Thursday, December 1, 2011

All Roads Lead to...

November 21st and 22nd

From Munich, where we unfortunately only got to see the very nice train station, we caught the night train to Rome.  We both love night trains.  They are romantic, voyeuristic, and just plain fun.  You get your own teeny place and can watch the world go by as the train rumbles down the tracks.

We arrived in Rome at 9 am so we got a 3-day Rome Pass and took the metro to our “airbnb” room near the Colosseum by a little after 10 am.  This was our first stay in an airbnb bed and breakfast, and it was really a good experience.  If you aren’t familiar with airbnb, just check out and you will see what it is about.  The strangest part about the whole experience is that we ended up staying in the stereotypical "young Italian man still living with his mother" situation.  They are both lovely people and we had a nice bedroom and private bathroom and we had our own set of keys so we could come and go as we wished.  The mother made us coffee when we arrived, with one of the ubiquitous Italian espresso machines everyone has here, and then we headed out to see the Roman Forum.

Darrell at the Roman Forum
We didn’t know where the entrance was so we ended up walking all around the outskirts of both the forum and the Palatine hill remains before we managed to get inside.  That actually turned out to be a good strategy though as we knew which areas we wanted to see more thoroughly from our “through the fence” perusal.

The colosseum was then just to our east and we enjoyed the afternoon sun hitting the ancient columns of this vast structure.  Seeing these places really did bring Roman history to life.  It was wonderfully overwhelming.

Inside of Colosseum, showing area below original "floor"
We returned to our place to wait for the 7:30 pm time when most places begin to open again for dinner.  There really is a hiatus with most of the restaurants we saw between their lunch and their dinner hours.  For hungry tourists, there were bars open where you could get a piece of pizza to hold you over if you needed one!  Our hosts told us about a local place for dinner and we arrived there just as it opened.  Two Italian women arrived just before us, and we ended up the only tourists there, so we had an authentic Italian dining experience.  By the time we finished eating on the Roman schedule, we were ready for bed on our "early to bed" lifestyle schedule!

The next day we had Alessio’s breakfast of good coffee, bread, yogurt and juice.  That gave us enough caffeine and carbohydrates to start our big day of tourist-blitzing Rome.  We started by taking the metro to the train station and booking our reserved seats (required on all the high-speed trains) to La Spezia for the next morning.  While waiting in line, Darrell bumped into a former NAU graduate student whose committee he had been on several years previously.  Yes, it is a small world!

Then we took the metro to get a little closer to our first destination.  The Rome metro is undergoing significant restoration/reconfiguring, so it was a puzzle just to get to the correct line, but we did it!  From there we wandered to Trevi Fountain, the largest Baroque fountain in Rome.  What a fountain!  I couldn't capture the whole fountain no matter how far I backed up!

Trevi Fountain by Alberti
Our next walking tour stop was the Pantheon.  The pantheon (not the Parthenon) is the largest free-standing cement structure in the world.  That would be impressive in any circumstances, but consider that it was built almost 2,000 years ago in 126 AD.  There is a large oculus in the center, so rain just falls on the stone floor.  And it has been continuously used throughout its history.

Inside of the upper part of the Pantheon
After the Pantheon we found a place for lunch, just as the rain began to pour down.  We had one of those lucky days where it rains when you are inside, and then ceases just as you leave to walk again!  The picture below is from The Fountain of Four Rivers.  It was sculpted by Bernini between 1648 and 1651 and has four statues representing the Nile (Africa), Danube (Europe), La Plate (S.America) and Ganges (Asia).  Each of the statues tells a story, but I'll leave that for another day!

The Fountain of Four Rivers by Bernini
We continued east and crossed the Elba River towards the Vatican.  St. Peter’s Basilica looms over all.

St. Peter's Basilica, across the Elba River 
A tiny part of the inside of St. Peter's Basilica
Neither Darrell or I is very comfortable with the Christian opulence that exists all over Europe.  And so we went into a kind of shock-state when we entered the Basilica.  In crude words, it is 7.4 football fields of marble statues, lush paintings, lots of glitter, marble, and porphyry, ornate columns, detailed tapestries and on and on.  It was so far over the top that I began to channel some of the brightly garish Hindu temples I’ve seen.  I hope I’m not offending any of my dear readers, but I just don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind…

We were still determined, of course, to see the Sistine Chapel, even though we were reeling a little from the Basilica.  And if you consider the line to get into the Sistine Chapel probably stretches for blocks and blocks in the summer, and we were able to buy a ticket with just one couple in front of us, travel in November seems pretty ideal!  The entrance to the Sistine Chapel, even when you chose the “short tour” option, still takes you through copious halls from the reigns of various popes, that is just more and more glitterati, statues, treasures that were plundered, gifted, or bought through the years, and enormous tapestries, painted ceilings, stretching on through long, long halls.

