Thursday, April 10, 2008

Spring Break

Spring Break happened a while ago, but I’ve gotta get it up on the blog. So here goes. Its going to be a rough experience, because I was an idiot and I didn’t jot stuff down while Spring Break was happening and now I have to think really hard about it. That’s why I’ve been putting it off. Great plan.

I guess it all started way before it started, when an endless list of Spring Break permutations were all on the table. Hours were spent and unfortunately wasted trying to figure out the best way to spend the week, and finally after way too long we locked it down to Amsterdam, Paris, and Barcelona. Not a bad group of cities in the end. It was a complicated trip, because John was coming to Amsterdam with Ethan, Sam, and me, where we were going to meet Jes, who was coming over for her Spring Break from Columbia. John was then going back to Italy to meet his parents, Jes back to the States to go back to real school, and Ethan Sam and I off to Paris. John would then reconvene with us in Barcelona where we were all meeting for the last weekend of break.

So, off to Amsterdam it was. !!!SpringBreak2008CollegeRules!!!… ....annnddddd….Snow. Fantastic. Out the back door of our RyanAir jet, onto the tarmac in Eindhoven airport, wind whistling, snow coming in at a 45 degree angle. Paradise island. We hopped onto a train from there to Amsterdam where we met some nice Dutch girls that got us a discount on our train ticket because we traveled as a group with Holland citizens. That was fun; they were nice and gave us some suggestions on how to navigate Amsterdam.

Amsterdam. Cold, grey, but nice.

The plan in Amsterdam was actually pretty nice. In a last ditch effort to find cheap lodging in, I came across a lady that helped us find two apartments where we could stay. We rented them for the weekend at a really cheap rate and they turned out really nice. John, Sam, and Ethan had a cool loft style place right in the center of town and Jes and I were further out a bit but also in a really nice place with a really nice Dutch family to greet us when we got there. It was nice not to have the hotel thing and to try a different kind of lodging.

So, the groundwork was laid by our cool apartments. We got to Dam and checked the guys into theirs. I headed down to my apartment—Jes was still in transit—and waited there for her to get in. It was about 7:30 when she called, and having already been to Amsterdam, knew where to go etc. We picked a meeting place and I went out to find her. It was like something from a movie I guess, the whole see each other from afar and then run full speed after the moment of recognition for a nice bear hug in the street of a rainy European city after having not seen each other for a couple of months. That kind of thing. We totally made out.


After a while, we met up with the boys and went out for our first night in Amsterdam. The initial adrenaline rush of finally getting to the beginning of Spring Break propelled everyone late into our first Amsterdam night.

After the semblance of a night’s rest, Jes and I made our way over to the guys’ apartment to find John and Sam completely in shock about the last 12 hours of their lives. You could ask them about it, but they probably wouldn’t tell ya. Nothing too bad, but nothing too good either. So Ethan came along and we went for a walk in the miserable, windy, rainy weather to get some food. We caught a soccer game at a pub that actually managed a pretty good Irish breakfast believe it or not.

From there we made it to the Van Gogh museum, where we had a chance to wait in line for 45 minutes in the ridiculous freezing cold. Finally in, we did get to see the amazing collection of Van Gogh paintings, letters, and sketches, albeit in herdlike fashion as we were ushered quickly through the entire exhibit. It was really crowded, which was too bad, because there was no chance to spend any alone time with pretty much anything.

After the Van Gogh museum, it starts to get fuzzy. The weather was so shitty and we were miserable. John had lost his phone but had made plans with Sam to meet up for dinner in a far off place called Moeder’s that was supposed to be great Dutch food. We spent an hour trekking through the canals, where the wind was easily blowing 15 knots and the air temp was easily 40 degrees without it, only to find John not there and the place full. Deep in the shitpit, we retreated to the center and did something for the rest of the night that I don’t remember. We did stop by a place called the Greenhouse, though, which is a local favorite spot in the city center. That was a good bit of fun.

Sunday morning came along and we ate some Dutch pancakes. More crappy weather. Again, don’t remember what we did. Morale was unfortunately a bit low, because we all wanted to rent bikes and explore as well as do a canal tour, but it was so EFFING cold and miserable and wet out that no one wanted to do anything but sit inside. Normally, the cold wouldn’t have been so bad, but it was raining/snowing/sleeting on and off we were all ill-prepared for it, seeing as though it was late March and not supposed to rain/snow/sleet at all.

Inside. Inside again.

