Rome: The Villa Borghese Gallery and Last Few Hours

My last morning in Rome during my weekend visit there through AIFS (my study abroad program here).

I visited the Borghese Gallery with some buddies thanks to a recommendation from a teacher. It’s so beautiful and gorgeous, I absolutely loved it. There are only two floors of artwork, the painting gallery and the sculpture gallery. There’s also a 2 hour time limit, and tickets need to be booked ahead of time, here.

I’m an art kid, and I’ve spend many an hour in a gallery scribbling up a gallery review or sketching pieces. I honestly have to say that the Borghese is my favourite gallery of all time — the time limit seems counter intuitive, but it’s nice to not have to worry that you didn’t spend enough time there, and the size of the gallery is appropriate in terms of the time limit. It’s so pretty, and the actual pieces inside the gallery really appealed to me personally.

Go to see Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne. It’s an amazing sculpture carved out of ONE BLOCK of marble. That is so incomprehensible on its own. This piece depicts the nymph Daphne escaping the amorous advances of Apollo, who is being very insistent, to put it mildly. Daphne cries out to her river god father for help, and (as my teacher put it) “wildly overreacts” and transforms her into a tree.
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Bernini was an incredibly skilled artist. He even used the movement of the viewer to create motion in this piece. As you walk around the piece counter-clockwise, the nymph appears to change into a tree.

Bernini’s David (also an amazing sculpture!) is actually a self-portrait. The expression on the face is incredibly true to the emotion of concentration. I love this sculpture. My Italian Renaissance Teacher said “there are a million things in there, but that doensn’t matter because you only need to see two things.” Those are Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne and his David.
Jen H., Tyler A. and I took a quick stroll around the Villa Borghese Gardens.

Guards or Police on horseback! 🙂

Me and the map of the gardens, which looks like a heart! ❤

Some portion of the city walls as we leave the gardens and walk back into the centre of the city.

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Rome: Vatican City and Being Lost

On this Saturday, I went to visit the Vatican City with my group.

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The flag of the Vatican City.

The Vatican City is a land-locked, sovereign country; it is the smallest country in the world, spanning a mere 0.2 square miles.

(Unfortunately, I forgot to slot my memory card back into my camera this morning, so I couldn’t take any pictures. Honestly, it was a bit of relief to take a step out from behind the lens. I think photographers need to be wary of living life documenting events and instances in time — there are moments you can’t capture with a camera.)

The Sistine Chapel (Not my photo — photographs aren’t allowed inside).

I got to see the Sistine Chapel, which was cool — it’s just difficult to comprehend the fact that the frescos were painted by Michelangelo. Michelangelo was known for his bad temper, and in fact his nose was broken at least once due to all the fist-fights he got himself into. He was nicknamed “la Terribilità,” or “The Terrible One.”

That back wall depicts The Last Judgement, painted by Michelangelo (between 1536-1541).  All of the figures in The Last Judgement were originally painted nude. Biagio da Cesena, the Pope’s master of ceremonies (basically his right-hand man) was quite opposed to all of the nudity and insisted on the figures being clothed (loincloths were painted on years later after Michelangelo’s death).

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Michelangelo didn’t appreciate being hounded and told what to do, so in response Michelangelo painted his depiction of Minos, the mythological king of Hell, in the likeness of Biagio da Cesena. Minos has large donkey ears and is wrapped in snakes, one of which is biting him in a sensitive place, if you see what I mean.

To put it in colloquial terms, Biagio da Cesena freaks out, and goes directly to the Pope asking for the portrait to be altered at once.

The Pope (who is very fond of Michelangelo) humorously states that he holds no power over the realms of Hell, and so the portrait remained.

After the Vatican City visit, I walked to the Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon and Spanish Steps (more on all of these in my next post) along with some staff members from my program. Anyway, I ended up on the metro and stumbled home with a pounding headache that I started developing early in the morning. I slept for a few hours, waking at 9 pm / 21:00.

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I decided to take a stroll to the Trevi Fountain a few blocks from my house at 10 pm/22:00.

