Tuesday, March 31, 2009
What were we thinking?? We were out of bed at 6:00 this morning so we would be ready for our 8:00 tour. Coffee and Danish arrived at 6:30, and we met the others in the group [Scott & Karen, Bill & Sharon] around 7:55 and waited until the ship was cleared and the crowd started to move. As soon as we emerged from the gangway, we saw Sabrina, our guide, holding up a sign with D’s name on it. We walked to the Mercedes minivan and off we went.
Our first stop today was Firenze [Florence]. Sabrina gave us the choice of driving on the highway or taking the scenic route. We all agreed, without hesitation, to take the slower, more scenic route to Firenze. It was a good decision, one of several we made today. At the beginning, the drive was not very scenic, but once we left the four-lane highway, things picked up, uh, slowed down. The closer we got to Firenze, the narrower the roads became. We climbed into the hills as we approached the town and stopped twice for photo opportunities. Even with overcast skies [and the threat of rain], the countryside was beautiful. Everywhere we looked were dormant grape vines and olive trees. It is too early in the spring for any growth; the harvest season for both is late Fall.
Closer to Firenze, we snaked down a switchback road which was wide enough for 1-1/2 cars. When we did face oncoming traffic, we were happy to be on the hill side of the road, not the cliff side. It was touch and go slow a few times. As the farms thinned out, the houses became more frequent until we were in the suburbs with row houses and shops. Sabrina seemed to know every back road on the route and soon after we first caught sight of Firenze’s landmarks in the distance, we were climbing again.
Our first “real” stop was at the San Miniato church. Run by a small group of Benedictine monks, the church overlooks the Arno valley almost on top of the center of historical Florence [see, I switched back]. The church is made of Carrera marble, the same type of Italian marble Michelangelo and other Renaissance sculptors used.
We wandered through the church while Sabrina illegally told us a little about it; she is not a licensed guide and is not supposed to act like one, especially if a licensed guide might overhear her. The interior of the church was also mostly marble and the floor was criss-crossed with marble memorials to the people buried beneath them. While many churches have a few remains buried in the floor of the church, this one was completely filled. We took photos of Florence from the perspective before going down the hill and into the town itself.
We started in the plaza in front of Santa Croce [Holy Cross] church. It is a large square surrounded by shops on three sides with the church occupying the fourth. It is a major meeting point for groups and individuals; when we were here in 2001, we met out group here for the walk to the bus. Well, we had no walk today. Sabrina simply parked in front of the church and waited for us while we wandered around the shops helping to enrich the Italian economy. MA found a leather box she liked, so we can scratch Italy off the list. In point of fact, leather is one of the main crafts plied in Tuscany. It is also a major producer of olive oil and chianti wine [remember those grape vines and olive trees?]. We didn’t go into Santa Croce, however, because we didn’t see the need to pay an admission fee to see another old dilapidated European church. [Note that Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is neither old not dilapidated, just unfinished and unlike any other church anywhere.]
When we were looking over Florence, literally, from San Miniato, Sabrina pointed out the green copper dome of the Florence synagogue. Under the Supreme Court’s Fairness Doctrine, we thought it only proper to visit there, too, since we will see a surfeit of churches in the next few days. Bill and Sharon weren’t interested and Karen lost interest when we discovered that there is an admission fee. Still, we and Scott forked over our five euro apiece; stashed our cameras in a locker; and went through the one-at-a-time security door; it was like picking up an order at a Plexiglas-enclosed Chinese carry-out.
We started at the second floor museum because the sanctuary was not going to open for another 10 – 15 minutes. The museum might have been interesting, and the displays were captioned in Italian and English, but our focus was on the synagogue more than the history of the Jews in Florence. [However, there were at one time two synagogues, one Italian and the other Spanish; there was a ghetto; and the Jews have all but disappeared from Florence.] We had to vie for space with a school group which also diminished our interest.