Jes and I spent our last night in the apartment on Sunday. On Monday morning, I rode the tram with her up to Amsterdam Centraal where she was getting a train to the airport, en route to NYC. It was a bummer saying goodbye—the weekend came and went like that— but absolutely great to see her. The weather was a brutal, but thankfully we could have been pretty much anywhere and still had a blast. I retreated back to the apartment, packed up, and met Ethan and Sam so we could get the hell out of Amsterdam and hopefully onto a warmer and less expensive Paris. Amsterdam grabbed us all by the ankles and shook us clean—because being outside was no fun, being inside was the only option. And being inside always costs money.

As if we hadn’t spent enough, the only way to Paris was a train to Brussels and then a first class connection from there to Paris, totaling a lovely 85 euro each. Fantastic. Anxious to move on with our lives, we took the plunge, grabbed beer for the train, and got on with it. The first class train was awesome.



Paris rules. Great town. Off the train, on the metro, and to our hotel in no time. We ended up doing a nice late walk that Monday night, past Notre Dame and into St. Germain, where we grabbed a great beer and took a deep breath. Pretty tired from the past three days and our day of travel, we retreated back to the hotel for a good nights rest.

Great lines of Paris

Tuesday: going to the Louvre! Closed. Not to worry, downstairs to the Virgin Records store to buy tickets for Wednesday in order to avoid the line. We also grabbed tickets for the Musee d’Orsay as well, which ended up being clutch. AND we picked up our tickets for ENGLAND v FRANCE at the STADE DE FRANCE. In other words, we had already bought tickets for an amazing international soccer match at France’s historic Stade de France in between the down and out England and Euro 2008-bound France. Beckham was scheduled to play his 100th game for England. Nice.

Five years later, older, maybe wiser.

So, after getting the tickets, I made sure to find the exact fountain by the Louvre and the exact bench where I sat 5 years ago with Tom when we came to Paris in the summer after sophomore year of high school. I sat down, put my feet up on the fountain edge, and took a picture, just as I had done back in 2003. Déjà-vu. ….

The old trainstation of the Musee d'Orsay

We made it over to the Musee d’Orsay and enjoyed a great afternoon perusing the collection of masterpieces. The museum itself is comfortable and manageable, and with our prepaid tickets we skipped a huge line. An excellent, excellent museum, set in the giant space leftover from an old train station.

Somewhere in Paris

On Tuesday night we made reservations for a really cool little French restaurant with about 10 seats occupying maybe 4 tables. The food was great and our old French waiter was a funny, funny guy. Across the room, he insisted to an American woman that the cheese plate she wanted would not be a good idea and that he did not want to give it to her because she would waste his good cheese. This went on for a while, until finally he caved, she ordered the cheese, and proceeded to waste it.

Ethan, Sam, and I, enjoyed a great dinner and a couple glasses of nice wine in this tiny little place. We discussed the meaning of life, what we were going to do when we grow up, and other things like that. It was a refreshing and relaxing three hours in the midst of what had so far been a whirlwind 4 days outside the cozy Aurelian walls of Rome. For more on Aurelian walls and Roman imperial history, please feel free to Google “Aurelian walls”.

Wednesday was Eiffel tower day. We walked up, took the elevator up, got in a fight at the top for 10 minutes about where the soccer stadium was, made a bet, and walked down pissed at each other. The view was great though. And I won the bet, which saw me get two free Mars bars. Ethan is probably still angry. How dare he question my soccer knowledge. What a fool.

After the Eiffel Tower we went out in search of another Croque Monsieur, a French grilled cheese/ham sandwich masterpiece that we found the day before. After a great lunch at a place back towards St. Germain from the Eiffel Tower, we moved on.

Winged Victory

Wednesday also brought the Louvre. What an effing mess. The Louvre is filled with an absolutely amazing collection of paintings, relics, sculpture, and archaeological history. It is also, unfortunately, filled with an outrageous amount of complete idiots—people, bearing cameras, walking around blindly flashing photos of oil paintings without even taking 30 seconds to look at the painting with their own eyes. At least on the day we were there, one of the most amazing collections of artwork in the entire world was reduced to a paparazzi photo shoot conducted by an incompetent, rude, and unpleasant group of humans coming from all ends of the earth to practice their amateur photography skills on priceless works of art.

800 professional photographers at the Louvre.

WHY does the Louvre allow flash photography, or photography at all in the museum? It’s so bad for the paintings, which are so good, and its so bad for the general experience and that of other museum-goers. So, Louvre, if you are reading this, lose the photography thing.

