Month: October 2016

Venice, Romance

a quiet canal in Venice

a quiet canal in Venice

the city's ambiance is perfect for couples

the city’s ambiance is perfect for couples

a palace beside Piazza San Marco

a palace beside Piazza San Marco

elegant gondolas

elegant gondolas

The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

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The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

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All I want is to find my hotel, unburden my shoulders of a hefty backpack and jump face-forward to the bed, but instead I linger in Piazza San Marco far too long. It doesn’t help that I arrive in Venice at sunset, when its skyline of Gothic towers, spires and domes glow golden above the Adriatic Sea. Pastel skies, warm streetlights and marble buildings of bright colors reflect in the still waters of the Grand Canal. Gondoliers break into an aria as they pull their oars with a gentle splash, their gondolas bobbing up and down as vaporettis (water taxi) glide by. A blatant reminder of my solitude, couples hold hands as they listen to serenading violins. There’s really no competition. For romance, Venice has the perfect ambiance.

the city's ambiance is perfect for couples

the city’s ambiance is perfect for couples

Timeworn cobblestones lead me on through a tangle of alleyways and bridges, and at the point of desperation when I realize I am nowhere near my hotel, I duck into a tiny gelato store where the gentle-faced owner gives me a confusing direction full of hand gestures. I nod pleasantly, trying to make sense of his floundering English. The sight of other baffled tourists, who can’t figure out where “take a left, then go straight” went wrong, somehow consoles me. Apparently, getting lost is part of the deal when visiting this love-infested city.

yours truly :)

yours truly 🙂

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one of the many squares in the city

one of the many squares in the city

Venice is not a typical Italian city. It is a vast agglomeration of roughly 120 islands linked together by a mind-bending 409 bridges and countless pedestrian conduits that can disorient even the best sense of direction yet lead to a multitude of backstreet gems, such as Renaissance opera houses and museums, quaint restaurants and hidden gardens. There are no cars and motorcycles to honk strolling lovers to the sidewalk, and the only way to get around is either by foot or by boat. I let my eyes survey the marble façade of the Santa Maria Della Salute and the nearby palaces, moving across their lacelike stonework and Baroque swirls inch by inch. The city is nothing less than a vast aquatic gallery of elegant architecture, an urban maze of a museum that reminds everyone of its glorious past. Enriched by trade and cultural contacts with the East and the Mediterranean, Venice had seen opulence in the Middle Ages. Not only was the city an important port and commercial center, it was also celebrated for its music and painting, exquisite glasswares and magnificent palaces and churches.

Today a city for lovers, Venice wasn’t born out of romance. According to tradition it was founded in 421 AD, when the Celtic people called the Veneto fled to the remote islands of an Adriatic lagoon to escape the violent Barbarian invasions, which lasted until the sixth century. The settlers took advantage of their vast waterways and deep channels and started maritime trading with Egypt, Syria, Southeast Asia, Iran and China. Soon, they formed a loose federation and elected their first doge (duke) to assert their independence from the Byzantine Empire. By the Middle Ages, Venice flourished as a port and trading center and became one of the world’s wealthiest cities. Eventually, their wooden pile dwellings were replaced with brick houses, splendid palaces and Gothic churches. Venice became so powerful that it remained intact and unscathed despite the attacks of 15 kingdoms, which tried to suppress it from expanding towards the mainland. Its glory, however, did not last very long. By the end of the 15th century, the Americas were discovered and became the new trading port, triggering the commercial and political decline of the Venetian Republic. Furthermore, the recurring bubonic plague decimated its population. In the 18th century, it became politically irrelevant that Emperor Napoleon dissolved it and handed it over to Austria. Venice, however, did not prosper under Austria, and when the Prussians defeated the Austrians, Venice was allowed to join the new nation of Italy.

