Sunday, September 7, 2008

Hello: Our last travelogue from Rome, Italy

Hello: Our last travelogue from Rome, Italy

Sunday evening September 7, 2008 (thirteenth travelogue of this trip)

This will be the last travelogue we post from Rome. There may be additional travelogues that we will post when we get home. We depart from Rome for Chicago tomorrow (Monday 9/8) at 10:55 AM.

This morning we were looking at the Rome books that we have and noted an interesting entry. In concerns the area named: “Piazza Campo dei Fiori”. That is the square just a bit over a block away from our apartment. The book describes the area as follows:

“The area around Camp dei Fiori is one of the liveliest districts in Rome with narrow streets full of boutiques, cafes, restaurants and artisans' workshops. The early morning bustle of the market gives way to diners, strollers and kids playing football on the cobblestones. In small squares, graceful palazzos stand alongside older shabbier properties. Set between the Piazza Navona and the Trastevere, this neighborhood is a marvelous one to wander – just remain alert for motorini (modpeds), cars and pickpockets in the alleys.”

Boy, does that capture what we have been experiencing all week. Each night we go the the square and have dinner in one of the sidewalk cafes, and people watch. There are strolling musicians that wander around the square. We have not seen any sign of pickpockets (do you see them, or just find out the hard way?).

All over Rome there are water spigots. Just outside our front door there is one (see photo). This is great, since it is so hot and you need to drink a lot of water (or beer).

We have marveled at the ice cream in Europe. First of all, there are many stores everywhere we look. The stores in Rome seem even more prevalent. The have at least 20 flavors and many of the shops make the ice cream at the store. It has a different texture than our ice cream. It is not frozen as hard and seems to be creamier. Needless to say, we have stopped a number of times!

We have noted what seems to be a significant population of beggars and there are quite a few street people. I guess that most cities have this kind of problem, but it just kind of caught us by surprise. It is such a contrast to the beauty of the city.

One of the fun observations is the scene at stoplights. All of the scooters and motorcycles thread their way to the head of the line in front of the cars (some by using the oncoming lane of traffic). When the light turns green, they all take off like gangbusters – not quite a race, but close. It would appear to us that the number of scooters outnumber the cars, perhaps by 20% to 30% or more.

We also note that their traffic lights flash a yellow light before the green come on. One of the taxi drivers said that it make traffic flow more efficient and allows all of the cars with standard transmissions (most) to get their transmissions in gear.

The weather in Rome has been very hot and humid. While the forecast has reported temperatures in the high 80s, it felt much warmer. It really affected all of us.. In the Vatican, at least two people had heat stroke. We have been coming back to the apartment in the late afternoon to cool off and rest – oftentimes taking a nap.

Now lets talk about our day at the Vatican (Friday 9/5 – our anniversary).

When you tour the Vatican you are actually only touring a small part of an independent city-state. It is approximately 110 acres in size and has a population of around 800. It is the smallest independent state in the world by both population and area. There are approximately 10,000 people who tour the structures each day. The entry fee is 14 Euro. We paid an additional 25 Euro (fees per person) for a guided tour. The tour itself was not particularly great (the tour guide was very hard to understand), but it did allow us to avoid a huge line that was said to take 1.5-2 hours to get through.

You actually tour three structures. The first is the Vatican Museum ( The second is the Sistine Chapel ( and the third is St. Peter's Basilica ( As a side note, I was amazed that I was not able to find a single good website on the Vatican in total. I have listed the best sites I could find for each structure.

The Vatican Museum is unbelievable. It is has many huge rooms which have varied displays from sculptures to tapestries to a whole hall of large maps constructed in the 1500s.

The Sistine Chapel is beyond reasonable description. The Michelangelo frescoes and one sculpture are magnificent and overwhelming. There is no way that our cameras could capture the beauty. The site listed above has some good photos. The Sistine Chapel was built in the 15th century.

St. Peter's Basilica is even more impressive than the Sistine from a structural standpoint. It's huge, gorgeous, dome was designed by Michelangelo. It was built from 1506-1626. It is the second largest basilica/church in the world. Everything in St Peter's is made of marble, bronze or gold. What appears to be alter paintings are actually mosaics. Michelangelo's intensively moving Pieta sculpture is located just inside the entrance.

