General Thoughts on Europe

So many of my posts in the last month have been fairly restricted to “we went here and did this, then we went there and did that”. Whilst the big sights were obviously often the highlights, I think it’s quite useful for me to not forget many of the little things that made our trip what it was: the funny moments, the ways in which the places operated that I liked, things that were annoying, things that took you by surprise, things that you’d NEVER see in New Zealand and so on.

Well I guess overall…. WOW HOLY FUCKING SHIT EUROPE ROCKS! OK, now I’ve got that out of my system. Every place we visited I think we were pleasantly surprised by, even though for which I had enormously high expectations – such as Paris & Venice in particular. I think I am only truly starting to realise how much amazingly special stuff we saw, how it’s not every day you can go to an art gallery and see six Picasso paintings in the same room, how it’s not just normal to stumble across a 2000 year old Roman ruin and so on. Obviously I knew that before leaving, but after a few weeks of seeing amazing stuff each and every day, you almost begin to think that it’s normal for you to be surrounded by buildings hundreds of years old, and for an art gallery to be filled with names that even I (the most art uneducated person in the world) recognised. But yeah, while the museums and art galleries were definitely most impressive, and I do feel like I learned a lot, there were many other things that I probably found more impressive and interesting.

Like the architecture! And by architecture I don’t just mean the fantastic churches and temples, or the ruins of Rome or Pompeii. I think generally I mean the density of it all, the typical 4-6 level building in either London, Paris, Barcelona or Rome that seems to line almost every street. While one might think the homogeneity of the buildings would eventually become boring, two never did quite seem the same, and where you found longer lines of the same sort of architecture – such as Regent Street in London or many Parisian boulevards, the vista that it created was awesome. I have found that height of building just seems to work really well: it doesn’t tower above you in an impersonal way like a skyscraper can (although there were some truly impressive skyscrapers in La Defense and Canary Wharf in particular), but still has the density to create a vibrancy that is just impossible in a place like Auckland, still obsessed with 1 and 2 level buildings. With those kinds of buildings, you always knew the street level would probably be retail, providing an array of shops that is just totally impossible in New Zealand, while the number of people living in the building would mean someone’s always coming or going, someone else is hanging washing out the window, and yet another person is arguing loudly with their family member inside (although in Italy I think everyone just talks like they’re passionately arguing, even when they’re just asking what’s for breakfast).

Funnily enough, when I think about the density of these cities, it isn’t London, Paris or Rome that immediately comes to mind, but rather Barcelona. Although it didn’t have the size of a London or Paris, and didn’t have the chaos of a Naples or the “city sized museumness” of a Rome, I really do think that Barcelona felt the most vibrant of all the places we visited. Not only in the central “Gothic Quarter”, where the narrow alleyways seemed constantly full of people, even at 11pm on a Wednesday night; but also throughout the wider L’Eixample, the newer parts of Barcelona. L’Eixample rather fascinated me actually, as a method of having a heck of a lot of people living in a fairly constrained space, but still having nice areas of private open space (through the use of inner courtyards) and also ensuring through those same courtyards that most parts of the building get a decent amount of sun. While the Gaudi designed “La Pedrera” that we walked through, is probably not quite indicative of the whole area, I do think that it’s pretty common for buildings in L’Eixample to be designed in this manner. The density of the place meant people were always around, the metro system could be fantastic and the vibrancy was unbelievable.

The whole “European” way of life was also quite interesting to us. Seeing the variations in culture between countries became more and more obvious as the trip went on: ideas that Parisians had more similarities to Londoners than we might have thought, that Barcelona was kinda similar to southern and central Italy, which itself was similar, but also quite different, to the more northern towns of Florence and Venice. It was interesting to see the whole “siesta” culture, and given the heat of mid-afternoon in Spain and southern Italy, Leila and I began to embrace the idea of taking a break in the afternoon and heading back to our hotel, before emerging at around 8pm (or even later for the locals) to get dinner and see a bit more of the city. The European attitude to alcohol was also particularly interesting, with wine, beer and spirits seemingly available for sale everywhere. There’s surely no liquor licensing of the kind we have in NZ, when a typical tourist van sells beer for the same price as a bottle of coke. At the supermarkets in Paris we could find bottles of wine for under 2 Euros as well… yet it just didn’t seem like we ever came across particularly drunken behaviour at all. Perhaps the only time we did was on a bus back from Venice late at night when I think we coincided with some “after-ball” celebration and the noisiest bunch of teenage Italians I’ve ever seen. But apart from that it seems like the Europeans knew how to handle their alcohol without the “nannying” that we see in NZ all the time. Perhaps the fact that it’s always been so available and relatively cheap means that Europeans don’t get the whole “gotta get smashed tonight” mentality that NZers (and the English) have. 6pm closing time for pubs has a lot to answer for!

