Saturday, January 31, 2009

Already the end of January?

Hello again! I have not written in some time just because I still don't have internet! I am going insane and spend all my free time at my friend's house that is next door. The girls who live here - Lotte and Natalia - were already my friends but now we are inseperable! This week was crazy busy. It is Lotte's last week in San Sebastian so every night we are going out, going out and going out! While it has been really tiring it was also a blast. The best was last night when her boyfriend had his whole rugby team over and they cooked us a dinner - a tasty paella (which is like a rice dish with sauce and meats in it, yummy)! You can kind of see the food in this picture with Lotte. She left today (tear) and for the rest of the weekend I will just rest up.

Nothing new or exciting. Wait wait, we did have one whole day of sunshine. It was like a miracle! I haven't seen the sun since...well, Rome really! Isn't that horrible - almost a whole month without sunshine! February is already here and the months are flying by. I will start going on weekend excursions more now that my time is winding down so my blogs will start becoming more exciting for you ha.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

THE Haircut!

The last time I cut my hair was September 9th - one day before I left for Spain. I have been so so nervous to get my hair cut here in Spain because I was pretty convinced I was going to look scarrrrrrry. The girls here get thier hair cut in layers but they look a lot more like levels - big choppy levels. They also get bangs, which we call Basque bangs - about one inch long and super straight right across thier forehead. On top of this people have purple hair and usually the haircuts look like the hairdresser cut the girls' hair with thier eyes closed. My friends Lotte and Natalia have found a hair place right by my house and thier hair looks regular so that is where I went. The lady was nice and I even explained the whole haircut in Spanish woo hoo. Bangs - friquilles. Ends - fines. Cut - cortar. Tada, now you can get your hair cut in Spain as well! The only bad thing about the hair cut is that the hairdresser insisted on styling my hair. I was like oh oh, just do it straight and she was like no lets do something exciting - lets do curls. Oh gosh. When I left I looked like Shirley Temple! So here I had super done hair and no makeup at 11am ha. Since it is curly, I don't really know how the haircut turned out...I am hoping its good!

The hair won't last for too long because we are having torrental winds here. We are in the middle of a cyclone to be exact. We are having 100mph winds and they are closing entire streets that are too close to the beach. But I am fine, just a bit winded (hahahah). I guess the storm is all on the coast of Portugal, Spain and France and I don't know how long it will last but it is pretty serious!

Hope your weather is a bit better and you are having a great weekend!


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Tamborrada - Drumroll Please!!!!

After recovering fully, I thought I would write about the Tamborrada - the huge party that happened here on January 20th. As you might already know, although I just found this out the other day, every day in the year belongs to a Saint in the Catholic church. Well, January 20th is the day of Saint Sebastian. As a result, the town of San Sebastian has a huge party to honor this. While you would think that they would honor the Saint on this day, they actually dont and instead throw a huge party that involves thier history instead.

At midnight on January 19th, everyone gathers in the Plaza de Constitution to kick-off the party. Since this used to be where old bull fights and public gatherings were, the whole square is surrounded by apartment buildings, each with a numbered balcony that faces the inward square. This is where they used to watch the bull fights and everything from and probably was the best seat in the house, but I wasn't complaining on the ground! Everyone in town sports a chef hat and some people even put on full costume. If you aren't wearing a chef hat then you are probably wearing a soldier costume. These outfits came from the history of San Sebastian during the Napoleonic wars when the French occupied the city. It is said that Basque tradesmen, including a lot of chefs, would make fun of the French soldiers by mocking thier processions with thier own procession to the water pump every day. Basically they just made fun of the French every single day and now there is a huge festival doing just that hahaha. Later this became a much louder event when Vicente Buenechea dontated barrels that were used as drums. This is also where the name Tamborrada comes from - it means drumroll.

Now, starting at midnight on January 19th, drums are being hit all 24 hours until the end of January 20th. The processions started in the Plaza, where we were, with a huge procession and performance on stage of the chefs and soldiers. The chefs always wear white and blue - the colors of San Sebastian. The soldiers wear the traditional costume of a French soldier at that time. From the Plaza a huge 24-hour parade starts and the parade winds around the Parte Vieja. The drums run all night and in the morning of the next day they have special parades in each neighborhood that include kids. Basically it is hours and hours of drums, which makes for difficult sleeping.

The night of the 19th is one of the biggest parties of the year for San Sebastian. I stayed out with my friends until 6:30am! From seeing all of my friends and meeting new ones, wearing a chef hat, almost getting my purse snatched by a crazy girl at the disco and singing spanish song iwth my new roommates, I would say I had a blast! When I got up, after only 3 hours of sleep the next day, I was a bit tired. After 3 coffees I headed to work, because sadly San Sebastian day isn't celebrated in Hondarribia haha obviously. I didn't last the entire Tamborrada because instead of partying the night of the 20th, I was asleep by 10pm.zzzzzzzz. Happy San Sebastian Day!

Hope your week is going GREAT!


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Felicitaciones Barack Obama!

