In London Town (Part III)

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So, guess who wrote a bunch of blog posts months ago and then forgot to post them? This girl. I’m sure you were all waiting on pins and needles for part III of my London adventures, so, here it is, at long last. If you need to refresh your memory, here are the links to In London Town (Part I) and (Part II).

The day after my visit to Westminster Abbey was my 21st birthday. As a history buff and nerd extraordinaire, I had decided to treat myself to a tour of the Inns of Court that afternoon, but I had some time to kill first.

I was too lacking in time to do the full tour of the Tower of London, but I figured I’d better at least see it from the outside, so the first activity of my morning was a walk towards the Tower Bridge. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself each time I looked down at an intersection and saw the painted arrows on the pavement with their accompanying captions, “Look left” or “Look right.” After realizing how long I had to think about which way to check for traffic each time I crossed a street, I stopped laughing and started reading. And, thanks to the painted arrows, I eventually arrived safely at the 900-year old UNESCO World Heritage Site. I didn’t know much about the Tower, other than that it was founded by William the Conqueror in the time of the Norman Conquest, that Elizabeth I was imprisoned there for a time, and that it is the current home of the Crown Jewels. Since I didn’t have time for the full day affair that constitutes visiting the site, that’s still all I know. So, we’ll move on.

After my stop at the infamous prison, I began the trek to Buckingham Palace. Without a functioning wi-fi connectable gadget, I didn’t know exactly when the Changing of the Guard occurred, but I knew it was 11-ish. Close enough. Running low on time, I took the underground in an incredibly inefficient manner to Green Park. From here I walked and walked some more, past sunbathers laying out on lawn chairs and families playing football, until I hit the wall of people. I’d arrived before the ceremony started, but I had also underestimated public interest in it (and perhaps underestimated the number of tourists in London).

I managed to cross the street and worm my way through the crowd, slowly making for the gates surrounding the 300-year old palace. Several minutes were spent listening to the band play and seeing only through the lens of someone else’s camera, but I eventually managed to work my way close enough to the iron bars to peer through and see a sliver of what was going on. The marching and playing continued for far longer than I was expecting, and after awhile, I escaped the crush of people pushing against the bars and moved towards the outer rope, where, according to a mounted policeman, the guards would pass on their march back to St. James’s Palace.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, the blue-coated Royal Marines filed out through the gate, band still playing full blast, followed by the more famous red-coated, bearskin-hat wearing foot guards.

The marines exited to the right, but as I was standing on the left-hand corner, I could merely hear their departure. Not too long after though, I got to see the foot guards marching out. The crowds were all roped in, surrounded by mounted policemen, one of whom had spent the morning yelling at people to stop crossing the street, while another told everybody that passed to beware of pickpockets. I mean every. single. person. Standing right next to her horse, I got to hear the warning a solid 200 times, at least. On the upside, I wasn’t pickpocketed. Is that a word, pickpocketed? I thought it was, but my word processor says no.

Anyways, after the guards had all passed and we were allowed to move around freely once more, I followed the Mall back towards St. James’s Palace, in an attempt to catch up with the column of soldiers. Thanks to the crowd, I failed to view the full ranks again, but I did get to see two similarly attired guards doing their thing in front of the gates of Clarence House. Personally, I think they’re mostly impressive for their level of concentration. The guards pace up to the barricade, turn on their heels to walk back to the gate, and then repeat. Over, and over, and over. When a man pushed himself as close to the barricade as he could possibly be, the guard marched up till their noses were within about two inches of each other, then turned around and kept going, without even batting an eyelash. Maybe the only thing that’s more impressive is the fact that they manage to be out in those long-sleeved uniforms and fur hats without passing out from the heat. I wouldn’t make it very long, myself.

Once I had finished up in the area, which included walking all the way around Buckingham Palace’s walls (hint: there’s nothing to see but barbed wire), I caught the the tube to Holborn, where my afternoon tour was meeting up. The official title was The Inns of Court: Legal and Illegal London, and it was very informative. I learned all kinds of cool things, such as the process for becoming a barrister, the difference between solicitors and solicitor advocates, and that the British pronounce the word “clerk” like “clark.” Who knew?

For those who aren’t familiar, the Inns of Court were historically places where barristers both lived and trained, with each containing useful amenities such as dining halls, chapels, and libraries. Today, only four remain, serving as professional associations to which all barristers must belong, and I got the opportunity to walk through the neatly tended courtyards and ivy-covered passageways of each one: Gray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, the Inner Temple, and the Middle Temple. It’s unclear which of the remaining inns is the oldest, but the earliest records date back as far as the 14th century.

