Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Roman Holiday

Though it was not quite the summer weather that Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck experienced in "A Roman Holiday," we had a marvelous long weekend exploring the Eternal City in late January.  I have had the pleasure of visiting Rome twice before, but my last visit was 9 years ago. Jon had never been, and as we are short on time left in Europe, we decided to venture south for a winter mini-break. Unfortunately, we did not get the sunshine and blue skies we were hoping for, but we enjoyed the much milder temperatures than in the NL.

The Nortons also ventured to Rome with us and we were looking forward to traveling once more to Italy with them, after our successful group trip to Cinque Terre last summer. After checking into our hotels, we met up at the iconic Spanish steps to embark on a walking tour of Rome at night. The city can be bustling and overwhelming during the day, but at night the city oozes with romance and ancient beauty, surrounded by the bubbling fountains, floodlit streets and ramshackle elegance. 

Spanish Steps
Spanish Steps

Built in the 1720s, these steps  refer to the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican located here. From the Spanish Steps, we walked to the Trevi Fountain. Another of Rome's most famous sites, this bubbly Baroque fountain celebrates the abundance of pure water which has been brought into the city since the days of ancient aqueducts. Oceanus rides across the waves in his chariot, pulled by horses and horn-blowing tritons, as he commands the flow of water. Bernini sketched out the first designs, but the fountain was actually completed by Salvi. Legend, says, if you throw a coin in, you'll be sure to return to Rome. We decided to seal our fate of a return to Rome with a toss of the coin (pic to follow).

Trevi Fountain
Next, we continued to wander through the narrow alleys of the old town through piazzas containing obelisks, Renaissance-style palaces, and Italy's parliament. We made a quick stop at the Taza d'Oro Casa del Caffe to try the famous granita di caffe con panna (coffee slush with cream). With our coffee in hand, we rounded the corner to the awe-inspiring Pantheon. Built in 120 A.D by Emperor Hadrian, this massive structure is a sight to behold.

Rome's best-preserved monument, the Pantheon is an engineering marvel that was first a temple dedicated to all the gods. The original temple was built in 27 B.C. by Marcus Agrippa, but was destroyed in a fire and the structure we see today was built by Emperor Hadrian in 120 A.D. Today it functions as a Catholic church. In fact, it is the only ancient building continuously used since its construction.

We continued our tour of Rome at night by walking to the Piazza Navona and marveling at Bernini's Four River Fountains, and later the lively Campo de' Fiori square. From there, we crossed the Tiber River to the colorful Trastevere neighborhood in search of delicious pizza. After navigating the narrow and tangled streets (with a couple of wrong turns along the way) we finally found the recommended Dar Poeta Pizzeria that was packed with locals. We managed to squeeze in at a table close to the wood-burning oven and got a great view of all the cooking action. Though the pizza didn't quite compare to ones we had in Naples, it was still excellent and met our needs for delicious and authentic Italian pizza. 

We began our following day tackling one of the biggest sites Rome has to offer, the Vatican Museum and St. Peter's Basilica. As this museum is so massive and packed with so much art covering 5,000 years of human history, we decided to join a tour that would guide us through the highlights of this museum. 

Map Gallery

The museum is in the former papal palaces and the statues, urns, marble floors, friezes, tapestries, and stuccoed ceilings all added to the grandeur. We saw gorgeous works from Raphael and Michelangelo, leading up to the finale of the tour - the Sistine Chapel. Though the room was crowded with tourists, it was still such an incredible and worshipful place that magnificently portrays the glory of God in the scenes depicted on the ceiling and the Last Judgment. 

After leaving the Sistine Chapel, we entered St. Peter's Basilica - the greatest church in Christendom. Built on the memory and grave of the first pope, St. Peter, this is where the grandeur of ancient Rome became the grandeur of Christianity. The church we see today was begun in 1506, finally finished in 1626. When inside, you feel so small in this massive church which can accommodate 60,000 standing worshippers. Rather than the dark colors of gothic churches so popular in the north, the Baroque-style interior decoration of St. Peter's - using marble, gold, stucco, mosaics, and pillars of light - create a cheery atmosphere. 

St. Peter's Basilica
We exited the church in the impressive St. Peter's Square, with its ring of columns, symbolizing the arms of the church welcoming everyone - believers and non-believers. 

St. Peter's Square
St. Peter's Square
After a morning in Vatican City, we stopped at a nearby tratorria for lunch, then continued on our massive site-seeing day with a visit to the colossal Colosseum. 

Fifty thousand Romans could pack this huge stadium and cheer as their favorite gladiators faced off in bloody battles to the death. Built when the Roman Empire was at its peak in A.D. 80, the Flavian Amphitheater was an arena for gladiator contests and public spectacles. We joined a tour, which brought the ancient world of gladiators, Caesars, and rabid fans to life. 

Colosseum passages
Only a third of the original Colosseum remains. Earthquakes destroyed some of it. On the tour, we were able to access the underground passages beneath the playing surface. The arena was originally covered with a wooden floor, then sprinkled with sand. The new bit of reconstructed floor gives an accurate sense of the original arena level, and the subterranean warren where animals and prisoners were held. 

