Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Friday, March 14, 2008

Yesterday, we did a little bit of “reverse-timing” to get an idea of when wake-up should be. Take the departure time, and subtract the need to get to the airport at least an hour and a half to two hours before departure (to get everyone checked in). Subtract from that a half an hour of bus transit time to the airport, then take away a half an hour to walk from the hotel over to the bus. The result was a wake-up time of three a.m.

The request for such an early wake-up call didn’t seem out-of-the ordinary to the front desk clerk – and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is probably the norm for people travelling back to North America – and our group couldn’t possibly have been the first group travelling back to North America that he would have seen.

A three a.m. wake-up call meant that it was hardly worth going to bed – and in fact, many didn’t. The front desk clerk had asked that we bring as many bags as possible downstairs the evening before – to minimize the disruption to other guests. Unfortunately, not everyone understood the part about “minimize disruption” and several got themselves a late-night visit from the chaperone crew.

What with all the packing and luggage moving, I only wound up getting a couple of hours sleep myself before the phone rang. So, it was time to get up, and for the last time (on this trip) squeeze into the tiny shower stall, and head out to face the chill of the early morning.

The early morning is very peaceful in Venice. There was virtually no-one out and about (except for our group). The water in the canal was still; the morning air was crisp. All in all, it was a good time to be out in the fresh air. Nearly the entire group made it to the muster on the street – there were a couple of students that had inadvertently knocked their phones off the hook and consequently didn’t get the wake-up call. But Mr. Williams managed to roust them out of bed and get them hurriedly packed to join the group.

With the entire group together, we started the drudge back to the bus; up and over the bridges with the entire load. But this time, it was the middle of the night and the crowds were absent. That didn’t make the job any easier though.

The bus was there waiting for us and the luggage was quickly loaded. Now was the first of the “good-byes”. Flavio has been with us throughout our time in Italy. I can still look back and see him striding through the crowd at the Rome airport … coming up and introducing himself before leading us out to the first of the waiting buses. Flavio’s job was over, after getting us on the bus, he was taking the train down to Rome to spend a bit of time with his own family before starting with his next tour group.

The bus driver took us to the Marco Polo airport; we unloaded the bags and headed into the terminal building. The poor Lufthansa agent – here it is, nearly the end of her midnight shift and in walk over 40 passengers with connecting flights to the United States and everyone with at least two bags to check. Only at 0500 did the day shift start to come in and start to alleviate some of the backlog. I was never worried that we wouldn’t make the flight; I just felt sorry for the agent who had the misfortune to be on duty when we showed up at the end of her shift.

So now, the process reversed itself. Back through security and I was FINALLY able to get a cup of coffee. Then, everyone meandered over to the departure gate, we boarded the flight to Frankfurt – and we were on our way home.

A long flight home

The flight from Frankfurt to Detroit seemed to take an eternity. The prevailing wind is from the west and we were flying “uphill” into it. The lack of sleep from the previous evening, combined with the flight all began to take its toll. Whenever I went up to go to the lavatory, I saw most of the other members of our group fast asleep.

Landing in Detroit brought one last notable thing – the pilot bounced the A340 on landing and we ballooned back up into the air about 10 metres before coming back to the runway. Over the course of the trip, I got to know who amongst us suffered from motion sickness – and this last little bounce wouldn’t have done any of them any good.

The lineups at Immigration at Detroit were staggering. One of the “crowd control” officers said that it was just a matter of bad timing – that 10 minutes before we arrived, there was no-one there at all. Many of the people in line in front of me were from China – and processing each one seemed to take forever (5 to 7 minutes each). Eventually, they invited people to come over to the “U.S. Citizen” lines – since those queues had all dissipated. For those of us with Canadian passports, processing was very prompt (30 – 45 seconds). After retrieving the luggage, we were all waved through Customs and re-assembled near one of the exit doors. Mrs. Williams went to find the bus for the drive home.

We loaded our things onto the bus one last time – Marcus was the driver. He had some troubles (at the beginning) getting the right settings for the cabin temperature – but had everything working well in fairly short order.

It was a long drive back – we stopped in Birch Run for a bite to eat. Strangely, no one wanted to do any shopping. We got back on the bus. I drifted in and out of sleep. I remember passing by West Branch … the next thing I saw was the Mackinac Bridge.

On the bus

As we got closer, we started offering the cell phones for people to arrange their rides home from the school. We got to Canadian customs and were waved through after the officer looked at the list of names. A couple of right turns, north on Carmen’s Way, left on Second Line and right on Goulais – we’re back.

On behalf of the students, Mr. Cole presented Mrs. Williams with a token of appreciation

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Thursday, March 13, 2008

This will be our last full day of “tourism”. We’ll be making an early – inhumanely early – start to the day on Friday to begin the journey home.

Wakeup was at 0800 and breakfast at 0900. We walked back to Piazza San Marco to meet our guide for a walking tour of Venice. The walk back to the Piazza San Marco did not seem quite so confusing. Perhaps it was a bit of familiarity with the route, perhaps it was because I started taking notice of the yellow signs painted on the buildings that marked (with arrows) the route to the piazza.
Venice was founded in the fifth century by dwellers fleeing the barbarian invaders. By the 12th century, Venice had established itself as a world trading and commercial hub. It was from Venice that Marco Polo set out on his great journey to the Far East.


Over time, the city acquired a vast overseas empire and wealth poured into the city funding the building of great churches and palaces. The power of Venice declined as other trade routes to the east were opened and the republic fell in 1797. In 1866, the city became part of the newly unified Italy.

