I have no intention of getting into politics much in this blog — my friends and family who read it are mostly on the same page in these matters, so aside from the occasional venting, or irresistible opportunities for humor, there’s little point. But while playing ESO recently with Mum and Sarah, we got to talking about Hillary. She’d just picked Tim Kaine as her running mate, and we were talking — in various flavors and degrees — about Hillary not being our first choice, but that even if you actually didn’t like her wouldn’t you have to vote for her to be sure that Trump didn’t get in?
This, of course, is the Choice of Sanity. You may or may not be wild about HRC (Hillary Rodham Clinton), but she’s incomprehensibly better than HTF (Human Tire Fire). I would vote for a rutabaga before I would vote for Trump. Rutabagas stir up very little nationalist, racist, astoundingly-Nazi-sounding sentiments, rally few Klan members, and are very unlikely to push The Button in a fit of pique.
But, as far as my feelings about Hillary, I’ve gone through a bit of an evolution on this, over the course of her two campaigns, from liking her before the first one to not liking her much by the end of it, and liking her even less, recently… but I’m currently liking her more than I used to and not minding so much that I’ll be voting for her. I mentioned some of the reasons for that when I was talking to Mum and Sarah, and then this morning I sent them an e-mail with links to a couple of the things I’d brought up that had influenced my change of heart. It occurred to me that they might be as helpful, to anyone else having the same concerns, as they have been to me, so I thought I’d repeat them here.
BTW, none of this is intended to persuade you to like her or to take any particular political position. 🙂 She wasn’t my first or second choice for the job, and anyway we’re all on the same page, I think, that voting for her is at least necessary to keep HTF out of the most powerful office in the world. But, in the last few months, I have reluctantly gone from really kind of disliking her (“Fine, I’ll vote for her if I have to.”) to wondering if maybe she won’t turn out to be actually good at the job?
The first thing that had influenced me was an article I read a couple of months ago that I cannot now find hide nor hair of — sometimes the internet’s like that, if you don’t bookmark something, it’s lost in the sea of similar search terms — on where the commonly reported knock on Hillary’s truthfulness comes from. Some reporter had traced through the media over the last 25 years and found what appeared to be its first source, many years ago, from an opposition accusation that the Republicans picked up and kept repeating until it stuck. (More on that later.)
The second was a chart compiled from the fact-checking group Politifact, that I’ve seen several times, that very favorably ranked her honesty in comparison to the other candidates. This was a bear to track down, but I found a copy, along with a very good article with other useful links, at a website called Mormon Press, of all places!
It shows that she has a higher percentage of statements that are True or Mostly True than any of the other leading politicians, including Bernie and Obama. And her pants are less on fire than anyone but Sanders. 🙂
The third was a recent article by Ezra Klein, a Vox reporter who began to wonder about the disparity between public perception of her and what he kept hearing from people who actually knew her. I didn’t remember the source, at first, but it was much faster to find than the chart:
It’s not a whitewash, and points out a couple of potential issues. But it suggests that she’s good at working with people, listening, forging agreements, and making sure that the right opinions get heard and acted upon. And then on Friday she picked a VP who is massively liked and respected on both sides of the aisle, and that really suggests that she’s interested in building unity and agreement and getting what she wants through Congress at a practical level. Which Obama has not really been great at — he’s obviously been fought tooth and nail to an absurd level by Republicans, who value political gain over national benefit, but my reading suggests that he didn’t expect that level of resistance to obviously beneficial actions, and thought that plain compromise would get them through. It’s clear that Hillary has no such illusions, but she sounds, from the Klein article, like she may be better at dealing with it. And I would assume that Tim Kaine will be relied on heavily for that. (Hopefully, we can deliver a Democratic congress, to make it even easier!)
As I said earlier, I couldn’t manage to find the article I read a couple of months ago, tracking down where the original accusation of her lying started, but I did recently see this great Veritasium video on how simply repeating a thing — any thing — causes it to be viewed as better, more true, etc. It’s a kind of amazing video, and I highly recommend it:
I do still have some Hillary concerns, though I think some of them have been moderated by Sanders and Warren getting on board. I don’t like the way she’s sometimes a very political player nor some of the things she says while acting that way, and that viewpoint is unlikely to improve. (It’s not uncommon for politicians, but it doesn’t make it laudable.) I don’t like the support she had for fracking in other countries when she was at State, and I’m certain she won’t reign in the drone attacks we’re doing in other countries, which in my opinion are a betrayal of basic American (and human) principles. (Of all the candidates, only Bernie would have been likely to have done that.) She’s unlikely to pardon Snowden. (Again, only Bernie.) I wasn’t convinced that she would create the real financial reforms that this country needs, but Warren is supporting her and I suspect that there were concessions involved in that support. And Warren leading banking committees in the Senate, with Hillary’s support, could be a very strong combination.
And Sanders pushed the party platform leftward, and I’m pretty sure got some concessions from her in exchange for his support; some of her recent proposals (such as for reducing student loan debt) are clearly Sanders related. And if Trump can help us get a Democratic congress, we could get a lot of vital stuff pushed through.
But, based on the information above (and other, similar articles), I’m coming to the conclusion that I’ve been misled in some areas by the constant slander against her, and that at least some of concerns may not have been exaggerated by its influence. (Mother Jones magazine has a kind of amazing list of conspiracy theories about her, which I won’t link to because Veritasium, but it’s easy to Google if you really want to.) Even without liking her, she is clearly competent to do the job, and if I mark my concerns about her integrity as suspect, as I’m coming to think they are, then I’m not sure I have any strong objections. Would I like her to have some different viewpoints on some things? Sure. Is that true of every president? Sure.
So, I’ve gone through a bit of an evolution on this; I’m still not sure, but I have come to feel better about her, I’m hoping that she’ll prove my concerns to be unfounded, and I’m maybe even optimistic that she might turn out to be much better at the job than I had thought she might, based on how she’s described by associates in the Ezra Klein interview, by her VP pick, and by Sanders’ and Warren’s support. So, I thought I’d lay all of that out here, on the off chance that it will be helpful for anyone else who has had similar concerns. Maybe it will help you feel better, at least, as you cast your vote against the Human Tire Fire.
P.S.(Also, as a traveler, I’m just grateful that the Brits had Brexit. Suuurrrre took the heat off America, in the “dumbass nationalists” department. Nobody over here is spending time talking about HTF. Let’s all do our best to keep it that way, shall we?)
Since I wrote this, I’ve run across a couple of other really good pieces about Hillary, which I’m going to add here. Nobody is ever likely to see this, but, what can I say? I’m a completist. ¯\ _(ツ)_/¯
Still in Ireland, sitting in this rustic farmhouse with intermittent rain outside and a wind that almost never stops. I’ve lived on the coast for almost half my life, and never been where the wind so rarely paused. I try to get out for a walk once a day, when it looks like it won’t be raining for a while, but I’ve given up waiting for the wind to die down also. Here’s a sample from yesterday; I went out for a walk around the peninsula during a lull, when the wind had dropped by about half:
YouTube doesn’t like all the movement in this video, and is making the whole thing much blurrier than the source. I’ve heard YouTubers mention this in the past; it’s very annoying. ¯\ _(ツ)_/¯
Florida, New York City, LA, SF, Seattle, Split,…. I’ve been in a lot of coastal cities, and never seen a place as reliably windy or weather variable as this. I guess being out on a peninsula in the English Channel, rather than having your back to a continent, is probably what makes the difference. There’s no back-pressure to stop the wind ripping across, unimpeded.
Still… yay, nature!
Meanwhile, across a small bit of sea, the Brits are Brexiting, everyone’s freaking out, both liberal and conservative parties are disintegrating, Scotland may secede, and Ireland is wondering what the hell is going to happen between the south (its own country, not part of the UK, but in the EU) and the north (part of the UK, but voted to Remain in the EU like southern Ireland). In case you’re unclear about the current state of affairs, a chap posted this useful summary on Twitter to explain it:
Hope that helps.
So, in the words of my Grandfather, oft-repeated in our family, “Never a dull moment.”
On with Florence
You may recall that in my last two posts I tried to cover all my A Room With A View stops, which were the central goal and organizing theme of my time in Florence. What’s left are the things in between those stops, and my overall thoughts about the city, and I shall wrap those up here. There’s a lot to cover, but by the gods I shall finish it!
Starting With Lunch
Ran across this interior photo of my Florentine Cheers, The Lion’s Fountain Pub. Must have been lousy weather outside that day, if I’m in.
The Uffizi Museum
So, if you recall from last post (and even if you don’t), the Uffizi Museum occupies the buildings around the Uffizi Gallery, the street with the serious-looking statues which leads from the Piazza della Signoria (where Lucy faints) to the Arno (where George throws her photographs into the water). I don’t mean to imply that everything in Florence must be judged with respect to A Room With A View, but clearly it can be so judged and I believe that I am as well qualified to do so as any person, being simultaneously a Great Fan of the Movie, a World Traveler, and an INTJ — the J is for Judging!
My gods, it’s like they’re reading my soul!
I had seen a long line in front of the Uffizi Museum, on the South side of the Gallery, when I walked by there before, so I took the precaution of booking tickets online the day before, for an 08:15 entry. This, as you may well suppose, diminished the risk of crowds considerably. I arrived close to the front of a short line, showed my confirmation e-mail on my iPhone to a ticket person, and received the printed materials that I would be throwing away a few hours later, easy peasy.
The ground floor has mostly ticketing, lockers, restrooms, and the like, so you immediately head of a set of stairs going straight up 3 floors, filled with little statues and busts that everyone blows by on their way to what surely must be “the good stuff” on the gallery floors. Everyone but me, that is.
Busts! I bet these guys were pretty important once, whoever they are.
Lorenzo di’Medici, one of the most powerful men of the Renaissance. (Largely because his jaw was so strong, he never bit off more than he could chew.)
I should note that, like much of Florence, the Uffizi was built by the Medici family, who were the centerpiece of Florentine government for generations and contributed massively to the arts and sciences of the Renaissance. The family eventually faded out, leaving a final heiress, Anna Maria Luisa, who bequeathed most of the family’s estate and art to the Tuscan government on the condition that it never be removed from Tuscany. (I don’t know if museum tours count or not.) I think we tend to consider those Italian merchant-rulers as being rather corrupt, like the Borgias, but the Medicis were the real deal. They must have had their jerks also, but they had a lot of sharp folks who cared about getting things done right, and Florence seems to have benefited considerably from their presence.
I have no idea what Queen Victoria is doing here. There was probably a plaque explaining it or something — as if I’d remember what was on it!
As I mentioned above, the Uffizi Museum runs around that outdoor street with the statues in it, so it’s basically a long hallway down one side of the street, a short hallway across it on the Arno end, and then a long hallway back along the other side. On three floors. With rooms off of the hallways holding lots of art. So when you come up the stairs to the upper floor and step out into the south-side hallway, you’re greeted with this view of its length:
Reminds me of my old condo… if you stick to just one of the vaulted square spaces. And remove the ceiling paintings. And reduce the classical statues to action figures. And get all of the people out. (Obv!) No view of the ocean, though, so I guess I win that one. Of course, I no longer have that condo — but the Medicis no longer have this house either, so sic transit gloria, losers!
One of those many ceiling squares (slightly warped by the panoramic photo), with portraits of significant Medicis along the walls at the edges. Remember me saying (last post) that, “Traveling in Europe, you realize how much of the door technology of our ancestors has been lost to the ages. We just don’t make impressive doors anymore.” This goes double for ceilings. The best we do now is a nice bit of exposed wood grain. I am now resolving, when I get my next place, to hire art students to paint the ceilings. Action figures on plinths, and a bust of me with an exaggerated jawline, and I’ll be set proper.
The portraits along the edge of the ceiling are interesting enough I guess (generic Florentines rendered with varying verisimilitude depending on their era), and the statues are nice, but the real money is in the rooms off the hallway, which are crawling with art.
As I’ve said before — and will almost certainly say again — I have never seen a portrayal of the Annunciation where Mary seemed happy about it. “Yeah, I see what you’re saying. Now get away from me and take that swarm of baby-headed swallows with you!” (Even the attendants are unimpressed, looking out at the audience like, “Can you believe this wanker?”)
“Talk to the hand, coz the face ain’t listening.”
And in my other “Bad Religious Art” pet peeve: Unhappy Madonna And Child. Mom’s like, “I still don’t understand where you came from,”, and Child’s all, “Oh fuck, how much did I screw this up?”
Botticelli’s Madonna of the Pomegranate. Even a famous painter like Botticelli couldn’t make Madonna or Child look like they give a damn. Mom looks mind-numbingly indifferent, Child has the look a cat gets when it’s about to squirm out of your lap, and even the One Direction winged boy band looks bored.
Ok, this one’s a bit better. I think however bad medieval artists may have been, some of them at least had happy mothers and can relate. But who knows what being Annunciated to is like? (In fairness, if someone, say a random stranger in a bar or a library, Annunciated to you, you’d probably look at them like they’re a freak, so maybe these are accurate enough. But hardly inspiring, am I right?)
Some of the rooms you could only look at from the outside. Not sure why they were any different, though. Ignore the marble in front, I think they’re just wrestling (not “wrestling”).
Same room, different barred entrance.
A panoramic view from a different barred entrance. A bit dark, but shows more of it.
The ceiling, with what looks like a clock in the cupola. Seems like a super inconvenient way to check the time (“Hey, how long till dinner?” “I’m not sure, let me walk to the naked wrestling room and check the ceiling.”), but I guess in the days before mantlepiece clocks you did what you had to.
A view up the street between the wings of the Uffizi Gallery, that the Museum wraps around, looking east toward the Lucy Fainting Plaza, from the short hallway on the western end. Note: Landmarks!
They had a Botticelli room, with the Madonna from above and some others:
Botticelli’s Allegory of Spring. (Sometimes called “Primavera”, though less often because of confusion with the pasta.)
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.
Beer goggles, my young friend, are a bitch. (Number 73 in my series, Advice To Subjects in Classical Art.)
There was, obviously, much more art than this, but a man can only photograph so much. (And so can I.) But the walk home yielded other treasures:
“Dov’è Wally” indeed! Someone needs to talk to the Italians about the concept of “spoilers”.
When religious icons get stripped of meaning: Dreamcatchers, with more dreamcatchers growing off the side, in an Italian tourist shop, like a Mandelbrot set of subverted and commercialized imagery.
The Academy Gallery
The day after the Uffizi Museum, I visited the Academy Gallery, where the Statue of David is kept. I didn’t buy advance tickets this time, but I did leave early and was in the short line when it opened at 8:15am. On the way, I passed this:
OMG! I took this picture because of how creepy the doll looked, and I only just now properly registered their expressions: this window display is basically every Madonna and Child ever! (Surely not intentional.)
Standing in line afforded me the opportunity to see this across the street:
As perfect a commentary on the true nature of organized religion as one could hope for.
Once inside the Gallery, you get a decent selection of art, though it’s not a huge place.
I’m titling this fairly typical example, “Christ’s Sermon on Mom’s Lap”.
Or, maybe, “Christ’s Sermon on Mom’s Lap, featuring Marty Feldman.”
“We’re all bored, Mom, but don’t nod off. You’re about to drop me!”
“Ew, ew, get away, don’t touch me. My friend Lisa said you can get pregnant from that!”
The angels tried to convince him that “fishwalker” was not a real profession, but the young man had a dream….
Nothing attracted the demonic babyheads like adults playing dress-up.
They’d reached the crypt too late! With his party nearly all dead or in enthralled slumber, Van Helsing realized that fleeing was now the only option.
If she prayed hard enough, maybe his Father would change the damn diaper for once.
Saint Camber of Culdi was renowned for channeling the Word of God into special Laser Beam attacks to defeat demons.
So, this art is all very inspirational and all, but let’s get to the main event:
Damn, that’s a big statue.
The Academy Gallery has several Michelangelo pieces and art in this wing, a wing literally designed around this one statue. David has an interesting history, being basically a giant block of marble intended for another purpose, that a couple of people had had a go at, before it sat untouched for a generation. On the “use it or lose it” principal, the Florentine elders had one more try at finding someone to do something useful with it, and the young Michelangelo made a case for himself being the man for the job. He figured he could turn the mostly undeveloped marble into a David, and completed it after 2 years of work. It used to be out where the replica now is, in Lucy Fainting Plaza, but was moved inside to protect it and had a bunch of repair work done (most of which looks pretty good, though he’s in dire need of a pedicure).
I really needed the farther shot to establish his scale; you’d have no idea from this close up how large he is.
As I said: badly in need of a pedicure.
What the Academy says about it.
I took a bunch more pictures of it, because you sort of feel like you have to when you’re there. And they’re, surprisingly, all worthy pictures. But I’m not sure that they add anything — certainly nothing you couldn’t get from a Google search — so I’m going to let them go. But it will be nice, in a few years, when I unpack all my stuff in wherever my new home is, to be able to say, “See that refrigerator magnet? I saw the original!” Très cosmopolitan.
The Academy had a large musical instrument exhibit, with accompanying audiovisual presentations on nearby computers. It was surprisingly good.
Thankfully, the instruments were all under glass, so as not to disturb your quiet viewing.
A Stradivarius. You hear about these things your whole life, so it’s kind of cool to see one in person.
They also had a room of plaster casts, used as models for making sculptures over the centuries. The sculptor could carve the soft plaster as desired, throw it away and start over cheaply if it went wrong, and then, when they had what they wanted, they’d drive small nails into the plaster and use the nails as reference points in carving marble to match those dimensions.
The plasters end up looking like cool sculptures with bad skin conditions. This is a mild example; a few of them look like Pinhead.
This room is a reminder that I am not a connoisseur in any respect (with the possible exception of internal consistency in science fiction and fantasy, for which I have high standards). When I first walked into the room, I had no idea whether these were plaster or marble, and it was a little while before I ran into the descriptive information that explained what they were. The subtleties that make it possible to distinguish one rocklike white material from another are quite lost on me. These looked a little dirtier than most, but why they hadn’t been cleaned yet was not immediately apparent to me.
I should note that the Marvel superhero movie Deadpool came out while I was in Florence. I found a movie theater nearby and tried to see it, but during my difficult interaction with the ticket seller I realized at the last moment that the movie was dubbed in Italian, not subtitled! Italy is a large enough market that American blockbusters are often dubbed in Italian, and if there was an English Deadpool to be found in Florence, I did not find it. Quite disappointing, as I was rather looking forward to the movie. But I had hopes to find it again in Split, Croatia, where it would almost certainly not be dubbed for the tiny Croatian-language market.
The Walking Tour of the Arno South Bank
A few days before I left Florence — and two days before my walk out to Fiezole — I did one of the walking tours in my CityWalks app, the Arno South Bank Walk. There were about 17 stops, and the app claimed it would take 3 hours.
This, it must be noted, is 3 hours without spending a serious amount of time anywhere. The Palazzo Pitti, sight #7, has over 500 paintings, and would have been a trip in itself, much less part of a mere 3 hour thing.
So, at a little after 9am I set out from my place (by the tiny roundabout towards the upper left, next to the river), and starting walking along the river bank to get to Stop #1, maybe a 10 minute walk.
Stop #1, San Frediano in Cestello, is a church and a seminary, and the tour app spoke highly of the church’s frescoes (why they need a fancy name for “wall paintings” I don’t know, but “fresco” is it). However, if memory serves, while there were plenty of seminary students wandering the street at that hour, it didn’t look like the church part was currently accessible. So that part was a miss, but feel free to supplement my description with a Google search if you so desire.
On my way to Stop #2, I passed this:
Maybe this is a translation error?
Probably a good time for a public service announcement, just in case the problem is not apparent:
Just past the Not-Really-So-Hidden-As-All-That Pub, the #2 stop in the tour was Dolce Vita, described as “An elegant bar attracting a chic crowd.” There is nothing in that description for me, and I walked past it without doing more than pausing to note that I had done so. (The outside was just a door and a sign, and not worth a photo.)
#3 – The Santa Maria del Carmine church. There’s the church, and an adjoining monastery/convent building that I did not see because they charged admission and it didn’t look terribly large or terribly interesting. But the church itself was nice.
My guide app says that this church’s frescos are among the most influential in the history of Italian art, and it’s easy to see why:
A bit antiseptic but quite beautiful, especially the ceiling.
This ceiling was really quite amazing. You see the sculpted mini-domes over the side windows, and the arches across the roof? No, you actually don’t. They’re illusions, all painted on.
It’s going to be super hard for you to tell, from a 2D photo of a 2D simulation of a 3D space, that it’s not a 3D space. But the wall around each window has bit of a cap above the window, and then a round, carved space on the wall, and then everything outside that circle is painted perspective tricks. I bet most of the people actually in the church didn’t realize what they were looking at, based on how little attention they paid to it.
The final arch at the end is real. Everything else is illusion, just paint on an curved ceiling. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was stunning.
The bit over the entrance.
It is beyond me why this place isn’t packed with tourists. I’ve seen some impressive ceilings in Italy, but they’re mostly just paintings of people in the sky. This proto-Escher stuff was amazing. From what I read in the church, an artist named Masolino da Panicale was commissioned to work on the chapel, brought on a 21-year old associate named Masaccio, to help him, and then split for Hungary leaving the kid in charge and resulting in the amazing art we see today. Sadly, Masaccio died a couple of years later, and it was another 60 before somebody else completed the project. While the church writings were a bit vague on exactly who worked on what (and they probably didn’t know for sure), the Wiki on Masaccio says this:
“Despite his brief career, he had a profound influence on other artists. He was one of the first to use linear perspective in his painting, employing techniques such as vanishing point in art for the first time. He also moved away from the International Gothic style and elaborate ornamentation of artists like Gentile da Fabriano to a more naturalistic mode that employed perspective and chiaroscuro for greater realism.”
So, I’m pegging him for that ceiling.
Not that other bits, like the transept, weren’t nice. They were just more conventionally impressive.
I think it was Pope Clement XIII who said, “You’ve seen one nave, you’ve seen them all.”
Ok, that’s pretty cool. (The slight tilt to the room is mine, FYI.)
Stop #4 was La Specola, billed as the oldest science museum in Europe. I was sorely tempted to go in, but simply didn’t have the time. “I’ll try to make it back before I leave,” I thought. Ha!
Stop #5 was another church, the Chiesa di San Felice. It’s one of the two oldest churches in the area, and perhaps as a side effect of that age is largely uninteresting. Basically, a box with some faded art. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) The Wikipedia page I just linked to will give you an idea; I took no pictures here.
Stop #6 was Casa Guidi, an undistinguished building notable mainly for having been the home to Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It’s now owned by Eton college, and can be booked “when not being used by Eton boys”. (Seems like that would remove the primary appeal of renting the place, but I guess they know their own business.)
BTW, the odd visual angle is real, not a panorama effect. The building is built into a sharp corner, like the Flat Iron building in New York.
And there’s a plaque on the wall outside:
I suppose the quote is meant to be reflective of the place, a sort of “See, Elizabeth Barrett Browning *did* sleep here.” Otherwise, it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that would be much inclined to win one any literary fame. But what do I know?