The chapel which serves the Inner Temple.

Within the inns, there are three levels: students, barristers, and benchers (Masters of the Bench). The benchers govern each inn, and you may be familiar with the words of one, John Donne, without even realizing it. Master of the Bench is a lifetime position, and when someone holding this position dies, the bell of that inn’s chapel is rung. Tired of people rushing excitedly to see what position had come open, Donne, who was also a poet, penned these words:

“No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
As well as if a promontory were,
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were:
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

It wasn’t Hemingway, people.

We got to see a few neat things outside of the inns as well. On our way from Lincoln’s Inn to Gray’s Inn, for example, we stopped by a shop in which a newly appointed solicitor, barrister, or judge can buy his or her court attire. The dress code is very specific, and although all trials aren’t wigged and gowned nowadays, barristers have to be careful in those that are. Apparently, if they turn up not wearing their wig or in the wrong gown, the judge could so far as to not acknowledge their presence at all. Not a great start.

The shop, located on Chancery Lane, had two window cases full of attire straight out of the 19th century. Bar wigs and gowns and hoods, oh my! The signage above the shop named it as “Ede & Ravenscroft, Robe Makers & Tailors since 1689.” A nerd in more ways than one, my first thought was that the storefront put me in mind of “Ollivanders: Makers of fine wands since 382 B.C.” Apparently, Ede & Ravenscroft is the place to go for courtly attire, although it costs a pretty penny. Just one wig and gown for a barrister runs over £700, nearly £600 of which is for the wig. Although solicitors don’t rank quite as high in the legal hierarchy, they also aren”t allowed to wear wigs, so they come out on top in this case.

After we had seen the last of the inns, our little group walked down to Fleet Street, pausing for a quick photo op at one of the few buildings in London to have survived the Great Fire. I don’t know exactly how old it is, but it has to predate 1666, so at least the facade has made it a good long while. Unfortunately, the vodafone store that can be found in the building nowadays kind of destroys the illusion of medieval London.

Look, I managed to cut out the vodafone store!

Look, I managed to cut out the vodafone store!

Our final stop was outside of the Royal Courts of Justice, colloquially known as the Law Courts, which houses both the High Court and the Court of Appeal. It is possible for the general public to enter the building, and some of my fellow tourists did just that. As for me, well, I felt a little odd about randomly turning up in the courthouse wearing jeans and a university t-shirt, so I passed. Instead, I checked my handy dandy map and then headed down Fleet Street towards St. Paul’s Cathedral. It looked nothing like what Sweeney Todd had led me to believe. Thanks for nothing, Tim Burton.

My primary reason for the visit to the cathedral was simple: as much as I love seeing cities from above, my retail salary could in no way fund a £20 ticket for the London Eye. A little research told me that the view from St. Paul’s was just as good, and several pounds cheaper. As I arrived, though, I found the towering white building ringed by ambulances and paramedics in full dress uniform. Ropes blocked off the stairs leading to the entrance, and there was a full band playing on the steps.

A little discreet eavesdropping told me that there were all day services being held in honor of the Order of St. John, which based on the crowd in attendance, seems to have something to do with emergency medical care. My plans of visiting St. Paul’s dashed, I took a quick stroll through the park behind the church, where I became distracted by the sight of the Millennium Bridge stretching across the River Thames. For those not familiar, that would be the bridge that undulated itself to death in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince after being attacked by death eaters. With nowhere better to go, I decided to checkout whatever interesting things might lie on the southern bank of the river. As it turns out, that was a particularly good call.

In the area known as Bankside, I found a couple of cool places, first among them the rather authentic looking reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. At only £5 a ticket, I had considered going to see the previous evening’s rendition of Julius Caesar, but procrastination got the better of me and the show was sold out. Passing on, I was met by a woman in period costume handing out flyers in front of a dimly lit building. Just inside the open doors, a staircase led down into a room vaguely reminiscent of a dungeon. The sign above named it as The Clink Prison Museum.

According to the flyer, the museum is located on the site of what is thought to be England’s oldest prison, the Clink. So, that’s the origin of the slang term. I’d always wondered where that came from. (Okay, not really, but it’s still kind of interesting.) Dating back to the 1140s, the infamous prison played host to all manner of criminals for more than 600 years.

