Sunday, December 27, 2009

All Wet

Just a few minutes after leaving the Vatican museum it started down pouring. I hid under the portico at St. Peter’s Square hoping that it would pass. Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed, but the rain was coming down as hard as ever. I was wearing a waterproof jacket. Would I be able to make it to the bus stop without getting completely soaked. I decided to make a run for it.

St. Peter's Basilica

Like an agent in one of those cheesy spy movies, I ran from street to street temporarily taking shelter under overhang. Still, I was getting pretty soaked. Eventually, I made it close enough to where I could see the busses coming and going around my corner. I ran out to the stop, just to realize that there was not cover what so ever within an easy dash of the bus. I was forced to stand in the rain for several minutes waiting for my bus to arrive. I jumped on the first one with the number I was looking for.

After getting onto the bus, I realized that it wasn’t heading in the right direction. Well, how far could a city bus go before turning around. Going to the end of the line was a lot better than standing out in the rain. Eventually, the bus did turn around, and I made it back to the Hostel.

Vatican Museum

From the top of St. Peter’s Basilica I retraced my steps back down the 400-some steps. On the way I stopped at a few of the souvenir stores, still on Vatican premises. Each of the little shops was manned by a small cadre of nuns. While each store sold pretty much the same collection of charms and crosses, the nuns were very strict about paying at the correct cash register. I assumed that they each represented different charities or orders, given turns to man the shops. I purchased a few pendants and an small plastic bottle to bring some holy water back for my grandmother.

Immediately upon crossing the street outside the Vatican, I realized that I could have purchased the very same trinkets for about half the price. Well, at least I could package my gifts in authentic Vatican paper sacks.

By the time I glanced through a few more stores, I was starving, but again caught in a touristy part of town. I did not want to pay 10 Euros for a sandwich again. Then, as I passed by one alley, I noticed dozens of students sitting on the stoop of a pizza joint. It seemed like the place to be. I found out why upon entering - pizza by the pound (actually per 100 grams). They had all your typical options: ham, onion, mushroom, and a few others. However, the pepperoni isn’t quite what we imagine in the US. I left with a full plate for a reasonable price.

With a full stomach, I felt ready to tackle the Vatican museum and Sistine Chapel. The entrance was around the back side of the small walled city-state. A new ticketing center had been carved out inside the medieval walls. It extended upward, via a creative spiral ramp to a light-filled glass atrium. From there, visitors were directed along various paths through the historic papal residence. I opted to skip the Egyptian and Mesopotamian collection and focus on the works of the masters.

Before arriving at Michelangelo’s definitive works, guests are treated to numerous exhibitions of priceless artifacts. However, I was most impressed with the d├ęcor of the palace itself. Much of the current museum was actually the private residence and administrative halls of the Papal court. The opulently decorated rooms reminded me of several other royal palaces that I’ve seen in my travels, most notably the Louvre. My favorite was the map room. In this long hall, the Pope had commissioned murals depicting all the lands under the watchful eye of the Holy See. Some paintings even depicted naval battles. I was even able to find one map of the region where we lived in France. Unfortunately, Chusclan was not indicated by name, but Avignon and Pont-St-Esprit were noted.

Continuing on, the museum briefly opened up into an atrium containing several classical sculptures and the busts of Roman Emperors. In a museum collection, this would seem completely appropriate, but one wonders why such respectively pagan and secular images would be housed within one of the most holy sanctuaries of the Christian church. As I admired some of the sculptures, I overheard a tour guide relating these pieces to the images in Michelangelo’s characters in the Final Judgment scene. Apparently, he caused quite a stir by depicting some of the holy figures with facial structures identical to those pagan works on display in the palace grounds. Of course, Michelangelo argued that such expressions represented the highest form of artistic expression produced by man. Who were the cardinals to argue with the vision of the great classical masters?

From room to room, signs indicating the direction to the Sistine Chapel teased me forward. Since no maps of the museum were provided, I could only continue onward, taking my medicine on art history. Clearly the curators had an agenda in ushering the visitors through such a progression in styles. The final step in the journey, brought visitors to the Papal suites decorated by Raphael. Belonging to the generation immediately senior to Michelangelo, Raphael and his contemporaries paved the way for Michelangelo’s final leap forward in realistic representation and artistic interpretation. I actually preferred many of Raphael’s paintings because of their colorful vibrance and the way he captured the moment of action in his scenes. Often times the characters in the paintings are caught in between steps as their robes flow around their bodies. It’s easy to appreciate these works for their artistic qualities.


I then descended a flight of stairs and continued down a non-descript narrow hallway. A simple plaque was all that identified the most famous chapel in the world. Stepping through the threshold near the front of the church, I almost collided with several tourists wandering about looking straight up at the ceiling. It took a moment for me to get my bearings within the empty space; I was hardly impressed until I too looked up. There were all the famous scenes of the bible most famously portrayed by Michelangelo. I had not realized, however, that the entire ceiling was covered in patchwork of murals. The frescoes continued half way down the side walls as well, and behind the alter, Michelangelo’s Final Judgement covered the entire wall.

It was a visual overload. The chapel was not the cohesive work of beauty that I had expected. Instead, it appeared more like an obsessive attempt to represent every significant event from holy tradition in one small chapel. Some individual works, like the depiction of God granting life to Adam by touch, was an impressive singular work. But I was otherwise too overloaded to leave with much of an appreciation for the work. Before leaving the museum for good, I returned to the chapel and spent a good ten minutes sitting and reflecting on all the images.