After the Louvre, Lauren showed up! We spent a couple hours together, had a few beers, pounded an awesome crepe, and headed off to THE SOCCER GAME.


Stade de France! Wow!

England 0 1 France, on a penalty kick from Ribery. Beckham started and achieved his 100th cap for England, which was great to see. He actually played a good game, and for my opinion, deserves a place in the England squad as much as anyone else because they are an absolute mess. Still great to see. And the visiting England fans we’re awesome; a tiny percentage of the crowd compared to the French and significantly louder. And the Stade de France—AWESOME. It was 10 years ago there that France beat Brazil in the World Cup Finals, France 1998, with two goals from Zizou. An historic place in World Cup history.


After the game we met up with Lauren and had a couple more drinks before heading back to the hotel for the last night.

Thursday was the next travel day—Paris to Barcelona. Should have been smooth sailing, except we (I) are (am) idiot(s) and didn’t realize that Beauvais airport was not only 70 minutes outside the city but accessible only by a not-frequent train from Gare du Nord. So, we got to Gare du Nord, and panic set in. No train to the airport. All assets went into crisis management mode: given 5 minutes each to find answers, Ethan went to inquire about a cab, I went to inquire about other means of public trans to get to Beauvais, and Sam went to find out how much a train ticket to Barcelona would be. We were, at that point, completely convinced that the plane was taking off without us. And of course, flying RyanAir, that means you are financially screwed.

After said 5 minutes the cab was the best bet. A ridiculous and stressful ride out the city was to follow, constantly checking the clock. We payed the ridiculous 120 euro, split three ways, and ran into the tiny terminal with no clue how to make what needed to happen happen very fast. With bags that needed to be checked in hand, and a ridiculous scene of confusion and long lines inside the airport, we looked at the clock. 20 minutes until takeoff. Hope was failing fast until something magical happened. We got in line and asked a woman if she could save us. She said that we were fine, “baggage claim for your flight doesn’t start for 10 minutes”. Thanks a lot. Clearly false information, but we went with it. We took the plunge and went up to the guy in the handicap line and asked him what we should do. He said we were screwed. But then we said that the lady had given us the false information, so I guess he felt bad for us and decided to save the day.

This man saved Spring Break. He rapidly entered our info on the computer, checked the bags, threw them on the cart, and sent us on our way in about 120 seconds. Luckily we had bought priority boarding for 4 euros each (the best 4 euros I have ever spent), which catapulted us through the security line. With 10 minutes to go, I obviously get strip searched by the French guy. Finally through security, our priority pass gets through another line, and we end up on the plane before 90% of the people that had been clearly waiting at the airport for at least 2 hours for this flight. Flaps up, ailerons check, increase throttle, and off to Barca. Wild.

Off the plane, on the beach.

Barcelona met us with sun. Finally! We made our way from Girona airport to our apartment, which turned out to be awesome. Jess, Lauren, and Hallie, had already been there for a night. After unloading, we made our way down to the beach and had our first glimpse at the Mediterranean.

Barcelona is a really interesting place. It is very new compared to many of its well known European neighbors, which makes it the home of a different brand of architecture than we’ve been seeing for most of the semester—certainly a far cry from Rome.

Its so wrong to do this, but the Barcelona description is going to be have to be reduced to my first list, because this is getting exhausting and if you are still reading then wow.

We've seen this before.

Great things in Barcelona:

Barclona Pavilion, architect Mies van der Rohe (extremely famous architect and place)


Gaudi Cathedral


Gaudi Apartment Building


Gaudi House


Calatrava Bridge


Calatrava Radio Tower

Biking all over the city


Jumping into the Mediterranean the night before we leave, Afterwards

So. That was Spring Break. All in all, a good week—great to see Jes, great to see Beckham, great to touch down in Spain for the first time. Definitely could have been planned better and absolutely could have been less expensive, but I’m alive, and ready for another one. More on Italy to come.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Un weekend a Firenze

"Oh My God its the David!" - Overheard in Florence.
Not quite. But close.

When in Italy, Florence is a necessity. It is the birthplace of the Renaissance, a city that represents arguably the most important artistic and cultural movement in the history of the western world. And its just excellent. This past week seemed the time to go and see what the place was all about; John and Sam were off causing problems for British people in London, so Ethan and I elected to make the obligatory Florence trek.