Once the doors were opened at noon, we found the synagogue be beautiful. We assumed that it was originally the Spanish synagogue because its arches and wall coverings were decidedly Moorish. There were key-hole arches typical of Morocco and the walls were painted to resemble mosaics. If this building had been in Morocco, the walls would have been covered in tiles. We stayed for a little while soaking it in, trying to remember what it looked like, since we were not allowed to take pictures.
Although Sabrina had reserved a time for us at the Accademia museum, home to the original of Michelangelo’s David, we realized that none of us was that interested in “doing” a museum, especially with a 10.5 euro admission charge. So much for culture. We decided instead that it was lunch time, so Sabrina called ahead to a Trattoria she liked and booked a table for six. Once we arrived, we tried to talk her into having lunch with us, but she demurred, saying that she never ate “on duty” because she was afraid she might fall asleep afterward. We had a good meal without her. All of us had some sort of pasta and all of us enjoyed the meal.
Sabrina met us outside the restaurant when we were done and drove us to the square containing the Duomo (the Dome]; the Cathedral; the bell tower and the baptistery whose bronze doors are famous. She dropped us there so we could “do our own thing,” which meant shopping at an open-air marketplace for us and Scott & Karen. By now, it was raining lightly, but Bill & Sharon dragged their cameras to take pictures of the tourist sites anyway. We had seen them before and Scott & Karen didn’t seem to care. MA bought a necklace she liked, but D passed on a leather mask, which he thought was too expensive, when the vendor didn’t seem interested enough in the sale to bargain a little.
Back to car we went, stopping to see the Ponte Vecchio [the Old Bridge] over the Arno River. The Ponte Vecchio once was home to butcher shops, but one of the Medici’s thought that was unseemly, so today most of the shops deal in jewelry, mostly gold. Again, no one felt strongly about actually walking or shopping the Ponte Vecchio, so we waved goodbye to Florence and headed to Pisa.
Despite the rain, we were all glad we had stopped, even briefly, to see the Leaning Tower, the Cathedral and the Duomo [Does every town have one of these?]. The Tower does indeed lean although it was hard to get a good angle to take pictures. We could see people who were in the process of climbing the 300 steps to the top, but we were content to watch them as they walked on the balconies. Of course, there were lots of young people positioning themselves so friends could take pictures of them pushing the Tower upright. The crowds here were not as bad as in Florence, but Pisa is only one-fifth the size of Florence. There were more stalls near the Tower so Karen was able to add to her collection of pins – she found them for Florence, Rome and Pisa today, so she was a happy camper.
We all managed to stay awake for the 25-minute drive from Pisa to the ship, something that we could not say about the drive to Florence or to Pisa. It was still raining when we boarded the ship at 5:30, tired and happy.
Tomorrow – Rome.
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
The Griswolds continued their assault on Italy today with overcast skies and then rain in the Eternal City, Rome. It may have gotten its nickname from the amount of time it takes to get from Point A to Point B.
We were up before the 6:00 a.m. alarm, but only God knows why. The group assembled and we were outside waiting by 7:30. Today’s driver was Fabio [no, not that one] and we were out of the dock area and on the road by 7:45. Civitavecchia, where the Prinsendam is docked, means “old city” and the drive from there to Rome was a breeze until we actually reached the outskirts and hit morning rush hour traffic. Fabio knew all of the local side streets but it was still 9:15 when we met up with today’s guide, Mayta.
Mayta is an American expat who has lived in Rome for almost 30 of the last 40 years. A short, squat woman, she gives the appearance of being a bag lady. She certainly was not what we expected after 2 years of e-mail. We all agreed that she knew her stuff, but she was often inaudible while we drove, especially on the ever-present cobble stone streets. And when she did talk, she didn’t stop. Picking up on our comments during the day, she gave us her opinion on George W. [often and always negative], movies, Italian politics, Catherine Zeta Jones and the Pope. Despite our disappointment with Mayta professionally, we saw most of what we wanted see as Rome virgins and enjoyed ourselves. As much as anything, she reminded us of Mr. Otah, our guide in Osaka last year; at least, like him, we keep talking about her.
