Ostia Antica

Filed under: Italy — Russell @ 6:43 am  

We spent a day in Ostia.  This is a 2000 year old city that was preserved after being covered by river silt.  Not as dramatic as Pompeii but only half an hour away from Rome by subway.

The site is huge, over 30 hectares with the walls of many buildings still somewhat intact.  There has been some restoration and it is relatively safe to walk through the ruins.  It looks like a brickwork maze and many children climb the walls like it was a jungle gym.

[geo_mashup_map  content=”contextual” map_cat=”1″  height=”400″ width=”100%” zoom=”18″ map_type=”G_SATELLITE_MAP” add_map_control=”false” add_google_bar=”false” add_overview_control=”false”]

Ostia is at the mouth of the Tiber, the main river which runs through Rome.  As such is was both a major trading center and responsible for the defence of Rome against naval assault.  The remains of the market can still be seen in the mosaics.  Each guild had a place on the main market square with a mosaic depicting their trade.  My favourite was the elephant.  Exotic animals from North Africa passed through this port on their way to the Colosseum.

A lot of statuary was also found relatively intact including Minerva as winged victory and Hercules.

The town was quite advanced in 100 AD with water brought in from another town via an aqueduct.  Fountains were placed in public areas throughout the town to provide fresh water.  There were also many public baths, each with a series of heated rooms and a large central room with a mosaic floor and drainage.  There was even a public toilet with channels for washing away the waste.

Given this sophistication, it must have been a shock to be conquered by barbarians with poor hygiene.



Filed under: Italy — Russell @ 1:37 pm  


We spent an entire day in the Vatican Museum.  This is an immense collection of art spanning 500 years of church history.  The line ups to get in are huge but you can skip the line by signing up with a tour group.  We chose one that walks you in, gives you an audio guide and then leaves you to wander on your own.

Parts of the museum were originally the Pope’s private apartment.  Some of the greatest artists have decorated these apartment.  There are a large number of frescoes by Raphael.  These are impressive not just due to their scale and artistry but the fact that they were painted on fresh plaster and had to be completed before it dried.

The hall of maps is something of a time-line of Europe’s knowledge of geography.  Early maps only show areas of European influence with nothing beyond the borders.  As you walk down the hall the view of the world clears to included details drawings of Asia, South America and the East coast of North America.

Collection of Profane Statues

There are two statue collections, one is a collection of medieval Christian works and the other much earlier works from the Greek and Roman periods.  The difference is surprising, the new Christian works look like they were done by a child whereas the early classical statues are lifelike and beautiful.  The pope who started the non Christian (profane) collection felt a need to justify all of this marble nudity and said that god was present in any expression of beauty.

Sistine Chapel

When I visited Rome in 1989 the Sistine Chapel was closed for renovations.  That work took years so I was excited to see the results.  Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed in the chapel so I can’t show you the cleaned up paintings but they are very impressive.  The ceiling is one of Michaelangelo’s masterworks.

While the artwork was amazing the experience was unpleasant.  The space is jammed full of tourists all talking.  There are several security guards who’s thankless job it is to get people to be quiet and stop picture takers.  All the shushing and “No Picture!” yelling detracts from an otherwise beautiful space.  Even with the restoration the paintings are still fragile and there is talk of closing the chapel to the public permanently.  I suspect the reason has more to do with keeping the space sacred than the official story which is that the humidity from all the breathing is damaging the work.

Secret Vatican Archive

Like many people, I’ve read Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” so I know that any boring historical art or architecture can be spiced up by adding a conspiracy theory.  The Vatican is a centuries old institution surrounded by high walls and mysterious ceremonies.  So I decided to find out the truth about the Secret Vatican Archive.

From the bathroom on the second floor of the museum it is possible to lean out the window and see a large obelisk.  This is not part of the public display and for good reason.  A liberal interpretation of the markings on this ancient stone reveals the shocking truth.  There is a Secret Vatican Archive and incredibly, it has a website!  (Google will also return this information in .02 seconds)

The word secret, according to the site, has an older meaning similar to the word personal.  This is the pope’s personal archive.  It is not open to the public but researchers can view documents if they explicitly ask for them.  It is sort of like the Catholic version of the Freedom of information act.  You have to guess what they might know.  Imagine the questions they must get:

Do you have an early version of the gospels that says the bold will inherit the earth?  No.
Do you have a letter from Henry the VIII asking for a marriage annulment?  Yes
Do you have minutes from the Pope’s meeting with a delegation of visitors from space?  No
Do you have the account of the trial of Galileo?  Yes
An admission that the earth really is round?  No
A pardon for Galileo?  Yes
Pictures of Jesus’s bar mitzvah?  No!