It was lovely and warm-ish out.
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Little snack vendor.

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I decided to walk to the Spanish Steps (the beginning of my bad ideas this evening), since they’re pretty close by to the Trevi Fountain. This is some weird display case — that baby-suit doesn’t have arm holes!

As I walk along, I suddenly find myself at the Pantheon (basically I ended up West of the Trevi Fountain, instead of North where I was trying to go). I think to myself “that this is fine, I know where I am. I’ll go head to the Spanish Steps now.” (At this point I’m still confident I know where I’m going).

Walking along, like I said: I think I know where I’m going.

A cute garbage truck. It started raining, but I had my water proof though, so I was fine.
At this point I have no idea where I am, but I’m not worried. Somehow, I don’t get worried about that kind of thing.
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I never consider myself lost, even if I don’t know where I am.

Somehow I end up by the river. Luckily the closes bridge was labeled, and I did have a map with me (the small streets I was on weren’t labeled on my map though).

I suddenly found myself by this huge, castle-looking thing. It turns out this is the Castel Sant’Angelo (also known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian). It was first the Roman Emporer Hadrian’s mausoleum, then a castle used by the popes, and is now a museum. It’s 1.5 miles/almost 3 kilometers from my hotel.

Anyway, I walked along until I found the Piazza Navona, and managed to find my way home from there.

I finally spotted the National Monument to Vittorio Emmanuel II, which is around the corner from my hotel! I was so relieved, I wanted to yell!
I made it home just after midnight.
I ended up being swept up by a classmate and ended up dancing at an Irish pub with my classmates until 2-3am, and I had a great time.
Impressions of Rome thus far:
Rome seems like a very large city; everything has been built over the large-scale Roman foundations. The streets are wide and large (and traffic is intimidating!). It was definitely interesting to see. I didn’t really interact with anyone there, so I have no particular impression of the locals. I love Florence. I am utterly biased in this opinion, but that I think it would be more fun to study abroad in Florence than Rome. If you have any thoughts on this, please comment below!
Tips for the Vatican City, Photographers and Getting Lost:
  • Photographers, don’t forget to step out from behind the lens and live in the moment. Step into the action and don’t be afraid of the moments slipping by you. Living life means stepping through time with joy in your heart and
  • Vatican City security: you need to go through security and check in any umbrellas that don’t fold up, so don’t bring your large umbrella if you can help it.
  • It’s easiest to get into the Vatican City with a tour group — the lines are often a few hours to get in.
  • Mail a postcard from the Vatican City! They have their own postal service 🙂
  • Take a map with you everywhere.
  • Travel around with a buddy if you can help it.

Rome (the Wedding Cake and the Colosseum) — Arrival

I went through my study abroad program, AIFS, over the first weekend of March. The weather was rainy and sunny, which is my favourite kind of weather to explore and photograph in.

Rome is only about 3 hors away  (by train) from Florence, and the first thing I ran out to see when we arrived to our hotel was the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II.

It’s pretty cool, but interestingly the locals aren’t too fond of it. It’s considered to large and grandiose to match Rome’s other buildings, and is visible from almost every part of the city. It’s thought to be too boxy, and (in addition to lacking a tower or dome) it is glaringly white, standing out conspicuously among the surrounding brownish buildings.

As a result, it has a variety of nicknames including “the typewriter,” “the wedding cake,” and “the zuppa inglese” (an Italian sponge cake similar to tiramisu. It’s name is Italian for “English soup”)

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The building to the left of “the wedding cake.”

The weather was so pretty! It had just rained, so the steps up were shiny and the sky was gorgeous. 

Detail shot of one of the rooftop pieces on the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II (who was the first king to rule a united Italy). The goddess of Victory is depicted here.

View down after clambering partly up the monument. I love the reflections on the wet stone and the sky! It made me feel so happy.

I think the inside is some sort of military museum now.

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Another interior shot. Saint Barbara is the patron saint of military engineers, among other things, so I guess it makes sense that she was depicted inside the military museum/exhibit/collection-thing.