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endless boutiques line up the narrow alleyways

endless boutiques line up the narrow alleyways

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With a cappuccino in hand, I wind my way back to Piazza San Marco early morning the following day. The square is empty, save for the early-rising pigeons scattered on the patterned stone paving and a grumpy waiter setting out tables and chairs at a nearby café. Laid out in the ninth century as a gathering place for the Venetians, the sprawling piazza is bordered by historic buildings. As if by instinct, I walk toward the Basilica di San Marco on the eastern end of the square. Glinting in the sunlight, its pinnacles, domes and intricate mosaics and arches instantly draw attention. A hodgepodge of different architectural styles- Gothic, Byzantine and Islamic, the basilica was built in 1071 to shelter the relics of Saint Mark the Evangelist, which were stolen by two Venetian merchants from their original resting place in Alexandria, Egypt. A stone’s throw away from the basilica is its campanile, (bell tower) soaring 99 meters into the sky. Originally built in the ninth century, the imposing landmark was reconstructed in 1912 after the original tower collapsed in 1902. The other dominant building in Piazza San Marco is the 14th century Doge’s Palace, which for centuries was the seat of government, the palace of justice and the Doge’s (duke) residence. Stepping back to admire the massive structure, I realize that its entire width is embellished with splendid patterns, perforations and Gothic arches, making it appear light and lacy. It is said that from these arches, the Doge would watch public executions in the piazza and announce death sentences.

Piazza San Marco

Piazza San Marco

Basilica Di San Marco

Basilica Di San Marco

Doge's Palace

Doge’s Palace

It is a hot summer day and by noon, the square is thick with smooching couples and tourists inspecting its marvels. Every square foot of sitting space is crowded with young people licking overpriced gelatos and making peace signs for photographs. Licking an overpriced gelato myself, I recognize plenty of Asian faces around, particularly Chinese. Most are tourists and some are residents, most likely descendants of the Chinese merchants who once traded in the Venetian shores. After basking in the piazza’s old world atmosphere, I stuff my map inside my bag and decide to get lost. Walking through labyrinthine alleyways, climbing bridge after bridge, I stumble upon the Chiesa di San Moise, an 8th century Baroque style church dedicated to Moses. Like other medieval churches, Chiesa di San Moise is heavily embellished with carved patterns and sculptures from its roof down to its entrance doors. Not far from the church, a crowd queues up for a gondola ride. Priced at 100 Euros for a 40-minute ride, the gondola experience is quite heavy to the pocket, but thankfully, a group invites me to split the cost with them. I say yes in a heartbeat. Soon, we are gliding past other gondolas filled with affectionate couples. Quietly, we stare at endless boutiques and gargoyle-bedecked buildings that line both sides of the canal. Just before we progress to the Grand Canal, we sail under the infamous Bridge of Sighs, which was named such because of the prisoners’ sighs of grief and remorse.It was through this Baroque bridge, which connects the interrogation rooms of the Doge’s Palace to the penitentiary across, that criminals in the past would catch their last glimpse of the outside world before they were sentenced to death or life imprisonment. Shortly, the Grand Canal welcomes us with a chaotic procession of watercrafts swerving across the rush hour traffic and spilling newly arrived tourists to the wharfs. I strain my eyes to catch glimpse of the tapestries, chandeliers and frescoed ceilings through the windows of ornate buildings that fringe the waterway. One can only imagine the city’s grandeur during its golden years. Then, cargo vessels from different parts of the world unloaded gold, silk, spices, metal and textiles by the Rialto Bridge, which briefly blocks the sunlight as we drift by underneath. Built in 1588, the dignified Rialto Bridge connects the districts of San Polo and San Marco across the Grand Canal. It has always been the busiest crossing in Venice, now usually thronged by tourists instead of multicultural merchants during the city’s heyday. Complementing the dramatic ambiance, the sweet sound of accordion resonates from serene side canals, where colorful reflections dance beneath stately palaces and wooden bridges. Fishing boats of gaudy colors float steadily in front of crumbling buildings, seemingly frozen in time like still-life paintings. The magnificence of Venice is undeniable especially when viewed from the water.

