Monday, May 30, 2011

Reflections on Semana Santa

April 17 - 24

I had been in London with Laura for the first part of Semana Santa (Holy Week).  But, I returned on Thursday, April 19 for what was, according to many, the best day of week.  Sevilla is known for the destination in Europe for Holy Week.  Each local brotherhood, or church, has its own set of floats: one of the statue of Jesus, and the other of the Virgin Mary.  They parade the streets accompanied by "nazarenos," cone-headed coaked figures that to Americans resemble the KKK.  A marching band follows playing the haunting music of Semana Santa.  The Catholic community of Spain and of Europe come to Sevilla for the magnificence of the parades.  The seats set up in the city center are a hot commodity as each parade ultimately enters the Catedral via the same Avenida de la Constiución.  Between Holy Week and the following Feria de Abril, Sevilla earns over fifteen percent of its annual income.  

Although the most powerful parades occur on the Thursday of Semana Santa, I was not so lucky this time around.  It was raining nonstop in Sevilla that week; it was a complete wash out.  London, where I had been, was curiously dry and sunny.  The city center of Sevilla was a ghost town of empty chairs.  A few locals still came out. With their umbrellas in hand, they were in denial of the disaster.  For the first time in about eighty years, the Thursday parades were cancelled.  Just the year I come to Sevilla.  Disappointing, but no worries.  Considering my luck overall, I could not complain too much. 

I was able to see the one that parades the streets for Easter, called the Resurrection.  You may think this one is special, but compared to the Thursday parades, it is a side note.  It was certainly special enough for me.  I was struck by the music and the visual effect of the floats and nazarenos.  It was powerful.  The tone of the Resurrection parade is much more upbeat compared to the rest of the week. I watched as first the Jesus float (above) and then the Mary float (below) entered the Catedral.

I was then joined my Clara and Nicole for Easter Mass at the Catedral.  It was fascinating to see the service in the third largest cathedral in Europe.  I enjoyed the music, the words spoken in Spanish, and seeing the communion. 

To see pictures of the parades, see "Semana Santa - 4-17 - 4-24" at

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Final Day in Madrid: Retiro, Prado, and the Underground

Thursday, May 19

My last day in Madrid was spent strolling Retiro Park, admiring the masters in the Prado Museum of Art, and getting a taste of Madrid's international underground with Wendy and her friends.  Clouds were on the way, so I spent the last moments of sunshine in Retiro Park, the green space once reserved for Spanish Royalty.  Charles III later opened the park to the public.  I recognized the iconic lake and surrounding monuments from the Picasso paintings I had seen in Barcelona.  The size and beauty of the park fit right into Madrid's scheme of grand avenues and stately buildings. 

I would go on to spend five hours at the Prado with audioguide in hand.  Many of the works I recognized from our Spanish art history unit from Mr. Wilson's 12th grade course (as was the case with El Greco in Toledo).  More El Greco was on hand in the Prado, but the real stars of the show were Diego Velázquez and Fransico de Goya.  It seemed the Prado had obtained the complete collection of each, giving guests a glimpse of the evolution of each through distinct periods of painting.  Both were court painters for the Spanish royal family. 

Velázquez came first; his most famous painting is argued to be among the best ever: Las Meninas.  At the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, an exhibition captured Picasso's obsession with Las Meninas.  He spent a lot of time physically copying the painting in the Prado, dissecting every piece.  The reason the painting is so unique is that the viewer seemingly becomes part of the painting.  Velázquez paints himself on the left with an inward facing easel.  At first, it seems he is painting you.  But, the rest of the painting reveals the true context.  A mirror in the back contains the true subjects, the king and queen.  During the session, they receive a visit from their princess and her maids (meninas).  In another room was the far less famous Surrender of Breda.  It drew my attention because a Spanish man of about 60 years was painting a direct copy of the work.  Like Picasso and other great artists, it is right of passage to copy the originals of masters.  Therefore you set up your easel in the museum and take off.  Despite the brilliance of the copy, it made me appreciate the original even more.  Next to the original, the copy appeared a rank amateur. 

 Diego Velázquez- Las Meninas
Diego Velázquez - Surrender of Breda 

Fransisco de Goya came a bit later, but served the royal family as well.  In a tribute to Velázquez, Goya too painted himself with an easel next to the royal family in his iconic portrait.  Although the quality of the faces seemed less striking than Velázquez, Goya stands out for his personality.  His most famous work reflects his interest in politics.  His two paintings, the Second of May and the Third of May are tributes to the heroes of Madrid and commentaries on violence.  They chronicle the Spanish reaction of Napoleon's move to install his brother to the Spanish throne.  In the Puerta del Sol (where the current protests were occurring outside that day), innocent Madrileños are gunned down by faceless Frenchman.  Goya captures the confusion, disbelief, and injustice in a scene that resembles a modern crucifixion. 