View off of the Capitoline hill (on which the Monument to Victor Emmanuel II/the “wedding cake”) is built. It was amazing.

The clouds looked so wild and interesting that day too! I loved photographing them — I’m slowly learning more about my camera as I click along. Currently I’ve been enjoying manipulating shutter speeds and ISO.

Same vantage point, just looking down to my left into the Piazza del Campidoglio, which is on top of the Capitoline hill.
There’s also a church right next to where I stood to take this picture, and it is absolutely gorgeous — it was one of my favourite churches as far as it’s beautiful architecture and design.

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One our way to the Colosseum with our tour guides! There are ruins visible over that railing there.
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This is the Colosseum. It is ringed with 80 entrances (basically every arch visible on the bottom floor), each of which is numbered.
Important political figures during Roman times often funded the entertainment to win public favour. Gladiator fights and many “sea battles” were depicted here — in fact, the entire floor of the Colosseum was flooded for the opening performance which featured some sort of sea battle. The Colosseum was actually built over what was once King Nero’s artificial lake on his personal property, which was filled with pavilions and gardens.
King Nero had built a large landscaped villa in the heart of Rome on the Palantine hill after a fire in 64 A.D. burned down the aristocratic houses that previously occupied that space. King Nero was basically hated, so when he died Emperor Vespasian wisely converted the area into public land that was essentially dedicated to pleasing the Roman populace.

In the old entrances of the Colosseum.
Note: there is only ONE Colosseum, and it is in Rome. The other structures people tend to call “colosseums” are actually Roman amphitheaters.
Here you can see all the odd holes in the columns/pillars. When they were built, metal rods were used to help align the stone. Later on this metal was reused and removed from these pillars, leaving them with a pockmarked appearance.

In the Colosseum! Those top levels have suffered a great deal, but those top seats are originally where the Romans permitted the women to observe from.

Men and their mistresses could sit close to the arena (the wives sat in the top seats). Those white stones on the right are meant to be a recreation of how the steps would once have looked.

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The Colosseum was a lot cooler than I anticipated! It’s not a disappointing, gross old ruin, but quite interesting to walk around.
The exposed area was originally hidden — that part wasn’t mean to be seen, and it’s between 2-3 stories below that tan flooring. You can basically consider the lower are as a sort of “back stage” where things were managed, and the old pipes of Nero’s artificial lake were sometimes utilised for performances. The tan part is a reconstruction of the level on which the original gladiators would have stood.
The gladiators were basically the celebrities of their time, and were the key components of the entertainment system of Rome. A typical career lasted around 20 years, if you managed to live that long. Also, not all gladiator fights ended with the death of one competitor — good gladiators were a valuable financial investment by their sponsors, and fights were sometimes rigged due to the heavy betting centred around the fights.

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I can’t remember what this is, but it’s right by the Colosseum.
It was pouring rain during most of our tour, and because the Forum was flooded we didn’t get to go see that unfortunately.

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I can’t quite remember what this was either! It may have been the entrance arch to Nero’s gardens and house. It’s right next to the Colosseum.

The view of one side of the Capitoline hill on our return from the Colosseum.
First impressions of Rome: it’s definitely built on a large scale — they have wide streets and many lanes with pretty intense traffic that I found intimidating even with over a month of practice dealing with Italian traffic in Florence. The building styles are very different, and there are a lot of preserved ruins smattered around the city. Like I just mentioned though, the first thing that struck me was how large all the structures and roads were.
Tips for Rome:
  • This is a general travel trip, but use your free time wisely. Sometimes it’s worth it to skip a meal and use free time to go explore.
  • Check the weather — it was pouring rain at certain points, but my trusty water proof jackets, umbrella and rain boots kept me happy.
  • Climb up the monument to Victor Emmanuel II until you end up outside and can’t find any more stairs to climb. Find that church I mentioned — it’s really, really pretty, and I’ve basically been poking my head into every single church I come by in Italy.