Photos of the chapel are forbidden. That doesn’t really stop anyone. Several guards walk around the room all day just yelling at people not to take photos. Seems like a lot of hassle and disappointment for visitors just because a few dummies can’t figure out how to turn the flash off on their camera - the extreme light of some flashbulbs are known to damage sensitive paintings. I discretely snapped a few photos with my camera at chest level. They turned out pretty well.

After years of restoration work, the chapel now looks almost as good as it ever has. Centuries worth of soot were washed from the frescoes, revealing much more vibrant colors that art history scholars expected. These efforts also revealed more information about the modifications made to the paintings in renaissance times - most notably censoring the nude depictions. Shortly after Michelangelo completed his masterpiece, a new prudish Pope unapologetically went about destroying countless works of art so he wouldn’t have to look at the penises - a real conservative Christian hero.

I ended up spending the entire afternoon in the Vatican Museum. My journey in art history spanned from 3000 B.C. to present day. The Renaissance works are the most famous, but I also learned a lot about other styles. One of my favorite sections dealt with early Christian art, circa 100 A.D. These early Christians adopted a lot of customs from other ancient cultures, but added a whole new vocabulary of imagery, especially shepherds and fishermen. At the 5 hour mark, however, I couldn’t stuff anything else into my mind.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Bad time for a snow day

“Oh no,” Mary Ann woke me up shouting her response to the weather conditions. As forecast, it had indeed snowed over night in Madrid. This is not a common occurrence in the warm weather capital. We knew that the locals would probably be freaking out. It would probably also cause problems for our eminent departure to Miami.

The snow had turned to freezing rain by the time we loaded up the car. Instead of taking Roxy on a long morning walk, we decided to get an early jump on the trip to the airport. Immediately upon making the turn around the hotel, we were confronted with gridlock. The other drivers had no idea what to do in inclement weather; they also lacked common courtesy. Cars packed into the intersection rendering the lights useless.

Stopped at one light for about 10 minutes, I was forced to take evasive maneuvers. This earned some well deserved honks and screams from an angry Spaniard, but I had no guilt. I had a flight to catch.

On the way, we skidded into a gas station to fill up and get a breakfast brioche. This was drastically complicated by a language barrier and resulted in a fruit cake. After that point, the traffic opened up and we made good time to the airport.

I dropped Mary Ann and Roxy off at the terminal and then returned the car. It turns out that we could have all stayed together, but our method worked fine anyway. We were now officially in hurry up and wait and wait and wait mode. All of the flights were well delayed, even the arrivals. It made me wonder if they had plowed the tarmac or just waited for the snow to melt. I imagined a deep queue of planes circling above.

At least we were able to wait with Roxy. We sat for about two hours before they even announced the check-in kiosk. I read a little and Mary Ann listened to music, but Roxy had the most fun pining for all the dog-lovers in the airport. One Spanish lady, who happened to speak French, described Roxy as an angel of humanity. Needless to say, she was enjoying all the attention.

Finally, the check-in location was announced and we rushed into line. At the counter, we were informed that the flight was now only running an hour late. We had no time to spare, but to begin the process of checking in Roxy, we would have to stand in another line to pay for the service. That ticket counter had it’s own hours long line. We started to get a little desperate. Finally, we were able to plead with another American at the front of the line to let us cut. After all that the teller had the gaul to ask for the payment in cash - 300 Euros, in cash! Mary Ann was incredulous. The guy, gave in and got his manual 1980s credit card swipe from the back room. Attention pickpockets, go to Barajas airport, they expect customers to make international ticket purchases in cash.

Step 2 of 3 complete, we cut back in line at the service counter and presented our paid dog travel receipt. We expressed our hurry, but the teller remained calm, explaining that the time of departure would now be 3:30. We had time. Shortly thereafter, a lady arrived to escort us and Roxy through the special security check. She took us to one of the service elevators, and we dutifully followed even though we couldn’t understand anything she said.

Communication would be important as we were ushered through the security checkpoint. I had no idea what was happening, but gathered from hand gestures to leave all of my items and walk Roxy through the metal detector. As we emerged on the other side a gaggle of airport staff were passing through the other way. I tried to get out of the way by moving into the hallway but was quickly admonished. Then I was questioned on the contents of Roxy’s water bottle. They made me open it up which broke the pressure seal. I could only hope that it stopped leaking at some point during Roxy’s adventure without us.

After that, we asked Roxy to jump into the crate. She obliged without complaint, probably getting tired from 8 straight hours without a nap. Then she was spirited away in one direction, and we were ushered back through conventional security.

Our first look at the departures board had our flight leaving at 4:00. Not long after arriving at the gate, it was pushed back to 4:20. We started boarding around 4:10. A lack of buses to take us to our plane (out on the tarmac) delayed us further, as did the route that the buses had to take which required going through two roundabouts. Seriously, there can’t be that much traffic on the tarmac.

Sometime before 5:00 we were all finally boarded and pulling away. After asking the flight crew three times, we also learned that Roxy was safely on board. Finally, we could relax… during the 10 hour flight.


Sunday morning provided another opportunity to sleep in. Although we were still interested in exploring the city, this day would be our chance to rest before the stressful day at the airport. Roxy also appreciated the rest. Two long days of driving had really tired her out.


After taking care of Roxy, we again proceeded downtown. This time we started at the Royal Palace and Opera. Getting something to eat was again first on our minds. I spotted a Turkish kabob place and craved one last shwarma meal. It’s so hard to find a good place in the States.