I tucked the flyer away for a potential later visit, and kept walking on. Soon enough, I found a bridge, underneath which was a food market where I scrounged up some lunch. Twisting and turning my way through the various stalls, which sold everything from fair-trade coffee to indian food, I found – miracle of all miracles – iced tea! This is one American item that I had legitimately missed during my long stay abroad, because as far as I can tell, it doesn’t exist anywhere else. Limited budget pushed to the back of my mind, I quickly handed over my pounds for my first cup of iced tea in nearly six months. It was a little too lemony and there was no sugar to be had, but still…I regret nothing.

Samosas and tea in hand, I backtracked to a brick wall overlooking the Thames, and among the hordes of people who had come up with the same idea, I found a small gap to squeeze myself into and eat my lunch. The river was particularly low, and while my view was of littered banks and dirty brownish water, there was something about knowing the history that is steeped in those waters which made it one of the most beautiful sites in the world. The pale silhouette of St. Paul’s on the far bank didn’t hurt either.

That evening was not only my final night in London, but my final night overseas. For the first time in six months, America was within reach. As exhausted as I was from weeks of carrying all of my possessions on my back, slogging through train stations and onto crowded buses, guarding my purse from wandering hands, and sleeping in beds that weren’t my own, I found myself quite sad to leave London. It was a place that was distant enough to be an adventure, but still close enough to home to be comfortable, and easy.

I pondered over this as I sat on a bench, watching the sun set over Westminster. The silhouette of Big Ben against the darkening sky, the glowing blue lights of the Eye beside me, street musicians performing all around…it was a fitting end to a long journey.

The Admiralty at sunset.

In London Town (part II)

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If you haven’t already, check out part one here.

It’s not often that I go on guided tours. The challenge of blending in with the locals is fun for me, and trailing a sign-toting tour guide with a mass of other foreigners kind of gives the game away. With less than three days in a city that boasts so much history, though, I gave in. A little before 11 o’clock Friday morning, I stepped out of the Westminster Tube station and onto a walking tour of one of the most famous cathedrals in the world.

The outside of Westminster Abbey, as seen from the cloisters.

A bit of promotion: I went with a company called London Walks, with whom I have since done a couple of tours, and their guides really are excellent. As a student, I paid £19 for a two hour walk, which included not only the guided tour, but also entrance to the Abbey at a 33% discounted rate (and, of course, skipping the rather long line to get in).

So, here’s some cool things I learned about Westminster Abbey (more properly, the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Westminster):

Construction on the Abbey at Westminster began in the early 1040s, prompted by King Edward, AKA Edward the Confessor, last King of the House of Wessex. The church was originally intended as a place in which to put Edward’s body to rest after his death, and although it hadn’t quite been completed when he died in early 1066, it had been consecrated a short time earlier, and he was buried there.

At the time, physical proximity to saintly figures was seen as a good way to increase one’s chances of entering heaven – Canterbury Tales, anyone? – so the newly founded church, and Edward’s grave, attracted quite a crowd. At the end of the year, William I, better known as William the Conqueror, was coronated in the church, as every English monarch since has been, and so begins the long and fabled history of Westminster Abbey.

The present day church doesn’t date back quite as far as all of that, though. The building of the structure that stands today was initiated in the year 1245, by Henry III, who, like our good friend the Confessor, chose to be buried on the site. Today, seventeen past monarchs have found their final resting places at Westminster, including Mary Queen of Scots (d. 1587) and Elizabeth I (d. 1603). The infamous Oliver Cromwell even managed to snag a burial there in the 1650s, before being disinterred and posthumously executed by hanging a few years later. You know you’ve done badly when even your natural death isn’t good enough. In any case, seeing the effigies of these famous rulers was incredibly cool, and also sort of hard to fathom. I mean, the amount of history made by the people whose bodies now lie at Westminster…

Anyways, let’s skip ahead a few centuries to the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. During this period, the abbey was saved by none other than Henry VIII himself, who gave it cathedral status and appointed Thomas Thirlby as Bishop. In the following period, it switched allegiances several times, being returned to the hands of the Benedictines by Catholic Mary I (Bloody Mary, famed for her Protestant executions), and then removed from their control again by her Anglican successor Elizabeth, who named it a Royal Peculiar. It retains said status to this day, making it subject to the Sovereign, and not to an archbishop (the senior bishop of the Church of England resides in Canterbury instead). On a side note, the last Abbot under Mary’s Benedictine regime survived the change, also becoming the first Dean of the newly Anglican Westminster under Elizabeth I. Am I the only one who finds organized religion confusing? Fascinating, but confusing.

