Monthly Archives: January 2012

If Wishes Were Fishes


This past Saturday I went with a group of people in my program to Killarney, which is a major tourist spot in the area. We made a pit stop before we actually got there, to a holy well. I don’t know exactly where this place is, but it is fascinating; apparently there are many sites like this all over Ireland. The claim to fame for this site is based on a story about a woman who was given a mission by God to found a church; she wandered around, looking for the perfect spot. She found it when she came across nine white stags. There’s a statue in her honor and there are depictions of stags everywhere. There’s also an old temple (indicating that it was a Celtic site before it was a Christian one, so the stag-woman may well have been pagan), an older church, a newer one, a graveyard, and two wells.

The ‘new’ church is the first thing you see when you walk up the road. It’s impressive, even though the church is pretty small – it’s definitely the highest thing around.

This is one of the wells on the spring; you take the two steps down to the landing and drink from one of the cups. The water is clear, cold, and only very slightly bitter.

There are crosses etched into stones all over the site, from people using their nails to gouge at the rock.

The first photo is of one of the door-posts to the ancient temple, and the other is one of the entrances to the area where the first part of the well is.

I’m not sure how original this temple is or if it has been rebuilt, but it was cool nonetheless.

The way that people go through these places is very specific: first, people look at the temple and proceed to the first well; then they go to the newer church and then to the graveyard. After that, they go to the second well and the tree beside it. There are plaques that show what prayers people are to say as they go through this procession, in Gaelic and in English.

The graveyard here is host to a couple of famous Irishmen – Sean O’Riordain and Sean O’Riada; the former was a poet and the latter was a professor of music at UCC (University College Cork), where I go, and was much beloved by all his students. I don’t really know much more about them, but they are really important figures.

In the graveyard – on the left side of the new church in picture above (it’s a triangle that points up – there’s no roof left) – is the older church. The funny thing about it is that the graveyard actually continues into the old structure.

We walked out of the graveyard and over to a site a little way away. There is a tree and another well that looks like the first:

The tree is hung with mementos that people have brought, some of them heartbreaking. There is a pacifier hung there, the part to suck on turned black with age. It’s a reminder that while I may be a tourist, other people go to these places to pray: it is not merely a curiosity.

Next we drove on to Killarney and Mucross House, a mansion that lies in a 25,000 acre national park, the first national park of Ireland. Mucross House was built from 1839 to 1843; its main claim to fame is that Queen Victoria visited there in 1861. The family that lived there at the time prepared for the visit for six years, the Queen stayed for two nights, and later the family declared bankruptcy. Go figure.

This is a remarkable place because it contains about 70 percent of its original furnishings. That means that no one is permitted to take photos while inside, but you’ll have to take my word for it: it is incredible in there. The standard of luxury that was held in the Victorian times was incredible: the quality of everything was pretty high, though the quantity was also surprising. The house required 25 servants back in the day; I tried to count the number of servants I might need in a place like that and can’t get past ten, but I’m very sure every single one of them had his or her duties.

The tour took about two hours, during which we learned a lot about the period. For example, did you know that Victorian beds had curtains on them in order to keep away cold air? People in that time tended to have respiratory issues, which meant that in addition to the curtains, they slept sitting up. Also, women had makeup made of such safe things as lead and arsenic, which necessitated blinds that separated the women’s tender faces from the fire. You could move them up or down depending on whether you wanted to sit or stand.

Queen Victoria gushed about the grounds when she visited (though I don’t know if queens are allowed to ‘gush’); I didn’t get the opportunity to go down some of the walkways – at least, not very far – but I enjoyed how the wildness of the place was sculpted.

After the grandiose-ness of the house, we were asked what was basically a rhetorical question: “Do you want to see a castle?”

This is Ross Castle. We couldn’t go inside (it’s the off season), but it’s big and it’s deathly cool.

After this, we went into Killarney itself. We didn’t have much time, but it was long enough to go to a great bookstore that sells used books (!!!!). I went in, like a fly to honey, telling myself that I would not get anything. I left with a one-euro version of Bridget Jones’s Diary, a deal I couldn’t refuse. I finished it two days later.

Hear Me ROAR


A couple weekends ago – before I succumbed to illness (a very bad cold) – Juliette (my roommate), Molly (my flatmate), and I went to Charles Fort in Kinsale, which is a town not far from Cork.

Charles Fort is named after some king from somewhere, probably France – they are responsible for all the Charleses, as far as I know. The English are culpable for the Georges, Edwards, Richards, and Henrys. Why do they always pick the most boring names for kings? Though it is good to mention that if you type in “List of English Monarchs” on Wikipedia, the first few names are rather entertaining. Too bad they don’t use those now – wouldn’t it be great if young women were swooning over ‘Prince Harthacnut’?

There are actually two forts in the area, Charles Fort (the Main Attraction) and James Fort, the older and slightly more historically pertinent of the two. James Fort was built in the 1670s,  where one of the most important battles between England and Ireland took place: in 1601, the English laid siege on the Irish and won, which meant that the Irish were made to be subservient to the British – basically, life for the Irish sucked after the dust cleared. The clans were dissolved; England put harsh penal laws in place: Catholicism was forbidden, Catholics could not own land (though I’m not sure how much of a difference being Protestant would really have made, under the circumstances), the Irish language (Gaelic) was prohibited, and if anyone did anything to alter their house, they would be penalized. Loads of English people moved in, took control of the political climate, and spread the Anglican religion. Flash to the middle of the 1800s, to families living in shacks, subsisting off of a diet of potatoes and milk…when there were potatoes.

The day we went was fantastically sunny…for about an hour. Ireland does that. You have to run outside while there’s sun, because it won’t be sticking around. So these may be my only ‘yay-Ireland-is-sunny’ photos, so enjoy them now.

This is the bay of the area – on the far side you can see the town, and in the middle is the remains of an old fort (James Fort – and another horrible name for a king, while we’re at it). There’s not much left.

So ANYWAY, the fort I saw was built after all this happened in the classic star shape. It was built by a really famous French architect/fort designer that Juliette knew but whose name was too hard to remember – this was the guy that made this style famous. So basically most of the forts that have hung around to the present are star-shaped forts. They’re specially designed to resist cannon fire, though I don’t know how that’s possible, because as far as I know sturdy things like forts can’t ‘dodge’ cannonballs. Whoopee! (That was purely to provide some excitement, because I realized how dry that last bit was.)

This building is where they keep a little museum about the fort; it’s pretty cool. There are loads of buttons to push: my four-year-old heart screamed with glee.

This is gear from World War One – you can see a cot, chair, washbasin, a tub, pants for cavalry dudes, and a bunch of other things. WWI fascinates me – I think it’s a part of history we have forgotten in favor of the war that was more recent, when I think that both were equally devastating. World War I was the war that opened the eyes of the world to show how terrible war could be, and World War II affirmed and enlarged that understanding.