Later, we retraced our steps from the night before, cutting through the indoor market, Plaza Mayor and Puerto del Sol. Then we continued along a street chosen at random, hoping to find someplace to check our email. As luck would have it, our search again brought us to Starbucks. 45 minutes was just enough time to notify our parents of our well being and get some additional information about our upcoming flight.


After backtracking to the main shopping district, we strolled along the pedestrian streets popping in and out of colorful boutiques. My favorite, based on name and selection, was called Skunkfunk. The carried lots of orange wares; my favorite. Unfortunately, all were well out of my price range. Well, maybe until I start working again...

There were lots of cool stores. One entire mall seemed to be devoted to hipster styles. Mary Ann really like all of the retro accessories and sunglasses. I tried to talk her into some goth gear. At one store, I even found a wristwatch I considered buying. Instead of actually displaying the time digitally, it contained a series of 12 dots (for the hours) and a gradually increasing bar (for minutes). Not exactly practical, but I like the idea of rethinking how we might represent time. I also liked the concept of a reverse evolution from digital to analog. However, I didn’t like the idea on the price tag.

We continued on for a bit more, eventually returning to the hotel before dinner. Roxy was up and waiting for her afternoon walk. On the way we passed by a restaurant called Vips, not sure if that was meant to be VIPs. From outward appearances, it looked to be the Spanish equivalent of Denny’s. We couldn’t pass up that opportunity. The food was as expected, but at least it was a comfortable setting, and it had Wifi.


After dinner, we decided to celebrate our last night in Spain with some personally sized champagne bottles. Serious, they were like wine coolers, but with bad sparkling wine instead. I drank enough to thoroughly dehydrate myself in advance of the ten hour plane ride coming the next day. It seemed like a fitting end to our high class/ low cost trip through Iberia… or maybe that was the other way around.
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Over the mountains (to Madrid)

We slept well in Barcelona and even convinced Roxy to let us sleep in a bit. At 10:00, there was still a complimentary breakfast bar waiting in the lobby. The andouille sausage and cold Spanish omelets were a little unexpected, but sufficient to get us going. It turned out that the cab ride the night before wasn’t without some benefit; it gave me the chance to get my bearings. We easily found the route back to the highway and started the long drive to Madrid.

After leaving Barcelona, we climbed the foothills of the Pyrennes. The Catalan countryside was more what I expected of Spain than the modern metropolis of Barcelona. Quaint villages were positioned on rocky hills. Fruit and nut trees and vineyards stretched out through the valleys.

Quickly, though, the landscape became more arid and the population density dropped dramatically. Along desolate mountain ridges lonely modern windmills stood sentinel. I imagined the old Don Quixote sage with the new modern power generators. How might he have reacted to blades the size of a 747. And yet, at such distance, they were just tiny reminders that we hadn’t completely left civilization. For many hours, there was almost no development to speak of. We followed signs to Zaragosa, a town apparently large enough to host a top league soccer team.


Without much warning, the arid landscape gave way to cityscape. All of the buildings seemed brand new. I had to imagine that Zaragosa was a planned city, with incentives to bring residents into the uninhabited central region of the country. That was, after all, the idea behind the settling of Madrid.

The drive was easy enough, good weather and light traffic conditions. Undulating hills and curious rock formations provided just enough interest to keep me alert. Mary Ann noticed that many of the hills seemed to have lost their tops. Curious isn’t it that some Spaniard from this region might have been in the armies that first encountered the flat topped pyramids of the Aztecs. I surmised that many of these hills might have been worked over time for settlements or agriculture.


Our approach into Madrid was almost as sudden as driving through the other small cities in central Spain. I suppose that we skirted much of suburbia by taking the toll road bypass. Again, our directions were golden until up to the last two miles. A missed exit here and an unmarked street there, and we were again orienteering on instinct. This time the saving grace was the map Mary Ann printed with directions to the airport for the next day. We eventually found the hotel and street parking to boot.

The Travelodge wasn’t quite as nice, but it met our criteria: clean, quite, cheap, and they accepted pets. Roxy was happy to find a dog park near by, and we again expected to be near the city Metro system. We only got slightly lost on our walk to the station.

Hoping for a deal, we opted for the one day tourist pass Metro ticket assuming the followed the same 24 hour rule as Chicago. Not so, we learned the following day. On the trip, we were doing our part supporting public transportation by paying unnecessary fees. Beyond the unfair calendar-day, the subway was really nice. To get to the center of town, Puerto del Sol, we had to make a few connections. Pretty easy to do following the color code and end-station direction rules.

Emerging from the underground station into the main square, we were engulfed in a sea of people. We could not believe how many people were out and about. But the odd thing was that there didn’t seem to be any focus of the madness. There was no real event taking place. That didn’t stop the crowds from taking to the streets. All around traffic was closed and people of all ages wandered around, grabbing snacks at the cafeteria-style restaurants and doing late-evening shopping.


The only real pattern we could discern among the crowds was the habit of wearing crazy hats. At first, the Rudolf caps seemed cute, but then there were also giant afros, wildly colored wigs and springy holiday top hats. We even passed a stand selling Christmas masks. Nothing says, “happy holidays,” like creepy Barack and Michelle Obama masks. If you’re Spanish and reading this blog, please explain this tradition.

We eventually pushed our way through the crowds to the Plaza Mayor. There we encountered a traditional holiday market. Unfortunately, they weren’t serving any local fare. This was somewhat of a disappointment, because all of the restaurants in the area were packed. We wandered around a bit more, before our standards began falling again. I even considered going to Burger King.