Our first destination was the Pantheon, but we stopped en route to take in a panoramic view of Rome’s roofs and skyline from a “scenic overlook.” The Pantheon is a magnificent building which may have been the model for the Rotunda in Washington. A circular building, it housed a tremendous dome with an open “eye” in it. The eye provided all of the light inside since there are no windows in the building. According to Mayta, the dome is a perfect semi-circle the diameter of which is exactly one radius above floor level; in other words, it could be rotated to form a perfect sphere which just touched the floor. Covered by marble floors, the interior has niches with statues and tributes. King Victor Emmanuel and his wife Margherita are both buried there as is the painter Raphael who died in his early 30s.
When we left the Pantheon, we drove to the Vatican. As a result of the Lateran Treaty of the 1920s, Vatican City, although completely surrounded by Rome [and, by extension, Italy], is a free and inde-pendent nation. At one square mile, it is the smallest country on the planet. On the way, we passed St. Peter’s Square and the Bernini columns but sadly were not given the chance to take pictures to prove we were there. Rather, we continued to wind around the Vatican walls until we were at the entrance to the Vatican Museum. Apparently, because the Pope was giving a public audience for thousands of his closest friends, we couldn’t stay and walk around the square, but a picture would have been nice. Also because the Pope was “in the building,” we couldn’t be – we would have to exit the Vatican Museum directly without seeing the Basilica’s interior.
We had prepaid a reservation fee to guarantee a speedy entrance because there can be [and were] long lines of tourists waiting for tickets and entrance. We wended our way upstairs and waited for another tour guide to finish his explanation of the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s paintings. Scattered around this area of the museum were automated displays which showed both large scale and detailed sections of the ceiling. The displays were on rollers so that the guides could literally scroll up or down. Mayta got a bit confused here and lost both her train of thought several times and her place on the display. Luckily, she didn’t give us the whole story or we would be there still.
Once we were finished with our art history lesson, we started walking through the museum. It is tremendously long but is seen in shotgun fashion. Visitors essentially walk in a straight line from start to finish, give or take lots of steps. [Mayta uses a cane and speaks perfect Italian, so she was able to talk several guards into letting us use elevators instead of stairs] We walked through galleries of artifacts and tapestries, stopping all too frequently to hear detailed explanations. It was interesting to hear about and see the detailed weaving techniques used to make shadows, wood grain and other elements of painting which had not been attempted in wool and silk before, but once or even twice would have been fine. MA, especially, would have been happier if Mayta had been more accurate in her explanations of Biblical events and references.
We passed the old Vatican Library, a sumptuous area alive with color everywhere. There were storage lockers from the old library on display, lining on entire hallway. Finally, there was the Sistine Chapel. We knew from our lesson that it was small, but we were astonished at just how small it was. There were so many tourists in the Chapel that it was overwhelming. Although there were signs at the entrance asking visitors to be respectful and quiet, the din was overwhelming. Several times while we were there [maybe ten minutes] the guards played a recording in several languages asking people to stop talking. They did stop but only until the recording was over. Most of the visitors today seemed to be students from grade school through college, so there was no way they were going to be quiet. We were able to find Mayta in the throng and headed for an exit.
By this time, Sharon was feeling ill. A diabetic, she needed something to eat and had not brought a snack with her. We told Mayta that we were ready for lunch and she tried to call Fabio on her cell phone only to discover that the battery was dead. D’s phone had no signal, either, so we continued to trudge to the exit. Once again we were able to avoid steps and use an elevator. Mayta was finally able to reach Fabio on D’s cell phone and the car was waiting for us when we finally exited the Vatican Museum.
We told Mayta that we wanted a simple meal in a Trattoria which was not filled with tourists, so she took us to one in her neighborhood where we found ourselves to be the first customers of the day. We did, indeed, have a simple meal – pasta for D and veal scallopini for MA -- and Cokes, of course. We paid for Mayta’s lunch as well. After the raucous atmosphere and noise level of the Trattoria in Florence, today’s venue was almost surreal. Even when several other diners came in for lunch, it was uncomfortably quiet. At least the food was good.