The fort looks like it does (i.e. no roofs) not just because of its age, but because it was burned in 1922 during the Irish Civil War by anti-Treaty forces (more on that in a different post – basically, those were the guys that didn’t want to split Ireland into two pieces). That said, the place is in pretty dapper condition. I was really, really into it: my first REAL fort! In some places I could hear the soldiers marching, imagine people running from place to place, see the cannons firing and jerking back before being reloaded. It was stunning.

And the sun is slowly going away… (“Did I bring my umbrella?!”)


Did you know that the punishment for falling asleep while on guard duty was punishable by death? Ouch.

I took a few shots like these – photographer-y ones – as this fort is full of all these Kodak opportunities.

This is one of the buildings we got to go in; it was crazy walking on the original floor surface and seeing the fireplaces, still blackened after all these years.

What I’ll probably remember the longest was the level of organization in the fort: there was a designated area for absolutely everything. Just beyond the main reception area, there’s actually a map of the place set into the ground in tiles that shows every building and its use. There was a set of barracks, powder storage, a mess hall, offices, women’s quarters (for those soldiers that managed to persuade their officers that they could keep their wives in the fort: wives were seen as a distraction and therefore the number of women in the fort was restricted, and put to work mainly as laundresses and the like), et cetera. This is expected, of course, but seeing the size and the layout of the place made me realize exactly what level of organization there was.

After getting our minds blown by the fort, we walked a healthy distance (up two hills, down one) to get to Kinsale. It was a pretty walk:

This last photo was taken after going down a steep slippery hill (a shortcut), during which I was consumed with the very fetching idea of not slipping and sliding all the way to the bottom. But once we got there, we saw a typical ‘Irish Forest’ (is that a stereotype for anyone but me? Just curious); one thing I’ve been noticing is that ivy growing on trees is very common. I’m wondering if that’s a native thing or if it’s something that’s been introduced, so I have mixed feelings about it. It’s still damn pretty for a January afternoon, though.

As you can see, Kinsale’s streets are a bit more colorful than your usual street. This color scheme wasn’t everywhere, but it’s about a two or three block range of fantastically colored houses. I like Europe in that there is more freedom to paint buildings interesting colors – my apartment building is pastel pink. I don’t much like pink, but it does show that Europeans are a bit more comfortable in letting their true colors show than we might be. On that note, my gay-dar is also way off; men’s fashion is all over the place!

We walked around for a while before going into a tearoom (I’m not really sure what to call it), where we were served fancy hot drinks and some wonderful, intense lemon cake. Chai. Yum.

After that, Juliette drove us back home – did I mention she has a CAR? There are benefits in studying abroad on the same continent/region, even though her steering wheel is considered to be on the wrong side here.

One last tidbit:

This can also be paraphrased as: ‘I am Irish. Hear me roar.’

Unpacking, Recovery, Suspense


It’s been sixteen days since I came to Ireland (the calculation is easy, as I got here on the 31st – that was a a bad day, so I’m starting from the first of the year), so I figure it’s about time to break the tension. No, the rumors aren’t true. I have done none of the following:

1. Skydiving without a parachute

2. Scuba-diving with Steve Irwin

3. Hunting for treasure with a bunch of smelly guys with a decreasing number of teeth

4. Learning how to make friends with and then riding dragons (note: today is Dragon Appreciation Day! Eat your heart out, Dave.)

5. Attend class

Okay, so the fifth one is only partially true. I’ve had a lot of trouble figuring out which classes I can take and then – narrowing things down by A LOT – which ones are actually offered this semester, and then those that fit into my schedule. It’s complete chaos, since international students sign up for classes on the run, once we get here. It’s always fun to learn that the administration had a good laugh over your preferred class list on your application, but you breathe deeply, enjoy the tropical weather (HOW do people here manage to wear coats in these temperatures?), and deal with it. The dust has settled now, so it’s really no problem.

What’s funny is that the Irish students have a very casual relationship with the concept of what we in America like to call ‘Going to Class’; they drink and enjoy their lives until the last month before exams – we get a whole month off, by the way (YIPPEEEE!) – when they cram andcramandcram. I’m not going to take that up. I’ve grown my hair out pretty long and I don’t think it would be pretty to see it all stand on end.

Cork itself is very beautiful; I suppose I ought to run out sometime when the sun is shining to take proper photos. It does shine sometimes, but only for about a half an hour, so I would quite literally have to sprint everywhere to get all the places of notice. So you get overcast photos instead. What the pictures don’t convey is how green everything is (especially the countryside, but you’ll see that later); I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to see green grass and flowers blooming. I’ve never had a green birthday in my life.

Proof, for all you doubters out there:

And my birthday – I had a fabulous day. I had no classes, and so spent the morning reading, the afternoon shopping and baking, and the evening sharing the food and talking. I made: peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal chocolate chip coconut cookies, banana bread, and pasta sauce. The apartment smelled like pure heaven, especially when my roommate Juliette made chocolate cake. (I share a room with Juliette; Molly has a room to herself, so there’s three of us.) While shopping I bought a bathing suit and goggles, because I’ve decided to take up my love affair with swimming again (let’s see if it takes this time, without someone standing over me counting laps), as well as train up a bit for the lifeguard refresher I’m taking for summer camp. It was a very satisfying day, followed by the cold I’m still attempting to whip into submission. (ExcusefornotpostinganythingonIrelanduntilnow….)

But I did mention pictures before I went on that tangent, didn’t I?

You’ll notice that there are still Christmas lights up in the foreground, and that farther back there are things that look like sails – really skinny ones, anyway – that’s on purpose. Cork is right on the water and has a shipping history:

Just a hint: the center door is newer than the other two. Now raise the water level about where the upper doors are. This mental picture look a lot like Venice, because that was the scenario. I’ve heard that you could bring a ship right up to buildings here, one upon a time. I’m not convinced a ship could make it up this far; probably a dinghy – it’s a nice thought, though.

Since we are so close to the sea, the river (the Lee) is tidal, which is always cool to look at when going to school. It splits into two portions as it goes through the city, so that means that if you’re lost, you’re stuck if all you know is that your desired end location is ‘by the river.’ This is one section – though it’s not even close to where I live:

I really like walking around the city; I feel like I fit in a lot better, especially since I acquired a few European fashions in Spain (“I ONLY HAVE ONE PAIR OF PANTS!!!”), along with the fact that my facial structure isn’t completely weird compared to everyone else. And it’s all so…Irish. I meant to say something more grandiose and descriptive, but that’s what it is.

This is another big street. I like the little ones better, but haven’t got many photos of that yet. I also don’t have one of the English Market, which is an incredible place filled with vendors that sell fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, pots, pans, clothes, your kitchen sink, et cetera. It’s an indoor affair, with several openings onto several different streets. I get lost in there every time, but it’s worth it, for the cheap prices and for that place that sells olives and pesto that make your knees go weak… (They also leave samples out.)

