When in Rome...

We spent the Christmas holiday in Rome. As someone who longed to be an Archaeologist as a child (and still do), this was a dream come true!
Remember my post on Vicenzia and the relaxed Italian way of life? This became more evident when we flew into Rome and waited for our bags. We waited in the baggage claim area for over an hour and a half before we finally got our luggage!

Cristo dela Minerva
The church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva
The first day, we paid for an all day car escort of the city. Our driver took us on a very fast paced highlighted tour of the city. This was great because we got to see so much in such a small amount of time, and it allowed us to get our bearings around the city. It also allowed us to note the places we wanted to return to over the next couple of days. While driving us around, our driver would give us a little history lesson on the different areas we were going to. The first stop was the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, this holds the Cristo dela Minerva also known as Christ the Redeemer or Christ Carrying the Cross by the famous Michelangelo. The church alone was an amazing work of art, I was so distracted by its beauty I totally walked by the Cristo dela Minerva the first time, Chris had to point it out to me! Saint Catherine of Siena is buried here (except her head, which is in the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena) as well as as is Pope Paul IV and the Medici popes Leo X and Clement VII.

Inside the Pantheon
The Pantheon
The Santa Maria sorpra is very close to the Pantheon, so this was our next stop. This was incredible, this massive structure is the best preserved  of all the Roman buildings. To the right is an interior picture. I was in awe of its majestic beauty and stature, but imagine coming to this building in 250 A.D. It was simply amazing!

Inside the Colosseum
We then went to the Colosseum. This massive structure was capable of seating 50,000 people, and was used for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles such as mock sea battles, animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on Classical mythology.

Egyptian Obelisk with cross

Obviously, Rome is a very religious city. All throughout the city is historical evidence of the Christian religion trumping Pagan religions; various leaders, and religious figureheads were certain to make this known. There are eight obelisks that were taken from Ancient Egypt, atop everyone of them is a Christian cross. We saw similiar things in ruins, artwork, and statues throughout the city.

Ruins of the Roman Forum
One of my favorite stops was walking around the ruins of the Roman Forum. We got an audio guide, but it was useless. I recommend bringing a book that describes everything (you can also get one from the gift shop before you enter, I'm still kicking myself for not doing that).

After we'd been driven around most of the city (my head was spinning at this point with all the history and sites that I'd just seen) we went to Vatican City. Here we met our personal tour guide. She was an Italian originally from Canada, and had gotten her Master's Degree on the Sistine Chapel. She was very knowledgeable about the history and artwork around the Vatican. The amount of artwork in the Vatican will blow your mind. There are statues, paintings, tapestries, mosaics, and frescoes that date back hundreds and hundreds of years! It really helped having our personal tour guide, I think it helped us appreciate everything we were seeing more than if we just walked through alone.
Belvedere Torso
To the left is the Belvedere Torso. It was originally thought to date back to the 1st century B.C., but is now believed to be a copy of an older statue, likely dating to the 2nd century B.C. It isn't clear who the statue is, but is most commonly thought to be Heracles sitting on an animal skin. The sculpture is significant in that it is the first example of a perfect human body, and it greatly influenced late Renaissance, Mannerist, and Baroque artists.

The Sistine Chapel was simply amazing. When I walked in I gasped at the beauty and history that was surrounding me. Before we started our tour, our guide gave us a history lesson on what we were about to see, which made the experience even better.

The altar with Bernini's baldacchino
Saint Peter's Basilica was massive. When you see all these massive structures and beautiful works of art it is easy to see how Christianity has flourished so much in the past. Everything was intimidating for me, imagine what it must have been like living in that time. All you know is what the church tells you. You go from your small home to these massive beautiful places to worship. All the artwork and structures you see show Christianity as the dominating religion. It's all very interesting to me.

The PietĂ  sculpted by Michelangelo

The nearly empty tour
For some reason (even our guide wasn't sure why) there were hardly any people at the Vatican on the day we went. She said people pay 400 Euro for the off hours tours to get the atmosphere we got! She said normally you have to fight the crowds to see everything.
Pope Benedict XVI
The next day (Christmas Eve) Chris and I went back to Saint Peter's Square for Christmas Eve Mass. We didn't have tickets to go inside so we stood outside with thousands of other people and watched Mass on the jumbo screens. I am not Catholic, but my mother is, and I've gone to Catholic Mass with her a few times. It was really interesting to see the traditions and ceremonies that I'd seen so many times being performed by Pope Benedict XVI.
Christmas Day, we went back to Saint Peter's Square to get the Christmas Blessing from Pope Benedict XVI. He gives the blessing in 32 languages. It was an incredible way to spend Christmas.