Finally, we stumbled a suitable establishment. It was a little strange that they were nearly empty, despite the mass of crowds. Still, it offered a chance to sit down and enjoy some local fare, namely a plate of ham varieties and patatas bravas. These fried potatoes in spicy sauce are probably my favorite Spanish dish. Mary Ann judged the meal and the sangria more satisfying that our previous night’s fare. And we even made it back to the hotel via the subway too. We were starting to get the hang of travel in Spain.
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First stop: Barcelona

Early Friday morning, we drove back down to Avignon to pick up the new, larger rental car for the trip to Madrid. Mary Ann woke up at 6, I slept another hour while she got ready.

While she dropped off the old car, I went across the street to Avis to begin the process for our new vehicle. Everything seemed to going well, until we were notified that the uncovered damage limits extended up to 15,000 Euros. Holy crap! Um, yeah, we’ll take the additional insurance. It was expensive, but probably worth it to avoid one less bit of stress on the way back.

We were told that we were getting a Picasso. I hoped it would be big enough, didn’t think he was famous for oversized works. It turned out to be what goes for a mini-van in France, mono space. The trunk was huge. Compared to the small compact cars we’d been driving for the past six months, it really felt like a semi. The ride was smooth though, and the diesel engine had plenty of pickup. The Picasso would be satisfactory.

I dropped Mary Ann off at work and returned home to finish the packing. First, I had to complete the digital packing, transferring all of my files off the MacBook that would stay in France with Mary Ann. Then, I went through the refrigerator and cleaned out all of the perishable food-stuffs. By the time I washed the dishes, cleaned off the counter and threw every last thing in the bags it was already 2:00. Packing went quickly - plenty of room in the Picasso. Lastly, I took Roxy up for one final visit with the Berards. A half hour later, we on our way to pick up Mary Ann from work.

Finally, while sitting in the parking lot and waiting for Mary Ann to join us, I enjoyed my first moment of excitement about the journey ahead. Up until then, we had been stressing about all the details. The time for saying goodbye to people, to Chusclan, to France… was over. We pulled onto the auto route and followed the signs to Barcelona.

With the exception of the setting sun in my eyes for two-and-a-half hours, the drive went smoothly until we reached Barcelona. Mary Ann had meticulously printed out all the Mapquest directions for the trip, but as usual, it was insufficient in the city. We tried to follow a half-dozen turns, winding through a maze of highway interchanges. Our undoing was to look for an unmarked street off the main drag.

Fortunately, the hotel reservation had a map included. Judging our location by proximity to one of the main highways into town and the name of the city in which we were staying, we course corrected back in the general direction. Each street seemed to throw us deeper into the maze. At last we found street signs to the hotel. It was difficult enough following these, however. By the time we pulled up to the Hotel, I was thoroughly disoriented. I had no idea where we were, but at least we were there.

Roxy was happy to get out of the car and check out the surroundings while Mary Ann checked in. The Sercotel Ciutat de Montcada hotel was nice and modern. It sported wooden floors and fancy bathroom fixtures. But we didn’t stick around the room. Having pressed on without dinner, during the five hour drive, we were starving for some tapas and sangria.

We learned from the concierge that the train into the city was just blocks away. It was easy to find, down the hill and through a shady undeveloped brown lot. I got the impression that our hotel and the connected mini-mall was a attempt to gentrify the neighborhood. Anyway, if the trains ran, it wouldn’t matter. We found a 20-something girl to tell us which side of the tracks to stand on and soon enough we were racing into town - quite a bit farther than expected.

The train conveniently pulled into a station at the top of La Rambla, the main dining and shopping street of town. We passed by the usual tourist stands and street performers looking for the perfect tapas place. I had one particular street in mind, but at night I wasn’t able find it, as we wandered substantially longer than our stomachs would allow. Finally, we settled for a bar that seemed not-too-shady. We ordered the house special tapas and a ½ order of sangria. What we got was a mug of sangria with two ridiculously long neon straws and the plates that no one else wanted. It was enough food to satisfy our appetite, but not much of a culinary experience. The meal was made slightly better when we discovered that we were sitting next to two current University of Michigan grads - small world indeed.

After dinner, I was still looking for something to quench my thirst and keep me warm. We happened to be in Barcelona on one of the coldest nights of the year. Looking for a sure thing, we got two chai tea lattes from Starbucks. Old habits die hard (even if they’re put on hold for 6 months). It was quite enjoyable to walk down to the pier and back reminiscing about the past year and looking forward to the holiday. As we approached the train station at midnight, we judged the day successful.

After buying our ticket and walking down to the platform, we were approached by a station employee. He said that the line was no longer running. What?! We had checked the times before making our way into town; there was a midnight train. Later we realized that the time was highlighted in yellow, whatever that meant. About a half-dozen other people were also turned away before we exited the platform. Well… now what? We had to cab it back to the hotel. Fortunately, Mary Ann had kept the address of the hotel in her purse - nice thinking!

The drive back seemed to take a really long time. Of course, the thought crossed our minds that the cabbie didn’t know where to go and was just taking us for a ride. His onboard GPS gave me a little more confidence, even if we could not communicate very well. 25 euros latter, we finally made it back to the hotel - quite an expensive ride given the exchange rate. At least we would have a nice night’s rest before taking up the journey again in the morning.

Final Goodbyes

The day before our departure, the Berards demanded one last chance to play with Roxy. They gushed about her manners and playfulness. I got the feeling that they would definitely miss her more than me. Roxy, I’m sure, will miss them tremendously as well. She may never again have her own private garden, and there won’t be opportunities to take long midday hikes in Chicago.