 Fransico de Goya - King Charles IV of Spain and His Family 
Fransico de Goya - Third of May, 1808

With my interest in Goya heightened, I entered another room housing his collection of mysterious "black paintings." Historians cannot fully explain the reasoning behind the series but assume the extreme disillusionment of the artist.  All had been found on the walls of Goya's home and then transferred to canvas.  Goya had mixed printing press ink with his paint to create the obscure hue.  One of my favorites was the Battle to the Death, which depicts two Spaniards fighting knee deep in mud.  It seems to identify the loose unity and internal conflict in Spain that comes to fruition during the Spanish Civil War.  In another, the head of dog appears during its helpless descent into quicksand.  Historians have identified this painting and this series in general as the beginning of modern art. 

 Fransico de Goya - Battle to the Death 
 Fransico de Goya - The Dog 

Of course, there were many other highlights.  Some works complemented the collections I had seen in Florence with works by Raphael, Titian, and Rubens. 

That night, I met up with Wendy and her friends again.  We went to the Lavapiés district of Madrid, one of the most diverse in the city.  International restaurants (emphasis on Indian) line the streets, and alternative types from South America to Africa fill the squares.  Considering how homogeneous Sevilla is, the diversity in Madrid was extraordinary to me.  After our Indian meal, we went to what looked like an abandoned building nearby.  Wendy's friend described it as the self-funded community center for the African population in Madrid.  Graffiti lined the walls as we entered a big room formed by concrete slabs.  Bob Marley was blasting and all of the African Madrileños were feeling the love.  I was seeing the Madrid underground, a world far from the Spain I knew of flamenco dresses and gazpacho.  The experience augmented my perception of Madrid.  I am grateful to have contacts here to show me this underground.

The next morning I got out of bed and walked to the train station to catch the airport shuttle.  Typical of Spain, the man coordinating the shuttle arrivals struck up a conversation with me.  He immediately sensed my comfort speaking Spanish and the knowledge I had amassed about the culture from four months in Sevilla.  It was a nice send-off and further instilled my love for the Spanish people. 

On my first plane to Dublin (before connecting to the US), I met an American couple on their sixth adventure through Spain.  Each time they had stayed in remote places, rented a car, and really nestled deep into the culture.  It gave me confidence that I would be back, equally equipped to integrate myself among the genteel Spanish people.  Knowing the language makes all the difference between being a helpless tourist and a savvy guest.  One story particularly amused me: They had lost themselves in Granada so they asked for directions from an old Spanish couple; the couple responded by offering to get into their car and lead them to exactly where they wanted to be.  This is the Spain I know too.  I cannot help but return. 

To see photos of this day, click "Madrid Day 4 (5-19)" at

Day Trip to El Escorial and Reunion in Madrid

Wednesday, May 18

I just happened to chose the most expensive visit on International Museum Day; therefore, my entrance was free.  On top of that I was in a secluded town out of the way for many tourists.  Had I been in Madrid every museum would have been packed.  El Escorial is the name of Philip II's palace, built during Spain's Golden Age.  It symbolizes the height and impending decline of the Spanish empire.  Riches from the colonies had been pouring in for years, but were wasted by Philip II on this palace and numerous wars on the continent.  Given the story line, I expected El Escorial to resemble Versailles.  The same insulation and monarchy waste had occurred in France.  But, I was wrong; El Escorial has nothing to do with the grandeur of Versailles.  Instead it reflects the austere and plain man who had it built.  Philip II was intensely Catholic, but not in a decorative-papal way.  He built El Escorial to serve as a monastery, a burial place for the royal family, and a private place of command outside of Madrid. 

Arriving at the "palace," I agreed with the Rick Steves comment that it resembled a prison.  It is an imposing gray block with a domed cathedral in the middle.  The interior was equally plain, but it gave off an eerie feeling.  I was interested in Philip II's bedroom, not gaudy by any standard.  A plain bed chamber is situated next to a door that opens to the altar of the huge inner cathedral.  The king did not have to leave his bed to enjoy service.  The amount of gray stone and the size of the place was overwhelming.  The best room was the library; it was also the most lavish and Versailles-like (see below).  I have actually not seen many libraries like this one in Europe.

 El Escorial Library (taken from

I returned to Madrid in time to meet up with Wendy Anderson, a friend from Collins at IU.  I knew she was studying in Madrid, so I sent her a facebook message with my Spanish cell phone number hoping that we could meet up.  She was quick to respond, inviting me to her graduation ceremony that night.  There I ran into Jeremy Hage, a friend from high school and colleague at IU.  I had no idea he was in Madrid; this was a big surprise.  Then I spotted Katie Green, a friend from confirmation class in Indianapolis.  She was at Georgetown studying foreign service.  I would also run into her the next day at the Prado for yet another total coincidence.  After the ceremony, we were treated to tapas by the program; this was the first time in days I ate food, and it actually sat well. 