the Chiesa di San Moise,

the Chiesa di San Moise

Bridge of Sighs

Bridge of Sighs

one of the many squares in the city

one of the many squares in the city

Rialto Bridge

Rialto Bridge

Truth be told, Venice has become exhaustingly crowded these days. During summer months, an average of 80,000 tourists a day throngs its narrow canals and alleyways, profoundly altering its economic flow. Businesses like restaurants and supermarkets now charge tourist rates even to locals and property owners have increasingly converted apartments and residences into hotels, skyrocketing the cost of permanent housing. As a result, the locals’ population has plummeted to an alarming 50,000 in the recent years and if the trend continues, the city may soon lose all of its full-time residents and become a mere Disneyland-like tourist attraction. One can only hope for an intervention that could save it from eventual demise. After all, a city as unique, visually satisfying and historically rich as Venice has to be experienced by travel enthusiasts at least once in their lives.

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The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

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a palace hidden in the narrow alleyways

a palace hidden in the narrow alleyways

souvenir stalls by the sidewalk

souvenir stalls by the sidewalk

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The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

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Fez: A City Lost in Time

the old medina of Fez

the old medina of Fez

Moroccan breakfast with a view of the 9th century Fes-el-Bali

Moroccan breakfast with a view of the 9th century Fes-el-Bali

the 9th century medina

the 9th century medina

Chouara Tannery, the oldest tannery in Fez

Chouara Tannery, the oldest tannery in Fez

one of the 300+ mosques

one of the 300+ mosques

Pigeons scatter skyward as a wailing call to prayer blares like an air-raid siren from a nearby minaret. From the roof terrace I watch the fading sun as it bathes the decaying city, its fortifications and the crumbling ruins of the ancient people’s tombs above a hill in blood-red light. Soon, the adhan (call to prayer) from all 365 mosques resonates throughout the city, echoing the same ghostly chant but with different tempos like an unrehearsed orchestra, drowning the squawks of the chickens, the incessant banging from the brass cookware shops and the shrieks of the hawkers.

At first it is disarming, but nothing can quite prepare me, or anyone, for the impact of Fes el-Bali, the ancient high-walled medina (old city) of Fez. With over 10,000 spiraling cobblestone streets and alleyways, which are too narrow for the tiniest car to get through, the city has turned the map in my hand into a squiggly-lined nonsense. A tight jumble of centuries-old riads (traditional Moroccan houses) stands shoulder-to-shoulder with elaborately tiled mosques and madrasas (Islamic schools). A head-spinning mixture of odors wafts along the tiny passages- freshly baked bread from wood-stoked ovens, sizzling kebabs, the stench of animal excrement and urine, cumin, overripe fruits, scented oils. I close my eyes to absorb the sweltering madness when a deep, loud voice penetrates my ears. “BALEK!” (“Watch out!”). A bearded man in white djellaba (long, hooded garment with full sleeves) gestures at me to stand aside and give way to him and his donkey!

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the old medina

Ruins of the ancient tombs

Ruins of the ancient tombs

narrow streets inside the medina

narrow streets inside the medina

the souks inside the medina sell spices of all kinds

the souks inside the medina sell spices of all kinds

Fez was the capital city of Morocco in Northern Africa until 1925, and it still remains as the country’s cultural, intellectual and religious heart. Its labyrinthine medina, Fes el-Bali, was established in the early 9th century, around the same time when Islam arrived in Morocco. The medina flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries and most of its buildings and architectural gems are from this period. It was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1981 and is believed to be the largest car-free urban area in the world.