Saturday we really took it easy. Bill and Jeanne did a bit of touring. We, of course, had our evening dinner in the square and strolled around the area. Pat and Jeanne did some shopping in the open market in the square.

Today we walked to the beautiful Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere ( The basilica was first started in 217 AD. It was rebuilt in 337 AD and then the current structure was built in 1140 AD One of the unique features of this great basilica is that has beautiful marble columns that have been removed from other structures in the area (see photo).

On the way to the basilica we crossed the Tiber river on the Porta Cestio bridge that dates back to the first century BC. You actually cross the Tiber on another bridge to the Tiber Island which houses a very old hospital. The island is the smallest inhabited island in the world.

I guess that catches us up on our travels. It has been an unbelievable month!

Jim and Pat returning from the market taken by Bill from our apartment window

Typical water spigot in Rome -- this one is in front of our appartment

The "recycled" marble columns in St. Maria in Trastevere

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Hello once again from Rome, Italy

Hello once again from Rome, Italy

Saturday evening September 6, 2008 (twelfth travelogue of this trip)

Well, this travelogue will be quite difficult to write for many reasons. First of all, my fingers are getting pretty worn down from typing all of the previous travelogue {grin}. Secondly, we are nearing the end of our journey and that is sad. Lastly, I have come to the conclusion that there are not enough Thesauruses in the world to provide sufficient adjectives to describe what we have seen in Rome!!!!

While I will briefly describe the unbelievable structures we have visited in this and the next travelogue, there is no way to do them justice in a paragraph or two. I will try to show a few pictures and give a hyperlink to let the reader explore them in more detail. I will, however, continue to make some detailed observations about our general experiences so that the reader can get a feeling of what we experience in between being overwhelmed by the historical beauty of this city

First lets go back to our apartment. As we said, we are located right in the middle of historic Old Rome. Our street is more of what we would call an alley in the US, and most US alleys are wider! In the US, we would not even think about walking into one of these streets! There is a lot a graffiti on the doors and walls, but we have strolled through a lot of these streets and there are a lot of “normal” folks (locals, mothers with strollers, nuns, etc.) all walking down the quaint little streets. There are many doors along the streets. Many are like garage doors, which open up to reveal some very interesting businesses. Several of the businesses in the area are furniture upholstery/refinishing businesses.. There appears to be several art-type stores, some stores that carry high-end clothing, a few repair shops of various varieties, and several second hand stores. Almost all of the stores are very small (perhaps the size of a typical living room). We can't believe that the businesses can be profitable, since they are spread out all over the place and it is not what we would think of as a business/shopping area. I have included a couple of pictures to show you the setting of our apartment.

Other common stores are food markets. We have not been in the rural areas of the towns we have been in, but we have not seen anything that would resemble our supermarkets. Rather, there are very small markets that have a small amount of product. They generally have a meat counter and a small bakery. People seem to shop almost every day for fresh products. I think I recall Irina saying that her mother went to the store everyday (except Sundays, since most businesses are closed on Sundays). Most of the refrigerators we have have seen have been very small, and we do not see large containers of milk (biggest we have seen is 1 liter) and other products. All of this suggests frequent shopping

We have been amazed at the coffee over here. Oftentimes the restaurants/cafes will not serve a “regular” cup of coffee. Sometimes it is close to our coffee, but in a small cup. In that case, you have to order a “double cup” and then it comes in a pot. In some cases the only option is espresso. That is a real experience. You get less than a shot of what I will call “liquid” that does not taste good at all (that coming from a guy that can drink any kind of coffee). Damon, our son-in-law introduced me to what is called “Coffee Americano”. It is espresso with very hot water added. The supposed story behind this drink is interesting. It was said to be made popular by the soldiers after the war in Europe who could not stand the bitter strong taste of the espresso. I might add that I have had espresso in the states and it tasted good, but not here. Back to the story. In our apartment we have a very special coffee maker that boils the water up through the grounds into a small pot on top. It basically makes espresso. Bill and I then add about three times the volume of very hot water from a really neat water heating device that heats about a quart of water in less than a minute (220 Volts helps a bunch). So, I guess we are making “Coffee Americano”. BTW, I have looked everywhere we have ordered coffee and I can't find that it is offered.