View of Arch of Constatine
From the third floor of the Colosseum, we were rewarded with a fantastic view of the Arch of Constantine. In A.D. 312, Constantine became sole emperor and legalized Christianity. This arch represents the military coup that made Christianity mainstream. 


The top story of the Colosseum is mostly ruined - only the north side still retains its high wall. This was not part of the original three-story structure, but was added around A.D. 230 after a fire necessitated repairs. 

Gelato at Gelateria Giolitti

After a long day of touring Rome, we stopped at famous gelateria, Giolitti, on the way back to our hotel. Though it was not a warm sunny day, the gelato still tasted as sublime as it only can in Italy!

That night, we had a fun GK-friends reunion when we met up with Missy and Chad who also happened to be visiting Rome this same time. The six of us had a great dinner together and wandered the lively area near the Piazza Navona afterward. 

Hangin' on fountains...
Pub-hopping across Rome
Although Italy is not necessarily known for its beer, we found some great places that served local brews and managed to stay out until the wee hours of the morning. When in Rome....

Pub-hopping across Rome
Our next full day in Rome, we enjoyed a lazy morning browsing tourist shops on our way to the beautiful Villa Borghese Gardens. After strolling through Rome's three-square-mile Central park, complete with trees, running paths and an escape from the bustling city, we arrived at the idyllically set Galleria Borghese. This palace-in-a-garden was built by Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1576-1633), who hired the best artists of his day to decorate it and filled it with his collection of ancient works. 

Not only is the museum filled with beautiful art and sculptures from some of Europe's most famous artists, but touring the villa itself is a sight to behold. From the marbled floors to the frescoed ceilings, each room is colorfully painted and decorated with large windows looking out into the beautiful garden. 

In addition to incredible paintings by Raphael and Caravaggio, the highlight of the tour are the numerous awe-inspiring marble sculptures by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. He almost personally invented the Baroque style, transforming the city of Rome. He was a child prodigy in his father's sculpting studio, growing up among Europe's rich and powerful. Bernini was a sculptor, painter, architect, interior decorator, and civic engineer with his works showcased throughout Rome. 

photo source

Some of his most famous and moving works include David (a more realistic and action-poised David, when compared with Michelangelo's), Apollo and Daphne, and the Rape of Proserpine (above). Bernini was only in his 20s when he carved these masterpieces with incredible detail that created theater-in-the-round - full of action, designed to be experienced as you walk around it. 

After our two-hour museum visit filled with so much art and beauty, we headed back out into the dreary, rainy Rome weather and made our way to the Forum.

The Forum

For nearly a thousand years, the Forum was the vital heart of Rome. Nestled in Rome's famous seven hills, this is the Eternal City's birthplace. Although it is only ruins and rubble today, with your imagination and a good guidebook, it is possible to imagine what this ancient city must have looked like. 

Forum Main Square

We walked along the Forum's main street visiting the Arch of Titus, Basilica of Constantine, the Main Square, Temple of Julius Caesar, Temple of Vesta, House of the Vestal Virgins, the Curia (Senate House), Arch of Septimus Severus, Temple of Saturn, and more significant sites. It was fascinating to read about Rome at its height, with a republic, senate and eventually its fall. After Rome's 1,000-year reign, the city was looted by Vandals, the population of a million-plus shrank to about 10,000 and the once-grand city center - the Forum, was abandoned, slowly covered up by centuries of silt and dirt. 

View of the Forum and Temple of Saturn

View of Forum from Capitol Hill

From the Forum, we walked to Capitol Hill, which provided great views of the Forum. We climbed the many steps down from the Hill to Piazza Venezia where the commanding Victor Emmanuel monument sits. This huge, white monument to Italy's first kind was built to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the country's unification in 1870.

Victor Emmanuel monument
That night, we enjoyed another dinner with the Nortons and Zinneckers on the Campo di Fiori square. The six of us enjoyed trading stories on our adventures in Rome.

Our last morning in Rome, Jon and I toured the sites in our hotel neighborhood - the heart of Rome. Though we had walked by the Pantheon numerous times, we toured the impressive interior.

The Pantheon
The circular interior centers around the huge dome. At the top, the oculus, or eye-in-the-sky, is the building's only light source and is almost 30 feet across. An ancient version of an open sky light. The 1,800-year-old floor has holes in it and slants toward the edges to let the rainwater drain. The only new things in the interior are the decorative statues and the tombs of famous people, to include Raphael and Italy's first two kings and queen.

Inside the Pantheon with 25-week baby bump
After the Pantheon, we visited some of Rome's lesser known churches in the area, though still incredibly beautiful with significant works of art. 

Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva
Inside Rome's only Gothic church, stands Michelangelo's statue of Christ Bearing the Cross. The interior with criss-crossed arches, a starry ceiling and stained glass windows, was one of the most beautiful I saw in Rome.

Church of San Luigi dei Francesi
Next, we visited the nearby French national church in Rome. Caravaggio decorated one of the chapels with a three-paneled painting, called The Calling of St. Matthew. He shocked the religious world by showing holy scenes with gritty, ultra-realistic details.