Walking through the Bab Boujeloud, the monumental blue gate at the entrance of the medina, I don’t have difficulty imagining that I’ve traveled a thousand years back until I see cellular phones glued to the ears of biblical looking, mule-riding men. “What do you want, my friend? We have good leather, not from China!” Touters instantly throw themselves at tourists even from afar. “Are you Malaysian? Indonesian? Ah, Japanese! Such good people! Come, take a look inside!” Perky stall keepers beckon to me with their standard spiels for Asian-looking tourists. Haven’t they heard of the Philippines? Deep into the frantic maze of souks, merchants are more assumptive, oftentimes bordering on aggressive. Here, mounds upon piles of leather jackets, silk caftans, bloody chunks of camel meat, poultry, olives, dates, potions, strange herbs and spices my nose cannot distinguish and trinkets of various descriptions are displayed for the passing customers. Chatters of bargaining ripple throughout the medina. “No obligation to buy! Come in, have some tea!” I regretfully take heed and at first sip, a salesman has me firmly by the arm. And before I can come up with a lame excuse such as “I lost my wallet”, I find myself drowning in a pile of Berber carpets made of camel wool. The golden rule here is, never accept the first quote. Negotiation is a huge part of the Moroccan trade and prices always depend on one’s haggling skills. You must also understand that the Moroccans are supreme salesmen and if you’re as firm as a jellyfish, you’ll end up spending all your dirhams on a rug you don’t even like.

The Bab Boujeloud gate

The Bab Boujeloud gate

one of the many souks selling carpets and rugs

one of the many souks selling carpets and rugs

narrow passages inside the medina

narrow passages inside the medina

Moroxxan handicrafts

Moroxxan handicrafts

The heart of the medina and its most important site is the Al-Qaraouiyine Mosque and University. The mosque was established in 859 by Fatima el Fihria, a wealthy Tunisian woman refugee. Each of Morocco’s dynasties expanded and decorated it until it has settled to its current dazzling mold. One of the largest in North Africa, the mosque can accommodate up to 22,000 people at prayer. It eventually became an important learning center, well before the universities of Oxford, Bologna and Cambridge were founded, and served as a legitimate seat of scientific and religious knowledge. It is now considered as the oldest continuously functioning university in the world.

Al Qaraouiyine University

Al Qaraouiyine University

inside the Al Qaraouiyine-mosque

inside the Al Qaraouiyine-mosque

detailed interior of the al-qaraouiyine mosque

detailed interior of the al-qaraouiyine mosque

the-al-qaraouiyine-mosque

A strong and unmistakable waft of feces and animal skin tells me I have reached the heart of the leather district. There are three leather tanneries in the medina, all of them dating back to the Middle Ages. A teenage boy offers to guide me to the oldest of the tanneries, the Chouara Tannery, for a few dirhams. He says his “father works there”. I suspect all would-be guides in the area say the same thing. Here, the stomach-churning process of turning hides (animal skin) into durable leather has hardly been updated. The tanners begin by manually pulling hair off the animal skin. The reeking hides are then soaked in pigeon droppings and cow urine, which apparently removes the fat and remaining hair. Later on, they are kneaded for hours with bare feet until softened and then dipped in limestone vats filled with colorful dyes. After happily explaining the process, the salesman at the viewing deck invites me to check out his leather bags, which he is certain my mother would love. Yet another sales pitch!

Chouara Tannery

Chouara Tannery

The medina is one interesting place to lose oneself in and work up a big appetite along the way. Soon, my famished stomach takes me back to the blue gate where I find a strip of inexpensive restaurants offering traditional dishes. Moroccan cuisine abounds with aromatic but subtle spices and interesting flavor combinations. Think sweet and velvety dates paired with tart olives stirred into a tagine (earthenware pot where meat is cooked) of succulent lamb. Lamb is always a good choice, and I’m in no mood for adventurous items in the menu such as camel burger and goat’s head meat. Exhausted from all the walking, I find myself a quiet spot in a restaurant’s second floor veranda. Here, I peacefully try to make sense of the chaos below.