Congratulations :D We now have a newwwwwww President! Yayayay! I think I am the only person in the entire world who has not seen his inaugaration address because I STILL don't have internet. The internet cafe and the computer at work don't support video very well so I can't actually see it, and I dont have a TV. To quell this problem I have read every article on CNN, read the speech and the articles in Time magazine about the inaugaration! I saw bunches and bunches of pictures from the States yesterday and it seemed like time just sort of stopped so everyone could watch and celebrate his presidency. Teachers watched it from schools with thier students, workers watched it on TVs in the breakrooms or huddled around computers, parents took thier kids to DC to witness it firsthand, New Yorkers gathered in Times Square to watch it on the jumboscreens. The papers all say that this was a huge moment in American (and world) history and that you will always remember what you were doing the day he got elected. What was I doing?? Teaching an English class to some 8-year-olds - sadddddd. I wish I could have been home to celebrate this momentous occasion and actually felt a bit homesick yesterday. While it wasn't the same being here, a bunch of my friends made sure to tell me 'congratulations' about our President and it seems like the world is very happy with our decision. One paper even called us the United States of Obama. All I know is that yesterday at 6pm (noon DC time) when he was inaugurated, I was proud to be an American :)


Monday, January 19, 2009

When in Rome...Part 5 (Colosseum, Forum, Shopping)

It was finally Sunday and our days in Rome were dwindling and we still hadn't seen the Colosseum, so that topped our list. We passed it every day in a taxi or bus and even saw it lit up at night from our night bus tour ride but had yet to go in. You can't go to Rome and not check out the Colosseum right?

After a relatively short wait, we got it! The weather was nice again, lucky us! We grabbed an audio guide and started listening as we made our way around the massive amphitheatre. The Colosseum astarted construction in 70 AD and was finished in 80 AD. Even through earthquakes and hundreds of years of bad weather it is pretty much still perfectly intact. Granted some of the rocks are crumbling but for being 2000 years old it is in pretty good shape! When it was in its prime marble covered the walls and floors. This marble has since been taken out to be used in churches and for sculptures around Rome, except for in the northeast side of the buildings where the blocks of original white marble are still stacked. You can kind of see it in this picture if you look closely. The arches on the ground floor - all 80 of them - used to be numbered and served as entrances. Different people went in different doors, all organized by where they sat (important people on the lowest floor, men and second-class people on the second level, and slaves and women on the top level with the worst view). In the old days they obviously had gladiator battles here, but the Colosseum was actually used for other things too: they would have animal hunts with animals brought back from Africa, and some days they would floor the ground floor and have naval battles! While all of this is most impressive, I was most happy with a room that the audio guide said was an old bathroom. They can tell this because of the underground plumbing. Throughout the whole Colosseum they have blocks of old marble, parts of old signs and such to give you an idea of what it was like back then. In this bathroom though was the best one...a sign that said 'pop'. Me being me, I thought this was strikingly similar to 'poop' and found it completely neccesary to take this photo!

Right next to the Colosseum is the Roman Forum. During the time Rome was a Republic (509-27 BC) this was basically the center of town with the shops, meetings houses and churches of Rome. Now it is a huge archeological site smack dab in the center of Modern Rome. In this picture, I know it may be hard to see, but I will try and explain some of the ancient buildings. Starting on the right, you see a building that looks like it is basically intact. This is one of the best preserved buildings in the Forum and is the Temle of Antoninus and Faustina. It was a famous temple during Imperial times and the Senate dedicated it to Empress Faustina after she died in 141 AD and later to her husband as well. Moving to the left you see another building that looks like it is in pretty good shape - a squat brick building. This is Curia Julia, the place where they think the old meetings took place. If you remember from my second blog, the original doors from this building have since been placed on the Church of St. John of Lateran. Moving left a little more you see a triple arch - the Arch of Septimus Severus, built to celebrate that emperor's victory over the Parthians (present day Iranians) in 203 AD. The farthest left item is the three marble columns are all that survive from teh Temple of Castor and Pollux. The original temple was built in 484 BC to honor Jupiter's twin sons. I was pretty impressed that all of these ancient buildings stayed up for so long...those Romans really knew how to build them!

After the whirlwind tour of ancient Rome, we headed to the Bocca della Veritá (The Mouth of the Truth). Before coming, Tom got me a little guidebook about Rome and I saw this in the book, just as a little sidenote in the text, and I knew I had to see it! Funny, because it was one of the things I was most excited to see and it isn't even that well known. It is a huge marble circle with the image of a face in teh center. They say that the mouth of the guy will close on any liar who puts his hand in. I of course put my hand in and thought a little lie in my head, but I still have my hand! It was comical to me that I got so excited about something that took 5 seconds of my whole trip in Rome. What's even funnier is that the face is in fact an old man-hole cover that was place here in 1632. It used to sit on the street and I guess from hundreds of years of weather and water it wore down into the image of a face!

Happy as I could be we did some shopping and ended up at the same delicious restaurant as the first night. I got the lasagna again and they even seated us at the same table! After trying the creme brule we headed back to the hotel for wine, of course, and to rest up for our last day in Rome.
Although we had a whole day left, there wasn't really anything left we HAD to see. On Mondays (this was a Monday) all of the musems are closed, so we kind of just decided to shop and eat all day. We went back to our favorite spots in town - Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain and Piazza Spagna. I of course found my ornament and throughout the day we saw some pretty nice shops. In one shop, full of delicious Italian food, there were these crazy noodles. They weren't just any noodles though, they were super multi-colored and in all different shapes and sizes. There was tagglio (or however you spell it) in the colors of the Italian flag; circle-shaped noodles with pink, blue and green; bowtie pasta with stripes; heart-shaped pasta and so much more. I wanted to buy some so bad, thinking it would make for a fun meal, but I figured they would get crushed in my suitcase on the way back and it wouldnt be too exciting to eat a slop of rainbow pasta.
Walking through the streets, like every day I suppose in Italy, we saw loads of nuns but what suprised me the most was that we passed a store that sells nun clothes along with priest outfits. Now I know these people have to buy thier outfits somewhere but this place had thier windows decorated and mannequins with nun outfits on...for some reason this isn't what I had in mind when I thought of a nun buying her black and white costume.