I also got to do a little Roman Holiday tour. I absolutly LOVE that movie, so I was really excited when I got to see The Mouth of Truth (but it was closed so I couldn't get a picture with my hand in it). I also ate chocolate gelato on the Spanish Steps, walked around the ruins of the Roman Forum, and threw three coins into the Trevi Fountain!

There is far too much information and sites to tell you about everything we saw; it is one of the birthplaces of Western civilization after all! I cannot recommend a trip to Rome highly enough. Also, whether or not you are a Catholic or any Christian faith, you must tour Vatican City

The Mouth of Truth

Exterior of Colosseum

When these maps were referenced with Google Maps, they were over 80% accurate. Amazing when you think of the lack of technology of the era!

Venice, Italy

Vicenza is only about an hour from Venice, so when Chris was done with his meetings, we decided to spend the day in Venice before we headed back to Stuttgart. We stayed in a hotel on the mainland, and took a bus into the city in the morning.  Everyone always talks about how dirty Venice is, but I didn't think it was that dirty at all. In fact it was one of the cleanest European cities we have been too thus far. Granted, we didn't go during peak tourist time, which I am sure makes a big difference.

The only words to describe Venice, are beautiful, romantic, and amazing. I got so many pictures that look like we stepped back in time. And, since we went during an off season time, there were hardly any tourists ruining my pictures!

Church of San Barnaba 
Does the building on the right look familiar? Indiana Jones fans will remember this as the library from "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade". In reality it is the Church of San Barnaba. In the film, the inside of the library was actually shot in Elstree Studios in London, England. Venice is such an amazing city it's easy to understand why so many movies are filmed here (side note, it is also Julia Roberts favorite city. I was secretly wishing I would just happen to run into her while walking around the city).

Piazza San Marco
Piazza San Marco was beautiful, and HUGE. The size of Venice and it's durability is an engineering feat in it's own. Something to really appriciate about Europe is the beautuy and durability of the architecture. They didn't just build a building, they put so many little details into the exterior that you could miss if you weren't paying attention. Once you notice these details, it's as if it changes the building from just a building to a massive piece of artwork.

The people there were very nice (again, I think the fact that we went during an off season helped). The souvonier shops were very reasonably priced, and when paying with cash you could negotiate prices a little. We did read that many shops will up their prices during peak tourist seasons, so be aware if you visit during these times. 

Venice is a city I would love to return to, and highly recomend to anyone planning a vacation abroad. Its beauty and atmosphere is to amazing to put into words, it is simply something you have to experience. Enjoy the pictures below!

A trip to Venice wouldn't  be
complete without a Venetian mask!


Vicenza, Italy

 One of the great things about being here with Chris, is I get to tag along when he goes somewhere for work. This adventure took us to Vicenza, Italy. We ended up driving, which was a great idea. Even though it was an eight hour drive, it was well worth it. We took a wrong turn somewhere along the way and ended up driving though Switzerland and Austria. Driving through the Alps was the most majestic experience I've had since coming to Europe. The sun was bright and the sky was so clear that it made the snow-capped mountains sparkle as we drove. I switched on the radio, and as we drove out of a tunnel, the sun hit our car and Enya began to flow out of the speakers. I felt like I was in a movie, it was almost too perfect to be true.

 We arrived in Vicenza late in the afternoon. We checked into our hotel and met one of Chris's work colleagues for dinner. One thing we didn't know at the time was the way the Italians do dinner. In Italy, dinner is not just a meal. it's an event in its own. Here is the structure of an Italian meal:
1. Aperitivo - Typically an alcholoic beverage enjoyed as an appetizer usually before a large meal. This could be could be campari, cinzano, prosecco, aperol, spritz, or vermouth.
2. Antipasto "before (the) meal" - a hot or cold appetizer.
3. Primo "first course" - usually consists of a hot dish like pasta, risotto, gnocchi, or soup.
4. Secondo "second course" - the main dish, usually fish or meat.
5. Contorno "side dish" - may be a salad or cooked vegetable, this is served with the Secondo course.
6. Formaggio e frutta "cheese and fruits" - the first dessert.
7. Dolce "sweet" - such as cakes and cookies.
8. Caffè "coffee" - typically a shot of espresso.
9. Digestivo "digestives" - liquors/liqueurs, also known as "coffee killers"

 Dinners typically start at 8:00 in the evening and get over around 10:30-11:00. When we ate out we didn't go for the full traditional meal, we typically just ordered an antipasto and secondo course.