All of us have consumed some great food and the guys (and occasionally Jeanne) have had some great beer. Maybe the word “some” should be explained. I have drank more beer on this trip that I have consumed in the last two years {grin}. All of the beer is great. We generally have one or two beers for lunch and at least one for dinner. Most of the food has been very good. We have tried to select dishes that are common to the area. Most often they would not meet the definition of a healthy diet. With all of our eating and a bit of drinking, we do not think we have gained much weight. If we did gain weight, it was probably muscle because of all the walking and stair climbing (have I mentioned that we have walked up a million stairs). My belt has stayed in the same hole the whole trip.

Traffic circles are numerous in Europe. That is amazing to us. I should note that by the time we get home, they should have completed a traffic circle at the intersection of North Turkey Creek and highway 73 much to our dismay. Here the traffic circles often seem like bedlam. It seems like the circle often goes from up to four lanes down to two. Cars, buses and scooters all seem to manage the merges without much fender bending or “road rage”. We are sure glad that we are not driving.

Now lets get to a few of our stops.

As we mentioned, we bought three day tickets on a tour bus that you can get on an off of as many times as you like. The first day (Tuesday 9/2) we mostly rode the bus to get a feeling for Old Rome. However, one of our members need to make a pit stop, so we got off the bus and found a sidewalk cafe to have lunch. As we sat there, we realized that we were looking at beautiful church. It turns out the it was the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. It was built in 432-440 AD. There are a huge number of basilicas in Rome. This one is on the list of “must see”. I have included a picture that give you a slight impression of the beauty of interior of these churches.

On Wednesday we took the bus and toured Palatine Hill ( and parts of the Roman Forum ( Rome first became a city on the Palatine Hill on 753 B.C. It later became a place where palaces were built by the many emperors and a place where the rich lived. On the Palatine hill, you will find mostly ruins of palaces and homes of the rich. The Roman Forum is located in a valley that is between the Palatine hill and the Capitoline hill. It originally was a marsh, but the Romans drained the area and turned it into a center of political and social activity. The Forum was the marketplace of Rome and also the business district and civic center. It was expanded to include temples, a senate house and law courts. When the Roman Empire fell, the Forum became forgotten, buried and was used as a cattle pasture during the Middle Ages. This was also true of Palantine Hill

On Thursday, we again went on the bus and toured the Colosseum ( A quote I read kind of sums it up: “You will probably never forget your first glimpse of the Colosseum, one of the world's most famous buildings. As you get to know Rome, the huge arena may slide down your list of Rome priorities, but its initial impact is overwhelming.” The Colosseum was built from 72-80 AD and was the site of many gladiator death battles and killing of Christians and common prisoners by the lions. They also had wild animal hunts. The Colosseum had a wooden floor over the dungeon-like cellar. This floor was covered by dirt and dirt was added to cover the blood from the events. They also had elaborate scenery that they winched into place. The Colosseum could hold up to 50,000 spectators (at least one source said 73,000). About the only way to sum up the visit was that it was overwhelming.

Thursday afternoon we went to the Pantheon (,_Rome). The Pantheon was built around 125 AD and is currently the oldest standing domed structure in Rome. The height to the dome and the diameter of the interior circle are the same, 143 ft. That might not sound impressive, but the dome is huge!!! We read somewhere that the construction of the dome has puzzled scientists for many years. It is said that it could not be built today using the materials we currently use (it does not have reinforcing material). One quote said: “Hands down the most masterful architectural feat of ancient Rome. One source said that the Romans invented what we would call concrete and they used different mixtures/ingredients that made the concrete lighter as the diameter of the dome decreased. While most ancient buildings had their marble stripped and reused for other purposes the Pantheon has its original marble.

Friday we toured the buildings of the Vatican. However, that will have the be the subject of the next travelogue.

Our apartment (third floor in the building behind the truck)
Note the small street and the sidewalk cafe in the foreground.
Also note the cobblestone street.

Looking out our bedroom window into the street below.
Note the truck trying to get through the street.

