Chillin' at the Pope's House

All the talk of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI made me want to revisit my own experience in his domain - the smallest independent state in the world (and home of more Roman gladiator bobbleheads than you could ever imagine): the Vatican. It was one of the most artistically rich places I have ever been; inspired by God, created by man. Check out photos of it here

Roman Holiday (PART V)

I didn't know what to expect in Florence, but it ended up being my favorite spot in all of Italy. The medieval architecture and narrow winding streets were magical. The art was second-to-none (my favorite piece was Cellini's 'Perseus With the Head of Medusa'). The awesome leather market satisfied the money burning a hole in my pocket and the city could also boast about having the best pizza, which, if I am being completely honest, is the #1 reason I enjoyed it so much. I ate it every day. At 3€, I ate for a week what it cost me for one slice in Rome. 

The Duomo is the main landmark penetrating the skyline of the fabled city. I almost didn't go up because of the long line-up but was really glad I did. The view was breathtaking. The chapel ceiling was something else altogether though...like something out of an 80s B-horror film. The graphic painting of hellbound creatures torturing and dragging sinners into the fire sent a shiver down my spine. It's not as famous (or well-executed) as the Sistine Chapel, but it definitely left more of an impression on me. If I were an uneducated serf, it would have set me straight for life. 

Situated in the Tuscany region of Italy, opportunity for daytripping abounds. My first excursion outside of Florence was a day tour via a company called 'Walkabout' that focused on the best of the region. I've never been on a proper tour before, much preferring to explore and discover things on my own, however the people I met really made it worth it. There was the Cameron Diaz lookalike from Croatia. The couple from Hawaii who couldn't stop talking about the Roughriders.* The family from England who kicked people out of their seats on the bus, claiming they were reserved, only to be kicked out at the tail-end because they hadn't actually paid to be on the tour. And then there was our guide, Stefano, who was excellent at peppering the conversation with humour and insight. 

Our first stop was Siena, where we visited the world's oldest bank, saw a building with creepy heads sticking out of it and visited yet another church with several Michaelangelo originals. Where did this dude find the time?I feel so unproductive. Next up was lunch at a winery overlooking another one of my favorite spots, San Gimignano, a town renowned for its medieval towers and "world's best gelato". Then came the long drive to Pisa. The Leaning Tower was the only thing I knew about this place and let me say - it's pretty much all they've got. Well...that and plenty of people trying to sell fake Rolexes. Pisa is ugly. Really ugly. After WWII bombings decimated it, the rest of the city appears to have been inspired by eastern bloc architecture. And then there's that GIANT parking lot. The tower itself was pretty neat to see in person though. It was a lot more slanted than I expected. 

Since the first tour wasn't so bad, I decided to go on a second 'Walkabout' tour, this time to Unesco World Heritage site the Cinque-Terre. It was a vastly different experience. There was no small talk. No real insight into the area...just a long, hot, sweaty hike along the mediterranean coast trailing a tour guide who didn't care if any touristas got lost or fell to their death along the way. I really wish I would have had time to relax on the beach for a bit, but it was not to be. The day was rushed, the lunch was terrible and I developed a sunburn that will surely result in skin cancer in a few years time. Having said that, trekking to the Cinque Terre was definitely worth it and my overall experience in Italy was priceless. 

 *Travel Tip: no matter where I go, when I am wearing a Roughrider logo, I make instant friends. It's like the new Canada flag.

Me at the top of the Duomo:

Graffiti in the Duomo:

Piazza della Signoria, Florence: 

'Perseus With the Head of Medusa' by Cellini:

Living Street Art, Florence:

World's oldest bank in Siena, Italy:

Creepy heads creeping out of a building in Siena:

San Gimignano: 

Best Gelato in the World? Not bad:

This belongs on www.photocliches.com:

Cinque Terre:

It took hours to hike all the way to that town way far off in the distance:

From Here to Eternity: 

Graffiti on a cactus at the Cinque Terre: 


Roman Holiday (PART IV)

Being in Venice is like being inside a Renaissance-era painting come to life: a perfectly preserved masterpiece of art, culture and history. It's well magical...if you can find a moment to breathe outside of the SWARMS of tourists. High tourist season hadn't even begun when I visited there in April and it was hard to get around. That is, when I found my way around. It took me a couple days of getting lost on the canals and narrow alleyways to find the main attraction: Piazza San Marco. It was worth the wait. Although a part of me died a bit inside to see that the world renowned 'Bridge of Sighs' was now sponsored by Toyota. I love being in advertising, but at times I really question the shit we pull. 

