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”)


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.


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.


One our way to the Colosseum with our tour guides! There are ruins visible over that railing there.
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.


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.


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.


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.

Venice (the Sinking City) — Day Two

Welcome to Venice!
I learned how to identify gondolas (there are also black, banana shaped lagoon boats in Venice). As depicted in this little street sign, gondola’s have a metal piece in the front with six prongs. Each prong represents one of the 6 districts of Venice.
I’ll just being with the beginning of my Saturday. I got up early to take some pictures right out side the hotel, before returning to meet up with everyone at the breakfast.
There’s a water bus/vaporetto station right there; Accademia was our stop. We got 48 hour bus passes for this AIFS weekend trip, so I basically got unlimited access to using the water buses!
A vaporetto on the canal beneath the bridge right by my hotel. The deeper canals (such as this one, are only about 10 feet deep.
I’m just wandering around alone. The architecture here is so different than Florence. Imagine having your own bridge to get home.
Some random food place I passed. I personally didn’t find the food in Venice very good, but this is just based on the places I wandered into.
A store.
At this point I returned to the hotel where we began our three hour tour of Venice with our Venetian tour guide Rita.
We learned a great deal, like the fact that the city of Venice is indeed sinking. This is due to fact that the city was built on wooden pilings — the foundations of the city are long, wooden tree trunks driven into the marshy ground, which have since petrified due to lack of oxygen. These foundations are slowly sinking. In addition to this, the water levels in Venice are rising.
A super cute golden retriever! Apparently, Venetians love their dogs. Tourguide Rita told us she scolds any owners don’t pick up after the dogs.
In Venice the water ways look like little streets made of water! These small canals are only about 3 feet deep.
Some boats. The water really is this colour, too.
Venice floods often. On days that street cleaners anticipate heavy flooding, they abandon their usual posts of collecting garbage bags and begin setting up these cat walks. In this way, the Venetians can walk along the streets above the water. Rita told us that it is very difficult to move alone the cat walk with other people on it as well.
Another dog! You can see the fashionable dark-coat-with-white-scarf combination worn by many of the Italians.
Venice once collected all of its water from rainfall. Their street drains and roofs were designed to catch rain water. Water that seeped into the street drains fell into a large, ceramic holding container built directly beneath the well (seen here), which separated it from the surrounding salt water. The clean water was accessible to the civilians via wells like this one, which are spread around the city. Guards were once posted by these wells to prevent any water contamination. The water was filtered by a system of sand filtration. Today, fresh water is pumped in from the main land.
The water level has risen about 2 feet from when the city was built — gondoliers like this one need to compensate for the smaller passages.
Interestingly, gondolas are not mass produced. Each gondola’s length and width is customised to the gondoliers height and weight. It has to be specific so that the gondolier can handle manoeuvring the boat all on his own.
Side note: bicycle riding is tolerated only by children in Venice. Otherwise, it is forbidden.
The Piazza San Marco in Venice! The pool of water visible there is not rain water– it is actually salt water that has bubbled up through the storm drains. This happens frequently due to the sea level, which (as I already mentioned) is about 2 feet higher than it was when Venice was first built.
Salt water ruins leather, so don’t let any of this touch your boots!
This interesting clock depicts the zodiac. It was also made when it was believed that the Sun circled the Earth. You can see the Earth and moon in the centre of the clock.
The San Marco church does not allow backpacks inside. Luckily, I hadn’t brought my backpack. I’m not sure there was really a solution to this issue (no coat-check area) other than simply not bringing a backpack. Here the flooding (that reaches into the church) is visible. There is the cat walk in use.
First interior shot; the golden ceilings here are famous. Photography is not allowed within the church. Also, the flooding is visible here.
The Bridge of Sighs (the raised, enclosed passageway in the rear) is often perceived as romantic location and tourist destination. Couples take pictures kissing under it. It is the passageway that prisoners took before their imprisonment, and their last glimpse of the freedom they had lost. It is said that they breathed a sigh of loss at their last moment seeing the beauty of Venice; thus the bridge has been named “the Bridge of Sighs.”
A stand with some veggies.
More narrow canals. It is impossible to walk along the water line/along the main canals, as there simply is not sidewalk or long stretch of flat area. So our tour meandered through pieces of all the 6 districts of Florence via the back ways and little bridges.
We ended our 3 hour tour in the Jewish Ghetto. To Italians, the ghetto was the districts that the jewish banking families were allowed to rent apartments, as they were not permitted to buy/own Venetian land.The building on the right is a synagogue (the jews were supposed to be discrete with displaying their places of worship. There are actually 5 synagogues in this square, and a well is visible on the left. Synagogues are easily identified by the 5, round-arched windows which represent the 5 books of the Torah. Afterward, Elizabeth V. and I wandered off as everyone else dispersed to eat lunch.
Again, notice that there is no water front. There are occasional strips of side walk, but they do not run along all the canals.
The rising water level is slowly obscuring the many steps that now recede into the green depths of the canals.
View on the vaporetto 🙂
One of the vaporettos ahead of ours. I was surprised that the water buses meander from one side of the waterway to the next to load and unload passengers. I had assumed there was a system of keeping to one side of the canal, but this doesn’t seem to be so.
A lab waiting to board the vaporetto. Service dog laws aren’t as developed in Europe as a whole as they are in the U.S., but average pet dogs have more public access than U.S. pet dogs.
A view of a gondola and restaurant from the vaporetto.
The Rialto bridge. In Venice, whenever you cross a bridge (large like the Rialto or any smaller size) you have technically crossed onto another island. Elizabeth V. (my roommate) and I walked around for a bit after our tour.
Interestingly, there is no night life in Venice. For this reason many young Venetians move away; Venice is slowly losing its young people. This made me a bit sad. Venice was once the hollywood of Europe, and in comparison today’s Venice is in decline. It is now a quiet city that isn’t being funded for repairs — essentially, it is sinking and thus far nothing seems to be being done to prevent it vanishing into the green waters.
Venice also has a very low crime rate.
Honestly, my photography is not an accurate representation of Venice. I’m drawn to photograph what I find appealing, so my photos are of the prettiest corners of Venice that I saw. To me, however, these pockets of charm simply dotted unexpected stretches of quiet bleakness. I know that many of my classmates adored Venice; I suppose I simply expected Venice to be a bit “more.” Thus far, one of my favourite things was riding the vaporetto.
Tips for Venice:
  • Look up some places to eat beforehand. A lot of food here is yucky, other students had bad experiences with food.
  • Wear rain boots.
  • Don’t take a backpack on the walking tour.
  • For fun: ride the vaporetto/water bus around just for sights of the city! Venice is a lot smaller than it seems, and it is enjoyable to see the city from the water.
  • Go island hoping!! Visit the other little islands like Murano (famous for its glass) and Burano. They are apparently unique and adorable, and not visiting them is the greatest regret of my Venice trip.
  • I got lucky because it didn’t rain the entire weekend I was in Venice. However, bring waterproof things and a warm coat and gloves.
  • There is no night life in Venice, so don’t wait until late in the evening to go have fun.

