Sunday, July 11, 2010

What a difference ten years makes

Ok, eleven years... almost to the day, in fact - the last (and only other) time I had been to Rome was back in the summer of 1999, when I was young, naive, and inexperienced in the ways of a world-wide nomad. So, I've changed and evolved since then - turns out Rome has too. Well, in some ways, it hasn't - the Colosseo is still here:

Built in 80AD, it's on a rather slow trajectory of change - an extra eleven years wasn't going to do a whole lot

It feels a bit different on the inside though - more on that below

Hola, Roma!

The atmosphere inside and around the Colosseum, however, changed dramatically - sure, it was a big tourist attraction then too, but compared to today? I felt I had the place all to myself when I went inside eleven years ago. Today, the people of America, and the people of India, and the people of everywhere in between have truly discovered Rome and the Colosseum. I'd love to see the comparison of annual visitor statistics between today and '99 - my guess is that there's several times more visitors that arrive today. Along with them, you get lines (of course), persistent tour guide touts, offering to get you past said lines, and Nigerian men aggressively selling crappy souvenirs. Inside today, it's crowded - sometimes you start to think that maybe picking up a few ancient Gladiator swords and pikes and going out into the ring in order to 'thin out the crowds' a bit wouldn't be such a bad thing. I did have a rather profound headache that morning, following the three bottles of Italian wine Donna and I had split the night before (which didn't feel nearly far enough in the past), so, perhaps, my judgment was a bit clouded on the 'thinning of the crowds' issue...

Other things change in less obviously perceptible ways - take the Vatican. St. Peter's and the Piazza remain the stoic guardians of the Catholic Church, and the same steady flow of tourists comes to gawk at them. Maybe I should say torrent, not flow... but that was just as much the case eleven years ago.

The St. Peter's Basilica - certainly an awesome testament to Papal glory

And the plaza out front... Didn't I see that obelisk some place recently? That's right it was plundered from Egypt...

The State of Vatican is an independent nation (I went by the embassy of the Russian Federation at the Vatican), but you can't get a Vatican stamp in your passport... to my bitter disappointment

The big change from summer of '99 is that now you actually get to see the dome of St. Peter's in all of its glory - and it is, oh, so very remarkably glorious. Back in '99, the Vatican was getting ready to welcome in the New Millennium in style and the entire Cathedral was being renovated - the outside fully encased in construction works. Having now seen it, I've got to admit, the Basilica is quite the site. While the architectural style is by no means unique, it is far bigger, grander, and more lavishly (much more) decorated than any of the other Catholic Cathedrals built in a similar style. The vast colonnaded plaza out front only adds to the already awe-inspiring ambiance...

The Vatican also houses a vast and diverse art collection - the Popes have enjoyed the good life over the years... and eventually one of them thought to turn their personal collection into a museum (and charge a steep admission fee, of course). The steep admission fee has never done much to discourage visitors, and I had planned to see the Sistine Chapel and the Musei Vaticani back in '99, but I was confronted with a threesome of obstacles, which put together, were too much to overcome: it was 30-some degrees (Celsius), the line stretched for at least three hours, and you had to wear long pants to enter...

This is where things change, but subtly. You see, the line is still there, in all of its eternal glory - in fact, I think it stretches almost precisely as far as it did eleven years ago. It's still hot, and you still have to wear long pants. But this time, I had a secret weapon (sort of like holy water, only more useful and technologically advanced) - I was staying at a hostel, the Vatican had embraced the word of the internet, and the hostel showed me how to order a ticket online. For an extra 4 Euro, you get assigned a time, show up at the Vatican at roughly that time, walk past the line, keep walking - it's a long line, walk some more, finally get to the front... "Excuse me sir, I have this ticket?" "Oh, sure go right in - this way!" That was, far and a way, the best 4 Euro I have spent in my entire life!

Oh, and the Vatican museums themselves... It's not just the Sistine Chapel (as I thought going in) - it's so very, very much more: room after room of paintings, sculpture, decorations, archaeological finds, and more. They are hard to describe, honestly, but suffice to say, the collection rivals the finest art exhibits you will find in the Louvre, in Florence, in London... The Egyptian wing may have an arguably finer collection of artifacts than the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (certainly better presented). The works by all the Italian masters are here - the decorations by Michelangelo and the Bernini's statues all immediately jump out at you. And all it takes is standing in line for three and a half hours ... or 4 Euro. Thank you, Hotello di Roma!