Not having anything specific to do, we kind of wandered in and out of stores and just people watched. It was a great way to end a vacation - no rushing to do last minute things we hadn't accomplished or anything. We of course went back to our favorite restaurant for one last time and of course had the lasagna again. It was pretty funny because they recognized us for the third time and sat us in our special table ha. They must think we were pretty crazy, coming to teh same restaurant 3 times in one week, but we couldn't pass it up! Now if only I could figure out how to make such delicious lasagna...

The last night in Rome was uneventful, just packing and sharing our favorite things about Rome. My holiday from Spain to Belgium to Italy had been action-packed but I am so happy I had so much to do and got to see two great European countries. I loved Italy and am sure I will be back. There is so much I want to see on this continent! I hope you liked reading about my holiday adventure and in some way felt like you were there with me! The blogs were long, I know, but there is so much I wanted to share with you and fun little facts that I think really help bring it to life! Next two-week trip will be in Easter when my friend Cassie comes from home and we take over Spain and Portugal...until that I am back to weekend trips and can't wait to share with you!


Fleur-di-Lovely...Part 4 (Florence)

Waking up early, we packed a back pack for our day and a half trip to Florence - or Firenze as it is called by the Italians. At the train station, the first train was sold out so we opted for tickets on the next train. Everyone in Eurpe tells me to buy second class because they are much cheaper and it is basically like riding on a regular Amtrak train, so that's what we did. We had to wait a little bit so we just hung around the station and experienced the most unorderly cafe and me stealing a glass with my coffee in it because the lady kept ignoring us when we asked for a to-go cup ha. When we got on the train it was like nothing I was expecting. I have taken a decent amount of trains in Spain but this train was something else. There were seating compartments, each with 6 seats, and of course they were already full. Tom and I ended up standing for the entire 3 hour trip very closely to a bunch of other people who along with thier luggage were crammed in the aisle. I felt like I was in a cattle car or something!

When we finally got to Florence we couldn't have been happier to sit down in the taxi. We arrived at the hotel - The Grand Hotel - right on the Arno River, which runs through Florence and my jaw dropped. Tom has some sort of membership with Starwood Hotels (Sheraton, W, Westin, etc) because he travels so much for work. Because of this he has a super elite status that gets him free upgrades and such and he can pay for nights in hotels with points he has accumulated and that is what he did for this hotel. Supposedly, and I agree, The Grand Hotel is one of the nicest hotels in the Starwood collection. Here we walk in with our jeans and back-packs and everyone is wearing suits ha! The man at the front desk who checked us in even walked us to our room, through a maze of frescoed walls and lavish oriental rugs. On the way to our room we caught a glimpse of the main hall which was stunning. I guess they use this room for big banquets and such. I couldn't help but wish I had had my Prom there...but I don't even think Italians have Prom ha. To get into our room we had the regular electronic key but to keep it antique, they attach a huge maroon tassle to the end of it. When we got into our room I was shocked. It made me feel like a queen instantly! It was probably twice the size of my whole NYC apartment, had the hotel crest of everything (towels, cups, soap, you name it). We checked our the brochure about our hotel at the front desk later and it turns out almost our EXACT same room was in the brochure...that never happens! The room looked like it should be out of Sword and the Stone movie - very old world feel. The whole place was extremely lavish...almost gaudy but it worked. On the walls, this is my favorite part, there wasn't wallpaper, but instead hand-painted frescos! You say no way, and I say ooooh yes. From our balcony, because of course our ridiculous room would have a balcony that looked over the river, we could see the river, the Ponte Vecchio, the hills of Tuscany and the bustle of the people below. Our room came complimentary with a bottle of chianti so we popped it open and pretended like we belonged in this superb hotel. Sitting there and drinking our wine, feeling sophisticated, we found out even more nice things about our room: the marble floor in the bathroom was heated, there were two shower heads in the tub, the chairs had lions carved on the armrests, the nighttables had laterns above them instead of lights, and the chandilier looked like it came straight from a castle. Needless to say, I was pretty impressed with Florence and we hadn't even seen anything yet.

After we got over the shock of our room, we decided that we should probably go see the city and not spend the entire trip in our hotel! First on the list was the Ponte Vecchio - right down the street from us! It is a bridge that was built in 996 by the Romans. The bridge has since been destoryed twice by floods and the bridge that is standing now was constructed in 1345. The bridge has shops on both sides of it, just like a street would. In the time it was built this was a regular thing to see, but now it's pretty out of the ordinary. When the shops were first constructed they used to house mostly butchers - that way they could just throw their waste into the river...gross but smart. Now the bridge is lined with lavish jewelry stores with lapis, gold, silver, stones and murano glass items - basically everything I can't afford ha.

The term bankrupt actually came from this very bridge. They say tha the the butchers who used to work here would display thier food on a wooden table out front of the shop for people to see it before they bought it. If they butcher couldn't pay his debts, the bank would come and break his table. Banco (the word they used for the tables in that day) plus rotto (broken) prodouced the work bancorotto which has since developed into bankrupt. Thats a nice jeopardy question huh? Another interesting fact about the Ponte Vecchio is that it is the oldest bridge in Florence because all of the others were blown up in WWII. However, Hitler saw this bridge and said it was much to pretty to blow up so instead he just blew up all the buildings on either side of it so the bridge was inaccessible...what a nice guy.