Lamb Tagine, a traditional Moroccan dish

Lamb Tagine, a traditional Moroccan dish

Getting There:

There are no direct flights from Manila to Morocco in North Africa, but Qatar Airways has flights to Marrakech and Casablanca from Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar. From Marrakech or Casablanca, you can either take another flight or ride the train or bus to Fez.

yours truly

yours truly

 

 

The Glory That Is Rome

 

remnants of ancient Rome

remnants of ancient Rome

Coloseum

Coloseum

the Tiber River

the Tiber River

remnants of ancient Rome

remnants of ancient Rome

Vatican City

Vatican City

Castel Sant' Angelo

Castel Sant’ Angelo

Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona

The Pantheon

The Pantheon

The arena crackles with tension. A gladiator grips his sword with both hands and plunges the blade in a downward thrust, aiming the glistening tip at his opponent’s chest. Evading death, the opponent quickly rolls to the side and swings his sword in a wide arc, slicing the former’s stomach open to send him crashing to the dust, growling in agony. With leers of hungry monsters etched upon their faces, spectators cheer maniacally as blood sprays across the ground. The victorious warrior strides across to tower over his rival and with a lusty roar, pierces him through his eye, shattering his skull as the weapon penetrates into his brain.

Images of carnage flood my mind as I walk into the Colosseum’s underground tunnels and chambers. Trapped in the sweltering heat, the stale waft of the earth mingles with the stench of urine and decay. This is where slaves, vicious animals, convicts and gladiators awaited their slaughter more than a thousand years ago.

Bloodshed meant glory and power for the ancient Romans. Their predilection to war and extreme violence allowed them to build a massive empire, which controlled the entire Mediterranean basin and much of northwestern Europe during its peak. For centuries they embarked on imperial expansion, demolishing towns and gathering slaves who were forced to fight in gladiatorial games, or fed to lions and bears for public entertainment.

Where I queue up impatiently outside the Roman Colosseum on a hot July afternoon, centuries ago in 80 AD, the common public would clamor and wait similarly to witness the gruesome contests. Built by Emperor Vespasian of the Flavian Dynasty as a gift to the Romans, the amphitheater functioned as a center of entertainment, with spectacles such as gladiatorial combats, public executions and sea battle reenactments, where the arena floor was flooded with water from an underground river. The late afternoon sun crawls behind the upper arch windows, casting shadows on the seats where bloodthirsty crowds of up to 80,000 used to holler. It is said that in the hundred days of savagery to inaugurate the Colosseum, over 10,000 people and 5,000 wild animals perished. The brutal games persisted for centuries until Emperor Honorius banned it in 404 AD, following the protest of an Egyptian monk named Telemachus, who was immediately stoned to death by the angry spectators. The advent of Christianity eventually changed the demeanor of the Romans, making them less antagonistic and warlike.

Coloseum

Coloseum

Coloseum

Coloseum

the Coloseum

the Coloseum

The Coloseum

the Coloseum

Traveling Through Time

“Constantine,” I mumble as I pass by the ancient triumphal arch dedicated to Emperor Constantine, who ended the persecutions of Christians during his reign, “Are there more gory stories in that pile of rubble?” With a crumpled map in hand, I walk toward the ruins of the Roman Forum. Broken columns and skeletons of long-vanished temples stand precariously on the grass. Mutilated statues prop themselves against barren pedestals. Located between two hills, the sprawling ruin of architectural fragments was the social, political and commercial hub of the great Roman Empire. The Forum was originally a marshy area which the early Romans reclaimed following the alliance between King Romulus of the Palatine Hill and Titus Tatius of the Capitoline Hill, and eventually developed to include marketplaces, shrines, government offices and memorials. Kicking dust on the flagstone-paved walkway, I stroll along the length of Via Sacra, the main street of ancient Rome, which was once the route of triumphal military parades and imperial processions. A stone’s throw away is the medieval Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda grafted onto and above the Temple of Emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina. Emperors were routinely deified after their death but when Christianity proliferated, pagan temples were either demolished or converted to churches and basilicas. Walking past the remains of other temples dedicated to Roman gods, I find a group of tourist crowding the empty pedestals of the House of the Vestal Virgins, taking photos of the jumbled block of marbles where the sacred fire burned for centuries. The flame was guarded by the Vestals, priestesses of the goddess Vesta carefully chosen from patrician families. These women were among the most venerated citizens of ancient Rome and were believed to have special powers, such as the ability to pardon condemned criminals by simply touching them. Sweat drips from my brow as I climb the summit of the Palatine Hill, where I find the ruins of the Domus Augustana, the private section of the imperial palace where the emperors resided. Resting my back against a crumbling brick wall, I gaze out to admire the panorama of roofs and domes, clear-cut against the blood-red sunset.

