Friday, March 20, 2009


The original idea of the tour of Italy was to hit the high points, then come back for more leisurely visits. So far, the strategy has been working well. When we were in Roma the first time, we were dashing all about, and didn't have time to look around as much as we'd have liked. So we headed out for a long weekend. Ah, Roma! The weather gods smiled on us again, and despite forecasts of rain, we enjoyed three gloriously clear and temperate days. Enjoy lots more pictures at

We've certainly become adventurous with our travels. When we first came to Europe, we were in the habit of just taking a taxi to our hotel when we arrived at the train station or the airport. It costs more, but it's certainly safer. This time, we took the express train from the airport to the Termini station (arriving around midnight), and then set out with our luggage on our backs to find the hotel. No problems at all. Now, others are still more adventurous. We were talking to a Welsh lady and her daughter on the train. They had boarded without knowing where the train went, and without buying tickets! The lady said, "Oh, it will get us closer to the center of town, and then we'll take a cab." Wow. I don't know if I ever want to get quite that casual.

On the first visit, we'd seen the Vatican and the Colisseum and the Pantheon, which I'd normally consider to be the biggest tourist draws. This time, we began by strolling about the Palatine Hill (which has some ruins, but frankly wasn't that interesting). The Forum more than made up for it. It was interesting to look about and think that this was the center of Western civilization for many hundreds of years. The next stop was the Museo Borghese (in the old Borghese Villa), with its wonderful artwork. Sadly, we couldn't take pictures there. The most notable item was the statue of Apollo chasing Daphne, showing the moment when she was turning into a laurel tree (see the picture at Next was the statue of David. This is not Michelangelo's David, which we saw in Florence...this is another statue showing David putting the stone into the sling, and looking as if he's about to explode into furious motion (see the picture at

We visited the small Etruscan museum not far from the Museo Borghese. It’s easy to forget that the Romans were not the only culture on the Italian peninsula; it took them centuries of hard fighting to take control of Italy, let alone the full empire. Etruscans, Samnites, Sabines….many tribes were forcibly incorporated into the Roman Republic. What’s interesting is that they had their own artistic styles, recognizably not Roman or Greek or Egyptian, though showing some of their influences.

The Welsh lady we'd met on the train was one of a small army of Welsh rugby fans who were coming to Rome for the big game with Italy. When we were looking for a restaurant to eat dinner, we saw a parade of red-shirted fans walking down toward Piazza del Populo. (This made me a bit worried that we'd have trouble getting into a restaurant, but we didn't have any troubles.) They gleefully told us that their team had won. Go Wales!

The next day, we took Metro and bus down south of town to the Via Appia Antica (the Appian Way). This is one of the oldest, and probably the most famous, of the celebrated Roman roads. As a historical note, this was also where the followers of Spartacus were crucified after they'd been defeated....all 6,600 of them, on crosses lining the Appian Way from Roma to Brindisi. Brr. We strolled down the road, seeing various sites including an excavated bathhouse, the tomb of the Metellus family (they were another powerful family in the latter days of the Roman Republic, although they were overshadowed by those darned Caesars), and the Circus of Maxentius (in the old days, Roman politicians would buy the love of the population by putting on big entertainment extravaganzas...for some of these, they created permanent structures that lasted for hundreds of years).

The most interesting thing along the Appian Way was the Catacombs of San Callisto. In the early days of Christianity in the Roman Empire, they had to keep kind of a low profile. The catacombs started as a hidden burial area. As the centuries went by, they kept digging further and further down. The result is a tangled web of corridors, some barely wide enough to walk through, with niches for the burials along the walls. Depending on the wealth of the family of the defunct, some "niches" were more elaborate than others. Some of the early Popes were buried here, when they were just known as the Bishops of Rome, and didn't presume to be the leaders of all Christendom.

One of the special joys of Roma is the churches. Every church you enter is likely to have some unexpected treat. The ones which particularly stick in my mind are the Basilica of San Giovanni and the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. In any other town, these would have been the main attraction, with people coming from miles around to see them. In Roma, they're just another church.

We had bought Roma Passes, which include free entry to the first two attractions, reduced price on many others, as well as Metro and bus transportation. The passes had paid for themselves by the end of the first day. Highly recommended if you plan to visit Rome!

Sunday, March 8, 2009


The latest adventure was a five-day trip to Greece. I’m afraid that we went a bit crazy with the camera again, so there are lots of pictures! You can see them at:


Greece has a lot of history, but its recent history seems to have shaped the modern country more than its ancient history. In broad terms, it was something like this:

- Pre-Classical Greece: before about 800 B.C.

