June 25, 2012

When In Rome

At first we were wondering what sort of indulgences spawned the phrase, “When in Rome…” It probably means whatever you want it to mean. For us, it has meant pizza for lunch and dinner and gelato every day.

Rome is large, bustling and tiring. For travelers like us – who are wide-eyed and willing to see any random of site of interest – this city is a bit of an overload. Not even two blocks out of the train station and we had already stumbled upon some ruins. There are so many ruins sprinkled around the city that there’s always something else to see “just around the next corner”. It’s also been 97 degrees outside. A couple of times we’ve admitted to ourselves that we needed to stop, and we made ourselves go home to our air conditioner.

I would also say that this is the very first city we’ve passed through that felt like a blur. We’re used to a city having one major plaza as a point of reference with smaller plazas sprinkled around. Rome has endless piazzas and they all look the same…Egyptian obelisk or fanciful fountain. Even after three days, I never did quite get my bearings.


At night we walked from piazza to piazza enjoying famous sites like the Spanish Steps and the Travoli Fountain.


During the day we split our time between Ancient Rome and the Vatican. We were most excited to see the ancient Roman ruins like the Coliseum, Forum and Pantheon.




Those were all great, but what I appreciated most about Rome was all of the knowledge that we took away. Here are my top-five Ancient Roman fun facts that we learned (in extreme layman’s terms): 

1.  Ancient Rome existed from 500 BC to 500 AD. It grew for 500 years, peaked for 200 years and fell for 300 years.

2. Julius Caesar was a great leader who tried to bridge the gap between a republic and an empire, and he was murdered for it by his peers. His adopted son, Augustus, became the first emperor. This is also the same guy who called for the census in the story of Jesus’ birth. Augustus wanted a good name to identify himself and future emperors, so he chose his dad’s – Caesar. That’s how he got the name Caesar Augustus. And contrary to what I imagined in my head, the Coliseum didn’t even exist in Augustus’ day.

3. We think of Roman buildings as being white marble. Their buildings were actually red brick skeletons, filled with concrete and then covered over with marble sheets. Also, the buildings weren't all white. They were painted in bright colors like red, blue, green and yellow.

4. After Rome fell, Italy essentially went into a dark period until the Renaissance 1,000 years later. The Renaissance men picked up right where the ancient Romans left off…placing Greek-inspired statues and stately buildings all around town. So not everything you see around Rome is necessarily “ancient”.

5. The country of Italy as we know it didn’t even exist until 1870. That’s not very long ago!


These are things that we probably should have already known, but they either got lost along the way or we now have more perspective to appreciate them. Our mental timeline of how the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Spanish and Incas fit together keeps getting more and more complete.

I know that I would never want to be the owner of a construction company in Rome. Every time you’d break ground, you would probably dig up some ancient site and your plans would go right out the window. The ancient ruins and the modern city live side-by-side. 


We also had a nice day across the river in Vatican City – its own country with its own Euro coin. We happened to be in town on the 4th Sunday of the month when the Vatican Museum was free. The crowds were massive…with lines circling the building an hour before it even opened. We could not believe how many nuns were waiting in line under the hot sun. They have given their entire lives to the church…shouldn’t they at least get to skip to the front of the line?

The Vatican Museum has lots of paintings, frescoes and tapestries collected by the church. We didn't know enough to appreciate one from the other, so we followed this group of nuns around. We figured if they stopped at a painting, we probably should too.


An unlikely surprise at the Vatican Museum was the large Egyptian collection of tombs, mummies, amulets and carvings. It pretty much blew our minds when we were looking at pottery that was from 8,500 B.C. That is just crazy to think about. A trip to Cairo would be pretty fun, I imagine.

The highlight of the Vatican Museum was, of course, the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s ceiling and altar frescos. At first there’s so much to look at your brain can’t take it all in, but with the help of a guide, the scenes of God’s creation of the world became easily decipherable. By the end, our necks hurt so badly from craning upwards. The Sistine Chapel was an unexpected physical challenge.


This is a great time to go see the Sistine Chapel because it was just restored. No new paint was added, but all of the grime was cleaned off and you can now see the colors as bright at Michelangelo intended them. They did leave one little section with the old filth so that you can compare the amazing difference.