[And yes - this is the second post in the span of three days, which is a significant accomplishment for me. It was critical because I was behind and Spring break--which will no doubt require substantial space--begins tomorrow.] Poi, andiamo. Firenze:

The story begins about three weeks ago when we met Lizzie, Morgan, and Christina, three American students studying abroad in Florence and visiting Rome for the weekend. We met in a bar in Trastevere and got to talking, and after a while, an offer came to the table proposing a visit to Florence and a place to stay for Ethan and me at their apartment. While it was the nicest of offers, it seemed a bit far fetched at the time. Nonetheless, the offer went down in the books and when it came time to head to Florence, we gave them a call. It was a long shot, but we figured we’d roll the dice. To our surprise, they were going to be around that Friday night and insisted that we come and stay with them. While yes, it was a bit unusual to go and stay in completely uncharted territory, something about them seemed a bit of alright, so we took the plunge and packed the bags.

Ethan and I hopped on an express train from Roma at about 10:30 on Friday morning—a definite smart move. Although its about 15 euro more expensive, its more than half as long and so much comfortable. It was a great ride and I snuck in an absolutely critical nap.

Santa Maria Novella, architect Leon Battista Alberti

Right off the train, Ethan and I were confronted with one of my personal Florentine favorites—the church of Santa Maria Novella. Designed by Leon Battista Alberti in the mid 15th century, the church represented a critical architectural step for Christian churches. The medieval era was plagued with the need to get away from the architectural style of antiquity. As a result, the pre-Renaissance churches seem to go best with a rainy, grey day. With Santa Maria Novella, we see an entirely new approach to the façade and an interior that reassesses the harmony of antiquity. On a completely unrelated note, the church was mentioned in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron as the place where the brigata first met and decided to pursue their 10 day journey outside of Florence to escape the plague. I took a course on this book last semester at Columbia, and it has since been a goal to get to place and see it for myself. Excellent. Professor Barolini, I will send pictures.

Unfortunately, our stay at S.M. Novella was short-lived as the church was closed at the time, so we made our way towards the city center. Florence, in a word, is tiny. Compared to Rome, it’s a village. Before we knew it, we had reached the River Arno and were on the first bridge west of the Ponte Vecchio. The weather was absolutely spectacular at that point, making for a classic storybook moment. We paused and briefly absorbed.

After due time for absorption, we made our way onwards through the south side of the Arno, winding our way towards the entrance to the Ponte Vecchio. We crossed, paused, looked again, and finished at the other side where we found the Piazza del Pesce, shouldered by a really nice portico of columns and crossvaults that went along the river. We walked along that until we met the Uffizi gallery, where we had the brains to stop and reserve tickets for the following morning. Great idea by us. The gentleman at the ticket office seemed shocked to hear Italian from us. English is rampant in Florence, which is pretty sad, because they certainly weren’t speaking English in 1475 and at points, it feels like that’s what year it is when you are walking around.


We called the girls and got directions to their apartment. After a little bit of embarrassing backtracking, we finally made it there and were greeted with relieving hospitality. I cannot lie. Ethan and I were pretty concerned that we were being way too ridiculous trying to stay at the house of people we had known for under two hours. Luckily, Lizzie and Christina (and Morgan, who was not there when arrived) belong to the small contingent the human race that thinks nothing of it.

Gilberti's Gates of Paradise

We had seen a lot on our high speed walk from Santa Maria Novella to the apartment on the other side of Florence, and we were anxious to start really exploring, but luckily Lizzie and Christina were there to remind us that we had time. It became immediately clear that we were going to have to stay Saturday night as well in order to give us enough time so see all that we wanted to see, so we eased off the throttle on Friday afternoon and did some less touristy Florentine things.

After an excellent panino at Gustopanino, a favorite Florentine spot by the Church of S. Spirito designed by Filippo Brunelleschi (he’s kind of an important dude), we made our way to the spectacular Boboli gardens accessed through Piazza Pitti. They are situated on the south side of the Arno perched a top a hill that offers some amazing views of Florence and its surrounding Tuscan landscape. We took our time weaving through the different paths and soaked in as much we could before descending back towards the city.

View from the Boboli

On the way back to the apartment, Ethan and I sampled Florence’s famous Vivoli gelato. I went with cioccolato—which, being a staple flavor, is critical for the initial taste test—and fragola. The strawberry, to my surprise, was the greatest thing to tingle the taste buds in a long time. Top notch sugary cold greatness.

Florence dusk. Nice.

We had come to Florence planning on going to dinner at Acqua al 2, which was recommended to us by friends. Lizzie and Christina admitted that it was good, but guarded against its touristy, rushed atmosphere. They suggested a place called La Giostra instead, so we made the necessary arrangements for dinner at 8.30. More on that later.With the weather being so good, we decided to hike up to the Piazza Michelangelo with some wine for the sunset before heading to dinner. That was excellent. See below.

