Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Roman Forum and Colosseum

Reminders of Ancient Rome's Splendor
These were the things we learned about in our history classes and we were finally seeing the reality of these stories. Normally I try to include some decent history lessons in my blogs, but there is waaaay too much to speak about (without boring you). So, I'll keep it brief - check out the pictures, click the links and if you want to discuss further, I'm always up to talk travel and history!

Roman Forum
What began as an ancient marketplace grew to be the economic, political, religious and social center of Ancient Rome 2000 years ago - so its a great place to start. Walking past the arches, temples, basilicas and other scattered ruins along Via Sacra (left) was surreal. After reaching its peak, the forum was left in ruins after barbarians sacked the city. Zack, Ryan and I rented audio guides and spent a few hours soaking in two millennium's worth of history.

Palatine Hill
According to legend, the Palatine Hill is where Ancient Rome was founded. The story says that Romulus and Remus were nursed by a she-wolf in a cave upon the Palatine Hill. Romulus and Remus grew to found a city on the banks of the River Tiber; Romulus would later kill Remus and rule the city - hence the name "Rome". Recent excavations show that people have inhabited this hill since 1000 BC.

The Palatine Hill, the centermost of the seven hills of Roma, overlooks the Roman Forum on one side and the ruins of the Circus Maximus (ENORMOUS stadium for chariot races that held approx. 200,000 spectators back in the day) on the other. During the ancient times, this was one of the most desirable pieces of real estate in the city. It was home to the Roman Emperors and has the ruins of multiple palaces with great views over the "centro storico" (historical city center). Zack and Ryan are shown (right) overlooking the Stadium of Domitian where fights, private hunts and other games took place.

Arch of Constantine

Created in 315 AD, the large triumphal arch next to the Colosseum is dedicated to Emperor Constantine for his victory in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD - an extremely important event in shaping world history. The night before the battle, Emperor Constantine had a vision instructing him to put the Greek letters "chi-rho" - similar to Christ - on his shields. He vowed that if God gave him this unlikely victory, he would convert to Christianity. Constantine won the battle and ended Christian persecution in the Edict of Milan in 313 AD by declaring religious tolerance. Because of this freedom, Christianity would go on the become that dominant religion of the western world.

The Colosseum

Properly called the Flavian Amphitheater, it was built in 72 AD and named "Colosseum" for the colossal statue of Nero that was once adjacent to it. It is thought to have a capacity of approximately 50,000 spectators and has influenced the designs of our modern stadiums. Today, the Colosseum is a mere shell of its former glory - most of the stone was removed to build other monuments around the city during later times. However, it still remains a reminder of the cruel and violent fights and games that Roman spectators enjoyed nearly 2000 years ago. It is estimated that over 500,000 people and over 1,000,000 animals have died in this arena.

The elaborate games included sea battles where the arena would be flooded or staged hunts where props of scenery were set up to simulate wildness as a humans were pitted against exotic animals. However, the most well known games were gladiatorial contests - battles to the death between criminals, prisoners of war or fighters seeking glory.  Given the choice to be slaves or battle for their freedom, successful gladiators experienced popularity and riches - much like today's athletes. If you haven't seen the movie Gladiator, please stop reading now and go watch it...

Monday, December 7, 2009


A breath of fresh air in Florence
Just northeast of Florence, quiet Fiesole is perched on a hilltop overlooking Florence and the surround Tuscan hills. Founded by the Etruscans 400 years before the Romans settled in Florence, wealthy Renaissance families owned villas here to escape the summer heat and be amongst the olive groves and great views. The weekend after fall break (November 5th), Tom, Zack, Kelley, Beth and I took the bus to explore, take a break from Florence's hectic pace and enjoy the sunset.

The sunset over Florence (Above) 
Fiesole's streets at dusk (Below)

New Travel Hobby: Fun With Signs

No Crossbows on Ryanair?!?! Dang it!
For those of you who follow along regularly, you know that we like imitating statues. Well, with all the traveling we did over fall break (6 flights in 10 days), we found a new form of entertainment: reinterpreting signs. Here are some of the highlights from fall break.