Moving on, then. During WWII, the Abbey suffered damage, like much of the rest of London. Although many of the moveable treasures found there were evacuated to various country estates, some immobile things, such as the royal tombs, were piled high with sandbags instead. The 13th century Cosmati pavement and some of the stained glass had been boarded over early in the war, although a few windows were still blown out. The worst damage was sustained in mid-May 1941, when firebombs rained down on the Abbey roof, but luckily firefighters were on hand the counteract the worst damage. Almost exactly four years later, on May 8, 1945 (VE Day), thanksgiving services were held hourly in the cathedral to celebrate the end of the war.

And to wrap up, here’s a few fun facts about coronations in the Abbey:

To date, 38 coronations have taken place at Westminster. The new monarch is crowned while sitting in the Coronation Chair, which at least while I was there, could be seen in a glassed off alcove to the right, as you enter through the main doors. It’s crazy old. We’re talking more than 700 years worth of old here. And, there’s an oddity about this old wooden chair, if you look closely. Underneath the seat, there’s a sort of slot. That was specially requested by Edward I (not the Confessor) with the building of the chair. The spot was made to hold the Stone of Scone, pronounced scoon, although I personally think it would be much funnier if it was said the way it’s spelled,. There are many traditions about the history of the Stone, also known as the Coronation Stone and the Stone of Destiny, but the important bit for now is that it is the historic seat upon which Scottish monarchs were crowned. So, when Edward I overthrew John Balliol, the last King of Scotland to be coronated on the stone in 1292, and returned it to London, it was pretty symbolic. Think Braveheart.

The first English monarch to be crowned sitting on the Coronation Chair, on the Stone, was Edward II in 1308…royal naming conventions are so redundant. The Stone was even so important as to cause the first border closing between England and Scotland in some four centuries, after it was stolen by Scottish nationalists on Christmas day, 1950. It was found a few months later, and returned to the Abbey. Eventually, in 1996, it was loaned on a permanent basis to Scotland, where it remains in Edinburgh Castle, to be (temporarily) returned to Westminster only in the event of a royal coronation.

I’ll cut off my history lesson there, as this post is getting a bit long. But really though, with 1,000 years of history to cover, how could it not be? I’ll continue the rest of my London adventures in another post, soon to come!

P.S., I refreshed my memory of a few dates and details that I had forgotten with info from the official Westminster Abbey site, which has loads of other good information if you’re interested in that kind of thing. And, if you’ve read this all the way to the end, I’ll assume that you are. :)

Until next time!

In London Town (part I)

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As a child, I had an insatiable thirst for travel. Six year old me would have killed to see the pyramids at Giza; Twelve year old me wanted to climb the Inca Trail and stand at the summit of Machu Picchu; and sixteen year old me would have given anything to take up residence in one of the ancient cities of the Middle East. The UK, however, never factored greatly into my thoughts. Sure, our English speaking cousins across the pond seemed nice enough, but with relatively minor cultural differences and even less linguistic diversity, the British Isles simply failed to catch the attention of my young mind.

And yet, a couple of weeks ago, I found myself wandering the streets around Covent Garden, staring up wide-eyed at the silhouette of Big Ben against the sunset, fighting the crush of people to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, and spending an evening at a West End theater. It’s as touristy as it gets, but I loved every minute of it (not to mention being back in an English speaking country for the first time in months!).

The Elizabeth Tower, AKA Big Ben.

The Elizabeth Tower, AKA Big Ben.

I started my time in London as I start my time in most cities: by getting lost. After arriving at Heathrow Wednesday evening and catching the Tube into town, I settled into my hostel near Westminster Bridge, before heading out to scrounge up some dinner. I very consciously walked down one street, making no turns, until I found a tasty (and inexpensive) looking menu outside of an Indian restaurant. The owner stayed and chatted with me long after he brought out my naan and vegetable curry. His thickly accented English and overeager friendliness made me feel almost like I was back in Morocco again, not looking out on a busy London street. Dinner finished and bill paid, I set out walking back the way I came. Not having made any turns, I couldn’t get lost, right? Right.