I’m not also showing any of the cathedrals or churches, as I haven’t been in any of them. The architecture is different from anything else I’ve seen, though; it must be a U.K. thing.

The funny thing about walking around is that you tend to get lost – no, not just when you’re just noodling around – at the moment when you leave the grocery store. There’s that couple of seconds – or longer – where nothing is familiar. I’m certain that I’m hexed, or that there’s a horde of Irish people that pop out of the bushes and rearrange all of the landmarks. This means that I walk around like an idiot for half an hour, sweating my shirt off (WHY did I bring my coat?), carrying that box of cereal that didn’t fit into my backpack. (Side-note: grocery bags cost money here, so definitely bring a bag when you go to the store.)

And then there are times when you see things like this:

Wait. Was that…?

Yes. It was. You walk closer, stare for a few pregnant moments, asking, “Is that…Could that be…?” You come to the conclusion that it’s a cow. I’m assuming this is a lesson to all other cows. If you jump over the moon, not only are you permanently disfigured, but you end up as a piece of public statuary, belly up.

Another head-scratcher:

If you can’t see the detail, this is French’s Quay (pronounced ‘key,’ which for us means that this street runs along a river), with a Turkish barber right beneath it. Note that the road sign has an English version and a Gaelic version right on top of it; it was like that in Bilbao, too: Basque version above, Spanish below.

And now that I’m on the subject of Spain: I was walking (to get groceries, actually) and saw this flag:

It looks a lot like the Basque flag, so I had a moment of homesickness for Bilbao. It was a final moment of goodbye for a place that I had loved so much, and a hello to this one.

As the Romans Do


Since I’ve been to Rome twice, this has the possibility of becoming all higgledy-piggledy, but I’m going to give it my best shot. If you scratch your head in confusion at any point, just know that Rome is also a very confusing place; just the traffic is mind boggling: almost every car is scratched or dented. (There’s also a high density of smart-cars: Anne and I saw 74 of them in one evening.) I’ve also got a lot to say about Rome, so make yourself a cup of tea before you settle in.

Perhaps one of the most confusing places is the Vatican. Though it is very tourist-friendly, there’s a lot of Catholic-ness that seems quite unnecessary: quite frankly, it’s oppressive. However, both times I went to Rome, I went to the Vatican. They were both memorable in their ways, but I’m going to tackle them one at a time.

So the first time we went to the Vatican, I was impressed by the sheer number of people there. The second time around, I realized that the density of the crowd was normal. We went inside the cathedral – St. Peter’s/San Pietro, the biggest cathedral in the world –

(Take care to note the scarf I got in Paris; this was on the Paris-Rome-Barcelona excursion.) This is the first cathedral I really cannot like. Maybe it’s the fact that I don’t like the Catholic religion or the fact that the papacy has been the direct or indirect cause of a lot of pain over the course of the history of the world – or, well, something. Everything is beautiful and well-maintained, but there’s just too much. There’s pomp and circumstance for something which should be simple – or, at least, that’s the way I see it.

Attractions inside the cathedral include a ridiculous red stone bathtub. I suppose we are to consider it a baptismal font, but I’m very sure that if anyone hoisted themselves up high enough, they’d find a rubber duck and the Pope’s loofah. This tub is made out of a very special bit of rock: it’s serpentine marble, a cubic foot of which would probably pay for my education, a house on the coast, and a summer home in Italy for good measure. I would also not need to work. It’s very rare; apparently, it came from Egypt, from a mine that is now exhausted. The Romans liked to use it, as apparently did the Popes of yore.

We got out of St. Peter’s, disappointed that we would not be able to go to the papal museums that day: apparently it was the Day of the Immaculate Conception, when Mary symbolically got pregnant. It’s a big day for the Catholic church, as evidenced by the crowds:

We got out of the cathedral at about 11:45 and noticed a huge group of people facing not the cathedral (which is to the left of this photo), but an ordinary, kind of hum-drum building next to it. It’s not adorned with angels or sculptures of dead people, but on that day there was this rug hanging out of an upper window. I thought that it was a weird time to be airing out a carpet – with everyone watching, no less – but lo and behold, at 12 noon the frailest old man I have ever seen walked up to the window and raised his hands:

This is when I tell you that there are limits on what my camera’s zoom can do, BUT –

Well, there he is. The Pope. Still far away.

He spoke for fifteen minutes – practically to the second – in a slow, tired voice; he sounded like he had a sore throat. There was a bit in Italian (or maybe Latin, which does seem more likely, now that I think of it) which also included a small amount of singing, and then a greeting in several languages. He raised his hands again, bells pealed, and he left.

My impression of him was that he is not going to live for very much longer. I feel sorry for him: it sounded like he was completely drained, and I imagine that he went back to bed immediately after.

So yeah. That’s the Pope.

The Pope also has a legion of dudes in funny tights:

I don’t know how clearly you can see it, but trust me when I say that they’re pretty funky looking – not to mention heavy – but the humor is mediated by the fact that they carry things like pikes, as if it’s no big deal. I took one look at them and decided not to screw with the Swiss Guard – it’s got to piss them off having to wear that outfit.

So we now jump to Rome Visit 2 (RV2? Sounds like a truck model). This time the museums were open, so we went to the Sistine Chapel. I’m going to preface this by saying that there is no direct route to or from the chapel – maybe it’s some sort of technique to monitor the number of people allowed in the chapel, but I’m not sure. The halls are pretty cool, filled with curiosities, as well as one truly famous object:

This is the Torso of Belvedere, which was a major source of inspiration for Michelangelo and other artists. It’s from Ancient Greece and is supposed to be pretty good on the proportions. Honestly? I have no idea, but Michelangelo spent a lot of time sketching the thing. Is what he says goes? Ask your friendly neighborhood art professor, artist, or art geek.

The Sistine Chapel was amazing; Anne and I stayed there for at least half an hour, just looking up. It’s dizzying after a while, because literally every inch of the wall and ceiling are covered in something. I liked the muses the best – they are the ones that are on the side of the ceiling, the prophets from around the world and throughout history. The part that I found the most interesting was The Last Judgement, which is the painting on the wall behind the altar: it depicts those people that would go to heaven and which would go to Hell on Judgement Day. There’s a bunch of people getting dragged down into Hell that are interesting, as well as a guy (who is going to heaven) that is holding his own skin. I find it fascinating because of the fact that Michelangelo painted it different than it appears today: all the men used to be completely naked, but a while after the work was done, the Pope at the time didn’t like all the skin showing; he hired someone to put cloths over all the sensitive bits, so as to avoid looking at them while conducting mass. Censorship is great!

