28 August 2011

Liberty of the Seas : Rome Part 1 - Vatican City

Date of Exploration : 28 April 2011

Day 4 of our Royal Caribbean Western-Mediterranean Cruise brought us to Rome... the eternal city where timeless statues inhabit every corner as witnesses of this once all-powerful civilisation; where monolithic structures, though in ruins, still bear testimony to the Romans' engineering ingenuity.

So I wasn't prepared for the scene that greeted us at the docks...

I almost asked for a refund because I didn't believe we reached Rome with this industrial outback! I was expecting a port surrounded by the grand antiquity of Europe. Not the city's storeroom. But what's fantastic was that all the tour coaches were already lined and ready to take us to the real Rome!

From the dock, we rode for about an hour into in the heart of Rome, passing by grazing pastures that stretched right from the doorstep of modern amenities. Cars get fed petrol while cows get fattened up right next to each other.

Continuing on from our rest stop, new developments could no longer contain the charm of old Rome and surrendered themselves to marvelous medieval masonry the closer we got to the city centre. My camera was eagerly anticipating its playground.

Our excellent guide (can't remember his name) was a graduate in art history and culture. I'm flabbergasted. To be a registered tour guide, most of them actually had to get a degree for it!

Our first stop was the Vatican. Mum and dad couldn't wait to mark they visit to the holy city and promptly sat down on a stray table and chairs right next to where we alighted before calling out to me ever so dearly... "Darren, take picture, take picture!"

Vatican City

The Vatican is the smallest country in the world. Roughly the size of a regular golf course (approx. 110 acres), the city-state came into being a sovereign entity as a result of the Lateran Treaty signed on 11 February 1929 between the Holy See (a.k.a. the Pope) and Italy.

Though it may be small, it yields tremendous power and influence over Catholics worldwide as the epicentre of faith, tradition and doctrines.

All roads lead to Rome. This photo says it just right! But in this case, we're being led to St Peter's Square and Basilica. So Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code right?!

One interesting fact about the Vatican is that there are no permanent citizens. As long as they work in it, they are considered a citizen and their citizenship expires the moment employment ceases. The population can vary at any time throughout the year between 500 and 900.

Being here felt like a sort of experiential baptism for me and especially my parents, who are staunchly devout Christians. I am very happy to have brought them here knowing how God is the centre of their lives and walked the holy grounds with them. Of all the cities we've visited on this trip, mum and dad loved Rome the most. And I love them the most. Mushy hor?

St Peter's Square and Basilica is undoubtly that which embody the Vatican. The Square is a mammoth space encircled by a colonnade like 2 arching arms lined with 140 statues of saints, each 3m tall. The Square was designed by artist-architect Bernini while the statues were crafted by various artists and sculptors between 1662 and 1703. 

We reached the Square at about 10+ in the morning and already there's a massive swirl of visitors and queue to get into the Basilica. I tried to search online for entrance fees to share with you but there're many combos and permutations so I gave up. But I think entrance to just the Basilica without visits to the Sistine Chapel and other areas should cost about €12. Openning hours also vary so do check before you visit. 

St Peter Basilica is built on the grave of St Peter, who is considered to be the first pope. Construction of the basilica was consecrated by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 324.

The 5.55m tall statue of St Paul imposes at the entrance to the Basilica holding a sword and book, which symbolises martyrdom and scriptures respectively. On the book are the words, "I can do all things in Him who strengthens me." Philippians 4:13

Towering columns support the colonnade while enameled ceiling frescoes at the entrance corridor of the Basilica provided a prelude to the staggering decorations within. 

Reminiscent of an outside-in jewelbox, the main nave of the cathedral stretches 186.36m from the entrance to the apse. It's massive!

The interior is designed by Bernini who also supervised its construction. I've been here in 1997 but the vaults, two side aisles and works of Christian art still amaze me during this second visit. I was told that the Sistine Chapel surpasses the beauty here but like the last trip, I didn't get to visit the chapel during this excursion either. Such a pity. 