Me being me though, I did get lost, presumably at one of those pesky roundabouts. Since I conveniently arrived just a few days before the summer solstice, though, the sun set late over London. With plenty of daylight left, I walked down every street leading away from every possible roundabout, past lots of chain restaurants that I recognized – but maybe from another road? – and eventually, two hours later, back to my hostel. It was maybe a ten minute walk from my start point as the crow flies. I just took the scenic route, that’s all…

To get up to my dorm required walking through the pub below, and with the World Cup in full swing, there was quite the celebration going on. Travel weary, I passed on the game and spent the rest of the evening getting to know my two English speaking roommates, one from Buffalo, NY, and her fiancé, from Christchurch, New Zealand. Per usual, I was interrogated about my feelings on U. S. politics. Being an American seems to open the door for people all over the world to ask about personal political opinions, and given the reticence of many of my friends at home to discuss politics, I can’t help but find the dichotomy amusing. With many similar conversations under my belt, I answered his questions on Clinton’s running of the State Department as honestly and diplomatically as I could, extracting some information about New Zealand’s international relations in return.

While they went downstairs to join the throngs of people coming in and out of the pub, I went to bed. Despite there only being two hours’ time difference between Athens and the UK, the jet lag hit me hard, and I was asleep early. By 5:30 the next morning, I gave up on getting any more rest, and after tiptoeing around my dorm room and down four flights of creaky stairs to get ready, I walked through the Jubilee Gardens, sat on Hungerford Bridge to watch the sun rise, then wandered through the streets surrounding the admiralty buildings as business-suited office workers trickled in to start their day. As I paused to take a breath on a bench in a small Thames-side park, my only company was a young family, the parents scolding their eldest son for running full speed with his little brother in a stroller, while their baby girl laughed gleefully at the sight. It struck me for the first time how normal London seemed. It was America with better accents and more refined mannerisms. I was almost home.

 

To be continued, with a load of fun historical stuff, in part two.

The Business of Religion

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“Skip the line, skip the line” come the shouts from up and down the sidewalk. It’s about 80° out, the sun shining brightly down on the seemingly endless stream of people in front of me, and the €33 prices being quoted to get into the Musei Vaticani – the Vatican Museums – are sounding better by the minute. I’ve been standing here, waiting, for over an hour now. I’ve shuffled forward maybe 30 feet. According to a loud-voiced fellow American somewhere behind me in the line who ran to check how far it extends around the corner, we have a solid three hours left, at least.

After staving off water sellers (Cold! One euro! One euro!), umbrella sellers (Block the sun!), rosary sellers (well, it is the Vatican, after all), and the ubiquitous “skip the line” tour guides for nearly an hour, my willpower is wavering. It is possible to buy tickets in advance, but I frugally refused to pay four extra euros on top of the already steep sixteen euro price to enter the Vatican Museums, which include the famed Sistine Chapel. Now, I’m questioning that decision. The last entrances are early, around 12:30, and the museums close completely by 4 pm. I check the time on my cell phone: 10:13. By the time I get through this line, I may as well not have bothered.

With a fortuitously timed sales pitch made to the two Scottish ladies immediately behind me, I change my mind about the extra cost. I picked a lucky place – the middle-aged, hat wearing women are just gullible enough to try and politely talk to the tour sellers each and every time one passes them, allowing me to hear all of the options available without getting sucked into a sale. For whatever reason, this particular man in his mid-20s, guide badge around his neck, says his company will sell an entrance – no tour, but just a group to skip to the front of the line with – for €27, €6 less than any other guide I’d heard yet. Then, the American from LA and her boyfriend get in on the deal. They ask about a student price: €20, comes the answer. Unfortunately for them, they don’t have their student IDs on them. Fortunately for me, I do. €20 not being any more than the original online ticket price, I acquiesce, turning around to get in on the conversation myself. A few minutes later, I’m traipsing past person after person, turn the corner, and realize that I hadn’t even made it a quarter of the way through the line.

Later that afternoon, sun still brightly shining overhead, I’m waiting in line once more, this time to enter St. Peter’s Basilica. There’s no entrance fee, just a line of metal detectors that have to be passed before one can enter, so the line moves quickly, even from all the way across St. Peter’s Square. I pass through the massive doors, rendered speechless by the sheer wealth of what I’m seeing around me. Everything in sight is covered in either gold or detailed murals, sculptures line the walls, and even the ceiling, rising over 400 feet, is intricately ornamented. Ahead, at one of the few simple wooden altars scattered throughout the Basilica, I see a woman kneeling in prayer, hands together, head bowed. I wonder how anybody could pray in here. This place that was built to be a church no longer feels like it, with it’s explanatory signs, roped off areas, metal detectors, guards, and suffocating crowds. Then I see her friend in front of her, camera in hand, getting ready to shoot; she isn’t praying, it’s simply a photo op. Walking in a daze, I find my way around the tour groups of visiting nuns to the stairs leading down to the Vatican Grotto, the final resting place of many Popes, and according to the Church, of St. Peter himself. The area immediately above his tomb is now lavishly decorated, and barred from public entrance. The rest of the floor contains sarcophagi of various Popes from throughout history, and even the occasional non-Papal authority, such as Queen Cristina of Sweden.