the Arch of Constantine and the Coloseum

the Arch of Constantine and the Coloseum

remnants of ancient Rome

remnants of ancient Rome

an excavation revealing the remnants of ancient Rome

an excavation revealing the remnants of ancient Rome

remnants of ancient Rome

remnants of ancient Rome

Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda

Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda

Roman Forum

Roman Forum

Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda

Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

Roman Forum

Roman Forum

Arch of Titus

Arch of Titus

Roman Forum

Roman Forum

On Holy Ground

Fueled with a hefty slice of sidewalk pizza the following morning, I dodge through an army of hawkers and hucksters shilling souvenirs and rosaries. Pilgrims armed with large crucifixes and banners spill from a fleet of tour buses. At eight the streets around Vatican City, the papal enclave within the city of Rome, are already in full swing. After standing in seemingly endless security check queues, I hold my breath as I enter the massive metal doors of the Saint Peter’s Basilica, but nothing can quite prepare me the showpieces inside. Built in the early 16th century over the tomb of St. Peter, Basilica Papale di San Pietro is among the largest churches in the world and is considered the finest example of Renaissance architecture. It should be, as it was worked on by just about every great architect and artist of Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries: Michaelangelo, Raphael, Bramante, Peruzzi, Maderno, Sangallo, Donatello and Bernini. Not far from the entrance, hordes of tourists pause contemplatively near an unmistakable marble carving. At last I see Michaelangelo’s Pieta with my own eyes! The haunting sculpture depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the dead Jesus Christ after the crucifixion. It sits behind a bulletproof acrylic glass after it was vandalized with an axe many years ago. My eyes instinctively survey the basilica’s nave, moving across its lavishly decorated walls and columns inch by inch. Decorated in mosaic, a colossal dome created by the great Michaelangelo soars 119 meters above the ground, supported by four stone pillars representing the relics of St. Helena, St. Longinus, St. Andrew and St. Veronica, whose statues adorn the niches designed by Lorenzo Bernini. Directly beneath the dome is St. Peter’s Baldachin, the basilica’s centerpiece. The 30-meter tall dark bronze canopy was also designed and sculpted by Bernini to shelter the papal altar and mark the spot where St. Peter was buried. Every inch of the vast interior exhibits some of the finest Renaissance masterpieces, including funerary monuments of popes whose tombs lay within the basilica.

Vatican City

Vatican City

pilgrims marching to the Vatican City

pilgrims marching to the Vatican City

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

Bernini's baldachin

Bernini’s baldachin

Michaelangelo's dome

Michaelangelo’s dome

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

Michaelangelo's dome and Bernini's Baldachin at St. Peter's Basilica

Michaelangelo’s dome and Bernini’s Baldachin at St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

Michaelangelo's Pieta

Michaelangelo’s Pieta

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter's Square

St. Peter’s Square

 