Detail of a tapestry inside the Vatican Museum

I was almost weary of art by the time we arrived at the Sistine Chapel.  But that is another story altogether.  Michelangelo didn’t want to paint the Sistine Chapel, feeling his work only served the Pope's need for grandeur, but it really is a crowning achievement (no pun intended).  The 12,000 square feet of ceiling Michelangelo painted between 1508 and 1512 have figures that look three-dimensional, as if they are coming towards you as you look up.  Unbelievable...
 We capped the day with a wonderful Italian meal, and were completely satisfied with our Roma adventure.

Prague Presents...

November 17th to 20th, 2011
Prague, Czech Republic

Rick and Nancy met us at the train station when we arrived from Berlin around 8 pm – even though Nancy had just returned to Prague after a ten-day visit to her parents in Minnesota!  They had our metro tickets in hand, and we didn’t have to think at all – just followed them to their open and colorful apartment.

The next morning Nancy went to the university (sabbaticals are work after all!), so Rick was our amazing tour guide.  We walked up to Prague Castle (Hrad) and through three gates until we were in front of the cathedral.  The cathedral is in the center of the castle and it is impossible to get a picture of its immensity since you keep backing into other buildings when you try!

Crossing the moat to the Prague Castle
The castle is on a high point in town, so we walked down a different path into the streets of Little Town and wandered the scenic streets.

Rick took us to wonderful statue by the Czech artist David Czerny, located outside of the Franz Kafka museum.  The statue takes text messages, and spells them out in "pee" streams from the statues that can move at the hips, as well as directionally move their you-know-whats.  You can see YouTube videos of this if you want!

Darrell and Rick just couldn't resist...
Tour Guide Rick then took us across the Charles Bridge.  During the summer, the bridge is constantly packed with people and buskers.  Even in November there is a steady stream of people.  Rick has some amazing photos of the happenings on the bridge – some taken very early in the morning…

We bought a beautiful piece of Czech blue glass for our shot glass – my favorite so far – and then had lunch in Old Town Square.

Darrell and I in Old Town Square
Prague has a famous clock tower, similar to Bern's, and tourists crowded round to take pictures of the clock.  Meanwhile, Rick took pictures of the tourists!  And I took a picture of a tour guide on a Segway.  We've seen tour groups on Segways, bicycles, and scooters.  The tourists wear headsets so they can hear the guide as they cruise along.

Cruisin' on a Segway
After lunch we checked out the Jewish cemetery.  Because the Jews only had a little land available to them (and it was already in the low part of the city), they added dirt on top of old graves and then brought up the old stones and added a new stone.  So the headstones are stacked on top of many graves and the entire area became a hill of graves.  Surreal.  The oldest known grave is from 1439 and the most recent one is from 1787.  Some estimate there are more than 12,000 gravestones and 100,000 burials.  It would be an incredibly spooky place at night.  It was strange enough in the afternoon!

Old Jewish Cemetery
Nancy met us then and we all walked together back across the Charles Bridge, to the crawling baby statues of David Czerny.  He certainly is an interesting sculptor!

Soft as a metal baby's butt!
Our path then took us up along a vineyard and all the way up the hill to a small version of the Eiffel Tower, called Petrin Observation Tower, built in 1891.  We had worked up a thirst by this time, and went to the monastery for delicious monk-brewed beer.  Yum... Then home for a lovely dinner at Chez Johnson.

That evening I took a short dive into Wikipedia to learn a little about the Czech Republic. I became completely bewildered.  The Czech state, formerly known as Bohemia, was formed in the late 9th century as a small duchy around Prague.  From there the history becomes incredibly complicated. Too long a history with too many countries, invasions, religions, self-interests, etc.  It is completely overwhelming to a small mind like mine, especially after a wonderfully long day of walking followed by a half liter of delicious dark beer. 

On Saturday, after a nice lazy start, we bought tickets to see inside some of the castle's main areas.  We toured the cathedral where it was colder inside than outside – plus they didn’t want you pinwheeling your arms to stay warm since you might knock over some ancient work of art or a modern tourist.  Men couldn’t wear hats inside the cathedral but at least Nancy and I were able to keep our wool hats on!