Ethan and Christina, La Giostra

Dinner was brilliant. I hadn’t thrown down the big bucks for a top notch Italian restaurant at that point, and I got to do that at La Giostra. It required the big bucks, but it was top notch. Once seated, a welcoming waiter comes to your table truly interested in providing you with a stellar eating experience. That was great, because he helped us design our dinner and pick the best wine pairings. After the complimentary glass of prosecco and huge appetizer plate that was outstanding and filled with all kinds of fun stuff, for il primo I had an apple ravioli followed by the ossa bucco for il secondo. Pardon the language, but they were both fucking fantastic. Were talking about erious serious food here. We had a great bottle of white to go with the appetizers and the pasta ravioli, and we opted for a reserve bottle of 2001 Chianti to go with the meat. Great decision by Ethan and me; we were at that point not concerned about the price because we were going to get destroyed by the bill no matter what.

Lots of fun, lots of food, lots of wine, and lots of euros later, we all left La Giostra absolutely content with our existence on this planet. We fiddled around Florence for a bit before heading back to crash. Funnily enough, Lizzie and Christina were leaving in the middle of the night to go to a Citizen Cope concert, so they disappeared to a different country while Ethan and I recharged the batteries for the upcoming day of grand touring.

Florence night

In a classic example of male idiocy, we set the alarm for 8:30 and woke up at 10:15 in a complete panic. The Uffizi reservation was in 15 minutes and we had to execute morning preparations in the empty house of strangers with absolute, seamless efficiency. Somehow we were able to do this and get out the door with pastries in hand that I bought while Ethan was in the shower. We moved at full walking speed to the Uffizi and just snuck in past the guard with some well timed use of Italian, which enabled us to get past the line of Americans yacking at the guy in English. Absolutely clutch, because it would have been horrible to start off our huge list of Florence sites with a big screw up.

The collection at the Uffizi was great. We hit all of the highlights: the Botticelli room with “The Birth of Venus” and “La Primavera” among others, DaVinci’s “Annunciation”, tons of Raffaello, all of the Caravaggio, and a bunch of other wild stuff. I know its wrong to write the least about the artwork, but it’s the only thing that is useless to attempt to describe. You just have to go see them.

We hightailed over to the Galleria Accademica, which houses Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of David. I guess you could say it deserves all of the hype that it gets. I nabbed one of the few seats in the room and spent about 2 hours in there drawing. David is not easy to draw, but I was able to get a good one of his face and a good one of his torso. There are also a bunch of neat unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo in the hall leading up to the David.

From David, we made our way to S. Lorenzo, the excellent church that is now attached to the Medici Chapel. S. Lorenzo is full of important stuff. Here’s a review. It was first consecrated in 393, making it the first Florentine cathedral. It underwent an 11th century reconstruction before being renovated by Brunelleschi in 1418. Inside you find works by Donatello, Lippi, Settigiano, and Bronzino. Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy is inside the church, decorated by Donatello, and off of the right trancept you find the incredible New Sacristy of S. Lorenzo built by Michelangelo, which houses his four sculptures of Night, Day, Dusk, and Dawn. Above the apse is the Medici Chapel, and on the left is the cloister. AND I saved the best part for last—yes, there is something better than all of that awesome stuff. To the left of the apse we find the spectacular Laurentian Library, which was built by the Medici to house their collection of manuscripts. You enter the library through Michelangelo’s absolutely ridiculous and deservedly famous staircase room only to find an almost as awesome reading room. We didn’t see the Laurentian Library, the Medici Chapel, or the New Sacristy until Sunday, but everything else was great.

Santa Maria del Fiore + Duomo, Brunelleschi

Sight seeing ended, and with Christina and Lizzie gone, it was up to Morgan to take care of us back at the apartment. Believe it or not, the girls had insisted that we stay there for the extra night despite them not being there. Not wanting to turn down such a gracious offer and still hurting from the bill at La Giostra, we had to accept. We got back to the apartment and took a critical nap. When we woke up, Morgan was back from a couple of days in Rome, and assured us that it was fine that we stay.