I headed to Wendy's apartment for a taste of Madrid life.  We had a long chat about our respective experiences.  I realized that she has had a radically different experience than me.  She has lived in an apartment in an international city.  No family has introduced her to Spanish cuisine or traditions.  She eats roughly the same food she eats in America, preparing it herself in her kitchen.  Going out to eat, she chooses between Indian, Turkish, Italian, and more--not just Spanish (in Sevilla, there is no cuisine choice).  I decided I was even more grateful for my small town, intensely local and Spanish experience.  That being said, Wendy has had a wonderful time in Madrid and many wonderful travel adventures elsewhere in Europe.  Thank you, Wendy for a fantastic reunion. 

A few days in Madrid had given me a taste of the place's spirit.  Before coming to Spain, I had watched nearly all of Pedro Almodóvar's films.  As a proud Madrileño, his movies exude the feeling of the city, from the aesthetic to the mentality.  I felt I was a part of Almodóvar's world in Madrid.  It would be like a foreigner watching movies of New York and going there for the first time. The place most indicative was the metro.  Riding the metro many times that week, I was able to people-watch.  Madrid resembled London, yet all of the people had come from Spanish colonies in the Americas or Africa.  It was the first international setting I had been in where the universal language was not English; it was Spanish.  And unlike New York, the metro was not a place of silence, but conversation.  The colorful people, conversation, and spirit were reflected in the rainbow colors of the Metro.  Like the Almodóvar films, bright colors dominated Madrid (even seen in Wendy's dress above).  From what I have read, it may have something to do with the reawakening of the capital and country after Franco.  Together it distinguished city in my mind from any other in Spain.

 A colorful scene from an Almodóvar film with Almodóvar on the left 
(photo from

To see photos of this day, see "Madrid Day 3 (5-18) - El Escorial" at

A Side Trip from the New to Old Capital

Tuesday, May 17

On Tuesday, I decided to escape the hustle of Madrid in favor of Spain's former capital, Toledo, just forty minutes south on a bus.  Toledo is the good old mix of influences I had been accustomed to in the south.  Romans, Jews, Visigoths, Moors, and Christians all touched this strategic high point and left their mark.  Mosques, synagoges, cathedrals and monasteries are sprinkled throughout.  Toledo sits high on a hill and is surrounded by the Tajo River on three sides.  Entering the fort-like city feels like a time-warp; all the structures and narrow streets are well-preserved.  The refreshing part is that locals still claim their territory from the tourists. 

I started my visit by going to an art museum housing several originals from the town's artist-in-residence and Spanish legend, El Greco.  Meaning "The Greek," the artist was born in Crete and trained in Venice.  Although he had been hired to come to Spain by King Philip II, the monarch rejected his straying from realism.  I had first learned about and analyzed El Greco's style in Mr. Wilson's 12th grade Spanish course.  The artist elongates bodies and emphasizes each figure's hands.  Many works divide heaven and earth and include vibrant colors.  The textures really jump out too; you can sense the movement and silkiness of the religious figures' robes.  Despite the many figures that crowd his paintings, each one has a unique portrait.  I first admired the Assumption of Mary in the Santa Cruz Museum and the world-famous Burial of the Count Orgaz in the Santo Tomé chapel. 

El Greco - The Burial of the Count of Orgaz

Toledo's other central attraction is the cathedral, one of the best in Spain.   I had seen countless now, but some elements actually surprised me on this visit.  The choir's benches had sculpted scenes of every battle in the Christian Reconquista of Spain, culminating in Granada.  Behind the altar, the church had commissioned a skylight after the construction was completed.  To blend in the new hole a baroque sculptural masterpiece was installed.  It reminded me of the grandiose baroque fountains I had seen in Rome.  Since the cathedral had taken so long to build in general, styles mix throughout.

I continued by enjoying the views outside looking across the river.  My final stop was the San Juan de los Reyes Monasterio, a monastery meant to house the tombs of Isabel and Ferdinand, the Catholic Monarchs that united Spain under Toledo's rule.   But, they were buried in Granada instead to celebrate the final victory over the Moors.  Nevertheless, I was amazed by the monastery; it reminded me of the one I had seen in Lisbon.  Most interesting was the Spanish coat of arms sculpted from stone that dotted the interior.  Off to the side, a group of arrows bound together signifies the unity of Spain.  Franco later based his campaign on the same symbol, fearing that the unstable liberal government of the time would lead to the splintering of Spain.  Franco and the Nationalists had used Toledo and its skyline-dominating alcazar fortress to defeat the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.