Piazza San Marco

We began our tour by walking along the Riva degli Schiavoni to the crossing of the first canal – at the Rio di Palazzo. From there, it’s possible to look north to see the Ponte dei Sospiri (the Bridge of Sighs). The bridge connects old prisons with interrogation rooms in the Doge’s palace. The bridge acquired the name in the 19th century thanks to the poet Lord Byron. There are two legends surrounding the name – one says that the name was earned because it was the windows on the bridge that gave prisoners their last glimpse of Venice before incarceration. Another legend refers to the route that the condemned would take from the prison over to the square in front of the Doge’s palace; the site of execution. The reality is that the days of inquisitions and summary executions were over by the time the bridge was built, and the cells under the palace roof were occupied mostly by small-time criminals. Local legend says that lovers will be assured eternal love if they kiss on a gondola at sunset under the bridge.

Bridge of Sighs

From there, we walked back around the corner to the front of the doge’s palace – the Palazzo Ducale. This was the home to the Doge, the law courts, the civil service and the prisons. It was originally built in the 9th century and a new hall for the Great Council was added in 1340. The waterfront and piazza facades were added in the 15th century. The Palazzo Ducale was not only the home of the Doge, but also housed the machinery of the State and the building reflects the power, wealth and prestige of the city. Today, the building is mostly open to the public and houses various city offices. Unfortunately, our tour did not get the opportunity to enter the Palazzo Ducale. Instead, we continued “next door” to the Basilica di San Marco.

The original basilica was built in 832 to house the remains of St. Mark the Evangelist. The remains had been brought to the city from Alexandria by merchants. There are five rounded arches on the façade of the basilica and the removal of St. Mark’s body from Alexandria is depicted in a mosaic in one of the arches.

We were fortunate; the line to enter the basilica was fairly short and moving nicely, so we went in. The layout is in the form of a Greek (Orthodox) cross with two arms. Anything that I write about the interior of the basilica would fall far short of describing it. Instead, I’ll refer you to the excellent web site at:
http://www.basilicasanmarco.it/eng/index.bsm. But even this web site does not do the building justice. The light was dim, but still the gold and mosaics were gleaming. There are 8,000 square metres of gilded mosaics. Venice sits on very uneven and unstable ground – and the floor of the basilica is an uneven mixture of marble and mosaic. Given all that Venice has endured over the centuries, it’s incredible to see how everything has held up.

From the basilica, our guide led us to some of the less-frequently-visited areas of Venice. The objective was to get a small taste of how the citizens of the city live. Along the way, we stopped briefly at the Gran Teatro la Fenice – location for symphonic concerts. We continued on through back streets and eventually made our way to the Rialto Bridge.

On the steps of the Gran Teatro la Fenice

The Rialto area of Venice was one of the earliest parts of the lagoon to be settled. It stands on some of the highest ground in the city and is one of the areas less likely to be flooded. Rialto was an early centre of commerce; Venetian merchants controlled trade between Europe and the Far East. The name Rialto was as familiar to medieval moneymen as Wall Street is today. The first bridges across the Grand Canal at Rialto were simply boats rafted together. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the first of what eventually were five wooden bridges were built. In 1557, a competition was held to choose a design for a stone bridge. Designs were submitted by Palladio, Sansovino and Michelangelo – but the commission for the bridge went to Antonio da Ponte for his (at the time) revolutionary single-span design. The sides of the span are devoted to pedestrians and provide “back-door” access to the shops that run down the centre of the bridge.

Mrs. Williams looks out over the Grand Canal

It was now lunchtime, and our walking tour ended here. Everyone was given free time for the afternoon to explore the city, with the provision that we be ready at 1745 to go for supper.

Lunch was at a small self-service restaurant on the Riva del Ferro, named after the iron that was once unloaded there. After lunch, Mrs. Pothier and I joined Mr. and Mrs. Cole for a bit of a walkabout.

Well, it actually started with a bit of a floatabout. After all, a trip to Venice would not be complete without a ride on a gondola. Our gondolier took us past the homes Marco Polo and Rossini. Unfortunately, we caught the “express” gondola; or maybe our gondolier had had a bit too much espresso that morning. He was working his oar like a demon and even managed to pass a couple of other gondolas in the narrow passageways. All too quickly, (or so it seemed) we were back at the dock where we started.

The backwaters (sorry, I couldn't resist) of Venice

The four of us continued on and eventually worked our way back to the Piazza San Marco. Flavio had told us – and guidebooks mention it too – that to sit in the piazza at one of the cafes would be an expressive proposition. Well, it was our first trip to Venice – and maybe next time we won’t do it – but it was (for me) a very special experience to sit in the sunshine of the piazza and enjoy cappuccino (or tea) and biscotti. The crowds of people milled about the square, there were hundreds of pigeons. It was a very nice way to (nearly) end the trip.

Mr. Cole, Mr. and Mrs. Pothier, Mrs. Cole at http://www.lavena.it/lavena_en.htm

The sun was getting low in the sky – and the temperature began to drop. It was time to head back to the hotel. We followed the yellow signs that led back to the train station (the landmark nearest to our hotel). Along the way, we stopped at a local supermarket and bought a few things for the trip home: some chocolates, some chips. We also bought a small block of cheese – Grana Padano (Dop); on sale for 7.20 Euros per Kg.

As I mentioned earlier, assembly for supper was at 1745 – early because we were scheduled to go to a chamber music recital later in the evening. Supper was at the same restaurant in the Jewish ghetto and after eating we continued on to the concert venue just off the Piazza San Marco. (I think I’m starting to know the route now!)

The feature of the concert was the playing of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”. The show was part of a concert series at the Ateneo di San Basso featuring the Virtuosi di Venezia (San Marco Chamber Orchestra). It was a great performance and – because we were such a large group – we were given the opportunity to enter the theatre first and sit at the front (much to the chagrin of the other people waiting in line).