I did not go on a gondola. Paying $150.00 for a 30 minute ride did not seem financially prudent. Instead, I lived vicariously through all the Japanese tourists who seemed to be the only people willing to shell out for one. I was also a bit dismayed that none of the gondoliers I witnessed entertained their guests by singing a romantic tune (like it usually happens in the movies and travel shows that never really depict things as they truly are). For that much money, I would demand a song and perhaps a lap dance. 

After wandering around Italy for two weeks wearing a Roughrider sweatshirt (in part as an experiment which I will get to later), I was most surprised/amused/befuddled to see a Hotel Regina. I wonder how that song goes..."Living it up at the Hotel Regina. There's a sea of green, cheering on their team". 

Next up - Florence. 
To be continued... 

Entrance to the Hotel Regina:

Hotel Regina in background:

Low-season crowds wander near St. Mark's Square:

The Bridge of Sighs, built in 1602, brought to you by Toyota:

Me at the Grand Canal:

Piazza San Marco: 

Making a delivery in Venice:

Plague Doctor marionette:

The (in)famous pigeons of St. Mark's Square:

This wee dog stole me heart. I visited the shop where he stood guard every day:

ROMAN Holiday (PART III)

Besides the chance to eat authentic Italian pizza, another reason I went to Italy was because I was lucky enough to get tickets for the Vatican's Scavi Tour. I don't know how I managed to, as they are notoriously hard to obtain (they must be requested months in advance and participants have to be pre-approved by Vatican authorities to go on it). I'm not Catholic, but clearly the god(s) were smiling on me and blessed me with an opportunity I will never, ever forget. 

The Scavi Tour takes visitors deep below the world's smallest country, into an ancient Roman cemetery that was buried for centuries underneath St. Peter's Basilica (and rediscovered in 1940). Approximately an hour and a half long, the tour officially begins when the guide places his hand on some type of security device that scans his fingerprints (!) thus opening a secret door in a feat of technology worthy of being in a Bond movie. Inside, visitors are met with the musty aroma of 2500-year-old crypts built by the glitterati of the once most powerful nation on earth. Each one is more elaborately decorated than the last. I've never been to Egypt, but I imagine people are met with the same sense of awe when entering the Great Pyramid. One lady on my tour nearly passed out from the lack of oxygen, but she came to in time for the grand reveal...the bones of Saint Peter himself! 

I shamefully admit ignorance when it comes to knowing who most religious figures are and had absolutely no clue prior to my visit who Saint Peter was, why he was revered or even what dinner placement he had in Da Vinci's 'The Last Supper'. The best way for me to describe him after enlightenment is that he was the Colonel Tom Parker to Jesus's Elvis: someone who saw the raw potential in another individual and helped bring their gospel to the masses. In the Colonel's place, it was the legacy of rock and roll; in Saint Peter's case, it was the empire of Christianity. Both have devoted followers. Both are worth a fortune. Only one has caused most of the wars in history. Just sayin'. 

The unveiling of the bones was an incredibly moving moment though. There before me lay the remains of the person who has, in effect, influenced the course of history for the past two millennia (and also a few Dan Brown novels). I write a blog. 

No pictures were allowed on the tour of the necropolis, so if you are curious, click here

While at the Vatican, I also visited the interior of St. Peter's Basilica and toured the museums. Never have I been surrounded by so many priceless (original) works of art!!! It was beyond inspiring. The Sistine Chapel was great, but I think it's the de facto answer that people give when asked to name the stand-out piece of the collection...the Raphael rooms were far more intriguing to me. Neither have anything on the ceiling fresco at the Duomo in Florence though, but I will get to that horror masterpiece later. 

