Friday, November 16, 2012

From Europe With Love

It's finally here!  I've uploaded my camera pictures from our European vacation and sorted the best from the rest just for you.

Here's an intro to get you into the mood.  I pulled the title of this post off of the James Bond Movie, From Russia With Love, and who doesn't love a good James Bond segue, especially when it's a young Sean Connery.  Grrrrrrrrrrrr!

Anyhoo, our pictures aren't filled with spy excitement but a lot of great views and memories!   Please enjoy some of my favorites from Rome and Florence in Italy and Munich, Germany.

The first set of pictures includes gorgeous views of Rome.  A beautiful city with tons of history and great for walking around.  Below is a picture of the Spanish steps.  This is where the Embassy of Spain used to be and it's generally a hot spot for touristy hang-outing, generally.  This is where the really expensive shops like Dior are located.  This place lights up at night with tons of people.  There are cute little alleyways all around which house some really amazing restaurants! Can you believe I did not take one single picture of the food??? NOT ONE! Me who loves food!  Well, I can at least talk about it, which is one of the things I do best!  First of all, we noticed the wine and prosecco was wayyy cheaper than in the U.S. and available pretty much at every restaurant.  They also served both still and sparkling water which you had to specify which one you wanted.  Some places would ask "with gas?" and we would stare at them, confused, before we realized that meant sparkling water.  Ha!

Near the Spanish steps, which is one of the first places we walked to the morning we arrived after finding out our hotel room wasn't quite ready yet, we found a place to have an early lunch.  Both my husband and I ordered pizzas which included the "pizza Napoli" (Neopolitan style, from Naples) which included anchovies and a pizza with gorgonzola. Both very strong tastes which we both liked.  My husband looooved the anchovy pizza and had to order it a couple of times more during our trip before he got his fill.

Afterward we had a tour with a private guide set up our first day and of course, the first place I wanted to see what the Colosseum, originally called the Flavian Ampitheater when it was built.  Construction began in 72 AD under the emperor Vespasian and was completed in 80 AD under Titus  (according to Wikepedia).  Flavian is apparently their family last name.  

A few things we learned about the  Colosseum on our private tour included the following:

1.  It could hold 50,000 people.

2. Most of the stones from the top and inside which are missing were actually taken off the building by various Popes later on to build other structures in Rome, so it actually did not deteriorate naturally.  
3.  While the traditional gladiator type performances were conducted here, they also had naval games, by filling up the bottom with water and floating ships inside, and performed lunchtime executions which were extremely brutal and reserved only for the worst offenders, usually non-Romans.  
4.  Being a Roman male during this time was really the only way to go. Women and outsiders were susceptible to discrimination and persecution. 
5.  Contrary to what we had originally thought, many of the mass killings of early Christians were actually conducted in the Circus Maximus, including St. Peter -- Circuses were used back in the day for many killings.  As my husband commented "You didn't want to run away and join the circus back then!"
6.  The Roman Emperor Nero was probably the worst offender of mass killings and persecution and one of the most extravagant spenders.  

Below you can see the inside of the Colosseum with most of the early stone that had covered the structure ripped off and most of the seats ripped out.  The arena was partially reconstructed to show the catacombs below where they would hold the performers, fighters, gladiators, etc. which were raised to the arena floor at the right time.  For dramatic effect of course!

The Arch of Titus is shown below.  The Romans built arches all over Rome to commemorate various victories. They have very intricate carvings on them including depictions of people who were conquered.  Absolutely amazing!

Here is a wide view of the Roman Forum area, where many of the ancient ruins are still being recovered.  This site was so amazing to us that we had to go back another day to take it all in.

Below is the temple of Saturn.  Or, what's left of it.

Another view of the ancient forum.  Somewhere around here, Julius Caesar gave his famous speech.  I couldn't tell you where though!  I was trying to place all the facts our tour guide had been telling us into some sort of chronological order and remember what fact goes with which building, but in the end, there was just too much to remember at once.

View of the dome of the Pantheon.  This was originally build by Emperor Agrippa -- I only remember that because his name is written across the top of it in huge letters -- and was intended as a place of worship for all of Rome's various gods.  It is now a church and even held mass while we were in there. The dome is the largest, width-wise, dome in Rome and was constructed entirely of concrete.  It's amazing how engineering back in ancient times could be so advanced.  Michelangelo had tried to replicate the width of the dome in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican but was unable to match it, so that dome is actually the tallest, but the Pantheon still reigns supreme in width.

This is the front of the Pantheon. See how Emperor Agrippa's name is right across the top?  Apparently we were told that, this inscription means "Emperor Agrippa Built This"  or something along those lines.  One thing we've noticed in Rome is that everything is branded by the person who built it, or the person who restored it.  Usually Popes were the ones restoring many ancient structures; in a lot of cases they were converted from pagan structures to Christian ones.  Notice the obelisk in front?  There are tons (literally) of obelisks in Rome, usually placed in front of churches, ironically.  The ancient Romans took them from Egypt when they conquered and placed them in front of important structures.  Some have been moved around the city and you'll see obelisks in front of many important or notable churches.  To combat the pagan-ness of these symbols, the church (i.e. the Vatican in Rome) placed Christian symbols on top of them.  Rome has the most obelisks in the world, even more than Egypt, due to their conquering and ransacking Egypt.  They floated them up to Rome on barges.  One thing that I loved about the history is that the ancient pagan history and symbols have been preserved and incorporated by the church, even though they have been converted, rather than destroyed, so there are so many layers of history to each and every structure.