All was good until about 10 pm, when another one of their roommates had a freak out session and spun out of control, demanding that we leave. In all honesty, she was pretty damn scary, not gonna lie about it. And the worst part was, she didn’t even have the decency to just ask us to go because it made her uncomfortable, which is completely understandable. Instead, we had to listen to her purposely yelling at the top of her lungs in the other room, which she was clearly doing so we would get the picture without her having to stomach the awkward confrontation. The girls had been so nice and I knew that anything we said would just be held against them, so I resisted the urge to something akin to Larry David and got the hell out of there asap. We got a hotel for cheap and left the bags there in search of dinner. Saturday night was pretty depressing, so we just crashed early with hopes of a Sunday revival.

The good thing about the late night relocation was the hotel’s proximity to the sites we wanted to see on Sunday. We went first to the Laurentian Library with Michelangelo’s staircase. The staircase was the best thing I saw in Florence. I spent about 2 hours in there and the adjacent library, during which maybe 5 other people came and went. I guess its somewhat of a lost treasure in Florence which is absolutely ridiculous because it is so so so good. We followed up the library with more Mike at the New Sacristy, where we spent due time soaking in Night, Dawn, Dusk, and Day. I was bad and snuck a picture…no flash of course, but I had to risk it. Obviously its useless in conveying the greatness, but here it is anyway:


From there we moved onto Santa Maria Novella where we were finally able to get inside. That trip was our fourth attempt to see the interior. Also great. After a refueling at Gusto, we headed back to the apartment where we met the girls, who had returned from Paris absolutely exhausted. In our weak attempt to repay them for their amazing hospitality, Ethan and I offered to cook them dinner, which we ended up doing. It was only three at that point, and we wanted to climb something before eating again, so we rallied Morgan and Christina and headed to Giotto’s tower for a trip up to the top.

The views from up there were spectacular. Here are some pics.

Winded on the windy tower. Ethan, Christina, Morgan, me

With duomo

After Giotto’s tower we made a pitstop at Standa for groceries and proceeded to put on our chef hats. Ethan and I took the kitchen by storm and kicked the women out. Nice move by us. The dish of choice: our special Via dei Genovesi brand of carbonara, which my roommate Scott helped perfect in meals past. We also did a plate of cheese, salami, and bread, which we clearly served outside the kitchen. The carbonara was obviously a surprise.

The semi-stressful pasta dish turned out perfectly—we were able to execute the necessary timing to cook everything just right. Dinner was great and was certainly the best way to cap off a great weekend in Florence with out new friends. It made us look way better than we are in real life and we got to eat too. The best kind of win-win situation.

After a pledge do something fun together in the near future, we left the apartment and headed back to the train station by Santa Maria Novella. Another relaxing express train and before we knew it, we were back where it all started. Great weekend, great architecture, great sightseeing job by Ethan and me, great great hosts, and great food—all in all, plenty of greatness.

E anche a Christina, Lizzie, e Morgan: se per bel ragione lo leggete, grazie mille a voi! Ci vediamo!


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Le Cose Romane

So far, Roman Holiday hasn’t devoted much time to Rome. We’ve been talking about highlights and big events, but there has been an absence of the excellent filling in between all of that, which is Rome, of course, the temporary hometown.

The task at hand is daunting because everyday resembles a routine but manages to always be different. Over simplifaction--le cose italiane che faccio spesso—Italian things that I’ve been doing regularly: walking extensively, visiting physical architectural history on a daily basis, saying hello to strangers, jaywalking, managing brutally small breakfasts consisting of caffeine and the smallest pastry in the world, tramezzini, panini, pizza a portare via (to go), street markets, drawing buildings, churches, ruins and scenes that I find interesting, cooking four dinners a week with my Italian roommate Antonio and fellow American abroad student Scott, enjoying a beer everyday—preferably in front of an ancient monument, playing soccer, and finally, trying to speak as much Italian as possible.

American things that I have not been doing: useless snacking, watching television, eating unhealthy food, being lazy, actually studying, wasting time, taking things for granted, spending time online (save travel planning), worrying about my future, enjoying myself only on the weekends, applying for internships, concerning myself about summer jobs, facebook, sleeping in.

I’m so dumb to have left until now all of the information I now feel obliged to convey. There is a great deal of very excellent things occurring constantly that deserve recording. So it would be best to divide into categories: epic architectural/art sites visited, academia, food, and daily routine.