As we were popping out of the Sistine Chapel, we happened to look down at our watches and saw that it was 11:58. The Pope appears at 12:00. We scurried out into the mass of people gathered at St. Peter’s Square and saw Pope Benedict XVI appear from his study window and address the crowd. That was a cool unexpected surprise.


Here are my top-two Catholic fun facts that we learned. Forgive me if these are already extremely obvious to you. And hopefully I'm not getting it wrong and offending anyone. We’re not Catholic, so we’re still trying to learn this stuff.

1. Jesus gave the keys of the church to his disciple Peter, who became the very first Pope. Today’s Pope is simply in that lineage…he’s got the keys.

2. The purpose of those virgin statues we’ve been seeing all around South America and Europe? You tell something to the Virgin, she tells Mary, Mary tells Jesus, and Jesus tells God.

We capped off our time at the Vatican inside the humongous St. Peter’s Basilica – I still maintain that Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is better. Then we climbed 554 steps to the top of St. Peter’s Dome to get some views of Rome’s (somewhat unimpressive) skyline.


I can’t fault Rome for this. If my city had these kinds of ruins, I wouldn’t build anything new either.

June 22, 2012

Ciao! We’re In Italy!

I think at some point everyone dreams of traveling through Italy for an extended period of time. We reserved a large chunk of our precious days to make sure we didn’t short-change it. We are excited to have 3 weeks to relax and soak up the Italian culture.

Our first stop was Naples, a concrete jungle in the south. Immediately upon landing, Naples felt a little too reminiscent of Rio. It was hot, we were on the defensive, and we didn’t know an ounce of the language. We only spent about 5.5 hours walking among the city’s highlights, and while it was fun to see this side of Italian living, I’d say it was enough.

 
Naples is the cradle of the mafia, and at times it felt like we were living in an episode of Jersey Shore. We laughed our way through the zoo of Guidos and future Guidos. 


Naples is where our all-time favorite food, pizza, was invented. Our first stop off the airplane was to a pizzeria. Our second stop was to a gelateria.


For only being separated by an hour (on the most notorious of pickpocket trains), Sorrento feels a world away from Naples.


This town is touristy but charming. It’s fun to stroll, shop and let the night linger by while you dine al fresco.



If you ever wanted to deck out your entire house with lemon paraphernalia, this is your chance. This area of Italy is lemon crazy! They grow all sorts of lemon varieties and use them to make whatever you desire.


Sorrento is also a terrific jumping off point for day trips to the surrounding area.

We first laid eyes on the intimidating Mount Vesuvius while we were in Naples, but it was even more eerie to see it from the Pompeii streets that it so infamously destroyed.


In 79 A.D. Mount Vesuvius erupted, leaving behind this Roman middle-class city caked in ash. Because the city was hidden under the debris for so long, it was saved from pillagers that destroyed other Roman ruins. Pompeii gives the best look anywhere at what life was generally like in Rome 2,000 years ago. It also shows us specifically what it was like on that fateful day.


Steve and I both expected to see more remnants of the ash, but that has really all been cleared away. What stands now is simply-put, a large city of ruins. I wouldn’t say that the architecture itself was impressive, but to have ruins of such a large and intact scale was special.


I have mixed feelings about Pompeii. From a cultural and historical standpoint, it’s an iconic site that feels like it would be a shame to miss. From a logistical standpoint, it was frustrating. On the day that we visited it was hot, crowded, and dusty. They ran out of information booklets the day before, and I would estimate that about half of the sites were temporarily closed to the public. Ugh.

The next day was a serious step up with a boat trip to the island of Capri. This was probably our single best day in Europe so far. It's only a 30-minute boat ride away, and as you approach the island, it looks like something out of Avatar.


There are massive white cliffs strewn with grottos, arches, vegetation, ruins, villas and flowers.




There are two main towns on Capri, and they are accessible by all sorts of quirky forms of transportation like funiculars, chairlifts and boxy orange buses.


To connect Capri Town and Anacapri, the orange buses barrel along a cliff-hugging curvy road missing oncoming traffic by inches. They don't slow down at all, and I saw the odometer on the bus we were riding…it definitely said 569,000 kilometers.


It seems that clouds don’t exist in this part of the world. Instead Capri has what Steve called, “disgustingly blue water”.