I guess in so many ways I really found my outlook on life often matching up a lot with how Europe seems to work. Being able to live without a car for 4 weeks quite easily was great, being able to catch trains all over the place and in many places having so much within walking distance (even in a big city like Rome) made life so easy – and must be truly awesome for those living in these places. I’ll get back there…. some day.

The Way Home

On our last full day in England we still had a few places that required visiting. Top of the list was the Natural History Museum, which I had intended originally to see during the first time we were in London, but got squeezed back to later. But it didn’t really matter, as we made our way to South Kensington.

However, before we got to the museum, we made a short detour to check out Harrods. I guess a department store has got it pretty well made when there are signs at the nearby Tube station directing you to it. Then again I guess Harrods is a little different to most places, as we found out when a guy in a green coat nicely opened the front door for us (wow that must be a pretty boring job!) The interior was pretty amazing, with the Egyptian staircase particularly noteworthy. The pet corner was interesting, yet rather disturbing as I went from wondering why there was a diverse range of children’s clothing in the pet shop, to realising it wasn’t actually children’s clothes and wishing that I hadn’t clicked. I guess people who typically shop at Harrods are the type retarded enough to buy a little jacket for their pooch. Nevertheless, I did actually end up buying something myself, although it was just the new Coldplay CD (which I couldn’t actually listen to until we got home as we didn’t have a CD player on us) that had only just come out that day.

Anyhow, after our Harrods detour we made it to the Natural History Museum. The dinosaur skeletons were particularly impressive, including the famous Diplodocus skeleton in the main hall that I had promised Amalia I would take many photos of. Leila bought her a couple of soft-toy dinosaurs to commemorate the awesomeness of the place. After the dinosaurs there were also really interesting exhibits on mammals (including the famous blue whale model, at full size) as well as on creepy crawlies and stuff about erosion, earthquakes, volcanoes etc. I came to the realisation that I think natural history is generally what interests me most in museums – that I’m more interested in finding out about how the world works and what species were around many millions of years ago, than I am in seeing another 300 Greek statues. Sure, it’s impressive to see these priceless artifacts, but in the end once you’ve looked at the date it’s from and where it was found there’s often not that much more you can get from it unless you were to go and spend months studying the 3rd Egyptian dynasty or something. That’s not to say I didn’t find the British Museum and large parts of the Louvre interesting, I just really think that a natural history type of museum is more what I find fascinating. I guess that makes sense as I’ve generally been most interseted in the middle level of Auckland’s museum, which is largely its natural history stuff.

After the NHM we caught a bus (our only double-decker bus trip during our stay in London actually) from South Kensington to Piccadilly in order to meet up with Leila’s uncle for dinner. We ended up going to a place called the “rainforest cafe”, which was seriously the weirdest place I think I’ve ever had a meal, but perhaps also one of the coolest. On the lower floor of a big soft-toy shop there was a giant restaurant decorated in the most elaborate way possible to resemble a rainforest. Fake animals, waterfalls and trees galore… even a mock wooden bridge to walk over to get to our seats. The bar stools were shaped like animals themselves even. But anyway, we had a really nice dinner and had a good chat with Leila’s uncle, who seems to have the most interesting job in the world helping people in 3rd World Countries to plant trees in order to provide for themsleves better.

After dinner we had one last thing to see, that I almost forgot actually. We wandered down to the London Eye – the giant ferris wheel that takes about half an hour to go around (and costs a LOT of money). It gave us a really nice view over the city as a whole, and I guess was a pretty good way for us to say goodbye to London. I did feel kinda sad wandering back to the tube station, and then catching our last tube ride back to Balham. For some reason our second time in London had made the place seem really familiar, the kind of city that I just knew that I’d love to live in for a while. Sure I saw the place at its best, in the middle of summer when it’s not freezing cold and getting dark at 3.30pm, but it just felt so awesomely huge and immensely vibrant. Furthermore, the fact that it’s just so easy to get around without a car – with the fantastic tube system – made it doubly annoying that we’d be heading back to car-crazy Auckland the next day.

So the next morning, bright and early, we headed off to Heathrow Airport for our flight home. Being London – a rather big city after all – this involved a lift to the humungous Clapham Junction railway station, a fairly short train ride out to Feltham, and then caught a rather short bus ride (that seemed to take forever) from Feltham to Heathrow. Heathrow Airport really does have to be seen to be believed, a bit of a monster in so many ways. Compared to Singapore Airport, it seems to be about one quarter the size yet has about 4 times the number of flights coming in and out. In any case, everything was pretty straightforward as we’d done some clever online checking-in the night before and had sorted out window seats for both our flights.