Walking through, in awe of the history of the people laying around me, I’m brought back into the real world when I climb back up the stairs, through the exit, and find myself face to face with a souvenir shop. Without having done any research to back this up, I’m thoroughly convinced that at least half of the businesses in Vatican City must be souvenir shops. At least. Every church or museum I’ve walked through so far ends in such a place, and in the case of the Vatican Museums, they don’t even wait until the end. They’re just scattered throughout the labyrinth of exhibits, displaying their shockingly expensive rosaries in glass cases alongside bookmarks adorned with pictures of the pope and thin pocket-sized notebooks stamped with the “Musei Vaticani” logo for €9 apiece.

In the Vatican, it’s hard to tell where the church ends, and the business begins. Because that’s what it feels like: a business. And a good one at that. In peak season, an average of 20,000 people make their way through the museums and connected Sistine Chapel each day. For the only remaining Papal state, Vatican City hardly feels more like a religious site to me than any of the other local attractions I’ve visited. The Pope might live there, but unless he’s out on the balcony giving an address, everywhere you turn it’s the same ticket booths and audio guides that you find at the Colosseum. The streets leading up to St. Peter’s Square are lined with places advertising €6 pizza and coke or 50¢ postcards. The only thing that makes the Vatican feel any different than the sprawling, slightly dirty city of Rome itself is the undeniable wealth. It’s everywhere, in all the buildings, in the towering marble pillars, topped with their numerous statues. It’s in the glimmering crosses, and the valuable artwork. It makes me wonder when it will be enough.

 

Firenze

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Oh, Florence, city of art. I’d heard an awful lot about Florence before getting here, so my expectations were high. And, I have to say, for the most part, the city didn’t disappoint, although once again, I think I failed to do the things that I was “supposed” to do. I did not, for instance, go to see Michelangelo’s “David” (though I did view a replica outside of the Piazza della Signora, where the original stood until 1873, and in the end, it probably looked about the same). The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t matter how famous the statue, I just don’t care enough to wait in line for hours to see it. Shoot me. I did, however, drop in for a look at the Michelangelo-designed Laurentian library at one of the many Medici palaces in Florence, originally commissioned by Pope Clement VII, a Medici himself. Unfortunately, neither saw the library’s completion: Michelangelo left Florence in 1534, the same year that the Pope died. Although construction had already been underway for nearly a decade at that point, the library was still 37 years away from opening. Although most of the library has been emptied of its original literary contents, it was still well worth the €3 entrance fee. Libraries are way better than some naked dude carved in marble, am I right?

Lovely Florence.

Anyways, back on topic. I like Florence: it seems to have found a better balance of tourism and local authenticity than Venice has. Mind you, there’s still an awful lot of tourists running around (myself included, though I pride myself on the fact that I’ve even had Italians ask me for help several times), but it isn’t the same constant, overwhelming flood found in Venice. You can walk 15 minutes away from the Duomo and feel as though you’ve left all tourist influence behind. It probably isn’t true, of course, but it feels like it, and isn’t that what matters?

The Duomo.

The Duomo.

Even at the Piazzale Michelangelo, which offers beautiful views of Florence from above, and is (or should be) a tourist attraction of sorts, I was able to sit on a bench for a peaceful couple of hours, struggling through a French novel I picked up at an international bookstore, with only one or two minor distractions. Maybe most people are just too lazy for the steep, long-ish uphill walk. I don’t know.

The view from Piazzale Michelangelo.

Even my roommates were nice, quiet sorts. The middle-aged woman in the bed immediately next to mine talked to herself rather a lot, but she also shared her biscotti with me, so she can’t have been too bad. We chatted a couple of times during my stay; I talked to her in English, and I think she understood a bit. She talked to me in Spanish, and I understood “hola.” Nonetheless, we made it work, somehow managing to communicate well for a good 45 minutes before giving up the effort, during which time I found out that she was from Brazil, and her “Spanish” was actually Portuguese. Ah, well. A linguist I am not. Conversations like these are one of the great joys of traveling alone.