Views of the Tajo River from Toledo proper

San Juan de los Reyes Monastery

I managed to get on the bus back to Madrid just as it started to pour in Toledo.  Back in the new capital, chosen by Philip the II during Spain's Golden Age, I strolled the Gran Via.  I returned to my hostel hungry and worn out.  I was still only eating yogurt, and I hoped that another long night of sleep would let my bad stomach recover further. 

To see pictures of Toledo, visit "Madrid Day 2 (5-17) - Toledo" at

Monday, May 23, 2011

Saying Goodbye to Sevilla and Off to Madrid

Monday, May 16

On Monday, I said goodbye to Sevilla.  I zipped up my crammed bags and took one last look around what seemed now to be my home.  Montse had offered to drive me to the train station on the way to work.  I gave my two kisses to Ceci, and relinquished the key in the elevator.  We got in Montse's car, and I could barely speak as I said farewell to the door man (who like many others had adopted me during my time in Spain).  Montse wiped the watery eyes as I got all choked up, calling me, "llorón" (crybay, or one who easy tears up).  I sat frozen in the front seat as I tried to calm myself down.  I recovered enough to exchanged a few words.  Getting out of the car at the train station, Montse gave me two loud and elongated kisses (the most endearing type, reserved for family members).  "Gracias" was the only thing I could muster up amid the tears; I turned around and entered the station, not knowing when I would be back. 

I had had a similar episode for my last "comida" (lunch) on Sunday.  I had translated mom's thank-you letter to Montse; I gave it to her along with the original handwritten version (Montse was in awe of mom's beautifully uniform cursive handwriting).  I did not think I would have any problems getting through it, but when I suddenly sensed that Ceci was tearing up, I was doomed.  I continued until Ceci was wiping her tears, at which point I had to hand over the letter to Montse to finish it.  Montse tried to break up the sadness by cracking a joke, "See, look Brad;  I know it did not appear that Ceci was too attached to you, but here she is crying; she loves you; we have both really enjoyed having you here."  The mixture of laughter and tears surprised all of us.  Montse said Borja was the same way, easy to get emotional.  She, though, contained herself both Sunday and Monday.  I gave Montse a photo of us; and to Ceci, a homemade card and printed picture of us as well.  The are now prominently on display in the living room.  The letter though, as Montse emphasized, was truly something special.  

The tears resurfaced here and there on the train and later in Madrid, my final destination on my four-month stay.  Riding the fastest train in Spain, I was in the capital in two hours.  I dragged my luggage to the nearby youth hostel and started another slew of sightseeing.  All the action made for a good distraction. 

I made my way through town, passing through the famous Plaza Mayor and arriving at the Palacio Real (Royal Palace), where King Juan Carlos lives.  Franco had ceded power to him before his death; Franco's mission from the beginning was to restore the monarchy from the unstable liberal governments of the time.  But, upon becoming king, Juan Carlos relinquished his power in favor of a constitutional monarchy and today he is extremely admired across the country.  All of the royal family keeps a low profile.  Inside, I was most impressed with the throne room and the dining room, which are still used for state functions.  Rick Steves says it is Europe's third largest palace after Versailles and the one in Vienna.  The structure outside looks austere; it faces a grand cathedral; and lots of empty space is in between (see all three elements below).  A phenomenal tour all around, but my sadness about Sevilla kept lingering. 

To make things more complicated, I was dealing with an upset stomach.  It must have been the nerves surrounding the departure.  I would have to restrict myself to a "yogurt, powerade, and water" diet for a few days (difficult considering the energy I needed to sight-see).  After exiting the palace, I made my way down the Arenal to the heart of the city, "Puerta del Sol" (see below).  Although it was quiet on Monday, it would be the scene in the coming days for one of the largest youth protests in the country.  I managed to avoid it, having other things to do. Funny that I missed the chaos before it set in.  The newspaper on Friday was full of pictures of young Spaniards camping out in "Sol," unsatisfied with the status quo political situation ahead of the May 22 regional elections.

Across town, I entered the Reina Sofia, a museum housing modern art work of Dali, Picasso and others. Most just come here to see Picasso's Guernica.  After all of my time learning about Picasso on this trip I was also looking forward to the artist's greatest work.  I could appreciate it even more now that I had been to Basque country.  Again, it depicts the Franco-Hilter bombing of the Basque city on market day (to maximize the killing of innocent people).  I stared at it for a while, surprised at how large it was.  At first look, it appears like a bunch of shapes (typical of Picasso), but you can eventually piece the figures together.  It further heightened my interest in the Spanish Civil War.