A place of great beauty is destined to being out passion in people and the Vatican was no exception. I am by no means a prude, and yet I was clutching my pearls at the number of couples practically having coitus at the Holy See. Making out in front of a number of old priests and judgmental statues is not as sexy as Madonna's music videos imply. In fact, it's downright creepy. Get a room. 

No, I did not get to see the Pope (nor the Popemobile). 

Next up - Venice. 
To be continued... 

Vatican:

Swiss Guard on duty at the Bronze Doors:

Interior of St. Peter's Basilica:

The Tomb of St. Peter:

The Scavi Tour took place underneath this marker in an ancient underground necropolis:

Vatican Museum details: 

The epic Map Room at the Vatican Museum:

Preparing for tourist season...the overflow Vatican Post Office:

Vatican mailbox:

Pizza at the Vatican food court (it wasn't good):

Roman Holiday (PART I)

I love pizza. Let me re-emphasize that: I LOVE, loooove, lurve pizza. At my wedding, it will shamelessly be the main course; if I'm ever on death row, it will be the last meal I savour. I could not be a true pizza aficionado though without visiting Italy at least once in my lifetime. And so I made it happen. Nom, nom, nom. 

I decided years ago that I wanted to visit every country in the world to experience how different people live firsthand. It's a big commitment that has involved plenty o' pennypinching and planning, but the payoff is memories that will last a lifetime. My trip to Italy has surely granted me some...including a few that I would rather forget. The excursion could not have started worse - first off, Air Canada somehow gave us the wrong boarding passes which I noticed, of course, right before getting on the plane (good thing too, because I've heard nothing but bad things about Abbottabad); once on the plane, I lost the corrected ones causing another delay. My travel parter got a headphone stuck in his ear canal that had to be plucked out with tweezers (but not before causing a severe migraine) and my first introduction to the love of my life (pizza, in case you suffer short-term memory loss) left me feeling used and abused. Literally. I paid €18 for a mediocre slice (approximately $25CDN) that left me ill for three days. 

When visiting the Eternal City, two things are apparent straight-away: 

1) Italian accents are the most amazing thing in the world.

2) They can't be arsed about cleaning graffiti.  

Despite it covering nearly every surface, Rome is still as pretty as a picture. Wandering the streets drinking up the scenery with no particular place to go was my favorite thing to do...I admit though that this opinion partially stems from the fact that I am a cheapskate who found everything to be quite expensive. Including using the washroom. Actually, pay or not, if you can find a toilet in Rome it becomes a more appreciated sight than the Pantheon or Spanish Steps. They are few and far between. 

One of the first sites I visited was the Colosseum. It is the fourth wonder of the world that I have seen in person. To think that nearly 2000 years ago, crowds in the thousands gathered to cheer on the bloody, gory death of a gladiator for entertainment. Today we congregate to buy Caesar bobbleheads and "I roamed Rome" t-shirts. If you think that's Velveeta, just wait till I tell you about the Vatican and their holy bottled water! En-route to the Colosseum, I noticed a parade of some sort winding through the streets. With rainbow flags waving and Kylie Minogue music blaring, I assumed it was Gay Pride. Europop is an (embarrassingly) guilty pleasure, so I decided to follow for a bit...walking faster than the float, I next came upon a group made up of flag-waving Communists chanting something that probably had to do with Mao or Layton, and then a truck blasting techno music. This is where things got a bit darker. I witnessed a few individuals wearing masks tagging buildings with yet more graffiti. I anticipated the notorious Black Bloc making an appearance, but nothing happened. Everyone congregated at the Colosseum to hold a protest about government ineptitude (and buy bobbleheads). 

To be continued...

Me at the Colosseum:

 Roman Forum:

A cat rescue was allowed to let the animals live at the ruins (prime real estate to catch the eye of an adoptive family):

My favorite building in Rome (Monumento Nazionale): 

Government protests: