20 June 2010

Europe in 2 Weeks: Rome

Two weeks is really too short a time to see Western Europe, but given the limited time I had, I really had to figure out a way to see all the cities on my priority list. Went to 4 major ones (five, if you count Versailles) in that short time frame, so am pretty happy with myself for coming up with a jam-packed albeit manageable itinerary.

Rome was the first city I wanted to go to after my business trip in Madrid. There was no way I was going to Europe without Rome on my must-see list. I only had 2 full days to see the city, which, on hindsight, should have been at the very least, 3 days.

Unfortunately, my first impression of Rome wasn't that good. The van shuttle was prompt in picking me up from Fiumicino Airport, but it took 2-3 hours for me to reach my hotel because of horrendous traffic. And I thought Manila traffic was bad. When in Rome, the locals learn to accept the traffic situation by shrugging their shoulders and calling the whole thing a "beautiful mess." I was hardly surprised. After all, don't Italians subscribe to the whole "that's life" school of thought?

I started to feel better when I got to check in at this charming little hotel called Hotel San Remo, which is walking distance from Rome's Termini Station, the city's main transport hub for all those traveling by train, bus and the subway. (Tip: When in Rome, get a hotel near Termini Station. It's the perfect reference point when you're lost or when you're trying to figure out how to go from place to place. Plus, the accommodations in this part of the city are very affordable.)

Because I was set back by 3 hours from the original plan on my obsessive-compulsive travel itinerary, I had to make adjustments. But I pretty much got to do what I wanted to anyway in Rome, which were the following:

1. See the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. I'm a big fan of ruins, and spending 4 hours in the midst of these crumbling, historic sites was just amazing. I was a bit unlucky to deal with an overcast sky while taking photos, but the pictures came out beautifully nevertheless.

on Palatine Hill, where the city of Rome was supposedly founded

a view of the Colosseum from Palatine Hill

bas relief from the Arch of Titus: the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans

flowers are brought daily to Julius Caesar's tomb

The Temple of Vesta, ancient Rome's sacred spot. This once-circular shrine was where the flame of Rome was kept burning day and night.

The Arch of Constantine, the emperor who made Christianity the state religion of the empire.

House of the Vestal Virgins

Temple of Castor and Pollux

bas relief on the Arch of Septimius Severus

more well-preserved reliefs on the Arch of Septimius Severus

the Roman Forum

a toddler walking down the ancient Roman Forum path

Temple of Saturn

more of the Arch of Septimius Severus (obviously a big favorite of mine)

the belly of the Colosseum, where the gladiators were kept prior to a fight

Romans taking a break?

the inside of the Colosseum

2. Visited the Colosseum again on my second day just to sit on a bench in front of this massive monument and have a quiet lunch while staring at it. It was my biggest thrill actually just to look up at it and take it all in for a full hour while munching on my pizza. Definitely one of the things I had to do before I die.

a lunch with a view

a happy camper in Rome!

3. A one-mile nighttime walk across the city center, as recommended by Rick Steves in his guidebook on Italy. Rome looked absolutely stunning at night, especially Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and the Pantheon. Again, I bought pizza (the mushroom ones that you could buy on the street were really yummy and cost only 2-4 euros depending on the size) and sat on some fountain area overlooking the Pantheon.

the Trevi Fountain

at the Spanish Steps

4. Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. Of course, I had to go here. Even if I wasn't a totally devoted Roman Catholic (I don't go to Mass, except on special days like Christmas and Holy Week), much to my annoyance, I felt tears welling up when I entered St. Peter's Basilica. Vatican really gives you that kind of feeling, I suppose. It just overwhelms you.

And needless to say, I was gaping unabashedly as I stared up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for a full 30 minutes. All your life, you get to see photos of the Sistine Chapel in art books, in school text books and even on TV, and you pretty much casually accept the fact that famous artists like Michaelangelo are just brilliant, period. But being inside the Sistine Chapel and having my eyes feast (there's no other word for it) on the ceiling artwork made me realize how heart-stoppingly brilliant Michaelangelo was. Never mind if I was getting a bad crick in the neck for staring upwards for too long--how many times in my life will I get to see the Sistine anyway?

Someone once said if something that you're looking at makes your heart skip a beat, then that's a real work of art. That pretty much defines my Sistine Chapel experience.

