upright bass during a break, which thrilled him to no end!
Red bicycle in the sun:
Basilica of Santa Croce:
The Duomo at sunset:

Mr.Q waiting for dinner at Guido's Trattoria...amazing food, and they were very kind about our lack of Italian. They took turns to come out and talk to us, I think to practice their English. We played "stupid tourist"and totally over-tipped. 
Cheese plate, before dinner, with pears and honey. I would never have thought of adding honey to the mix, but it turns out that, drizzled over a bit of Gorgonzola and a slice of is divine!
And last, a sideways video; I couldn't figure out how to re-orient it - but the visual's not so important. We sat on a cold bench for rather awhile to capture the 6:00 bells...

A bit more on Fiesole, then Rome...then home!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

To live as Miss Honeychurch plays...

A very long time ago, when I was a fresh-faced college student, I took an Introduction to English Lit course. I was wary: I had come to expect "Lit" classes to really be about micro-examining a text until it was a dessicated husk of its former self, shrivelled and lifeless. Also, Heart of Darkness was on the syllabus, and, well...just...ugh.

However, I got lucky. The instructor was quite young, and loved English literature in all its shapes and forms. She didn't want to put it under a microscope; she wanted to suck the marrow out of every juicy word. She even went so far as to make Chaucer interesting, by getting a friend who specialized in Medieval literature to read us some of the saucier bits. We shared similar tastes, and she introduced me to E.M. Forster. She suggested I start with her favourite book, A Room With a View.

Being the keener I was, I hied me down to the local Book Shoppe and picked me up a copy. I scarfed it down in one sleepless night. I convinced the instructor to let me write my term paper on RWaV, rather than Heart of Darkness, and she agreed. (For which I will be eternally grateful, if only for saving me from the tedium of reading HoD again...oy!) A closer reading of RWaV intrigued me...Shortly afterward, I saw the Merchant Ivory film, and I fell in love. Someday, dammitall, someday I was going to go to Florence and stand on that bridge over the River Arno! Stated with all the idealistic fervor of that young college student, of course, so perhaps destined to....not.

Then this Berlin trip was proposed, and Mr.Q and I started talking about where I might want to go afterward. An enticement, to coax me on board. Simultaneously, the loosely organized book club at work were looking for a new read, and someone suggested Room With A View. 

Ding ding ding ding ding!

If you haven't read the book or seen the film, this post may be completely lacking in context. But I did pack my beat-up, dog-eared copy of the book, and Mr.Q and I spent a lovely day tracking down the key sites in the story....

The Ponte Vecchio, over the Arno...sans bloody packet of postcards:

The Piazza della Signoria, where we (accidentally) had gelato the size of our heads (I really did order a single scoop! She put a good half-litre on each cone! I wanted a pic, but the logistics were impossible.)

I also made a point of buying a nude Venus postcard here.

The fountain in the Piazza, where the stabbing took place, and where Lucy fainted:

The Hotel degli Orafi stands on the former site of the real, live Pension Bertollini:

On the steps of Santa Croce, without her Baedeker:

And inside the church, with some of Della Robbia's babies:

We did go to Fiesole as well, but I forgot to bring the book with me. And the ruins there deserve a post of their own. For those who are maybe not quite the geek that I am, I'll give you more of Florence in a another post. Meanwhile...already trying to decide on the next literary travel adventure! Hideous Kinky, and Morocco? (The film was meh, but visually stunning.) Chocolat, and Provence? The possibilities are endless!