After window shopping, we had a Belgian waffle (which I was rather suprised to see in Florence) and Tom became a lifetime lover of them! With waffles in hand, we strolled around the quaint little city, passing statues, street vendors and interesting little shops. From the recommendation of our hotel we stopped into a small restaurant for dinner. It was rather upscale and didn't have an English menu. Now normally I can figure out the easy stuff - lasagna, spaghetti, etc - but this menu didnt have much on it that I could translate, so I ended up just ordering something that sounded pretty. Turns out it was some malzonne (I dont remember how to spell it) which is basically a huge ravioli with spinich and cheese inside - nice going Amanda! At the end of the meal, the waiter treated us to a complimentary drink. For me, he brought a limoncello (a delicious Italian alcohol) and for Tom he brought grappa (an Italian liquor...but not so delicious). I have tried grappa before in NYC with some Italian friends and I think it tastes equal to alcohol.

The next morning we slept in (always a good decision) and then came up with a little plan of action for the day. I wanted to see some churches (hundreds to choose from) and The David. Tom wanted to see the Uffizi Gallery (probably the most famous Italian museum) and have another waffle ha.

We set off towards The David at the Academia dell Galleria and on the way saw this huge church . turns out it was Santa Maria de Fiore. The church is made up of red, white and green marble, but the red has faded somewhat since it was built in the 1400s so the church looks like a pink and green geometrical peice. The odd color scheme didn't in any way detract from the intricate design and massiveness of both the church and the huge belltower. There was a line to get in so I assumed it was pretty popular and must be super nice inside. About about 45 minutes I was starting to get impatient and kept thinking: 'this place better be AMAZING' and we finally reached the front of the line. When we entered, I was expecting a big church just like all the other ones we have seen, but we found out real quick we were not headed into the church, oh no. We were instead climbing to the top of the dome! 463 steps in a small cement staircase later we reached the top of the dome - which is painted all in fresco. The church had set up a walkway all around the base of the dome so that you could gaze up at it from all angles. The base paintings depict hell, then earth, angels and then heaven. It was magical to look at - super detailed and very realistic and the window at the top of the dome that let the sunshine in helped light up the whole dome. I was happy we had waited in line for so long, even if we had no idea this was coming. I imagine it is much more spectacular to see it from where we were instead of the ground of the church. The dome us huge - from bottom to top about 375 feet. When it was completed in 1436 it was the first octagon dome ever built and has inspired many churches since. Even better was that not only did we get to see the dome, but a few hundred steps more and we were on the top of the dome, outside gazing out over Florence. From there you could se ethe entire town and in the background, the rolling hills of Tuscany and wine country. Our luck granted us a perfect day for weather and the view was breath-taking. The white and cream buildings with brick-red roofs cover the city and churches poked up into the sky all over.

After this lucky stop we continued to our original destination - The David. The line was short and we got in quickly. There was an exhibit on some of the first instruments in the Roman Empire but who are they kidding - no one cares, they just want to see David. We found out that the marble that Michelangelo made The David out of was actually garbage. He found it in the back of some church and asked if he could use it...they didn't want anything to do with it so they handed it over and look what happened! I sneaked a picture of the David, got lectured in the process, but wanted to make sure you guys saw it! My reasoning is that this statue for years and years stood out in a Piazza in Florence, where hundreds of thousand of people took pictures of it...I am sure it can stand another picture from me! Another neat part of the gallery was the room off the main display area, which was a sort of work-in-progress room. It showed the process sculptors used to go through before they would actually start sculpting in marble. They were some pretty nice plaster sculptures in there that had been the practice statues before the real things.

Next on our museum list was the Uffizi Gallery- the oldest museum in history and Italy's most famous. The line was long and we barely made it in before the last entry time, but once we were in there was so much art to see we forget about time. Uffizi actually just means office in the Florence dialect of Italian. So basically this place is called the Gallery of Offices because at one time it housed the government offices of the time. All of the art in the building used to be owned by the Medici family who lived in the area. They had collected loads of Boticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael and more famous artists works over time. When the last living member of the family died, in her will she gave all of the amazing artworks to the city of Florence and only requested that they always be available for public viewing, and they came up with Uffizi Gallery, lucky for us! In this gallery, to name a few of the top things, are Birth of Venus by Botticelli, Venus of Urbina by Titian and Madonna of the Goldfinch by Rafael, all of which we of course saw. Sorry, no pictures this time!

After being overloaded with art, we grabbed a delicious pizza and Coke Light (Diet Coke goes by Coke Light here...I have no idea why) and then headed for the train station. Of course we made sure to get me a Christmas ornament - this one is a hand-sewn red symbol of the Fleur-di-li, the symbol that is synonomous with Florence. The train ride back to Rome was quite the oppostie of our arriving train. We had seats and even were able to steal a little nap - I like this way of travelling much more! I love love loved Florence...almost more than Rome really. I think it would have been nice if we could have stayed another day or so, but I was very happy we atleast went north to see it.

Back in Rome we grabbed a glass of was the habit now. Only a few days left in Rome so we headed to bed to rest up!


Friday, January 16, 2009

When in Rome...Part 3 (New Years, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain)

It was the last day of the year and I was lucky enough to spend it in Rome! I was pretty excited for what the day held, but after sleeping in, we didn’t really have any plans. We jumped in a taxi and headed to the Spanish Steps – the area of town where the Piazza Spagna is and the famous staircase that leads to the Church of the Trinity (Triníta dei Monti).

I found out that the Spanish Steps were built in between 1723-1726 to connect the Piazza and the church together and now, the 137-step staircase still stands and is one of the most popular spots in Rome – for both tourists and locals alike. Looking at this picture of me on the Spanish Steps, you can barely make out the steps themselves and it’s kind of like looking at a Where’s Waldo – but instead it’s a Where’s Amanda. It was great to be at this famous place with a few of my closest hundred friends to join me! Of course we scaled the steps and took in the view from the top. You can see quite a lot of Rome from the top but what really stands out is the massive amounts of shops at the base of the Spanish Steps. This area is known for the high-end stores that are spread around the neighborhood – Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Armani, Jimmy Choo (or however you spell it! You can tell I don’t shop there haha) and many more. Just because I only make a teacher’s salary didn’t stop us from looking around and poking into shops. While there are a lot of popular designer stores, there are also other stores – accessory stores, book stores, upscale food stores and much more.

From my tour book I found a café that I wanted to stop at while we were in the area – Antico Caffé Greco on Via Condotti. The book told me that this café has been serving coffee since the 1760s. If you can stay in business that long, I figured it must be a good cup of coffee! The red velvet seats, gold and brown wall decorations and small little round tables helped create a fancy ambience and the waiters wearing suits helped a bit too! When they brought our check to us, it was in a little envelope, so no one knows your bill and then when you leave, you leave the tip in the envelope and seal it – genius! My caffé latte was tasty and it was fun to drink it, mixed in with locals having their regular coffee and tourists experiencing this quaint place along with me! My little travel book hit this one right on!

Before coming to Rome I made it a quest to not only find my Christmas ornament (like I always do) but to also find something for my kitchen that I can have for many years and will remember it was from Rome. I didn’t want it to be flashy and scream Rome, but rather a regular kitchen item that I would always appreciate. I found lots of possibles – ravioli maker (but honestly when will I ever use THAT?), oil and vinegar thingy where the vinegar is held in a glad container that looks like grapes inside the glass container that holds the oil (really cool but I was sure it would break on the trip home) and some silverware with crazy looking handles of all different colors and designs (Italy is very famous for this kind of silverware, but of course I was not in the mood to spend a few hundred euros on silverware, but I DID love it. I will eventually buy it – maybe I should get a house first). Nothing was calling to me and then all of a sudden we entered a designer kitchen store and ta-da I saw it – a cute little glass decanter for wine with a hole in the middle. Perfect! I like to drink wine and I always will – and it was a good price! Mission Accomplished!

After some hard shopping, it was time for some pizza – Rome style! After being spoiled by New York pizza for a year (Rest in Peace Mimmas – my favorite NYC pizza place), I haven’t found any pizza I really like here in Europe, but I figured if I was going to like it anywhere, this would be the place right? Boy was that true – we found a little café that served pizza squares. They don’t serve it in triangles like we do, nor do you buy a whole buy; instead, you tell the guy how much you want (sign language helps a lot since we didn’t speak Italian) and then he cuts it once for your piece, throws it in the oven to heat it up some more, then takes it out, cuts it again and puts on piece on top of the other like a pizza sandwich. Cheese with priscutto pizza might be my new favorite!

With pizza in hand, we boarded a night tour bus ride on one of those two-story buses that has the top open. GREAT idea for sightseeing – not such a great idea when its about 40 degrees outside haha. We froze but got to see the city by night on the last night of 2008! When it was over we navigated our way to Piazza de Popolo (piazza of the people) for the New Year’s Eve festivities. I was estatic when I saw a person selling fireworks on the way there. I ADORE fireworks and haven’t done one for a longggg time. When I left Washington (where you do them every 4th of July and New Years) I went to Arizona where it’s too dry to do fireworks, then Baltimore where you can’t light off fireworks in the city area where I lived, and then to NYC where you of course can’t light them off – so imagine how excited I was to get some! I bought some pop-its and was like a little kid throwing them around and laughing every single time ha. I also bought some sparklers and was pumped to light them off at midnight – fireworks and Rome – what more could you ask for for NYE! After some wine, we went to the Piazza and I was really surprised. The piazza is gigantic, but the people were not standing in the middle – in fact everyone was standing in a circle and the whole middle was open…why you ask – because EVERYONE had brought their own fireworks as well and would run to the middle, light them off and run back to the circle. I was in heaven! I shared my sparklers with the people standing around me and we all had a great time writing in the sky and saying goodbye to 2008. At midnight, after no countdown, which I thought was very odd, fireworks started to fire off from the top of the Piazza. For thirty minutes people were cheering, opening champagne and watching the huge fireworks show! Happy New Year!

Once the fireworks show ended we attempted to find a cab, which was a horrrrrrible idea. Our hotel was way too far to walk but on NYE it is basically impossible to find a taxi. When we finally found one we were shocked when he dropped us off and the bill was 60 euros – SO expensive and pretty illegal of him to charge us that, but oh well!

The first day of the year we started out right – sleeping in! We lounged around the hotel for a good majority of the day and when we finally ventured out, headed to the Trevi Fountain. Like the Spanish Steps, I was there with a few of my closest hundred friends – as this is a huge tourist spot in Rome. Finished in 1762, this statue stands in the spot where three important roads of Rome used to converge – tre vie – get it?! It is said that if you throw a coin into the fountain over your left shoulder with your right hand you will find your way back to Rome another time. I threw LOTS of coins in hahaha. Seems like a lot of people do that because the government collects about 3,000 euros a DAY from the fountain – which helps a supermarket that provides food for disadvantaged families in the city.

Walking around some more, I started to realize that even in this new city, I have lost my culture shock that I had when I first arrived in Europe. It was so fun to hear some of Tom’s comments that three months ago I am sure I made too but now I don’t think anything of it. For example, the streets in Rome (Spain as well) are very narrow and many of cobblestone. We would never think a car would speed down these, let alone a bus! One time Tom said – Honestly, who drives down this – and I was like Tom, it’s a road haha. The funny thing is that I thought the same thing when I first got to San Sebastian! From 1 euro coffees, siestas and 10pm dinners, I realized I am really adjusting but had a great time watching someone else experience culture shock!

We made our way through some more shops and found a secluded little restaurant. I like the restaurants that are not right in the middle of the touristy area and are a little more off the beaten path. This one was called Al Brie and as soon as we walked in, you could smell cheese cheese cheese – yippee! The smell of cheese and shelves and shelves of wine when we walked in were a good clue that we were in for a great dinner! A variety of cheeses, homemade pasta in boar sauce (yea yea, be proud of me, I tried boar sauce and liked it), a meat something dish and some Italian pudding something for dessert with some pear vodka made for a great dinner. While I didn’t know what I was ordering or eating half the time, it was delicious and it made me miss homemade noodles (especially the Noodle Palace with my Grammy!)

While we hadn’t accomplished much on the first day of the year we headed back to the hotel to rest up for the next day – a trip to Florence! I was excited but wanted to be fully rested. So far 2009 was going perfectly!

More to come…next up: Florence!


Thursday, January 15, 2009

When in Rome...Part 2 (Churches, Catacombs)

After a busy day, we slept in – this is a vacation, so sleeping in was in order. After we finally got around we decided on taking a tour with the same group we used at the Vatican (even with the silly headphone listening devices haha) because we really liked our tour guide the day before. He was Italian, but was so good in English he could even make jokes – which as a person learning a language, highly impressed me. I think you really have to know what you are talking about to make a joke! The tour we picked was of the major churches of Rome (St. Peter’s Basilica doesn’t count because it’s in Vatican City – not Rome!) and the Catacombs (which are the underground burial grounds of the first Christians in Rome.)

While waiting around for the tour to start, we wandered in a church that was nearby. Not knowing what church it was, we mulled around, looked at the amazing marble floor, the gorgeous chapels and of course the ceilings. Funny thing is that when our tour started this church happened to be the first place we went. Having seen it only 20 minutes earlier, we laughed and finally found out that it was named Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major) and was a church erected in the 5th century for Mary. Within this cathedral is what they call the church within the church – the chapel that tells the story of how this church came to be. They say that after years of war, the Romans wanted to build a church dedicated to Mary but couldn’t find a single point in Rome that didn’t contain a battle or killing story and asked Mary herself for help. She came in a vision and said that she will provide a miracle that will mark where she wants her church. The next day – August 5th, 358 - in the middle of the hot Roman summer, there was snow on the hill where her church is now built. Because of the story of the snow, it used to be called Santa Maria della Neve (of the snow). Also, turns out the Pope has mass here every year on the 5th of August to commemorate the miracle that happened many years ago. It is built on a hill and as a result, the bell tower of this church is the highest in Rome. This is also one of the four major Basilicas in Rome. Imagine our surprise – we had just strolled through this church not knowing any of this! Thank you tour guide!

We learned more amazing facts about Santa Maria Maggiore during our tour! The gorgeous mosaic marble floor that we had seen in all of the churches so far (and would see in every church to come) wasn’t really planned to look like it does. Supposedly the marble that covers most of the floors in Rome that are in a mosaic design are just parts of leftover marble that couldn’t be worked into the church. As a result, the floors of the churches are colorful and eccentric. They say ones man’s trash is another man’s treasure – and maybe this is where they came up with the saying because the floors were fantastic and all made out of trash! More gorgeousness - it is said that the gold that is splashed all over the ceiling was the gold that Columbus brought back from the New World and was given to Rome as a gift from the queen of Spain (I forget her name, but she commissioned Columbus to come to America). Even in Rome I am learning about Spain! Another huge deal for all Christians is the manger that Jesus was born in…and guess what? They say to have part of the original manger here – miracle! Surrounded by candles, gold, marble and more marble, the manger lies in a tomb for people to pray to.

The next stop on the tour was Saint John de Lateran – another massive Church. It was the first Christian basilica to be built in Rome – constructed in 324 under Constantine. After it was built and awed at, it was a model for all subsequent churches. Surviving earthquakes, robberies and fires, the cathedral is now even bigger than ever. It’s front doors are the original bronze doors from the Curia Julia in the Roman Forum (the open shopping area and meeting places of the ancient Roman Empire – more to come in a different blog). The Curia Julia is said to have been the first place that the Romans held meetings – dating back to 51 AD. Ancient doors eh? Nicknamed the Mother of all Churches, we were happy to check it out before we were off to the Catacombs.