You can see 3-D images of the Sistine Chapel online if you want. It’s Vatican-sanctioned (no illegal photos), so if you have wanted to go there all your life and it’s just not possible at the moment, seek and ye shall find.

The Vatican is its own country – in fact, the smallest country in the world. It’s got its own flag and everything. What I find odd is that Castello de San Angelo (St. Angelo’s Castle) is technically outside the castle walls. It’s the place where the Pope goes to hide when people want to set his house on fire – which I gather happened slightly more than once over the course of history. However, all is explained by the fact that Italy unified in 1861, pretty late considering other European countries. The area around Rome was called the Papal States, governed by the man in the big chair himself (to clarify: I mean the Pope, not God).

On my first trip I took a tour of the place. There are some nooks and crannies that look perfectly suited to rats and other vermin, and others intricately painted, accompanied by loads of people in blazers and ID tags daring you, just daring you, to take photos. But for me, I like the outside and roof view best:

This guy is St. Angelo, and he has a SWORD. That’s all I got. Of course, from the roof you also get views of Rome, but do you know what’s better? RUINS.

Basically from here on in you can assume I did everything on my second trip with Anne; also, a lot of the information I have about these places is from a couple of tours we took, of the Colosseum and of the Palatine Hill.

I’m trying to think of ways to draw this out – you’re waiting for photos (tapping your shoe?), but I really don’t know what I could do. Well, there’s always the one about the basset hound that walks into a bar…

Ha! I fooled you! I lulled you into a sense of complacency and then BAM! I suppose it’s also fair game to say that I’m writing this late at night, so more of these classic pranks may occur. I make no promises or guarantees.

The Colosseum – or the Flavian Ampitheater – as we know it looks different from the real deal back in ancient times: the whole shin-dig was covered in marble, each of the 282 arches had a statue (which were painted), and that cutaway bit would, of course, have been filled in. It’s different now because people took the marble or travertine (another type of rock) off of loads of ancient structures to make mew things – on parts of these buildings you can see holes where they even took the metal rods holding the stone onto the brick; this includes the Colosseum, but I’m not showing those bits, as it makes me grind my teeth.

The Colosseum was built on the site of a five acre artificial lake, part of an immense 65-acre palace complex built by the emperor Nero – this was the guy that supposedly played the lyre while Rome burned (though one account actually has him out of the city at the time). The fire lasted six days and caused some extreme devastation, which means that it cleared some serious ground for Nero’s Golden Palace. The place was huge – it would have rivaled Versailles, had it survived. As it was, when Nero died, he wasn’t exactly popular, so the people demolished/buried his palace, all except for a massive 35 meter high statue of Nero himself – the Colossus – that had been at the foot of the lake. The emperors Vespasian and Titus built the Colosseum, a project that took eight years to build, and when it was done, the statue of Nero was placed nearby. That meant that the colossal statue lent its name to the arena; other buildings of this type were just called arenas.

So there it is, all 48 meters of it (and here in my notebook I have an amusing note: ‘indeed,’ for the tour guide we had whose English was really very good, but who liked one word in particular).

I’ve started a collection of idiot-proof signs: Rome is riddled with them, but this one is special. It’s so…obvious.

There would be shows three days a week, and would last all day. Up to 60,000 spectators would pile into the Colosseum and would watch different shows depending on the time of day: in the morning there would be hunting of exotic animals (the Romans are part of the reason why some animals went extinct or got on the path to it – ever heard of a bear in Europe?), which involved animal on animal fights or hunters versus animals: there were even specialized barracks for hunters of animals. At about lunchtime there would be the execution of animals, prisoners, or criminals – but not Christians. That’s a load of hooey. It’s true that the Romans killed Christians, but never in the Colosseum.

In the afternoon there would be the gladiator shows, the ones we see in the movies. There would be five or six fights a day, involving gladiators of several different kinds; the most popular was the one with the short sword, though there were eleven other types. These fighters tended to be criminals or prisoners of some sort; they had one or two years in their barracks to train, and would then participate in ten to twelve fights a year: the idea that gladiators lived on the edge of death every day isn’t true. Gladiators were given their freedom after three years – tops – and got money prizes when they won. If they lost, the emperor would give the thumbs up (woke up on the good side of the bed, therefore you live), or thumbs down (still feeling that wicked hangover, just got syphilis  et cetera, bad news for you). Expensive or popular fighters tended to live when they lost, but if you were that scrawny guy with the big nose you were just out of luck.

The games were all financed by the emperor, which meant that they were a liability on the state and that food was not complementary. Sometimes there was free food, but that tended to be meat from slain animals or something simple; most people bagged a lunch.

The actual setup for the fans is easier to describe with another photo:

Ta Da! You can see on the far side the stage that has been reconstructed to show what the actual floor would have looked like: a wooden platform covered in sand – the sand was there to soak up the blood. The word for ‘sand’ in Latin is ‘arena’; that’s where we get the word today. All that stuff beneath was corridors, cages, storage, and trapdoors: this was all part of the spectacle, as fights would seem to just bust out of the ground, while below there was actually a lot of work going on.

As for seating, the nobles got a front-row seat – but only the men. Any woman that wanted to see the games had to stand on the highest tier: this was so that the beauty and the wiles of the women did not distract the gladiators, though I think it was also to keep the wives faithful to their husbands. Gladiators were idols, with all that comes with it.

When it rained or was unbearably sunny, there was a canvas roof that was rigged so that it extended over the seating of the arena (everyone actually fighting got wet or sunburned).

And speaking of restorations: you may notice it doesn’t look like the Colosseum is in fantastic shape. This is because people have sniped stuff off of it, but also because of an earthquake that hit the back of the forum and the Colosseum pretty hard. In the 1800s, the Papal States (Mr. Pope) restored the building and then commenced to use it for Black Friday mass. There’s an ugly iron cross obstructing your view right as you get into the Colosseum for that reason. BUT: there’s going to be another restoration – which will cost a whopping 25 million euros – starting in the next year to stabilize and beautify the Colosseum, so hopefully this will be preserved far into the future.

Some more views from the Colosseum:

Adjacent to the Colosseum is the Palatine Hill, where Rome started and where the palace for the emperors was. Rome as a republic first, but then came a series of emperors and eventually ruin and anarchy. That’s Rome in a nutshell; a lot of that action took place on the Palatine Hill.

This is the bottom of the complex. (It’s pretty.)

Domitian was the first emperor to really seriously build a palace on the Hill; among all of the other attractions, he built his own stadium:

There were private chariot races, gladiatorial fights, and other attractions in this space, and of course, the emperor got his own box.

And this is just starters. The whole thing took up 45 acres and went up six floors – it wasn’t up to Nero’s standard (1,000 rooms, 400 of which were covered in gold) – but it did pretty well for itself. If it were still intact today, no one would bother with Versailles.