Stop #7 was the Palazzo Pitti, a former Medici home and now large museum, with over 500 Renaissance style paintings. If I didn’t have time for La Specola during my walk, I certainly didn’t have time for this place. Next time I’m in Florence, though: totally going there. Similarly with the Boboli Gardens (Stop #8), which sits behind the Pitti Palace, and is filled with greenery and statues. I’m sure it’s nice, but I had walking to do.
Stops #9 through #13 were the Ponte Vecchio Bridge and a few churches near it, which I’d seen on previous days (and described in previous posts). But Stop #14 was Fort Belvedere, which was right next to the Boboli Gardens (on their other side).
I’d have gladly stopped in here — my sense of purpose was stronger than art or gardens, but could not resist a well built fort — but it was closed. 🙁
Coming down the hill from the fort is one of the longest stretches remaining of the wall around Florence.
One of the walls, at least. Florence has had several. But the largest, youngest wall, is part of defenses designed by Michelangelo and includes this area on the Arno’s south bank.
Stop #15 was probably near the bottom of this hill. I say “probably”, because it was another club, called “Zoe”, “A great place to stop before doing a night of clubbing.” So you know that wasn’t happening. “On Friday evenings the dance floor heats up when a live DJ spins tunes to an eager crowd of hip yet unpretentious party goers.” Really? “Hip yet unpretentious”? Not even the reviewer achieves that goal.
But after this was a steep walk up the hill to Stop #16, a place called the Piazzale Michelangelo — Michelangelo Square, a hilltop with an impressive view of Florence, dedicated both to Michelangelo and to selling tchotchkes in his honor.
Indubitably the best View that I had in this city.
The view south along the Arno, with Florence to the left. It struck me that, if you were going to live around Florence, that would be the place. Not far from the city, but quieter and Chock Full o’Nature.
There wasn’t actually much else up here — it’s quite nice, but it’s just plaza, view, another replica of David, and a couple of restaurants. Here’s some Google Images, if you want them — at a glance, they agree. It’s all about the View.
It was close to 1pm by now, and I was getting rather hungry. There seemed to be two places to eat up here: one was a pricey restaurant, and the other was a not-pricey one with a small outdoor seating area and a nice view. So I took the second choice, asked a staff member that I’d seen bussing a table if I could sit anywhere and she said yes so I did. 25 minutes later, and no further sign of a staff member, and I decided to leave. It’s possible that I was meant to order inside and then it would be brought out to me, but that’s the problem with eating out in foreign cities: nobody explains what everybody knows.
The last stop, #17, was just up the hill from here, a basilica called San Miniato al Monte, most of which was closed while I was there. Still, Google provides, and I caught another nice view.
Spent a while out in the church yard here, having a Clif Bar and admiring the view, along with other tourists and locals.
On the way down the hill, I spent a bit of time in a small Japanese garden that I was surprised to find there. It was really very small, and if you’ve been to nearly any other Japanese garden in your life, you’ve seen better. But it was nice nonetheless.
A pano of a tiny space. I think I used to have something like this in a pot on a shelf at work.
At the base of the hill, actually near that photo of the old wall from earlier, I found the gelato shop that I mentioned in my first Florence post, where I got some great gelato for just around €3.50 (two scoops in a waffle cone). So my walk home was very happy. 🙂
My final notable destination was the Museo Galileo, which sounds unnecessarily rhymey, but there it is. The place owns one of the world’s major collection of antique scientific instruments, and I stopped there, on the Sunday a couple of days before I left, because it’s hard to be a science buff and not stop at “The Galileo Museum”.
It’s housed in an old stone building next to the Arno, with a weird sundial out front that I could not figure out for the life of me.
In fairness, I was operating at a bit of a disadvantage that day
Inside, is an impressive collection of instruments: the place is pretty much packed to the gills with arcane (and some mundane) devices, in atmospheric lighting:
Back before the invention of rubber, rubber band balls had to be made out of brass. Thank gods those days are gone!
The Hall of Galileo’s Actual Stuff.
Including His Actual Finger.
I think it’s the one he gave to the Catholic Church.
But wait, there’s more!
How Whiteness Was Measured in the Days Before Nickelback.
The Room Of Electrical Devices
My list of things I want in my next home is not getting any shorter. “Do not touch The Machine,” I shall say. “I cannot vouch for your safety if you do.”
There was vastly more here than I could hope to include. You can see more cool pictures here (including novelties like wax anatomical cut-aways of pregnant women, if you’re into that sort of thing), or take the museum’s virtual tour, which has much of the multimedia that was present in the museum itself and is well worth the browsing.
Some random pictures
Doing a quick scan of my photo directory for anything useful I might have missed turns up a few things:
In case you’re wondering what old Florence looks like at the street level, it’s basically either this or a plaza with a cathedral on the side (previously shown).
Here’s one of the wider streets. Ah, romance.
Wow, my sense of history is all screwed up. I totally thought this was somewhere else.
A bunch of the buildings in central Florence had hooks and rings of various sorts bolted onto them, as if they were ships ready to be tied up at dock. Maybe, with all the floods, they were hoping for a Venice vibe?
There were a lot of things to look at in this plaza. Guess which one grabbed my attention.
Those who don’t learn from History are condemned to repeat it.
Where the young people in Florence go to hang out when they’re boared.
Remember when I mentioned in a previous post, the wall Lucy Honeychurch would have had to “fly over” to get away from George after she fainted? I could have sworn I had a picture of that, but it wasn’t with the others. This is it. She could have totally climbed over that, bustle or no bustle. Stupid George.
I almost missed mentioning THE cathedral of Florence, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flowers), which has the huge red dome that you see in all of the scenic shots of Florence. (“What, another St Mary’s?” you exclaim. Yup. This is the price you pay for monotheism, kids. A very limited set of holy names to choose from when titling things.) I hit this place up way back on day 2 of my visit:
The outside decoration is wonderfully intricate.
The inside? Not so much. You don’t often see this much contrast between the inside and outside of a church. So, um, well done there?
It had, like, maybe one thing of note, which was its dome. It’s, for sure, a nice dome. But nothing especially out of the ordinary, and I’m including it mainly for completeness.
As usual, I feel slightly guilty for calling that “nothing especially out of the ordinary” given that, if you’d given the job to me, it would be a long series of cat and human stick figures chasing each other around in circles, interspersed with geometric lines. (I’d have made an awesome Muslim religious painter, though.) But, there we are.
Starting just across the river from my Airbnb, and running for quite a ways north along the bank, was a public park that was pretty cool.
It contained a monument built by the true rulers of Florence, the Illuminati, in 1693. (Full disclosure: I’m guessing at the date.)
Not that everything along even the touristy bits of the Arno is super scenic. But I bet you get a great view of the big red dome from those places.
All right, that will have to be enough. If there are other amusing photos, I shall let them be absorbed by the gentle mists of time, and forgotten.
So, now we come to the end, at last, of my time in Florence:
It’s been travel-blog gold, hasn’t it?
Given that it was my primary Italian destination, how did I like it?
Alas, I cannot give it my best rating. A solid C+ is as good as I can do, I’m afraid. Why? Well, as one might expect, several reasons.
There was very little green. I’ve ended this series with a couple of pictures of a park, but here and some bits near Michelangelo Plaza were about the only public greenery in Florence. You had to get out of the city to get any greenery and that wasn’t super lush (it being a largely Mediterranean climate). So it’s all basically stone pavement and buildings, some of them well decorated but most not. In truth, it’s exactly the Platonic Ideal of the Renaissance city that I grew up knowing about: stone buildings, narrow streets, done. It’s cool to have seen that, neat to have visited, but that sort of thing isn’t my go-to for great places to live. Rome’s a great counter-example to that. I wasn’t expecting as much green as they had there, and little parks and open spaces. It’s no Portland, natch, but more than I expected from an ancient city.
Even the thing that it’s specializing in — buildings — were pretty drab. You can see in the pictures above, they’re all either grey or very muted, faded sand or salmon pastels. The often-overcast weather didn’t help the impression, but these places were pretty muted even by sunlight, and I found them to be vaguely depressing. Or, maybe not exactly depressing, per se, but they gave you nothing. You had to generate all the energy yourself. Rome, again, provides counter-example. Even back alleys were often colorful, and the whole places seemed vibrant and alive. Florence mostly seemed sterile and dreary.
The weather was often lousy. This is slightly unfair as a condition to judge the city by, being (a) seasonal/transitional and (b) hardly Florence’s fault. But when we’re talking about how one felt about a place, the weather is going to matter. Maybe coming back in a warmer season would have been better, but I doubt it. I like rough weather, and I’m often cheered by walking about in the cold or rain. Not here, though.
It seemed like an expensive place to live. Not New York expensive, but not a first choice for someone on a modest budget.
There weren’t a lot of places to just go and hang out. There was the park near my Airbnb, and Michelangelo Plaza, but to be in central Florence and grab a cup of coffee and sit out someplace decent and read? There wasn’t really a whole lot of that around.
So, in short, while the Tuscany region of Italy may have been a favorite of the English since they started visiting the country (my Roman host Max informed me of this, and said there’s a town there where they don’t even bother printing menus in Italian, just in English), I think my favorite part of it will remain the bits I’ve seen in my favorite movie about the English going there. I’m glad that I went, might even go again someday, but I’m not likely to spend much of my future retirement years there.
And that was Italy. Next installment, I shall be traveling to Split, Croatia, and I’m reasonably confident that I can cover my 3 months in Split and Zagreb in one post. Challenge accepted!
Ok, time to knuckle down and post the other half of the Florence trip. Or maybe the second third. We’ll see how far I get.
I am currently in southern Ireland, near the town of Kinsale, staying here with “American Liz” (an Irish-born woman raised in New Jersey), as of almost 3 weeks ago, and that followed what was supposed to be 8 days in Edinburgh. I say “supposed to be” because, of course, the first day was traveling there, the last day was leaving, and 2.5 days were waiting for FedEx to deliver the updated credit card that my sister very kindly forwarded to me. At the end of the second day, when the FedEx guys still had no idea why the delivery wasn’t happening, they volunteered to send a 3rd party courier to deliver it to me; that happened mid-morning on the 3rd day. So, I ended up with, effectively, just 3-1/2 days in Edinburgh and it, frankly, just wasn’t enough. I love that town. And I was super edgy and uncomfortable and sad about leaving, until it occurred to me that I didn’t *have* to go on from Ireland to mainland Europe, I could just go back to Edinburgh. Then I brightened right up.
So, I’m going back. Amsterdam and Berlin will have to wait for next year. When I leave here in late August, I’m going to spend a few days in Dublin, then go to Glasgow for a month, and then back to Edinburgh for the rest of the fall — probably around 6 weeks. (I was contemplating a package tour of the Highlands, but it’s like $1200 minimum and there are luggage restrictions, so I decided to pass.) Then I’ll return to the U.S. for the holidays. (It may be just LA and New York this go around, in the interest of saving rather a lot of money.) Then, 2017 will start in Spain, head up to Amsterdam and Berlin for the spring, Norway for the early summer, and then maybe back to the UK for late summer and fall. I may end up repeating myself a bit on that UK part, but (like America’s founders) my ancestors are mostly British/Scottish/Welsh/Irish, and I’m finding it an awfully easy fit in this part of the world.
A quick side-note: booking the Airbnb places for my post-Kinsale time has been surprisingly tough, with attempts at places I liked falling through rather a lot, mostly because hosts haven’t listed their availability correctly on the Airbnb site. But it’s not helped by Airbnb’s deliberate vagueness of site locations. Great example:
These 4 rooms are in the same home, but appear to be spread out across 3 blocks near Edinburgh. Are they on the beach? On a busy street? Who could know? (Probably a side effect of quantum mechanics. We do know their velocity pretty exactly, after all.)
Florence, Part The Second
Gosh, what was Part The First? Wait, let me reread what I wrote…. Oh, right. I’d included this map of my A Room With A View location walk:
For some reason, the little pins are dropped slightly below where they should be. So the (1) pin, for my Airbnb place, is too low, the (2) pin, for my first stop should be across the river, etc. But it gives you the idea.
Where (1) was my Airbnb place, (2) was the Ponte Vecchio (the bridge across the Arno with shops on it), (3) was the “Pensione Bertolini” of the movie, (7) was the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata (a plaza that Charlotte and Eleanor Lavish walk across), and (6) was Santa Croce (where Lucy sees frescos, avoids a persistent tour guide, and finds the Emersons). Moving on….
Yeah, what about a house in Florence? Sadly, some mysteries are never answered.
Piazza della Signoria (Pin 4)
After leaving Santa Croce, where she saw the Emersons, Lucy purchases some photographs (all the rage amongst British tourists of the day, as they lacked portable cameras and were selfie-impaired), and wanders into this place, which I’m going to translate as the Ladyplaza with no fear of inaccuracy.
A still from the movie, originally screen captured at the Movie Tourist site I mentioned last time. You can see the Neptune Fountain on the left, a replica of the statue of David (not the original!) near the center, and the Loggia dei Lanzi (a platform full of statues) on the right.
It’s here she witnesses an argument between 2 Italians, which leads to a knifing and (probable) death. She faints, George Emerson catches her (despite nearly fainting himself, or so he claims), and carries her to the Loggia dei Lanzi to recover, and before, during, and after this sequence we see various landmarks around the square including:
Neptune’s Fountain, where the stabbed man’s friends carry him to… well, splash water on his face (a classical medieval remedy for stabbing).
You’ll notice, perhaps, the African gentlemen standing on the left, holding little poles and other oddments. These guys — or guys very much like them — were all over Florence and Rome (I had intended to mention them in my Roman posts, but I’m not sure I got a Roman picture of them), selling primarily “selfie sticks”. For those unfamiliar with the term — and there may be a couple of you who are — that’s an extendible pole that you attach to a camera or cell phone so that you can hold it away from yourself and take your own picture, or a picture of you with your friends without having to sacrifice one of your party to be the picture taker. (Or ask a stranger to take it.) There are varying levels of response to the phenomenon of selfie sticks, ranging from “Clever!” to “Meh, whatever” to “OMG I hate you shallow self-absorbed assholes with the heat of 1,000 suns!” I fall somewhere between the first two of those, moderated by this:
But I will note that, at the risk of it sounding comedically racist, that Africans seem to fill the same socioeconomic niche in southern Europe that Mexicans serve in the southern U.S. Which in functional terms is not terribly surprising: a large source of readily available cheap labor from an economically weaker neighbor to the south. But it was strange to see the same situation that I’m used to seeing in the U.S. translated through a prism and reproduced in another culture with different but parallel players.
It was also striking how *very* dark actual Africans are, as opposed to most of the African-Americans in the U.S. who have been blending with Europeans and Indigenous Americans for (in many cases) generations. The classic example was always the Cosby show, where skin tone range amongst the kids was improbably wide, from the very dark son (Malcolm Jamal Warner?) to the very white Lisa Bonet. And I remember reading a story on the genetic testing website 23&me, from a guy who had grown up in an African American family, did the ancestry testing, and discovered that they were only about 3% African ancestry — about the same amount that I am Neanderthal, btw. The guy went on to describe how upsetting the news had been to his family, especially his mother, who had just had a massive part of their sense of identity destabilized by the news. Then there are the Indigenous American tribes, for whom a criteria of acceptance into the tribe often involves negligible genetic inheritance (a recent RadioLab story involved a child in a tribal custody dispute who had something like 1.5% “tribal blood”). I’m 1.1% Asian (including 0.1% Japanese) — thanks, I suspect, to the Mongol horde invasion of eastern Europe, from which some of my father’s ancestry comes — and I greatly resent not having a Buddhist temple to adopt me as their own. All of which goes to say that unless you live in a *very* isolated population pocket, we are all far more mixed in America than most of us credit, or normally pay any attention to. And so it becomes very striking when you see people that are perfect examples of their inherited phenotype — rather stunningly black Africans, Irish girls with translucently white skin and flaming red hair, tiny old Japanese guys with 3 hairs on their unshaven chin like every anime you’ve ever watched. You forget that these aren’t the exceptions, they’re the rules — only within their own domains.
That digression aside, I’m kind of surprised that there was such a robust market for selfie sticks. I mean, I can see them being popular, but if you’re the sort of person who uses them, why wouldn’t you have one already? Are there that many people really buying them on the spur of the moment? I guess there must be.
The Loggia Dei Lanzi. Lucy recovers on the stone benches at the back, while George goes back out to fetch the photographs that she dropped. (Which have blood on them, despite there having been no blood on the ground where she fainted and dropped them. Italian blood, very energetic.)
The movie has a dramatic shot of this statue, featuring the severed Medusa’s head. Amongst others, as part of conveying the extreme emotion of the scene. In truth, it’s a rather graphic statue, with an improbable amount of neck-entrails.
Some angles seem rather more serene.
Rarely noted, in Greco-Roman statues, is the really absurd amounts of nudity. I mean, nudity’s all well and good, don’t get me wrong. (Apart from nudist beaches, which seem to be frequented by people you’d rather not see naked.) But warriors in battle are *not* running around nude. (Aside from a handful of crazy Teutons.) “See this super-pointy sword I’m holding! Ha ha! If only you’d thought to wear a bit of brass over your soft squishy bits, you might have some defense. Instead, I shall kill you with stabbings, and in 1,000 years an artist will portray your extreme defenselessness and tourists will stare at your nakedosity! Have at thee!” In truth, the actual reason for it is the same reason that superheroes wear spandex: artists like drawing the human form more than they like drawing folds of cloth, and humans like looking at same. Everybody wins. (Except for the guys with the squishy bits. They lose. And get stabbings.)
While George is getting the photographs, Lucy tries to sneak away to the left, and George catches her at it and insists that she’s not well enough to be on her own. She, quite understandably, objects — but he wins by saying, “Besides, that way, you’d have to fly over the wall.” I always wondered about this, because it didn’t *look* like there was a wall in that direction. Turns out: there’s not. The left side of this loggia is about 5 feet above the street level though, so it would be a bit of a drop for a woman in an Edwardian corset and bustle. Not that Lucy couldn’t have scurried down the front steps and around, if she was motivated. But she’s clearly spending much of her teen years being frustrated and scowling and peevish from playing too much Beethoven, and actually solving her own problems instead of resenting the impediments of others would distract her from those recreations considerably.
The neighboring Uffizi Gallery is a bit of courtyard/street leading east from the plaza to the Arno, and it features a number of statues of famous Florentines (many of the same Florentines whose tombs were in the Santa Croce cathedral). That dramatic sequence of stills, that included the beheading of the Medusa, also included a bunch of shots of those statues, which all appeared to be looking down threateningly or at least unapprovingly. In fairness, that’s just how they look.
Guess who this is. No, guess! Come on!
Guys, guys, guys! Guess what!? I found a huuuuge group of people we can rip off and slaughter. Over here, quick!
Oh, hey, is that the time? Sorry, Galileo, I’d love to stay and hear the story of your Tower of Piza experiment. Again. For the 4th time now, right? But I’ve got to go. I’ve got… a thing. Over… there. Next time though, for sure. Love you. Mean it.
Figures that Macchiavelli would be the cheery one in this group. (That’s unfair, really. Despite his bad “ends justify the means” rep, his book The Prince is a surprisingly rational set of advice for how a ruler should rule. It just emphasizes pragmatism in service of the realm, over then-traditional views of honor.) Also, hella cute!
This, btw, is the length of the Uffizi Gallery, starting from the corner (with the Uffizi Museum on the left) and the Arno just down the street beyond the arch. There’s some construction going on around the middle of it, and the ground level statues are actually street performers.
One more thing, before we leave the area:
This, in the center of the plaza picture from earlier, is *not* Michelangelo’s statue of David. It is a cheap and scaled down copy, clearly designed to confuse tourists and keep them from seeking out the real thing. I was surprised to see it out here, subject to the wind, rain, and pollution, until I realized that it wasn’t what it appeared to be. Bastards.
Lucy and George end up staring out over the Arno, and George describes how transformed his view of the Universe has been by the day’s experience. Lucy thanks him, which I always thought was misunderstanding him and thanking him for the compliment of saying how transformative her presence had been — but more recently I’ve come to think that maybe it was for more general assistance. I like the first interpretation better.
Under A Loggia, by Eleanor Lavish
The Movie Tourist website stops tracking the movie locations after this; they say the movie goes back to England, and maybe they’ll be able to explore that later. But they leave unexplored one of the major Florentine parts of the movie: when everyone rides into the country for a picnic, driven in carriages by Italians, and Lucy encounters George in a Field of Barley and he Kisses her — and she begins to Kiss him Back, before Charlotte Interrupts and Ruins Everything.
It’s a field a barley with two people kissing. How hard could that be to find?
I could find no online reference to the exact location at which this happens. The group dives out over windy country roads, past a small rural home, and — I swear to gods — when I first thought of trying to track this down I thought: “There’s no way. That was 100 years ago, it will all be built up and gone by now.”
No joke. Sigh.
Once I realized my mistake, I started looking more closely. Most of this sequence is shot in a sort of valley between a few hills and out of direct line of site of anything recognizable — understandably, given the need to keep modern buildings and traffic out of view. But there is one interstitial scene, just after the Kiss, that shows Florence in the distance — and for this, I must actually grab a screenshot from the movie:
Notable here is the cathedral of Santa Croce front and center, and the tallish tower about 1/5 of the way from the left and a bit back, the tower of Arnolfo (aka, of the Palazzo Vecchio) which is the town hall next to the Uffizi Gallery.
If we accept this as representing the actual location — and who can really know — that puts the setting as being in the hills north east of the city, towards the town of Fiesole:
Fiesole has a fascinating little history all on its own. It lays claim to having once been the equal of Florence, but I have to wonder what color the sky in that world was, because it’s a cute little town now, but that’s about it.
With that in mind, a Google search of ” ‘A Room With A View’ Fiesole” turned up a bunch of links identifying the town as the location — not the least of which is E.M.Forster, who describes it in the book as their destination. I think this can reasonably be considered as definitive.
Some hunting around turned up links to a bus line that ran up that way, but Google Maps said it was a 94 minute walk and I thought, what the hell? I’ll get to see more of the city and the countryside, and after all George Emerson walked back to the Pensione afterwards and I can do the same. Of course, George only walked one way, and it was downhill. But, on the other hand, it was also raining on him. And I have better shoes. And I’m not an effete British accoster of damsels in barley fields, I’m an American gods damn it. I’ll walk.
This was Saturday, February 20th. (Wow, 4 months ago. I have fallen behind, haven’t I!) Two days before I was meant to leave Florence for Split. So, at about 8:15 in the morning, I started walking. It was a bit nippy — around 43° — but I left my jacket at home, which was a good choice. I set a brisk pace across the city, it was a bright sunny day, and I was perfectly comfortable. And I got to see some pretty majestic sights along the way.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about foreign countries, it’s that they are unafraid of superlatives.