Picasso's Guernica (from

I returned to the hostel and met some of my roommates.  They would come and go the whole week as I remained in my top bunk.  Altogether, I met an Israeli, a Mexican, a Russian-Kazikstanian, a Londoner, and two Americans from the University of North Carolina.  Most were beginning their Europe trips, I was going home; I sensed their excitement, thinking of my own upon arrival.

To see pictures of this day, click "Madrid Day 1 (5-16)" at

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Italy Day 4: Rome Teaches Ancient History

Wednesday, May 4

We got an early start to attempt to do the rest of the Rome highlights in a single day.  We were nearly the first the enter the Colosseum that morning.  The hype was justified, our jaws dropped at how well preserved the stadium was.  We enjoyed reading about its history.  Poor or imprisoned men fought for their lives against animals and other men as spectators gawked.  The emperors used the stadium as an unemployment benefit, getting people off the streets and entertained so they would not cause any political trouble.  It is also crazy to think that slaves built the Colosseum by hand and ox, gathering all the materials and constructing it on site. 

We continued to Palentine Hill, the central high point where emperors planted their palaces.  The most striking thing about the Roman landscape is the Cypress tree.  They are abundant in central Rome, especially Palentine Hill, and project an ambiance of earthly paradise.  Atop the hill, I felt like I was in another world, one distinct from all the other unique places I have been on this trip.  Gradually, we started to piece together periods of Roman history from the ruins we were seeing.  It is one part of history that I am not totally clear on, but several visits on this day reawakened moments from high school--from Mr. Pappas's World History to Mr. Coleman's World Literature.  These subjects are far from what I have studied at IU for the past three years, but I felt inspired to look into them again.  Clara and I remarked that we wanted to take a Roman history or classical literature course all of the sudden.  We agreed that we had been bored by the subjects at times in high school.  Now they seemed more relevant. 

We had to take a break for lunch.  We miraculously found a local restaurant around and feasted on plates of pasta to boost ourselves up for the rest of the day.  We joked about the Italians always using the word, "prego."  As we discovered, it really means everything:  "You're welcome," "Be my guest," "How can I help you?" and the list goes on. 

After we filled up on carbs, we ascended Capital Hill (another high point in central Rome).  It had been home to the temple of Jupitar and after 2,500 years it is still the center for city government.  Michelangelo designed the steps leading up to the high point.  We ascended even further to the top of the Victor Emmanuel II monument (celebrating Italy's unification in the 1800's).  We could see the bird's eye view of all of the ruins.  We climbed down and headed to the next main event: the Roman Forum.

The Roman Forum appears to be a hodepodge of ruins.  With some imagination it is possible to recreate the structures there.  We saw where the body of Julius Caesar was burned, part of Caligula's palace, and the center of the Roman republic.  Here the powerful Senate gathered, even during the ages of emperors.  Just outside the Senate house is a law court where citizens worked out inheritances and permits.  Also, the nearby Rostrum offered a public forum for debate and free speech.  Considering the dark and middle ages that followed, the ancients were extremely sophisticated. 

After the photoshoots at the Forum, we walked to Rome's Pantheon, an ancient domed structure converted into a Christian church.  This is the height of Roman brilliance.  The sphere was enormous and still perfectly preserved.  The architects of the domes in Florence and Pisa studied the Pantheon to replicate it and fuel the Renaissance.  Walking into the Pantheon marked the highlight of the whole trip (not really, but it was a case of incredible coincidence).  As we entered, we overheard, "Hey, that's Rick Steves."  We turned around and there he was, in the flesh, exiting the Pantheon.  With our Rick Steves guidebook in hand, having been reading it aloud moments earlier, we approached him and asked for a picture.  He wanted to not been seen by others, but he agreed to snap a shot.  We were like little children in disbelief.  We toured the Pantheon in a daze of what happened.  Rick Steves was still outside with his camera crew when we left, so we took some more pictures of him without being too obvious.  No one in Europe knows who he is; he can remain somewhat anonymous. 

Before heading back to the hotel, we passed by two famous plazas: Navona and Campo de Fiori.  Both were bustling with nightlife. We soaked in our last moments of Rome, caught a bus back to the hotel, and ate delicious street-side pizza in our room. 

To see pictures of this day, click: "Italy Day 4 - Rome (5-4)" at

Italy Day 3 - Vatican City and a Taste of Rome

Tuesday, May 3

We arrived at a phenomenal hotel in Rome in just under two hours on a high-speed train.  We were suddenly in a big international city.  This time we would enjoy 24-hour reception at the hotel, not 5-minute reception like in Florence.  We said goodnight, slept in a bit the next morning, and prepared for a our reserved visit to the Vatican. Knowing our food options would be limited inside, we grabbed a heavy and quick lunch outside the walls of Vatican city.  We were surprised that the neighborhood consisted of apartments.  Therefore, our lunch was meant for locals, not tourists.  It was my cheapest and best meal in Italy: a panini and a slice of pizza. 