After the show, it was back to the hotel – via that same twisted route – to get ready for an early departure.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The wake-up call for today came at 0700. This was a bit of a surprise, since the last agreed-upon time that I heard was 0730; but I’m nothing if not flexible. The earlier start did give everyone a chance for a nice breakfast and then the onerous task of reversing the move-in process – filling the elevator with load after load of luggage, sending it down to the main floor, and then returning the elevator up to the lobby for a refill. After we got everyone to the bottom, we had to walk about 200m over to the waiting bus. Once the bus was loaded with luggage and passengers, we were off to the final stop on our trip – Venice!

All of the places we have been visiting to this point have been on the west side of the Italian peninsula. Since Venice is at the head end of the Adriatic Sea, we had to cross over the Apennine mountains. We took the A1 and then joined the A13 in Bologna then on up to join the A4 near Padova. At the height of the pass on the A1, we managed to see a bit of snow – about the amount of snow you would see in the mountains of BC in June or even early July. Along the A13 between Bologna and Padova, there are broad plains that stretch flat as far as the eye can see. We’ve never had the same bus more than once, and inside today’s bus there was a display that alternated between the time and the outside temperature; it was sunny and a bit hazy and I briefly saw the temperature at 18C. But, that didn’t last long since we were continuing north-northeast. As for the “time” aspect of the display … well, let’s just say that some people need to work on their 24 hour clock skills.

The traffic to Venice is tightly regulated, and the bus had to stop for about 15 minutes at a “checkpoint” to get the proper permits that would allow the driver to continue closer to Venice itself. The paperwork was taking a while and Mrs. Williams started to get a bit impatient, so she took matters into her own hands.

"Hang on kids - I'm driving the bus"

Once we got as close as we could, we walked the 300m to the hotel – only having to cross three bridges to get to the hotel. Even though the distance was not great, the up and down over the bridges started to take its toll. Some of the travelers are now regretting their choice to take part in yesterday’s “handbag feeding frenzy”; the extra weight not being very welcomed.

Walking to the hotel in Venice

The hotel reminds me of a rabbit warren. The room numbering system must only make sense to the owners. Nonetheless, as I write this, everyone is safely into their rooms and we are about to meet down at the front desk to begin a walking tour of Venice.


We weren’t scheduled for anything else, and our guide for Venice was only booked for tomorrow. So, we walked to the Piazza San Marco to get the “lay of the land” (so to speak). Down narrow streets and alleys, over bridges we eventually got to the heart of Venice.

Piazza San Marco

Napoleon referred to the Piazza San Marco as the “biggest drawing room in Europe”. Perhaps it’s because you emerge into the piazza from the narrow, closed in walkways to the large open space; a space that – in comparison to the rest of the city – is enormous.

Window shopping in the Piazza San Marco

We stayed in and around the piazza for a while and then took the vaporetto (water bus; no longer steam powered) back to a stop near the hotel. Along the way, we passed by the Venice shipyards and saw ferries from Greece and Croatia there.

Supper was at a small restaurant in the Jewish “ghetto” of Venice. After supper, we wandered back to the hotel. We had planned to do a bit of a walking tour of Venice, but I think that everyone is starting to feel a bit overwhelmed by their experiences. The end of the trip is fast approaching.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Today started off as another “sleep-in-a-bit” day. The wake-up call came at 0800. This hotel is a rather queer layout. The “lobby” is on the 4th floor; actually the fifth floor since they tend to refer to the ground floor as the “0” floor here. There’s no room in the lobby to get the entire group together, so we met down on the street at to get organized.

Firenze (Florence) is a very beautiful city. The streets are very narrow and walking is really the only way to get around. Our hotel – the Hotel Pendini – is just off the Piazza della Republica. From there, it was a short walk over to the Piazza della Signoria to meet our guide for the day.

Our guide started by explaining the importance of the Medici family to the city of Firenze. The Medici became active in banking and commerce during the late 12th century. By the 14th century, they had become so powerful that they were able to lead a revolt that made them the virtual dictators of the region. The Medici family acted as patrons of the arts and the legacy today is a city that could best be considered to be one great museum. And not just art, but also shopping.

So, the question: how best to fit in both activities in our limited time here? The answer: a walking tour in the morning followed by ample free time for everyone to do as they pleased.

Our walking tour started in the Piazza della Signoria; the political focus of Firenze since the Middle Ages. The Palazzo Vecchio is still used as the town hall. At the south end of the piazza is the Loggia dei Lanzi (or Loggia dell Signoria) which was used for formal meetings. The area has been used as an open-air sculpture museum since the late 18th century, following the end of Medici rule. Our guide told us that – in the day – statues and works of art were used to convey political messages. Prominently displayed is Perseus by Cellini. The stature depicts Perseus triumphantly holding aloft the severed head of Medusa. The message to the populace was that this could happen to you if you get out of line. This was also the message implied by the statue Hercules and Cacus by Bandinelli – displayed immediately beside a copy of Michelangelo’s David.

Piazza della Signoria - copy of "David"

And that was in just one piazza!!!

From the Piazza della Signoria we walked towards the river beside the Galleria degli Uffizi. Unfortunately, we did not have a chance to go into the gallery; that would have required much more time than we have allocated for the entire trip. Instead, we had to content ourselves with seeing the statues in alcoves that line the walkway. There are monuments to the great Florentines – da Vinci, Galileo and others too numerous to list here. This was the heart of the Renaissance – and the main patrons of that movement were the Medici family.

Giorgi Vasari built the Galleria degli Uffizi between 1560 and 1574 under commission by Cosimo I de’ Medici. The building was originally intended to be government offices, but over time became a repository for the vast art collection being amassed by the Medici family. Inside the Galleria are such famous works as The Birth of Venus by Botichelli and the Adoration of the Magi by da Vinci. The last surviving member of the Medici family – Anna Maria Ladovica – bequeathed the entire collection to the citizens of Firenze on the condition that the works never leave the city. Acquisition of more art continues to this day. Understandably, this is not the type of place through which it’s possible to do a “flying visit”. For my part, I’ve put it on my list of things to do when I return to Italy with more available time … much more available time.

