Sunday, July 25, 2010

Italy: Rome, Florence, Pisa and Siena

Italy is a beautiful country. Tuscany's rolling hills are a dream. Vineyards grow unirigated on stocks of twisting tree branches, there are rustic houses, restaurants and hints of the old country in every corner that you look. And the people are open, friendly and inviting, proud of their language and happy if you attempt to speak to them in it.

Florence's art museums are world class, especially the Medici collection in the Uffizi Museum next to their palace. Botticelli's 'Birth of Venus', one of my favorite paintings ever is housed there. I nearly teared up upon seeing it because it's so much more beautiful and overwhelming and huge in real life. I hope to come back to the Uffizi museum someday to bare witness to it again.

I think out of all the cities that I have been to, Venice and Siena are my favorites by far. The ancientness of both just breathes beauty, history, and culture. My favorite thing to do when visiting a place now is to go later and look up some of the history of what made this area possible. Taking audio tours of certain areas is wonderful because you really absorb the history of that place in a way you can't without really sitting, looking, and listening.

In Siena a spent the last part of my second day there getting lost in the midevael hills that make up the cities interior. The ground is paved with zig zagging cobble stones, and the streets are petite and sometimes just narrow enough for two people to pass through shoulder to shoulder.

The architecture is an organic free flowing, confusing web, that meets in certain Piazzas and city centers like Il Campo in the middle of Siena. The weather is unforgiving and steadily hot, but a slight breeze will give you relief for your trek through certain areas.

From the Siena train station I walked all the way to my hostel. I basically left without knowing where I was going and picked a direction into the city and went with it. I stopped off at a local Pizzeria and accidentally ordered a marinara pizza with a few sprace olives, which means there is no cheese. Italian food is delicious and beautiful in its simplicity, and different from what I think you get most of the time in the US.

We have so much stuff in our Italian food, and here it is a basic sauce, just enough food and usually mixed with one other ingredient to give it some zest. I like it.

Siena is a city built on a high plateau with areas that weave up and down in height as you move around the area. Som buildings look like they are built sideways amd some roads are so steap you pant as you trek up and down. Even with well made expensive sandles my feet hurt for the first time since my trip has begun only after a few hours of walking around.

At an Italian eatery my first night I met these wonderful Italian girls. If a table is open, typically the waiter will seat you with complete strangers to save some seats for larger groups. We got to chatting, ate some wonderful Tuscan pasta with mushrooms, then talked about our different countries and about differences, thoughts, politics and other things.

They gave me the typical friendly greeting there, which is a kiss on one cheek and then the other. I laughed, still not used to it, but exchanged the custom eagerly, interested in this very interesting difference.

The Duomo (Chathedrale) in Siena, there are marvelous works of art. It is by far the most beautiful gothic cathedrale I have visited in Europe, I think it even beats out Notre Dame in Paris for beauty and interesting art, architecture and history. There are frescos that cover the floors that tell metaphorical stories from the bible, as well as the story of Siena itself and it's relationship to the myth of Romulus and Remis and the first Roman Emperor, Octavian (formerly Augustus before he was crowned Emperor).

Despite Pisa being a city with a neat leaning tower, it wasn't much to look at beyond that. I went, took a picture, walked back to the train station with my friend Kyle, almost got squished by a Vespa, ate some gelato and that was that.

My first evening in rome getting on the train station, I again trekked out with no idea where I was going, and with only a small map as my guide to find my hostel. The hostel has a ridiculous name "Happy Hostel Days Roma", but the Hostel itself is great. Tido, the guy who runs the Hostel is full of energy, flirty, funny, and a totasl character. It is worth it to pay for a few nights here just to have a few moments of fun chatting with him and watching him interact with wonderful sarcasm with the other guests. When I first checked in he said "Oh, we have no beds for Americans here!" I laughed and said "Do I have to sleep outside?" He laughed and tried to hand me a one hundred dollar bill, despite me not giving him any money, which also made me crack up.

Last night I met these very nice young men from Dusseldorf Germany, Andy an Stefan. I ended up talking with them for a while and then heading out from some pizza and beer. We ended up having wine instead, pizza, and then spent a long time talking about politics. We took the tube there and back, somewhat stumbly and full of food, but happy and content.

Today in Rome I spent the day in Vatican city seeing the Museo Vaticana, which includes the Sistine Chapel and some absolutely stunning sculptures, modern art, and rennaisance era paintings. I managed to sneak a few photos of the chapel itself aside from it being forbidden, and didn't use a flash of course, since it degrades the paint and tends to darken oil paintings over time.

I then went to Saint Peter's Basilica, which is the place where the Pope greets people in the square every Tuesday at 11am. I felt lucky to be there went mass was happening and was able to witness the ceremony from afar. The basilica itself is huge, huge beyond huge! And going up to the cupola (dome) is great. You see the wonderful overview of Rome itself.

Tomorrow I think I will be going to the Colliseum and maybe one or two other places.

I have experienced culture shock in waves. When I write about Italy it is with a smile and a dreamy state of mind. Italia is by far my favorite country in the EU that I have visited so far. I wish I could go to Napoli, but alas, some other time when I visit Italy. I am in a few days I meander my way back north through Switzerland, France and Germany to my fly out point in Amsterdam.

This trip has given me a very new perspective on life in the US and what our country is all about and how we are different from the diverse cultural stew that is Europe. I hope this trip will be one of many return trips to come.

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