I’ve heard that Italian smog can be a bit rough, but this was the only Koffing I saw. (Ok, only Jane and Holly are going to appreciate that. Good enough! 😀)
In case you were wondering what an average Florentine Street looks like, outside of tourist areas. This was about 50 minutes into the walk, near the edge of the city.
About 20 minutes later, on the approach to Fiesole. It’s all uphill from here, and steeper than you’d guess from this image.
Look I don’t mean to tell the local Department of Highways how to do their business. But if you’re going to rename a town, surely you can spring for a new sign, instead of just crossing out the old name and writing the new one underneath. Show some professionalism.
Walking up this road, I did get slightly sidetracked and walked about 20 minutes uphill the wrong way. This worked out, though, as I got what was probably my best movie-location equivalent shot:
The view south towards Florence — to see details, you’ll have to open up this picture and zoom in, but they’re all there. As with the movie clip, you can see the dome of Santa Croce, and the tower of Arnolfo to the left.
Comparing the shots, I’d guess the filmmakers were a little ways to my left and a bit closer, though the closer part is hard to say, given what they might have been doing with camera lenses. But you can clearly see that, in the movie still, the dome is almost hiding a white tower behind it, and in my shot that tower is more to the right, so they must have been more to my left. Good enough.
I backtracked to get to the correct road up, and continued on to Fiesole.
The road was steep enough that they posted warning signs: 18% grade. At times like these, I’m reminded of The Man Who Folded Himself, by David Gerrold, about a guy who inherits a time machine hidden in a belt, and doubles back on his own timeline so heavily that he has estate parties crowded with older and younger versions of himself. Then, gradually, the older ones start dying of heart attacks, and the narrator-viewpoint can see his future approaching.
I lack only the belt.
That said, it’s still scenic as hell. I was not the only tourist walking these roads. (Though I was probably the only one who had started my walk back across the Arno.
Eventually, I made it to Fiesole, a little medieval town on top of the hill.
I think the “city hall tower” must be the central feature of every medieval Italian town.
Had a coffee and a bit of pastry and a rest, in the central town square. It was moderately busy and entirely pleasant.
I confess, my original plan in Fiesole had involved seeing some ruins and a museum. As you can see from the Fiesole Wikitravel entry, these things exist (and not much else, it’s a small town). But, after the cafe, when I wandered over to where the ruins were, I found that they were gated and that there was a substantial gate fee. That fee would also admit me into the museum, but I realized that I was really kind of done looking at crumbling stonework if they were going to charge for it — even with the bonus of viewing more religious iconography. Not that stiff, 2-dimensional saints, reluctant Annunciations, and bored Madonnas aren’t enjoyable — but I’d seen a lot of them already and I was very unconvinced that Fiesole was likely to add anything likely to transform my experience of such things. Perhaps I was wrong — well, we’ll never know. So, instead, I wandered around the outside of the gated area and took shots from the fence:
Hey, look! Crumbling, mostly buried, stone walls! Gasp!
The view from the west side. Oh, what I am missing!
Look, I don’t want to get too sarcastic about this. (Just sarcastic enough to do the job.) I confess that even at the time I knew I was being unnecessarily cross and grumbly about this. I don’t clearly recall why, though I suspect it was because they were attempting to charge me in the range of €6-€9, as much as a full museum in Florence, for what was basically a bit of park. And, of course, I’d walked 94 minutes to get there, not solely for the purpose of seeing these things, but expecting to, only to find them unacceptably priced. It’s pretty bit of park, to be sure. But no prettier than the large park near my Airbnb that I could walk through for free. So, no. Even when I was still drawing a salary… no. I can milk a museum for easily twice or thrice the time the guide books suggest you’re likely to spend in it, and enjoy every minute. But this? 20 minutes to look at some bits of wall, and then I’m going to be having a nice sit in the sunshine and listening to the birds, and I can do that anywhere. I can do it at the cafe in the town square, and have something to snack on while I do it, and for half the price!
So, yeah. Not impressed.
That said, it is a pretty area. Here’s the view from the other side of the ruin, facing north away from Fiesole:
After wandering about for a bit, I had a light pasta lunch at a cafe with a view out towards Florence — not this view, from the very top of Fiesole, but one rather like it.
I honestly don’t get how people live without views. I mean, plenty of city dwellers don’t, I guess. But, come on!
And, after lunch I started the walk home. I was honestly more worried about this part. My knees have a been a bit problematic since I was about 20; it doesn’t generally stop me, but I’m never keen on long downhill treks. Still it worked out Ok, with one exception. While I was sitting up there having lunch, my eyes started to get itchy and I got a bit sniffly, and it was the first warning of the hellish Spring to come. I kept them under control until after I got to Split, and then had a remote session with Roger and was better afterwards. But, as foreshadowings go, this went.
The trek home was about as enjoyable as the trek up, and rather less strenuous. I kept to the same route, pretty much, until I got into the city, but there were still sights.
You want something… unconventional, Lithuanian Peat is the guy to get it for you. Just don’t ask too many questions.
Since the bad acid in 2005, Lithuanian Peat used to joke that the Flamingo of Transcendence followed him everywhere. He’d laugh when he said it, but his eyes… his eyes did not laugh.
Traveling in Europe, you realize how much of the door technology of our ancestors has been lost to the ages. We just don’t make impressive doors anymore.
I lived in the LA beach area for 25 years, and never once happened across a Chocolate Festival. Why is LA bad?
If memory serves, I found some gelato after this, and had a quiet evening at home. It was a *long* walk.
And that brings to a close my A Room With A View pilgrimage, all Florentine locations accounted for! I did have some other things that I did in Florence, that were not strictly A Room With A View related, but I’m at about 4K words so far in this post, so I’m going to leave the other 1/3 of my visit for the next one. Which will be soon, as there’s nothing much going on in my little farmhouse in Southern Ireland, and I’ve got 2 more months here, and a great deal of time on my hands.
After my week in Rome, my next destination was Florence, a city that for my money begins and ends with A Room With A View, my favorite movie of all time. (And a pretty good book, too, though the book is a bit more darkly sarcastic than its film version.)
Aside from its general merits (the movie’s wiki page has a fairly large list of awards), and some fairly specific scenes that I’m particularly fond of, the movie is probably my favorite because it so much resembles much of my upbringing. My mother’s family was essentially the Honeychurch’s — a bunch of nice people sitting about in pleasant surroundings having nice conversation with really very little drama. Our budget was significantly lower, of course. Our family estate was not nearly so park-like, we were exceedingly short-staffed in the servant department, and I’m told that some members of our family even worked, if you can imagine such a thing. But, despite all of that, I think it can be fairly said that an aimless state of general well-being is a shared characteristic between our two families, and it has certainly described my life as a whole. Even more so, now that I’ve retired to a modest life of travel. (Sadly, I don’t think I have a good matching character; I sit somewhere between Freddie Honeychurch and Cecil Vyse. Or I’d like to.)
With that said, the entire point of my post-Roman time in Italy was to see the half of the movie that I’d had no familiarity with, Florence, and to visit the places that I knew so well from my many viewings of the movie. I spent rather a bit of time online looking for references for what real-world places corresponded to movie scenes, and eventually found this, Movie Tourist: A Room With A View, that described nearly all of them in detail. An invaluable resource.
But first, I have to get there.
Monday, February 8th
Rome is around the middle of Italy, and Florence is about 90 minutes north by train.
A fortunately comprehensive map, you can see not only the route I took, but also other major Italian cities, and my later route out through Bologna (north), down to Ancona on the coast, Split on the other side of the Adriatic, and Zagreb in the north east.
There are faster trains and slower ones, and I’d have been Ok with the slower one, but the faster one wasn’t any more expensive and, leaving at 11:00am, it got me there when it was convenient for my host Alvarez to meet me (after a 25 minute walk to her place from the station).
So, Max gave me a ride to the Circus Maximus subway station, on his way to work (after we took a brief detour to the nearer subway station that I’d planned on walking to, only to find it closed ?!?!?!), a ride during which I learned various things like Max was considering retiring from his tour coordinator job and just running an Airbnb hostel for income. Given the rates of Airbnb places in Rome, I believe that’s possible. The subway was crowded, but I got to the train station in plenty of time, had a bit of coffee and chocolate croissant while waiting, and caught the pleasantly well appointed train for Florence on time at 11.
The on board WiFi wasn’t great, but if that’s your only complaint on public transport then you’re doing pretty well.
Pretty Italian countryside is pretty.
Arriving in Florence. There’s a reason it wasn’t called, “A Room With A View Of The Train Tracks”. (Pretty sure Rammstein did the soundtrack for that one.)
Florence as a whole is a pretty big place, but the touristy bits are all concentrated within the old city walls. (You can still see bits of them around: a Google Image search will show them at different stages of history, but a rough outline of the outer wall can be seen on the map above, in the yellow roadway above the river and the major white road connecting to it below the river.) My train arrived at the Firenze station, a little northwest of the center of the map, and my Airbnb place was across the Arno, west and a bit south.
My train arrived on schedule at about 12:22, and Google Maps guided me towards the Arno river and across it to my Airbnb, passing any number of shops, the American Consulate, and this:
The Hotel Argentina. You can check out any time you like, but they won’t cry for you.
Speaking of Argentina, my host Alvarez came from there. (Still does, I expect.) Apparently, her family was quite international, and her mother’s family comes from Italy, so she was staying there on a relative visa, working as a graphic designer. Her Airbnb listing has a picture of her and of the room I was staying in. (One day, these websites and listings I link to are going to start vanishing, and I’ll regret not having my own records and my own pictures of that-place-I-stayed-in-for-2-weeks-that-one-time. But I live in the now, and right now I’m too lazy to make them.) Alvarez was delightful, spoke very good English, was very pleasant to talk to. Her fridge had a tendency smell a little too strongly of decaying vegetables, but the internet was generally excellent, and I like her neighbors:
(For those unfamiliar, it’s a play on an Offspring lyric. Great band, who provided my only mosh pit experience, which was crazy fun.)
There was another young lady staying in the other guest room. I’m not sure where she was from (some latinate country); we exchanged a few friendly words, but that was about it. She may or may not have had a friend staying with her, possibly a “friend”. I never saw the friend, but I’d hear two women’s voices coming from her room sometimes.
This place was a bit of a mixed bag. It was a nice enough place, on its own. I should, of course, note that I had no view. Other than the front of the building across the street. But it was positioned maybe 3 doors away from an intensely busy roundabout (which you can see on the map above), and the traffic noise *never* stopped. Well, I guess that’s not fair. Between about 6:30am and 11pm it never stopped. By around 11, it dropped to nothing, and I found that if I turned on my ambient noise app on a 2 hour timer when I went to sleep, that would get me through the initial night noise and everything would be quiet if I woke up during the night. But all day long you’d hear traffic, slightly muffled by the windows. I did get in a bit of time playing Fallout while I was there, and my earphones blocked it out well enough while playing, but it was really pushing my comfort zone during my stay. I tried to lighten how I described it in my Airbnb review, but I just had a reread of that review and I notice that there have been no more reviews posted on the place since I stayed there. I really do hope I’m not scaring people off. Proooobably not… it’s not like the previous reviews were back to back either. Hrrm. Curiously, she only has one listing up now; I guess she got a permanent roommate for the other room.
Well, anyway, moving on. By the time I’d met Alvarez and gotten settled in, it was around 2-ish. I walked around a tiny bit locally, picked up groceries at the grocery store, and just settled in for the evening.
The next 2 weeks
I’m going to compress everything into general description. I do have daily notes, but I’m not sure there’s any real need for the breakdown. Florence was being chilly and windy and rainy most of the time I was there, and as much as I *love* weather, that’s exactly the sort of weather that makes you happy to stay indoors and appreciate it while you’re dry. So my time in Florence broke down mostly into 3 categories:
Walk around and see A Room With A View Locations — and sometimes places that weren’t in A Room With A View. (Pointless, I know, but I was there with time to kill, I had to do something.)
Internet or read or play Fallout in my Room Without A View.
In reverse order:
There are typically 3 things tourists do when they travel: see sights, eat local food, and shop. Shopping is largely out, for me, what with having no place for anything I buy, or any use for it on the road. And, as for eating local food, I’ve mentioned before that I’m trying to keep the budget down so restaurant dining is something that I don’t do a lot of — any more than you would in your regular life. Two week tourist trip? You eat out every meal. Daily life? Maybe twice a week.
So that’s pretty much how I’m treating all of these places. So, I’m eating fruit and crackers and tea for breakfast in Italy (hard to find oatmeal in Italy, for some reason), maybe a sandwich for lunch, or sardines, and generally a salad for dinner. But I would occasionally have some very yummy local foods: there were a couple of deli-type places near me, that had pizza and pastries and sandwiches and some really great meat or veggie lasagnas, so I did have those. My first day wandering around, I ended up near the Ponte Vecchio (more on that later) and had a great pizza and coffee at a local restaurant for €11.19 (about $12.62), and then stopped at a nearby gelato place only to be stunned by the €10 price tag. Mind you, it was great gelato (2 scoops, coffee and walnut, in a large waffle cone, super yummy), but I’d never have sprung for it if I’d known it was just under the cost of my whole lunch. But I made a tactical error buying from a shop right at the base of the Ponte Vecchio, a major tourist site. Of course it was more expensive than the average neighborhood shop. (I went to another shop several days later which also had *great* gelato, for maybe €3.50. Much better.)
My second or third day, I was wandering around trying to find an Irish/British pub — and the one I found didn’t serve food, just drinks, which I found very disorienting. Really? People come here in the middle of the day and *just* drink? I’d say it must be nice, but I’m not really sure that it is.
I think it was the day after that, that I found The Lion’s Fountain Irish Pub (circled towards the right of the map above), and that place was great.
Just a placeholder pic from TripAdvisor, in case I can’t find mine. [Which I can’t. I could have sworn I took one.] I was never here at night, and the patio seating was better set up when I was there.
I went here maybe 5 times during my stay; I think I alternated between fish and chips and burgers, and Irish coffee and/or Guinness. They had an outdoor seating area with an awning, and sitting under it, listening to the rain, reading, and watching the passersby, was great.
In drier weather, this interchange would be busier with pedestrians, diners at nearby places, and vegetable stand patrons. Mostly rain in this shot, which was how I liked it.
I did keep trying to go to a place that served boar, which I really wanted to try, but it was never open when I was passing.
I also found a Lindt chocolate shop — that’s a brand that I had seen in Asia, and it had become my go-to brand there. But it originates in Europe and has been pretty common here. They have some very dark chocolate bars — I even tried one that was 99% chocolate. The package warned that you would need a discerning taste to appreciate it — I suppose much as you would to appreciate the taste of charcoal, rust, or gunpowder. Alas, I fear that my palate is not that refined, and I couldn’t really get past a couple of pieces before giving up on it. But they had a brandy-filled milk chocolate bar that was OMG insanely good. I visited that shop several times.
And that was pretty much it. Grocery shopping yielded some amazing cheeses (Italy has really ruled in the cheese department, so far), some good vegetables (I vaguely remember produce being labeled something like “level 1” and “level 2”, and level 2 being pricier, so I gullibly tried to stick to level 2. Was it organic? Who could know?), and beer of no particular virtue. There was probably better beer somewhere. I just didn’t see it. With one exception:
Tennent’s Super Strong Lager, a Scottish beer. Surprisingly tasty, for a lager, and 9% alcohol so good for a buzz.
Internet or read or play Fallout in my Room Without A View
There was rather a lot of this, and it requires little elaboration. As I say, it was often windy and chilly and rainy, and it made it easy to stay indoors. No small number of hours were devoted to figuring out how to get to Split, Croatia, in any kind of optimal and inexpensive manner. Eventually I settled on a couple of trains to get to Ancona on the coast, via Bologna, and an overnight ferry from Ancona to get to Split, but it meant arriving a day later than expected. All these little European countries are so small and close together by the standards of the American west, that I just tend to assume you hop on a train and 5 hours later you’re there. 10 hours, if it’s on the other side of Europe. Turns out? Not quite so close as all that. And going up the Italian peninsula and down the Balkan one, through 3 countries, takes a while and a bunch of train changes. And this was the off season so most of the ferries weren’t running, just Jadrolinija. Well, I figured it all out eventually.
I did get a book read during the down time, Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman, in my room and down at the pub.
As the cover implies, this is a collection of Neil’s short stories, and they tend to revolve around the unexpected. I expect a few of them would be scary to some people — I mostly just found them to be interesting and enjoyable reads. Although Click-Clack the Rattlebag is perhaps a bit scarier than the others and worth listening to the audio version of, on a dark, wintry night. (I was reading the Kindle version, but I’d downloaded the audio for that story when it was free at Halloween a couple of years ago.) But other stories are completely innocuous, and if you’re disinclined to read horror books, you need have no fear of this one. If I remember his forward correctly, the “Trigger Warning” title more relates to the value of reading things that you aren’t prepared for, not that anything in the stories themselves are likely to be traumatic triggers. Though your mileage may vary on that one — which is rather the point.
By the way, how rainy was it really? There’s a spot in the Arno where the the river flows over a ledge — you may perhaps recall Miss Honeychurch’s blood-stained photographs being sent washing down it in the movie. The day after I arrived, I walked towards the city center and followed a riverside path for much of the way:
Heading south, along the path down near river level. The city center is on the far side, and you can see the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in the distance and the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio (the town hall of Florence). Up river, you can see the white line of the falls.
Here are those small falls closer up, from a bridge over the river. It’s a cute, scenic, little drop. The river flows over the ledge on the left, but the right side of the ledge is dry.
Here I’ve walked out onto the dry side of the ledge. All very serene.
Here is that peaceful little ledge 6 days later:
It turns out that the Arno is rather unpredictable, and Florence periodically floods. There was a whole exhibit in the Santa Croce cathedral complex about the massive flood in 1966 that rose up over the river walls and flooded the city, reaching over 22 feet high in the Santa Croce area (where much of ARWAV was shot). It was the worst flood since 1557 (and possibly the first not blamed on the Jews).
High water marks, from the interior of the Cathedral of Santa Croce.
Got to say, it’s a bit nervous making, hanging out in a city known for massive floods, and watching the river rise day after day. Thankfully, I’m a nomad, so if the worst tragedy struck the city, I’d be free to just leave. Wait, that came out wrong. Anyway, the rain let up a bit, and the river started to drop, and all was well again. Getting used to that sort of thing is probably good practice for me, since where I plan to finally retire is super likely to get seriously wrecked in my lifetime.
Out of the Room, Viewing
So, as I mentioned earlier, I found this website a great help in planning my ARWAV sight seeing list. (Though I think the original phrase is “sight seeing”, that must be rather hard on the blind. I’ve also seen “site seeing” used, which seems more appropriate as one could then be equally engaged in “site hearing” and “site smelling” — a thing that actually does feature in ARWAV. Still, I am not blind, and all of my sites were also sights, and you should generally assume that I applied most of my senses in appreciating them, to greater or lesser extents.)
I had thought I might have to slowly step through the movie, capturing specific screen shots to compare with reality, but the chap who made that website already copied screen shots from the movie so I shall just recycle his. It’s not like the pics I’d pull are any different.
For overview, here’s the map I constructed in my CityWalks app (a great little tool for walking tours and information about what you’re seeing):
For some reason, the little pins are dropped slightly below where they should be. So the (1) pin, for my Airbnb place, is too low, the (2) pin, for my first stop should be across the river, etc. But it gives you the idea. I should mention that this wasn’t a single walk, it’s just to show where these places are.
The Pensione Bertolini (Pin 2)
This is actually two places, because the interior location, and the “bad” view at the beginning, are taken from a hotel on the east side of the river, while the “good” view comes from a private residence on the west side on the river, looking across the Arno towards the east. I considered staying at the hotel, but it was *really* not cheap. It has long since changed ownership and been renovated, after being bombed in ’93 (for reasons I’m sure were unrelated to the quality of the view), and there’s little to really distinguish it at this point. Still…
Lucy, looking out upon disappointment.
The alley she looks down upon.
The hotel window that she looks down from. Judging by the perspective, I’d guess it was the top one.
Since the good view comes from a private residence, there’s no good way to capture that:
The titular view. Heh. Titular. Heh heh heh.
But in my second week there, I ended up at the Piazzale Michelangelo, at the lower right of my map above, and got this shot, which I’m going to call good enough.
That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.
It should be noted that right next to the Pensione is the Ponte Vecchio, a bridge over the Arno that still has shops along it, as was once common.
This bridge with shops on it is one of the most famous sights of Florence, which I regard in the same light as I do the fame of the Mona Lisa, a small painting of a woman. Why it’s particularly meaningful to anyone is beyond me (beyond any emotional content that you bring with you, like ‘We had our honeymoon here, it was magical!” and such).
A brief diversion: I call this, “The Wise Sculptor Flatters Their Patron”.
On the other side of the Ponte Vecchio (the west side), I wandered the alleyways a bit and stumbled across a nice little corner church.
For lack of a better name, I’m going to call this St Hole In The Wall’s. Despite the dimness, it had a very comfortable feel. Like it was an unassuming neighborhood church, that real working people went to. I liked it.
St Shiny’s, nearby, was much better lit, but much less personal feeling. Not really a fan of this one.
Even the cool D&D diorama they had set up on the side did not win me over.
It was just after this that I found the lunch place I mentioned earlier, where I had a very nice pizza and coffee and read for a bit, before going on to overpay for gelato.
There were bits under construction, and a lot of folks loitering about in a strange way that suggested a connection to some welfare program. But the commented-upon statue of Fernando is in it, and it still manages to be pretty.
Fernando, whom Eleanor Lavish salutes, closer up. It has occurred to me many times in this year’s travel that America is really lacking in statues of famous people. The East Coast has some, but still not nearly the same density, and the West Coast is largely bereft of them. Though, given our likelihood of creating statues of Bush and Trump, it’s probably just as well.
Basilica di Santa Croce (pin 6)
The major cathedral in the movie is Santa Croce, and there are several little vignettes shot in it.
I bet interesting things get done in this square outside the church. Not while *I’m* there, of course, but at other times.
The layout of Santa Croce. Most of it is accessible to the public, and reasonably priced compared to a lot of places.
You’ll see that the suggested visiting time is 30-40 minutes. I scoff at their suggestions, and was here for 2 hours.
It’s surprisingly hard to get a perspective match for these shots. I bet the differences between lenses and placements of movie cameras and iPhone cameras has something to do with it. But I think this one worked.
Here’s a pano from the entrance, which in the picture above is down the hall on the left side:
You can see the walls are line with monuments and plaques, and the crossy-bit on the left has walls covered with paintings, as do the little alcoves on each side of it.
This cathedral has 3 main attributes: (1) it’s big and pretty, (2) it has some apparently famous wall paintings by Giotto (and others) in its 16 chapels (what you or I would call “alcoves”, or perhaps “walk in closets where I store all my catholic iconography”), and (3) lots of famous dead people are buried here. You can see a bunch of their tombs here, but here are a few I liked:
The monument to Dante, where Miss Honeychurch is accosted by an overeager prospective tour guide.