Our walk brought us to the Arno River and a view of the Ponte Vecchio. This bridge gives a taste of what life would have been like in medieval times; but only a taste. The bridge was built in 1345 and is lined with small shops and houses on both sides. The buildings are supported by brackets that overhang the river. There is a gap between the buildings in the centre of the bridge. The Medici replaced original hog-butchers with gold- and silver-smiths towards the end of the 16th century. The tenancy changes were partly intended to reduce the smell, but also to increase revenue from rentals. The gold and silver shops endure to this day. During the Allied advance north through Italy in World War II, all other bridges across the Arno in Firenze were bombed by retreating forces, but the Ponte Vecchio was spared under orders directly from Hitler. In 1966, the Arno flooded and rose above the level of the bridge deck. It is said that a fortune in gold and silver was washed away downstream. Perhaps the merchants are still trying to cover their losses because the prices are high – but then again, so is the quality.

Arno River with Ponte Vecchio in background

Along the top of the buildings on the eastern side of the bridge is a “secret” corridor that is part of a passageway joining the Galleria degli Uffzi and the Palazzo Pitti – the main seat of power of the Medici family. The passageway was built in 1565 for Cosimo I so that he could travel between palace, church and office without having to mingle with the citizenry.

After the Ponte Vecchio, we walked to the Doumo and Battistero at the Piazza San Giovanni. The Doumo is a huge church with room inside for 20,000 people. At one time, it was filled with works of art collected by the Medici family. These art pieces have now been moved to a separate – more modern – building: the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo. Across a short gap from the front doors to the Duomo is the baptistery – the Battistero.

The Battistero is an octagonal building and is one of the oldest buildings in Firenze. It originally dates to sometime in the 6th or 7th century and was remodeled in the 11th century. The building is most famous for the doors – and in particular, the doors on the east dide, facing the Duomo. Lorenzo Ghiberti completed these doors in 1452. The doors are composed of 10 low-relief panels of biblical subjects. The doors are artistically important for their use of perspective – extending the scenes far off into the background. This was a totally new concept for the time and became typical of Renaissance art. Michelangelo named the doors the “Gates of Paradise”. The doors seen today on the Battistero are replicas, recreated using the latest in laser imaging technology. The original doors are on display in the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo.

We went in to the Duomo to experience the space. As with most Gothic cathedrals, the vaulting space tends to draw the eye upwards. As with the other churches we visited, they are still sacred spaces and – with the approach of Palm Sunday – are in the throes of being prepared for the Easter season.

At one time, this church housed such works as an unfinished Pietà created by Michelangelo when he was 80 (and intended for his tomb), but as I said earlier, the art has all been relocated to the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo, so the interior of the church is very austere. Above the entrance is a large one-handed clock with 24 hours marked in a circle. The clock is adjusted to show the start of the day at sunset, with the hours counting upwards from there.

The most striking feature is the dome itself. It was completed in 1436 and is built as a “double dome” (a dome within a dome) using a technique that relied on lighter bricks towards the top of the structure. It’s possible to climb the 463 steps to the base of the dome (no elevator).

Inside the Duomo

From the Duomo, it was a short walk to Santa Croce, the largest Franciscan church in Italy. The Franciscans were a poor order, and they built their church in Firenze amongst the poor of the city. To this day, the streets around the church are filled with wood and leather working shops; in the day, they were considered to be the “poor” trades. The church was damaged during the 1966 flood and the high-water marks are still visible on the interior walls. It was (and perhaps still is) considered to be the highest honour to be buried inside a church – and Santa Croce contains tombs and memorials to some of the greatest artists, scientists and thinkers of the ages. At the back of the church, on one side is the tomb of Michelangelo, directly across is a monument to Galileo. Danté – author of the Divine Comedies and considered to be the father of the modern Italian language – is buried here; as are Rossini and Machiavelli. More recent are memorials to Fermi and Marconi. It’s difficult to walk the room without stepping on the graves of many others.

Santa Croce - tomb of Michelangelo

This church is undergoing more than just preparatory work for Easter. There appeared to be restoration taking place in the area behind the main altar.

As we exited, we passed through a green space as we headed to the street, and on the left-hand side, a sculpture by Henry Moore. It did not look out of place.

Our walking tour ended and we returned to the Piazza della Republica.

So now, everyone was given free time until supper. What to do … the Galleria degli Uffizi? Climb the steps to the top of the Duomo? Perhaps head over to the Galleria dell’ Accademia to see the original of Michelangelo’s David? The choices were endless. I could have spent a week in Firenze and not seen a tenth of the things worth seeing. So, what did we do?

From the Piazza della Republica, we walked to the area near San Lorenzo. But our purpose was not to see this basilica – a basilica that was consecrated in 393 and is thought to be the oldest church in Firenze. No, we were not there to see the current building that was rebuilt in 1425; or to visit the tombs of some of the principal members of the Medici family who are buried within. We were there to shop! The narrow streets of the area are lined with stalls selling leather goods, stylish scarves, all sorts of things. Yes, the prices were high – if you kept multiplying everything by the 1.55 to 1.61 Canadian Dollar to Euro exchange rate, but the “good stuff” was of such good quality! Most of the things being offered for sale were “Made in Italy”; not much junk from China here.

Market in Firenze

There was a beautiful leather wardrobe-style suitcase for 140 Euros; Pashmina scarves for 10 Euros. Yes, there were stalls selling “kitsch” … and everyone should bring back a kitschy thing or two from their vacation. But a great deal of what was being sold was of very good quality. For my part, I bought a leather jacket for Mrs. P and a 3/4-length coat for myself.