Filed under: Italy,Plans — Russell @ 4:37 am  
October 18, 2010toOctober 31, 2010


Roman Forum and Colosseum

Filed under: Italy — Russell @ 12:56 pm  

The Forum comprises two main areas, the Palatine Hill over looking the city and the actual forum where the remains of many temples can be found.  Legend has it that Rome was founded here by Romulus.  He and his brother Remus were abandoned by their uncle and rescued by a she wolf who kept them alive by allowing them to suckle at her teat.  Recent archaeological evidence suggests that there were settlements on the hill at about the right era.  The story about being raised by wolves is still unsubstantiated.

Augustus, son of Cesar, made his home on these hills but his political life  happened down the hill at the Forum.  It was here that the Roman senators met to discuss the business of the empire.  The forum today contains the remains of many temples including the place where the remains of Julius Caesar were cremated.  It was subsequently called the Temple of Caesar.  There is also an early Christian Basilica.  Leaving the forum and going up the hill you pass through the arch of Titus on your way to the Colosseum.

The Colosseum is the most iconic image of Rome.  In the days of the empire it was used for public entertainment.  Seating over 50 thousand spectators displays included battles with gladiators, slaves and animals.  It was capable of being flooded to allow mock sea battles.  It was also a place of execution with the crowd screaming for blood and the emperor making the final judgment, usually death.  Saint Telemachus once jumped into the ring to plead with the crowd to stop a brutal gladiatorial fight.  He was promptly stoned to death.  Legend has it that the mob was so shamed at their blood lust that they demanded an end to such entertainment.  Perhaps the same thing will happen in our time with reality TV but it will take a very telegenic saint to achieve this victory.

After the fall of the empire, the Colosseum was use as a quarry to supply materials for other buildings in Rome.  Even with this pillage, it is an impressive sight with most of the superstructure still intact.


Siena, San Gimigniano and Pisa

Filed under: Italy — Russell @ 10:14 am  

Well a lot has happened since Florence.  On our last full day we took a bus trip to Siena and Pisa.  I liked Siena a lot.  Our tour guide talked about how historically, Siena was neither a religious government or a aristocracy.  Instead, the government of the nine, created a secular rule.  They overcame Siena’s lack of a port by building a modern (at the time) banking center.  The money from this paid for the maintenance of the public spaces, infrastructure and defence of the city.  This difference in government is reflected in the city architecture.  They built a large central public square.  This was a vote of confidence in the populous since often squares were kept small to avoid large public gatherings that could turn into revolutionary mobs.  They also build a town hall with a tower that was the same height as the cathedral.  The message was clear, we are acknowledge your authority but we don’t bow to it.  This Republic of Siena lasted about 500 years until the city fell to the Spanish in 1555.

The cathedral in Siena is beautiful.  The floor is inlaid with beautiful murals.  At the side of the main chapel is an entrance to a room that had been sealed for many years.  There were tapestries that hadn’t been exposed to candle smoke and were fresh and vibrant without having to be restored.

After Siena we had lunch at a family farm.  Tuscan farms are smaller than commercial farms in North America.  This may be the reason the food tastes so good here.  The Italians have opted for quality over efficiency.   This farm was less than 200 acres and family run.  The food was excellent and we sampled many wines from the local vineyard.

After lunch we went to San Gimignano.  As we approached we could see several tall towers on top of the hill.  They looked more like monuments than buildings with a real function.  The town was so clean and well ordered it felt like we were at Disneyland.  I suspect that all of the residents live outside the old walls to avoid cluttering up the streets with signs of life.  Each morning they open the gates and go to work selling trinkets, good food and excellent ice cream to the tourists.

Our final stop was Pisa.  We met some Australians on the trip who nicely summed up seeing the leaning tower of Pisa.  Check!  Another item of the tourist itinerary completed.  It took about half an hour to see the tower, take a few pictures and wander back to the bus.  It was in better shape than I expected.  It was recently cleaned and restored.  Engineers arrested the increase in the angle but declined to straighten it up.  You can imagine the original architect looking at the tower and thinking, well, I’ll never work again but at least it will fall over soon so I won’t be reminded of this failure.  Unfortunately, the tower has stood for over 500 years as a testament to good enough engineering.  Several architects have tackled the problem over the centuries.


100 posts

Filed under: Italy — Russell @ 2:30 am  

According to WordPress, this is the 100th post for this blog.  This seems like a good time to take stock.  It has been over 7 months since I quit my job and 4 months since we handed over the keys to our house to the new owners.  On August 26th we left Canada with a one way ticket to Paris, via Iceland.  Right now we are renting an apartment in Rome for two weeks.  After that, we have no plans although as it gets colder, North Africa is looking more appealing, as is Thailand.  Even if the cold doesn’t get drive us out we need to either make a commitment to stay in Europe or leave before Carol’s visa expires.