Lunch at a sidewalk cafe.
Note the small street in the background

Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

One of the buildings on Palatine Hill

Jim and Pat at the Colosseum.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Hello again from Rome, Italy

Hello again from Rome, Italy

Thursday afternoon September 4, 2008 (eleventh travelogue of this trip)

We need to make a couple corrections and then try to catch up on our travels and observations.

First, lets go back to Vienna. As I mentioned, our “pension” was located right on a great plaza close to a lot of historic buildings. Our location was (here). All around the square were very high-end (pricey) stores. You name them and they were all there (Armani, Dior, Versace, Cartier, Gucci, etc). Many stores displayed men's and women's watches that all had very large faces and are quite expensive (some were priced over $75,000 !).

Now lets get some corrections out of the way. Irina and Matthias have been great to offer suggestions and corrections to our blog. In one of the blogs, I mentioned that the European electrical system did not have a ground. Matthias pointed out the they do indeed have a three wire system. The ground connection is made at the outside of the plug rather than with a third spade. However, when we use our adapter, it does not come in contact with the ground connection. Maybe the Europeans plan that so they can fry a few Americans? {big grin}.

One of my previous observations was on the beautiful “timber wood” houses, and their origin. Irina gave me a great link that discusses their history and construction: The origin is not clear. The following is quoted from that website: “The techniques used in timber framing date back thousands of years, and have been used in many parts of the world during various periods such as ancient Japan and medieval England.” There are some great pictures and a good explanation of how the house were built on this website.

Just a note here, I have chosen to give the full link to reference websites (as opposed to using the “hidden” hyperlink like I do for the satellite images). I do this in case the website does a revision and my link is eliminated. Usually, you can go back to the root part of the link and find the information.

Now for some other observations.

The streets in many of the European towns we have been in seem to go every which way. They are often very short, so that the address numbers don't get very high (many do not get over 100). Some of the streets radiate out for a building that is the center of town. As I have noted, many streets are cobblestone. Here in Rome, even the main streets are cobblestone. If I were a suspension engineer for a car/truck manufacturer, I would put my product here for testing (some can be very rough).

It seems like many Europeans we come in contact with ask us about American politics. We have not found one that likes the Republican candidate. I think it is more a case of strongly disliking Bush and his policies. It is amusing, when a taxi driver can hardly speak English, but they will be adamant that the Bush party must be elected out. These conversations are not just a way of talking to Americans, they have very strong feelings. We have not encountered any animosity (that we know of) against Americans, but rather animosity against our political policies and “our” war.

Much of the music we hear is from the USA. It is funny to hear radio stations or hotel lobbies playing “our” music and then hear the “disk jockey” talk in their native language. I don't recall hearing any county western, but lots of “standards” out of the '50s, '60s and '70s.

On the trains, we have enjoyed observing the farming techniques. The have lots of corn but only a few soybeans. They have quite a bit of sunflowers, and vegetables (most of which we could not identify. However, hay fields are very prevalent. We saw just about every haying method you could imagine. Some were picking up the hay green and putting in something that might be described as a silage wagon, some was bagged, there was a little bit of baling (large round). Quite a bit was put in silage bunkers. It looked like a lot was used to feed dairy cattle. Some of the hay looked like plain grass with lots of dandelions. They were mowing this grass when it was less than 10 inches tall. They used a lot of tedder (sp?) rakes. We did notice that the size of the tractors seems to have increased since we were here several years ago. They now have quite a few with front assist drive and were about the size of a John Deere 50 series (50-75HP). The tractors in the vineyards had a very narrow tread spacing (probably less than 4 feet).

Now to our apartment in Rome. Matthias gave us a connection with a person who rents an apartment to tourists (he has stayed here a few times). It has a “perfect” location right in the middle of old Rome (here). It is probably worth playing with this link to zoom in and out. If you zoom out a time or two, you will see that we are right in the middle between the Colosseum and the Vatican. Make sure you are in the satellite mode and you will see the Colosseum on the right of the picture (looks like a football field). The Colosseum is a bit over two miles away and the Vatican is about 1.5 miles away (both as the crow flies). We walked to the Tiber river which is about 0.25 miles away and walked part way out on the Ponte Sisto bridge built in the 3rd century. A nearby bridge, Ponte Cestio, dates back to 46 BC

The apartment is great. It has a very large bedroom, a small kitchen and a medium size living room. The couch makes into a queen size bed. It is only a hundred yards from a main piazza (plaza) that has close to 20 sidewalk cafes/bars. We went to dinner there last two nights (Tuesday/Wednesday) and it is a very busy place from about 8:00 PM on. There is a TV in the apartment, but it does not get CNN or any other English channel (we do buy a paper every so often and check the major headlines on the Internet most days).