While up in their place, Roxy discovered Madame’s rabbit. It was dark, so at first Roxy could only smell some animal. When she approached the cage, the rabbit jumped and so did Roxy. She didn’t quite know what to make of the small animal. I didn’t want to find out if Roxy equated it with an after dinner snack and shoed her back the the Berards.

Andre liked having a companion while working out in the garden. He got down on all fours and rough-housed with Roxy for a bit. It was pretty funny to the 60-year-old man doing his animal impressions. Roxy allowed him to man-handle her feet and grab her canines. It’s amazing that she knows just the right amount of pressure to apply so not to hurt someone. Of course, she could have taken Andre’s finger as a souvenir.

As we left, they pleaded for one more opportunity to say goodbye to Roxy right as before we left for good.

Long walks on the Gicon

As the day of our departure approached, Roxy and I took ever longer walks through the Gincon hills behind the house. We actually discovered some great trails late in the season. She seemed to appreciate our short time, taking more time to breathe in the clean air and gaze out over the Ceze valley.


We started packing the week before. Since Mary Ann would be coming back after the new year, our task was a little simpler. Not everything would have to be accounted for on this trip. However, we still faced luggage restrictions and had to make some tough decisions. This was especially true after we realized that the zipper was broken on one of our larger bags. The drop to duffel size made it impossible to pack the bike helmet, wine glasses and soccer ball, among other non-critical articles.

Journey Home

We interrupt the series on Rome to bring you the late breaking details of our trip back to the States for Christmas.

Traveling with our dog back to the States added a lot of extra complication to our plans. Airlines typically will not accept pets when the outside temperatures are less than 45 degrees at either the point of departure or arrival. Apparently, they turn off the heat in the bowels of the plane while its on the tarmac to conserve energy. If the flight were to be delayed on the runway, the animals could be subject to the cold. Coincidentally, we were subject to the opposite problem on the way here. It was nearly too hot in Chicago.

Chicago would definitely be too cold to fly into. Only a few major US airports could guarantee the necessary temperature for the way home. We faced the same problems in France. As a result, our final flight itinerary was from Madrid, Spain to Miami. Of course, this would add two major drives. First a ten hour journey from Chusclan to Madrid. Secondly, the nearly 24 drive from Miami to Chicago.

The Miami destination wasn’t totally out-of-the-way, however, because Mary Ann’s family typically spends the holidays near West Palm Beach. Luckily, we found a one week condo rental on Singer Island.

Still, two weeks of traveling would be epic - like the intercontinental journeys that people used to have to make.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

St. Peter's Basilica

I intended to devote day 2 to the Vatican. Despite being the smallest independent country in the World, you could spend days exploring the monuments and museums housed within the walls. My plan seemed to suit the questionable weather outside. Intending to stay dry, I took the #64 bus from Termini to stop just off of Via della Concilliaziono, the main road leading into St. Peter’s Square.

The weather managed to keep most other visitors at bay. When I arrived at the famous colonnade just beyond Piazza Pio XII, there were few tourists in site. I spent some time wandering around the elaborate circular plaza. Some temporary barricades obstructed the view of the central obelisk, but it was an otherwise perfect time to experience the space.

Continuing through the metal detectors, I proceeded in the direction of St. Peter’s Basilica. On the way, I also caught a glimpse of the traditionally attired Swiss Guard devoted to protection of the Pope. They don’t appear to have much to do with the daily tourists though. I was surprised to see that most of the security detail seemed to have city of Rome allegiance. It certainly did not feel like crossing an international border.

I followed the trickle of tourists on toward St. Peter’s Basilica. Surprisingly, we entered right through the front doors. Looking back on the square from the stoop is quite the site. I tried to imagine it packed with people on Easter Sunday or before announcing a new Pope. But the sight of the grand space outside the church could not prepare me for the vast interior.

On the way into the church, visitors first pass through an opulently decorated atrium. Many tourists were snapping photos of the gilded doors. Upon passing through those doors, I was immediately struck by the massive size of the nave. The path to the altar seemed to stretch a mile detailed in intricately patterned marble. Massive columns rose like redwoods to support the high vaulted ceiling. I had been in plenty of cathedrals in my time in Europe, but none could prepare me for the size and spectacle of St. Peter’s Basilica.

The central path through the church was almost too much to take in. I ducked into one of the side aisles where I could appreciate the numerous works of invaluable art. On this day, I decided not to pay for any of the guided tours, preferring just to experience the art for it’s intrinsic and holy value. As series of chapels lined the sides of the nave until opening up at the great transept that forms the traditional cross in the floor plan.

In the center of the transept, the most prominent location within any church, stood a massive stone baldachin. Made of cast bronze, the canopy looked like nothing I’ve seen before in any church. Spiraling columns reach upward to support a sculpted platform protected by four angels at the platform. Later, I learned that this monument was one of the early works commissioned to the famous Roman sculptor, Bernini. According to church tradition, the tomb of St. Peter, the first Pope, rests directly below the baldachin. A staircase leads down to small door decorated with the image of the saint, beyond which lies the crypt.

The structure above is even more impressive. Rising almost 450 ft. (to the top of the cross), the dome of St. Peter’s is the tallest of its kinds. It took almost 150 years of design conception to finally arrive at the structure that completes the space today. Michelangelo and other highly regarded architects of the day, contributed plans for completing the dome inspired by the Pantheon and the dome of Florence’s medieval cathedral. The final result did not match the breadth of either of those domes, but contributed mightily to the vastness of the space below.