I’m surprised that I’ve kept up with the blogging so consistently.  Previous attempts to keep a blog have followed the typical pattern:

April 2007 - Hey!  I have a blog!  Stay tuned!
Nov 2008 - Really should update this sometime.

Of course if I had blogged about my daily life it wouldn’t have been very compelling.

Feb 15 - Flew to Ottawa for two days of meetings.
Feb 16 - Too tired to go to gym as planned.  Steak dinner instead.
Feb 17 - Huge snowstorm, stranded in Ottawa
Feb 18 - No new snow today.  Hope I get home.
Feb 20 - Crisis in Ottawa.  Perhaps I'll drive.
Feb 22 - Stranded in Belleville.  On the plus side, Starbucks has WiFi!

That probably wouldn’t be as interesting as our trip around the world.

Originally, I had intended this blog to be for friends and family only.  I’m savvy enough to realize that once you put something on the Internet, everyone can read it.  As I’m finding out, just because they can read it doesn’t mean they will.  Early on, I signed up for Google Analytics and I’ve been watching the readership numbers.  There seems to be a small core of regular readers which is gratifying.  Thanks for the encouragement.

At first, I didn’t allow comments from people who I didn’t know personally but this seemed unfriendly.  Recently, I opened up comments to anyone without requiring registration.  So far, most of the commenters are either spammers selling insurance or SEO companies trying to increase links to their customers’ sites.  I have had a few friends comment, which I really appreciate.

The other interesting aspect of Google is watching the countries of the readers.  There seems to be a lot of Australians reading this blog.  I’m not sure who you are but welcome!

I’ve also started reading other travel blogs.  The 800 pound gorilla of travel blogging is Gary Arndt at Everthing-Everywhere.com.  He’s being going for three years and has visited over 70 countries.  Many of the travel bloggers are turning their hobby into a business.  This is typically done by adding advertisements to the blog.  Once you decide to go down this road, you are no longer writing to friends and family.  Looking at the small number of regular readers my competitive nature does kick in.  I’d love to see the numbers climb but it requires drumming up more readership.  In order to do this I have to pick a strategy.  A common approach is to make the blog a useful resource for other travellers.  This involves lots of reviews of hotels, restaurants and travel gear which also is more likely to generate sponsorship/advertising.  But that’s way too much work.

Another way to drive traffic is to write a more personal blog with lots of drama and a touch of personal danger.  We aren’t really a high drama couple.  Most of the tension these days comes in trying to pick the next destination.  It’s not exactly the stuff of reality TV.  We try to avoid personal danger plus Carol’s parents read this blog and we don’t want to worry them.  Carol’s fine by the way, not even a cold.

So it seems I’ll just keep following my original plan which is to make friends working at office jobs jealous and perhaps inspire some travel in your life.  What do you think?  Are you enjoying your daily life?  Want to meet on the road somewhere?

Comments, as always, are welcome.


Hobbling Tour of Europe

Filed under: Italy — Russell @ 3:10 pm  

For about two weeks I’ve had a pain in my shin.  It increases during the day but is gone in the morning.  At first, it seemed like a simple sprain but it hasn’t been getting better and it is more likely shin splints.  This is not a good thing to have on a trip that involves a lot of walking, some of it with a heavy pack.  Today, I begged off the museum tour rested, albeit in a local café.  It if doesn’t get better before we leave Italy our next stop may be a beach somewhere for some R&R.

In Florence, we tried to reduce walking by signing up for a hop on/hop off bus.  This works well as it stops at many of the museums.  Hopping is now my preferred mode of transport.

Yesterday, we hopped over the Piazza San Marco to visit the Galleria dell’Accademia.  This is an art school with a top notch museum.  The place was busy, but we had become Amici Degli Uffizi, which let us skip the line.  The bulk of the collection is devoted to 14th century religious artwork.  Much of it was commissioned for display in various churches.

However, these pieces are over shadowed by the work that everyone is here to see, Michaelangelo’s David.  The Accademia doesn’t keep you in suspense.  As you enter the second room you turn right and there he is in all his splendour.  Standing 100 feet away beneath a domed window, David is perfectly proportioned and strikingly realistic.  The statue rises 17ft above the pedestal and dominates the room.

Approaching, you brush past several lesser works.  Each a masterpiece in its own right, now relegated to adorn the path to the greatest sculpture ever created.  It has been said that once you view David there is no need to see any other works.  They can only disappoint.