The flights back were pretty uneventful and typically long. The gap between our flights was however, very very short and we basically wandered off one plane and onto another (via a rather long walk through Singapore Airport). On the Singapore-Auckland flight we had a set of 2 seats which was nice, as I didn’t have to climb over a stranger every time I needed to go toilet. We arrived back in Auckland at around 10.30pm. It took a while to get through customs and immigration, as always, but generally it was a pretty sweet return flight. I felt somewhat happy about coming back to NZ, and it was good to see friends & relatives again, but in other ways I really didn’t want the awesome “dream” of the holiday to end, and returning to normal reality was a bit of a let-down

Back to London

We knew it was going to be a bit of a mission to get from Venice back to London. I had booked the last Ryanair flight of the day – because it was cheap as chips and meant that we had pretty much a full day in Venice before having to find our way back to London. We found the right stop for the airport shuttle bus without any hassle, and made the trip out to Treviso Airport. While Treviso is definitely NOT Venice, it wasn’t really too far away from where we were, and in any case we had plenty of time up our sleeves so there wasn’t really any stress.

However, frustratingly at Treviso Airport we learned that our flight had been delayed. Now we’d caught a lot of flights throughout this trip, and only Easyjet and Ryanair were delayed, so I guess you have to suffer a little bit for your extremely cheap fares. However, this delay was particularly annoying as it meant our methods of getting from Stanstead Airport “in” London would become quite a bit more difficult. But anyway, our plane eventually showed up and we squeezed into our truly “cattle class” seats, bombarded with silly Ryanair music, before taking off. The flight was actually quite interesting, although I was really sleepy by then, and ended up getting the nastiest headache ever from a combination of a blocked nose and the desecent into “London” Stanstead (the “” marks are meant to indicate that Stanstead Airport is actually nowhere near London). By the time we arrived at Stanstead it was getting close to 1.00am local time, and we knew that we’d missed the last train into London, and were damn close to missing the last of the cheaper buses. After another age getting through UK immigration (and really missing the “border-free” Europe) we eventually found a bus that would take us to Victoria Station, which was somewhat near where we’d need to be. The bus trip took seemingly forever, although ended up being a bit more interesting than we thought as we got a reasonable view of London later in the trip, and we were sitting behind a rather drunk English couple in the process of breaking up. Whilst alcohol is EVERYWHERE in continental Europe, the locals never seem to get drunk in the way that New Zealanders and English people manage, so it was definitely a bit of a “welcome back to England moment”. Once we’d caught a taxi from Victoria Station back to where we were staying (back in lovely Balham), we were very happy indeed to find ourselves a bed, as it was around 3.30am England time by then (4.30am European time!) It was a damn good sleep.

The next day, when we eventually awoke, we decided would be a fairly low-key day. We were rather exhausted from the day before, and also really didn’t feel like doing anything particularly huge. Later in the evening we had tickets to go and see a Shakespeare play at the Globe Theatre. So we headed off to Canary Wharf – an interesting new(ish) area of London that has been developed upon what used to be a huge unused dockland area. It was interesting to see how what must have used to have been a pretty ugly spot, has been converted into possibly one of the classier business districts I’ve come across. While it was smaller than La Defense in Paris, and didn’t have the same spectacular outlook, I could see a few similarities and the integration of water into the development was particularly nice. We had lunch in a cute little park, wandered around for a bit longer, before jumping on the Dockland Light Rail to head back towards the City so we wouldn’t be too far away from the Globe Theatre. We had a bit of a wander around, checking the “Gherkin” and also a little bit of the Tate Modern, before it shut (Leila had looked around the Tate more thoroughly when I visited Lord’s much earlier in the trip). Then we waited to be able to go into the Globe, fortunately getting far enough up the line to ensure that our “groundling” tickets were able to be right up the front next to the stage.

It was pretty spectacular being that close, and I found myself enjoying the play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” greatly. Compared to when I saw King Lear last year, and found myself quite often getting rathe lost, I managed to keep up with this play way more easily. Perhaps it was because we were so close, perhaps it is just an easier play to follow, but whatever the case it was definitely really enjoyable and at times completely hilarious. I think seeing it at a place such as the Globe, a pretty damn good replica of where Shakespeare plays were originally performed 400 years ago, added greatly to the experience, and it was really really fun.