Dante’s monument for reals. Not a tomb, it turns out, as he was in exile when he died and his actual body isn’t here. But, forgive and forget I guess.
Seems a bit understated for DaVinci, but, hey, it’s here.
That’s more like it. Turns out, Michelangelo is big in Florence.
They must have liked Galileo too. Even if the Church officials didn’t.
The cheeriest guy in the cathedral. Yay, physics!
The inventor of the radio certainly deserves a mention.
“Lucia, the Church has granted your father a tomb in the Great Cathedral. His name and works will be immortal!”
Of course, there are other things besides tombs, here:
The crossy bit at the end. Undeniably pretty; the wall paintings were mostly concentrated on this end of the church.
One of the chapels on the side, the Cappella Bardi. It was in one of these that Mr Emerson incommodes the Reverend Eager, but I’m not quite sure which chapel it was. I didn’t take the time to grab movie stills of that chapel’s walls so that I could correctly identify it — but, honestly, one fat man floating up in the sky like an air balloon looks much like another. But I’m modestly certain it was this one, as the bit of floor George Emerson drops to his knees on (see the 36 second mark in the video above) would have behind and to the right of me as I took this, based on the angle.
I did recognize some of the chapel names from the intrusive tour guide’s dialog, like the “Cappella Bardi” above. So that was cool.
I would just like to note that I have never seen a portrayal of the Annunciation (where an angel tells Mary that she’s carrying the son of God — surprise!), where she looks happy about it. Here, she’s pulling away from the angel. I’ve seen boredom, reluctance, disgust, pulling back, fleeing. Not *one* where she looks pleased by the prospect. And I saw a *lot* of them in Italy. Mind you, this seems like a fairly realistic take on a woman being given this news in a culture where they’re likely to stone you to death for having a child not your husband’s, but I still can’t help but feel that it’s a real failure of the iconography. Inspirational considerations aside, village carpenter’s wife to Divine Mother is a hell of a promotion, she could show a little appreciation.
“Flower deliveries are around back, at the servant’s entrance.”
On the other side, here’s one of the rare Madonna & Child pieces where they actually seem to have affection for each other. I’m not sure Medieval artists were really into the whole “human emotions” thing. (And, really, who can blame them.)
Not to be self-aggrandizing or anything, but looking at this did remind me of another picture:
Let’s all take a moment to consider the upper body strength the young woman on the left must have developed. Very impressive!
I don’t remember the Bible mentioning The Orgy On The Mount, but who am I to question Catholic paintings?
No matter how divine you are, eating beneath a painting of your own crucifixion must be bad for the digestion.
“Move it to the left. A little more… almost there.”
(When St Peter kicks me back down to hell, pretty sure he’s going to point to that last comment. But only ’cause it’ll be an easy example.)
In the 10th hour of Christ’s sermon, only the angels were still awake.
“Now, Mr Bond, I shall explain my plan for world domination. And then you shall die.”
Well it appears that I was hopelessly naive in assuming that I could fit my 2 weeks in Florence into a single post. I mean, maybe I could keep going, but I’m up to 4500 words already and I’ve still got at least 2 major movie locations to capture and even a few non-movie-related things. Plus, this has been a slow one to write and my circulation is not being well served by all the sitting time. And my butt hurts. So, the rest will have to be saved for next time.
As I write this, it’s the morning of Saturday, May 21st. Monday, at around noon, I fly to Edinburgh, Scotland, where I will be for 8 days, and then I head to southern Ireland on the 31st for my nearly 3 months there. I can’t promise to get the next update out before Ireland — I have every hope that I’ll be busy for most of my Edinburgh week. But it will be as soon as I can manage.
And, as a parting gift, I will leave you with two things. First, this note:
Posted by @bill_easterly (referencing @benphillips76), “The richest families in Florence in 1427 are still the richest families in Florence in 2011.” This popped up in my Twitter feed as I was writing this blog, taking synchronicity to a whole new level.
We’ll see more of this in the Medici museum, next post.
And, finally, this video, which is wonderful and amazing.
So, it’s been 5 weeks since my last post; my apologies for that. I was in Split, Croatia, from 2/23-3/23, and, just a couple of days before I left, Spring started in Split. Which wouldn’t be a problem, except that things started blooming, my allergies flared, and sniffles, itchy eyes, and headaches kicked in. I got them under control for the trip itself, but the first week in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, was me feeling crappy from the aftereffects, tamping them all down, etc. And, just a couple of days after feeling myself again, Spring kicked in for Zagreb with a vengeance. Every gods damned green thing in this city started blooming — my gods, it smelled like a perfume shop out there. And I mean a perfume shop, not a flower shop — I’ve never been in a flower shop that was that pungent. It was nuts! And the pollen coated everything, like we’d had a dust storm. I had maybe an hour I could walk around, to get groceries and the like, before my reactions became increasingly unmanageable — and then I’d have to be home with the doors and windows closed, maybe shower to wash the residue off, and I wouldn’t be really over it until the next day.
So, ever since then, I’ve basically been a shut-in.
Behold! Two of the aspects of my 1000-faced mortal nemesis! Do they not fill you with the starkest terror?!
Stalagmites grow from the ground. Death hangs from above.
The horror lurks outside my window. Do not invite it in!
When I was feeling my worst, right at the start, I just wanted to veg, and so I got back into playing Fallout, got my second wind playing it, and have spent the better part of the last month doing little but that. I could get into the aspects of the game that have really sucked me in, but not now I think. The long and short of it is that, between being trapped in the apartment and feeling intermittently lousy, I just sort of lost myself to the game and everything else fell rather by the wayside. It was only a little over a week ago that I made the travel plans for my week at the end of May, going between Zagreb and Ireland. (Spoiler: Edinburgh, here I come!)
But, now I’m coming up for air again. Which is more breathable — we seem to have passed the core of the blooming season, nature’s brothel is settling down a bit, and occasional rains have given me windows where the air was clearer and I could get out and walk around. So, I find my attention is pushing outwards again, and that brings me back to useful sorts of activities like the blog, and reading. (Not that the SimCity/Minecraft style building mechanics in Fallout aren’t useful. My post-apocalyptic settlers appreciate their new settlements, with food and water and proper defenses and unisex bathrooms. But you know what I mean.)
So, with that out of the way, I can get back to the remains of my Roman Holiday.
In my last blog entry, for Thursday, Feb. 4th, I described my trip to the impressive Villa Borghese and Borghese Gallery, after which I saw the unimpressive Spanish Steps, the very pleasant Trevi Fountain, and the very disappointing Pantheon. In my previous few days in Rome, I’d been to the Colosseum, and the Forum and the Palatine Hill, and followed them with my day in Vatican City, along with some other wandering about in between. But none of those were my primary goal, and it occurs to me that I really should mention what that goal was. What I really wanted to be sure that I did while in Rome, was to make a point of walking all of the legendary Seven Hills of Rome. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I seized on this goal. Perhaps it’s because I’m a bit of a completest, and having a single, coherent thing that in a sense “summed up” Rome, and being able to do that thing, was innately appealing to me. I’d never be able to see everything in my 8 days there, but having “walked the Seven Hills of Rome” has a nice ring to it.
I was sorely tempted to simply start this blog entry with a clip from the movie of that name, which I confess that I’d never heard of until I started trying to find out what the Seven Hills were and how one walked them. But I looked up clips from this on YouTube, and wow, this movie has not aged well:
So perhaps I should stick to the facts. If you ever wanted to be lectured on Roman geology by a low resolution video game lumberjack in a dress, boy do I have the video for you!
Clunky lecture? Yep. Boring? Mmmm, could be. Better than Mario Lanza? Oh hells, yeah!
The tl;dnr version of all of this is that Ancient Rome is commonly and rather arbitrarily considered to have had 7 central hills, and having heard only that much in advance, I had determined that I meant to visit them all, preferably in one day. I spent some time hunting for a good definition of what these hills were and — more importantly — how I would locate them on Google Maps, and my initial searches were not terribly helpful on the latter point. Eventually, I found this page, which not only listed the hills but gave helpful sites that could be seen on each one, and I ended up using this as my guide.
Friday, February 5th
Psych! I actually did nothing on Friday. I’d been walking around like mad ever since I arrived in Rome, and I decided to take the day off. It’s the Eternal City, it’s not going anywhere.
Instead, I relaxed at home, read Twitter, got takeout from the deli Max had recommended, played a bit of Fallout, read a bit, and chilled. I did get some really nice gelato from another nearby place that Max had recommended, but that was the highlight of the day. Well worth it.
Saturday, February 6th
Ok, now I did stuff. I set out a little before 9:00, and thought I’d start by visiting St. Peter’s Basilica, which I’d missed on my Vatican trip. This was as close as I got:
My gods, it was packed. I thought maybe the visitor crowds were just bigger on Saturdays. But my Airbnb host Max said later that some holy man had died, his body had been brought to St Peters for the funeral, and people were coming from everywhere to see him. (But how many of them actually called when he was alive, am I right?)
So, I turned away and kept going, north along the Tiber River, with an eye to crossing it and heading towards my first stop, the Quirinal Hill. Thanks to the website I mentioned above, I’d worked out the list of hills, the sights on each one that I could target on Google Maps, and a rough order for the ones I hadn’t been to yet:
You may or may not recall that I had already been to the Capitoline Hill (behind the Piazzo Venicio, with the Michelangelo’s Campidoglio on it) and the Palatine Hill (above the Roman Forum). (On Tuesday, I believe.) So, just 5 more to go. (Technically, I’d been to the Colosseum and hence had hit the Esquiline Hill also. But it’s really at the base of the hill, and hardly feels like it counts.)
I had marked the landmarks with little stars on Google Maps the day before, to guide me. Here’s a snapshot, with my approximate route marked
Most of the locations have names on the map. I’ve added a few in red, where they didn’t.
Walking along the Tiber from St Peters (off the map to the upper left), I passed one of the many “Gosh, I should come back and see that some day” places in Rome.
The Castel Sant’Angelo, once a fort, now a museum, and from the beginning a mausoleum. Had I known that the Emperor Hadrian’s ashes were there, I might have thrown over the 7 Hills to go there that day. Or, at least, bypassed it with greater regret.
Equally impressive was this piece of retro-fancy technology:
This is like a 1950’s vision of “Telephony of the Future!” Note the hinge and the bottom, where the phone book would have hung. Rome is truly a city of living history.
Ooo, look at what I found in my phone’s camera!
I’d have totally liked to have gone to that, if I’d remembered its existence 5 minutes after I took this picture.
What does it say about Roman culture, that “illegal taxis” are clearly marked, and the government simply prints warnings not to take them?
We’ve always had this stereotype of Italians driving tiny cars. It is completely accurate. I have *never* seen as many SmartCars as I did in Rome, and they were not the smallest on the road.
I swear to the gods, when I have a home again, I’m traveling to Asia to buy furniture for it, and Rome to buy new clothing. I wanted these in the worsted way.
As I walked eastward into the city, I passed the Trevi Fountain, continued up a steep street, and by a little after 10:00, I had reached my first stop, the Quirinal Hill.
The Quirinal Hill, with the Quirinal Obelisk, and the Fountain of Castor and Pollux which is no longer a fountain and also was under construction (to actually install a fountain, maybe?), and the official residence of the Italian President (shown here).
From the Quirinal Hill, I continued northeast to an intersection known as The Quattro Fontane (Four Fountains). The reason for the name is surely lost to history, but there were some nice carvings:
Juno that this is not just a distraction to traffic and pedestrians, but is also a fountain? Well, now you do.
Nothing like a busy intersection for milling about admiring the sights. No tourists were harmed in the making of these photos — though I can’t vouch for any photos taken before or after. (This is the River Tiber, btw. In case that wasn’t, like, super-obvious.)
The River Aniene, which apparently was a tributary of the Tiber and provided the Roman aqueducts with much of their water. Let’s hear it for anthropomorphization!
Diane to know why they picked these particular figures for the fountains. If only I had a time machine and could go back and ask them. Right after going back to convince my parents to avoid the horrible mistake of getting married. (Hi, Mom!) Well, maybe I should do it right before that, as it might be harder afterwards.
From there, I walked southeast to the famed Ministry of the Interior.
“Ministero dell’Interno”, meet “Turista dell’Externo”. There were security barriers, so this is as far as I got. But it’s the main landmark on the Viminal Hill, so my second station is accomplished.
Continuing on southeast towards the Esquiline Hill took me past an unanticipated cathedral.
The Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore — or Saint Maggie’s, as I like to call it. Quite pretty, really.
Those little tents have metal detectors, and you empty your pockets and run your backpack through a scanner, and all that sort of thing, as if you were going through an airport 30 years ago before the airports all upgraded to Paranoid++. I’m not sure why this cathedral was so protected, when the Trevi Fountain is an open intersection packed with tourists, and the Pantheon is equally crowded. Maybe it depends on the nervousness of the head priest.
<Damn it! WordPress ate several paragraphs of text and pictures when I hit save. Then, refused to save any new drafts. I had to copy what I had so far into a new post, and start saving to that instead. Weird, and bloody annoying. Fine, I’ll rewrite it, damn it.>
The interior. I’m sure this bit has a proper name, like the nave or the postern or the transubstantiatrix or something. But it’s been years since I read the Camber of Culdi books and I don’t remember any of the Catholic architectural nomenclature. Let’s call it the coatroom and be done.
< Oh, thank the Maker! WordPress stores the captions with the pictures, and I don’t have to try to recreate them from memory! I’ve sometimes been annoyed by that feature, but now? Calloo! Callay! >
Interior panoramas are always a bit dicey. Everything curves too much, and it’s hard to translate the perspective. But it’s still pretty.
I think this was a large alcove at the end on the left — basically the left arm of the cross in the church’s layout. (I’m going to call it the ‘port transept’, because I can.)
The Bit at the End. (il Omega Terminatum.)
Below the Bit at the End, aka the Undernave. In case you feel it’s wiser to be closer to Hell when you pray.
Got to admit, they had a heck of an interior decorator in this place. It’s really quite pretty.
“Venite Adoremus”! I know that one, it’s a line from a Christmas carol. Cool!
A pano from inside the arcade. I find myself kind of torn. On the one hand, ooo, aaaahhh. On the other, gaudy much? You decide.
Oh, did I mention the ceiling? It had a ceiling.
St Maggie’s had a collection box, for donations to support it. I figured they’d already been paid in the blood of minorities they’d oppressed to build their institution, at least four of which I’d been a member of (Jews, pagans, gays, and scientists), so I’d pass, thanks for asking.
I left St. Maggie’s and continued southeast before turning southwest, right around the location of a local comic shop.
A great t-shirt in the window of this place! I feel obliged to mention that “Mellon” isn’t Italian. It means “friend”, and is the Elvish password used to open the Doors of Moria. (“Speak ‘friend’, and enter.”) But you knew that. Of course you did.
I reached the Esquiline, with the Domus Aurea and the Baths of Trajan, but was somewhat underwhelmed.
You have to expect this sort of thing, when you visit in the off season.
Still, it counts as the 3rd station of the day, and I continued past the Colosseum:
The other side of the Colosseum from my prior pictures. Also considered part of the Esquiline Hill, though it seems to be in a valley so go figure.
From there, I headed on to the Villa Celimontana on the Caelian Hill for the 4th station.
From the signs, I think there’s a geographical society based here. There was also what looked like a wedding going on. It’s a big place.
The Mattei Obelisk, supposedly made up of at least 2 other obelisks and named after the guy who owned the grounds when the Roman Senate gifted him with the thing. I’m going to start naming all the gifts I get after myself. It will be”The Castleberry Travel Plug Converter”, and “Charles Castleberry’s Casino Royale”. I like it.
I came down past the wedding, and past another church, and found that I’d ended up at the end of the Circus Maximus, looking up at the Palatine Hill (which I’d already been to).
It was slightly after noon, by now, and a beautiful, warm day (I want to say low 60s but a strong sun). I’m surprised I hadn’t imploded with hunger by now.
I continued up a hill to my 5th station, the Aventine Hill, featuring the Temple of Diana!
Some say that it lacks something of its original majesty, but those people are merely accurate.
From there I continued to my other Aventine Hill stop, the Aventine Keyhole.
This is a line of people queued up to look through the keyhole of the door into the grounds of the Knights of Malta. Not even kidding.
The Wikipedia page for the Villa del Priorato di Malta explains this in more detail, but, basically, if you peek through the keyhole you see St Peter’s Basilica nicely framed through it. The wiki page has a really good picture of that. You’ll understand if I say that the iPhone, however generally competent a Swiss Army knife it may be, was really not designed for that sort of photography.
My own view was more like the wiki page’s, but I kind of like how my phone’s turned out.
The parallel view from the park down the street was at least as impressive, IMHO.
And that was the end. The Aventine was the last of the 7 Hills that I’d hoped to visit, and my mission in Rome was officially complete. Woo-hoo!
From there, I walked down the hill, crossed the river, and stopped at a local beer joint that Max had recommended, “Bir & Fud”, which had a vast selection of beers on tap.
Had a couple of great dark beers here, including a porter from Birra Del Borgo (who made My Antonia, with Dogfish Head) which was brewed with tobacco. It was surprisingly tasty, for a carcinogenic drink.
Also, a fine Imperial Stout called ’A Magara Mìerula, also brewed in Italy. It’s a beautiful beer. I think I had a pizza with it, though my memory of the food is hazier.
I passed some appropriate poetry on the walk uphill towards home, afterwards:
“It’s time to get drunk! To not be the martyred slaves of time, always drunk! Wine, poetry or virtue, as you please.”
There was a *lot* of graffiti in Italy. You’d think they’d invented the damn stuff.
I got home fairly early, around 3:30, which gave me time to, among other things, continue a bit of reading from the day before. In the Nice Places To Sit And Read, the place is simply my room, which was entirely pleasant. The book was Light, by M John Harrison.
This book was pretty much everything hard sf should be. I’d only heard of Harrison fairly recently, after he died and Twitter revealed to me that he’s been an institution in British sf for some time. Light is one of his better known works — even better known now, that I’ve read it, and you’ve read about me reading it. It tells 3 very loosely connected stories, from the present day to the far future, of 3 people who cannot be said to be happy, but can be said to be interesting. And it’s the kind of futuristic sf that I really appreciate, where the world and technology of the future are sufficiently advanced and weird that you can really kind of forget how impossible it is to imagine anything further than a hundred years or so. I mean, it’s really not hard to comprehend how even tech we already know about could utterly change our existence — for example, nanotechnology could eventually allow us to completely transform our bodies and our world — but how much science fiction really uses that? And, honestly, how could it? What are you going to do to write an engaging story, when the implications of modern technology are that, if we survive the damage we’re doing to the world right now, the very physical structure of our reality may become effectively fluid? And how do you make that story seem believable? I just recently finished another book that explores that theme a bit, Postsingular, that was largely a failure of absurdist sciency handwaving. It’s legitimately hard.
Light is not that. It goes far enough into superscience to be fascinating, but not so far as to be unbelievable or unrelatable. I wouldn’t want to say any more about the plot than the Amazon blurb will give you, but it reads like a stew of Niven, Zelazny, and Silverberg, with some Murakami seasoning. I really liked it, and I’m clearly going to have to read more Harrison, now that I know he exists.
Sunday, February 7th
This will be short, because in all honesty, there wasn’t much new here. It was my last full day in Rome, I’d seen the places that I mainly wanted to, and mostly I just wanted a sandwich. So I went back to the shop next to the Trevi Fountain, and had another one from the same place I’d eaten on my way to the Pantheon. It was still excellent.
“But surely you did more than that?”, I can hear you asking. Well, yeah. I walked around a lot. But, in truth, there wasn’t much that we haven’t seen similarly before now. A few parks, a couple of churches, no pictures that aren’t pretty much identical to all the earlier ones, so I’m having a hard time finding a reason to include them or comment on them. I did find a Chinese restaurant!
Max said that Italians rarely eat non-Italian food. Even as tourists in other countries, they tend to look for Italian restaurants there. (I shudder to imagine their disappointment, but maybe they get off on the feeling of superiority that must surely result.) But, clearly, this isn’t an absolute. I found this place by accident and saw an ad for a sushi place in Florence, later, though I didn’t eat at either. When in Rome, after all. (Or Florence.)
And I did run across the Largo di Torre Argentina, a ruin that includes the theater where Caesar was killed, so that’s something.
It’s kind of surreal to accidentally run across where Caesar was killed. It’s just the kind of thing that makes you glad you decided to leave the house.
The descriptive plaque for the site, which you should be able to read if you are interested.
The far left corner has some sort of cat hostel, with about 20 cats lounging around in a small garden below street level. I did take a picture of them but I’m not impressed with it, so just imagine a bunch of cats in a modest sunken garden and I’ll give you this instead.
They may be running a bit at cross purposes here.
I suppose that one would have to caption this, “Supperman”. Amazingly, I have read the comic that this picture was copied from. I vaguely remember that image, though it’s been at least 2 decades and maybe 3.
Tiramisu in a jar, with coffee, a little after lunchtime.
I should note that much of Rome is cobbled, particularly in these smaller streets. I remember rollerblading across this sort of thing in London many years ago. It requires considerable dexterity, but it’s doable. As long as it’s not raining.
And that was really about it. The next day, Monday, I left for Florence.
I have to say, I really liked Rome. Weird religious things aside, it was very cool to see all of this classic history in front of you. And the people were nice enough — they had a peculiar vibe that was a little hard to pin down. I’d say that they were used to seeing tourists as external visitors; most of the people I dealt with were friendly and businesslike, pleasant but in a constructed, neutral sort of way. As opposed to, say, Thailand, where you felt that they engaged with you as a person. Or Japan, where they did *not* engage, and you knew it. The Romans’ vibe wasn’t at all unpleasant, though it felt vaguely itchy. But the city as a whole had a good energy to it, and I’d have happily stayed another week and visited some museums and other landmarks. It was too expensive for that, really, and after last year where I spent really at my max budget, I was very self-conscious about what I was spending as I started this year. But I can totally see coming back some time.
I had planned to write up the rest of my Roman stay in this entry, wrap it up, and move on to Florence in my next entry. But, surprise, surprise, as I wrote up the day after my Vatican City trip, I ran longer than expected and decided to make the day after into its own entry, and put the rest in a follow-up. I think it will work out better that way. And certainly be a more bite-sized read.
[FYI, I’m currently in Zagreb, Croatia, as of last Tuesday, and I’ll be here until late May. But don’t worry, I won’t go anywhere or see anything until I catch my blog up. Promise!]
So, without any further delay, I give you:
Thursday, February 4th
Why is this day unlike all other days? Well, it is the next one, which none of the other days are. But, also, because I had reservations for the Borghese Gallery, that’s why. The Villa Borghese / Borghese Gallery had been recommended to me by a couple of different friends and, as it turned out, rightly so. But, as worth it as it was, it was hardly convenient.