The Sistine Chapel. No, you are not allowed to take pictures in here, but everybody else was doing it...

One of the more interesting exhibits they have is a large section of modern religious art. I'm surprised at the mild oxymoron of the term 'modern religious' art, as well as the fact that the Vatican would deign to recognize the existence of such an art form...

The rest of Rome, I found more or less unchanged. It's busy, and vibrant; it's lacking in underground public transportation options, but it isn't lacking in Italians lounging about, cruising around on their Vespas at precarious speeds, not doing much of anything productive. There are ancient sites to see just about anywhere you look, and there's shops offering memorabilia from said sites indeed everywhere you look. Oh, and the food's excellent!

Piazza Navona, with a large Bernini sculpture decorating the fountain

It is called the city of fountains... and the Trevi fountain remains one of the stars

The Spanish Steps, at Piazza di Spagna, are most certainly home to more tourists than steps

Leaving Rome after three days, I was looking to fill in another gap in my earlier Italian itinerary: Pisa, and its precariously leaning tower. Last time I've been to Pisa, I had just enough time to change trains at the station - now I was stopping here for day. Pisa was, apparently, somewhat of your basic Italian backwater town for most of its history - a Cathedral was eventually built, it burned down, it was re-built; a bell tower was added... and then the Tower began to fall over. Slowly. Very slowly - slowly enough for the citizens of Pisa to stabilize it and turn it into a world famous attraction. Today, the tower (which, by the way, is quite remarkable in appearance, aside from the unhealthy lean) continues to stand askew, but it has been stabilized, the crumbling columns have been replaced, and the gradual falling has ceased, suspending the tower in its slightly askew state.

I knew most of the above before ever getting to Pisa. What I learned in Pisa is that there's more to it than just the Tower - there's a whole Piazza del Duomo: a picture-perfect plaza housing the Cathedral. It has rightfully gained the majority of its fame and notoriety for the precariously leaning tower, but the Duomo itself, along with the adjoining Campo dei Miracoli make for a remarkable medieval Italian scene in their own right.

Look - the Tower, it leans! I wasn't actually expecting the Tower to be as big as it is. I don't know why, but somehow I pictured it to be smaller. In reality, it's rather massive - easily visible along the streets before you arrive at the Piazza. The angle of the lean is also far more pronounced than I imagined

The Duomo and the Campo dei Miracoli - the other major characters of the Piazza

Honestly, there's not a whole lot else to see in the town of Pisa, and what you do see doesn't quite stack up to the prime attractions, but the Chiesa di Santa Maria Della Spina on the riverbank is worth a visit

Further noteworthy Pisa: the Nigerian mafia has followed the trail of tourists up here. In Rome they seemed to specialize in cheap umbrellas, crappy sun glasses (and they swap displays of one for the other with remarkable speed and efficiency depending on the conditions overhead), and souvenirs, which are both cheap and crappy. In Pisa, they assault the tourists with offers of Rolexes... and crappy souvenirs. I can't imagine why anyone would want to own a fake Rolex, no matter the price, but I did see someone negotiating on a purchase... people have weird tastes, obviously...

The sites of Pisa really don't need more than two, maybe three hours, so after snapping a few pictures of the Duomo and ducking the 'Rolex' salesmen, I had more than enough time to get back to the hostel and settle in to watch the final qualifying round game of Italy's national team at the World Cup, along with the Italians there. Italy played Slovakia. They had played rather uninspired football previously, so they needed a win. The Slovakians seemed unimpressed. The Italian that I was watching with, seemed despondent (and more than a little cynical) when their team was looking lethargic, down 2-1 deep into the second half. Then Italy scored a goal to tie it up! The whole street erupted in a wild, spontaneous celebration. They appeared intent to teach the South Africans just how to properly use a vuvuzelas in a time of football induced ecstasy... And then the referee ruled it a no goal (offsides - replays confirmed), and we settled into a sort of a dull stupor. In the end, Italy, a 3-2 loser to Slovakia, finished dead last in its group and failed to advance past the group stage for the first time in some 30 years. I don't speak Italian, but I could still tell that even the TV announcers sounded depressed... It could've been worse, I thought - after all, the French not only failed to advance past the group stage, but their team outright mutinied against the coach. The Italians didn't seem particularly encouraged by this neighborly comparison - I heard more about how the National Team's coach had refused to select the Italy's two top players for the squad - one for getting into an altercation with the coach's son, the other for being black... It was a decidedly depressed country on this day!

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