Venice

I suppose Venice was always going to be the highlight of our trip, and I was quite glad that it had been scheduled at basically the conclusion of our time in Europe. So we caught the train from Florence through a further chunk of northern Italy, to Venice Mestre – the station near our hotel. We had been a little freaked out about finding our hotel, as we hadn’t quite managed to replace our missing map (although I had printed out the hotel’s own directions) and also the hotel was far enough out of Venice to not be on any tourist maps. But anyway, it was easy enough to find our place, in the slightly bizarre suburb of Marghera, and we collected a good map from our host as well as a few good tips on how to into “old Venice” and back.

After resting up a little, and getting rid of our increasingly heavy bags, we wandered back to the train station to catch our ride into Venice. Getting from Mestre to Venice is a quite surprisingly weird process. All the trains travelling to Venice from all over Italy stop at Mestre before the final little leg of their journey over the causeway and onto the island. Therefore, to get to Venice we just found the platform where the next train heading the right way was going to arrive, and jumped on whatever train turned up. Often it was an inter-city from Milan or somewhere similar, while at other times I think there were others that were more of a “commuter type”. It seemed like a strange way to get into the place, especially as we climbed aboard flash inter-city trains with our 1 Euro train tickets, but it seemed to work out OK all the time.

Arriving in Venice for the first time was pretty exciting. The train chugged across the causeway leading out to the group of islands that is Venice. Before the mid 19th century the only way to get out to Venice was by boat, although these days there is also a road bridge next to the rail one, largely used by buses carrying tourists in, and cars that locals appear to park somewhere amongst the few giant carparks on one small corner of the place, before catching a boat or wandering through the narrow streets to their house/job. It’s quite funny to see a whole city which only really has one road. But anyway, as we stepped out of the train station (once again probably the ugliest building in Venice, what is it with Italian train stations?) it felt like we were stepping into some sort of theme park. Cute old houses everywhere, the disappearance of cars, the throng of tourists… I had a tough time convincing myself that this was actually a real city, and not a giant movie set.

We headed off in some random direction, deliberately trying to get away from the tourist routes, in the strong belief that we’d eventually end up somewhere cool, while knowing that whatever way we went would be really interesting and beautiful. Walking through Venice is truly unlike any other city in the world. The “streets” that you walk through head this way and that seemingly randomly at times (unless you’re on one of the wider, main tourist, routes). Occasionally a pathway will pass underneath the first level of a building, and you’ll find yourself heading in a totally unexpected direction. Then, of course, every few minutes you come across a gorgeous little canal, with a few steps up on one side and a few more to get down the bridge on the other side. The view from the top of each little bridge made you want to take a million photographs, especially as often the water in the smaller canals was sheltered well enough from the wind to be perfectly still, createing beautiful reflections of the buildings around it. That first day we didn’t really try to find anything in particular, just following where we felt like going, but we eventually found our way to the Per Rialto bridge, one of the most famous spots in Venice, and roughly where the city was first founded (about 1200 years ago or so). As one of the three bridges over the Grand Canal, the Per Rialto is a fair bit bigger than most other Venetian bridges. The view from the top of it, along the Grand Canal, was immediately recognisable – I assume from the millions of Venetian postcards, photographs and 17th century landscape paintings that I had been looking at throughout the past few weeks. It not only demanded a few fair photographs, but also captured you to just stand there for quite a long time, just taking the view in slowly, bit by bit, to fully appreciate it. I considered continuing onwards to see Piazza San Marco, but I felt that we really needed to leave that for the next day, as we did have three nights in Venice after all. So we found ourselves somewhere to have dinner (harder than you would think) before making our way back to the bus depot (the train station was shut for some reason) and catching a ride back to our hotel.

The next day we jumped back on the train to head into Venice once more. This time we forged a different path through the streets of Venice, this time deliberately making our way towards Piazza San Marco. As the true “town square” of Venice, Piazza San Marco is surely about as perfect as a European town square can get. The surrouding buildings with their gorgeous arches, the truly beautiful basilica, drawing your attention constantly, and the big bell tower, offering a groovy amount of height to the picture, all combine in a way that seems so naturally perfect, to create what is probably Venice’s biggest single attraction. While the place is obviously thronging with tourists (and the most tame pidgeons in the world), once you move away from the basilica you can escape the crowds while still taking in the amazing vista. The weather was particularly nice on this day, so we wandered along the waterfront (right next to San Marco) slowly heading away from the masses of tourists, before eventually reaching the far southeast corner of the city, which really did feel like the kind of “authentic Venice” we had been seeking. It was so much fun just randomly choosing to go this way or that way, stopping for a while to just rest and watch the local enjoy living in the most beautiful city in the world, and to just slowly take it all in. We had deliberately left quite a long time to stay in Venice, compared to the number of actual big attractions that there are to do, largely to make it possible for us to just chill out a bit and just enjoy the surroundings. We then spent most of the rest of the day just slowly making our way back to the bus depot, getting an exceptionally huge pizza from what seemed to be a predominantly locally popular pizzeria.