I paid the extra 5 euro fee to walk up the 400 or so steps to the exterior viewing platform. For an additional two euro you can take an elevator up for the first 200 steps. Continuing on from there, you walk between the two shells of the dome. As I continued up surrounded by other tourists, passing the occasional person overcome by claustrophobia, I imagined that this might be what purgatory feels like - spiraling upward forever. At times I was able to glimpse uncovered sections of the dome, that might give some indication of the construction. Unfortunately, neither during my visit nor since have I been able to find a comprehensive description of the structure of the dome.


You need not understand the behavior of the dome to appreciate it’s incredible size. And the amazing view from the top speaks for itself. Even despite the overcast sky and gusting winds, I was in awe of the panorama before me. It was fun to pick out the major attractions of the city from this high perch. I also felt like the whole of the Vatican was literally a stone’s throw away. From this vantage, I briefly reminisced my journey to date and considered what was next. Would anything compare with the sight I had already seen?

View more of my Vatican photos on Flickr.
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Sunday, December 13, 2009

City at Night

This post again recounts part of Day 1 of my Rome trip. The city is enthralling like that. There are so many sites to see; you feel compelled to continue on and on. Already, this day had included an early morning flight, checking into a hostel, exploring the ancient ruins of the Forum and Palatine Hill, visiting the Colosseum, and experiencing the Pantheon. Still, there was time to see a few more attractions. As the sun set, the lights of the town began to glow, and an entirely different city was waiting to be explored.

From the Pantheon, I followed a young family to the nearby Piazza Navona. Attempting to keep the children’s attention after what I assumed to be an equally exhausting day, the father informed that they used to race cars here around the fountains. On this night, I couldn’t have imagined an auto race. A Christmas market was being held in the Piazza. Dozens of Christmas trinket stands and candy vendors were organized in neat rows in the oval shaped plaza. While adults shopped for wooden manger figurines, teens loitered around the fountains wondering what might come next in their night.

After making the rounds myself, I struck out in a new direction, this time hoping to find a good place for dinner. My feet were sore and my stomach was rumbling, but it still seemed like a fine night for a walk. My southbound path next took me to the Campo de Fiori. In this city of plazas (at least 21 warrant their own page on wikipedia), they all start to run together. At this location, I only remember that the retail stores along the narrow path leading to the square remained open at least to 8 pm.

Continuing on, I passed a street car station just in time to hop on and save my feet a few more blocks of walking. My final destination of the night was St. Maria in Trastevere. The church is known to have beautiful mosaics inside, but I wouldn’t know. I was on the hunt for a reasonable place to sit and eat, and I was told that this neighborhood, south of the Tiber, was the best in town. There were too many choices. Of course, I wanted Italian, but how do you rate one pasta menu over another.

I decided to avoid the restaurant advertising that they stood opposed to “war and tourist menus.“ I didn’t know what that meant, but I didn’t exactly sound inviting to an obviously American traveler. Eventually I settled on a small pub packed with patrons waiting to watch the Real Madrid take on the defending Champions League winners, FC Barcelona. The establishment even boasted free wifi. I was able to send emails to a few friends while watching the game, enjoying the cannelloni and drinking some Italian brew. The food and the atmosphere was exactly what I was looking for that evening. With each scoring chance, it was plain that the patrons were pretty evenly split between support for each team. Even if the final score was only 1-0, I had a great time and was suitably rejuvenated to make the trip back to the hostel. It was a perfect ending to a magical day in Rome.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Pantheon

Few 1800-year-olds look so good. From within the rotunda of the Pantheon, you could be excused for thinking that the church was constructed just recently. Among all the remaining Roman sites of the Mediterranean, the basilica is probably the most well preserved. Two features contributed greatly to the preservation: its constant use as a place of worship and the incredible concrete enclosure that protects the interior from the elements.

Officially, the present current name for the Pantheon is the Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs. Since the 7th century, the edifice has been used a Catholic church. The transition from pagan temple to Christian church speaks to the desirability of the architecture. Today, the building is opulently decorated with intricate marble patterns, gilded statues and priceless renaissance works. In fact, the space is so revered that several two Italian monarchs and several renaissance masters have tombs within the walls.

However, the most prominent feature inside the Pantheon is it's awe inspiring dome. Ancient engineers and architects found a synergy in form that provides a visual experience while enabling the structure to function. Weight was judiciously removed from the roof structure by including a 30 ft. diameter oculus and coffered interior surface. The oculus is simply a large hole in the ceiling that admits the only natural light into the space. Some might also interpret the opening as a spiritual window to the world of the gods. The coffered sides of the dome provide a waffle-shaped pattern that draws attention upward. These two elements give the only outwardly apparent visual clues to the means of structural support.

Constructed in 126 A.D., the Pantheon very likely represents the height of Roman structural engineering achievement. In fact, the 142 ft. diameter cupola is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. That record is in no jeopardy of being broken, as no modern building code would permit such a structure without the use of at least a minimum of steel reinforcing. And yet the Pantheon stands today without any significant reinforcing to alter the original engineers' design intent.

Piazza dei Rotonda

Several recent investigations have been undertaken to answer the mystery of the structure. The most frequent citation found on online accounts of the Pantheon follows: Mark, R.; Hutchinson, P. (1986), "On the structure of the Pantheon", Art Bulletin 68: 24–34. A nice online summary of those findings is presented by David Moore, P.E. at Some of the grandstanding is a bit unwarranted, but it is definitely easy to get carries away when describing the achievement of the Roman Engineers.