This part of the ruins was the throne room and the outer wall of the palace. You can sort of see how tall that one bit of wall was by the height of the surrounding people – it’s impressive in real life. In antiquity, there was a dome over the throne room that was bigger than that of St. Peter’s in the Vatican. Take THAT, Pope!

This begins the section, ‘People Who Like to Pretend they Are as Great as the Romans.’ This is the house Mussolini built on the Hill to be pretentious: it’s an eyesore. This is another great idea from the same guy that thought that it would be cool to run a road right through the MIDDLE of the Roman forum, right past the Colosseum. (#*%#(&#@&%$&*!!!)

The other buildings on the Hill are far less insulting:

The building in the back is one of the two homes built by the Farnese family on the Hill; the other one is for the wives of the family, so I’m calling this one The Doghouse. The Farneses were a power family in the 1700s much like the Medicis, only in Rome; they were responsible for several popes, power struggles, and so on. I just think that it’s hilarious that they had to build on the Palatine Hill – show-offs.

That’s the new stuff, but there’s also some of the oldest ruins in the world on the site:

These are the ruins from the first settlement of Rome (well, the first settlement made of stone, anyway; I don’t know about cavemen and all that junk). The story of Rome’s founding is an interesting one – or rather, there are multiple versions:

1. There’s what’s detailed in the Aeneid (a book that tried really hard to be like the Odyssey), about a guy that later founded Rome, after loads of macho drama. Or that’s what I remember, at least; I also remember liking the Odyssey more.

2.Romulus and Remus were twins that were abandoned in the woods and then raised by a she-wolf – though there is some speculation about that: ‘lupa’ is the word that was used, and that can mean either ‘she-wolf’ or ‘prostitute.’ It’s more circulated that it was a wolf for obvious reasons, I suppose. The two guys grew up and found a great site to build a city – or rather, they chose two hills that were adjacent to each other; Romulus was adamant that the Palatine Hill was the place to be, and Remus wanted the Aventine Hill. They got into a huge catfight and eventually threw up their hands and called on the gods for their favor; each god sent down one eagle to represent the favor of each deity. When the dust cleared, Remus had five sickly looking eagles and Romulus had thirteen brawny, ate-wheaties-for-breakfast eagles, which shoved the other five into their own lockers. So that settled that, though I think that Remus ended up dying for being a stick in the mud.

3. The last version actually explains the buildings above: nomadic people decided that stringy venison and a life on the move wasn’t for them and set up farms on a hill near a river. The rest is history.

Right by Oldest Rome (it has a ring to it, doesn’t it?) is the oldest palace, the one that belonged to the emperor Augustus,  Julius Caesar’s nephew. It was a small place – which a lot of people at the time looked down their nose at – but I think it did okay, especially since it was from 25 B.C. The rooms are a lot smaller, but there’s more of an idea of an actual living space. They only let in 25 people at a time, but it’s well worth the wait in line. There are old frescoes, some of the old floor, and the idea that while it wasn’t pretentious, it was indeed fit for an emperor, albeit one that wasn’t too full of himself.

This is the part they allowed us to take photos of…

Next comes the FORUM! (Your thoughts are probably something like: “Woa! Capitals! This must be really important!” My thoughts are something like: this is really cool and I know that this post is long, so I want it to stand out. It’s only going to get longer. Why not get some cookies? Everything is even better with cookies. Anyway, take a break. The forum is REALY COOL, or at least REALLY IMPORTANT. You: “More big letters!!!” Me: Don’t get too excited. That’s dangerous for everybody.)

The Forum – or this part, at least – was built by the Etruscans in 200 B.C., who lived on another hill in Rome; the future forum lay in between their hill and the Palatine Hill, and so they used their superior technology and drained the swamp to set up a market. The Romans took a shine to it, so when they expanded away from the Palatine Hill, the forum expanded with it. Every emperor wanted to leave his mark, and it’s pretty clear that somebody certainly succeeded. The forum was never just a commercial center (though that was its primary function); it was a meeting place, home to religious centers and politicians. There was a forum in every Roman town – as well as an arena and a bath complex – and was an integral part of Roman life. We tend to just think about the blood-for-pleasure part of their lives, but they did so much more than sit on their duff (at first, at least).

The biggest building in this photo – the three arches – is also the biggest in the forum (all of it isn’t visible here, but trust me): only half exists now because of the same earthquake that did a number on the Colosseum. First it was a bank, then a courthouse, and then it got transmogrified into the Basilica of Constantine. As for me, I love the ceiling:

Next is the Templo di Romolo, which isn’t original, but which has the old doors and columns that are worth about 120 million…euros, which irons out to about $153,000,000 at the current exchange rate.

If you’ve guessed that the columns are serpentine marble, you know that there’s a good reason why they lock this place up tight at night. You can kind of see the color of the columns in this photo, as well as the doors.

My favorite story about the forum is a romantic and humorous one – there was an emperor, Antonius Pius, who loved his wife, Faustina the Elder, very much. By all indications, they had a fairly happy marriage. Three of their children didn’t make it to adulthood (though the daughter that did survive became an empress, Faustina the Younger), so I’m guessing that was a wrinkle in perfect bliss. However, Faustina the Elder is also remembered as one of the stable and respected empresses of Roman history, which is saying quite a lot: there is a story about another empress that was known for fooling around on her husband, and when questioned about it, she assured everyone that the emperor’s children were really his, saying that she never slept with other men until she had a bun in the oven…

Tangent aside, Antonius had good reason to love his wife, and so was brokenhearted when she died. He did many things in her memory when she died – such as mint coins with her profile and deify her as a goddess – but the most material of his devotions was a beautiful temple, staffed with priestesses. When Antonius died, the people were required to build something in his memory, but, well – they just didn’t feel like it (laziness was actually one of the reasons why the Roman empire fell). So they looked around. Saw the temple. The front of the temple now reads: ‘Temple of Faustina and Antonius’ – or at least, it should; you can’t really see it now…

Isn’t that the most beautiful scaffolding? That is an unhappy part about the off season, but at east we didn’t have to break out our mad karate skills in order to break through the crowd.

Another cool story is that of the Vestal Virgins, a group of women who guarded the eternal flame, fanned the emperor’s ego, and did some rites. As the name implies, these women had to be, well, virgins. If you were discovered to be ‘experienced’ – well, if I remember right (and I’ve been trying to forget), a nasty process happens to you that involves flaying your skin off. And if you were the clutz that accidentally put out the eternal flame, you’d get buried alive. However, if you didn’t screw up, you got to live in a nice place:

This was also a temple of some sort, and was much more impressive when people decided that statues ought to have heads – a bit of a sticking point with me, especially in Italy… I believe it’s also where they lived – prime real estate!