Oh by the way... Raphael, THE RAPHAEL, from the Renaissance is also buried in the Pantheon.  He, along with the other ninja turtles, Michelangelo and Leonardo (da Vinci) were instrumental in a lot of the Renaissance art and architecture in Rome.  Particularly Michelangelo and Raphael.  Apparently the artists were like rock stars back in the day.  Raphael died fairly young in his late 30's from some infection.  I believe it was an STD or had something to do with sex if I remember correctly from our tour guides.  Donatello apparently was more of a Florence Renaissance artist so we didn't see his work in Rome.  And there is another artist, Bernini, who had a lot of influence in Rome and, as discussed in more detail below, one of our tour guides would have considered him to be the fifth ninja turtle.

That's Raphael's tomb below.  So cool!

We also got a fabulous tour of the Vatican which included the museums, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica.  The Vatican museum included many ancient artworks collected by the Romans including Greek and Egyptian works.  Some interesting facts from our tour guides include that:

1.  The purple stone (seen below) was a very expensive and luxurious item in ancient times.
2.  The ancient Romans copied many of their gods and sculptures from the ancient Greeks and adopted many cultural aspects from the places they conquered into their own culture.
3.  Many of the most ancient sculptures were made in bronze and were from ancient Greece.
4.  The marble and stone sculptures used to have eyes as well (most do not) which were made of precious stones that were ransacked when Rome was conquered by barbarians or other civilizations.
5.  Barbarians referred to "barber" which meant beard and included many other civilizations including the ancient Persians.  Romans liked to be clean shaven.
6.  The Vatican refers to the area -- Vatican City -- which houses the home of the Pope.  It is located on a hill named "Vaticano" so had it been located in a different area in Rome, it'd be named after the hill or area it was located on.
7.  The Vatican houses some of the most incredible artwork, ancient, "pagan", Medieval Renaissance etc.  I've ever seen.
8.  Raphael and Michelangelo were the stars of the Vatican design in the Renaissance, creating numerous paintings (including the Sistine Chapel) and Michelangelo also designed St. Peter's Basilica and the accompanying square.
9.  Did you all know that St. Peter's real name wasn't Peter?  It was Simon.  Well, I had no idea.  In Christianity, St. Peter was told by Jesus that "upon this rock, I will build my church."  Rock in Latin was "peitra" and "peitro" is the name for Peter.  Hence St. Peter?  Or something like that!   I found that super interesting.

Take a look at Emperor Nero's bathtub below, made of course, out of that really expensive purple stone.

Some ancient Roman statues.

Here's a shot of the papal guards.  I believe they're called the Swiss Guards (I learned a few things from Dan Brown's Angels and Demons and the Angels and Demons tour we took based on the book!).  Those outfits were designed by Michelangelo.  While I love his art and architecture, I think fashion was probably not his forte... Yikes! Stripes! Fruit Stripe Gum!

View of St. Peter's Basilica from the outside.  You can't tell from this view but the dome is very tall!  The top includes sculptures of Jesus and the 12 Apostles.

The square at St. Peter's Basilica, where millions gather to hear news of a new pope.

Another view of St. Peter's Basilica.  The obelisk in front is where St. Peter is rumored to be buried underneath.  The obelisk was moved from the circus in which St. Peter was executed.  Seriously, back in the day circuses were completely different!

While walking to our hotel one night, trying to walk off all those delicious pasta carbs from dinner we stumbled across this incredible fountain by Bernini.  He was a Roman Baroque period artist who created some amazing sculptures across Rome.  If you have read Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, you would recognize this artist as being a very important figure in Rome.  One of our tour guides mentioned that she loved Bernini and would consider him the fifth ninja turtle.  Here's why I disagree.  We were also informed on our tour that, when he discovered his wife's infidelity, he had a servant  go to his house and slice up her face with a razor blade.  That's not very ninja turtle like behavior!  In response, the Pope at that time, slapped him on the wrist and married him off to the most beautiful woman in Rome with whom he had 11 children.  Sounds like a great punishment!

But this fountain, as with most of the Bernini works we saw, was incredibly beautiful!

Below is a snapshot of a Baroque style ceiling fresco inside a church.  This was actually one of the churches mentioned in Angels and Demons!  Very, very cool!

Another Bernini fountain in the popular Piazza Navona.

View of the Spanish steps at night.  A great place for hanging out!  I remember the restaurant we went to this night had an amazing pasta dish.  Tagliatelle pasta with cheese and pepper!  A Roman specialty! The pasta in Italy has the most amazing texture.  It's more than just al dente, it's got a bit of chewy goodness that I have not been able to replicate but will keep on trying... 