Though our visit to Rome was short, we managed to hit the high spots of this Eternal City, visiting monumental ancient sites, beautiful museums and churches filled with religious art, and lively piazzas filled with fountains and a taste of Roman life. I am so glad we finally were able to visit this incredible city together and also in the company of some of our dearest friends from GK. I will always cherish the memories from this magnificent Roman holiday!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Hogmanay: Ringing in the New Year Scottish-Style!

As our last kidless-in-Europe New Year's, we wanted to do something special. Scotland has been on our travel bucket list for years, and after Jon researched the top destinations for New Year's celebrations, we knew this would be the perfect time for a visit to Edinburgh. Prior to planning this trip, we had no idea what a big deal New Year's is in Edinburgh. For three days, the city hosts a variety of events, concerts and activities to celebrate the coming of the new year, or as they call it in Scotland, Hogmanay. Although our trip was only a few days, we enjoyed exploring the many sites Edinburgh has to offer.

We began our sight-seeing adventure along the famous Royal Mile. This historic road stretches from the castle to the palace and is lined with museums, pubs and shops. We decided to avoid the long castle lines by putting off our visit until the following day, and instead walked the Mile and took a bus tour of the city center.

The Royal Mile
Edinburgh Castle
Breakfast at Deacon Brodie's Pub
Although not quite comparable to the German Christmas markets, Edinburgh had their own version with plenty of food stands offering fish and chips, Angus burgers and cottage pies. 

Edinburgh Christmas Market in Princes Street Gardens
Exploring some of Edinburgh's many pubs
The opening of Hogmanay celebrations took place on the 30th with a torchlight procession from the city center to the top of Calton Hill. Over 25,000 people participate in this event carrying torches, led by numerous groups of bagpipes and drums. We decided to forgo participating in the walk, and watched the illuminating procession make its way through the city from a great viewpoint atop Calton Hill. Once the entire procession reached the Hill, a fantastic fireworks show began. If this is how the city celebrates the 30th, we couldn't wait to see what was in store on the 31st!

Torchlight procession led by bagpipes up to Catlon Hill
Beginning of fireworks display on Calton Hill
Beginning of fireworks display on Calton Hill
Fireworks display on Calton Hill
The next day, we visited the impressive Edinburgh castle first thing in the morning. This iconic 11th-century hilltop fort and royal residence includes the UK's oldest crown jewels, a Romanesque chapel, memorial and military museum. But, perhaps the most impressive site the castle offers is the beautiful view of the city below.

Edinburgh Castle

View from Edinburgh Castle

After touring the castle, we explored some of Edinburgh's neighborhoods in the Old Town along Grassmarket and Cowgate, pub-hopping along the way. 

St. Giles Cathedral
For New Year's Eve, we bought tickets to the festive Keilidh event, featuring traditional Scottish music and dance. Armed with tartan scarves and Jon's top hat, we braved the cold for a night of Scottish folk-dancing. The band would provide instruction on how to dance such lively and fast dances as the 'Canadian Barn Dance,' the 'Military Twostep,' and the oh-so-chaotic 'Strip the Willow.' The fast movements were a great way to keep warm and everyone had so much fun dancing with one another. At midnight, we had great views of the fireworks display above the castle. Soon after, over 80,000 people joined in simultaneous singing of the Scottish song, Auld Lang Syne. It was an unforgettable evening and I have no doubt we will 'Be Lucky in 2013', as this year's Hogmanay motto suggests.

Keilidh New Year's event
Keilidh New Year's event
Midnight Fireworks
Our lucky streak in 2013 began right away, as we were blessed with clear skies and sunshine on New Year's Day. Though we had planned to visit St. Andrews, we learned that all regional trains were not running on this day. Instead, we decided to hike up to Arthur's Seat, which provides beautiful views over the city. This 45-minute hike up the 822-foot remains of an extinct volcano started at the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the bottom of the Royal Mile. 

Beginning of walk up Arthur's Seat

Making our way to the top of Arthur's Seat
The views from the top were breath-taking as we could see the entire city below to the North Sea. The ascent and descent from Arthur's Seat, provided us a time of reflection on all that we had experienced in 2012, and our many new beginnings that lie ahead for 2013. 
Almost to the top of Arthur's Seat

View from Arthur's Seat
View from Arthur's Seat
After yet another delicious pub lunch, we spent our final afternoon in Edinburgh exploring the National Museum of Scotland. That night we embarked on a "ghost walk" of the city. The close quarters of the medieval old town provide a great haven for these spooky nighttime walks, which share about the harsh and gritty life during these medieval times. We walked through various "closes," or narrow alleyways, learning about the crowded living conditions of medieval times, before going below the city to explore haunted vaults under the old bridges. It was a fun way to see the city in a completely new light (or lack thereof) and provided a great evening of entertainment our final night in Edinburgh.

I am so grateful we took the opportunity to make our last New Year's as a kid-less couple meaningful. Edinburgh provided the perfect destination for a Hogmanay celebration we will never forget. Here's to a Lucky '13 for us all!