Felt like I was peering into heaven when looking up at the beautiful vaults illuminated by natural skylight. Such an ethereal feeling of otherworldiness. Too bad the tour was very rushed and my rapture was shortlived. Plus I need a stronger neck! But this photo will always remind me of the spiritual lightness I felt. It's as if there's no one else around, just me and a comforting sense of serenity staring into the blue.

Perhaps one of the most important statues within St Peter's Basilica is the marble Pietà by Michelangelo. The artist was only 21 years old when he was commissioned to scuplt it. Only 21! He took a year to complete it in 1499.
Amongst the crowd of statues, the Pietà attracts the most eyeballs and deservedly so for the various mysteries surrounding of its design. Early criticisms of the work condemned Michelangelo for making Mary look too young, more like a girl and not a woman. But the artist's interpretation is that virginity preserves youthfulness and that's his personification of a virgin birth.

Secondly, the figure of Jesus is too small. He's a grown man but it seems that Mary is bigger than He is. The explanation? In death, Jesus appears feeble in the arms of His mother that why the intended vulnerability. The artistic intent is so beautiful. I wouldn't have noticed all these things if our guide didn't point them out to us. Now I understand what's art appreciation!

On 21 May 1972 (2 years before my birthdate!), a lunatic defaced the Pietà by hacking off the Madonna's nose and hand. The statue had since be restored and now sits behind a bullet-proof glass to the right of the Basilica's entrance. Even God needs protection. Don't miss catching the Pietà when you are there!

Byzantine dome over the aspe. Standing at a height of 136.57m from the floor to the external cross, it is the tallest dome in the world.

The Baroque bronze-sculpted baldachin over the main altar acts as a focal during ceremonies because the Basilica is so huge. Behind it is an elaborate and ornate reliquary that enshrines a chair supposedly owned by St Peter himself. 

From far, I thought this was a painting. But on closer examination, it's actually made up of tiny pieces of coloured mosaics! Wow. Every piece plays a part to form this picture and none is less important than the other.

Everywhere I looked in St Peter's Basilica, there was bound to be something of interest. It's an art explosion in all directions!
Our visit inside the Basilica lasted no more than an hour before being whisked to a souvenir shop. There were still a lot more things to see in it so I reckon a good plan would be to spend a day there as there are many corners and crannies to study plus the opportunity to climb to the top of the dome. And of course, there's the adjoining Sistine Chapel.

The Basilica is open 7:00 am - 6:00 pm daily and refrain from dressing like Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, Beyonce, etc. Wardrobe decency applies and expect to pay about €12 to visit the Basilica with fringe charges if you want to climb the dome, visit the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museum, etc. Check the Vatican Website for updated visitation info for it is closed during certain festivities.

Bring home a memory of the Vatican in a nearby souvenir shop that sells anything from a photo of the Pope to decorated crucifixes to miniature replica of statues at St Peter's.

No wonder Mary is praying till she sees stars. Look at what the 2 men are doing! Is that fighting or foreplay?!

The most popular and 'recommended' souvenir would be this pendant that's supposed to bequeath protection and blessings upon its wearer. I'm skeptical. And it costs over €130 for just the small one. Mum was tempted but couldn't bear with the cost. It is expensive but I offered to buy it for her. She stopped me. I guess knowing that someone is willing to give us till it hurts is blessing enough. Jesus gave His life, what more grace and blessings do we need?
There is something magical about visiting the Vatican and St Peter's Square and Basilica for me. I don't know if its due to my Christian affiliation or the heady mix of statues, paintings and frescoes that brink on artistic grafitti, or the emotional connections with that place in my previous and current visit.

Whatever it was, I hope I get a third visit and have the luxury of time to explore all that I've missed!