On the next day, our last full one in Venice, we checked out a couple more of San Marco’s museums. I guess we were a little “museumed out” by this point, but there were still some very interesting artifacts to be seen. Finding out a little more about Venice’s history was also quite interesting, as its complex system of government appeared to have been a few centuries before its time, as even though it wasn’t a proper democracy (nothing really was in those days of course) no person had anything near absolute power, and there was a complex system to ensure check and balances were present in the way the place was governed. Perhaps as a result of this system, the Venetians were an incredibly dominant force in that part of Europe around 500 years ago, with the most incredible navy anywhere in the world at the time. After checking out the museums, and doing a little more wandering, we found a big crowd of people to watch Italy lose 3-0 to the Netherlands in the European Championships, which was a tad depressing for the locals, before heading back to our hotel.

Our last day in Venice appeared a tad depressing, as we really didn’t want to leave such a beautiful city. We had a a really nice day of chilling out though, not really needing to go and see anywhere in particular, but rather just enjoying one last view of the Per Rialto bridge and then just finding a pretty little corner of the city to spend the last few hours we had before needing to collect our luggage and head out to Treviso Airport, for our flight back to London.

My overall impression of Venice was just amazing. We did have perfect weather for our entire stay there, which surely helped, and also means that all our daytime photos look absolutely incredible. The idea of a whole huge city without any cars at all has an obviously huge attraction to me, while the old buildings combine with the canals to create a place that seems so impossible perfect it’s hard to believe that it’s actually a functioning city. While the huge number of tourists don’t help in breaking your subconscious from thinking that the place might actually just be a huge theme park, once you’re away from the “beaten track” it’s really not that hard to find a quiet little piazza with a little kid riding his plastic bicycle around, while his big brother kicks a soccer-ball perilously close to a canal. It is truly urban perfection.

Florence

Ack time for a bit more backdating. So anyhow, after the stressout that was finding our way to the Borghese Galleria we headed back to collect our baggage and make our way to Florence. We had bought tickets the day before, so there were no dramas as we got on the train and headed off on the next part of our journey.

I had really been looking forward to this trip in particular, as we had heard the scenery between Rome and Florence was something quite special. Not far north or Rome we really started to notice scenery quite different to that we had seen further south. It was a lot more well-treed than further south, and somewhat resembled nice parts of New Zealand countryside. Well, at least that would have been the case until we passed by a lovely old town with its tiled orange roofs and old stone buildings.

The train then passed through some fairly mountainous terrain, which I could tell from the millions of tunnels we went through. Then, after seemingly an age (as we’d caught one of the slower, local, trains) we finally ended up in Florence. Coming into the city, it looked like a fairly normal Italian town, but as soon as we left the train station (surely the ugliest building in all of Florence) we began to enjoy the narrow little streets and the awesome buildings. Our hostel was fairly easy to find, which was good as by that stage I’d lost our maps to show us where to go (oops). The hostel was in a really nice old building, apparently a “couple of hundred years old” according to the hostel owner. We then wandered around town for a bit, being amazed by the Duomo when we came across it, and in general just enjoying the place. I remember my Mum saying that Florence is an amazing place even when you’re totally “over-travelled” and I completely understand. While it doesn’t have the millions of attractions that a place like Rome or Paris might have, it’s small enough to retain a really nice old-town charm, and also has the best markets ever.

The next day, we woke up pretty early to get to the Uffizi Gallery. We had heard from everyone that when you go to the Uffizi you HAVE to either book your tickets in advance or alternatively turn up a fair while before it opens, otherwise the queues are just horrific. So we were smart, and made sure we got down to the Uffizi by 8am, waiting for it to open at 8.15. We were about 15th in line, and got in within a couple of minutes of the art gallery opening. It is one of the best art galleries in the world (along with the Louvre in Paris and the National Gallery in London, I felt really spoilt by that point). It was particularly awesome to see the painting that Leonardo da Vinci first showed off his genius by painting a little girl angel in the corner of a larger painting that somehow stands out to look amazing compared to the rest of it. There was also a Botticelli painting that we had seen a friendly Australian guy in Rome copying out onto a giant canvas in the ground, so seeing the original was also pretty cool. By this point my art education meant that I felt as though I was getting pretty good as sussing out interesting aspects of different paintings, and also what sort of era they fitted into.