We could not help but encounter a mob scene at the Vatican.  But, no waiting in line due to our reservation.  We entered the Vatican museum.  Through the ages, the Vatican has collected riches and artifacts from all over the world and preserved them.  Inside the museum, we saw mummies from Egypt, Greek pottery, Roman sculpture, and Renaissance painting.  However, we would soon enter the Vatican apartments, studded with vanities fit for a monarch and financed from indulgences.  It was this lifestyle that sent Martin Luther over the edge.  Some rooms could have been confused for Versailles.  The most lavish was the map room, containing a gilded ceiling with frescoes.  We also saw two of the best sculptures--of Apollo and Laocoön--that inspired all who followed. 

Then we entered the main event: The Raphael Rooms.  Pope Julius II commissioned Raphael at only 25 to paint the walls of this living quarters.  The first room was completed after Raphael's death: The Constantine Room, commemorating the victory of Christianity over pagan Rome.  Then we saw the three-wall sprawl of Raphael's "Liberation of St. Peter," interesting to us because of our next visit to St. Peter's Basilica.  Then the room that knocks everyone out: the one containing "The School of Athens" on one wall and "The Disputa" on the opposite.  In the "School of Athens" Raphael brings together the classical all-stars.  The twist is that some Renaissance figures play the part of classical masters (like de Vinci as Plato).  Raphael also painted himself in the scene, as well as Michelangelo much later.  Just next door, Michelangelo had been working on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  "The Disputa" is the ultimate religious scene, demonstrating that the classics can coexist with religion (as the Renaissance projected). 

 Raphael - The School of Athens (1511)

We now entered the Sistine Chapel, the Pope's private chapel and place where new popes are elected.  Here Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint 12 apostles.  Michelangelo insisted that he paint the history of the world until Christ.  It took him four years of laying on his back on six-story-high scaffolding to complete the masterpiece.  I had imagined the Sistine Chapel to be much bigger and with more contents.  But, with tour groups everyday, it is best to keep it empty.  We admired each section with the help of Rick Steves.  Accompanying the ceiling is also the altar fresco of the Last Judgement, just as spectacular.  I was surprised how vivid every picture was even from far way.  I was blown away.

 Michelangelo - Sistine Chapel (1512)
(photo taken from

We took the shortcut to St. Peter's Basilica next door in time for 5:00 pm mass.  We were surprised how much Italian we could understand.  To see Mass in the largest and most elaborate religious place in the world was amazing.  I sat staring at the ornamentation the whole time.  I am glad we could sit and digest it a bit.  After mass, we explored the church and the crypt beneath.  There had been a beatification ceremony just two days before our visit to elevate the status of Pope John Paul II toward sainthood (not there yet).  Therefore his tomb had been raised to the basilica floor.  My favorite part was seeing the canopy altar that I have always seen on television on Christmas Eve mass.  Part of it had been created from melted bronze from the front of the Pantheon (which we would late see). 

When we left the basilica, it was raining a bit, but with sun on the horizon.  Before we knew it a full rainbow had emerged (representing our overall luck, I suppose).  Who knows?  Maybe it had something to do with John Paul II, whose giant poster was at the end of the rainbow.  It was nice to have the square to ourselves; it is usually a mob scene.

We continued on to a pizza dinner, I enjoyed the famous capricciosa variety, while the girls had their tomato basil.  We hopped on the metro to go on a brief nighttime walking tour.  At our stop, Nicole did not get off the metro fast enough and the door closed on her.  Clara and I were panicked.  We walked out of the metro station to stay put, hoping Nicole would find her way back.  As we walked suddenly Nicole appeared, having gotten off at the next stop and jumped on the opposite line.  A big relief, a piece of rainbow luck.

We emerged at the Spanish Steps, a public square in front of the Spanish embassy that thrives every night.  We continued to Trevi Fountain, a grandiose Baroque fountain plopped in the middle of narrow side streets.  We had expected a grand plaza to house this mammoth monument.  Instead it was in a small corner. Time for bed at this point.  We would explore more of Rome on our second day.

To see pictures of this day, click "Italy Day 3 - Rome and Vatican (5-3)" at

Friday, May 6, 2011

Italy Day 2: Florence Teaches Art History

Monday, May 2

We had to get an early start today because of our reservations to visit two of the best art galleries in Italy.  We "checked out" of hotel with no reception by leaving the key on the desk.  Not trusting the place at all, we left our bags at a locker in the train station. 