 One day I was on Facebook, and noticed a friend from my old Army Reserves unit in Minnesota was now active duty Army and  stationed in Vicenzia! We met up and he showed me around town. He laughed when he saw me with my gold framed aviator sunglasses, "going local eh?" he then pulled out his aviators. It was great to see an old friend!

 Italians have a very leisure-like attitude about everything. Buses were never on time, we waited for a bus for over an hour before it came. After living in Germany and using the punctual German public transit, this drove me crazy. When eating out (even though we never did the full courses) would take at least two hours. These are just a few reasons why I think Italy is one of those places that is great to visit on vacation, but would be difficult to live there!

 From Vicenzia, Chris and I headed to Venice before going back to Germany. More on that next time!


Please Mind the Gap

The title of this post serves two purposes. One, this post is about our trip to London, England and "Please mind the gap" is something you will here quite frequently if you travel the city via Tube. Two, we went to London over Thanksgiving...

London was a spectacular trip. We booked our trip through a travel agency that works with the USO (United Service Organization). Had we done a little research before booking the trip we would have gone to London on our own. The bus trip took over 15 hours. To make matters even better, there was a baby aboard and the only way to make her be quiet was if the parents played one of her musical toys. I still can't get "Wheels on the Bus" out of my head.

We drove through the night and boarded a ferry to get over the English Channel. This was my first ride on a ferry (Riverboat Days in Yankton, SD doesn't count). The trip was really smooth and within about an hour and a half we could see the cliffs of Dover. Dover is a really beautiful little English town.

Finally, after a couple more hours on the road we arrived in London! We met up with our local tour guide Reginald. He was exactly what I have always pictured an older local Brit would look, talk and act like. He gave us a brief history and explanation of various London landmarks such as the Tower of London, Parliament, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and (my personal favorite) Westminster Abbey, where Prince William and Catherine Middleton were married.

Me & Boomer
When we were walking through the park to Buckingham Palace, I saw someone walking around in a mascot costume. When I looked closer I realized it was Boomer Sooner! In case you don't know, I am a BIG Oklahoma Sooner fan. I had to go all the way to London to finally get a picture with Boomer!
We visited London when the Turkish Prime Minister was visiting the Queen, so the street leading up to Buckingham Palace were lined with huge Union Flags and Turkish Flags. The Queen was home, we knew this because her personal flag was flying above Buckingham palace. We didn't see her though, and I made Chris go back to the palace twice with me, hoping I might be in the right place at the right time!

We ended up ditching the tour group and did our own thing. Our hotel was pretty far from London proper, but the Tube (London Underground, the train system) was great. for about £7 you can get an all day pass and ride the Tube as much as you want. I believe it also worked on the buses, but we didn't go on any buses.

For those of you who don't know, I am a pretty big nerd. I kept it in the closet so to speak for quite a while, then I met Chris and it all came out. With that said, Chris and I did the coolest thing in London... we went to the Doctor Who Experience!!! It was SO fun! I am a huge Doctor Who fan. We went on an "adventure" with the 11th Doctor, took a "ride" in the TARDIS, almost get exterminated by a Dalek, and almost attacked by Weeping Angels. At the end of the adventure we walked through a museum of props, costumes, and bits of various sets from the show. It was great!

After the Doctor Who Experience, we walked to Knightsbridge and checked out all the shops. We took a walk through Harrods, which was madness with people Christmas shopping. Downstairs there is a Diana and Dodi memorial that Dodi's father, Mohamed Al-Fayed had commissioned.

Something that I thought was really neat was most museums in London are free. They do have a sign suggesting a freewill donation of around £5. We walked through the National Gallery and the British Museum during our visit to London.

We also went to Platform 9¾ at Knights Cross Station. I didn't believe Chris that it actually existed, silly me! We had a hard time finding it at first, so Chris went up to a station worker to ask. I thought to myself "oh this is a little embarrassing" but the station worker didn't even blink an eye and directed us right to it! I guess I forgot how popular Harry Potter was!

Since we can't get Jammie Dodgers in Germany (or back home in the States for that matter) Chris bought 10 or 12 packages of Jammie Dodgers at a shop. You may think that's overkill, but we've had to ration them out since we got back to Germany!

 Chris and I agreed we have to go back, there was just too much to see in such a little amount of time!