We’ve seen turquoise water before, but we’ve never seen deep cobalt blue water to compliment it. It was ridiculously beautiful and we’ve decided that we will be coming back to Capri later in life to spend a week on a sailboat and a scooter.


Our last trip from Sorrento was to the Amalfi Coast to visit several of its towns. The Amalfi Coast is one of the great drives of Europe, and there were definitely some white-knuckle moments as our public bus driver rounded a few corners showing off his confidence.

The entire coast is great…rocky cliffs, glistening turquoise water, and towns that are perched on the hillsides soaking up the sunshine.

Each town had a little something different to offer. Positano was the most beautiful village.


Amalfi had the best piazza with good people-watching. It was a beautiful place at night.


Atrani had lots of curious alleyways and hidden tunnels. Only a 10-minute walk from Amalfi (and with way less tourists), this is where we spent the night.

 

Pontone was a tiny little village set high in the mountains above Amalfi. To get there we did a great hike alongside Amalfi’s run-down paper mills and up into the lemon groves. We were rewarded with views like this.


One the way back to Sorrento, instead of taking the drive, we hopped on a ferry to see the coastline from the water. Every ten minutes we passed another ideally-set town drenched in purple bougainvillea with the tiles on its church dome glistening in the sun.


There is so much to love about Italy and we’re just getting started! The pizza is great. The gelato is great. The pasta and sauces are even better.

The Italian language, though we don’t know any of it at this point, is enchanting. There’s a rhythm to it that is so fun. Italians seem to use the words “Ciao” and “Prego” for just about anything. So whenever we don’t know what to say (which is just about all of the time), we say one of those two catch-phrases and it’s sure to draw a smile from the locals.

Ciao, Prego, Ciao, Ciao, Prego, Ciao, Prego, we’re in Italy!

June 17, 2012

The Rosique Family

I can still remember the first day of my senior year of high school. My friends and I showed up thinking that we knew the school inside and out, only to be surprised with an influx of foreign exchange students…something that was pretty unusual for my small Ohio school system. It was so fun to, all of a sudden, have these new friends from all over the world. I have no doubt that it was one of the early contributing factors to this travel bug that I have developed.

From this I became very dear friends with a Spanish foreign exchange student named Maria del Carmen Rosique Hernandez…better known as Mamen. Andalucia is the home of Mamen and the amazing Rosique family. Whenever I visit their house in Malaga, they always make me feel like part of their family.


Last year Mamen’s sister, Virginia, and Virginia’s boyfriend, Angel, did a tour through the US and lived with Steve and I for two weeks in San Diego. We promised them that if they set their wedding date while we were in Europe, we would make every effort to be there. Fast forward a year later and here we are!

As always, the Rosiques are the warmest and most generous family. Thank you for your friendship and for spending so much time with us during the busy wedding week.


Congratulations are in order to the newlyweds, Virginia and Angel Garcia!


It was so fun to see a Spanish wedding and how it differs from American weddings. Here are my top 5 Spanish wedding customs that we need to bring to the US:

Fancy Outfits – the Spanish don’t just go to weddings…they go to weddings prom-style. Everyone is decked out in their best suits and formal dresses. I somehow forgot to pack my ball gown in my backpack, so luckily we had a team of Rosiques to hodgepodge outfits together for us. I think we cleaned up pretty well!


Fans – not only did they hand out Spanish fans, called “abanicos” to all of their guests, but the bride was also sporting a white lacy fan during the ceremony and reception. Looking around the church during the ceremony, it was a flurry of fan-waving action. By the way, it is completely acceptable for men to use an abanico.


Rice – Let’s bring the rice-throwing tradition back to the US! Forget about the birds. It’s fun!


Clowns – when I first saw the clowns appear into the reception tent, I was a little confused. Then I realized that they were there for the kiddos. The clowns kept them busy all night long playing games, jumping in the bouncy castle and getting their faces painted. This also meant that by the end of the night, they were so completely worn out, they fell asleep right next to the dance floor where the DJ was blaring dance music into their ears. 


All Nighters – Spanish weddings go LATE. How late? The first bus back to the hotel was at 1:00am. The last bus was at 5:00am. I was slightly embarrassed to admit that at our wedding, I think the last bus left the reception at 10:30pm. We are such boring losers when you think about it! This photo was snapped at about 2:30am when the flamenco arms, claps and finger snaps were still in full force.