On the way, you can’t help but notice the blend of ancient and modern in this city. From parts of the ancient city walls next to apartments built in the 1800s, Rome appears to be the perfect fusion of old and new. It is nice that the people who have been in charge of Rome over the last thousand years have kept intact all of these wonderful monuments that display just how incredible the original Roman Empire must have been.

Speaking of the original Empire, we met some of their best at the Catacombs of San Callisto – the most ancient catacombs in all of Rome. It was the first cemetery in Rome and even holds the remains of 16 of the Popes from the 3rd century – lovely. As the daylight was turning to night, we descended 5 levels into the ground to check out this massive vertical cemetery. Dimly lit and damp, the halls of the catacombs would be an ideal place to be lost forever, but looking at the graves to your left and right, it was not something I was interested in doing that night. Each grave was tailored to the size of the individual person (so they Romans didn’t have to work as much our tour guide said haha). There was more room at the head area of the grave and less at the feet, bigger for men, small ones for babies, etc. With ancient artifacts, old writing (in both Greek and Roman) and caskets on display, I couldn’t help but feel a bit freaked out. At the end of the tour our guide (not our regular guy – only Catholic priests are allowed to give tours of the catacombs) said a Catholic prayer and them wham I was ready to get out! As we headed out we saw some of the family rooms - if you wanted to be buried with your family, you would buy a whole room where your whole family would be buried and your living family members could come and visit your room. Tom thought it would be a funny idea to hide in a family room and then as members of our tour group walked by he would jump out and scare them – hahaha. I said that probably wasn’t the best idea, but it was definitely funny – unless its you who gets scared!

With our tour bus stopping right in front of our hotel, we ended our touristy part of the day and got to the wine part of the day! When we checked in, the hotel gave us a free bottle of wine because Tom is some sort of Elite member of these hotels or whatever. No matter the reason, I was happy and we enjoyed a delicious chianti (after this trip on which we drank a lot of chianti, I might have to say that chianti is my new favorite red wine). After resting up a bit, we got ready for the opera!

I had never seen an opera before, but figured if I am going to see one, I should do it in Rome! We found an opera called La Traviata. Held in an old church, the opera was pretty impressive. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was an experience. They are right when they say you don’t need to understand the words to understand the opera! Lovely me had a nice coughing fit in the middle of the opera though – good job Amanda. Regardless, I was happy I had seen it. It was about a girl who has a boyfriend but then falls in love with another guy who goes away for business. She is heartbroken that he won’t return and her current boyfriend finds out and leaves here. The new love comes back and tells her they will be together but then she dies – very dramatic as expected. It was good – but would I see another opera…I am not sure. But hey, I did it.

Following the opera, we had a quick dinner and then called it a night – another successful day in Rome!

More from Rome soon!


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

When in Rome...Part 1 (Vatican, Pantheon)

Well, here I am – finally writing about my fabulous Rome trip (a few weeks to late ha!) and I hope you enjoy it! For the next few days I will post a lot of long blogs...there is so so much to write about, as we were busy every day, but for the sake of your eyes, I will just write my favorite things and next time we talk, I will fill you in on the other details.

I left Brussels on the 28th, and was very very sick. I had become rather ill in the past few days in Belgium – fever, cough, runny nose, etc – and had missed out on Amsterdam and Cologne, Germany so that I could stay at the house and rest up. By the 27th I didn’t feel any better, and experienced my first sick plane ride – which I liked not one bit! Arriving in Rome, the Vatican, lasagna and the Colleseum were the last things on my mind; all I wanted to do was sleep. And that is what I did. I slept, woke up, ate amazing room service (sad, my first meal in Italy was room service) and then slept some more! I slept about 20 hours the first whole day in Rome – pathetic! But, it did something right because by Monday morning I was feeling better and headed out to the Vatican in the early morning.
We (Tom and I) had found a tour company and decided to try them out for their Vatican tour! Turned out to be a good choice, and after waiting in the line to enter the museum for a mere hour, we were in! Our tour was only a half day, and we were on a mission – see the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica – and of course, gaze at some of the millions of dollars of art in the meantime! Entering the walled city, you feel like you are entering a new little world - and really you are! Inside the Walls of the Holy See (The Vatican) you will find thier own radio stations, TV stations, money, stamps as well as probably the most art within one 'state'. With all of this talk of expensive art, I almost forget to mention our less-than-expensive tour hearing system. Each tour guide wears a little microphone so he doesn’t have to shout, and people in the tour wear a little receiver device with headphones. Normally headphones PLUG into these devices but ours were pretty archaic and had a plastic tube that fit into the device and the sound funneled through the plastic tube into our earphones – much like two tin cans and a string…rather silly but it worked I guess.