27 August 2011

Liberty of the Seas : Rome Part 2 - Trevi Fountain

Departing the opulent St Peter's Basilica, we headed for an early lunch before conquering the next leg of our Rome shore excursion. Yes, I used conquer because it was quite a bit of walking and a lot to see but in this post, I'll just be covering our Roman lunch and Trevi Fountain.

The Imperial Rome (item no. CV02) shore tour package from Liberty of the Seas costs S$251.50 per person. Heart pain! Well, Europe is expensive till our currency catches up. When I was here more than 13 years ago, the exchange rate was €1.00 = S$2.70. This trip, it's €1.00 = S$1.80. Almost a dollar difference but prices for things have gone up too.

Other than taking us to various tourist attractions and providing us with mobile headsets to listen in as the guide explains the antiquities, lunch was included as well at a charming restaurant called La Gattabuia.

La Gattabuia is located at the heart of Rome housed within a 400 year-old tavern fashioned from terracotta bricks. Address : Via Del Porto 1, 00153 Roma. The obscure, little entrance is overran with vegetation and hanging vines. Blink and you'll miss it.

Parked at the corner of a side street, the red-bricked building cuts a striking figure while inside, an old-world flavour greets diners. Apparently, the resturant premises used to be a prison in a bygone era. What I don't get is, what are sewing machines doing here?!

Shared the table with an American family who's been on Liberty of the Seas for the second time. East meets West. We had a good time talking about our homes and my parents especially liked scaring them with our chewing gum fines and caning stories. The Americans brought up the subject of Michael Fay's caning in 1994. Such a long time ago and they remembered! The sound of our whip is better than any Singapore Tourism Board campaign. 

A delightful table wine accompanied a 3-course lunch which consisted of an appetiser, pork chop and cream pudding. When I saw the plate of traditional tomate paste pasta, I thought that was the main dish because the portion was huge. Taste-wise, well, hmm, erm, it was tasty, but not extraordinary.

Our main course was a thin cut of pork served with boiled peas and roasted potato. The meat was juicy but the winner on the plate was the potato. The char-burnt crust was crispy and fanned the mouth with an aromatic BBQ flavour that had just the right hint of bitter roast. Yumz!

Trevi Fountain

Charged with potato power, our next destination was Trevi Fountain, another must-see while in Rome. The word 'trevi' is derived from the Latin word 'Trivium' which meant the junction of three streets. The fountain is situated at the meeting point of Via De' Crocicchi, Via Poli and Via Delle Muratte.

When there, don't forget to toss a coin into the fountain, not for good luck, but for romance. Read on to find out more!

Corner of a building with an intricate relief of angels that served as our spot to gather after self-exploration of the fountain. We were given about 30 minutes here. Imagine when the lamp lights up at night. I think it will be so beautiful. 

Beware of pickpockets as the place is packed. Our tour guide emphasized this many times so that crime must be prevalent.

Trevi Fountain is the biggest Baroque fountain in all of Rome and was built up over the centuries (1453 - 22 May 1762) to what it is today. It was constructed to commemorate a virgin who led Roman technicians to a source of fresh water in 19 BC which fed the city's needs for the next 400 years. The statue in the middle is not that of the popular Greek water-god Triton but simply a personification of the ocean.

Ocean is flanked by the goddesses of Abundance (pictured here) and Health while the code of arms atop a building opposite Trevi Fountain drew my interest.

Many men were injured and a few died during the construction of the fountain. The rock work in front of the triumphal arched backdrop represented the Taming of the Waters with Triton blowing a shell horn and subduing hippocamps, a mythical creature that is half horse and half serpent.

Want to take a photo with a Roman soldier? Be prepared to part with €5.00 per picture. Mum was so turned on by the brass and leather when the guy asked her to take a photo only to realise the charge later. Dad took 3 photos and he demanded €15.00 but one of the pic was bad so they paid €10.00 (S$18.00!) for 2 shots with our own camera. Jin hoh tan (easy money)!