At the nearby Vatican Museums, I push my way through crowds of sweat-soaked tourists to see some of the world’s most treasured relics and masterpieces collected by the Popes over the centuries. Exhibits, which run along about 9 miles of halls and galleries, include classical sculptures, Etruscan bronzes, Flemish tapestries, Renaissance and modern paintings and even Egyptian mummies. The vast complex of museums was founded by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century and expanded by the succeeding pontiffs as the collections grew. Craning my neck from gallery to gallery, I try to absorb as much art as I can. Besides the Sistene Chapel, the most popular rooms inside the Vatican Museums are, without doubt, Raphael’s Rooms. The chambers are famous for their frescoed walls and ceilings, painted by Raphael himself who was commissioned by Popes Julius II and Leo X. In one of the rooms, everyone’s eyes are glued on a masterpiece called The School of Athens as a tour guide enumerates some whimsical details about it. The painting is a fantasy gathering of the greatest philosophers, mathematicians and thinkers from different periods and places. What’s amusing about it is that Raphael painted the faces of himself and his colleagues Leonardo Da Vinci, Donato Bramante and Michaelangelo in there. After basking in its magnificence, I feel warmed up and ready for the Sistene Chapel.

inside the Vatican Museum

ancient sculptures at  the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

painted ceiling at the Vatican Museum

painted ceiling at the Vatican Museum

painted ceiling at the Vatican Museum

painted ceiling at the Vatican Museum

Raphael's Room

Raphael’s Room

painted walls and ceiling of Raphael's Room

painted walls and ceiling of Raphael’s Room

School of Athens, Raphael's masterpiece

School of Athens, Raphael’s masterpiece

“SILENZIO!” The guard’s deep, terrifying voice resonates throughout the sacred room, causing a hush to fall over hundreds of excited mouths. I squeeze myself between awestruck tourists, my eyes dashing upon every inch of the breathtaking art on the walls and vaulted ceiling. The challenge is deciding where to stand to take it all in. A remnant from the glorious era of Renaissance, the Sistene Chapel is home to two of the world’s most celebrated artworks: Michaelangelo’s ceiling frescoes (1508-1512) and his Giudizio Universale or The Last Judgment (1535-1541). This is also the place where the conclave gathers to elect a new pope. Racking my brains, I try to identify which biblical events are depicted on the ceiling frescoes, which glow rich and vibrant in the low light. In this heady series of paintings, Michaelangelo interpreted nine scenes from the book of Genesis, including the creation of the earth, creation of Man, the fall of Adam and Eve and the plight of Noah. On the altar wall below, Michaelangelo painted a chilling interpretation of the Last Judgment. The painting shows Jesus Christ, who stands in the center, passing sentence over the souls of the dead as they are snatched out of their graves. The saved are able to enter the gates of heaven while the damned are thrown to the fires of hell. One disturbing part of the masterpiece, as one tour guide quietly points out, is that Michaelangelo painted himself as a soul on his way to eternal damnation.

Michaelangelo's The Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistene Chapel

Michaelangelo’s The Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistene Chapel

Discovering the Ancient City

Wandering through the ancient streets, I scrunch up the baffling map and stuff it in my pocket. My sense of adventure tells me that every corner of this once-mighty empire has a hidden surprise- a naked statue of a mystical god, an Egyptian obelisk, an unknown fountain chipped from pale stone or an excavation revealing the remains from antiquity. As I walk further away from Vatican City, an imposing cylindrical building looms into view, towering over the Tiber River. A horse-drawn open carriage passes by, the click-clack of the horse’s hooves making monotonous beats on the pavement. Lavished with precious marbles and statues of angels, the Castel Sant’ Angelo was built in 123 AD by Emperor Hadrian as a monumental tomb for himself and his family. According to legend, the name “Castel Sant’ Angelo” dates back to the day when Pope Gregory the Great, during a procession to plead for the end of a plague, saw Archangel Michael on top of the mausoleum, wiping blood from this sword. The succeeding emperors eventually used the mausoleum as a defensive bastion during the barbarian invasions, and when it was passed on to the hands of the pontiffs, Pope Boniface IX turned it into a papal residence, fortress and prison. An underground passage is said to connect it to the Vatican.