We also toured a small part of the castle including an area where an important “defenestration” took place.  Basically, two guys got tossed out of a window, but somehow survived.  Stories include everything from landing in a dung pile to a miracle to explain their survival.  Somehow, this incident helped precipitate the 30-year war.  If I ever run out of other things I want to do, I promise I will personally untangle European history, and try to stop the Crusades and Inquisitions; but for now, my head just spins.

We bought tickets to listen to a concert in St. George’s (the dragon-slaying one) Basilica.  This is the oldest cathedral in Prague, dating from 920!  A small string orchestra played Pachelbel's Canon in D, then a small divertido by Mozart, and ended with the entire Four Seasons by Vivaldi.  The solo violinist was spectacular and the church had great acoustics.  After the concert we returned to the monastery so we could have a hearty dinner and more of that amazing beer in a smoke-free atmosphere.  Lovely.

Nancy and Rick enjoying dinner and each other!
The next day we returned to the castle to see into the little buildings that make up Golden Lane. Small, I mean TINY, houses were built into the northern wall when it was created at the end of the 15th century.  They originally housed the marksmen who guarded the fortification.  Now they house small museums showing what life was like for a soldier, a seamstress, an herbalist, etc.  Some have been converted into tourist shops as well.

Then it was time to go to the train station.  As we walked down the hill, I saw a vendor selling waffles on sticks.  Curiosity got the best of me, and I had to try it.  Another yum.  Prague also had more of the hot spiced wine I loved in Berlin.  My family used to have this at Christmas and called it grog (or glug?).  I'll need to get a recipe and revive this tradition!

Enjoying hot wine!
We arrived at the station early enough to buy some bread, cheese, apples, etc. before boarding.  Rick and Nancy took us all the way to the platform and watched while we got our seats.  We’re going to miss them!  We had a 5-hour ride to Munich, and when we went in Darrell’s bag to get a snack we discovered that Rick and Nancy had slipped in some lemon cookies we both had enjoyed at their house and some ultra-yummy chocolate rum balls.  It is great to feel the smooth chocolate collapse in your mouth and get the gush of rum.  Last Yum from Prague.

Darrell's picture of Rick in the train station!
 Thank you Rick and Nancy for a wonderful visit!


Today is our LAST day in Switzerland, after an AMAZING four and a half months...  I will happily go  down memory lane to share the last two weeks of our Eurail Pass adventure.  I left off in Helsinki, where there are more hair salons per capita than in southern California...  They also translate "pull" on doors to "drag" so let me drag you back in time...

November 17, 2011
We got up at 3:30 am Helsinki time, which is 2:30 am for “most of Europe time” where we are heading back now!  After a quick cup of coffee we caught a bus to the airport to catch a flight to Berlin.  From the Berlin airport we caught another bus to the Hauptbahnof (main train station) where we began to play tourist.

Or, I should say, we tried to play tourist – but it was soooooo cold!  There was a bone-chilling fog, complete with a breeze, and it was definitely below freezing.  We shivered our way on a brief walking tour to the amazingly awesome and incredibly depressing Holocaust Memorial.  It is impossible to contemplate the relentless killing of Jews, Romas, homosexuals, people with disabilities, and any sympathizers...

Holocaust Memorial
The Holocaust is clearly enough to cause enough angst for a lifetime; but Berlin also has the Cold War “thing”, aka the Iron Curtain embodied in the concrete and wire of the Berlin Wall.  The wall went down in 1989, as some of you joyfully remember.  Just a bit remained in 1990 and was preserved as a wall for artists.  We took the S-bahn farther east.  I was happy to find a vendor selling GlΓΌhwein or Grog – so for just 1.5 euros (about $2) we were able to hold a cup of hot, spiced wine and walk along the entire remnant section known as the “East Side Gallery”.  Here is just a small sampling of that art.

Darrell at the East Side Gallery
Famous and Controversial!
The Power of Art...
I love this one!
The wine ran out, the gallery ended, and at this point we were human popsicles.  We shuffled into the train station and thawed out – deciding to take in one more cold war attraction before we called it a day.  Checkpoint Charlie.

Checkpoint Charlie preserved
 Then we literally ran, not to catch the train, but just to stay warm, and got back to the main train station for the next stage of our adventure.  I’d love to see more of Berlin in the summer…  though at least we don’t have to elbow other tourists out of the way in November.  And there is something to be said for seeing these grim reminders of awful times on a frigid blustery day when it is hard enough being an American tourist – not a soldier, or a refugee, or an innocent person being “transported”…

Let's leave on a sweeter note, though...
Darrell's reaction to German sweets!