We thought that the cathedrals and buildings were very old and grandiose in Belgium/France/Germany/Austria and they are. However, Rome just blows you away. Some structures date back well into the BC era.

We are just beginning to explore Rome. We have done a bit of walking around our area and have purchased 3 day bus tickets which allow us to ride on an open top bus that stops at many of the historic sites. You can get on and off as much as you want and it has an English narration that has helped us to understand the general layout of Old Rome. In the next few days we will begin to explore this storied city.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Hello from Rome, Italy

Hello from Rome, Italy

Monday evening September 1, 2008 (tenth travelogue of this trip)

As has been the case with several of the travelogues, I am starting this one while traveling on the train. This time we are going from Vienna to Rome. This is an overnight train departing Vienna at 19:15 on Sunday and arriving in Rome Monday at 9:05. We have a reserved sleeper compartment (extra cost). The compartment is about the size of a small bathroom. It can be made up with three bunks, but we made sure that each couple had the room reserved for two people.

Our “hotel” in Vienna was Pension Nossek. It was a great arrangement right in the center of old town. Our rooms were fairly large and decorated with very old style furniture. You would think you were in a hotel in the late 1800s. Our room had a very nice queen size (or bigger) bed with two duvets (every place we have been has had duvets), a couple of large upholstered chairs, table and old fashioned small chair table combination. There was no TV in the room, but we did not miss it! The ceilings were probably 10-12 feet high. We were on what was labeled as the second floor, but it was actually the fourth floor since the numbering started after the first two floors that housed shops. Each floor had the tall ceilings, so there were a huge number of stairs to get to our floor. Fortunately, there was a lift that got us there. The lift looked like it was more than 100 years old. It was very small and had a sign that said “capacity 4 people without luggage”.

Our rooms overlooked the Graben which was a very large plaza without vehicle traffic. We were surrounded by resplendent old buildings. Very close to us was a complex of buildings that made up the Hofburg/Imperial Palace. Just past that, were two huge buildings that housed the Natural History Museum. All of the buildings were beyond impressive. Everywhere you looked was what you would picture in a fairy tail book.

Saturday night we went to the Redoutensaal Hall in the Imperial Palace for a Mozart/Strauss concert presented y the Wiener Hofburg Orchestra. While the concert was quite formal, the presentation was somewhat lighthearted at times. Parts of the concert were opera based, but the presentation made it enjoyable. The concert's final presentation was Strauss' Blue Danube Waltz. They did return for two encore presentations at the request of the enthusiastic audience.

Sunday morning we had a great breakfast at the hotel. The breakfast was included in the cost of the room (a bit over $170 which is moderately priced when compared to well over $300 for name hotels).

The Birts went exploring while I went to Starbucks (yes there are Starbucks, McDonalds, and Burger Kings everywhere in Europe). I would not normally go to Starbucks, but they offered free Internet which allowed me to get mail and up-load the blog.

We then all went to St. Augustine church. They are famous for their high mass that includes a great choir and pipe organ. We did not stay for the whole service, but were impressed by what we heard.

In the afternoon, we explored the historic area. In addition to walking around the Imperial Place, we visited two additional churches. The first was St. Peters. It has carvings and sculptures on what seems like every square inch of the interior. At first glance it overwhelming, but then it begins to look way too “overdone”. The second church was St. Stephan's Cathedral. This was among the most impressive cathedrals that we have visited on this trip.

Update: I did all of the above travelogue on the train (unfortunately twice, because my battery went dead and I had not saved the document). We did OK on the train. We all slept pretty well, but we are quite tired today. We had a bit of a challenge to get to our apartment, but that story will have to wait till the next blog.