Tomorrow morning, I depart Florence for Rome. I’m excited to get to the “cradle of civilization” and all that jazz, but I wouldn’t complain about another day or two here, just relaxing, either. I have a nagging feeling Rome won’t be relaxing in the slightest, but I’m sure I’ll enjoy it regardless. And, best of all, I’ll be there for five nights, which for me basically means I won’t have to lug my bags around a train station or try to find a hostel in a new city for five. whole. nights. Oh, happy day.

Until next time!

The Learned, The Fat, and The Red

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If there’s one thing I’ve regretted this trip, it’s not spending more time in Bologna. At first, I did’t intend to come here at all. Then, I saw a few sources strongly recommending a stop, so I stuck in a measly two nights for this small town with seemingly few attractions. Almost immediately after setting foot outside of Bologna Centrale, however, I would gladly have traded one of my nights in Milan, or in Venice, or both, for more time in the city of “the learned, the fat, and the red,” as it is known.

I couldn’t even tell you why. I didn’t do or see anything in particular on my one full day here. After being welcomed like a member of the family at my hostel guesthouse last night, and given the rundown of life in town, I wandered a bit, got lost, found myself again, and chatted with some other travelers in the dorms. I didn’t keep them for too long, though – the football game was on, after all.

Then today, I pretty much just walked some more, beginning my day by popping over to the “due torri,” two towers. Predating Tolkien’s two towers by about eight centuries, these leaning monuments are all that remain of the estimated 180 towers that once rose over Bologna. They are the most famous monuments in the city today, and you can even climb one, should you so choose. I abstained, personally. Local legend says that if a student climbs to the top, they will never graduate, and really, is it worth the risk? Also, it was a lot of steps.

After wandering around in the two towers area, I scoped out San Petronio, another local attraction and one of the largest basilicas in the world – I’m starting to think this country has as many churches as it does people – but mostly I just let my feet take me down the most interesting looking alleyways and cobblestone corridors, finding the best pizza I’ve had in Italy yet and a local weekend market along the way.

After the general over-the-top-ness of just about everything in Venice, the relaxed vibe of Bologna (and the relative lack of tourists) really hit the spot.Tomorrow I take the train to Florence, Firenze as it’s called here, and though I’m excited to see the city which many cite as their favorite in Italy, I’ll be sad to be leaving Bologna and it’s strangely homey atmosphere so soon. If there’s one place I would return to in Italy, it is without a doubt here.

A City of Canals

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Okay, I’ll admit it. I had no intentions of liking Venice. It screamed touristy from a thousand miles off. And it is. It’s a city where, during the high season, tourists outnumber locals. With it’s cheesy, overpriced souvenirs and multilingual signage, it’s something that I really want to hate, and yet in spite of everything, it’s retained enough of that original charm to draw me in. Despite my reservations, I do understand the allure of Venice, with its seafoam green canals, towering medieval palazzi, and extravagant opera houses. In the end, I think there’s just a bit too much of a show being put on for the foreigners for me to unreservedly fall in love with the city the way some people have, but I can, without a doubt, understand their feelings.

Day one, I didn’t even attempt to avoid the haven of all things touristy, Piazza San Marco. Instead, I went straight for it, wandering around inside of the imposingly rich cathedral, followed up by the no less impressive Palazzo Ducale. The palace’s origins are in the 9th century, but the building standing today only (hah, only) dates back to the 14th century. I could have spent all day laying on the floor of what is one of the largest rooms in Europe, according to a passing tour guide. Laying on the floor, I say, because the most detailed, intricate paintings weren’t located on the walls, but on the ceiling. Going down the stairs and across the bridge of sighs, so named for the sighs of prisoners crossing the dark passageway and sighing at the final sight of the lagoon through the tiny window, the prisons stand in stark contrast to the opulence of the palace just next door. Walking through the poorly lit corridors, past row after row of cells, and climbing up into the armory with it’s racks of medieval weaponry, gives a brief glimpse into the darker side of Venice’s history.

Day two, I took a different tack, wandering through all the back alleys and little nooks and crannies in the city that I could find, accompanied by a new friend, but despite all of our efforts to get out of the “tourist area,” it would seem that the entire city is actually a tourist area. Our attempts were in vain, and every time we stepped out of a shadowy alley, we would find ourselves surrounded by masses of other non-Venetians trying to push their way to the nearest attraction. All hope of escaping the crowds left behind, we retired to a café to chat about the joys and frustrations of long-term travel over overpriced gelato. My final day in Venice was passed in much the same manner, wandering aimlessly through the streets, pausing to look through the occasional museum or church as I came across them, and eventually, being invited by my waiter to go get drinks after his shift ended. Unfortunately, his interest in me didn’t extend so far as to get me a discount on my lunch. Oh well.