Remains of the Temple of Saturn, Roman Forum

---Epic Architectural Sites Visited:

There are a few of these places in Rome. From the period of antiquity, I’ve visited and spent significant time observing the Pantheon, Roman Forum, Via Saccra, Forum Boarium, and Imperial Fora. The Roman Forum and Imperial Fora, along with the Forum Boarium, offer the most extensive glimpse into ancient Roman civic life. Ruins ranging from rubble to complete columns provide the archaeological evidence that allows for accurate reconstruction drawings that we can use now to speculate about the ancient Roman architectural environment. The Forum is especially great for this, because it has always been a sacred place in Rome—and always is a long time, because Rome is old. The forum was the center for civic life in the city’s early development and continued to thrive during the height of Rome’s imperial dominance. It contains the critical political, civic, religious, and honorary buildings of early Rome, and was recognized during its use as a sacred place in general, a hub for Roman culture, and the physical embodiment of the center of an empire. There is a point in the forum that is still there which marks the official center of ancient Rome. All distances were calculated from this point. When you consider how far the empire grew to be in the centuries after Christ, that point is really a remarkable place.

Part of an Architrave, somewhere on the ground in the Forum. This thing could have rested 75 ft in the air, but it still had to perfect.

From the Forum grew the Imperial Fora, or additional forums added on by emperors Caesar, Augustus, Nerva, and Trajan. These new areas expanded the public space in the valley between the Capitoline and Palatine hills to include the area approaching the Quirinale hill, northeast of the original forum. For one of my classes we were able to visit the forum of Trajan, whose ruins now lie along the Viale dei Fori Imperiali, to see the remains of one of these imperial fora. Excellent.

Trajan's Market, next to Trajan's forum. The columns in the lower left are the remains of the semicircular exedra of Trajan's Forum. The market echoed that shape.

This is a pretty ugly rendering of Trajan's forum, but its useful to locate the last picture. The exedra, whose ruins you can see in the photo, is the semicircular room to the extreme right of the trees.

In present day Rome it is hard to imagine what this area looked like because many of the basilicas were three stories high, with colonnades and porticos containing over 20 columns spaced 10 feet apart. When Trajan added the final imperial forum in 106 AD the area of the Imperial Fora was a tightly woven and spectacular collection of public buildings that provided the infrastructure for critical daily civic functions.

Bored yet? Brutal.

There is a lot more to recount about the Rome of antiquity that I’ve been able to enjoy, but I need to move on. Suffice to say that I’ve been able to spend a lot of time at some great ancient sites with my sketchbook and I’m beginning to develop an understanding of the type of built space that characterized the ancient city.

The second category, I suppose, has to include all churches of the Christian era, from medieval to Renaissance to Baroque. There is one Gothic cathedral in Rome, but I have yet to go. I’ve been to a lot of churches and I haven’t even scratched the surface of Rome’s collection. It seems that for every three square blocks there is one church. There’s no point in going into any detail about them, but there is one facet that is really interesting and generally applicable to most of the architectural sites in Rome. Because Rome, unlike any other city in the world, really, has always had something going on inside of its walls for basically 2300 years, give or take a few hundred, a great deal of the architecture is layered on top of something that preceded it. In other words, it is common to find a church that was originally built in the early Middle Ages on top of the foundation of a pagan temple or basilica from antiquity. That church was then renovated in the 11th century, redesigned or renovated again in the 15th Century Renaissance, and then renovated again in the baroque. Columns, pilasters, and capitals from ancient Rome, removed from their original site, are placed oddly in the colonnade of a medieval church that has a Baroque ceiling fresco. This is simply a reality of a building that has survived for 1500 years, and in many cases the architects that followed with renovations were very successful in combining the old with the new. [Borromini’s baroque renovation of San Giovanni in Laterno comes to mind as a particularly successful example.]

Renovated nave of S. Giovanni in Laterno, Borromini architect. E' bello.

That, I suppose, is the theme of the city—for architecture and everything else, because Rome is in a constant civic struggle to be a global capital in 2008 and a physical representation of 2000 years ago all at the same time. Its great to observe this phenomenon because preservation/innovation is a big part of architecture anywhere and the relationship is constantly being stretched to its maximum limits here in Rome. Probably more than any other place in the world.

The next highlight has to be our recent trip to the Musei Vaticani, which houss a small percentage of the amazing and unfair collection of art owned by the Catholic Church. The majority of it, I’m assuming, is in some secret lair in a tunnel. The part we do get to see is excellent, though, and this past Wednesday, Antonio, Scott and I spent the better part of the day perusing the collection.

Sculpture at Musei Vaticani, sculptor unknown

Despite the presence of the Sisteen Chapel, which is obviously immaculate and incredible, my favorite part of the Vatican Museums was the Stanza della Segnatura, the Raffaello room that houses the amazing “Scuola di Atene” and “La Disputa del Sacramento” frescoes. Not gonna go into it because they are way too good for words. Each painting has an incredible story behind it and there is so much to enjoy. Google them. And visit them.