We had told Mayta before lunch that we wanted to visit the Catacombs. Everyone seemed to be in agreement and we sped off with Mario Andretti Fabio as our wheelman. On the way to the catacombs, we exited Rome proper when we drove under an arch which was the remains of a gate overwhich ran an aquaduct supplying Rome with fresh water. Prior to that, we had passed the ruins of the Roman baths [an imposing structure even in decline] and the Circus Maximus [think Ben Hur’s chariot race.
We discovered later that there are three sets of catacombs outside Rome which are open to visitors; on any given day, two of them are open. We were visiting the catacombs at St. Sebastian’s. Sharon decided not to see the subterranean burial grounds and Bill opted out, too, presumably to stay with her, but D, MA, Scott and Karen went with Mayta to buy tickets. Mayta was not joining us because the Catacombs supply their own guides in several languages; we suspect that the steep steps and narrow walkways were also factors.
We waited about twenty minutes for the English tour to begin. The guide made some introductory re-marks before he led us down a long flight of steep steps. We played Follow the Leader through dimly lit, narrow corridors before he stopped in a large chamber and started to explain the origins and history of the Roman catacombs. The Roman emperors were not known for their tolerance of other religions, so Jews and the early Christians buried their dead in underground vaults; it was sort of “out of sight, out of mind.” Because of persecution, these underground areas became the site of worship services as well when some areas were not dug as gravesites but as larger chambers capable of hold a larger group. The burial sections of the catacombs were simply “shelves” cut into the dirt or stone where the bodies of the deceased were placed. The dead were usually wrapped in sheets as was the old Jewish custom, borrowed by the Christians who still had strong Jewish roots.
The remaining bones have been removed from the assorted areas of the catacombs and may be in a mass grave at the lowest level [if we understood the guide]. At one time, the remains of St. Sebastian were also in the catacombs albeit in a chamber of their own; now, they are in the church itself. We stopped at one other area before surfacing. The guide explained that the area where the catacombs are located had, at one time, been a depression or basin. Mausoleums for the families of the rich, once at ground level, are now fifteen to twenty feet underground. In succeeding centuries, the ground has been filled in and a church built right over them.
We were almost done and done in. We drove by back on the Appian Way, which began at the aquaduct/ gate, and went to see the Coliseum. By now it was raining, so the picture taking was quick and wet. A drive to the top of the Capitoline Hill, one of Rome’s Seven Hills, afforded us good views of the remains of the Forum before we paid a visit to the Trevi Fountain and tossed a coin in; MA made the traditional wish. We finished the visit with a slow drive by of the Spanish Steps and the boat fountain at its base. The Steps were crowded despite the rain and we stayed in the car and took pictures [we hope] as we drove by.
We dropped Mayta off near her home, paid her fee, and sped off around 5:15. As slow as the driving was on the way into Rome this morning, leaving was practically painless. We were soon on the autostrada [interstate] and Fabio put the pedal to the metal, driving 120 KPH [70 mph] on the rain-slicked roadway, and getting us “home” around 6:30.
Tomorrow will be another early morning and long day when we dock in Naples and drive to Sorrento, Positano, Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast.
Thursday, April 02, 2009
Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day….
With a prediction of clear skies and warmer temperatures, we still awoke in the dark. We were to meet Fabrizio, today’s driver, on the dock at 8:00 a.m. We were waiting for him when he pulled in.
Our day was, by design, a simple one. We drove from Naples where we were docked to the small village of Positano. On the way, we followed the Amalfi coast road, a narrow, tortuous route which was barely wide enough for two cars but which carried gigantic tour buses, too. Fabrizio handled the curves like a master but kept on accelerating and coasting, accelerating and coasting all day. This style of driving produced the occasional whiplash and thoughts of motion sickness, but we all adjusted to it by the end of the day.