And so … that was how I spent my free time in the heart of the Renaissance; poking from stall to stall looking at scarves, coats and “stuff”. During our wanders through the market area, we saw other groups of students doing pretty much the same thing. I think one reason that I don’t feel that I cheated myself was because, by this point in the trip, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. Flavio had said that there is only so much you can take in. By now, we had seen the beauty of Sorrento and Capri, the City of Pompei, the old and new of Rome, and had a glimpse of the beauty of the Renaissance. It was starting to be too much to process. From the outset, we knew that this was going to be an aggressive schedule; only now was I starting to realize how aggressive. Next time I visit this area, I could easily see spending at least three or four days just in Firenze.

Everyone did their own thing for the afternoon, and the group re-formed to go to supper. On the way back, we saw some of the more “informal” merchants of Firenze. These “merchants” appear to be from Africa and were selling handbags that appeared to be made by Prada, Chanel Yves St. Laurent and other high-end designers. The prices were just too good to be true and they were open to “negotiation”. Only, you had to work fast to close the deal, because as soon as the Police showed up, they scooped everything up in the tarps upon which the handbags had been displayed and began to move along.

It was really rather funny to see. These fellows from Africa would walk the streets of Firenze with large bundles strewn over their shoulders. Then, they would stop, and as a group passed by, try to lure them in with the goods displayed. And if the Police showed up, the whole “store” was scooped up and tossed back over the shoulder and was moved to another location. Flavio had warned us of the illegality of these transactions, but the Police only seemed to be around to keep the “market” from getting any kind of permanent foothold on the streets. It appeared to me to be one of those “illegal but tolerated” type of things that take place everywhere.

In the end, the lure of “designer” handbags at “deep discount” prices was too much and the haggling started. Merchants like this have a very informal, but apparently very effective communications network. The best description that I heard for what happened was “chumming the water”. Soon, there were handbags and money changing hands at a frightening pace. Other “merchants” showed up with other things to sell. I was offered a “Breitling” watch for 55 euros; too much. I don’t like “Breitling”? There are “Rolex” and “Patek Phillipe” for equally attractive prices.

The plan was to take those students who wanted to go out to another one of the “student discotheques” that are popular in Italy. But, even though the buying had ended, the “merchants” were still swarming on the streets outside the hotel – the students were unable to go outside without being swarmed. Eventually, I had to go outside and tell the “merchants” that the buying was over. I shook hands with most of them and they went off into the night to find other clients.

When I think back on that little portion of the entire series of events, I realize just how safe I always felt during the trip. Sure, we were warned over and over again of pickpockets and other thieves, but never once did I ever feel that my personal safety was in danger. When I stepped out of the front door of the hotel, there were six or seven of these guys all looking to keep doing business – and I was there to end the party. But, they were only trying to make a living the best way that they can; they understood that it had to come to an end sometime and a smile and handshakes work well in any language. We all shared a bit of a laugh about the whole thing and parted on friendly terms.

I’ve taken to referring to this little event as the “handbag feeding frenzy”.

After clearing out the front of the hotel, we re-formed the smaller group and the students (along with chaperones) went to the discotheque. There was a great deal of excitement amongst the students – referring to the other students in the disco, our students kept saying “they speak English”. Of course they do, the other students at the disco were all from other schools in Ontario!

At the disco

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Monday, March 10, 2008

It was a very early wake-up call today – 0600. The objective was to get to the lineup for the Vatican Museum as early as possible. Flavio said that we should try to be in line by 0800; and since we were taking the subway (and it was rush hour) we should try to leave the hotel by 0720.

We managed to do most of that … but the subway was still crowded. Fortunately, it was the same train (the “A” line) from the hotel to the Vatican. The group stuck together very well in extremely crowded conditions. The subway line is very nice – the cars very clean and the ride smooth. On the part that we rode, the line comes above ground only once – to cross the Tiber River.

The rain was back (at times with a vengeance) and it was a bit of a hike from the subway station over to the lineup for the museum. Flavio said that he’s been bringing groups here for the past four years – and today was by far the shortest lineup he’s encountered. Flavio may have thought the line was “short” – but “short” is a relative term … if, in the terms of the Catholic Church, Canada is a “young” country, then yes, this was a short line.

The visit to the Vatican museum has two major components: the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. But you don’t go directly to the Sistine Chapel, there’s a long approach through hallways filled with beautiful works of art. In one section, the ceiling has been painted with frescos and the technique used makes it appear as though the entire ceiling is covered with marble carvings. There are large tapestries covering the walls depicting different biblical scenes. And finally, at the end of the passageways, there’s a door, a set of stairs down, and then you enter the Sistine Chapel itself.

No photos are allowed – and visitors are asked to respect the sacred space by avoiding talking. The room is relatively small yet it’s filled with hundreds and hundreds of people. Along the two side walls are scenes painted by some of the finest Renaissance artists … Boticelli, Roselli and Perugino. One of the most famous is The Punishment of Korah by Boticelli. Many other Renaissance artists contributed smaller sections. All of the pieces along one wall are interpretations of the life of Moses; along the other wall, the works illustrate stories from the life of Christ.

But all of it is overshadowed by the two magnificent pieces by Michelangelo – the ceiling and the altar wall.

Michelangelo was first and foremost a sculptor. He was a young man – in his thirties – when he was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling. He began work in 1508 and finished in 1512. Legend says that Michelangelo lay on his back while painting the ceiling – but during the restoration of the ceiling several years ago, the original scaffold mounting points were used to support the restoration scaffolding and the restorers now believe that Michelangelo stood to paint the entire piece. It’s said that this is the largest piece of art conceived and executed by one man.