My parents, Steve and I were honored to be invited and included in Virginia and Angel’s special Spanish wedding day in Malaga. Thank you Rosique family! When in America, our casa is your casa!

June 15, 2012

Spain Part 3: Andalucia

Jumping on a high-speed train (going 269 km/hour) from Madrid, we rendezvoused with my dad in Malaga for a weeklong tour through Southern Spain – also known as Andalucia.

From roughly 700-1492 AD, this area of Spain was controlled by the Moors – Muslims from North Africa. What resulted is a section of Spain with wonderfully strong Islamic influences that make it look and feel different from the rest of the country.

Our first stop was the city of Granada, the capital of Moorish control in the Iberian Peninsula.


The Alhambra was the Moors’ crown jewel. Part fortress and part palace, the Alhambra stuns with its hilltop setting, ornate Moorish architecture and manicured gardens with peaceful water features.





Southern Spain’s countryside is full of olive trees, orange groves, sunflower fields and bull billboards – with no advertising purpose other than to serve as a cultural reminder.

 


So after visiting Granada, we rented a car and spent 3 days hopping among Andalucia’s charm bracelet of white hilltop villages. 

 

Ronda is a beautiful village straddling a gorge with an impressive bridge and Spain’s oldest bullring.




Arcos de la Frontera is a curious little town perched on top of a dramatic cliff.


It’s been called the “Queen of the White Towns” and has been compared to the train of a wedding dress – its white-washed houses tumbling down the back of the ridge. This is one of those places that makes a mark in your memory.


It’s the small details that make Arcos so charming…the flower pots, the door knockers, the circle in front of the church where they used to perform exorcisms.


Steve was such a trooper driving through the tiny and steep roads, around corners that seemed impossible, and dodging baby strollers and motorcycles. After our third attempt to reach our hotel at the summit of the village, I asked Steve if he was traumatized by the experience. He answered an emphatic, “yes”.


Next up was Jerez de la Frontera, famous for flamenco, Andalucian horses and sherry. In the same way that champagne can technically only come from the Champagne region of France, sherry can only come from Jerez. We took a nice bodega tour of the most famous of sherries, Tio Pepe.


Our last stop in Andaluica was the charming city of Sevilla.


Here’s how I would sum up Sevilla in one picture…


There are striking Spanish buildings, but even more impressive are the colorful ceramic tiles that blanket the city. The Moors developed the craft of glazing ceramic tiles and they are now a defining feature of Sevilla’s parks and streets.


It's very common for buildings to have interior patios, and it's fun to casually peak into them whenever a door is left cracked open.


Sevilla also has a wonderful Alcazar or “royal palace”. It was the summer home of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel – the Catholic Monarchs who led Spain to victory over the Moors and who financed Spain’s explorations of the New World. It felt weird to stand in the private chapel off of their bedroom and know that these were the same people who took down the Incas and so heavy altered the entire destiny of South America.

This palace is also where Ferdinand Magellan charted his course to circumnavigate the globe and where Chistopher Columbus met with the monarchs before his famous voyage to the Americas. There was a room dedicated to the Virgin of the Navigators where explorers would come to pray for good winds on their expeditions.

Because of the heavy Moorish influences throughout Andalucia, Sevilla’s Alcazar at times felt reminiscent of the Alhambra in Granada…but I liked it even better.




This is a truly breathtaking palace of immense detail that we highly recommend to anyone traveling to Spain.


By the time we got to Sevilla, we were itching to see some flamenco. We struggled with whether to go to a “show” or simply seek out an impromptu performance in a local bar. This is a reoccurring travel conundrum, and both sides have their pluses and minuses. We ended up choosing a show, and we were glad that we went this route so that we could see a bit flasher of a performance.

Flamenco dancers must be the world’s best tap dancers. It’s a highly rhythmic art combing guitar, singing, stomping, clapping and finger snapping. Flamenco artists snap their fingers so loud that you honestly think there must be tiny microphones hidden on their hands somewhere. There are also fancy ruffled dresses and very intense facial expressions.


I couldn’t possibly write about Spain without mentioning their obsession with ham. Thanks to our local friends, we got the low-down on the legs of ham that have been hanging all over the country. For example, it’s better to buy a leg with a black hoof instead of a white hoof. Who knew!