 

Now that I’ve gotten through Venice, I’ll start my descent southward, starting with Bologna tomorrow morning.

Ciao!

On the Move

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Whew! I know that the journey is better than the destination and all that, but I’ve got to say, travel days are my least favorite, especially alone. Trying to make room for two heavy backpacks on an assortment of subways, trains, and buses, whilst simultaneously attempting to navigate my way through a city I’ve never been in to a place I’ve never seen is just not my idea of a good time. But, as always, I made it through, and so here I am at a campsite on the outskirts of Venice, planning out how my next few days are going to look (and yes, campsite — in Europe I’ll take what I can get). I’ll have the same amount of time here as I did in Milan – four nights  – but I have so much more to see. Hopefully the 30 minute bus ride from here to the city center will keep me from coming back during the day and taking my standard mid-afternoon siesta, and wasting precious hours (and euros!). I guess I’ll find out soon enough! On the itinerary tomorrow: the Basilica di San Marco, Palazzo Ducale, and some other stuff that I’ll know when I see it.

The Lakes

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Como is peace personified, at least after the busy city life in Milan. I am writing this on the shore of the lake, surrounded by buildings in shades of orange and yellow dotting the forested mountains that rise up in the background. Sailboats float by, bikers travel down the street in packs, families stroll through the park, and for the first time in months, I’m listening to church bells ringing in the distance instead of the call to prayer. I’m glad I made the decision to come here. I won’t be doing much today – no sightseeing, for instance – but the more I travel, the more I realize that’s okay. Today isn’t a day for taking pictures of old buildings. Today is a day for laying by the lake with a good book, finding some tasty Italian food, and making peace with the fact that I am no longer in Morocco. And, once I’m back to a laptop that I can put my photos on, I’ll upload some pictures and show you all what I mean. :)

Ciao for now!

Day Two

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As predicted, new light brought new confidence. I finished off last night by bonding with my Zurich-born roommate, who shares my fascination with Arab culture. We stayed up late swapping stories of her experiences working in Egypt and mine studying in Morocco, and sharing all of our future travel plans. 

As she headed back into Switzerland this morning, I turned my feet towards the Duomo di Milano, an impressive marble cathedral dating back to the 14th century. It’s construction dragged on until the mid-20th century, but today, the site is unfortunately marred by the tourist insanity surrounding it. The nearby Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II brings in throngs of shoppers, and of course peddlers and street performers come along for the ride, till you end up with a beautiful building and lines so long and crowds so large that the stunning architecture can’t be enjoyed. 

Instantly disliking the touristy aspect – I even had salesmen calling out to me in English, the only place in the city that I hadn’t been spoken to in Italian – I only stayed and watched the circus for a few minutes before walking down the far calmer Via Alessandro Manzoni in search of the Museo Poldi-Pezzoli. The Pezzolis were (are?) one of the wealthiest families in Milan’s aristocracy, and their historic home has now been transformed into a museum housing the city’s most important private art collection. I’m not much of an art connoisseur, but the paintings and sculptures dating back as far as the 14th century (and a few items even earlier) by masters such as Boticelli, Bellini, Tiepolo, Guardi, and others, were stunning. The museum was quiet, with only a few other patrons, by my estimation all aged over 65 (I guess the Milanese youth are more concerned with high fashion than art history), so I took my time, spending hours meandering my way through the historically inspired rooms, whose decor and architecture dates back to the 19th century and Gian Giacomo Pezzoli himself.

After a bite to eat, and another brief grocery trip to get some goods for dinner tonight (cause who can afford to eat out in Europe all the time?), I got totally turned around in the metro, but with some educated guesswork, made it back to the Stazione Centrale on my first try. I even managed to look confident enough to get asked for directions by a new immigrant to Milan. Ha! I was then kept company on most of the ride by an overly friendly Pakistani fellow telling me all about how there are easily spotted American spies everywhere in Pakistan. You meet the most interesting people on the subway.

Having decided to spend a day outside of Milan, I hopped off to check the train ticket situation, eventually opting to stay in Italy and visit Como, instead of traveling into Switzerland and up to Lugano for the day. Given their close proximity to each other and the fact that the train tickets to Lugano were nearly €40 more expensive, a trip into Switzerland just couldn’t be justified. 

So, tomorrow then, Lago di Como!