Fabrizio was a welcome breath of sunshine after having Miss Congeniality yesterday. He was young [to us, anyway] and had a good sense of humor. He told us much about the Amalfi Coast and all of our destinations, but he also told jokes, bantered with us and told us much [but not too much] about himself. He was a hoot. We were sorry we had not used him in Rome and would e-mail in a minute if we knew we were coming back to Italy. He may not have been a licensed guide, but he made the day enjoyable. Just as we had a guide in Vietnam last year who kept saying, “Oh my God,” Fabrizio’s favorite exclamation, repeated frequently under a variety of situations and topics was simply, “Mamma mia!” We couldn’t figure out if this was part of his public personna
There were six of us again today and we played musical seating as the day wore on. D and Bill took turns in the front seat and Scott and Karen were in the back for much of the day. We stopped along the way to Positano to view the wonders of the Bay of Naples and the magnificent mountains which reached right down to the water. Bare rock strata were visible all the way around, but much of the mountainside was covered with fairly new vegetation. The roadway, visible across inlets at most of the “pullovers,” hugged the side of the cliffs and was often supported by man-made pillars and bridges of concrete. Bellisimo!
At the first overlook, we spotted padlocks secured to the railing at the edge. Fabrizio explained that it was a “lovers’ lane” of sorts – young men and women would come here and declare their undying love for each other using the symbolic padlock, then would throw the key over the edge to seal the deal. Cynics that we are, we looked around to see if there were any combination locks.
The village of Positano covers all three sides of an inlet of the Bay of Naples. Despite driving for an hour or more, we were still pretty much across from Naples, having simply outlined the Bay’s curvature. Positano is built vertically up the cliff’s side with almost no natural flat spots. The buildings cover the hill in ever-rising tiers of houses. It reminded us of Monte Carlo’s rising from the water and up the cliff and driving the connecting cornices. Positano, of course, is a humble fishing village by birth which now depends on tourist dollars to survive. We walked through some of the lower level shopping district and then drove to Sorrento.
Getting there is half the fun, as they say. We zig-zagged up the hill in Positano, enjoying the views and Fabrizio’s automobile acrobatics. We emerged from the town at our original point of entry and back-tracked until we turned for Sorrento. Sorrento is a large town compared to Positano. It is not so rock-bound and is more spread out. We drove through town and observed not only a large town square but several smaller ones as well. We told Fabrizio that we were ready for lunch even though it was early by local standards. He took us to a local pizza parlor where, he said, we would have the most authentic pizza ever. We had to wait for the staff to finish lunch before we could order, but the wait was worth it. Each couple ordered a different type of pizza. The pizza itself had a thin-crust and, we think, was done in a wood-fired oven. We got a sampler –margherita, basil & tomato, sausage & tomato, and, finally, tomato. There was no red sauce used, just fresh tomatoes and we agreed with Fabrizio that it was as good as any we had had.
Sorrento is home to lemoncello, a lemon liqueur. All around the area, one sees lemon trees; in fact there were some in a park across the street from the pizzeria. When in Sorrento, do as the locals do: MA and Sharon both tried the lemoncello after lunch, although no one else was interested. Then, when we returned to the car, Fabrizio gave a bottle of the local specialty to MA “for the group.” We’ll see about that.
After lunch, we climbed back into the mini-van and drove toward Naples so we could visit the ruins of Pompeii. The city of Pompeii was destroyed when Mt. Vesuvius erupted during the Roman era and was rediscovered, and excavated relatively recently. We had an hour to climb up to the ruins and explore, so we didn’t see very much of Pompeii. Still, we were able to get an idea of the scope and scale of the city and were glad we had made the stop. In addition to tumbled walls and restored gardens, we also saw the lava-encased bodies of several of Vesuvius’ victims; these were stored under cover along with other artifacts which have been unearthed. The walk down the path to the exit was even more difficult than when we had used it as an entrance –very steep and paved with smooth, worn stones.
Because we were early, we waited a few minutes for Fabrizio to appear at the meeting point, but he was right on time. We climbed in and returned to the ship well before curfew, tired but happy.