What makes a map gay? Is it attracted to other maps? (Above, Madrid)
Why, yes. Where do we sign up? (Below, Madrid)

Beware of little girls with arms. (Above)

No thumbs up on the subway. (Above)
No thumbs down either. Just don't use thumbs. (Below)

Check your...sign before printing (Above)
Language Fail. You can't just put an "a" or "o" on the end of a word to make it Spanish. (Below)

1. Shake chair to bother person in front of you.
2. Duck and hide from them.
3. Throw a smoke grenade, crawl up and scare them.

1. In case of emergency, open the bag of "Life Vest" brand chips.
2. Remove the free life vest prize.
3. Struggle mightily to put it on, act like Cornholio.
4. Reward yourself with the red licorice.

Please follow steps 1-5 to improve your view. (Above)

If you see a ninja trying to escape (steps 1-4), use your laser vision to set him on fire and stop him!

In case of emergency, pull this red handle. Then scream very loudly. (Below)

Who would actually wear these? Probably these people.
If you are on the "inside" of this inside joke, you'll get the following signs. (Below)


An Incredible Daytip to SINTRA

A Disney-esque castle, wonderland-like gardens, beautiful beaches, small towns and being the Western-most person in Europe - all in a day's work in Portugal!
During one of our days in Portugal, we decided to take advantage of a day trip offered by our hostel in Lisbon - and it was a GREAT choice (if you couldn't tell by the teaser line). Bright and early, we made the drive to Sintra, a fairytale town a little over 30km northwest of Lisbon. Lush and wooded, this hilltop location has been home to many Moorish and Portuguese rulers and nobles and has the castles and estates to prove it.

Palacio de Pena
Our first stop was the Palacio de Pena, a fantasy castle set atop a high hill, surrounded by the sprawling Pena Park and Gardens and Moorish Castle. Created by Dona Maria II and Don Fernando II, the Queen and King of Portugal, in the mid-1800's, this palace is still decorated and furnished (in all of its cluttered glory) as it was when the royal family fled in 1910 (click here for more history). This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal. It's difficult to describe the incredible architecture, gorgeous views of the Portuguese towns and fields and amazing park, so I'll let the photos do the talking (although they don't do it justice either...)

Enjoying the royal view from one of the balconies (above)
Dani, Isabelle, Tom & Zack in the castle courtyard (below)

Climbed up to the "Statue of the Warrior" (above) to enjoy his view of the Castle (below)

We headed back downhill to the quaint town of Sintra below for a Portuguese meal with our eccentric tour guide, Nonno, and our two new Aussie friends. I describe Nonno as eccentric, but I'm not quite sure that explains the whole picture. Whether it was the random outbursts of song and dance (similar to this), the blues music laden with sexual innuendos he played in the car or the strange comments he made (similar to these), it was definitely fun to have him around.

Our next stop in town was Quinta da Regaleira, a beautiful private estate with large gardens spotted with towers, wells and caves connected by a labyrinth of underground tunnels! I felt like a little kid as we giddily explored the dark underground only to pop up somewhere new in the massive gardens (left). This UNESCO World Heritage Site (I know I state that a lot, but there are only 890 UNESCO sites in the world - only 20 in the USA!) was built in the early 1900's for Carvalho Monteiro by the Italian architect and theater set designer Luigi Manini. There is interesting symbolism in the house (right), chapel and park representing Monteiro's beliefs and interests - Masonry, Knight's Templar, alchemy (he had a secret lab!), Rosicrucians. For example, the tunnels represent a trip between darkness and light, death and resurrection.

The Waterfall Lake - we crossed the stepping stones into the underground caves and tunnels (above)
Climbing through one of the unfinished wells (below)

This "castle" (which has access to the tunnels in the center) was home to Zack & Tom in our acorn war. I occupied the tower across from this and we threw nuts at each other and pretended we were warring kingdoms. Yes, we are like little children.(Above)

The tower of Edwardslandia - the victorious kingdom of the gruesome Acorn War. (Below)

Cabo da Roca
We left Sintra and headed for the coast to Cabo da Roca (Cape Roca) - the Western-most point in Europe (therefore, the closest I've been to home in months!). "Where the land ends and the sea begins", it evoked thoughts about the Age of Exploration and a large cross marks the point and greets the ocean. The sheer cliffs, crashing waves and strong winds provided a breathtaking atmosphere for reflecting.