We were some of the first to enter the "Accademia,"  the art gallery housing the iconic David statue from Michelangelo.  We were surprised how short our visit was.  There was not much beyond David and a few more Michelangelo sculptures.  "David" had formally been outside the Palazzo Vecchio (the Medici government building) until 1873, after 350 years of outdoor exposure.  Approaching the statue standing its its own chapel, I overheard a woman say, "It's absolutely perfect."  I was surprised to be in total agreement.  Given the high expectations, I had been expecting to say, "What's the fuss?"  Instead, I was blown away.  Not only does Michelangelo perfect the human form, but he also tells a story and projects an attitude with "David."  The latest David controversy deals with one question:  "Has he slain Goliath yet or not?"  Conventional wisdom says we see David after the kill, but recent academics think the opposite: that David is cool, calm, and collected ahead of the kill.  The most extraordinary thing is that Michelangelo never made a model before beginning; all of this works are "free hand."  I cannot imagine. 

 Michelangelo - David (1504)
(taken from

With extra time before our next appointment, we decided to visit the Bargello, the main sculpture museum.  It houses Donatello's version of David, so it was interesting to compare.  Donatello made his David 70 years before Michelangelo; and it is nothing like it.  David here is a feminine-looking young boy with a bulging stomach and a hand on his hip.  In the other hand is a sword instead of a stone and slingshot. Other artists did their own version of David.  We saw more Donatello and Michelangelo here as well.  I have a new appreciation for sculpture now that I have seen the best. 

 Donatello - David (1440)
(taken from

We stopped by another hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop where I enjoyed a Tuscan roast veal toasted baguette with spinach and mushrooms.  Tuscany's known for its cows, although I would have liked to have had more.

The rain was coming, but we had a whole afternoon of art to look forward to.  We arrived at the Uffizi Gallery, formerly the Medici offices, to get a serious lesson in art history.  The museum covers art's evolution from the 13th century through the Renaissance and demonstrates how the Renaissance returned to classical art.  I was surprised by how elementary the art was from the 13th century and how sophisticated the ancients had been in comparison.  Thank goodness for the Renaissance for ending the digression.  As we discovered, the 13th century paintings were purely functional: to teach Catholicism.  Gradually, the human forms came alive and the worlds surrounding them became more real, thanks to perspective.  Virtually every painting from the 1200's to the 1500's depicted one of several things: (1) Madonna and her child, (2) The three kings giving gifts to baby Jesus, or (3) the Annunciation (Gabriel telling Mary she will give birth to Jesus). 

Then, all of the sudden, Botecelli paints something different: the goddess, Venus.  What a breakthrough, a triumph felt in the museum too, after rooms and rooms of the same religious themes.  The Birth of Venus marks a break with the past.  The Renaissance starts to combine classical mythology, mindset, and mathematics in religious context.  Subsequent rooms featured Leonardo De Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo as well.  All brought biblical figures down to Earth, giving them faces that tell their story alone, no symbols needed.  It would be a preview of what we would see at the Vatican as well. 

 Sandro Botticelli - The Birth of Venus (1486) - The Renaissance Breakthrough
(taken from

Simone Martini - Annunciation (c. 1300) - The 2-D World of the Medieval Art
(taken from
Leonardo de Vinci - Annunciation (1472) - The 3-D World of the Renaissance
(taken from

It was pouring outside, so instead of rushing through the museum, we took our time.  We stopped for gelato at the cafe.  We took breaks to avoid museum fatigue.  After 4 hours or so, we finished.  We found a stop for a small dinner and headed to the train station for Rome. 

To see photos (not many) of this day, see "Italy Day 2 - Florence (5-2)" at

Italy Day 1: Pisa and Florence Outdoor Exploration

Sunday, May 1

We had arrived in Pisa on Saturday night, April 30, and stayed at a wonderful "hotel" outside the Pisa airport.  It turned out to be an Italian couple's home.  We walked into their reception room, in this case, their kitchen, to get our key and pay.  The couple was extremely accommodating, especially given our late night arrival. 

We got up the next morning having to catch a bus to Florence.  But, we wanted to see the Leaning Tower and take our cliche picture.  We jumped in a cab, toured the "Field of Miracles" and returned back to the airport for our next connection.  We arrived at the perfect time to the otherwise tourist-mobbed site.  There was not a cloud in the sky, and the green grass of the Field of Miracles was striking.  We started with a photoshoot of the Leaning Tower and continued around the campus, reading about its history and architectural elements.  The layout would be almost identical to the corresponding domed cathedral in Florence.  There was a (1) bell tower (Leaning Tower), (2) Duomo (domed cathedral), and (3) separate domed Baptistery.  Pisa is the first town as you enter the expansive Arno River from the Mediterranean.  Thus, during the Renaissance, the powerful port financed the construction of this beautiful set of religious buildings.  As we discovered, all the structures are leaning a bit due to the marshy grass they sit on.  The Leaning Tower had begun with a heavy foundation, which challenged a series of architects in balancing the top.  It leans five degrees today, sturdy as ever after an extensive renovation in the past several years.