It does seem odd it to spend time with a horde of strangers in the contemplation of a huge naked guy.  In order to make light of this strange phenomenon I’ve decided to adopt a form of profanity based on the statue.  The next time I’m fed up with tourists shuffling down the street, gawking at the sights, I’ll yell, “By the stone scrotum of David, move aside!”.  It could be quite effective.

After the museum we had lunch at Ristorante Accademia on Piazza San Marco.  There we met an American couple visiting from California.  The restaurant is highly rated and at first I thought it was for the good food at a reasonable price but the owner seemed delighted to have us there.  We met his infant child, got good advice on where to buy gelato and were treated to a delicious after dinner lemon liquor.  Highly recommended.

After this we boarded the bus and headed home.  A lovely day only marred by the pain in my leg.



Filed under: Italy,Plans — Russell @ 2:14 am  
October 10, 2010


Filed under: Italy,Plans — Russell @ 2:09 am  
October 10, 2010toOctober 17, 2010


From Adversity, Opportunity or from Venice to Trieste

Filed under: Italy — Russell @ 4:18 am  

We had a good day in Venice yesterday. We wandered through the city on our way to Piazza San Marco but the tourist throng was thick so we opted for some less crowded streets. At San Zaccaria, we saw his remains and puzzled over the inscription saying he was the father for John the Baptist. From the entrance of San Salvador we admired the artwork but declined to pay for a closer look. Past San Salvador we mistook the hospital for another church. It did seem strange to have a pharmacy as part of the church. It took us a while to figure out that the identically marked boats docked in the canal next to the hospital were ambulances. Like everything in Venice, emergency medical transport happens by water.

We took the public transit boat to the nearby island of Torcello and visited the Basilica, Church and Museum there. On the way back we got a call from our host. Rather than rent a hotel, we are staying on a yacht. It is well situated to visit the city and we have a good sized stateroom with a private bathroom.

Unfortunately, there was mixup with the booking. We had originally booked for two nights and had changed it to three. This change didn’t make it into the reservation system and so the yacht was rented to a company who were hosting an event in Trieste. So our host had found us another place to stay, not an easy task on such short notice in Venice. When we checked the proffered hotel on TripAdvisor, it didn’t look that good so we made a counter proposal. We would travel with the boat up to Trieste, spend the night there and clear out early Sunday for the next booking. So we leave Venice a day early but get a seven hour ride on a private yacht up the Italian coast.

This is one of the benefits of long term travel. You can accept opportunities like this if your schedule is flexible. There is a real tension between booking things ahead of time and improvising. One gives you peace of mind and often reduced rates. The improv approach offers variety and spontaneity at the risk of a bad experience. It often comes down to a personal preference and many couples represent opposite ends of the spectrum. In our relationship, Carol is the planner and I tend to make it up as I go along.

Update:  6pm

The trip to Trieste turned out to be more exciting than expected.  We stopped in Lignano to refuel.  At the tax free fuel dock there was much animated discussion about the libretto.  My optimistic side assumed this was a celebration of fuel that could be had for a song.  Over lunch, we learned that libretto in Italian is a small book, in this case the ships log.  It was not on board and so they weren’t able to buy tax free fuel.  After lunch we went to the regular fuel dock and then headed for Trieste.

The sea was calm and the sky clear.  It appeared we had smooth sailing ahead but it was not to be.  A fast police boat passed us going the other direction.  This got the attention of the crew.  Sure enough, the cruiser swung around and ordered us to stop.  They tied along side.  So far they haven’t boarded but there has been more animated libretto discussions.

Update: 9pm

Arrived safely in Trieste.  Turns out we were stopped by the taxation police who where only concerned with the colour of our gasoline.


We left the boat early this morning and caught the train to Florence.  The trip to Trieste was a more adventurous than expected.  The crossing to Lignano was a bit rough and bureaucratic delays turned a 7 hour trip into 11 hours.  The crew was very nice to us, explaining what was happening and reassuring us in both words and demeanour that the one hour detainment by the taxation police was typical and no cause for concern. In fact their bemused acceptance made it clear that this is life in the tourist interstitials.  It was only a series of coincidences that let us see this part of managing a ship.

If we had taken the original suggestion to move to a Venice hotel we would be none the wiser.  As we left this morning the crew and catering company were transforming the ship into a gleaming party venue stocked with food and wine.  The new tenants would arrive to find everything perfect as if the boat had materialized at the dock.  Thus the illusion is maintained unless you peek behind the curtain.

Still, no regrets.  The journey was a bit rough but the sky was clear and entering Trieste harbour at night is breathtaking.