Cultural Differences: In the Restaurant

One of the experiences that constantly teaches me new things about Italian behaviour standards is going out to eat dinner. I’ve mostly been making my own food at home (a lot of rice and veggies; also, I recently found some gluten-free tamari/soy sauce! Yay!), but I do go out every few days for dinner (often using the AIFS meal vouchers, which I highly recommend).

My two favourite restaurants so far are Masticabrodo and Golden View. (I’ll write restaurant reviews about these two places soon. Also, both participate in with AIFS’s meal voucher plan).

First off, Italians serve their food in courses. Even when ordering a simple dinner, they’ll sometimes ask which course you would like first. I’m used to having all of my meal available during dinner, so it has been interesting eating dinner this way.

My delicious (vegetarian and gluten free) minestrone soup at Masticabrodo. I was having dinner alone, and I think the waitress figured that I may as well have all my food — you can spot the (delicious) roasted potatoes in the background.

Water is not always included free with the meal. Italians often drink “fizzy” or mineral water, so the waiter always asks whether you’d prefer the water still or mineral. They do not serve water with ice, something very typical of American culture. I never drink iced water, so I actually really like this. Also, water is typically served out of a bottle, instead of the sneaky tap water you get in the U.S.

Ice cream is not as common a dessert item in Florence as is tiramisu, cheesecake and (sometimes) panna cotta. Crème brûlée and various types of mousse are also available in nicer restaurants. In the U.S., ice cream is a very common item on the dessert menu (often available in Japanese and Indian restaurants).

From what I’ve seen, gelato does not usually appear on restaurant menus. Gelato is found in “Gelaterias” (gelato booths/sweets stores) or in grocery stores.

Also, in Italy customers are not generally shepherded out a café or restaurant after the meal is over. I think this stems from the more Italian culture of enjoying a meal with family or friends; time is spend enjoying life through some leisure. In the U.S., it is socially expected of the diners to leave after finishing their meal. In a coffee shop, you are expected to purchase something every hour; there is basically a “drink minimum.” This is not part of Italian culture. If you buy one coffee, you may sit in a café for the rest of the day; you will not be asked to leave. America’s approach to meals is much more business like: once the goal of satisfying hunger is accomplished, the person leaves. In Italy places value on the process of appreciating the meal relishing the moment.

Random Cultural Differences:

America: It is polite to keep your hands in your lap/off of the table.

Italy: It is polite to keep your hands both on the table.

America: The waiter brings you the bill near the end of your meal/during dessert.

Italy: The waiters will not bring the bill until it is requested. Confused tourists/new study abroad students sometimes spend a confusingly long amount of time waiting around until this is realised. A simple “Il conto, per favore” is sufficient to request the bill.

America: Alcohol is treated a little differently — In Italy is it considered “American” to drink to get drunk.

Italy: Alcohol (like wine) is a part of Italian culture, and has its own way of fitting into social behaviour.

Age Limits: In America the legal age limit for purchasing alcohol is 21. In Italy, no one asks for proof of age when purchasing alcohol.

Italian Cooking Class 1 — With Panna Cotta

I signed up to take the Italian cooking class offered through my study abroad program, AIFS!

Ponte Vecchio = Old Bridge.

We met on the Ponte Vecchio and were led to the kitchen of the restaurant “In Tavola” across the bridge by an AIFS staff member. I let AIFS know before hand that I’m gluten free so that they could inform the restaurant and make adjustments for me.

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We entered the kitchen through a back street, put on plastic aprons, and right after that the lead chef yelled out “who is my gluten-free?!” I yelled back “me!” and immediately got put in charge of stirring panna cotta on the stove top.

The menu:

  • Ravioli di spinaci e ricotta (Spinach and ricotta ravioli).
  • Sformato di verdure (An artichoke soufflé).
  • Panna Cotta (A cold, Italian custard).

A group of my classmates blending the sformato.

Mikaela and I in our awesome plastic aprons.

My team making the (spinach) ravioli filling.
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The teacher/chef demonstrating how to make the ravioli pasta.
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We got to use a pasta machine!