The restoration in the 80’s and 90’s removed centuries of soot and dirt from the ceiling and the colours are fresh and vibrant. It all looks as though it could have just been completed before we arrived. In the centre of the ceiling is the most famous portion of the work – God giving life to Adam.
Michelangelo returned to the Sistine Chapel in 1535 commissioned by Paul II to paint the altar wall. Michelangelo was now into his sixties and he worked on the wall for six years. The depiction is that of the last judgment with a small book for the names of those going to heaven and a larger book for the names of those going to hell. The story goes that many in the church were offended by the amount of nudity in the depiction – particularly the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies. In retaliation, Michelangelo depicted him in the bottom right-hand corner of hell as Minos – the doorkeeper. The Master of Ceremonies complained to Paul III but was told that “there is nothing I can do, you are already in hell”. A later Pope, Pius IV commissioned Daniele da Volterra to paint over the genitals, but the alteration was reversed during the recent restoration.

And we were given all of 15 minutes to take this in; I could easily have spent several times that looking at the details. If I … no check that … when I return, I’ll be sure to bring a small pair of binoculars. That would help make the details of all the work more visible.

Mrs. Williams and Mrs. Pothier

Vatican City

But that will be for the next visit; now, we were off to St. Peter’s Basilica.

St. Peter’s is the largest Roman Catholic building in the world; 218m long, 137m high covering a total of 22,067 sq m. It is said that 60,000 people can be accommodated in the church. Roman law held that the city was on one side of the river – for the living; the other side of the river was for the dead. It is said that St. Peter’s sits on the site where Nero had Peter crucified – on the side of the river opposite to the city of Rome. Constantine built the first church on this site in 324 but by 1452, the building was crumbling and Nicholas V began restoration. In 1547, Pope Paul III asked Michelangelo to take control of the project. The dome end of the church is Michelangelo’s design; and when the Council of Trent decreed that every church needed to have a sacristy, Pope Paul V asked Carlo Mademo to continue the work on the building in 1606. Mademo copied Michelangelo’s columns and extended the church to its current length. The great Roman architect Bernini (remember him from the fountain at the Piazza Navona?) contributed many of the baroque touches to the building. The church was finally consecrated in 1626.

St. Peter's Basilica

Shortly after we entered, to the right-hand side, is Michelangelo’s La Pietà. Michelangelo began this work when he was 24 years old. Several years ago, the sculpture was damaged when an Australian man attacked it with a hammer. Tourists wrestled the man to the ground, and the statue was repaired. Now, the statue sits behind a glass panel.

We continued along the south aisle and around the church counter-clockwise and saw many more altars in alcoves, statues and what appear to be paintings – but are actually mosaics.

To the right-hand side, as you approach the altar, is a statue of St. Peter that dates from the early 13th century. The touch of pilgrims and visitors to the church over time has worn the feet down to a shiny smoothness; most of us took the opportunity to touch the foot of this statue.

Under the central dome is Bernini’s baldacchino. I had been told (and seen) the replica of this canopy in the Mary Queen of the World cathedral in Montreal. The one in Montreal pales in comparison. The original in St. Peter’s stands 29m high and covers the Altar of the confession. Only the Pope is permitted to celebrate mass at this altar.

To the left of the altar is another Bernini sculpture, this one containing the monument to Alexander VII. One element of the sculpture is a carpet that was sculpted from a single enormous piece of marble.

Mrs. Pothier, Mr and Mrs. Williams (with Evan) in St. Peter's Square

Unfortunately, we had to leave Mrs. Williams behind at the Vatican. She went into a confessional (no doubt to unburden herself of the events yesterday at the Trevi fountain) and was still there when it was time for us to leave. We were going to wait, but when the first priest called for a shift-change relief it became apparent that she was going to be in there for quite a while.

On our way out of St. Peter’s we stopped by a small gift shop to purchase some souvenirs and then came back across the square to head for the subway. As we crossed the square, we saw the obelisk that was brought to Rome from Alexandria by the Roman emperor Caligula.

We got to the subway (nowhere near as busy since it was lunchtime) and returned to the hotel. We had left our suitcases and bags in a storage room at the hotel; the bus was there – ready to go and we loaded up and were off to Siena and Florence.

We stopped for a quick walk around Siena. This is the site of the famous horse races that take place in the town square. Once again, it was raining heavily which put a damper on the exploration of the side streets.

For those of you that wanted a picture with some hunky Italian guys … here it is.


After we got back on the bus, we continued on to Florence. It was late by the time that we got in – we checked in to our hotel, went for supper – and now, it’s time for bed.

The stomach bug is still hanging around, but everyone is still keeping loose.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

We finally had the chance to sleep in a bit.

There were no Daylight Savings Time issues to contend with, so today’s wakeup call at 0830 really was a bit like sleeping in. In case you’re wondering, that was only 0330 back home. I’m sure many of you are wondering how exactly do you get this many teenagers up and out of bed that early. We’re finding that the promise of food is working quite well.

Today – as yesterday, we started with a walk to the Colosseo. Yesterday, we were too late to get inside the Colosseo, and that was our first option for the day. But – as expected – the lineups were huge and since this was the first sunny day we’ve had since arriving, the decision was to stay outside and walk through the forum before continuing on to the other sights on our list for today.

So we moved on to the Foro Romano (The Forum). Yesterday, our guide gave the explanations, but the gate to the Foro Romano closes early and we were unable to enter. So … we did today. There were throngs and throngs and throngs of people. And no wonder! The history oozes from the ground beneath your feet. We walked along the Via Sacra – the very road down which victorious Roman generals led processions celebrating conquest. We saw the remains of the Temple of Vesta, the Curia (Senate House) and the Basilica di Massenzio. Eventually, we worked our way over to the steps leading back up to the Piazza Campidoglio.