After the gallery we went to check out the Duomo properly. While the outside of the Duomo is amazingly detailed in Florence’s distinctive green and white colours, the inside was actually relatively empty. However, the pure size of the cathedral was still spectacular, and the fresco on the ceiling of the dome was truly out of this world. After wandering around the cathedral, we climbed up to the cupola. This was a rather major mission, involving a heck of a lot of stairs. Near the top, once you were actually in the dome, the staircases narrowed even further, and although it was a bit insane climbing up such narrow stairs (with about 300 Americans), once we got to the top the view was absolutely amazing. It did truly feel like a highlight to sit up the top (although it was a bit freaky) to see the view from the top. After that we found a place selling the absolute best Gelato in the world (raspberry made from fresh raspberries and the most amazing chocolate ever) before exploring the markets more fully and eventually heading back to the hostel.

The next morning we excitedly headed off to Venice, the last stop for us in Italy before heading back to the UK.

Rome II

So technically it has been a while between updates, but to avoid the creation of one totally huge blog update I’m just going to split it up into manageable chunks. This shall be the rest of our time in Rome.

After doing Vatican City, being totally amazed by the Sistine Chapel and all the other totally incredible artwork there, and – of course – the sheer size of St Peter’s, we felt the next day really needed to be something a little quieter. I think by that stage the whole process of zipping all over cities to see amazing stuff and queuing for museums had taken quite a lot out of us, so it was time for us to be a little more laid back. The next day we didn’t really have too much of a plan, but first headed into quite central Rome to see the Pantheon. The Pantheon is truly quite an amazing building – originally constructed in Roman times around 2000 years ago, but is still in reasonably similar condition to how it was then, unlike just about every other Roman building we’d come across, which was in some state of ruin. After the Roman Empire, the Church had taken the Pantheon over, and used it for their purposes (as it still remains today). Although it was a little weird seeing an obviously Roman building on the outside look like a Rennaisance Church on the inside, that has ensured its survival in a more complete way than any other Roman building. After visiting the Pantheon, we spent the rest of the early part of the day just wandering around that part of Rome, eventually making it up to the river and not too far from where we’d been the day before at the Vatican. There was some amazing castle that we checked out, before zipping back to our hotel room for a bit of a breather.

Our mid-afternoon breaks had become rather essential by Rome, which had become pretty damn hot – especially on the first day we arrived there. But anyway, after having a fairly decent snooze in our room, we set off to make the most of our unlimited travel passes on the Rome metro (I forever have the words “Uscita Lando….. Estro” or something very similar imprinted on my mind from the voiceover on the Rome metro, which I think must mean “exit on the right”). We found a nice park to hang out in, bordered by a weird semi-motorway that managed to totally throw out my sense of direction as the way it curved around the park seemed to totally disagree with what my maps said it was doing. That would later confuse me again, but in any case we had a nice time relaxing in the park and enjoying the long evenings that the city had to offer.

The next day we had designated as “ruins day”. While it’s impossible to travel around Rome for long and not come across any ruins (sometimes they are in the most random places too), there are a number of particularly awesome ruins – notably the Colosseum and the Palatine/Roman Forum area. The Colosseum is particularly impressive, unsurprisingly as it is the most famous Roman ruin in all likeliness. Although I had thought it would be a bit bigger when I first saw the place on the outside (I think that feeling was because there aren’t any real buildings around the Colosseum so it’s a little difficult to try to gauge its size easily), on the inside its size does become apparent, and the amazing detail of the place is pretty incredible. Although it’s got a pretty horrific history, being the place where gladiators were forced to fight against wild animals and against each other, you can’t help being impressed by it. After that we wandered across the road to enter the Palatine/Roman Forum area. Now this is the true heart of ancient Rome, where all the emporer’s had their palaces and where there are the remains of large chunks of what we know as ancient Rome. It was a mightily impressive area to wander around, with a seemingly endless supply of ruins everywhere. It truly did make me wonder what the place would have been like 2000 years ago (read truly spectacular!) Some of the buildings were better preserved than others, with generally only stone remnants remaining. The large has largely been excavated over the past 200 or so years, which is quite interesting and must be an archaeologist’s dream. It felt like we’d properly done Rome after visiting the ruins.

The next morning we were due to catch a train to Florence, but had organised to go and see one more art gallery before we jumped on the train. The Galleria Borghese is a bit of a mission to visit, as you need to book a spot (one of no more than 320 I think) to have 2 hour in the art gallery checking it out. Unlike the big galleries I’m pretty sure it’s still a private collection, owned by the long descendants of some totally insanely rich collector from the 1500s or so. Anyway, it have proved to be the biggest mission ever trying to book the tickets, but we had eventually managed to suss out a reservation for between 9am and 11am on that morning. We supposedly needed to be there half an hour before so we could actually buy the tickets and I guess so there wasn’t a huge rush that led to people having their time in the gallery reduced. We did checks on how to get to the gallery, which seemed like a bit of a mission as it once again led us towards that annoying semi-motorway next to the big park. We followed that for a while, as it did actually have a footpath, then I thought we were heading in the wrong direction so we went back the other way, then we headed in the wrong direction again so headed back that way. By this time 8.30 was nearing and we still seemed miles from where we needed to be, so we were stressing like crazy that perhaps this art gallery was just cursed and didn’t want us to visit it. However, eventually, after finding an underground carpark, a weirdly abandoned huge building, the larger part of the main park and about 15 million other useless places we finally got there at about 8.45am. Luckily a whole pile of other people waiting to buy tickets were in the line, and we got in without any further drama.