First of all, the reservations were only available at 2 hour intervals: 9:00 and 11:00 were the first two, and considering how early I’d planned to be up for the Vatican Museums the previous day, and how far away the BG was, picking a later time and being a bit more relaxed about getting there seemed well advised. My host Max was a bit surprised when I said I’d be walking there, but Google Maps said it was about 55 minute walk, and that seemed eminently doable.
Unfortunately, as I later discovered, the “Villa Borghese” and the “Borghese Gallery” are not quite the same thing. The Villa Borghese is essentially a huge park, the estate of various Roman notables over time including the Borghese family, and the entrance to that estate was indeed 55 minutes away from where I was staying. The Borghese Gallery itself, a museum on the grounds of that estate, is about a 15 minute walk from that entrance. So, entering “Villa Borghese” into Google Maps and timing my arrival for just before 11:00, I found myself thoroughly confused at being nowhere near anything that looked like a Gallery, and having to follow signposts through the public park, getting more and more tense about my late arrival, until eventually I made it to the Gallery itself at about 11:10. Then I had to translate my eTicket to a physical ticket, and check my backpack, and I didn’t get into the museum proper until about 11:17.
“Oh noes!” you exclaim. “Poor widdle Cha-wes, not getting to start at the Official Time! How poor baby must have suffuhed!” Oh, sure, mock, you heathens. I’ll have you know — as I did not until later — that I only had a 2 hour window to enjoy that museum. The ticket was not just for an 11:00 entry. It was also for a 1:00 exit. And about 10 minutes before 1:00, they started shooing everyone out the door and locking off galleries. So I basically only got 3/4 of the time I should have had. Curse you, Google Maps!
BTW, on the off chance you’re curious, here’s the map of Rome that I’ve included before. You can see the Villa Borghese at the top, just east of the river:
Here’s a map of the relevant (to me) part of central Rome. I stayed at the place marked with the star at the lower left, just below the park.
The entrance that Google had directed me to was at the lower left of the park, at the Piazza del Popolo, and looked like this:
Not content with having the world’s biggest front lawn, the Borgheses needed the world’s biggest lawn jockey.
This is on the east side of the Piazza. Viewed from the south, the Piazza looks like this:
Remember my little rant about the Catholic Church coopting the symbols of the cultures they’d conquered? I saw a number of stolen Egyptian obelisks around the city, and every one of them had a crucifix bolted onto the top. At some point it stops being about coopting and starts looking like some serious insecurity. “I claim this giant phallic symbol in the name of our god, who is so much better than yours and we’re proving it by putting our own symbol on the tip!” You start seeing them as guys driving around with loud mufflers. “Dudes, theologically overcompensating much?”
For all of that, I have no complaints to make against the Villa Borghese itself. There’s some nice artwork in this park.
It occurs to me, looking at this, how far Donald Trump has to go to be, as he puts it, “classy”. These people knew classy, and it came as naturally to them as breathing. Ostentatious? Hoo-boy, yes. And yet still elegant, still beautiful. I’d call Donald a Jersey fishmonger by comparison, if it weren’t probably insulting to your average Jersey fishmonger, who probably deserves better.
Walking into the villa, gave me this vista:
A panorama shot of a tiny piece of the southwest corner of the Villa, near the entrance.
As I say, it took me a while to get to the Gallery. This was a bit somewhere around the middle of my walk, which passed other things like cafes, a merry go round, a small theater, and many other curiousities that I didn’t have time to examine.
There was a lot more than I never saw; I probably should have wandered around the park more after the museum, but I was getting hungry and left the Villa instead. Here’s Google Images, with some of what I missed, and YouTube with a bit more:
There was a plaque in the park describing how one of the early Villa owners (I forget which one, and can’t find it mentioned online) felt that the place was just too great to keep to himself, and opened it up for public use. (Eventually, the city of Rome obtained ownership and it became officially public.)
The notice that the generous owner put up, inviting one and all to enjoy the grounds.
What a guy.
At any rate, as I mentioned, lo these many paragraphs ago, I did make it into the Gallery Borghese itself, which, it must be said, was impressive.
The Gallery front door. (Reminder, this used to be someone’s house. Well, one of their houses.)
The Entry Hall. I don’t know where you put furniture in room like this, but I promise that nothing goes up against the walls.
The ceiling of the entry hall. Eat your heart out, Michelangelo. (Kidding. Love You. Mean It.)
I’m pretty sure the half-naked lady is just here to give the artist the excuse to sculpt fabric. I mean, really: she’s certainly pretty, but her skin is perfectly smooth and kind of minimalist. Meanwhile, the cushions are so wrinkled and embroidered that it’s pretty clear where his attention was focused. I’m just sayin’.
Some people make being green look easy. The Gallery had what amounts to an “Apollo and Daphne” room, with several pieces based upon this myth. This one really only cares about Apollo — you can see Daphne turning into a tree as an afterthought in the background. Because, really, isn’t Apollo the real victim, here?
BTW, the reason that the Gallery has an “Apollo and Daphne” room is that they have Bernini’s famous sculpture as the centerpiece:
Interestingly, as you walk around this piece, Daphne appears to change from woman to part tree, which is a cool effect. But Bernini apparently meant for the thing to be viewed from a single angle, according to the Wiki, to get the complete myth in a single view. So, the thing it’s most known for may not have even been part of the artist’s intention.
The reference card in the room, describing the artist’s intent in how the piece should be placed, seems to corroborate the Wiki information.
The ceiling of the Apollo and Daphne room, featuring the cheeriest version of the myth that I may have ever seen, with Daphne becoming a tree with blithe abandon. “Hey, ho, I think I’ll be sprouting now.”
It’s surprising how rarely I’ve seen Cupid featured in the art for this myth (as he is above), which is surprising, since he’s the real villain of the piece. The whole thing’s often portrayed as if Apollo is the asshole, chasing the reluctant nymph Daphne until she finds only only one way to escape: calling on her dad to turn her into something else. But Cupid is the instigator, shooting Apollo with a love arrow and Daphne with a hate arrow, causing them both to be the victims of the imposed passions. And my earlier joke about Apollo being the real victim here is partially true. Daphne, at least, gets a relief based on her own determinism: in choosing transformation and becoming a laurel tree, she both escapes her pursuer and escapes her own passions. Apollo, on the other hand, has only the pain of unrequited love; he makes her immortal, so that the laurel is an evergreen, and wears laurel leaves in his hair from then on. Poor schmo.
The moral of this story is: the Greek gods suck. Which is pretty much the moral of every Greek myth.
Anyway, it is unlikely to surprise you that there were other rooms in the Borghese Gallery after this one. Here are some of them:
A random room. Can you imagine what these places would look like if the ancient/semi-ancient Romans had had black lights? The mind boggles.
Same room, from the other side. You can’t find that kind of floor tile at Home Depot. (Though, now that I’ve seen it, I’m tempted to try one day.)
When classical painters get bored. “Yeah, ok, I need another image for the ceiling. Right, so I guess it will be another mostly naked guy but, um, this time with wings. And… damn, I don’t know. Fuck it, give him a dog’s head. And a riding crop. And chasing cupids. Yeah, sure, why not?”
“Don’t you dare judge our love!”
As un-overwhelmed as I was by the Sistine Chapel, I’m glad I saw it before I visited the Borghese Gallery. Vibrant colors, complex use of perspective… it’s amazing what a couple of hundred years of art advancement can do for the interior decorating of the super rich.
Oh, gods, someone left the screen door open again. Quick, grab a broom, we’ll shoo it out.
There was a bunch of other art in here, but they weren’t allowing pictures of my favorite pieces, the Caravaggios, and at some point you have to draw a line in including admittedly well-executed Christian religious art, so I’m doing that here. Particularly since searching Google Images for “Galleria Borghese art” yields plenty of them. (One caveat: when I did that search, the Girl With The Pearl Earring was included, and that piece definitely wasn’t there when I was. So you’ll actually get to see more in that Google search than I did by being there. You’re welcome.)
As I mentioned earlier, at around 12:40 they started announcing that they were closing soon, and at 12:50 they started closing galleries behind people. I’d seen everything at this point — I’d had to rush a bit through the upper floor, but that was no great sacrifice as it was mostly smaller pieces of undifferentiated Christian artwork. (I could have sworn I had some pictures of a few of those, but I’m not finding them. Maybe I deleted them as relatively uninspired? I don’t know.) Anyway, I tried to get back to the room with the Caravaggios, but found my way blocked by closing doors. So I quickly made my way around the building to come at the room from the other direction, and got into it just as they were closing the far door. The woman closing things said that they were closing, and I protested, “But not for 10 more minutes, right?” She reluctantly acknowledged that I was right, so I had a few more minutes to look at those paintings again. But now I’m staring at them while she’s staring at me, and it really put all of my awareness on her and not on the paintings, and my standing there became more of a “You can’t cheat me out of my due time” thing and not a “Hey, let’s look at the cool art.” So, after a couple of minutes of feigned careful inspection, I left. Sigh.
I collected my stuff from the coat check, and made my way through the Villa grounds; they were quite pretty, but I didn’t linger as long as I might have because it was after 1:00 and I was really interested in getting something to eat. Still, there were very pretty sights, like this one:
Another kidnapped Egyptian obelisk. I like the inscription on this one. They’ve gotten so tired of commemorating the pope that they’ve started abbreviating it: “Pius VII Pont Max”. “That’s all we need, right? They’ll know what we’re talking about, and we can knock off early.”
Back to where I came in, but this time looking out over the Piazza del Popolo and west towards St Peter’s Basilica. (Note: it’s 1:45, but still winter enough that the sun is low and the shadows are long.)
The south side of that square lacks a certain grandeur. I’m not sure that covering your church renovations with advertising for cable companies is really sending the right religious message. (Though it may be sending an accurate one.)
I started walking south looking for a good place to eat, and kept tripping across distracting landmarks.
The Spanish Steps. These are famous for, um, reasons, I guess. Granted, being under renovation detracts from whatever impressiveness they might lay claim to. The Wikipedia page has a picture without the renovation clutter, plus a whole story about them. Still not feeling it, though.
At the top is a pretty bit of church, the Trinita dei Monti; I took some pictures, but I like the ones on the Wiki page better.
“When the hand of God is not powerful enough. Huawei.”
The Trevi Fountain. (Recently remodeled, according to Max.) This is one of those fountains that people toss coins into for wishes, but apparently you have to do it a certain way, so I’m glad I didn’t try it. Might have ended up with a 12-inch pianist.
Right next to the fountain, I found a little grocery and deli that served one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had. Just a simple panini, ham and cheese on flat bread, for about $2.50, but wow was it good. Of course, it helped that I was hungry, but still. Really kind of amazing. Which made this even more mind-boggling:
Seriously, if you’re surrounded by amazing Italian food (and, trust me, I didn’t even scrape the surface of what was available and was still impressed), and you’re eating at McDonald’s, you’re bad and you should feel bad. I’m just praying that this is a trap by the authorities: you walk in through the front door and immigration officials immediately invalidate your visa and put you on the next plane home. Bloody hell.
At this point, I was right around the corner from the Pantheon, the famous Roman temple to all of the gods, and I was hugely looking forward to seeing it. I was still eating my sandwich when I got there, so I hung around outside and just admired it while I finished.
Hugely impressive on the outside.
Architecturally impressive on the inside. Built around the first century, and still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.
This panorama makes the place look larger than it is. But it’s not small.
This place is undeniably pretty. And architecturally impressive. And pissed me off no end — I was so disappointed. Because, while this place is in great condition, due to having been used continuously since it was built almost 2000 years ago, the Catholic Church long ago converted it from its original purpose of worshiping all the gods, to worshiping just one. Theirs. And while this can’t really be called surprising in any way, still, I had somehow imagined that this place would still be preserved in its original form. You do see statues to the ancient gods around Rome, and I just figured that this temple would be another holdover from that. It was not. It was another coopting by the Church, a theological bait-and-switch. I’m not going to rant about this again, my Vatican rant said everything that needs saying about that. I’m just going to say that I was kind of heartbroken here. I came looking for a pagan temple, and found a fancy church built into its hollowed out remains, with statues of saints where the gods used to be. Thank the original gods, I’d just eaten; dealing with this on with and empty stomach and low blood sugar would have suuuucked!
I spent a few minutes afterwards just standing in the portico, admiring the uncorrupted outer structures of the building. Felt a bit better, after that.
By now, it was fairly late in the day, and I walked home, through the usual charming Roman streets.
Everyone’s bundled up in winter clothing. Damned if I know why. It just wasn’t that cold. Being in Rome in early February was a continual reminder not to return in the summer months.
Dinner, YouTube, sleep, the usual. The rest of Rome to come.
“What‽”, you exclaim, looking at the date, “You’re over a month behind‽” Not to worry, gentle reader. This entry will go quickly — it’s mostly just me standing and looking at things and being snarky. Then, I’ll finish Rome, cover Florence in a day or two, Split will be a day, and by that time I’ll be in Zagreb. Trust me: after Rome, my days are much less packed.
So, Wednesday was my day to visit the Vatican. Or, more properly, Vatican City, which is actually a country, commonly billed as the smallest country in the world. (The whole question of what makes a country a country is fascinating; the short version is that there is no single, “official” list, only a bunch of lists kept by different groups for different purposes. You don’t have to go any further than Taiwan to expose the incongruities in these systems. Hell, you probably don’t have to go farther than the indigenous American tribal nations, but that’s another story.) Anyway, you can clearly see the boundaries of this country on my map of Rome, which I re-insert here:
Here’s a map of the relevant (to me) part of central Rome. I stayed at the place marked with the star at the lower left, just below the park.
Go straight north from where I stayed (the star towards the lower left), and you’ll see the walled outline of the country, surrounding a park, the Cappella Sistina (Sistine Chapel) and the Vatican Museums.
I had heard how crowded these places get, so I went online to see if I could buy advance tickets rather than showing up to wait in a long line to buy them (and then shuffle in, mooing and lowing with the rest of the tourist herd). I’d read something about getting in as early as 10:00, but it appeared that I could buy tickets to get into the Vatican Museums at 9:00, so I did (roughly $30). Not being sure what that really entailed (Was there a line to pick up those tickets, or a line after? Did I really enter at 9:00, or was that ticket pickup time and actual entry was still at 10?), I planned to arrive closer to 8:30; Google suggested that it was a 35 minute walk, so I set out at 7:45. (I’d been advised that, once I got in, I should run-not-walk straight to the Sistine Chapel, so as to be able to view the space and ceiling before the maddening crowd arrived, so trying to be at the front of the line seemed important.)
Walking to the Vatican
This walk very nearly resulted in my untimely demise. Not even joking, there. Google directed me around that big park north of where I was staying, and on the map you can see a sharp green corner of road cutting through the park at its eastern edge. This was a tiny Roman equivalent of Chiang Mai’s Loop of Death: a heavily trafficked corner that seemed to never stop moving, 1 narrow lane each direction, that I was expected to cross at the very tip, walk slightly westward along for a small block, and then continue straight north to the Vatican. I stood on that corner watching for an opening for a minute or two, when the traffic petered out in the west-to-east direction. So I looked east, and in maybe 10 seconds or so the east-to-west direction opened up and I started to step forwards to cross, glancing back west as I did so… and just caught myself in time to not step in front of an oncoming truck. It seems that, in those few seconds that I was watching east, traffic had picked up again from the other direction, moving hell bent for leather, and my momentary lapse in full-on traffic paranoia was nearly the death of me. The inarguable moral of this story? Never. Stop. Being. Afraid. (I should have NSBA tattooed on my right arm, to match the “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” on my left arm. But I suppose that the right arm would be a natural corollary of the left, so it’s kind of redundant. Just as well; leaves room on my right arm for the planned portrait of Rupert Grint, not the sort of image you want to crowd with silly aphorisms.)
After that, my certainty crystallized that Google was giving me Bad Advice here, and so I took a slightly more circuitous route, walked 2 blocks further east, and turned north where there were more crosswalks and sidewalks and less Mortal Peril. This led me past some Roman residences that were perhaps less picturesque than the normal tourist spots, but probably more representative of general Roman life:
Flood the space with smoke to pacify the inhabitants, and you can get the most amazing honey from these cells.
I walked past apartments and rain-soaked parks, through delightfully little traffic, and was soon rewarded with a view of my destination:
St Peter’s Basilica. Technically not my destination, which was the Vatican Museums, but part of Vatican City and destination-adjacent.
I avoided a busy road by passing under it, through a convenient metro station outlet (probably even more convenient if I’d been riding the metro), and started walking along the border of the City. You can see on the map, where a thin white road (that I would have been walking along the whole way, if I’d been more more of a thrill seeker) comes up from the south to intersect a larger white road (the Via Gregorio VII) and the southeast corner of Vatican City. That’s the intersection I crossed under, and the large semicircle bend that you’ll see in the east edge of Vatican City is the curve around St Peter’s Basilica, shown here:
From the front, it looks like just another large building, with a large, round plaza in front of it and a lot of people looking to get in. There seemed to be a nativity scene set up out front, on the right. I wonder if that’s there all year, or if it was just for the Christmas season? (It was February already, but some people take forever to get those decorations down.)
I continued walking around the curve, and stopped in for a Fortifying Pastry at a local shop. I should note that an English speaker has a real advantage in Europe. I’d taken a few Pimsleur audio book lessons in Italian before I left New York, to get a handful of basic words, and a lot of it was super easy to understand. It’s hard to grow up in America, raised on a diet of mob movies like the Godfather and New York crime dramas, without learning a lot of Italian words, capiche? So that gives you a surprisingly good base. And since English is based on both romance and teutonic languages, you can make educated guesses at most signs anywhere in Europe, and kind of feel your way around pretty well. For example:
I totally figured out that I could get pizza and coffee here. The translation was a breeze.
This was on the back of a car; “anni” is probably related to “annual”; and “garanzia” to “guaranty”. So this quite certainly refers to a warranty for 3 years or 100,000 kilometers!
They sell panini and wine (“vino”) and centrifuges, so this is probably a cafe/supply store serving scientists who work in local laboratories.
They sell art made by groups, nothing by solo artists.
We’re getting a little tougher here, but still straightforward. “Mass Intentions” probably shows group tours where to go.
The mother of perpetual soccer, a sports club. (They’re crazy about soccer in Europe.)
A school to teach you how to have great sex.
A warning from the Health Department that you could get salmonella eating here.
I’m a bit hazy on this one, but I saw a lot of them, and that sounds like an opera term, so you can probably buy opera tickets here or something.
If you want to be embiggened, go here for tickets.
Sometimes you can only guess from the symbols. Like this one of Santa Claus spraying graffiti is probably a leftover sign warning people to lay off the graffiti during Christmas.
Warning: British people ahead. (I saw a lot of these, too.)
This stairwell is a lot of fun, and you should probably dance. (Totally my favorite sign.)
Honestly, I don’t even know why I bothered with Google Translate:
Probably because it’s still amazing (even if, as you’ve seen, I can do better myself). You just hold your phone up to the sign, and Google translates it in place on the sign itself. It’s wicked cool.
Anyway, so I got my breakfast pastry and ate it while I continued on around the outside of Vatican City, until I got to the entrance to the Vatican Museums on the north side. There were a few tour groups lining up there, and various guards and people standing about, but I saw a sign that (with my advanced language skills) seemed to suggested that people who’d already purchased their tickets could go in, even though it was only about 8:35 am, so I did. Which was excellent timing, because I got to see the Pope:
That’s him on the right. It was super cool.
Walking Through The Vatican
I went up some stairs, showed my ticket e-mail to an attendant, they gave me an actual printed ticket, and I had the run of the place. The signs directed me either up an escalator, or up a long, circling ramp filled with displays of sailing ships from different cultures. I took the road less traveled by, and looked at the sailing ships, which was a long series of displays like this:
I’m not sure why Thailand was in this collection, but more on that below….
What I was expecting based on the introductory signage: Phoenician traders, Viking longboats, Chinese dhows, etc. What I got: a set of ships from southeast Asian and Pacific Island countries, in little dioramas of their tribal cultures. It was, well, a bit odd; like there was a message here that I wasn’t quite getting. The vibe I kept getting was something like “Here are the tribal sea cultures of places that we ‘civilized’.” It was a little off putting.
Anyway, I got to the top of the ramp, where there were maps available and audio guides to rent, and I rented one, and then started to wander. As you can see by reading the Wikipedia entry, the Vatican Museums hold several areas considered to be different museums, with 54 galleries between them all. In practice, what this mean is you’re wandering about a really giant place, sectioned off into a handful of areas that have been given different names but otherwise have little to distinguish one from the other. It’s like talking about New York boroughs. Ok, I’m sure that they matter to people who have lived there for generations — and there are certainly differences that you could point to between the areas — but to the casual visitor it’s just one big thing with lots of little areas within it. So I’m just going to call the whole thing the Vatican (which seems nicer than referring to it as the VM). Maybe if they had provided a coherent map that made the different museums clear, I’d feel differently. But I found not one but two different foldout maps, and they were both nigh-incomprehensible. They were both like the London Underground map, which shows you how all of the railway lines connect, but gives you no idea where the stations are in relationship to the city above.
I found a copy of the clearer map online. You can see entrance at the bottom center, and the little curly ramp I climbed next to the escalator. The Sistine Chapel is towards the top center. While this is the clearer map of the two, I promise you that it looks more helpful than it is.
I think these maps were supposed to show me the flow through the galleries, but what they actually did was cause me to wander around the vaguely-central area for about 1/2 an hour, looking for signs directing me to the Sistine Chapel and trying to map galleries to their positions on the maps, until I eventually fell into the track that led me there. For a guy like me who has loved maps his entire life, It. Was. Maddening.
Thankfully, the combination of the early hour and it being out-of-season for tourists meant that the place really wasn’t very crowded, and my wander down the main hallway leading to the Chapel was an unobstructed one, filled with scenes like this:
The Gallery of Decorative Statues
The Gallery of Artisinal Rugs.
The Gallery of Inaccurate Maps of the World.
No Ceiling Left Unadorned.
Later, around mid-afternoon, I went back to some of these rooms, and they were packed with people making their slow, shuffling way to the Sistine Chapel. Boy, am I glad I got there early. It’s like riding the Alice In Wonderland ride at Disneyland: if there’s no line, it’s a delightful, cute little ride and a fun time. If you had to stand for an hour to get in, you’ll want to take you own life afterwards. (Damn it, that’s foreshadowing. Sorry, I’d better get right to it….)
The Sistine Chapel
When I finally got to the Sistine Chapel, I was one of maybe a dozen people in it, wandering about and staring at the walls and the ceiling.
Oh, right, they don’t let you take pictures here. Sorry about that.
How best to describe the Sistine Chapel? Well, the ceiling was painted by Michelangelo, and the walls by other artists. But in structure, think of a smallish church made up of one room, with a really high ceiling, a simple podium at one end and an open partition about 3/4 of the way back, with some smallish windows at the top that don’t let in a huge amount of light, and a bunch of paintings on the walls and ceiling. For festive events, like electing a new pope, they bring in chairs and tables, but generally it’s just an open space. Not sounding super impressive? Well, here’s the thing.