The last bit in this side of the forum that I’ll show – though there’s another triumphal arch (whoopee) – is a temple:

Now I’m not entirely sure who this belonged to, but I think it was the temple of the vestal virgins, probably where they kept the eternal flame. It’s also a great photo opportunity.

The other part of the forum was Trajan’s Market:

But the coolest thing about Trajan’s Market is not the market itself (though it’s still wicked awesome). It’s this:

This is Trajan’s column, a general and emperor who commemorated his victory over Darius, head of the Romanians, with a big free-standing column. The relief spirals upward – so no one can see the top if they tried – but we just have to trust Trajan when he says that he kicked the butts of the now-Romanians in year 106, because we can only make out the beginning of it. What’s so cool about this is that it’s one piece of stone that was carved and hoisted up – and that no one decided to take an axe to it during a sacking of Rome.

Right by the Market is another landmark:

People call this The Wedding Cake, for obvious reasons, and it’s actually the home of yet another eternal flame:

Or at least, I’m assuming that’s why there’s an open fire on a national monument, flanked by guards. At any rate, its official name is the Victor Emanuel II monument, named after the first king of Italy. He was a very popular guy: when he took Rome, only four people died – even the Romans couldn’t do that. That was partially aided by the fact that people were getting pretty sick of the Papal States and wanted to get off the Pope Train.

Unfortunately, all that work was screwed up by Mussolini, who conducted his speeches from the other side of this building, on the Plaza Venezia side. Mussolini was actually a hero of Hitler’s at the beginning – a kind of sick blueprint for him – but when Hitler became more powerful, Mussolini was in too far to back out and had to do something to avoid being branded as the blustering Italian Hitler, kicked around like a soccer ball (nice try, but no).

At one point, Hitler came to inspect Mussolini’s troops; Mussolini knew that he didn’t have enough soldiers to really make an impression, so what followed was an act of cunning on his part: when the soldiers marched past the Fuehrer and reached the other side, they dashed around the building, changed uniforms, and marched by again. Later a crowd of soldiers gathered; there were several cardboard cutouts toward the back to fill out the crowd. Hitler was none the wiser and went back to the land of schnitzel thinking that Italy was a lot more powerful than it really was.

From here, Rome at night:

It’s surprising the number of things there are to see in the evening in Rome; most of the major monuments shut up like a clam at five or six, but there is so much that you can see just by walking around that you just wouldn’t expect. This one is the Trevi Fountain, which beats the pants off of every other fountain I’ve seen so far; it looks like a bunch of waterfalls and statues, only surrounded by tourists with cameras. What you’re supposed to do is throw a coin over your left shoulder (at least, I think it’s the left one – you may want to make sure if you’re planning on going) and make a wish. There are also some stunning gelato places near here, so even if you’re not really interested in water features or aren’t willing to try your luck, check out places that sell flavors like kiwi and cinnamon. Yum.

This is Marcus Aurelius’ column; it’s in much worse shape than Trajan’s, but I think that might be because it’s older. I don’t know much about it, but it was really cool just to happen upon it as we were walking down the street.

This is Plaza Navona and some sort of governmental building. The real draws here are the fountains and the stalls selling handicrafts, Christmas ornaments (in December, anyway – nice blown glass stuff), and sweets. I got a truly enormous doughnut there and took photos of the statuary:

All of the sculptures of the plaza are by Bernini, the same guy that did the best statue of David – when David is actually in motion, throwing the stone at Goliath, in the middle of the action of the story – as well as the Apollo and Daphne (god chases woman, woman turns into tree), and the Ecstasy of St. Theresa, the massive altarpiece of a church that is impossible to find, though it’s supposed to be in Rome. This was a happy accident, though. Bernini was a genius because he could make stone really look alive – the guy with the spear is really doing a number on that octopus. You can see the intent and the motion of the man – as well as the kid pulling the tongue out of that horse’s face. Another sculpture that really shows his chops as an artist is Pluto and Proserpina: there are loads of close shots on Google Images that show Pluto’s hands grabbing Proserpina’s body – you can see how her flesh is moving around the grip of his hands. Freaking genius.

This was the main fountain – the plaza is a long oval, with two smaller fountains and this big one in the middle. It’s one of those pieces in which you see different things every time you take another look. Anne noticed this on the male figure in the center of this frame:

Yup. That’s a garter. Moving on…

There was loads of stuff going on for Christmas: lights, trees, the whole shebang:

This last one is opposite the street from the Mercedes Benz Christmas tree (it had their logo all over it, never mind that there was no car dealership nearby): Fendi had a thing going on, where a guy operated a machine that pumped out various shapes made of bubbles. I liked the stars and Christmas trees best.

The other thing that I loved about almost-Christmas in Rome were some of the ads:

The one thing that really surprised me walking around at night was that the Pantheon closes really late – at 7:30 or so –

This was an ancient temple that was converted into a church, as well as the painter Raphael’s tomb. We saw it twice, once in the night and once in the day:

The obelisk is from Egypt, though it’s not the biggest in Rome. There’s one in the big square in the Vatican and one in Plaza del Popolo (not in the Vatican, despite its name); both of those are bigger than this, but it’s funny to walk past a baby one every now and again. Egypt must be so pissed of at Europe (and the world in general) – it has better reason than maybe even Greece. I don’t know why it is that people have seen fit to steal priceless treasures out of their home countries. I can understand protection, but I can’t understand why these things can’t go back when the country is doing okay. Of course, I say this when both Greece and Egypt have been having issues, but still.

Hey! Look! Red marble! There are four columns made of serpentine marble in the Pantheon. I wonder what their security looks like…

The dome of this building is huge, though it isn’t obvious when you look at it: it’s very low to the ground, so it creates the illusion of being average. However, this Roman dome is five centimeters bigger than the one on St. Peter’s – and Michelangelo made sure to design the Vatican’s dome that way. There is some commentary about whether Michelangelo was a pagan or not; I don’t know, but an art professor back at UMaine pointed out that in the panel of the Sistine Chapel of Adam touching God’s hand – God supposedly giving life to Adam – Adam is conscious: he looks like he’s deciding whether or not he’s going to accept the touch of God. Something to think about.

Now I’m in the final stretch – though you may want to take a break and do a few of your own, because this is my favorite part. The Colosseum was cool, as was the forum and all of the other stuff. But this.

The Romans didn’t just get their kicks looking at people die in the arenas; they also watched horse-chariot races (which, granted, could get pretty brutal). The horse track in Rome is called the Circus Maximus and it’s right on the other side of the Palatine Hill:

It may not look like much, but you can imagine sitting around the track on benches, watching the chariots careen around the turns – the noise of the people, the thunder of the hooves of the horses on the gravel. I felt something similar in the Colosseum – an echo – but here it’s possible to actually walk on the surface where all the action happened – it’s impossible not to be edgy, because as you walk along you imagine the races happening, and all of the sudden you feel the need to sprint for the divider or toward the outer edges.