In just about every restaurant or cafĂ© throughout Spain, you can spot a leg attached to an apparatus with a gentleman manually and so skillfully slicing the thinnest piece of meat you’ve ever seen. There are many different kinds of cuts, with the best being in this order: Iberico, Serrano, Lomo, Chorizo, Taquito. Funny enough, the lean Taquitos (the worst quality on the leg) were our favorites! This is simply because our American stomachs can’t handle the 70/30 fat-to-meat ratio on the other cuts. Our Spanish friends assured us several times that the fat was the best part.


Finally, as our week through Andalucia progressed, so did our encounters with all things bullfighting. Our first night in Malaga, we walked onto our hotel balcony and found this view.


Just about every town we visited had a bullring – each with different architecture, sizes, colors and flair. In Ronda we toured Spain’s oldest bullring and learned all about the traditions and progressive acts of the fight. There’s a chapel that the matadors pray in before they go into the ring and a hook where they hang the slain bull to sell off its meat. Bullfights are such an interesting cultural jewel of Spain.

I bet most Americans would expect that bullfights are just as common as football or baseball games, but that’s not so. These are special sporting events, and each city may only have bullfights during one week or maybe a few weekends out of the year. That’s why we were extremely lucky to be in Malaga for two bullfights of very different proportions...

On our first night in Malaga, our Spanish friend Mamen swooped us up from the train station and took us to the countryside for her boyfriend’s uncle’s 70th birthday party. As we parked the car and walked up to the party, this is what we found.


The family had rented out a bullring for the day. With a live guitarist and violinist playing in the background, we watched a mock bullfight. A man pushes around a fake bull’s head on wheels while a mounted matador narrowly escapes the plastic bull using highly skilled horsemanship. Have you ever seen a horse gallop sideways? In the end, the mounted matador strikes the bull with fake swords and proceeds to proudly puff out his chest while milking the applause of the crowd. Bullfighters have incredible arrogance showmanship.


After the “bullfight”, they brought a real baby bull into the ring and let family members take turns with the cape. Mamen’s boyfriend, Jesus, had been practicing off You Tube videos and held his own in the ring. His brother, on the other hand, had his shirt ripped to shreds.


Then on our last night in Spain, the real deal took place at the Malaga bullring. Set to the tune of a 25-piece band, 3 matadors with the help of their small entourage of picadors and banderilleros each get a shot at 2 bulls a piece. By the end of the night, 6 bulls had been fought and a 7th bull entered the ring but was spared...we have no idea why.

The matadors are household names, but the bulls are equally as important. Just like in horse racing, the each bull’s farm, name, and weight are publicized prior to the fight.

I don’t know why we found this surprising, but the bullfight was very bloody. There’s a lot more involved, but to sum it up quickly and in layman’s terms…

The bull is released from its pen and the matador takes his first passes with a hot pink cape.


The matador’s first team member, the picador, comes out on an armored horse and stabs the bull in the shoulders with a long arrow-like pole. This is the first puncture of the bull and releases the tension that has built up in its shoulders.


The matador’s second set of team members, the banderilleros, run at the bull and – jumping in the air towards it face – plunge colorful barbed sticks into its back. If they miss or the sticks fall out, they have to do it again. This further weakens the bull’s muscles.


In the final stage, the matador comes back out and does some more passes with the bull using a red cape. His final act is to plunge a slightly curved sword through the bull’s shoulders straight into its heart. Within less than 20 seconds, the bull hits the ground.


One of the matador’s team members comes out with a dagger to put the final touches on the death near what looked to be the spinal cord.


A team of men come out to hitch the bull to a cart and drag it out of the stadium to the cheers of the crowd. Then they shovel up all of the blood into a bucket. Fight over.


After the initial shock wears off, it’s very entertaining. I always assumed that the word “Ole!” was just a stereotype that no one actually uses. Not so! Brave or skilled moves displayed by the matadors draw audible oles throughout the crowd. If a matador does an exceptional job, the crowd waves white handkerchiefs and he is awarded one of the bull’s ears. What a fitting way to spend our last night in this culture-rich country.

So to recap…Andalucia: sun, bullfights, olives, heat, ham, and flamenco. Soak it up! Ole!