(A) Google Images, once again, wins hands down on actually seeing these pictures. You get them fully lit instead of dimly viewed, and detailed as if you were standing inches away from them instead of 20 feet below craning to look upwards. Like, here’s the Wikipedia entry on the ceiling, with explanation. Super detailed and helpful. But, actually being there looking at them? Ok, cool to be there. Definitely. Glad I went. Blown away by the artistic experience? Not so much.
(B) Look, on a good day I can pencil sketch a very modest landscape that wouldn’t offend anyone’s sensibilities. Don’t ask me to draw people or animals; once a year I used to sketch the Chinese New Year’s animal on the white board of my office, and I was modestly pleased with some of them, but they were hardly serious efforts. What I’m saying is, I am hardly qualified to criticize anyone’s art. And I hate to say, “Well drawn!” because that’s super tepid. They’re really well drawn. But, when all’s said and done, it’s a bunch of paintings about a bunch of people pretty much just standing around, sometimes floating, and sometimes pointing at each other. Is there a bunch of myth and metaphor behind them? Yep, you betcha. Would it be more moving if you felt spiritually moved by those particular myths? Almost certainly. Would those pictures be instructive in a pre-literate society? Sure. Does not in any way change the standing around/floating/pointing part of it. They’re impressive as examples of representational art from the 1400s-1500s, and considered influential to Western Art as a whole, so, that’s cool and all. But 500 years later, they’re not super riveting. I’d much rather look at a Rembrandt: the emotional depth and character that he captures from people may well be unequaled, even 350 years later. He’s riveting. Or, looking at a great Japanese landscape painting gives you a sense of mood and beauty and peacefulness that you rarely find elsewhere. Or, modern images of space, or of fantasy landscapes, can convey a sense of wonder and delight. The Sistine Chapel is a bunch of well-rendered people in quasi-historical dioramas, and there’s no getting around it. There we are.
But, as I say, I’m glad I went. The audio guide saved it, IMO, explaining much of the imagery and how it was designed to interrelate Old and New Testament imagery, adding some level of interest to the dioramas. But still, it’s like the Mona Lisa. You look at it and say, “Yep, that’s a smallish picture of a lady sitting. Now I’ve done it. And, oh, look at all this other cool stuff that the museum has, let’s spend a few hours looking at that.” The Sistine Chapel pulls the marks in, and then they stay to see the rest of the art, and buy scaled down reproductions of The Lord’s Suffering for their mantlepieces at home.
Choose the magnitude of the Suffering that you wish to purchase.
Places In The Vatican Other Than the Sistine Chapel
I entered the Vatican at around 8:35, and I didn’t leave until around 4:15. So, nearly 8 hours in the Museums, which is a bloody long time even for me. There’s admittedly rather a lot of it, but if I put it up against, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I don’t know that New York would suffer from the comparison, so I’m not sure why I stayed quite so long. Unlike with the Met, I knew I’d probably never see the Vatican again, so anything I wanted to see I needed to see in this trip. And a lot of the religious art is pretty detailed (as with the Sistine Chapel), so you can spend a while staring at those details. (On the other hand, after your 7th or 8th Annunciation, you do start to walk past them a bit faster, so maybe that’s a push.) Also unlike New York, I had no one to see once I left, so nothing encouraging my departure other than weariness.
That weariness did start to kick in around lunch time, and I spent what seemed to be an interminable time walking around the Vatican Museums lunch room, looking at food that seemed vaguely unappealing and overpriced — not terribly uncommon in museums, but you’d think the Vatican would do better. By this time the crowds were getting a bit larger, the lunch room was fairly busy, and the only place that had anything I wanted turned me down. Well, not exactly, but I went up to the food display to do my usual point-at-what-I-wanted, and the counter person directed me to the cashier first: apparently, I was supposed to tell the cashier what I wanted, pay for it, and then go pick it out. But I didn’t know what the name was for the thing I wanted, and there was a line that I didn’t want to hold up with my fumblings, and after wandering about a bit more I just gave up, headed out to a courtyard, had an Epic pork bar from my emergency stash, and felt better afterwards. In truth, this is one of my biggest problems when eating while touring; by the time I break for food, I’m too hungry to feel like overcoming the language barriers and end up taking minimal, easy solutions and revisiting familiar places instead of trying something new. It’s a lot easier for me to eat out when I’m not already hungry, but that’s a great way to end up eating 5 meals a day and blowing up like the blueberry girl in Willy Wonka. But, admitting to my own failing here, their whole system down there still seemed weirdly awkward. How do they expect foreign tourists to order things from the cashier that they cannot name or discuss? I don’t have a clue. Oh well, saved myself some Euros.
As I mentioned (and showed some of, above), there are many other galleries in the museum, and there were several museum stores, chock full of art reproductions in various sizes; jewelry of various degrees of religiosity (from 0-∞); scarves; papal calendars, post cards, and refrigerator magnets; umbrellas; etc, etc. Interestingly, while I saw many, many souvenirs featuring popes, they were 70% featuring the current Pope Francis, 29% featuring John Paul II, and about 1% featuring the last Pope, Ratzenberger — no, wait… Benedict née Ratzinger. And by 1% I mean that I saw exactly 1 item with his picture, I think it was a postcard, and I’m guessing it was leftover overstock from before he abdicated. This is a Pope, mind you, who is actually still alive, but you wouldn’t know it by browsing the Vatican’s own stores. I’m sure they’re just stocking what sells, but what a condemnation! That your own stores stock your predecessor’s tchotchkes, and your successor’s, in bulk, but can’t and don’t attempt to sell any of yours except a leftover postcard. I don’t think they’ve had a Pope that unpopular since Clement XIII, and that’s saying something! (FYI, most of the Clements sucked. Picking Clement as your papal name seems to be a subtle way of declaring that you’re about to be a huge dick, and everyone better just get used to the idea right from the start. Pretty sure the Vatican stores have historically burned all their Clements stock the very hour each successor was elected, and sprinkled holy water on the ashes.)
Anyway, I did take pictures of those other galleries. Here are some of my favorites, with notes.
A remarkably realistic and honest-looking bust of Pope Pius XI, who established Vatican City as its own state in 1929 and seems to have been a decent enough chap.
The Vatican is the first museum I’ve ever been in that had open windows. I guess when you’ve been displaying pieces for over 1000 years and long before climate control was a possibility, you get kind of nonchalant about environmental exposure.
Nothing special, just a random Vatican hallway. Not to keep banging this drum, but this rather supports my contention that the Sistine Chapel is not 100% all-that-and-a-bag-of-chips. (Though not as much as the Borghese Gallery supports it. But I’ll cover the BG in the next blog entry.)
BTW, I now totally want the walls and ceilings of my next place painted like this. Maybe I can hire art students to do it. Except I am totally have them do it using Dogs Playing Poker. Watch. Me.
Hey. Yeah, I’m God. This is my Mom. Be a pal, and get us a couple of drinks from the bar over there would you? We’ll be hanging out here.
The Hall of Stuff We Looted From the Places We Conquered. (Kept under glass, lest the ideas escape.)
Ancient Roman toe shoes, even more form-fitting than the ones we use today. Those Romans marched across an Empire, they knew their orthotics.
The Temple of the Sacred Pinecone. (Or something; I didn’t look too closely at this one.)
I don’t know what the Vatican is doing with the fossilized remains of the Eye of Sauron, but it can’t be good. Or safe to leave it out here in public. Best not to linger here.
The friendliest, most agreeable pharaoh that it has been my pleasure to meet.
Who’s a good god? You are! Yes, you are. You’re a good god. Yes, you are!
Boy, they don’t make Sumerian gods like they used to. How cool would it have been to see these in your local temple when you were growing up? Every kid would have had their action figures.
Pontius The Bland, inventor of double entry bookkeeping.
The ceiling of one of the rooms in Lucretia Borgia’s apartments. (Gods, what must the rent be like, to have a place in the Vatican. One shudders to think.)
Damn, those Etruscan’s knew how to party. Can’t stagger to the restroom? Use this convenient vase! Wait, which one was the wine vase, and which was the pee vase? Gods, the room is spinning….
The Hall of Greco-Roman Statues. I… let me take this one out of frame… see below.
Ok, this hall got under my skin, and I’m about to get a little rant-y here, so feel free to skip down a bit until you see more pictures. It won’t take long. But obviously this little blog isn’t as much about the places I’ve been as my experiences in being there, and this was my reaction.
Here’s the thing. I’ve talked to several folks who have been to the Vatican, and reactions vary. Some people think it’s just super impressive. Some people see it as a plundered treasure trove of corruption and greed. Some people keyed in on the supremely ostentatious display of wealth and power designed to impress upon the viewer that they should feel humbled before the Church, God’s appointed leader of the world. I’ve never spoken to a devout Catholic who has been here, but I’m prepared to assume that it could be a very moving experience for them.
For the most part, I wandered these halls and just appreciated them for what they were. Often impressive, often beautiful, sometimes a bit overwrought, sometimes a preservation of artifacts from Catholic and non-Catholic cultures that I was glad to have preserved, sometimes a seemingly never-ending repetition of imagery from a religion that I am not a participant in and had little resonance for me. For the most part, it was cool to be there and see the stuff, and I left the questions of the place of the Catholic Church in the world and in the world’s history on the side, and just looked at what was.
But every once in a while, as in the hallway above, I would get annoyed — and here, I got annoyed to the point of anger. The Church has quite a few galleries of pagan art and artifacts — art and artifacts from cultures that they worked hard to infiltrate, to co-opt, to stamp out, to persecute, and to destroy. They literally burned and tortured people who believed in the things that these statues represent. Hell, they burned and tortured people who believed the same things that they did but not quite the same way that they officially declared those things should be believed. And now they have the unmitigated gall to put these artifacts on display, with bland commentary about their historical origins, completely divorced from how those cultures became “historical” in the first place instead of alive and independent and vibrant contributors to the diverse fabric of humanity, and they have presented them as a part of the Church’s demonstration of wealth and power. And, once or twice, they had little plaques describing how they nobly believe in the preservation of all of humanity’s art, and how the “myths” of these cultures “foreshadowed” the “true” story of Christ the Redeemer, and how they somehow represented prophetic visions of the far better truth that was fulfilled in the Catholic Church.
I’m sorry, but Fuck. You. I have zero objection to Christ’s teachings. They’re awesome. I have zero objection to the belief that he’s the Unique Son of God and the Only Redeemer for Mankind’s Sinful Nature; it’s not my personal belief, but who cares about that? It could be right, how would I know? But to have an institution that has actively fucked over, in sometimes hideous ways, a hundred independent cultures and how many countless hundreds of thousands of individuals, destroying their original ideals and doing their damnedest to replace them with the Catholic monoculture under pain of imprisonment, torture, and death, then to hoard the ruined remnants of those cultures and prop them up in little cases and declare how awesome it itself is for being generous enough to display what it has destroyed? O. M. G. Fuck. You. So. Hard.
For the most part, I ignored all of that and just looked at interesting things. But sometimes it bugged me. Sometimes a lot. In direct proportion to the degree to which it seemed like the Church was dancing on the graves of its defeated rivals. When it was just doing its own thing, displaying its own faith, I was fine. When it was putting up little plaques abstractly discussing its victims and inviting you to appreciate the elegant artwork it had confiscated from the cultures it had destroyed, or to admire the techniques used to represent false gods and, wow, how great is it that we’re past all of that nonsense and heretical idolatry… if you have any sympathies with those older cultures, or empathy for their peoples, it was bloody rage-inducing. And took considerable letting-go-of to move on.
Anyway, that’s all I’m going to say about that. Shortly after that hallway, I found an out of the way cafe, and had a bit of pizza-sandwichy thingy and some hot chocolate, and felt a bit better. So I’m going to walk away now, and have a little chocolate in present time, and some tea, maybe read a bit of webcomic, and go on with the blog later. In the mean time, have some cute animal friends!
Getting On With It
I’ve mentioned that a lot of the Vatican art was referencing a mythology that doesn’t really resonate with me. Hardly surprising, really. What is surprising is how little it seems like the art celebrates its own myths. For example, the Madonna and Child occurs in a huge percentage of the paintings that I saw, and I almost never saw one where they seemed happy to be there.
Painter: “I’m titling this one, ‘Misery Loves Company’.” || Cardinal: “The Pope’s not going to like that.” || Painter: “Screw Clement, I’m leaving for the New World tomorrow morning, before he ever sees it.”
This was remarkably typical, and you should bear this in mind for my future posts, because I saw a lot of this sort of thing in the Italian museums. I’ll reference back to it later, when I run into them.
The other thing I ran into was a lot of disembodied baby heads. Don’t worry, it’s not as creepy as it sounds… no, wait, it’s exactly as creepy as it sounds:
“Be careful with that crown, cherubs, lest your heads join those who failed before you.” Ew.
I’m pretty sure that having to hang out with this sort of thing is why so many saints and prophets are expert eye rollers. Would be hard not to be.
They had an abstract art section; I took a few pictures there, and this one’s a keeper:
A Madonna that I really liked, doubtless because of its resonance with Earth Mother imagery as opposed to overwrought piety.
Obviously, there was a lot more art in the galleries than I took pictures of or included here. But you can only include so much, and this is quite enough. By this time, it was 4:15 pm and I’d been walking and standing, largely without interruption, for about 8-1/2 hours, and I was done. I still hadn’t seen St. Peter’s Basilica, or walked around the streets inside Vatican City, but I figured I would have to come back another day to do that. So I left.
But, the exit was next to the entrance, on the north side of the city, and I had to head south. Rather than take the same route back that I had come, I decided to continue west around the outside of the city and curve back from the other direction — a longer route, but one that would allow me to have walked entirely around a country. You don’t get many chances to do that, and I was not passing this one up! So I walked, all the way round to my original starting point on the southeast corner, completing the circle. For the record, most of it looked like this:
Most of the city is impenetrable wall, because there is only one path to God, and the Vatican controls the entrance. (Why bother with metaphor, when you have the power to physically create your truths?)
Once I got back to the southeast corner, I followed the original route that Google had recommended to go home, determined to conquer the Intersection of Near-Immanent-Demise. It turned out to still be more absurdly hazardous than it ought to be, but it was less rush-hour-y and I made it across without dying (as you may have already deduced). And the route was a good choice, because I passed some cute shopping/dining neighborhoods, a convenience store where I picked up some fruit and an Italian beer, and a supermarket where I picked up some great veggies for salads, and fruit and crackers, and a different beer, and cheese. I also passed this:
I hear they have a great flagellation class, really strips away the weight. But I wasn’t in the city long enough to check it out.
The grocery store did give me a chance to try out the convenience store Italian beer, Peroni. When my host, Max, saw it, he was rather guarded in his comments, and said it was kind of like American Miller beer. That was sufficient warning all by itself, but, in fact, he was being generous (which he later admitted). I got a few sips into it and had to pour the rest out; it was vile. Miller-lite vile. Coors-vile. I still shudder, remembering it. Thankfully, the supermarket beer, Mastri Birrai Umbri Cotta 37, was an excellent replacement: sweet but not too sweet, fruity and tasting of apples and grain. Much better. And Max told me about a couple of great places for beer, that I visited later in the week.
So, I ended off with a nice salad for dinner, and a great beer, and some Youtube, and a sense of accomplishment at having checked the Vatican off of my list and circumnavigated an entire country on foot. So, overall, an excellent day.
So, Monday, February 1st. Ah, it seems like a lifetime ago. Which, if you’re a drone ant, it would be. Really, I guess it’s been about 3-1/2 weeks. Yeah, that seems about right; I guess that Ant-Man movie I watched on the way back from Hong Kong stuck with me more than I thought.
The advantage of writing these things up a couple of weeks later is that the events run together a bit, it becomes harder to separate out individual days in my memory (unless I’m keeping notes, which I forgot to do while in Rome), and so this probably becomes a blog entry of more manageable length. In theory. No promises, we’ll see. [Update: Nope. My memory’s great, it turns out. Enjoy.]
So I woke up, the day after my arrival, at around 9:00, after 11 hours sleep! To this day, I’m very happy about that; when you commonly get 1/2 that amount of sleep, 11 hours is a serious cause for rejoicing. I think I puttered about for a bit, shower, e-mail, nibbled on the fruit Max had kindly provided and drank his tea (a really good breakfast tea from “Royal Tea”, taken with honey), and then I think I headed out around 11:15 (according to my photo timestamps) to walk to the Colosseum. Max had suggested a route into the city that I only vaguely remembered, but what I remembered happened to match what Google was suggesting and I loosely followed the two of them. As a quick reminder, here’s the map of Rome again, from last time:
Here’s a map of the relevant (to me) part of central Rome. I stayed at the place marked with the star at the lower left, just below the park.
Basically, I walked north towards the park, followed it mostly eastward and down the hill towards the set of stars you’ll see next to the river, which mark restaurants that I ate at. The weather was overcast initially, but started clearing during my walk; somewhere between the high-40s and mid-50s, it was cool enough for a jacket in the shade but for me, wearing a jacket and a backpack and setting a frequently brisk walking pace, I was comfortable starting out and overheated soon enough. After that first day walking, I don’t think I ever wore my jacket outside — which made me feel quite rugged walking around in unbuttoned shirtsleeves around all of the bundled up Italians I passed. It did get briefly up into the high 60s during the week I was there, and any day that was sunny you could overheat immediately in the sun. I asked Max how hot it was in the summer there, and he admitted that it was terrible, so between the moderate temperature and the reduced crowds, clearly the off season is the right time to go.
As I passed the park and headed downhill, I got to an impressive view of the city that is so popular that Max had recommended it and tour buses stopped there particularly to let people get off and take pictures, like this one
I say “like this one”, because this wasn’t the picture I took that day. This is from 2 days later, when the weather was freaking amazing. That first day, the view was excellent, but this is better, so why bother you with the first one? Quality control, people. That’s what the tourist experience is all about.
This bit of view, at a bend in the road near a Spanish Academy and Museum, has a monument on the inside curve of the road:
My Latin is a little rusty, but this seems to clearly translate as “Paul the Fifth, Best Pope Ever“. Paul V has a bunch of monuments around town; he seems to have been the Donald Trump of Medieval Catholicism.
Just around the corner was another monument — which was a recurring theme in Rome and the main reason why it took me so long to get anywhere:
The Latin seems to translate as “Roman Death”, which I noticed was rather a recurring theme. Reading a plaque outside the locked gate suggested this was mostly about a guy named Garibaldi, of whom you can read more here. He’s a pretty big deal in Rome.
Continuing my walk down a steep hill, and some more steep stairs, I ended up in windy Italian streets where, even if I was lost, I’d be enjoyably so.
I mean, my gods, how fricken picturesque do you have to be? Warmly coloured pastel buildings and cobblestones. You know what back streets look like in L.A.? Garbage bins and crack deals gone bad. Those “Taste of Encino” festivals I always saw signs for invariably gave me the shudders. Whereas “Taste of Rome” sounds delightful, who wouldn’t want to go to that? I’m just sayin’.
After walking these back streets for a few blocks, I came out next to a little intersection of cafe-lined roads, where those riverside stars are on my map, and placed my first star at a promising lunch spot called Marguerite, where I had a super yummy broccoli and anchovy pizza with some coffee.
You may see this shot again, in a Nice Place To Sit And Read. But I was only just starting the book above, and I’ve interrupted it since with no less than 3 others, so it may be a while. The writing is almost recursively digressive and I’m having a hard to seeing the point. (You know how I loathe digression above all things.)
By the way, that pizza was excellent, as was all the food I had here. The crust was thin and light, and the whole pizza was filling but not excessively so. (The little place Max recommended around the corner advertised that they let their dough rise for 4 days! This place might not have gone so far, but it was still a very light crust.)
It was about noon at this point, and the place was almost empty. This did not stop the waitress from seating the next two women, both American tourists, right next to me, at a table just inches away from mine. I’m not talking “Oooo, Charles doesn’t like people, how funny” next to me (not that it wasn’t funny, ’cause, duh)…. I mean “Weirdly, unnaturally close in a nearly empty restaurant by any objective standard” next to me. I think that she, in her Italian way, assumed that we would then start talking to each other, but she only proved her complete ignorance of Americans. The only thing we shared was our subliminal discomfort at the mutual intrusion. I was distantly tempted to say something to the waitress, but it would have broken the atmosphere of stoic annoyance that we were all basking in. Better to all have an amusing anecdote to tell later, us about her and each other, and her about us. “So I put the Americans right next to each other so they could all talk and have a great lunch together, and do you know they ignored each other the whole time! Didn’t even exchange glances! What’s up with that, right? Idioti!”
When I was done, I headed out again, crossed the bridge over the River Tiber,
The Tiber. Not much else to say, really.
and walked through windy streets with denser, taller, older buildings and little spaces with parking or cafe patios or newstands,
until I arrived at what is considered the heart of Rome, the Piazza Venezia.
All roads lead to Rome, and all Roman roads lead here. Or so I’m given to understand.
(On the map, you’ll see a little star to the east across the river from where I ate, right next to a little traffic oval and above the name of a bank, which for some reason is more important to Google than this landmark.) There are a couple of guards at the central monument at the front of this building, and I was fortunate enough to arrive at the changing of those guards:
Must be good work, if you can get it.
The building, and one connected to it, house a pair of museums that I would have liked to have gotten to, but never quite made it, as well as a tower with a restaurant on top that is supposed to yield an impressive view of the city. I was on my way to the Colosseum, and disinclined to spend my day in museums that day, but I did discover a public restroom that I ended up using several times during my trips about the city. So, it was quite the cultural highlight. And I did get my first view of the Colosseum from the building’s ramparts.
Looking east from the Piazza Venezia. The Colosseum is towards the right, with some scaffolding on it.
The walk there took me past some ruin or another — most walks in Rome do.
The ancient Romans were so orderly, even their ruins fall apart into neat lines.
And at the end of this street, there it was:
The Colosseum. Ancient monuments are often like ancient comedians. You think, “Well, they were impressive in their time….” Today, you’d have a hard time finding a sports stadium this small. Still, cool to be at the actual place.
For the life of me, I have no idea where all of my pictures of the interior are. I took them. I clearly remember taking them. And yet they do not exist on my phone. Did I do something weird where I was holding my phone strangely in a way that managed to activate the delete function a bunch of photos? I have no idea. But the next picture on my phone is over 2 hours later. Very X-Files; at least the aliens appear to have been gentle with me. Well, if you want pictures of the Colosseum, the internet can hardly fail to oblige.
Somebody outside tried to rope me into a tour group he was forming, that he said would get me in without the admission line, and I thanked him for the information and went on my way. (A) I didn’t want to do it. (B) It would have added about €20 to the modest €12 admission price. There were a bunch of horse-drawn carriages outside, either awaiting a Jane Austen Appreciation Society tour group to finish their Colosseum visit or (and this is a long shot) hoping for couples drawn to the romance of a ride. The line to get in wasn’t terrible, but it was like airport security and your stuff went through an x-ray machine while you walked through a metal detector. I sprung for an audio guide, for another €6; there wasn’t much to it, just 6 stops around the Colosseum with little numbers for you to key in. But the guide’s lectures were rather long at those stops, and there were some supporting pieces, “for more details on X, enter this number”. And the British voices they used were wonderfully snooty, especially when talking about “the common people” having to sit in the upper tiers. Clearly, the British narrators were no fonder of the lower classes than the Romans themselves were.