Across the River: Sights to See and Some Photography

Monday: I decided to go out into the city and wander around and ended up across the river in the other half of the city. (I don’t have classes on Monday).

Scooters on the Ponte alle Grazie bridge.

I hiked up some random grassy slopes and found myself in the Piazzale Michelangelo, a famous square with a fantastic, panoramic view of Florence.

The beautiful bridges that connect the two halves of the city. The Ponte Vecchio (the biggest one) was the only one spared during bombing of the other bridges by the Germans as they retreated in 1944 during World War II. (It crosses the shallowest part of the river, so that area of the river could have been rapidly crossed even if the bridge had been destroyed.) This is why the Ponte Vecchio is the oldest bridge.

The seam between the city and country (view from Piazzale Michelangelo).

I continued uphill and soon arrived at a white church, the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte (“St. Minias on the Mountain”). 

 The church had an enormous cemetery, with family tombs and a lot of statues. I spent a while walking around .

The bell tower of the church. 

He kind of looks like Frodo.

I think these are family tombs.

That large angel statue was so cool! Her wings are so slim and gorgeous.

I love those wings so much.


Super random carving. Not sure why there’s an octopus on this child’s grave.

View from the church’s steps as I was leaving.

My own Duomo photograph!

Walking downhill, I stopped at the rose garden (which is open to the public). None of the roses bloomed yet (usually that happens in May).

Trapped in the rose garden — I didn’t realize there’s only one way in and out.

I really liked the other side of the city, and stopped by a grocery store there.

I stumbled across the Piti palace, but my favorite part was seeing the Ponte Vecchio (the “Old Bridge,” the lower half of which is filled with stores that sell gold, and the upper part originally served as a walkway between the two palaces of the wealthy Medici family).

Just casually bicycling and talking on the phone.

Grocery store stand.

I bought some postcards and stamps utilizing my (patchy) Italian! I asked “Hai fracobollo?” = Do you have stamps? I also took some photos of the municipal police officers wandering around the city.Police – There are three types of police in Florence:

  • The municipal police are the city police: they deal with traffic fines and giving directions.
  • The state police are the intense ones that “hunt down the bad guys.”
  • There are also financial police that track you down if you play games with paying your taxes.

Side note: female police officers in Florence can be very cheery and helpful, helping tourists with directions and taking their pictures. They also wear make-up and can keep their hair down.

Cool street art! A parody.

A gluten-free menu: super exciting!

Some sort of desperate (and creepy) marketing failure.

And while we’re on the topic of failure, check out these portable yetti feet.

Creeper shot#5: He looks like a starfish.

Map of where I walked.

  • Orange: My walk to the Basilica San Miniato.
  • Blue: My walk from the Basilica San Miniato.

Evening: One of my study abroad classmates couldn’t make it to the wine tasting class  and she let me have her spot, so Elizabeth and I dressed up and went to a lecture packed with information about wine (Elizabeth’s learning about the wine business, and I was just the tag-along.

Zola! She belongs to one of the AIFS staff. She’s a sweetie.