A stolen shot of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling (photos weren't allowed). Yup, that's my forehead on the upper right corner.

St. Peter's Basilica is just huge, huge, HUGE. Several churches can actually fit inside.

dome of St. Peter's Basilica

Michaelangelo's 'Pieta' protected by bulletproof glass. Years ago, some psycho started hacking away at it--hence the current protective measures.

St. Peter's Square

5. My first European train ride. Being a virgin in train traveling, I made sure to be at Termini Station for 1.5 hours before my train ride to Florence. Was nervous about missing my train; it turns out I had nothing to fear as traveling by train is one of the easiest things ever. All I had to look for was my train's platform--and that's it.

Because I was super early, I spent my time drinking a cup of authentic Italian cappuccino while people-watching inside the station. Termini is one of the busiest places ever, and I amused myself by just looking at the people rushing past me and staring up at the electronic departures and arrivals board. There were dozens and dozens of cities being flashed on screen at any given point in time, and it made me realize how connected most of, if not all, the cities in Europe were.

I was thinking wistfully to myself at that moment that if I had the luxury of time and money, I'd just randomly pick a train and see where it'll lead me, whether somewhere up north such as Copenhagen, or some place rustic like Verona or Provence, or even somewhere in Eastern Europe, like Prague (another dream destination).

Rome's busy Termini Station

waiting for my train

No wonder Italy remains to be one of the top destinations in Europe. You really can't get enough of it. I hope, if I'm lucky, to go back someday and see more of Rome and Tuscany.

Rome, March 21-22, 2010

15 June 2010

Europe in 2 Weeks: Madrid

I was able to post all my Europe pictures on my Facebook account. But just in case Facebook becomes as obsolete and baduy as Friendster in the next few years, I still have my blog where I can recall those excellent 14 days I spent in Europe.

Will try to post these in a series, and add as many captions as I can. Those of you who have seen these from my Facebook account can gladly skip all my Europe entries.

First stop was Madrid!

It's supposedly one of the warmest cities in Europe, but in 10-degree March weather, I begged to disagree. Was bunched up in my wool coat as I stomped around in my thermal socks and boots.  But cold weather aside, getting around this small city was pretty easy (thanks to Metro Madrid, this amazing iPod touch app that guided me through the city's mazelike subway system) and the people were always, always friendly. Of course, it also helped to try and speak a little Spanish with them. Armed with my faulty Spanish (the remnants of my foreign lang lessons back in college), I'd make an attempt to ask directions or order food, and the locals would always break into a smile and enthusiastically help me with my queries.

I was getting so used to going around the city on my own that I actually gave some tourists (who were totally unaware I wasn't a local) the directions to the Prado Museum. In basic Spanish.

The Royal Palace of Madrid

A street performer by the Royal Palace.

Some young people trying to earn a few euros by playing at the Palace grounds.

Where Jose Rizal used to 'hang out' with his revolutionary friends.  felt proud that Spain paid tribute to the Philippine national hero!  

Met with my dear friend Marelle, who now works in Madrid, and she showed me where the yummiest tapas are. I still dream about this sometimes. 

the quirky Caixa Forum and its vertical garden

 Cuesta de Moyano, this charming outstretch of outdoor stalls selling secondhand books

in Cuesta de Moyano

I wanted to buy some art books but they were all in Spanish.  :(

Authentic churros from Chocolateria San Gines (est. since 1894)

in a typical pub where everyone's glued to the TV watching football while eating dinner
Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, where Real Madrid plays

Plaza de Cibeles

Accidentally stumbled upon this peaceful little park, the Jardines de Sabatini,
which was right beside the Royal Palace.

Spring is coming soon to Madrid!
statue of Don Quixote

Kilometer Zero in Puerta del Sol--the center from which all distances in Spain are measured. Gina and her scruffy running shoes were here!

Botin, the world's oldest restaurant according to the Guinness Book of World Records

a street performance at Plaza del Sol

at the Reina Sofia, which houses modern art

watching a Buster Keaton silent movie at the Sofia

Nobody was allowed to take photos of Picasso's "Guernica" inside the gallery,
so I sneaked out and took a stolen shot 
from afar!

black-and-white photo exhibit at the Sofia

Oh hello there!

Prado Museum, the highlight of my Madrid trip.
Went here twice and still could not cover the entire collection.

Madrid, March 13-21, 2010.