BTW, I’ve mentioned a couple of Euro prices so far, and I should point out that the current exchange rate is about €1 = $1.09. This is quite good; just 7 years ago, the rate was €1 = $1.6. (It’s been as low as €1 = $0.83, but the current rate is still better than average.) Of course, with different countries (and cities) in the EU have different economic strengths, the prime consideration isn’t so much the exchange rate as the actual cost of goods in the local economy. The countries of southern Europe are economically weaker right now, and so it’s fairly cheap to live in Italy, Spain, Croatia, etc., and all of my meals in Rome were had for under $12 except one, where I had a couple of excellent craft beers with my meal, and cheesecake after, and paid about $28. But the average light meal, including one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had, was between $3 and $5. So, very easy to tour here cheaply.
The Colosseum ticket also bought me admission into the Forum and the Palatine Hill, and was good for 2 days, and since it was now about 4:30, I put off the latter two places until tomorrow and simply walked home, crossing the Circus Maximus — the old racing track — along the way.
It’s just an empty field now; with a bit of old building at one end. Considering the number of things that did get buried in Rome, I’m amazed no one built over this.
I did pass this:
Sebastian, Patron Saint of Runway Models
I crossed the river back the way I had come, back to the hill I’d come down, and climbed the long route upwards, rejoicing in the exercise and pondering the need for heart medication. I picked up some groceries on the way, and had a salad for dinner, watched something or other, and went to bed.
Tuesday, February 2nd
Of course, I had to go back the next day, because my Colosseum ticket had included the Forum and the Palatine Hill, but was only good until the next day. So, after a decent night’s sleep, I puttered a bit and then left at around 10:15, this time taking a slightly wrong turn on my way down and finding myself a bit further down the Tiber than I’d intended. This was not a problem, as the river has a walking/cycling path along both sides, and I had a nice time just sitting along the bank in the morning air and listening to the water.
Weirdly stellar weather this day, warm and sunny. Bonus points for spotting the lost ball.
Walking a slightly different route into the city, I started keeping an eye out for a late breakfast / lunch place, and a little before noon ended up the only person in this little restaurant, having what was billed as a “Mediterranean Breakfast”.
Cheese and meat and bread and field greens and OJ and coffee. Odd, but good.
I continued on towards the Forum, which was next to the Colosseum, and ended up at the Piazza Venezia again, where I took advantage of my extensive knowledge of the local area to use the restroom. I then continued over around the building, down some stairs, up some other ones, and ended up here:
Had no idea what this building was, but I felt strangely at home here. Couldn’t say why. Later, I discovered that this is the Campidoglio, designed by Michelangelo, which houses a couple of reputedly impressive museums. Perhaps I’ll see them too, one day.
Suggestive? Whatever do you mean by that? Good gods, this is classical art, you philistine!
The Forum itself, once the central square of Rome where the original villages met to trade, hold religious rites, etc, has relatively little left of the original structures, and much of it looks like this,
♫ Simply Ozymandius. (Debris so fine, there’s no telling where the carvings went.) ♫
though other centuries added their own embellishments:
An arch celebrating some triumphal ruling general or other. Yes, yes, we get it, you were really important. Geez, what a show off. (I hate braggarts like that; he’s my arch nemesis.)
I did find a very good map of the area:
You can see the Piazza Venezia at the upper left, Michelangelo’s Campidoglio is the brown set of buildings around the square right below it, my arch nemesis is near it down the hill at #3, the Colosseum is on the right, the Forum is in the middle, the Palatine hill is below that, and the Circus Maximus is the field across the road below that. The whole shebang.
That map reminds me that the arch was celebrating a guy named Septimus Severus; all I could remember was that it was something to do with Harry Potter. (It makes sense. We do know that the wizarding world goes back a very long way.)
A pano of much of the forum, taken from the Palatine Hill above it, and you can see how it matches the map. The Piazza Venezia and the Campidoglio are on the far left, and my arch nemesis is next to them, and the Colosseum is on the far right.
Most of the ruins are just bits of stone: kind of cool to be around, but not much to look at really. Much of it was buried long ago and is slowly being dug up, and is much the worse for the experience. There were a few bits that I rather liked, though.
The Temple of Antonius and Faustina
The Temple of Antonius and Faustina is cool mostly for the backstory. It was built by the Emperor Antonius in honor of his deceased wife Faustina, the niece of Hadrian. They were very much in love, and by the accounts I read she was a pretty amazing person (her wiki entry summarizes it, and is worth the read), but what won me over was this:
My kind of Empress.
The central field here, and the small spaces around it at ground level, was once the Temple of the Vestal Virgins. You can’t not like Vestal Virgins. Above it is the Palatine Hill, that the pano earlier was taken from.
In the small museum at the top of the Palatine Hill (seen above the Temple otVV in that last photo), wings from an ancient Roman statue. These were freakin amazing, luminous in the light and so finely detailed they looked like actual feathers. Really stunning.
These pictures aren’t really doing them justice. Oh well.
Did I mention that there are fountains all over Rome that you can drink from, many of them served by aqueducts and water lines that are a couple of thousand years old? Well, now I have.
The Temple of Castor and Pollux, or all that’s left of it. This was surprisingly hard for me to actually locate in the forum; it’s big, but not at all clearly labeled. I should have looked it up on Wikipedia, which has pictures. And the whole story. Honestly, why do I keep going to places physically? It’s very inefficient.
The Temple of Castor and Pollux has this spring next to it that features them on the carving. I don’t know if it was part of the official temple or not.
A rare selfie. This started out as an accident: I was trying to take a picture of the thing I was facing, had brushed the “flip camera” button, and found I was taking a selfie. So I thought, what the hell, one can’t hurt. So, it’s now “me and the Temple of Saturn”.
Of course, I say one selfie can’t hurt, but we all know that’s a damned lie.
At this point, it was about 4:00, and I headed home. Discovering along that way that clothes don’t make the man nearly as much as pose does.
Terminator/replicant coming to kill me.
That valuable life lesson learned, I continued home, dinner, video, sleep, and on to the next day.
The next installment will be the story of the time I walked entirely around the borders of a foreign country, and mocked nearly all of the sacred art within it. Was considering the title “Charles Damns Himself To The Fires Of Hell”, but we all know that ship sailed long ago. Thanks, Dad.
So, on Saturday, January 30th, I departed New York’s JFK for Rome.
Getting to JFK was pretty easy, as usual. I’ve done the Bedford Hills to JFK transit so often over the years that I have the rail lines and stops memorized, and it was a Saturday so it wasn’t rush-hour crowded. It wasn’t far off that, though, and the E line from Lex & 53rd to Sutphin Blvd/JFK was standing room only for almost the whole trip. And, let me tell you, a packed subway on a mild winter day is not something you want to be warmly dressed for. I was sweating through much of that ride, with my giant backpack standing upright between my knees and my smaller one balanced on top of it and held by one hand while the other held onto an overhead railing. At one point I let go of the overhead railing to check something on my phone, and the train slowed dramatically while I was doing it, pitching me forward. I think that I can lay claim to creditable reflexes, as I snaked my iPhone-holding hand past a couple of fellow passengers to grab a vertical rail a few feet in front of me, stopping my fall without tumbling into anyone and without letting go of the phone (which would have flung it forward into the mass). I held there for 10 to 15 seconds, until the train picked up speed again, and I could propel myself back upright, and shared a grin with a surprised traveling companion. Only mildly embarrassing, instead of the mortifying that flinging my phone or toppling over would have been, so yay, that.
My airline this time was British Airways which, as part of the American Airlines “One World” group, had allowed me to use my frequent flyer miles to fly business class. This may not have been worth it. JFK to Heathrow is only 7-1/2 hours, which is not really that much over a 5 hour LA-JFK flight, and the British Airways sleeper pods were a real step down from the Cathay Pacific pods: cramped, almost no storage, and with a weird partition between adjoining pods that meant I spent the preflight time and the first 20 minutes of the flight mutually avoiding the gaze of the facing pod-person across the lowered barrier. (After that, the barrier could be raised.) There wasn’t much time for napping after the meal and before landing. I did, wonder of wonders, get about 3 hours, which is pretty good for me on a flight, but right at the start, as I was trying to go to sleep, we hit some mild turbulence and a steward made a point of shaking me gently to wake me up (I wasn’t out yet) to be sure I was buckled up! Jesus, dude! If I’d actually been out, that would have been it for me, I’d have been up for the rest of the flight. My body is not forgiving of being startled just when I’m drifting off. And the attendants had a weird, British vibe, that thing where they’re polite because that’s their job but their caring doesn’t go one centimeter past that. It’s all business. Unlike plenty of other airlines (everything Asian, Virgin America, Alaska Airlines are good examples) where they’re either actually into it or they know how to give you a convincing display. That was the least impressive flight I’ve been on in a while, and if I end up flying them again in the future, I won’t bother wasting my remaining mileage upgrading for flights under 8 hours. I’ll save it for future trips to Australia and New Zealand.
London looks impressively large in the morning before sunrise. (And probably at other times of the day as well, but I can’t personally testify to that.)
I should mention: British Airways also don’t let you prebook your seat until 24 hours before the flight, unless you’re willing to pay some absurd premium for the service. I, of course, did not, and I got perfectly good seats, such as they were, for the two legs of my journey, by booking changing the seats to window seats when I did the online check-in. But the money gouging, for something that every other airline I’ve flown does for free, was super annoying. On the plus side: they have an app that you can use to download your boarding pass, so when you check in you can have your pass on your phone without the need for a printer. Of course, when you actually go to display the pass to security or any agent, you’d better have a working internet connection. Because the app has some short timeout — 5 minutes — after which trying to open it and get your pass requires a re-download. Fortunately, I was suspicious of the app (or any similar app), and used my iPhone snapshot feature to take a picture of the pass, and then used the picture at every gate. But, seriously, why is this rocket science? Download the pass, and keep it for local display. Gods, damn, BA. If it’s a security thing, make me retype my BA password to see it. But don’t force an internet connection, that’s moronic!
If there was a plus side to this, it is that British Airways has a nice business class lounge, and that lounge has shower facilities, so after I arrived in Heathrow at 6:00 am, I was able to become clean and reasonably well fed, if not really rested. (Still a bit sweaty, though, since the shower cubicles didn’t have great air circulation.) Heathrow’s airport security’s a bit sucky though. That was as thorough a search as any I’ve had to go through, and they took out partial tubes of toothpaste and the like for separate inspection, and this was just on a transfer flight where I never left the terminal! (I’ve complained about that sort of thing before.)
This, by the way, was England in the daylight. Can’t imagine why my friend Damien doesn’t want to go back there.
The flight from Heathrow to Rome was actually rather more pleasant than the one from JFK to Heathrow. It left at 9:30 GMT, was only 2-1/2 hours and there were no pods; and business class was regular-class seats, 3-adjacent, but with a tray fixed across the middle seat which was perfectly suitable; and the attendants seemed actually friendly! And I got to watch an episode of Lucifer (downloaded onto my TiVo), which was surprisingly entertaining. I have some hopes for this series; not many, but definitely some.)
The Italian landscape, which was wetter than I was expecting. I thought southern Italy would be more arid; I’d been picturing something more like southern California (back when we got normal rain), and instead it looked more like Oregon. But then, Rome is in the middle of Italy, not the south, and I guess that makes a difference.
I arrived in Rome at about 1:30 local time (GMT+1), walked easily through customs (I say easily, but I did manage to pick the slowest customs line, so boo me), made my way to the train, bought a ticket, and headed into Rome proper, while sending my host Massamiliano (Max) a message saying that I had arrived and was on my way.
I should mention a particularly vital tool in my navigation of Italy so far, the Rome Toolkit. It’s giving all the information that I desperately want in planning my use of public transit, as well as a bunch of other info about museums and other sights, hours, caveats, and the like. Tremendously useful.
The trains were double-decker, and I made the mistake of seeking out a seat on the upper deck, in the interest of having a better view. (A) There wasn’t much of a view, just a grey, slightly chilly day, train stops, and fairly conventional semi-rural areas turning into fairly conventional city proper. And (B) it was fairly warm up there, so I was treated to another round of sweating. I’d left Asia to avoid all of that sweating, and it seems to have followed me like a karmic groupie.
I got off the train at the stop recommended by Google, which told me to switch to a different train going north for a stop and then walk the rest of the way. Unfortunately, the station had maybe a dozen platforms, and the signage was incredibly unclear about which train was going where — at least, unclear in any way that seemed meaningful to me or matched what Google was suggesting. Eventually, I noticed that one train, due to arrive at about the time I was expecting (only off by a minute or two), had a destination far out into the country but Google Maps said that it was a town in the direction I was expecting to go. So, although it didn’t say it was on the rail line that Google wanted me to take, I took a risk and stepped on, figuring that the stations were probably initially the same, and that I could always get off and go the other way if I turned out to be wrong. (Which would be a nuisance, but not like I’ve never done that before. It took me 3 tries to get off at my Lake District stop in England, many years ago, and I just oscillated back and forth between Edinburgh and Too-Godsdamn-Farsville trying to do it.) As it happens, I guessed right, and the next stop had the name of the stop I was actually desiring, so yay me! I got off and started walking, Google app in hand.
I should take a moment to say something about Rome, by way of setup: Rome. There, that should probably do it. Let’s be real: unlike, say Sapporo, nobody here needs an explanation of what Rome is. In fact, honestly, even the Wikipedia page has so many great pictures, I probably should have saved myself the bother of taking any. I should just stop at, “Yeah, I went to this place here, and saw pretty much what you’d expect to see based on these pictures.” Save you and me both a lot of bother.
But let no one say that I’m unwilling to go to a bit of bother when Words are involved. And, in fairness, there are a few details about my trip not included in the Wiki. For example, what part of town I was in. Here’s a Helpful Map:
Here’s a map of the relevant (to me) part of central Rome, with many pointless street and placenames, and some that do have a point.
I stayed at the place marked with the star at the lower left, just next to the really big park which was on the top of a hill. The train station that I made my lucky guess at is marked by the little blue metro symbol southeast of that star, along the rail line in from the airport about 40 minutes to the west. Then I switched to the line that starts back the way I came but then turns and heads north from there, and got off at the Quattro Venti stop about 6 blocks away from my destination. (FYI, don’t be surprised if that stop sounds like a Starbucks order. Everyplace in Italy sounds like some kind of food. “I’d like the Taranto with a side of Statilia.” It’s, like, a law or something.)
I should point out that nothing on this map is level. If you’ve heard of the “7 Hills of Rome”, I should point out that those are just the original 7 Hills but, like a Robert Jordan series, they just keep adding more on. “Hey, look, there’s another hill after this one we just settled! We should claim that also!” Eventually, if you keep doing that, you end up with a pretty big city. (“What’s that, Wikipedia? 4.3 million people? Cool fact, bro!”) By which I mean to say that there’s a lot of walking up and down slopes and hills and stairs, unless you want to take their terrible public transit system (rumored so online, and heartily confirmed by my host Max), in which case there’s only a moderate amount of walking up and down slopes and hills and stairs, supplemented by waiting for buses and fighting your way onto them. I stuck with the walking. I’m a walker, not a fighter. Plus, I paid good money for these new boots, and these boots were made for walking. Like, literally. So, best to get my money worth.
The part of town I was in, on the west side of the famous Tiber River (aka, Fiume Tevere), is known as Trastavere, and is not as touristy as the east side, but it’s still in pretty easy walking distance from the cool stuff: 35 minutes to Vatican City to the north, 40 minutes to the Colosseum across the river, 60 minutes to the Borghese Gallery to the northeast. My time in Rome was pretty much bounded by these areas, and I walked constantly, for hours every day but one. It felt *really* good, after the relative inactivity of winter. The weather was sunny most of the time I was there, and the temps ran from say, 38-43 in the morning to 55-65 in the afternoon, and probably had average highs in the high 50s, which could be chilly if you were sitting in the shade, but was super comfortable in the sun, and I ended up sweating a lot walking around at speed. I rarely went out in a jacket, I learned quickly that I’d warm up fast. But then I *really* stood out from the locals, who were bundled up like they were Thai natives. (Note to self: take a hint. Don’t visit here in the summer.)
So, that sets the environment, and I can continue with the events.
Airbnb to the Max
I walked from the metro stop, up a series of hills, towards where I thought Max’s place was. I’d exchanged progress e-mails with him since the airport, and learned that he was having lunch with friends nearby, and would break away to meet me and get me settled. I was a little worried about train troubles making me late, but everything went smoothly and I was making perfect time through this unfamiliar neighborhood, which noticeably featured: confetti on the ground from some sort of recent Carnivale activity, some small children in costumes clearly coming back from such an event (with parents, in case there is any doubt on that score), and dog poop. Guess which one I paid more attention to. Not unreasonably, of course. There’s little risk to trodding in confetti, and while trodding in small children has perhaps the greatest repercussions, they at least stand out more against the pavement and are fairly easy to avoid. But dog poop? Wow. I don’t know if the Romans have any laws about that sort of thing, but if they do they seem largely unconcerned with a life of outlawry. In a long week of strenuous walking I managed to avoid stepping in any, but it was by no means through lack of opportunity.
Arriving at Max’s place at 3:00pm on that Sunday, I saw no immediate evidence of his place at the specified address, and didn’t know what to ring or buzz, so I sent him another e-mail through Airbnb saying that I was there. It turns out, I was just up the street. Somewhere along the line, the Google address I’d been targeting had become something about a block away. But, after telling Max that I appeared to be across from a school (or an insane asylum; they’re often hard to tell apart from the outside, or the inside really), he popped up the street looking for me just as I was heading down to the address that he had just re-sent me.
Max’s Airbnb listing is here, and the pictures are accurate. It’s an apartment (would be 1 bedroom, but Max has clearly turned the living room into a 2nd bedroom to rent out) in an older building, originally owned by his paternal grandmother and inherited by him; his father’s family goes back in that area for 7 generations. Max may well turn out to be the last in that tradition, as he’s a bit addicted to change and (a) might well end up living in another country entirely, and (b) might be so addicted to serial monogamy that he never ends up having kids. He’s 35, and has already racked up an impressive series of international girlfriends, so he could well hit both of those points. Regardless of the fate of future generations, Max himself is delightful. Slightly shorter than me, wiry, good looking, very cheerful and energetic, and with the stereotypically Italian trait of gesturing as he speaks, not just with his hands but really with his whole body. It made me wonder what Americans (and many other nationalities) look like to Italians: unnaturally still and stiff? (I’m sure the British look dead to them, but most of the rest of us wouldn’t be far off.) Italians have a rich vocabulary of gestures, past stereotype and moving towards the realm of full on sign language, and Max explained that he could say a lot of things to his friends in sign only. He works with a tourist agency, and the week I was there his company was arranging a tour for a group of 200 Chinese people, who apparently all expected to be housed together and eat together at meals. (They had to be told that these things were not possible. I guess when your government builds entire cities from nothing, your expectations get a bit distorted.)
The place is, indeed, right across from a junior high school, and thank gods I’m an early riser, because the street gets super busy and noisy from about 7:30-8:30. It’s already at an intersection — not a major one, but street noise was still a constant — but during the school’s start time the traffic noise ramps up mightily, and the Italians do not fear the horn. The window blocked some of it: Max had had new windows installed since he acquired the place, and they were double paned and had a fascinating opening mechanism, which allowed the window to swing to the side if opened in one fashion (in a fairly conventional way), but turn the handle a different way and the window is hinged on the bottom and swings out a foot or so at the top, allowing heat to vent out. Startled the hell out of me when Max casually twisted the handle and the window started to fall out from the wall. He laughed. It seems that Europeans are familiar with that design, but Americans never fail to be alarmed. Fair enough. I’d be milking that reaction too, if I were him. 🙂
There were a couple of other interesting features to the place. The key was one of those old-fashioned keys with a long arm and a crenelated square at the end. The shower was about the size of a phone booth, stuck into the corner of the bathroom and opening at the opposite corner (half of each side rolling back into the other half). It was a clever enough design for the space, but every shower was spent with my elbows tucked against my sides in the narrow booth. Alternatives? Ditch the stupid bidet, move the toilet to where the bidet sits, and make a proper shower stall. (If you *really* want a bidet — I’m not a fan, but YMMV — use one of those Japanese rocket ship toilets that do it all.) The kitchen was perfectly adequate: not a lot of cooking implements, but enough for me to chop salad veggies, and Max had a really great breakfast tea (from a brand called “Royal Tea”) that I really liked, and some yummy honey to go in it, so that was great. And then there was this, which caught my eye as I walked into my room:
Huh? Why does he have a block on the floor with “Jews” printed on it? What’s that supposed to mean? Oh. Right, I see.
And he had a comprehensive booklet he’d printed out, of maps with useful locations, instructions on which very conveniently nearby bus routes to take to popular sights, where good restaurants and grocery stores were, etc. He also walked me to a nearby pizzeria that he loved, and a great gelato place. And he had plug adapters (not that I needed them), and complimentary wine (not that I drank it), and we spent a few pleasant minutes discussing how absurdly expensive he found wine in America and comparing that with my Japanese sake experience. In truth, I found out a lot about Max in the short time that I spent with him, because man can that guy talk. And a mile a minute! And if there was anything I wanted to say, I’d better say it within 1 or 2 subordinate clauses, because if I paused for breath, he’d leap in running another direction from whatever my last words were and I’d never get the thing said. I loved Max, and would happily stay there again, but wow that was a lot of listening.
A Walk in the Park
Once Max got me checked in, and we walked to his favorite eateries, I walked with him to the bus stop that he was taking back to his friends and then I went home. I unpacked a little, meditated for 40 minutes or so to rest up, and then headed out to that giant park up the hill; Max had recommended it as a favorite place, and I’d planned to visit when I first saw Max’s listing. Plus, it was one of the few places I felt like going to after a very long day+ of travel. By this time it was around 4:30 or so, and between the cloud cover and the early winter evening it was getting a bit darker, but Max said the park was open until 8:00 and a bit of pastoral nature sounded ideal, so I set out. I’d love to include picture of the park, but of the few that I took, they don’t really look like much in the darkness.
One of the nice things about living in an old, long-civilized city, is that you find monuments and cool structures everywhere you turn. This arch was near one end of the park, and seemed to serve no function other than to say, “Wow, I’m impressive!” Yes, you are.
A view of St Peter’s Basilica. I wonder if the Pope ever gets tired of saying, “I can see my house from here!” I sure wouldn’t.
You know how, when you’re walking casually through a park and you stumble across a renaissance hedge maze, and you look reflexively for the portal to the Faerie Realm that you must have stumbled through? That. (FYI, for more on the Villa Doria Pamphili, go here.)