Legend has it that if you throw one coin into the fountain, you are guaranteed to return to Rome. Two coins, and you will find new romance. Three coins, a marriage or divorce will be heading your way. When I visited in 1997, I threw one coin and look, here I am again! So this time, see how many coins I'm throwing? Heh heh. It's been more than 4 months since I tossed the coins, still as single as a gerbera.

There is a ritual to tossing the coin/s. It/they must be tossed with the right hand over the left shoulder into the fountain. Mum threw a coin. I would be very worried if she threw three! On hindsight, maybe I should've tossed six coins to guarantee I'll come back to Rome again, find a true love, and get married. Kiasu!
Coin throwing has a long history where fishermen used to toss coins into rivers and seas as a toll to the gods for plentiful catch and a safe journey. The city council later reinvented this tradition as a means to raise funds for the maintenance of Trevi Fountain. Damn. No wonder my offerings for romance didn't work!

One more thing. You can also drink water from the original source at pipes located on the steps but not from the fountain as it uses recycled water.

Enjoy this majestic fountain and have a splash of good times!

26 August 2011

Liberty of the Seas : Rome Part 3 - Roman Forum

Slipping out from the crowd at Trevi Fountain, we meandered our way through many more prominent ancient souvenirs, some still in use while others gap as historical scars all over Rome. Many aren't as elegant as Trevi Fountain, which for me, is really a rather odd aqueduct monument.

It is unusual not because the fountain is the largest of its kind, but for the rarity that it contained pagan gods, yet its construction was commissioned by the Catholic Church. I thought the church would be itching with iconoclasm, not build it.

We crossed many centuries and caught up with time through its reflection on the faces of ancient structures. That's our guide leading the way in our time travel!
Before we tread more of Rome in this post, let me first apologise. This entry will be filled with questions and probably some lapses in accuracy. I usually try to provide correct information as best I could about the sights featured on this blog but with the tour of Rome, it's almost impossible.

Every building, street fixture and countless ruins here all have a name and story. With no handouts or printed map of our exploration, I had a hard time juggling between looking for camera angles with listening to our guide's narration of history and reading whatever English text I can lay eyes on during the track.

Maybe I'm just too kiasu, everything also must record down... 有杀错,没放过!

Roaming Rome

I think with age, we tend to appreciate where we come from better. Of course I don't come from Rome lah, I'm just saying that I'm more interested in history and culture now than ever before. This difference was observed when I compared what I focused on during my first visit here in 1997 and this trip in 2011.

Then, I was enthusiastic about finding the best angle to have my photo taken in. This trip, I was more keen on the facts and stories. Uh-oh... I'm joining the ancient! Heh. So let's continue our architectural-excavation of Rome's ancient history through the mega-structures, or what's left of them...

Founded in 1551, the Pontifical Gregorian University is the first university founded by Jesuits priests.
En route to the ruins of the Roman Forum, we passed by the Pontificia Università Gregoriana (a.k.a. Gregorianum or PUG). Opposite the univeristy's facade is a an old complex where our modern-day Gregorian Calendar was christened in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII. 

Do you know that there are more than 20 ethnic calendars still in use in the world today? Just to name a few, they are the Chinese Lunar Calendar, Thai Solar Calendar, Islamic Calender, three Hindu Calendars, etc. Can someone please invent the Benjamin Button Calendar?

Not sure what building this is, maybe it's the side of the Gregorian Uni. We were told this is where Michelangelo passed away, in the room at the end of the corridor in 1564. Age 89. From historic accounts, Michelangelo though a multi-gifted artist, was a social misfit with a low self-esteem. If that's a pre-requisite to be an artistic genius, where do I sign up?!

Don't know what's the name of this building but I think it's some sort of freedom monument. We didn't go closer to have a look, just passed by it.

The Italian 'white house' is very impressive. Pity I don't know more about it. If you know the name or have info about it, please leave a comment. Thanks! 