There’s some work being done on the far end of the circus now, on what I think was part of the seating for the emperor:

But that’s just the appetizer. There’s something that people tend to neglect when they think about the Romans, and that is the fact that the Romans didn’t smell bad  – or at least they didn’t smell as bad as a lot of people of other cultures did at the time. This is because there were large complexes called ‘baths.’ This was no simple tub; there was one in each Roman settlement, so the ones in Rome were huge and awesome, and one of them (the Terme of Caracalla) looks something like this:

The walls are extremely tall (and sometimes held up by metal bars) and you can still see clear outlines of rooms, as well as the remnants of mosaics on the floors and parts of the walls, so you can imagine what it would have felt like to walk through this place, hearing the echo of many people talking bouncing off of the water and the walls.

However, you still need Sparknotes while walking around, as each area has a distinct purpose from the others. I’m going to show you pretty much everything but for two rooms (that I know of); as far as I can tell those are completely demolished.

This is the dressing room, where bathers would go after leaving the atrium (the atrium also served as a kind of meeting place), to take off their clothes and place their belongings in the hands of servants (who could not always be trusted). It’s surprising that it is so big, but all of the spaces here are simply enormous, so in the scale of things it does make sense.

From the dressing room, you go to the frigidarium, a room with a cold pool; the bathing strategy of the Romans was to go from cold temperatures to really hot ones. This is the most impressive room, as it has very imposing columns, which held up a dome; apparently the whole area was also glassed in, which let in a powerful amount of light, filling the space:

These things are really tall, and practically free-standing. It’s intimidating to think that there were several more just like them, and then to think of the cupola they must have supported. It’s awe-inspiring.

More photos of the frigidarium:

This is one of the pools.

From the frigidarium, you go to the tepidarium, an area with a large swimming pool:

There was also a game people played while soaking in the pool, built right into the floor:

I’m not sure how you play exactly, but I’ll leave it for the Romans (they don’t let you in the pool nowadays). The tepidarium is also where you go at the end of the process, to cool back down and to get an oil massage. There are artifacts recovered from places like these that look like weird metal hooks; these were used to scrape the oil off of your body after the massage.

After the tepidarium, you go to the caldarium and/or the laconium, of which I have no pictures; as far as I can tell, they’re pretty thoroughly beaten down. The caldarium was basically a hot tub, a room with a pool of hot water, and the laconium was a kind of sauna, a room for ‘sweat baths.’ The baths of Caracalla demanded ten tons of wood every day to meet the need for heat, as well as 18 vast cisterns of water.

The baths were just incredible – there could be 6,000 people in them at any one time (and yes, there were designated times for men and for women), in a structure that had to handle the demands of weight of the ceilings, domes, etc, heat, and water; there was also a massive subterranean part underneath the floors responsible for heating the place – men slaving over furnaces for long periods of time – which heated the floors so that as you walked through, your feet weren’t cold. A lot of people say that the Colosseum was the greatest Roman engineering marvel, but I think it was the baths.

But the baths were more than just bathing centers. There was also a gymnasium; I’m not going to show you pictures of that because it looks a lot like the dressing room, but these are en route to the gymnasium from the tepidarium, so that’s close enough.

I think you can see it clearest on the left part of the picture, but all of the floors in the smaller rooms are bowed in. This is probably partially due to age, but also during the normal activity of the baths, all of the water would funnel into the center of the rooms and be piped out. Romans. Geez.

I’m not truly sure where this is (probably on the pathway to the gym, but I’m just not sure), but that doesn’t matter. What this does show is that the baths are a photographer’s dream.

But the baths had more than the gymnasium, too; they were a meeting place. Because of that, they also had gardens, shops, restaurants, a stadium, and a library:

This is just the library, but it’s cool to know that they had them in such public places. I think it’s fabulous that you can find bookstores practically anywhere you look in Italy; there was one in Venice that had a gondola full of books inside it. If only I could read Italian…

Of course, when this place was ransacked – first by Visigoths and then by Popes – all the cool art was taken away, and the place was damaged through looting (though earthquakes are also responsible for that). If you can remember 6,000 words ago (yeah, I know), I talked about that tub in St. Peter’s Basilica made of serpentine marble: that came from these baths. Freaking Popes. The Visigoths were the ones to really ruin the party at the baths, though: they were holding siege over the Romans, and cut the aqueducts leading to the city. That meant that no more water was going to the cisterns and that Rome’s inhabitants started to smell…richer; after that, the Romans were far too busy losing control to hook the baths back up. And that was it. It took hundreds of years for anyone to realize that bathing didn’t give you cooties.

That about does it for Rome. Though I have one final recommendation: go to Trastevere. It’s a great district to eat in, and you can see actual Romans and where they live. It shocks you out of ancient times and back to the moment:

…Though if the shock happens, you can always fall into a plate of pasta…

The Domain of the Medici


I’m in Ireland at the moment – more on that later – and find that I’m a bit behind, so you’re going to get Florence and Rome first, which will give me enough time to take decent pictures (ones where it isn’t raining, which it does a lot here).

The important thing to remember about Italy – besides the fact that you really can’t go wrong for food when you know what to look for – is that workers have an amount of freedom in certain areas. The first thing Anne and I heard upon entrance to Italy was “There is a strike” – and please insert an Italian accent, it’s more dramatic that way. Or maybe more frustrating. There wasn’t any sort of demonstration in Venice, but lo and behold, in Florence –

Fortunately, none of the strikes prevented our trains from running and there was no issue in Rome, but it does sound a lot like it’s no big deal. The few people we did find working on these instances seemed pretty bored with the whole idea. This was actually on the second day in Florence, by the Medici Ricardo Palace.

Florence was the seat of the Medici family, a bunch of bankers with a lot of money to play with; for this reason they were the ones to basically fund the Renaissance – all of the artists we know (and many we don’t) were given projects by the Medici: Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Donatello, Botticelli, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi…

One of the masterpieces made possible by the Medici’s money was the cathedral of Florence, the Duomo; when the Medicis came into power, the cathedral of Florence – what was meant to be a great masterpiece – was left uncompleted, as no one could figure out a way to construct the dome of the church. There had been a few attempts, which of course failed, after which the cathedral was considered a lost cause: the intended dome was just too big to engineer. The current Medici – one of the first in the line – wanted to prove himself to the other rich families in town and so cast a net to find an architect that could solve the conundrum. Brunelleschi was the only man with an answer; his design involved ribs that makes the weight ‘happen’ (note that I am not and will never be an engineer), as well as a bunch of other stuff that doesn’t really interest me. Anyway, at the end of a couple of years, the Medicis had their victory, leaving their permanent mark on Florence.

The cathedral itself is a marvel – green, red/pink, and white stone combine for a remarkable-looking building. It’s very complex, but I like it all the same.