The park grounds are extensive. I’d initially thought I’d walk around the whole thing, but there’s a major road cutting through the middle, and I wasn’t really comfortable yet with Italian traffic. Every country has its own driving style, and between left-and-right driving countries, different styles and meanings of traffic signs, and variable adherence to the laws, I find the best way to approach walking in new cities is a kind of relaxed paranoia. It’s like only taking carry-on luggage when you travel: checking bags is usually safe, but if you don’t give the airline your luggage, they can’t loose it. Similarly, I never assume that oncoming traffic is predictable (beyond the most basic laws of physics and sanity), and I prefer to never give a car a chance to hit me, even by crossing in a clearly marked crosswalk when a car is approaching. Even if it’s safe 99% of the time, you cross enough streets and you’re just playing the odds until one day you lose. The phrase suddenly came to me, as I was plotting a course across a busy intersection: it’s not paranoia, if entropy is trying to kill you.
So, I started to cut south near that busy road, but I wasn’t enjoying the traffic noise much, and thought maybe I should cut away from it a bit, and ended up wandering through the middle of the park in, basically, night time. Only a bit after 6:00, by this time, but really quite dark. No street lights, just diffuse city glow reflected from the sky. I got to what I thought was an exit, but the gate was closed, and I suddenly thought, maybe Max was wrong? Maybe they actually close at 6:00? I hadn’t seen anyone in the park in a while. Well, I could hardly stay in the park overnight… so I scaled the 10 foot gate and continued south. And then realized that I was in an entirely new area, with buildings and lights, and was almost certainly trespassing. So I quickly turned around, scaled the gate again, and kept walking, listening for police sirens for the next 1/2-hour. And I say the next 1/2-hour, because as I continued to try to find my way out, I seemed to be walking forever. The park wasn’t a clear walk in any direction; there were paths, and hills, and impenetrable underbrush between them, and you pretty much had to guess about the paths and keep going (aided, thank gods, by Google Maps, which turned out to actually have the major paths marked on it.) With relief, I reached the place where I’d entered a couple of hours earlier, only to discover that its gate was indeed now locked! I was less tempted to scale this one: it was even higher, and less well designed for climbing. But at least I knew that I was close to the main entrance, which I’d passed shortly after I entered the park. I found my way back to that and — joy! — one of the gates there was still open. And, sure enough, a sign was posted stating that the winter hours were only until 18:00. I’m surprised that gate was still open, but maybe they leave one open longer at the main entrance, for stragglers. (I could have climbed this one, if need be.) So, from there, I walked home, stopped by Max’s pizzeria suggestion for some yummy takeout, watched a little YouTube, took some melatonin, and then slept for 11 hours.
And that’s where I’ll call this episode. There was little or no reading in this travel-packed day, but I have read since, and look forward to reporting on it. Obviously the serious Roman sights are yet to come, and I’ll continue with that shortly. But we’re getting a bit of sunshine in Florence right now, so I should get out and appreciate it. Maybe by spending a few hours in a museum. Ciao!
Well, here I am back after the holiday break and on the road again. I think everyone knows basically what’s been happening since my last post at the end of October — it’s basically been what I laid out (in that post) would be happening over the next few months — but I suppose that a recap is in order.
I hope that clears things up.
This post is going to catch me up to my departure from New York. I’ve been in Rome for a week now, have a ton of photos and stuff, and go to Florence tomorrow, but the Rome stuff is going to have to wait a couple of days. I should have that one out this coming week, though. Florence will, I’m sure, be great, but I’ve got two weeks there and I’ve been pretty non-stop here in Rome. I’m ready for a little down time.
My last entry in this linguistically overendowed travelogue was at the end of October. I was still in Chiang Mai, and due to depart on November 17th for the U.S. Honestly, nothing much happened in those last 3 weeks in Chiang Mai that is worth reporting on, but I’ll hit a few highlights:
I had a few great meals/coffees with my friend Damien Walter, who’s always good for some quality conversation, and they were well worth it. I’m glad I made it back to Chiang Mai for that reason primarily, as it seemed a friendship well worth cultivating. And we’re planning on meeting in Zagreb, Croatia, in late March, so that’s something to look forward to.
Met Damien a few times at Ristr8to, a fantastic coffee place. Their Irish Iced Coffee is freaking amazing, and is one of the 2 things that I leave behind in Chiang Mai with the most regret.
I got in one more walking tour with Tony’s tour group, on October 31st, although I can’t say that this one was terribly impressive. We met again at the Kualek Cafe, just east of the Ping River (a little east of the middle of the Old City), and I’d taken my scooter to get there, so at least I was saved the extra hour each way of inhaling traffic fumes and I didn’t suffer too much the next couple of days. It was a large group, of around 12-15 people, including some nice folks that I had some decent conversation with, but much of it was just a long walk south along busy roads with narrow shoulders and lots of pollution. We passed a couple of modest temples/shrines — I took pictures, but let’s be real: they look pretty much like all the other pictures and you’ll get a more impressive set from my previous photos or from a simple Google Image Search of “Chiang Mai shrine”, so I’m going to forego uploading them.
All right, just this one. But only because Wat Ku Khao (16th century) is super representative of this particular trip. I mean, Ok, it’s cool I guess. But nothing to write home about.
We passed the blue-tiled pavilion dedicated to a King Kawila, which we had hit in a different tour just after I returned to Chiang Mai (described in this post), so I’d seen that already. We did walk past a couple of fields where old temples were being excavated, as part of a general “search and restore” effort of the Chiang Mai central temple organization, and I took a few snapshots, but they really mostly just looked like Wat Ku Khao above, except some were larger and they were spread out over a field.
See? Pretty enough, though. Oh, and also the temperature was freaky hot, but I assume you took that for granted.
Just past the excavation was the Lana Rice Barn, apparently the oldest hotel in the Chiang Mai area, a nice complex of old wooden buildings and statuary.
This seems to be the main building, but there was a whole complex around me with roofed passageways and multiple buildings of mysterious purpose.
They had a lot of wooden carvings, of boats, of animals, of farm implements,… but, well, mostly of this:
Probably helps with fertility in the fields or something. Either that or someone is hella over-compensating.
I assume that these were carved during colder weather.
Of course, now that I think about it, these remind me of one of my favorite memes, well illustrated here:
Perhaps this is the secret of why the Thai people are so nice: they still have fucks to give.
We continued on, and stopped at a large, in-use, temple complex called Wat Changkam, and it was cool enough but it literally looked like all the other active temples so I’m skipping the photos. (Google can be your friend there, if you care. I’ve got to catch up to the present day, after all, and preferably in less than 5,000 words.) Our guide Tony had expected us to be able to eat at booths in what should have been a large temple marketplace area, but it turns out the temple was having a holiday that day, and there were virtually no booths. So, we walked on to a nearby restaurant, where they really weren’t prepared for a party of our size. We did eventually get food, and it was decent (I think I had the pad thai, but it clearly wasn’t memorable), and I had some good conversation with my table mates, one of whom was a teacher who’d been traveling for a while and recently taught in Beijing — where she said the air was every bit as bad as we hear, and described the giant tents erected over the high-end English schools’ athletics fields so that clean air could be piped in. From there, a couple of the tour members (who knew Tony well) had brought their cars and arranged to drive a bunch of us back to where we’d started. The driver of the car I was in was a Thai woman named Jume, who’d just returned to Thailand after 40 years in Scotland. She hated the heat, but wanted to get to know her homeland again, which I can hardly blame her for. She also mentioned having been at Tony’s house, at a party the weekend before, and mentioned that it was large and had fields around it, and pretty much confirmed my suspicions that Tony is solidly upper class Thai. So, good on Tony!
That was the last tour; I’d hoped for another before I left, but it never materialized.
By the way, there’s one photo that, to me, sums up at least 1/2 of the Chiang Mai experience, so I’m going to include it here lest it be lost to the mists of time
This was outside my last place in Chiang Mai. It’s a city enthusiastically rushing to catch up with the modern area, so quickly that there are really no structures in place to order how that happens. If ever there was an example of William Gibson’s line, “The future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed,” it’s this place.
The only other thing worth mentioning, in my remaining time in Thailand, was the release of the game Fallout 4.
This clearly deserves its own section. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that it was coming, and anyone I stayed with over these last couple of months knows how much I was playing it. It came out on November 11th in Asia (the day after its US release, and don’t think I didn’t hate that 1 day delay). It’s a game not unlike Skyrim, very immersive, impressive graphics, great writing, and from Bethesda Software, the same company and team that makes the series of games that Skyrim is a part of (and that the online game I play, Elder Scrolls Online, is related to). This one, instead of being set in a fantasy milieu, is set in a post-apocalyptic alternate future — imagine that the stylized World of Tomorrow imagined in the 1950s had experienced nuclear war in the year 2077, and your character experiences a world set 200 years afterwards, surrounded by the wreckage of the old world, partly-devastated cities and towns, leftover technology (some quite futuristic), mutants and monsters, and groups of humans trying to rebuild a life — with a fair amount of irony and flat-out silliness baked in.
The Fallout series has been running since the early 90s, and if you enjoy reading the occasional Cliff Notes of book series that you’re unlikely to ever read, the Fallout storyline on Wikipedia (the link to the Fallout 4 entry is here) may well be worth it. (That’s how I read James Joyce’s Ulysses, and it saved me *so* much time.) I’d been looking forward to this since they announced it in June, and although I wasn’t sure if I’d really be into it — post-apocalyptic isn’t really my genre of choice — I did love the game studio’s work on Skyrim and ESO, I’d seen bits of Fallout 3 gameplay online and knew the writing was decent, I knew that others I knew would be playing it, and I liked the idea of being part of an “event”, so I preordered it. In truth, it has been far more successful at hooking me in than I expected, and I’ve spent nearly all of my free time since then immersed in the game — 310 hours so far, over 3 months, so an average of 3-4 hours a day. Of course, there were many days when I didn’t play at all (like pretty much all of the last week), but they were more than made up for by some days where I did nearly nothing else. It’s been tremendously enjoyable — and a great chance to bond with my niece Brianna, who was also playing the hell out of it. Mind you, I wouldn’t have minded spending more time reading, or doing any of a handful of other enjoyable things. But no regrets in the slightest, and in fact I’m rather looking forward to getting back into it, once my current sightseeing rush wears down.
I did read a couple of online articles on game psychology, one in favor of quitting games to do something more “productive”, and the other basically responding, saying, “Yeah, like anything else, if you’re addicted it’s a problem. If you’re not, it’s just recreation so don’t sweat it.” As a guy who hasn’t seriously considered touching the game in a week, I’m lumping myself into the second category. Feel free to debate this amongst yourselves. 😉
So, Fallout 4 came out on the 11th, I played the hell out of it all week (an excellent alternative to roaming about in the Chiang Mai heat and humidity), didn’t get nearly enough sleep because my mind was spinning around game goals and strategies, and I flew back to the U.S. on the 17th.
The Travel Year, in Review:
This is probably a good point to look back over the year and see if I can’t offer a little summary. So, here are the significant points:
Leave the US, thinking I’m in Chiang Mai to stay (more or less). This was actually a pretty useful viewpoint to start with, because, as much as I complained about the heat later, I was pretty comfortable at first. Partly because it was dryer, which helps. But also because I thought I’d *have* to be comfortable, and I changed my viewpoint to match. I’m pretty good at adapting to necessity; it’s when I have viable options that I’m never content until I’ve settled into the optimal one.
If only I’d been able to breathe…. Leaving Chiang Mai for Khanom and Koh Samui, and then reading that the air up in Chiang Mai wasn’t getting any better, really changed what I had to do and thus my viewpoint on the rest of my life. I definitely wasn’t staying in Koh Samui, but I wasn’t settling in Chiang Mai any more, so, basically, I was traveling — so then the fun new game became, where do I go next? Changing from being a simple expat-in-Thailand to a nomad transformed everything else. That’s also when I really started using Airbnb, and that has been a vast improvement over hotel-hopping, mostly due to the excellent hosts and other guests.
Sapporo, Japan made it crystal clear that, whether I can tolerate hot weather or not, cool weather is really my thing. It was *beautiful* there, lush and green, clean, friendly, pleasantly cool when I arrived and only modestly hot when it was broiling everywhere else. If I was willing to knuckle down and properly study the language, it might be worth staying in. But, then, I’ve seen almost nothing else yet, so it’s way too early to make that call.
My trip down through Tokyo, Taipei (which I saw far too little of), and Kyoto in late summer was worth it, but it convinced me to never do that again. I’ll come back in a friendlier season, and NOT at the peak of summer.
My last two months in Chiang Mai were a nice way to wrap up what I started, and worth it for the time with Damien, but also for the lessons it gave me about (a) again, how much better Airbnb is, and (b) how much more tolerable a place can be when you’re determined to make your life there, versus just being there for a couple of months after leaving someplace you really loved (Sapporo).
Favorite Place: Nakajima Park, Sapporo
I mean, seriously. Look at this!
Favorite place, ever.
Least Favorite Place: That beach cottage on Koh Samui
Hot, humid, lousy beach, nothing much within walking distance. At least it was a decent cottage, though some screen doors would have been a gods send. And it had a nice produce market/stall nearby. But, wow, that 2.5 months there was almost 2 months too long.
Favorite Food/Drink: For food, the open-face breakfast sandwich at The Larder in Chiang Mai, with egg and grilled zucchini and tomato and basil and humus and… I’m salivating again thinking about it. I’ll miss that place.
For drinks: the Iced Irish Coffee at Ristra8to in Chiang Mai (see above), and pretty much every $6.00 bottle of sake I had in Japan. (Though the $20 bottle was especially stellar.)
Least Favorite Food/Drink: Some sort of gooey noodle dish in Sapporo that I don’t remember the name of, tied with a seafood ramen dish also in Sapporo. Had some good food in Sapporo, but also didn’t, so it was sort of neutral food-wise, overall.
Favorite People: Damien, and Kenta (one of my Airbnb hosts in Sapporo)
Least Favorite People: The main guy at my favorite sake shop who, while he did give me good sake, just never seemed happy about it.
Best choices I made: Doing all of this to begin with. Going to Sapporo, and, separately, choosing Kenta’s place there. Ending the house search in Chiang Mai when the barriers seemed to high; it felt like a sign that I wasn’t meant to do it, and that turned out to be true.
Worst choices I made: I’m tempted to say my time in Koh Samui, but, honestly, it seems kind of integral to the process, and the fungus went away eventually. Let’s call that the worst experience, not the worst choice. Maybe the canceled trip to Nepal, just because of the airfare that I never got back. It wasn’t a bad choice in itself, but it didn’t work out. Choosing the seafood ramen at that restaurant in Sapporo.
Best experiences: Seeing Avengers 2 in Tokyo, near the end of a long day of walking in the summer heat and humidity. Going to the Nippon Ham Fighters baseball game with Kenta. That week in Khanom, in the Swedish lady’s condo on the beach. Going to Tokyo Tower. Drinking with Spaniards.
Worst experiences: Aside from my time in Koh Samui, I’ll say every time I didn’t do something because of the language barrier. It continues to discourage me from going into places that I think are interesting because I’ll have to deal with people as a hapless idiot. I’ll have to get over that. Sometime in the next 5-10 years. Also, that week I stayed in the Chiang Mai Old City, dealing with the pollution-induced headaches. Wow, that was miserable.
Favorite Airline: Cathay Pacific. Fantastic business class.
Least Favorite Airline: None, during this year. Asian airlines know how to treat their customers right.
I could regale you with the gory details of my travel from Chiang Mai — I departed freakishly early, aggravated by an overly early rising (4 hours sleep, maybe?), aggravated by a week of super-short sleep due to my mind spinning around Fallout activities. (“Ok, so I’ll need to do X and Y, and then I really should do Q before I do X, but how will I manage R, and wouldn’t it be better if I…”)
But it was, in the end, just a flight. A long flight, Chiang Mai to Hong Kong, several hours in Hong Kong’s very comfortable Cathay Pacific business class lounge (playing Fallout), maybe an hour’s sleep on the plane (along with watching recorded shows on my iPad, getting to see the Ant-Man movie that I’d missed in my travels, and playing Fallout), and then a freakishly long delay leaving customs at LAX. It did yield this 2001-esque sequence, from the airplane’s undercamera as we took off from Hong Kong:
Sadly, I did not evolve into a Starchild during the course of the flight. But friends Jane and Jenni picked me up at LAX, so that was a solid second choice, and I proceeded to stay with Mark and Jane through Thanksgiving.
A few days after Thanksgiving, my sister flew down from Seattle, and Mum and Sarah and I drove up to SF, stayed with my Aunt Florida for a few days, and then continued on up to Seattle for a few days more. Then I flew on to Bozeman, MT, to stay with Lynne and Roger (while Mum and Sarah drove back down to LA), had a great time there, and then returned to Mark & Jane’s around December 14th, where I stayed until January 6th (and had the chance to finish a Sorry game that we’d been playing for — what was it? — 3 years?). (There was also an excellent and far too abbreviated lunch get-together with my friends and former coworkers on the 16th.) Then I flew to New York, to stay with Brandon and Sallie until Saturday, January 30th, had a trip or two into the city (including a lunch with friend Holly), and I got to enjoy some modestly cold weather and one really big snowstorm that cancelled some city plans (10-15 inches in Bedford Hills, 15-20 in the city). But, mostly, it was mild and scenic:
I wonder if they decorated that tree with lights for Christmas? It would be perfect for it but, if they did, it was undecorated by the time I arrived.
The power went out for a while that morning, and we had to brew coffee in a pan on the stove like animals. But it came back on after a few hours, and we were able to watch cat videos on YouTube again, like civilized people.
One thing of particular note: a few days before I left LA, my Mac became super-flaky, often refusing to start up. This had happened a couple of times during the past year, but now it was happening every day, starting (thank the gods!) right after I’d done a complete system backup. So, I made reservations at the Genius Bar in the Apple Store inside Grand Central Terminal in New York, for 5pm of the day I was flying in. I made it just in time, and the excellent Apple employee, AJ, had a good long look at it and concluded that it was due to a known Apple hardware issue, qualifying me for a free repair and motherboard replacement even though I was a good year beyond my support agreement. We also had a great talk about the new Star Wars movie, so it was a a win-win all around, and the Mac was ready 2 days later. Apple, as a company, has its quirks, and I don’t love everything about them, but their customer support is pretty damned stellar, and uniformly gets the highest ratings of any of the computer companies. I’ve always found them fantastic, and it’s why I keep coming back and buying their stuff. Such a relief to be able to get that handled before I left for Europe (and obscure, Apple-Store-less places like Split, Croatia)!
And with that, I’m calling it on the rundown. Clearly, I am giving somewhat short shrift to the details of those 2.5 months, but this is mostly due to 3 reasons. Firstly, Fallout. It occupied quite a lot of my time, as mentioned, and I could spend some hours recounting my experiences playing it, my impressions of the game, characters that I fell in love with, or persuaded not to fall in love with me, and the like, but there are limits to how much of that you’ll be interested in reading, and so I shall exercise some rare discretion and edit that out. Nonetheless, I might have had more to describe, if I’d been doing more of other things. And you might have gotten more blog entries about all of this along the way, as it was happening, if I hadn’t been absorbed in the game. I was basically either hanging out with friends/family, or gaming, and very little else.
And, secondly, in many respects, these last 2.5 months are a repeat of what I did last year: excellent people and places, richly enjoyed on my part (and hopefully on the part of my hosts). But, as Tolkien said in the Hobbit,
“Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway. They stayed long in that good house, fourteen days at least, and they found it hard to leave. Bilbo would gladly have stopped there for ever and ever—even supposing a wish would have taken him right back to his hobbit-hole without trouble. Yet there is little to tell about their stay.”
This is proving to be very true. And, in truth, I did find it hard to leave each place, more so than last year. I could have stayed with my friends far longer than I did and been perfectly content. Last year, I had the adventure of setting out on my new life, so the regret of the partings was overshadowed by the adventure I was on. Now? In truth, my life has a weird kind of routine. Yes, I’m going to new places, and they’ll be cool and interesting. But it’s not a mystery. I know the outlines of how it’s going to go, and I’m just following along that track. And that’s a good thing, to be comfortable with the pattern of your life… but it’s not a cosmic shift in my universe anymore. The universe shifted already, found a new pattern, and now it’s all trade-offs. “Yes it’s time to go. Here’s what I’m gaining, and here’s what I’m losing.” And, as much as I’m an independent fellow, and even start to chafe at more than a few days in constant company with anyone, I’m still leaving friends behind to be alone. And the very large amount of alone-time is more than even I need. (Friendly Airbnb hosts help to alleviate that, but it’s not the same.) What I really need is to be able to be able to teleport. Hang out with friends, and then BAMF! off to Rome. Then BAMF! back to stay with other friends for a week or two and BAMF! off to Zagreb. Alas, that seems unlikely to happen. So, I’ll just have to make do.
Before I end off, in keeping with the theme of the blog, I should report on something I read during that time; not the only thing, but definitely a standout: Nimona.
I’d been waiting for this book for a while; it’s a collection of a web series by Noelle Stevenson that I’d read maybe 2/3 of, a couple of years ago. I’d stopped when I caught up to the last page she’d writtten/drawn, and then didn’t read any more because I hate reading a page at a time. I figured I’d come back to it when she was done, and then I heard that she’d worked out a publication deal — which was perfect, because I’d liked what I’d read so far, and I wanted to support her. So I put it on my Amazon Wish List, and waited.
In the meantime, Noelle has created another brilliant series called LumberJanes, about a girl’s summer adventure camp that keeps turning up eldritch creatures and mysteries, which is now up to something like issue 20 and has won two Eisner awards (the comic’s world’s equivalent of the Hugos, or Oscars). And she’s started doing work for Marvel, and just keeps doing better and better, and seems like a delightful person. So, yay her!
Nimona is set in a fictional world that’s part medieval and magic and part super-technology, and it’s about a girl with shape-shifting powers who takes (that is, insists on) a job as sidekick to a super-villain. It’s mostly comedy, but as the story progresses it gets more serious and, in places, rather dark. Never excessively so, but it doesn’t go to the places you might expect from it’s beginning. It’s very original and creative, and well worth the read. Since its formal publication, she’s taken the full series off her website, but you can still read the first 3 chapters here, and I recommend doing so:
As to where I read this, in truth, I’m a little blurry on that part. But it was in New York, and I’m going to claim that it was at the Grey Dog Cafe, near Union Square in Manhattan, my favorite breakfast place in New York, because I was there and because I remember reading something and it was very likely this. So I’m going with it.
I’m astounded that I got a seat here. I was a bit late in the morning, and it’s often super-crowded. But I arrived at a good time; there were a couple free when I arrived, and a few more cleared out as I arrived, so I got a great window seat. And, by the time of this pic, it was mostly empty! Happy happy joy joy.
And so, that’s how I spent my winter vacation. As I say, I left New York on January 30th, for Rome. I’ve been here a week, head to Florence tomorrow, and in a few days I’ll have the write-up on my Rome adventure. Stay tuned!