As we left Pisa, we made our way down the Arno River to Florence, admiring along the way the great Tuscan countryside.  I was blown away by its overall appearance: rich green evergreen-looking trees.  Before long we had arrived in a city that reminded us of Sevilla.  Florence thrives as a modern city with a historic center with plenty of locals sharing their streets with tourists.  In no way did it feel like the tourist amusement park of Venice.  After checking into our hotel, we devoted the whole day to exploring the streets.  We had miraculously planned all of our museum visits for Monday when it would rain.  Lucky.  We caught a Tuscan sandwich lunch at a phenomenal hole-in-the-wall before beginning.

The following is the list of sites along the way:
1.  The Duomo: We could not help but to admire the heart of Florence first.  The Duomo was begun during the Renaissance, modeled after the extraordinary domed Pantheon in Rome, completed during ancient Roman times.  The cathedral stood uncompleted for 300 years.  In the 1800's, the Italian unification inspired the speedy completion of the structure.  The resulting lavish adornment of the facade is breathtaking to many who see it.  To the Italians, it is tacky, as if mass-produced in a factory.  Like in Pisa, the Duomo is accompanied by a bell tower (the Campanile) and a Baptistery.  We admired the exteriors of both.  Unlike the Duomo, the Campanile is known as the most beautiful bell tower in Europe. It features four statues by Donatello.  The Baptistery features one of the most famous doors. Ghiberti sculpted ten religious panels on the bronze door, having won the commission in a contest.  The man he defeated would instead focus his energies on designing the Duomo (fate).  Seeing the three-hour-wait line for entry into the Duomo, we decided to skip it.  After all, we had heard that the church had been stripped on all of its contents after the 1966 flood.  If only the other tourists knew. 

2.  San Lorenzo Leather Market - Nicole and Clara were eager to explore the famous leather market of Florence.  After some haggling, they left with a few accessories and wallets for gifts. 

3.  Medici-Riccardi Palace - We stumbled upon the first home to the most powerful Florence family near the leather market.  We entered to find a sculpture courtyard and garden where Michelangelo spent time studying the classics.  The Medici family had made their riches in the textiles and banking businesses.  They ruled Renaissance Florence with a stiff hand, but they also financed much of the art that fueled the period.  Recognizing the talent of the 13-year-old Michelangelo, they adopted him and supported his rise as leader of the Renaissance artists. The highlight was seeing the Medici private chapel inside, a tiny room room of frescoes.  We also enjoyed the Riccardi family's Versailles-like additions to the home, including a Medici-ascending-to-heaven giant fresco. 

4.  Maria Santa Novella Church - This church, indicative of the overall style of Renaissance Florence churches was not what I was expecting.  It seemed to have a lego-like facade with its many geometric shapes and alternating color patterns.  Inside we enjoyed a fresco of Dante's Inferno (three tiers, heaven, purgatory, and hell) and the first "3-D painting" (a illusion of a chapel painted on the wall). 

5.  Ponte Vecchio - Needing an energy boost we headed to the Arno river for gelato, before our next leg of sites.  The local favorite nearby gave us a taste of the real deal, the best I have ever had.  I chose wild berry, seeing that it had actually been made from pureed wild berries.  The Ponte Vecchio bridge is a covered bridge that the Medici family used to connect their government building to their palatial estate.  What had been a fish market on the bridge became a gold and silver market (that still exists today) thanks to the "fishy smell"-sensitive Medici children. 

6.  Pitti Palace - This palatial estate of the Medici is in the similar style of the aforementioned Medici-Riccardi Palace.  An austere stone exterior deceives you.  We did not enter, but instead admired it and continued to the nearby Santo Spirito church with its strange blank facade. 

At this point, it was time for a sit-down Italian dinner.  The girls had chosen a Rick Steves-recommendation that featured traditional Tuscan fare.  Everyone left the restaurant happy, having eaten well for a good price.  Clara was head-over-heels with the place because of its exceptional house red wine.  I enjoyed my traditional Tuscan antipasti salad of white beans and soppressata (a type of cured Italian ham), but was underwhelmed with the pasta.  But, it did not matter given the great company and relaxing environment. 

7.  After dinner we soaked in the night scene at the Palazzo Vecchio, the government center of the Medici family.  Next to it is the loggia, a public forum turned sculpture gallery.  I was blown away; I have never been so interested in sculpture.  The quality here was something special. 

We returned to our hotel to find no one at the reception.  That meant no towels for us the next morning.  Glad we did not have an emergency beyond that.  I don't know how we would have reached someone.  The most puzzling hotel experience I have had in Europe.  No problem, we would leave the next day.

To see pictures of this day, click "Italy Day 1 - Pisa and Florence (5-1)" at