Luckily, the gallery was totally worth the hassle. A few months back I had watched a few episodes of an art show on TV1 (typically shown at almost midnight on a Sunday night, as NZ television never wants to show anything vaguely educational at a decent time). One of the episodes, I think the one that I remembered most strongly, was about a sculptor called Bernini. Bernini was an enormously famous sculptor, whose stuff we had seen all over Rome, including huge parts of the facade to St Peter’s and a whole row of sculptures along a particularly cool bridge. However, the borghese gallery has his finest works. Two sculptures in particular I had remembered from the TV programme, one where there’s a hand pushing on another person’s leg, and the way in which the skin responds to the touch is so realistically portrayed by Bernini that you find it difficult to believe that you’re looking at hard marble and not something soft. The flowing robes, hair and and everything else in the sculpture actually make it seem like there’s movement where there actually isn’t, and it was just amazing to see in real life. The other particularly awesome sculpture shows a figure being turned into a tree-like being, as some random part of the bible tells I suppose. Once again, the statue was just unbelievably detailed, with the realism being unsurpassed by anything else we’ve seen as a sculpture, and truly making it seem like the person was literally turning into a tree. There were numerous other awesome artworks in the gallery, but those two sculptures alone had made all the hassle worthwhile.

Rome

So we’re in Rome. The city of cities, the centre of western civilisation for around a 1000 years in the distant part… yadda yadda yadda. Yesterday we caught the train from Napoli up to Rome. It was quite a nice ride actually, cutting through the middle of Italy around some pretty nice areas. I did take some photos but the current computer I’m using has a dire lack of USB ports, so I’m not sure when I shall be able to add to the current number of photos I’ve been able to upload.

Anyhow, we arrived in Rome, and after a brief stress-out over lost maps, we managed to find our hostel reasonably easily. It’s a pretty nice place, in a good location and with one of the strangest lifts I’ve ever used, where you have to close and open all the doors for it to work. But anyway, after dumping our stuff in our room – which was extremely satisfying considering how damn hot it was – we headed out to explore. A 10 minute walk down the road and we hit the Colosseum. The crowds inside were pretty nuts, so we put that one down for another day and just took millions of photos. It is an incredibly impressive ruin, and fortunately as it was a Sunday many of the roads were closed off, so it wasn’t the crazily busy roundabout that it apparently usually is. After that we continued on to see the remains of the Circus Maximus, the old chariot-racing track that supposedly could hold 250,000 people. There was not much left of it these days, although you can definitely make out where the track went, and it has been turned into a nice urban park, which was a good place to hang out as the heat was getting pretty crazy by then. From there we wandered to the banks of the river that flows through Rome, before finding a good place to have a pasta dinner.

Because yesterday was a Sunday the place seemed way less crazy than Naples ever did, and in a strange way much less scary. I suppose that the craziness of Naples did freak me out in some ways, although it was exhilirating in others. It just seemed like if something didn’t go to plan in Naples it would be major disaster, and I’d never be able to find my way back to where we’d need to be, but in Rome the place actually seems a lot more inviting and less scary. I think it’s probably because Rome is basically one big tourist attraction – I don’t remember yet seeing a modern building – which means that it’s totally set up for tourists and pretty easy to find your way around and to speak English with anyone.

Anyhow, there was a bit of a drama last night as the key got stuck in the main door when we were trying to get back into our room. I couldn’t get it to open, and couldn’t get the key out. The people running the place then tried, and took forever to sort it all out. We weren’t too concerned though, as we met a nice group of Canadian guys who were staying here too, and went and hung out with them over some pizza and insanely cheap beer while it was all sorted out. I think in the end something crazy like the fire-brigade was necessary to fix everything. But in any case it’s now perfectly sweet.