- Classical Greece (including the time of Alexander the Great’s empire): 800 B.C. to 150 B.C.

- Roman Greece: 150 B.C. to A.D. 500

- Byzantine Empire: 500 to 1450

- Turkish occupation: 1450 to 1825

- Modern Greece: after 1825

We’re rapidly losing all fear of driving in foreign countries. Last year we drove all around the French countryside without incident, but in Greece, they don’t even use the same alphabet! How do you react to a sign which says AθHNA? Or worse yet, Kóρινθος? (The first is Athens, and the second is Corinth. ) Given a few minutes, you can puzzle it out. Unfortunately, if you’re barreling down the highway at 120 km/hr, you don’t have that few minutes. Luckily, most of the signs along the highway have English lettering as well as Greek. If there’s a road sign which only has Greek lettering, an American tourist probably has no business going there. Even that isn’t a complete solution; Athens is written as Athina, and Corinth is Korinthos. The worst part was driving in the city of Athens. Once we got off the freeway, all of the signs seemed to have only Greek lettering. It’s difficult driving in any large city, but this adds to the difficulties. With me navigating and Tonya driving, we were finally able to find our hotel.

When we think of Greece, we think of warm Mediterranean weather. But not at this time of year! We brought along our heavy jackets, and we’re glad we did. There was lots of snow on the mountains around Delphi, which had us worried about going further north to Meteora, but we didn’t have any trouble. The first days were the coldest; it was under 40⁰F at Mycenae, with a merciless wind.

Mycenae is one of the oldest sites in Greece. The city had its heyday around 1,700 B.C. , and the foundations date back to 3,000 B.C. Most of the heroes of the Greek legends (Perseus, Theseus, Agamemnon, Achilles, etc.) were Mycenaean. This civilization pre-dated classical Greece (that is, the Greece of Socrates and Plato and Pericles) by about 1,000 years; it was eventually destroyed and replaced by the invading Dorians. It gives you a different perspective on time! The Mycenaeans spoke a very early form of the Greek language, but they used a writing style called Linear B which looks nothing like the Greek alphabet (alpha, beta, gamma, delta,…).

The drive to Delphi was lovely, describing a long oval around the Gulf of Corinth. I imagine that the beaches are packed with people in the summer, but in February, they were pretty deserted. Delphi is hanging from a mountainside overlooking a valley heading down to the gulf. It had landscapes somehow reminiscent of Yosemite, even though it didn’t look at all the same. With Delphi, as with Athens later, we were looking at a site which had been continuously occupied for a very long time. It was originally built around the famous Oracle of Delphi, located in the Temple of Apollo. There were early classical Greek ruins, sometimes overlaid by the later Roman additions. The Romans were great admirers of Greek culture, but that didn’t prevent them from despoiling Greek cities and building their own over the ruins.

Meteora is the site of a number of monasteries built on top of steep rock spires. The first one was begun in the 1300’s. According to legend, the monk who founded the first monastery had achieved such a state of spiritual perfection that he flew to the top of the rock spire. I don’t know what they did during the 400 years of Turkish (Muslim) occupation, but the displays there indicated that the monasteries were thriving in the mid-1500’s. Still, the Greek Orthodox church seems to have missed out on the Renaissance. The interiors of the church were decorated with gleefully grisly depictions of the deaths of the martyrs…and with the Turkish occupation, many of the Greek martyrs were a lot more recent than the Roman Catholic martyrs! There were also good paintings of the scales of judgement, showing damned souls being cast down into the mouth of the Beast.

Despite being such a large city, Athens was a wonderful place to visit. Our hotel was about two blocks from the Acropolis, and the very efficient Metro system allowed us to wander all over the city. Many of the Metro stations have very interesting archaeological displays. Since you can’t dig anywhere in Athens without finding the ruins of something, they incorporated the finds into the displays. Fascinating! The National Archaeological Museum has statuary from pre-classical times all the way to Roman Greece.

Recommendations for Greek travel:

- We rented our car from Swift Car Rentals. They delivered our car to us at the airport (no waiting in line at a rental car counter), and later picked up the car from our hotel in Athens. Very convenient!

- In Meteora, we stayed at the Pension Arsenis, enjoying the warm hospitality of the Arsenis family. Good food, nice views, comfortable room, reasonable prices.