Thursday, May 21, 2015

Italy in 5 days: Florence

In Florence, even a simple bridge seems a triumph of the Renaissance. Instead of simply crossing a river, the Medici and the artisans they employed built a structure strong enough to support gold, the shops to house it and the people who flock to buy it.

Don’t worry if you get to Florence without a hotel, we didn’t, and we only had to talk to walk into two hotels before we found a room that after a little bargaining was in our price range. 60 euros a night. Did we get ripped off or get a steal? You tell me.

There's even this painting of a delicious sandwich at the Uffizi
Once checked in we queued up to get into the Uffizi art museum. After an hour wait and three hours exploring its hallowed halls, I will admit, the Uffizi is an amazing museum. In particular Raquel and I found a painting by Botticelli of Madonna and Christ so beautiful it eclipsed Botticelli’s own Birth of Venus only a few paintings over. There’s also a quite scandalous sculpture of a woman in ecstasy, a two sided painting of a dwarf in all of his glory and the first female breast ever painted. Even a man easily bored by stuffy old art museums can spend a few hours there.

But my favorite sight to see was the Domo. Pictures certainly speak more than words, but with the Domo even those fall short. It is a massive structure of white, green and red marble that is so big one cannot ever appreciate it in its entirety, because, unlike the structures of Pisa which sprawl languidly on a wide expanse of green grass, the Domo is hemmed in by six story apartment buildings. One cannot ever get far enough away from it, so it always feels like it is constantly on the verge of swallowing up the viewer. I had to move in close, but this is no less mend boggling, for every inch of this massive marble structure is carved. The walls, the pillars, the windows, the doorframes, even the doors themselves are carved into popes and prophets, sigils and spirals, flowers and finery the likes of which I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world.

To leave it behind is to lower one’s expectations, but it must be done, for we had other cities to see.

Yet this did not prove to be as easy as we’d hoped. After Florence we spent a day in Pisa but had to stop back in Florence to catch a train to Venice via Milan, but alas we misread our tickets and got off a stop too late. A new ticket (at no cost to us, they must be used to incompetent tourists) and fifteen agonizing minutes later Raquel made the grave mistake of ordering a—gasp—iced coffee!

No sooner did the words leave her mouth than the cashier, an older woman undoubtedly married to the man manning the espresso machine sneered and told her husband in heavily accented English, “she wants an iced… coffee...

The man could have prepared the milk for my cappuccino with the steam coming out of his ears. For a full minute be banged pots, smashed pans and furiously paced back and forth, stopping only to glare at this less-than-human who’d dared order a coffee at a temperature any less than scalding. Not wanting him to knock the place down or attempt to decapitate my wife with a sugar spoon I quickly changed the order to a frappe instead. He visibly relaxed, and by the time he brought us our drinks, “here is your frappe and a very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, hot cappuccino,” he seemed downright pleasant.

Caffeinated and terrified we made for our train to Venice, happy to escape with our heads, and a train to put them on.
If you liked this story check out Rome Part I or Part II go visit Greece with me!

Italy in Five Days: Rome Part II

After the amazing exhaustion that is the Sistine chapel, we still had the rest of an ancient city to explore. We hopped on a train (frighteningly off-schedule and claustrophobic after living in Japan) and headed to the old town. Our first stop was to recharge outside the church of Cappucin with a cappuccino. With this dose of meta-caffeination we were ready to see Rome.

And see it we did. We walked into Basilicas to find catholic masses underway or just other tourists
marveling at their splendor. In a toy shop a magician performed a private show in which he transfigured cards back into themselves and severely tested the material limits of a silver chain. In a tiny shop no bigger than bedroom an Italian watchmaker replaced Raquel’s watch’s battery with a smile and in a bookstore behind a cathedral we perused esoteric tomes containing knowledge of everything from astral projection to the origin of the tarot.

We explored the Pantheon. Its altars for Zeus and Athena long ago replaced with effigies of Jesus and Mary. The sun from the hole in the roof cast an unusually equal light upon the saints and martyrs, lifting them to the status of the pair supposed to be their betters. Catholicism has 
Sun worship at its finest at the Pantheon
whitewashed much of the world with its version of history, but this was one place where the pagan predecessors could still be felt. 