Here is where our tour in Florence begins!  Below is the Medici castle/palace in the Piazza della Signoria.  The Medici's ruled Florence as a city-state for hundreds of years.  Florence is also the home of many amazing artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Donatello for starters.   The palace is now a museum with copies of famous artworks like Michelangelo's David, right by the entrance.  If you can see it below, its the second statue from the right on the bottom.  The real David was in the Academia Gallery.  The line was too long for us to make it in on our short stay there but we did see other amazing works in the Uffizi Museum.

View of the Duomo (dome) from the Medici castle/palace museum.

This is an old bridge that used to be full of butcher/fisherman shops where the butchers and fisherman threw their meat/fish waste out the windows into the river.  The smell was so offensive the Medici's ruled that the bridge not contain any butcher or fisherman shops anymore.  Now it's home to Florence's jewelers.  There was also an incredible gelato stand (gelateria in Italian) that served this chocolate, hazelnut mousse gelato! The best part was it was light, airy and didn't melt completely so it retained this airy, fluffy texture!  I wish someone would sell that here!!  I could definitely line up for an all mousse gelato place!

We also took a tour of Tuscany which included Sienna, San Gimignano and a local Tuscan winery and farm.  Below is a view of an amazing church in Sienna, made with all local Tuscan marble.

The Tuscan winery and farm.  We had an amazing lunch here.  They even produced their own olive oil from their olive trees!

View of San Gimignano from the farm.  The tall watchtowers led it to be called a Medieval Manhattan. Tuscany was full of small, hilltop city states which used to fight each other.

Inside the walled in city of San Gimignano.  We found one of the "world's best" gelato places here.  It was pretty good.  But nothing compares to the chocolate hazelnut mousse gelato I had in Florence!

Below is the leaning tower of Pisa. Word from our tour was that the engineers built on soft land and to compensate the leaning, they built up one side more, which just led to a banana-ish shape that you can really see in person.  The funny part was that almost everyone was taking pictures of themselves holding it up.  As an engineer, my dad could not believe this design and construction when I told him about it!  The church next to the leaning tower also had some parts that looked like they were leaning as well!  Must be a Pisan thing!  The town was actually really cute though.  Apparently the Pisans warred with other city states in Tuscany and had a monopoly on salt, since they were by the sea.  Since they did not get along with the other Tuscan states, they withheld the salt.  So all the Tuscan breads were, and still are, made without salt.  Not so appetizing!  But the rest of the food was amazing.  My favorite dish in Italy had to be this leek risotto that we had at a local Florentine hangout called Armando's near our hotel.  It was the BEST food I had in Italy, hands down, and the perfect way to celebrate our 2 year anniversary which fell on that day!

Views of the Duomo in Florence.  There's that lovely striped marble pattern again!

A nice artistic attempt by yours truly below.  I must have picked up something in my high school photography classes!

And we end our tour with Munich, Germany.  We went during the perfect time.  Octoberfest (Oktoberfest)!

Octoberfest was originally a wedding celebration between a Bavarian prince and princess and an agricultural fair as well.   I seriously thought it was just a few pitched tents with beer.  But it's a certifiable fair with beer "tents," rides, and traditional German food.  I have to say, I don't eat pork so I expected to not find much to eat in Germany but I loved the food!  It was heavy with lots of meat, potatoes and bread but also very delicious.

Below is one of the popular beer tents, the Hippodrom.

Some views of the fairgrounds from the gigantic ferris wheel ride!

They even had a flea circus (see the "Floh-Circus" below) with real fleas doing circus-y things.

And here is a view of the Hofbrau Haus beer tent in the inside.  It was packed with people, mostly standing on benches and singing constantly.  Hops were hanging in wreaths from the ceiling! There was also a live band playing traditional German songs like Ein Prosit, which was played every 20 to 30 minutes.  Everyone was dressed up in lederhosen and dirndls, except of course for us, because we'd spend most of our Euros in Italy.  And authentic dress was actually quite expensive!  I did have a great time helping our friends pick out their outfits.  With dirndls, the separate pieces come in so many colors and styles that you could be truly unique and we had a great time finding the right color ribbons, aprons and undergarments!

Here's a video on YouTube of the song "Ein Prosit" and this video shows what the tents felt like on the inside. This was actually taken in the HofBrau tent where we were.

The words are a bit tricky, but here's how the song goes:

German Lyrics to Ein Prosit "Ein Prosit"

Ein Prosit, ein Prosit 
Der Gem├╝tlichkeit 
Ein Prosit, ein Prosit 
Der Gem├╝tlichkeit. 


English Lyrics to Ein Prosit "A Toast"

A toast, a toast

To cheer and good times
A toast, a toast
To cheer and good times.


These lyrics are courtesy of this site.  

Finally, we ended our last night at the Glockenspeil tower at Marienplatz.  There's a great puppet style  show that occurs at 11 a.m. (and noon and 5 p.m. in the summer) everyday in the clock tower.  

There you have it folks!  Just a snapshot into our vacation.   Trying to narrow down over 600 pictures into a handful for this blog was really tough, so I hope you enjoy the select few here, along with my (possibly mixed up) facts from our various tours around each city!

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