Inside The Forum

We had spent time at the Piazza Campidoglio yesterday, but only at street level; this time, we came through the courtyard. Michelangelo had been asked to redevelop the piazza by Pope Paul III. There are three large buildings that frame the piazza – the Palazzo Senatorio, the Palazzo Nuovo and the Palazzo dei Conservatori. In the centre of the piazza is a statue of Marcus Aurelius on a horse – to me the headdress on Aurelius made it look like the statue had come with a pigeon already strategically in place.

Marcus Aurelius

We went down the steps (the Cordonata) and crossed the street. Crossing the street in front of the Piazza del Campididoglio is no easy feat. There is plenty of traffic moving in a couple of different directions – with plenty of merging and crossing. There are pedestrian crosswalks painted on the road – but (strangely enough) there are no lights. Traffic just keeps moving and everyone works co-operatively to make it continue to flow. Every once in a while, the traffic will come to a stop and pedestrians will cross. Then, the pedestrians will stop and the traffic flow will resume. There were no huge lines of traffic, very little horn honking and certainly no pedestrians fearing to cross the street. The drivers knew enough not to hit the pedestrians (and each other) the pedestrians knew enough not to step out unless the driver had a reasonable chance of stopping. Now, this all works well for the locals who understand the basic underlying concept – get along to make it work – but try to hustle 36 teenagers across this traffic maelstrom. Especially 36 teenagers who don’t seem to understand the importance of sticking close to each other in a crowd.

But, we managed – and everyone emerged unscathed; with a healthier respect for the “stick together” concept.

We made our way over to the Pantheon. The original Pantheon was built by Agrippa in 27BCE in honour of the heavenly gods. Nero’s great fire of 80CE destroyed the original and the Pantheon was rebuilt in the early second century by Emperor Hadrian. In the 6th century, the building was given to Pope Boniface IV who turned it into a Christian church – which it continues to serve as to this day. The most impressive feature of the Pantheon is the domed roof. This is the largest dome ever built before the introduction of reinforced concrete. There are no windows and the only source of natural light is an opening at the centre top of the dome. Originally, there were statues of Hadrian and Augustus along with Olympian gods in the niches along the walls – but now there are only the tombs of the first two kings and Raphael.

The Pantheon

We then made our way over to another piazza – the Piazza Navona – with another fountain and another church. This square was filled with artists offering everything from oil and water colours (of various sizes) to caricatures done “while you wait”. While, we idled away some time in the piazza – enjoying the sunshine, Flavio was off to find us a place to have lunch. At the centre of the piazza is the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi. This fountain was created by the famous Roman architect Bernini in the mid 17th century.

So … you think it’s easy to find lunch for a group of 44? OK … here’s the challenge … downtown Rome, lunchtime on Sunday … 44 people with a couple of special dietary needs thrown in (just to make it interesting) with a pre-arranged menu and all food ready at about the same time – oh yes … don’t forget drinks too. Ready? Go! You have half an hour. My hat goes off to Flavio. He keeps coming through with these kinds of things. We went to a nice little place down an alley – it seems that nearly every restaurant in Rome is down an alley. For an appetizer, we had some stuffed and fried olives, accompanied by a deep fried rice/cheese/tomato sauce stick. The actual lunch was a true Italian-style pizza; very thin crust, with tomato sauce and some cheese and prosciutto slices. Very nice. Well done Flavio.

But then again, it probably wasn’t that difficult for Flavio to figure out, because – it turned out – he grew up in a house just up the street. After lunch, we all posed for a group picture with Flavio – in front of his old house.

After lunch, we were off to find the Spanish Steps and the Trevi fountain. The approach to the Spanish Steps was up another series of ever-narrowing streets. And the closer we got to the Steps, the denser the crowds got. So dense, in fact, that we had to abandon any hope of trying to walk on the sidewalk – and instead just took the street – along with everyone else. The area around the Spanish Steps is full of ultra-high-end retailers; Prada, Yves St. Laurent, Gucci – not a Dollarama or Buck-or-Two in sight. Again, the crowds were thick at the Spanish Steps. We stayed briefly and moved on to the Trevi fountain.

The Spanish Steps

The legend of the Trevi fountain is that you throw two coins over your shoulder into the fountain as you make a wish. The legend says that your wish will be granted and that you will return to Rome. I’m not sure how much you’re supposed to throw in – but I figured that if I had big wishes, I’d better be prepared to commit something more than a couple of Canadian pennies. Ms. Williams stepped up to the fountain, closed her eyes, and threw her coins over her shoulder and suddenly, all the students disappeared! It was the strangest thing!

Mrs. Williams

After the Spanish Steps, we went to an “Imax-style” movie/ride that retold stories of many of the things that we’ve seen over the past two days. Some of the chaperones started scrambling for Gravol as soon as they realized that this was going to be one of those “motion” rides. There was one point in the film where they spoke about rats spreading the “Black Death” in the Middle Ages – and right then, there were little puffs of air that blew up the audience’s pant legs. There was plenty of jumping and screeching!

And – essentially – that ended the “formal” activities for the day. Since we were downtown in Rome, the students were given a bit of free time to go and do some exploring/shopping. We met back at the Piazza del Campididoglio and then walked back up to the hotel. Total for the day was about 13.5 km over the course of 6.5 hours. My feet are killing me.

Tomorrow, we’re going to get an early start and go tour Vatican. I’m hoping that we get to see the Sistine Chapel. Later in the day, we’ll be heading to Florence.

We think that the source of the stomach bug that’s been running through some people (sorry, there’s that pun again) is the milk. I’m not sure if it’s a different pasteurization process – or just different processing.

Aside from the stomach discomfort, everyone is doing well. The walking is taking a toll with a few blistered feet – but nothing worth noting.

Saturday, March 8th, 2008

Whether it’s EST or CET, a wake-up call for 0600 is early. Today’s plan calls for making up for the lost trip to Pompei, then continuing on to Rome for a walking tour of some of the sights, supper and then the opera – “Tosca”.