We ate gelato and a crappy overpriced meal and explored The Coliseum. It looks like the progenitor of every arena ever built. It is marvelous, and proves mankind’s obsession with the distraction of fun and games goes back much farther than all but the most diehard sports fans would care to admit.
But the most powerful moment of the day was stepping into an empty cathedral to find a lonely priest practicing on a magnificent pipe organ. It was hauntingly beautiful. After a sitting in the pews for a few minutes it began to overwhelm my atheist sensibilities.
In these hallowed halls, built centuries ago, I could feel Christ suffering, because for the first time in my life, I felt I had suffered if but a fraction of what any other person on this earth has endured. There are things worse than testicular cancer, to be sure, but not in my privileged life. Confronted with the beauty of this place of worship and the music it inspired from this man, I fell to my knees and begged God for health and a family. After surviving the first battle with testicular cancer, nothing else seems as important to me. And to be there, to see Christ’s pain, and what it inspires in people, to hear what it inspired this lonely man to play, brought me to tears and moved me to beg God for mercy.

If you liked this story check out Rome Part I. 

Italy in Five Days: Rome part I

Our time in Italy was a whirlwind of trains and sightseeing. We spent two nights in Rome, a day in Florence, a day Pisa, a night in Margherra outside of Venice, a day in Venice, then caught a train to Lugano via Milan. I do not recommend travelling like this. It tends to leave beard hairs frizzled and wifeys frazzled, but we had five days to kill before we had a free place to stay with a relative (the sister of the husband of my wife’s aunt) so what else could we do but see everything there is to see? So without any further ado, I give you 5 Italian cities in five days.


We arrived late in Rome, too tired to do anything but walk beneath an aqueduct to get pizza and beer and vow to set out early the next day.

10:00 am is the hour of the tourist. It is the time most people (yours truly included) can manage to get anywhere and still feel early, so it the time with the longest lines and the most obnoxious guides trying to sell you tours to skip them.

We opted for a cappuccino and wifi instead. Our weekend booked (except for Florence, more on that later) we set out after overhearing an Italian tell three young Americans about the market across the street.

“They put a roof over it but it’s still great! You should walk in just for the smell!”

Inside I found the most delicious sandwich in Italy, slow roasted porcetta and a crispy pork product that was something between bacon and chicharon. The textures of the noble pig juxtaposed on a fresh roll. For three Euros, there is no better food in Italy. 
Marble Selfie of the Beard
Our bellies full and our brains caffeinated we returned to the Vatican at about 1:30 to find the lines much more agreeable. Twenty minutes later we were perusing the popes’ collection of sculptures of the Greek and Roman Gods. You gotta love the Catholics. They renounce all the other religions but they take damn good care of their idols.

Starting with the room of maps, The Vatican is beyond anything I’ve ever seen. The ceilings are painted to look like marble reliefs. Angels and cherubs bordered in gold smile down on ancient frescoes depicting the world in incredible detail. After the maps comes a hallway filled with tapestries depicting amazing events more or less related to Jesus. The ones with JC are the best. He’s got a goofy smile and is flashing the peace sign.  
The Triumph of Christianity
Next comes Raphael’s rooms. My favorite piece is “Triumph of Christianity” which shows a golden crucifix standing over a broken marble statue of Hermes. In with the new out with the old! A room over is the “School of Athens” an eternal reminder of the greatness of those long-gone idol worshippers that the painters of the Renaissance was so obsessed with reviving.

But after all that, after kilometers of paint, tons of marble, and thousands of tourists, postcards, and priests we were upon it, the Sistine chapel.
The Sistine chapel is the most beautiful thing made by one man. It is as awe-inspiring as the Sequoias, as powerful as Niagara Falls. It is worth going to Rome, waiting in line, paying 20 Euros and wearing out your feet.

It is one man’s amazing vision of his faith, hopes and dreams. I don’t know much about the bible, only the basics of Genesis through Noah’s Ark, but perhaps that’s all anyone bothers to learn anymore because that’s what is depicted by Michelangelo and to have some sense of the stories in this masterpiece so important to us as a species that we learn these stories to better appreciate its splendor.