Rome is one colossal outdoor museum. There's such character in every building. Again, I have no idea the stories behind them. I think the Augmented Reality technology would be very useful here where we can download a phone app that allows us to point at the buildings and information appears on our phone screen.

Statue of Julius Caesar adorned with fresh wreaths. The Italians must really love him to offer such respect centuries after his death. I mean, the Statue of Sir Stamford Raffles back home where got flowers laid at its feet everyday? Lots of pigeon poo more like it! 

The streets of Rome are littered with statues and bas reliefs. One of the more noteworthy one is the brass image of Julius Caesar (100 - 44 BC), a powerful military general who seized control of Rome from his ally later turned foe, Pompey the Great. The Roman Republic vastly expanded its territories during his rule to become the Roman Empire until his assination by statesmen who considered him a dictator.

He may have conquered many lands, but one thing Caesar didn't conquer is our dinner table. Caesar Salad, which many mistakenly attributed to him, was not named after the ruler. Rather, the famous salad took its name after Caesar Cardini, an Italian-born restaurateur who supposedly created the dish in 1924.

Statue of Augustus, who is the successor of Julius Caesar and considered to be the first emperor of the Roman Empire. Pic on the right is part of the Roman Forum ruin site.

Another angle of the Roman Forum site visible from the street leading to its entrance. Caught sight of these striking red poppy flowers growing wildly before entering the ruins. What cheery ambassadors to welcome tourists!
And now, let’s step into what’s considered the centre of the universe during the pre-renaissance Romanesque period...

Roman Forum
Opening Hours : 8:30 am to 1 hour before sunset (check timings here)
Ticket Price : €12.00 (Adult combo) for entrance to Palatine Hill + Roman Forum + Colosseum

As I followed a packaged tour, I don't have the direct experience of purchasing tickets. The ticketing info above was sourced from the web. Entry to Roman Forum used to be free but is now packaged with entrance fees for Palatine Hill and the Colosseum in a 2-day pass.

What used to be a marshland was drained by the Romans to build a civic centre that became the commercial and social hub with buildings dating as far back as 7th century B.C..

Remanents of the Temple of Vesta (7th century B.C.) which was cylindrical. The temple kept virgins from noble families who must remain chaste for 30 years. If any one broke the vow of virginity, she was buried alive! I had no idea what I was pointing to but I later found out its the site of a collection of temples with The Tabularium (the highest tower) as a backdrop. It was a prison but is today used as the City Hall.

Just opposite of where I was pointing at City Hall was a shed. This was where the body of Julius Caesar was cremated. The spot with the flowers is supposed to be where the fire freed his soul.

Didn't get the bearings about those ruins preceding this photo. Imagine our Singapore CBD district in ruins and you know how hard it is to identify every structure. What I wanted to show in this photo is... wear comfortable walking shoes! The surfaces we walked on varied greatly... from well-paved asphalt sidewalks to sandy pits to cobbled pathways.

Passed by more ancient stones and buildings. Archaeological excavations and restorations are constantly underway. It's a 'live' site so there could be new discoveries waiting to be unearthed. See that guy in hot pink behind my parents? He commited and despicable act at the Colosseum. See that post to find out what he did!

Our tour of Roman Forum ended at this arch. By now, I've given up on trying to remember what the guide was telling us about this structure. All I know is that it is where visitors would exit and head on towards the Colosseum.

See the girl in bright blue at the left side of the photo? She is the back chaperone. The tour guide walks ahead while she walked behind our group to herd us in case we get lost in the crowd. I must've given her a hard time coz I was always the one left behind taking photos.
After weaving through the countless civic buildings where rallies, public executions, worship and trade took place, I was overwhelmed with info and stories to the point I no longer registered any of them. It had been an incredible experience to footprint through those ancient streets and touched those ancient structures like the Romans eons ago did...

Strangely, I felt invigorated with a sense of being alive.
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