To start with, the original designers were accustomed to super-sized structures. And for all the delicacy portrayed within the Pantheon interior, the first rule of the construction is to build it big. The strip foundation on which the curved building rests is about 34 ft. wide. The wall which supports the dome is about 20 ft. thick. However, perhaps to reduce weight or provide behind the scenes storage space, 8 large niches were created within the otherwise solid wall. As usual, arches are used to great effect to relieve distribute load to piers, thus permitting the openings. This great mass of wall was necessary to provide adequate resistance to the inevitable outward thrust of the dome. No buttresses or perpendicular supporting structures were employed, as was common in later medieval structures.

The dome itself is nearly 20 ft. thick at its base and tapers to just 5 ft. thick at the oculus. A number of techniques were used to achieve the full span. First, a series of seven concentric rings of decreasing size were constructed one on top of the other, like stacking incrementally smaller metal washers. Other authors have suggested that this form is likely borrowed from the very early structural development of the corbeled arch - where a series of stones are stacked, with each cantilevering slightly past the previous. Using this technique, it's possible that the first stages of the dome were constructed without shoring down to the floor.

Beyond the stepped region, the shell becomes a smooth continuous surface. This part of the dome, in addition to the visible interior coffers, was likely cast on formwork supported from below. At the ring of the oculus, the building materials change again. Here a combination of tile and metal plates provide the compression ring that resolves all of the forces acting at the apex of the dome.
The Roman engineers impressively used the materials and methods available to them for maximum structural efficiency. They even created special light-weight concrete to reduce the overall weight of the dome. The 85 lb/ft3 (PCF) mix used at the top of the dome is approximately 40% lighter than today's normal weight concrete. It's even lighter than most conventionally available lightweight concrete. Despite the selection of lightweight aggregates, the engineers still achieved a compressive strength near 3000 lb/in2 (PSI), very near modern expectations for standard strength concrete. It's also important to point out that the Pozzolan binder used by the Romans differs quite a bit from the Portland Cement we use today (which requires a very high energy industrial process).

Despite their best efforts, cracks have been witnessed in the dome. The papers I reference above go into detail about their possible origins. They tend to equate the problem as one of excessive tensile hoop stresses near the base of the dome. Like a simple arch, domes also convert vertical forces into horizontal pressure. I prefer to think of the cracking in terms of the small displacement probably occurring at the top of the supporting wall. Stone and concrete, we all know is not a flexible material.

The obvious solution to the problem would be to wrap the base of the dome with some form of tension ring, essentially preventing it from spreading further. However, experts again disagree about when the cracks first appeared. It's likely that they formed immediately after construction, and the dome has stood for over 18 centuries since. It's even possible that the ancient designers were aware of this phenomenon but anticipated it and compensated in the early construction phases.

Barring a catastrophic seismic event, raging fire or destructive conflict, the Roman Pantheon seems to be in shape to survive many more centuries. It is a credit to the initial work of the designers to plan such a robust and awe inspiring building that future generations would have such keen interest in maintenance and preservation. The structural elegance of the rotunda will be an inspiration to engineers for many generations to come.
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Monday, December 7, 2009

The Colosseum

Imagine if the Wright Brothers first plane looked more like a modern 747. In the context of modern sports stadiums, the Colosseum is a model of similar form and function. It’s hard to believe that it was the first of it’s kind. Before construction of the massive stone structure, gladiatorial events and exotic menageries were held in temporary wooden venues. The Emperor Vespasian opened a new chapter in Roman engineering achievement as he was trying to make a massive political statement.

Colosseum in Sepia

Vespasian didn’t care much for politics. He earned his fame with victories in the war to reclaim Judea for the Empire. State functions bored him and the ramblings of the Senate only complicated his battlefield strategies. When a civil war broke out in Rome, in the wake of the Nero‘s tyrannical reign, Vespasian returned from the front lines, and with the authority of his armies established himself as the new ruler. His son Titus was left to finish the job in Jerusalem.

To solidify his position as Emperor, Vespasian needed to gain the popular support of the people of Rome. One of his first acts was to return to the public much of the space acquired by Nero for his self-aggrandizing villa, called the Domus Aurea. Legend has it that a bronze colossus in Nero’s image stood at the entrance to the private gardens and porticos. This is where Vespasian planned to locate his stone amphitheater - henceforth it became known as the Colosseum.

Construction of the massive edifice (615 ft long by 510 ft wide by 160 ft tall) would have been extremely costly, even for the Roman Empire. However, shortly after Vespasian’s ascension to ruler, Titus completed his middle-eastern campaign and arrived Rome with cartloads of treasure, possibly from the destroyed Temple of Solomon. Titus’ Arch of Triumph commemorates his return with riches, but experts disagree about the extent to which those valuables could have financed the construction of the Colosseum. In a romantically historical sense, it’s intriguing to link these major structures and events of history together in such a way. In fact, the legend continues, since it has been recorded that stone mined from the ruins of the Colosseum were used in the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

The Colosseum was completed in 80 AD under the rule of Titus. Amazingly, it only took 10 years to construct. Upon completion about 50,000 spectators were able to witness gladiatorial contests, wild beast hunts and possibly even naval battle re-enactments. The elaborate staging was made possible by a complex under-stage structure complete with mechanical elevators, trap doors, underground tunnels and an potentially massive piping system capable of flooding and draining the lower bowl.