Right opposite the cathedral is a building whose name is not written on the maps. It stinks because there’s a great story behind it – after a bit of digging, I’ve got the name to go along with the tale: ‘The Baptistry of Florence’ and ‘The Gates of Paradise.’ We go back to the Medicis again; the baptistry (a building outside of the church meant for baptisms) was looking a bit plain to them, and so three doors were commissioned: the two side doors were to be made of a dull metal and slightly less intricate, but the third and front door was to be much more complex and covered in gold. There was a competition held to see who would make these doors; the competitors included Donatello, Jacopo della Quercia, Brunelleschi, and Ghiberti. Brunelleschi and Ghiberti had a long-running feud going, and ended up as the two finalists. They both made panels to show the Medicis, and there was a lot of deliberation; in the end, the 21 year old Ghiberti won, perpetuating their rivalry.

These gates were dubbed ‘The Gates of Paradise’ by Michelangelo; on closer inspection, it lives up to its name.

This depicts Moses receiving the commandments. It doesn’t show the true genius of the doors as well as the others might, but it’s my favorite story of all the panels I saw. The trick is that the majority of the golden panels have three types of relief: in the background, there is carving into the metal, in the middle ground and parts of the foreground, there is carving around the shapes, and in some parts of the foreground there are shapes carved away or out of the metal (this generally happens with heads, to make the scenes more three dimensional). That is why the Medicis chose Ghiberti.

The tricky thing about museums is that they tend to close on Mondays. It stinks.

We were in Florence for half a day on Sunday and a day on…MONDAY, which meant that we had to be choosy about which museums we were to go see. Anne desperately wanted to see The David, so we went to Museo della Academia after seeing the cathedral. Photos were not allowed so you’ll have to rely on Google Images, as well as my word. I wasn’t expecting The David to be so huge: the guy is already on a high podium, but would have given any normal person severe neck cramps anyway (17 feet tall!). He’s situated under a tall dome and just dominates the space. It’s crazy to think about someone being able to carve something like that (though I have my suspicions about his hands – they look too big); I heard once that Michelangelo carved it with water sprinkling over the statue all the time that he was working on it: it kept the dust down and cleared everything away. I also heard that Michelangelo took off his shoes just once or twice a year, which meant that a layer of skin would be peeled off along with his shoes. I know, it’s vile. (Sorry.)

After this, we decided to discover if the museum on the pamphlet we’d been given (by a guy on the street, as t happens) would measure up, a museum of Da Vinci’s machines. Da Vinci was not only a noted painter but also a sculptor, engineer, and a designer of war machines; this is what they mean by the moniker ‘Renaissance man,’ a person who has many talents and skills. This was required of artists, as the aristocracy would come to artists not only for art but for other projects, as they were the creative element of society. So it was Da Vinci that painted the Mona Lisa, designed a great bronze horse, placed the ball on top of the dome of the cathedral of Florence (it’s in the photo, apparently a difficult thing to do), and also created several contraptions, such as this one:

This is not a gas mask or a torture device: it’s a way to breathe underwater. Pretty cool. There were a bunch of gears, flying machines, and other stuff, but this was the weirdest.

After that, we walked around, despairing of ever finding good and cheap leather (not for a student budget or the faint of heart), as well of the openness and closed-ness of the museums. However, we came across Palazzo Vecchio, the second residence of the Medici family. I’ll return to the first one later. This was where The David was originally situated, as well as a passel of other bits of art:

This is the glaring man of the fountain. He looks even more pissed off during the daytime; maybe someone ought to give back his clothes.

You may be thinking that the palace looks a lot like a castle – and with good reason. Back in the day, everyone was always trying to kill everyone else – when the Plague took a break, that is. But it looks quite nice on the inside:

The coolest part of the building is the grand hall:

The scaffolding on the right is supposed to cover a work site where eggheads are trying to figure out if there is a masterpiece of Da Vinci’s behind the canvas. It’s said that the painter who painted the massive frames (there are four) was commissioned to throw out a battle scene by Da Vinci (irony: the paintings in this hall are nothing but battle scenes); instead, he covered it over with one of his paintings. The scientists are working with a crack in the canvas as well as a clue painted into the battle scene – a flag in the back of the background says something like, ‘he who seeks, finds.’ I have no real opinion about this; if they do end up finding the alleged painting, the art world will be boiling with excitement for years – and as for me? Que sera sera.

We walked around the rooms of the palace; I was mildly unimpressed (partly because I was tired, I suppose); I really don’t like going to places that were fantastic but now are void of furniture. It destroys the image of what it could have looked like when the Medicis were in power, or rather, the image is never created. However, it does lend itself to finding new things:

Maybe this is why the Medicis are no longer a strong gang of thugs. Obvious much? I wonder where it goes.

And another gem – a real one this time –

This is Judith and Holofernes, a work by Donatello. Judith was a Jew in the Old Testament times that got fed up with Holofernes, who was ragging on the Jews bigtime. She decided to take action one night: she stabbed him in his sleep and then chopped off his head, just to be sure. This is the moment before she chops off his head. It’s gruesome, but there’s a reality there. If you look at it too quickly, a part of you flinches before reality sinks in.

The next day we went to the first Medici palace, where we saw the strike. We were relieved to find that it was open, and found the joy and great rarity of furnished rooms.

This place is also built like a brick shithouse. You can easily imagine living under siege in such a house, built with thick blocks and high windows.

It’s much nicer on the inside.

And here you have it: FURNITURE!

This may not make much difference to some, but for me, it is much easier to contemplate someone living in these rooms, working in them, bossing people around. I could imagine being the maid cleaning, maybe sneaking a peek in one of the chests or drawers, maybe being a lady in an uncomfortable dress reading by the window. I just don’t get that without the furnishings there; otherwise it’s just a big empty space with creaky floors.

Not every room was like these, but the ones that were fitted out did make a world of difference.

There was one space in which we were strictly forbidden to take photos, the old chapel. It’s small but there are paintings on basically every inch of wall space, depicting the three kings in procession to see the baby Jesus. It’s filled with the faces of the Medici court – as well as some of the Medicis as well, in front of an intricate background; every time I looked at a part of the room I saw something different.

After that, we walked to the Palacio Pitti (after ascertaining that the Uffitzi was closed, darn); along the way we saw a famous bridge:

We walked to the ticket office and bought entrances into the garden, as the museums were closed. It was a bit hilly, but afforded some great views of the city:

In this frame you have the cathedral and its belltower, as well as the tower of the Vecchio Palace.

And something for Mom:

Something fell down.

The gardens themselves were less fantastic than those of the Alhambra – though every garden pales next to that – but it does okay for itself:

We spent the rest of the day looking through shops, walking around, eating gelato, and looking at the lights that were set up for Christmas:

The next day we got on the train to Rome!