Walking through the endless galleries in the Vatican Museums, we saw some of the first maps of Italian geography, tapestries that used to hang on castle walls that took over 20 years to weave and ceiling art that impressed me and I hadn’t even seen the Sistine Chapel! Once we arrived at the Sistine Chapel, I was prepared to be amazed, and of course I was! Before entering, our guide explained all of the art that we would see in the Chapel and for the 20 or 30 minutes we stood gazing up it was hard to imagine it had all been painted by regular people! Michelangelo’s ceiling was magnificent. Like Niagara Falls, Grand Canyon or Mona Lisa (which I will see before I leave this continent) pictures cannot do it justice. You just stand in awe and even from the many feet you are away from the ceiling, you can see the details and appreciate the amount and time of work that went into it. Turns out Michelangelo didn’t paint the ceiling on his back, as many people assume – he actually painted it standing up with his neck cranked back – talk about a neck ache! The chapel is where the cardinals hold the Papal ceremony when electing a new pope. The ceiling that Michelangelo painted wasn’t supposed to be what it is today. Originally, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the 12 apostles, but Michelangelo, daringly, told him he thought that was too boring, and as a result, the Pope gave Michelangelo full power to decide what to paint – which is how we have the masterpiece we have today – the nine episodes of the early chapters of Genesis along with paintings of prophets and the people of Israel. In all there are 30 paintings – which create an astounding ceiling! Something untalked about in the Sistine Chapel is the fresco on the wall (amazingly not the ceiling) which Michelangelo also painted! It depicts God damning sinners and calling others to heaven. It takes up the whole wall on the end of the Chapel and I think is equally as memorable as the ceiling – it is called The Last Judgement.

After leaving the Chapel, we walked the same route that the cardinals walk before they are locked in the Chapel to elect a new pope! From there we headed to the all-important St. Peter’s Basilica – the biggest church in the world and the most important to the Catholics! It is built upon the tomb of the original Saint Peter and over the years the cathedral upon it became more and more elaborate and grand. Michelangelo had a hand in decorating this place as well – he decorated the dome, which is much simpler than his ceiling but sheds massive amounts of light onto the famous altar that stands above the original location of St. Peter’s tomb. This tomb, created by Bernini actually used bronze that was originally in the Pantheon. Another bronze attribute of the church is the famous bronze door – which is the original door that was used on the first St. Peter’s Basilica. It is the only part that remains from the original church and when the cathedral was rebuilt in the 15th century to be grander, they decided to keep this door, which shows reliefs of Jesus, Mary, Peter and Paul.
Outside the Basilica is the massive St. Peter’s Square – where you can see the Pope deliver a service every Wednesday. Since Tom and I already saw the Pope when he visited New York, we decided to skip this and instead just checked out the huge Square on our quick tour. With fountains from Bernini and Maderno flanking the square (which is really actually a circle) and massive columns, I learned that it was named St. Peter’s Square after Vatican City was recognized as an independent state in 1929. From the Square, you can see the Swiss Guard - the people who protect the Vatican. They started serving the Vatican in 1509 and still are the only people allowed to. They wear these silly silly outfits designed by Michelangelo (I know - this guy designs ceilings, domes and now clothes right?) Our tour guide joked that maybe if Michelangelo was living today he would be a famous fashion designer haha. I think not - the outfits, a mix of red, blue, orange and yellow were pretty heinous. They look pretty funny - but they clothe some pretty tough guys! You have to be a single male, Swiss, Catholic and had basic Swiss Military training. They even get to carry swords!

After an amazing whirl through history, we decided some real Italian food was in order. Jumping on the bus we got off at Piazza Venezia (Venice Square). From here we wandered around, hoping to stumble into a great restaurant. In the process we fell upon a great coffee shop – two caffé macchiatos please! I read in my book that this translates to ‘stained coffee’ meaning that it is an espresso with a small amount of frothy milk – not something you really learn at Starbucks! In fact, we drank from these amazing cafés the whole time in Italy and never once did Starbucks cross my mind – I am sure they are outlawed here – and for good reason! Our tasty coffee was great and only cost 1.30 euros! After our caffeine was happened upon the Pantheon – which I still think might be one of my favorite places in Rome.

This building is the best-preserved building from the original Roman Empire and has been in constant use since it was built in 125 AD. When it was built it was meant as a shrine to all the planetary gods (pan means planet and theon means gods – get it – pantheon) and was the first Roman temple Christianized in 609 AD. The dome of the building houses a 27 foot opening that lets the sun (and rain) fall through. Even through two thousand years of weather, the original floors and marble remain (the lovely bronze was used in Bernini’s canopy in St. Peter’s Basilica remember??). Being perfectly circular, the height and diameter of the interior are both 129.9 feet, making it a gigantic sight!

After being amazed and happy we stumbled into the Pantheon, we continued on our quest to find food! Before heading anywhere though, I decided I should get some cough syrup, so I wouldn’t die! In Europe, if you want any medicine, you go to a pharmacy and explain your symptoms and they give you something. You don’t really even need a prescription! When I walked in the lady heard my cough and immediately grabbed some cough syrup – hooray! And it didn’t even taste disgusting – on the road to recovery.
Between the narrow cobblestone roads, speedy Vespas, cafés with crowded outdoor seating and a million gelato spots, we found a restaurant on a quiet and calm street, which I later learned was named Antica Taverna. When I came to Italy I was expecting good home-cooking, but this place blew me out of the water! With a proscuitto and REAL parmesean cheese appetizer, to my mind-blowing lasagna, followed by our beef gulash accompanied with wine (chianti mmmmmm) and caffés I was in heaven! All for only 40 euros too! We couldn’t believe it – and I deemed it my favorite restaurant in Rome, although it was only my first!

After our action-packed day, we decided to head back to the Sheraton Roma. I was super thankful for having been able to sleep the whole day prior (thankfully Tom had jetlag) and wanted to make sure I didn’t cheat myself out of any sleep to ensure I got better. Heading back to the hotel, I was pretty happy, knowing the first day (well, really second, I know I know) was a great start to a fabulous vacation!

Sorry this was so long – so much to share! More to come!