We managed to get all loaded onto the bus by about 0750 and arrived at Pompei about 45 minutes later. Flavio turned us over to our Pompei guide Enzo.

Pompei had a long pre-Roman history – there were the Certs, then the Etruscans, followed by the Greeks and then the Romans. The Romans took control of the city in the 1st Century BCE, and rebuilt many of the existing Greek and Etruscan structures using a very distinctive red brick. Enzo told us that we would be able to recognize Roman construction by the use of the red brick.

As was customary at the time, the city was built with its main entrance facing the sea. The tour of Pompei starts near this historic entrance with a stop at the “gymnasium”. The gymnasium is an open square where the gladiators trained. Since there was a certain amount of travel between cities and buying/selling of gladiators taking place, situating the gymnasium near the entrance to the city facilitated this economic activity.

The tour of the city continued through two different theatres, the first one was Greek – built in a traditional Grecian style with the audience facing the sea beyond the stage. The stage was large and the amphitheatre had seating for 6,000 spectators. There were private boxes for VIPs (with separate entrances). Just as today, the better seats were down front with less expensive seating up in the “nosebleed” section. Enzo told us that the seating area would have been covered with a cloth canopy – and it was possible to see the holes in the rock wall where the supports for such a roof would have mounted.

Across the “street” from the Greek theatre is the Roman theatre. It was much smaller and was used not only for entertainment, but also political purposes. Enzo said that most of the Greek theatre was pantomime – I had visions of ancient Greeks in whiteface makeup doing the “man in a box” and “walking into the wind” routines. The Romans developed some acoustical tricks that gave a certain degree of amplification so that they could stage spoken theatre as well as musical concerts. Although most of the structures that made these acoustical tricks possible, the marble floor at the front of the stage endures – and Enzo gave a very brief (but astonishing) demonstration of how the acoustics worked. Right away, Mrs. Williams was trying to get Mr. Cole on side for getting a marble floor for the theatre at Korah.

We continued on through the streets of Pompei. The stones have been worn smooth over the years, but the road is still flat and in overall good shape. The only signs of wear are the ruts worn by the iron-shod chariot wheels. The streets served two purposes … well actually it was one purpose – transportation, but there were two primary things being transported – people and sewage. The roads all ran downhill and had gutters. Once again, it was raining today and the flow of water down the sides of the streets made it easy to see how the “dirty water” (as Enzo called it) was taken away quickly. Since the streets also served as sewers, there were raised blocks of stone at various points so that the citizens could cross the street without worrying about soiling their feet. It’s around these raised stones that the chariot ruts are most pronounced.

We stopped at a villa that had been owned by a prominent politician. Inside were frescos – commissioned by the owner – that are still bright. One interesting thing to note about the frescos is the subject – scenes of animals hunting in what is obviously Africa. Enzo told us that this would indicate that the artist had been from Africa. The presence of artisans from such great distances re-enforces the belief that Pompei was a very cosmopolitan city – in a sense, the New York of its day.

Near the end of the tour, we got the opportunity to see some of the “plaster casts” that were made of the dead citizens of Pompei. In the 18th and 19th centuries, when archeologists first began excavation of Pompei, they could not understand where all the bodies were. All they could identify were “voids” in the accumulated ash. Only in the 20th century did archeologists hit upon the technique of filling these voids with plaster and then continuing excavation only once the plaster had hardened. What they created were plaster casts of the citizens in their death poses; a dog that had been chained up, a pregnant woman – seated – with her hands over her face, a man lying face down.

The tour of Pompei ended at the Roman temple to Venus – to whom the city had been dedicated. And although we spent hours there, we could have spent days and never seen it all.

After the end of any tour, come the gift shops – and Pompei is no exception. There was a brief stop for some shopping and then back on the bus. Now, we’re heading north to Rome.

Ahhh … Rome … what a place. “Vibrant” does the city no justice. After we got to the hotel and checked in, we headed down the road (a nice long walk) to the Colosseo.

The Colosseo is the largest monument of imperial Rome in existence. The Colosseo was built by emperors Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. Construction started in CE72 and the inaugural games were held in CE80. During the Middle Ages, the Colosseo was used as a fortress and from the 15th century as a source of building materials for some of Rome’s finest palazzo. Conservation and restoration began in the 19th century and continues today. Flavio had arranged for a guide to tour us around the exterior of the building – we’ll go inside tomorrow.

After the tour of the Colosseo, we continued up the Foro Roman (Roman Forum). We walked up towards the Via dei Fori Imperiali towards the Via Sacra, but it was late in the day, and the Via Sacra was closed for the afternoon – another thing on our list for tomorrow. Nonetheless, the guide explained the importance of the area in the daily life of Rome.

Our guide continued on and eventually led us to the Piazza del Campidoglio. After the sack of Rome in 1527, Pope Paul III called upon Michelangelo to redesign the piazza as part of the rebuilding of the city.

Tomorrow’s plan is to explore the area in greater depth – along with visits to the Tivoli Gardens, The Spanish Steps and Trevi fountain – where legend says that if you toss two coins over your shoulder into the fountain and make a wish, you will return to Rome and your wish will come true.

After supper, our day ended at the opera – a performance of Tosca held in a theatre just a bit further down from the Piazza del Campidoglio … but I’ll leave it up to you to figure out what happens when you wake up early, spend a large chunk of the day walking around and then go to the opera in the evening on a full stomach.

I certain hope that people are able to get back to sleep this evening.

One more note … access to internet connections are spotty … the hotel in Sorrento used an encryption system that I never was able to figure out. So, as much as I would like to post something every day, it just isn’t going to be possible.

Although I’ll be writing daily, I’ll only be posting as the opportunities present themselves.

Everyone is doing well … there’s a bit of an upset stomach bug going through (pardon the pun) the group … but no-one is complaining.