Castel Sant' Angelo

Castel Sant’ Angelo

wandering through the narrow streets

wandering through the narrow streets

Following a labyrinthine alley not far from the castle, I come across a bustling piazza (square), cocooned by old buildings of orange, lemon yellow and peach and bedecked with fine statues with a distinct, familiar style. The garlicky aromas of pizza and pasta roll on the soft summer breeze as nearby open-air restaurants call out for customers. Perhaps nothing is more quintessential Roman than Piazza Navona, which was built on the site where the Stadium of Domitian once stood. The piazza’s centerpiece is Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, a 17th century fountain adorned with a towering obelisk and four giant Bernini sculptures representing the great rivers of Ganges, Nile, Danube and Plate. Directly opposite the baroque fountain is the Church of Sant’ Agnes in Agose, built in the 17th century by an acclaimed Italian architect, Francesco Borromini. Once the performance space of jugglers, acrobats and mock naval battle actors, the square maintains its lively atmosphere with a continuous festival of painters, caricaturists and street performers. I find myself a quiet corner in a café. Piazza Navona is the perfect place to have a gelato break after a long, exhausting walk.

Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona

Bernini's sculptures in Piazza Navona

Bernini’s sculptures in Piazza Navona

Bernini's sculptures in Piazza Navona

Bernini’s sculptures in Piazza Navona

art vendors in Piazza Navona

art vendors in Piazza Navona

Strolling past countless piazzas and heavily statued churches and fountains, I find an ancient-looking temple tucked between modern apartment buildings and restaurants. Supported by thick granite Corinthian columns, the Pantheon has survived unscathed for almost 2,000 years, though according to stories its marble facing and gilded bronze roof tiles were stripped off and used to embellish St. Peter’s Basilica centuries ago. Designed by Emperor Hadrian himself as a tribute to the planetary gods, the semicircular temple has a coffered 43-meter dome with a central opening that lets the sunlight in. Tourists flood continually through the massive bronze doors and shuffle about, their flag-carrying tour guides beckoning them to the gravesite of Raphael, a celebrated Italian architect and painter who requested to be buried inside the building. The Pantheon has been functioning as a church dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs since the 7th Century.

the Pantheon

the Pantheon

square near the Pantheon

square near the Pantheon

Wiping my sweaty brow with the back of my hand, I disappear among the hundreds of tourists crowding the Trevi Fountain. Among the hordes are different groups of people- young lovers canoodling and basking in the romance of the ancient edifice, friends giggling and posing for selfies, families with parents keeping a hawk eye on their toddlers. Excited, I shoulder my way to the center to behold the baroque fountain I have seen countless times in movies. The famous Trevi Fountain dates back to the ancient times when the 22-kilometer aqueduct, named Aqua Virgo or Virgin Waters to honor the young girl who discovered the water source, was built in 19 BC to provide water to the hot baths and the fountains of central Rome. Embedded into the façade of Pallazo Poli, the fountain is embellished with a handful of fine sculptures. In the center is the statue of Oceanus, the Roman God of the Sea, standing under a triumphal arch. Two sea horses, one wild and one docile to represent the opposing moods of the sea, are pulling his shell chariot. Leading them are two Tritons, one whistling on a shell as if to announce their arrival. I am interrupted from my contemplation by an affectionate couple who wants their photo taken, and I happily oblige. Behind them are people throwing coins over their shoulders into the fountain. Legend says that tossing a coin will guarantee your return to Rome, and if you toss a second coin, you will fall in love with an Italian. I sit on a cold stone bench for hours and wait for the crowds to vanish into the early evening shadows before grabbing a few coins from my pocket. While a couple of days may be enough to peek into the main attractions and the Roman way of life, I certainly wouldn’t mind returning to a historic city that has been perfecting beauty and the arts since the ancient times.

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain

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fountain near the Spanish Steps

fountain near the Spanish Steps

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when in Rome, eat like a Roman (or a Gladiator)

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you can’t go wrong with Pasta when you are in Italy

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