Zack thinking on the edge of the cliff. (Above)

Me and the lighthouse. (Below)

The Coast
After leaving Cabo da Roca, we drove the coast, stopping at a long, sandy beach to enjoy the sunset. There were some great waves - I wish I had a wetsuit and surfboard!

At the beach, jealous of the surfers enjoying the waves! (Above)

A shout out to my Delt brothers back home. (Below)

Literally translating to "Hell's Mouth", this rocky chasm overlooks the endless ocean. Our last stop on the coast, we headed to the nearby beach town of Cascais for some gelato before heading back to Lisbon. October 27th was quite an eventful day (and my brother Paul's 17th birthday - happy birthday from across the pond!)

The front side of Boca do Inferno (Above)
A cross overlooking the ocean at Boca do Inferno at dusk. (Below)

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Lisbon - Easily Likeable.
I immediately liked Portugal - Lisbon just felt welcoming. We were first greeted by an unbelievable sunrise (right) as we flew over Portugal in the early morning. Everyone else was sleeping, but I stared out my window into the horizon until I couldn't see anymore because of the blinding sunlight rising above it. It was a really unique moment, being 30,000ft above a foreign land, quietly watching the sun come up.  I'm no poet, but I wrote a poem about it to remind myself of that moment; perhaps if you are lucky (and I know you won't make fun of me), you can read it some day...

Once we touched down, we hopped on the bus into the city center. Situated on seven hills, Lisbon's ("Lisboa" in Portuguese) cobblestone paved narrow streets are full of character. Bright yellow trams (left) carry people up the steep inclines, the colorful buildings make the street fronts look like a rainbow and the ambiance is laid back and inviting - Lisbon is surprising slow paced for one of the largest and most important cities in the Iberian Peninsula. As I ranted in an earlier post, Tom, Zack, Isabelle, Dani and I were fortunate to stay in a great hostel in Lisbon. From our base camp in Baixa, Lisbon's downtown sector which claims to be Europe's first urban planning, we explored what Lisbon, full of mixed history and differing neighborhoods, had to offer.

We headed through the triumphal arc (aobve, right) at the end of our street to the seafront. As we strolled past the pungent seafood markets and Art Nouveau cafes, we could see the 25 de Abril Bridge which often draws comparison to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fransisco. After taking in the sight and smell of the water (one of my favorite things in the world), we dove back into the city center - here are the highlights.

The Se
The Se, or Santa Maria Maior Cathedral, is Lisbon's oldest church. Built in 1147, this Romanesque church was built to commemorate the city's reconquest from the Moors. Like many buildings in Lisbon, it was greatly damaged in the 1755 earthquake.

Feira da Ladra & Alfama quarter

The Feira da Ladra (Thief's Market) is Lisbon's interesting flea market (see photo, right), open every Tuesday and Saturday, in the Alfama quarter. The Alfama quarter is Lisbon's oldest area. Under Arab rule, it was the city's grandest district, but after the earthquake, the Christian upper class moved out and left the area to the fishermen. Mostly untouched by commercialization, the Alfama quarter still feels very traditional. After the market, we stopped in the Pantheon, or Church of Santa Engracia. There are the tombs and monuments to many famous Portuguese people - writers, explorers, rulers. There was also a large exhibit dedicated to Amalia Rodrigues, the famous Fado singer (Fado is traditional Portuguese music - a cross between the blues and Flamenco).

Castelo Sao Jorge
Located on the highest hill in Lisbon, Castelo Sao Jorge offers splendid views over the city. The site has been occupied since 6th century BC by many different groups - Celtics, Iberians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Roman, Suebic, Visigoths and Moors. This heavily-fortified citadel, dotted with towers and lookouts, has been in its current configuration since the Middle Ages.

Museu Arqueológico do Carmo
Occupying the Convento do Carmo, once Lisbon's largest church, it was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. Still beautiful in its current state, this museum contains artifacts from the original church, real mummies and other cool historical pieces. Located in the Chiado district, which was greatly damaged by fire in 1988, the area has been elegantly rebuilt by Alvaro Siza Viera, Portugal's premier architect and is Lisbon's most affluent district.