I also made it to the Borghese Gallery a while back to see its famous collection of Bernini sculpture and Caravaggio chiaroscuro. The Borghese is probably my favorite museum that I’ve ever visited. The building itself is absolutely incredible. The Borghese family was rich, and their gallery is about as ostentatious as you can get. The ceiling fresco itself in the entrance hall is expansive and worthy of at least 2 hours of your time. Unfortunately you only get 2 hours in the museum before they shuffle the next group in, so you have to move on and bring your eyes down to street level.

The Bernini sculptures are amazing. I’m seeing a lot of things here in Italy that I’ve already seen on slide presentations, so that feels nice. The Bernini sculptures at the Borghese feel the best. MAN they are good. I get excited thinking about them here at the keyboard. Go to Rome immediately and indulge in this brilliance. The Rape of Persephone. David. Apollo and Daphne. Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius. They are all in one place, they are all waiting for you, and they are all the best thing you have ever seen.

I’ve been to many other churches on my own and for some of my classes at IES, but I think it best to move onto “Academia”.


Classes at IES are unfortunately not that great. They are not demanding but still manage to take up time, and they are not providing information that I could not find on my own. On the up side, they do employ Rome’s incredible urban landscape on a weekly basis—site visits occur for 2 of the 3 hours of class time each week. So, at least for most of my class time in my architecture and archaeology classes, I am out in the field observing important sites in the city.

S. Clemente: Medieval church, built on top of a Roman house of antiquity, then renovated in the baroque with a 19th century ceiling. Thats what happens in Rome.

The more exciting class is my drawing and painting class at RUFA—Roman University of Fine Arts—where I go every Wednesday from 6-9 pm for a great studio art class. The teacher is excellent and my desire to improve my ability to observe/record/render has increased 100 fold. The RUFA class coupled with my own desire to fill my sketchbook should result in a good collection of drawings and renderings by the end of the semester.

Enough about school. Moving on to Food.

Food in general is outrageous. The quality of ingredients is top notch and the markets are great. We’ve been cooking as much as possible, which has been great because it is much less expensive and the result is 95% of the time much better. My roommate Scott is a much more accomplished in the kitchen than I am, but we make a lot of our meals together and I’ve been learning a bit from him as well as from our Italian roommate, Antonio. The kitchen is always stocked and we’ve been eating like champions. The diet is carb/protein heavy, but we get our good share of fruit and vegetables in from the markets to even everything out. Cheese and cured meats are unbeatable, so well conceived snacking is a regular occurrence.

A beer everyday, as demonstrated by the boys. If we use the size of the beer as a judge, I think that must have been a Tuesday.

The food section wouldn’t be complete without describing the almost daily lunch routine exercised by Ethan and me + whoever else is interested on that given day. We frequently make the 10 minute walk from IES to Campo dei Fiori where we get some of the best pizza in Rome at Forno de’ Campo, a great forno with always fresh pizza and pastries. Its cheap and excellent. My favorites are the pizza pomodorini, which is a plain thin crust with small sweet tomatoes, oil and spices, along with the pizza melanzane, which has eggplant and a bunch of other tasty things on top. From time to time ill get a rice pastry for dessert. Excellent. We always finish lunch off at the market in Campo that has great fresh fruit. The blood oranges are my personal favorite—so good.

Gelato, cappuccino, and cornetti in the morning round out general consumption. I really like the Italian morning routine. Everyone makes time for a pit stop at a favorite caffe, which gives you time to enjoy the necessary morning fuel and meet people that are on the same schedule. I have a place right outside my door that makes every morning a good one.

Jam Session at Charity Cafe, tutti giovedi

More about food in later posts, hopefully. The next item in the list is daily routine. One paragraph about that will do. Wake up, shower, cappuccino and cornetto at Nero Café, field study on site or trip to IES, class, lunch out and about, Italian, back home, a beer or glass of wine with a friend, dinner effort in the kitchen back home, half hour of homework, and something fun at night. That is the template, always open for change. Wednesday night adds my class at RUFA—Tuesday night adds soccer in Bologna at 10, and Thursday night is my favorite jam session at Charity Café. Not bad.

That’s an unfortunate recapitulation of what really has been an amazing first five weeks in Rome. The highlights have been so high and the daily life has been spectacular. I am enjoying every moment—anything “bad” isn’t really that bad and everything “good” is extra good. I live the good life here, there’s no doubt about it. The only fear is that I’m not doing a good enough job at soaking it all in.