IMG_4523.JPG IMG_4524.JPG

In many ways, the architecture of the Colosseum is still very familiar to us today. A system of ramps allowed the citizens to proceed directly to the correct concourse. Seating was assigned by social status, but at least admission was free for all those permitted to attend the events. On the concourses, vendors would sell souvenirs and food. The spectators were even known to play betting games and make wagers on the activity below. Gambling was controlled by the State and sometimes banned, depending on the ideology of the rulers.

Even the structural elements of the Colosseum are employed to this day in stadium design. We’re very familiar with the series of concentric seating rings. As in today’s construction, these seating sections were supported by evenly spaced rakers oriented perpendicular to the rows of seating. Today it might be more common to use a series of reinforced concrete or steel beams for this function, but the Romans managed just fine with masonry arches. Between the rakers, they used continuous vaulted arches, inclined to provide “stadium seating.” It appears that these arches were formed with a clay brick and then topped with a low strength concrete fill to level out the seating surface. Similar technology was still being widely employed in steel building construction well into the 20th century.

IMG_4526.JPG Colosseum Seating

As brilliant as the engineering of the Colosseum might seem, the techniques employed were well practiced by centuries of previous Roman construction. The truly impressive feat is in the organization of the construction and the collaboration between experts. No documents explicitly state the members of the design team, but we can assume, based on the speed of construction and the success of the design, that a division of labor similar to modern project teams was in use. In the centuries following, master builders would receive the credit for masterminding architectural feats, but back in Roman times we can suspect deeper specialization leading to more incredible structures.

However, the Colosseum was lacking in one design criteria. A major earthquake in 443 AD caused damage requiring fairly substantial renovation. And in 1349 another quake caused the collapse of the outer South ring. The damage can in part be blamed on the weak alluvial soils below the amphitheater. Masonry is also a notoriously bad material in seismic activity due to its low ductility and large mass. Re-purposing the rubble from the collapse also lead to general acceptance for mining stone from the massive free-standing quarry. Long before 14th century, however, the marble facing and semi-precious metals were likely removed from the Colosseum. Many of the jagged masonry surfaces exposed today were probably faced with smooth Italian marble at the height of Empire.

Finally in 1749, the Pope declared the Colosseum a sacred site, suggesting that it was the site of early Christian martyrdom. Whether Christians were actually massacred inside the Colosseum cannot be historically verified, but the Pope’s call for preservation of the site surely prevented the final deterioration of the structure. Later Popes instituted a series of stabilization and restoration projects.

Colosseum Reinforcement Buttresses IMG_4751.JPG

One reinforcement scheme commemorated in paintings still on display in the Vatican museum included the installation of masonry buttresses at the exposed ends of the outer ring. Since the collapse of the southern portion of the ring, the rest of the third concourse was in danger of collapse. Arches redirect vertical forces horizontally. In the complete structure, which forms an imperfect oval, the arches are all mutually supporting. In the damaged state, the slightest geotechnical activity or over-loading event could have caused a domino effect, resulting in the complete collapse of the tallest colonnade. The new buttresses redirect the horizontal thrust, via solid diagonal walls, to the ground.

The Colosseum stands today as the most visible link between the great engineering achievements of the Roman Empire and our current understanding of building principles. Somehow, it seems perfectly natural view traffic racing down the Via dei Fori Imperiali right past the ancient edifice. The team of architects, engineers and builders delivered, on their first try, a structure that would set the standard for arena design for 2000 years. To this day, few structures make a stronger statement about the strength of civilization than the Colosseum; Vespasian would have been pleased.

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Friday, December 4, 2009

Palatine Hill

About an hour and a half into my first tour, the long day was starting to catch up to me. However, off to the south, an intricate series of man-made terraces needed inspection. These brick archways formed extended the slope of the ancient Palatine Hill. The earliest archeological remnants of Roman civilization were found here. It’s also the mythical setting for the stories of Romulus and Remus, founding brothers of Rome. In later times, still ancient history to us, the wealthiest senators, Cesars and royalty made their homes in this prominent location.

Palatine Hille

The way up from the Forum takes visitors through the renaissance gardens of the Farnese family. Historians argue whether their landscaping adequately pays tribute to the early history of the Roman hillside or disrespects the later work of the Empire. Such real estate saw many redevelopments as the property changed hands. In my opinion, the gardens and villas pay adequate homage to the spirit of the much admired address.

The top of the hill provides the best views down to the Forum. From here you cans see all three victory arches and even as far as the Colosseum. From this perspective, you can imagine what the site would have looked like in antiquity. With the building plans laid out below, it takes just a little imagination to project the lives of the senators, priests and priestesses working to keep the public institutions of the Empire in motion.


Further on, past the gardens and to the opposite slope, visitors encounter the remains of the oldest and most sacred sites on the hill. Here researchers have uncovered Romulean Huts from the very beginnings of recorded history. Digesting all of the information and keeping all the sites in chronologic order becomes too much in one afternoon, however. At this point, I began selectively jumping to only the most visually interesting audio points.

Without doubt, the most impressive and important structure on the hill belonged to the Cesar. Although Augustus constructed a modest residence on the hill (using his own money no less), the Domus Flavia palace was the real trend setter. This sprawling mega-plex included beautiful baths, numerous residential suites, executive offices, a Nymphaeum (you wouldn’t want your playful virgin demi-goddesses to go homeless) and a private hippodrome. An ego driven construction to be sure, it was also necessary as full control of the State was placed under executive control. The major mechanisms of government would now be fulfilled on the Palatine Hill.

Four hours and a couple thousand years of history and still I had not seen the ultimate symbol of Roman power. The Colosseum was up next.
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