It is beautiful, breath-taking, and a little funny. Why are God’s buttcheeks painted so prominently? Why, amidst all this splendor, is there a scene of Noah drunk off his gourd? I think Michelangelo knew the power of emotion, and for anything to have beauty it must invoke laughter or tears.

And below it, behind the altar is the Final Judgment, which is as dark and frightening as the ceiling is bright and uplifting. Michelangelo painted it as a grim reminder of the price of sin. It is beautiful, but horrifying. To have the two visions of a Master, one of hope painted early in life and another of despair painted much later, is nothing short of miraculous. Go there. Listen to Rick Steves when you do.

This is not marble, nor is it the Sistine Chapel.
I was to overwhelmed by the place to rebel enough to snap a photo of the real deal.
 If you liked this post check out Part II or check out Greece!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Ancient Karthea

Kea is home to Karthea, a city that was first settled in the 9th century b.c. All you must do to find it is drive an hour up a mountain and hike an hour down into a lush valley.

So we rented a scooter and embarked on an adventure through time. Up the mountain we drove, past tiny white-washed churches and up above the capital city and its prehistoric carved lion. Wind battered us and threatened to knock us from the plateau. Sand blew in our eyes to hide the way but we would not be deterred. We drove past stubborn mules and fought herds of cows for space on the road.  Finally we found an old half-dirt road that led to the trailhead.

We walked by stone walls built three thousand years ago to separate the tame from the wild. We walked under trees heavy with figs, pomegranates and lemons. We walked past skittish horses and their homes made of stacked stones. We walked past thirsty bees and scrubby bushes flush with pink flowers. We walked past secret caves and sacred springs. On and on we walked. The wild and the time didn’t seem so different after three thousand years.

An hour later we emerged on a beach. Three men labored to repair an ancient theater and a long-dry water cistern despite the sun and the wind. To our left we saw two temples on a thrust of land that stuck out into the sea like a stone battleship. We climbed the twisting marble steps to the temples at the top, as men and women did 2,500 years ago to worship their gods. 

We reached the temple at the top of the hill and entered the Propylon. The archeologists have replaced only a few marble slabs so it has its original shape: a box of fluted pillars, made to cage only wind and shade. We approached the temple of Athena and its wall of pillars that have crumbled to waist height. The archeologists rebuilt a few of them to help less imaginative minds marvel at what 2,500 hundred years of rain and wind can do to stone.

From there we could see the Aegean foaming with waves interrupted by distant islands. They say tragedy was invented in Greece. And with islands on the horizon, I felt compelled to swim out into the sea and explore but to do so would be to lose myself to the sea, and add another page to Poseidon’s book of tragedy.

We descended from Athena’s domain to worship at Apollo’s temple. They say it was the most important place in Karthea. It was set on a point of the landmass that felt like it was stretching out over the ocean, the prow of the ship. The temple collapsed long ago, and Christians, surely overwhelmed with the power of the place buried their dead with the marble bricks that once housed Apollo.

Further we descended until we reached the beach, desolate save for us and the seagulls hiding from the wind. There was no one around save my beautiful wife and Apollo and Athena, watching us from their ancient temples built upon this thrust of rock that separated the twin beaches, so I threw my clothes to the beach and walked into the Aegean to feel the ocean upon my naked flesh.

It was cold. Powerful. Marvelous. A sea nymph in the body of a fish beckoned me to join her with a tailfin waving lazily above the ocean waves, so in I dove. As I surfaced from the cold sea my lungs burned and I reveled in just being alive. Perhaps I would have followed that fish into the sea and joined the watery domain of the Poseidon’s sirens, but a beautiful goddess beckoned me back to land with a towel and a sandwich. She convinced me to put my clothes back on and return to civilization with her. She’s with me now, sitting across the table, and has cast a powerful spell on me. I love this woman, who makes me food and keeps me warm, and will continue to so long as my lungs draw air. Such is the power of the spell she has cast upon my heart, a spell strong enough to pull me halfway ‘round the world and out of the ocean.

I still surrender to her magic every time I look upon her.

If you liked this post check out more in Greece, or come to Rome or Vienna with us!