Today we headed off to Vatican City, to see some of the most amazing architecture and art in the world. The queue to get into the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel was crazy, and it did take us probably an hour and a half to get in. But we spent that time happily telling prospective salesmen to fuck off from trying to sell us umbrellas for the 96th time (it was slightly raining, which was a thankful change from the 30 degree temps yesterday). Eventually we got in, and wandered through the Vatican Museum, marvelling at all the amazing artwork and sculptures. It was like the best of the Louvre, British Museum and National Gallery all thrown together into a place where the art truly belonged. Every ceiling seemed detailed in the most amazing manner. It went on a surprisingly long time, showing off the Catholic Church’s amazing wealth I suppose. I took a million photos though, which will hopfully eventually get across how amazing the place was. But that was nothing compared to the Sistine Chapel, when we reached it. Unfortunately no photos were allowed in there, but really they couldn’t have done it justice. The walls and ceiling were covered in the most amazing artwork I have ever seen (and I have seen most of the good stuff in the last few weeks), painted in a way that seemed to make it 3D and actually come out at you. Books that say it’s the finest art ever are definitely not lying.

After the Sistine Chapel, we wandered around the corner to St Peter’s Basilica, which just happens to be the biggest church in the whole world. Once again, it just blew away every other church we’ve seen on the trip, with the possible exception of Sagrada Familia if one was to imagine it complete. The scale, the beauty, the detailing… I really am lost for words. We caught a lift up to the top of the dome, which also involved lots of narrow spiral staircases, but we were rewarded with the most amazing views over Rome. I have had a lot of awesome days on this trip, but the simple size and quality of what I saw today at both the Sistine Chapel and at St Peter’s make them damn hard to beat. Just wow….

Pompeii

Well it’s definitely useful staying in a hostel that has internet. Makes life a little easier in terms of regular updates. Unfortunately trying to find a phone anywhere to call New Zealand is rather more difficult, although it should be sorted for tomorrow.

But anyway, today we headed off to Pompeii, about a half-hour from Naples. We wandered down the the Naples waterfront to catch the bus, which was leaving almost the minute we got there, so luckily we managed to jump on it. The tickets there were pretty cheap too. The drive out to Pompeii was quite interesting in itself, as we chugged along what seemed like a half-finished semi-motorway. It had four lanes, it had bridges and underpasses, but the speed limit was 60 and the lanes were so damn narrow you almost couldn’t squeeze two cars through at once. So it was pretty lucky that the speed limit was so slow, and it seems like speed limits are about the only road rule the locals follow here.

But anyway, we made it out there, and after a rather long-winded search for an ATM we made it inside. Pompeii is a little tricky to describe actually, but imagine some half-ruined house made of stone… it has walls, rooms, sometimes a floor that’s made from amazingly elaborate tiling, the walls often show off some artwork that obviously formed the original indoor cladding. It seems pretty cool, and then when you think about it you realise the whole area got nailed by a volcano in AD79, furthermore most houses had probably been around for quite a while before that… so everything there is at least 2000 years old in all likeliness. It’s not like there’s just one or two of these houses, there are thousands. The place seems to go on forever, and the houses are intermingled with bigger buildings: temples, ampitheatres and so on. All in all, it’s simply pretty damn stunning. We wandered around for a few hours in the heat, and it was pretty damn hot today.

After well and truly checking the place out, and taking about 76 million photographs, we headed off (in the wrong direction of course) to find the railway station to catch a train back to Naples. After quite a while of walking, we realised we were definitely going the wrong way, and eventually decided to accost some locals and ask them (in our three words of Italian) where the train was. Of course their English was about as limited as our Italian, so it was an interesting conversation. Something like this:

“Tren Napoli?” I asked.

“Tren….. choo choo tren???”

“Ya…. ya…..”

Then there was lots of pointing, and they agreed to show us where the train station was as there was no way we would be able to explain it to each other in any other way. We wandered for a while with a couple, having truly hilarious conversations in a mixture of English, Italian, and some sort of universal language consisting of much hand waving and smiling. It was quite interesting when they asked where we were from, I think they assumed we were American as it’s usually Americans who are tourists that can’t speak a word of the local language.

“Where you from?” they asked.

“New Zealand…. New Zealandia….. uhhhh… near Australia.”

“Newsellan…. Netherland….. Holland????”

“No no…. New Zealand….. All Black… Rugby… you know”

“Ah… All Black!!! Neuvo Zealandia….!”

It seems like the All Blacks are truly the universal language to tell people where we’re from. We had an awesome conversation on our walk to the train station, and we were incredibly thankful for the help (thank you is like the one word I know in Italian!) It was also great to chat with a couple of locals that weren’t trying to sell us stuff, and really get a better idea about what the locals are like. Tomorrow we’re heading to Rome, which should be quite a highlight of the trip (as I guess today was too). I’m quite looking forward to catching a train across this part of Italy, as the scenery should be really interesting.