We learned how to shape raviolis too! (These are not gluten free)

Since the sformato contained some gluten, the teacher/chef made me an artichoke appetizer.
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The sformato.
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Sformato di verdure!
After we finished cooking, we were led downstairs to a room of the restaurant where we got to eat the dinner we had made together 🙂
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Ravioli di spinaci e ricotta!

The teacher/chef made me my own (huge) bowl of gluten free pasta with tomato sauce — it was really good.
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Dinner in a cool, underground room!

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And finally.. Panna cotta for dessert! There is some strawberry sauce poured on top (just strawberries and sugar blended into smithereens). I’m a panna cotta fan so I enjoyed myself!
At the end we were given a little booklet with all the recipes we’d made that day.
Tips for Italian cooking classes:
  • Sign up for one!
  • Don’t wear black — the flour can go everywhere.
  • If you don’t get a booklet of recipes, write everything down!
  • If your class ends in the evening, make sure someone walks you home! A classmate walked me home and it was great to not walk back in the dark alone!

Organic Grocery Store: Sugar Blues

I found a tiny health food store called Sugar Blues in Florence! I was so excited.

Vegguide.org calls it “[a] heath food store sells fresh and packaged organic food, macrobiotic items, health products, herbs, flower remedies, products for personal care, and books.”

They sell a lot of gluten free food options, like rice-based pasta and many gluten free breads. I was so excited! They also sell these adorable chocolate-covered rice cakes for 1 euro (I really liked them!)
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I also found coconut oil, organic tomato sauce, and gluten-free tamari sauce (soy sauce).

It’s a small store on the south side of the Arno river, only a few blocks away from the Santo Spirito church.
The Santo Spirito. I passed it on my way from Sugar Blues to the Ponte Vecchio, where I met up with my group to go to the Italian Cooking Class I had scheduled that same evening. I showed up to the cooking class with three bulging bags of groceries.

Adventure Day! — Top of the Duomo and Campanile

I decided to use the better part of the day for some adventures, now that I’m feeling better. I enjoyed my own company, and we’ll start the adventure here: by one of the statues by the Palazzo Vecchio (“Old Palace”) and Piazze Signoria (the surrounding square). 
I walked to the Mercado Centrale (Central Market), glimpsed the San Lorenzo church, then headed to the Duomo.
I’ll write about the Santa Maria del Fiore (also known as “the Duomo”) another time. This is a shot of the amazing floor in the church. I descended to the level below the church to buy a ticket and saw the “scavi” (excavations below the church). My ticket cost 10 euros: it’s valid for 24 hours, and it gets you into the campanile/bell tower, the scavi, the museum and also the dome.
Very low ceilings, and parts of what I assume were the original floor remain.
I left the building, and walked to the side entrance that leads to the stairs that take you to the top of the dome. About halfway there you end up standing inside the dome, and can look up:
These are from the same vantage point.
Looking down — the picture is foggy because of the clear barrier.
The walkway is right here, below the stained glass windows.
Back inside the round maze. The dome is actually doubled; one is inside the other. The stairs are built in-between the two domes. You can see the interior dome to the right here.
I found the walk up pretty easy — I didn’t end up panting like some of the tourists. I’m a little afraid of heights, so the walk down the steep staircases was more nerve-wracking (they aren’t these ones, but the final set of stairs is nearly vertical.) Not close to as many stairs as I thought there’d be. There are about 463 steps to the top.
View of Florence.
Guess what: it’s Fiesole!
The white Santa Croce church (I live a few blocks from there). If you look closely the San Miniato church on the hill is visible, as is the Piazzale Michelangelo.
Looking at the tourists on the campanile/bell tower that’s right next to the Duomo. Right after climbing to the top of the Duomo I climbed the bell tower and stood where those tourists are standing.
Florence’s/our beautiful campanile.
Pictures from the top of the campanile:
View of the Santa Croce (again. I get a warm feeling when I see this church now, it reminds me that I live in Florence).
View of the lantern — the top part of the dome. That’s where I stood earlier in the day.
View of the Palazzo Vecchio (from the campanile) where I began my day!