A Travellerspoint blog

Florence

We left Amalfi very early Sunday morning with our classmate, Sara. It was nice to know where we were going and already have a place to stay. Sara was studying in Florence. Although I hated waking up so early on my vacation, it was still a little nicer because the buses and the train were not as crowded as usual. Other than another bus ride down a West Virginia mountain road that was about one and a half cars wide, the trip to Salerno for the train was fairly uneventful. Thankfully we arrived in Salerno with plenty of time to purchase our tickets and hop on the Eurostar for our five hour ride to Florence.

I liked Florence a lot. The city was a lot more laid back and everyone seemed to move at a much slower pace than the citizens of Rome. Also, maybe it was just the part of the city I was in, but it seemed like Florence had a lot less graffiti than Rome did. Our first night there my classmate Sara, who had been studying in Florence, took us to a restaurant she knew of. As you can probably expect, I was elated to find it was a buffet. For a mere 8 euro we were able to get a drink and all-you-can-eat buffet. The buffet had a ton of weird stuff on it that I would not touch, i.e., Kenneth and David would not have stepped foot in the door. But they did have some potato salad that blew my mind. Point is, I ate until I basically had to roll myself back to the hotel.

The second day we went exploring a bit. Everything was within walking distance and we were able to hit everything we wanted to see that day in about two hours. Our first stop was Cupola del Duomo.

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This was one of the biggest churches I have ever seen. Also, as with most every other church I had seen in Italy, the architecture and detail was amazing.

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Across the street from Duomo, in the Piazza Duomo, was some other really old building. I have no idea what the building was used for or anything like that, but I was amazed at the detail on the door. This door was actually created in 1401. It just blows my mind how someone can create something so large, yet detailed, so long ago. I wasn’t able to get close enough to get a picture of it, but each square on the door depicts a vivid scene of some historical importance.

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Continuing on, we reached the Palazzo Vecchio. Again, I have no idea what this building was, but it was very Medieval Times-esque.

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In front of the building were a ton of statues. This one is not the actual statue of David, but only a replica of the actual statue. I’ve taken the liberty of censoring it for any young readers in the demographic this blog may reach.

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This next statue was on the other side of the door from David. I have no idea of the story behind it, but they look a little too close for comfort. Maybe they should relocate this one to San Francisco? Again, I censored this one as well. In fact, I should have probably just blacked out the entire picture.

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Finally we got to Ponte Vecchio. This is a bridge spanning the river that actually had apartments or shops of some sort built into it.

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The view from the back of the bridge offered a nice view of the river as it continued away from the city and into the mountains.

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Standing in the center of the bridge and looking down the river gave another great view of the other bridges of the city.

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As we walked back through the streets of the city I saw something that I knew dad would appreciate. Although these street drawings are not the three-dimensional drawings that blow our minds, the detail was still amazing.

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Finally I saw it, the reason things are so expensive in Florence: the cops drive Defenders.

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I guess they have to have some substantial finances to keep these things gassed up and running the streets. They get about eight miles to the gallon. Nonetheless, if I was a cop, I would definitely opt for the Defender over the Mini Cooper that most of the fuzz zip around the city in.

Florence was great and I would love to come back. However, next time I would probably bring more money as there were plenty of things I could buy here that were far too rich for my blood. Now it’s off to Amsterdam for a few more days of fun before “class” starts. See you there.

Posted by bowentg 08:33 Comments (0)

Angels & Demons Tour

On our second day in Rome we decided to go on the famous (Infamous? Depends on your loyalty to the Vatican.) Angels & Demons tour which visited all the places Robert Langdon visited on his quest in the book. Upon meeting our group and tour guide, I was happy to find out that the tour would be focusing on the story told in the book, not the Hollywood version from the silver screen. Even though we had already visited a few of the sights included on the tour the day before, we were still excited to see them again with a tour guide who would be able to apply them to the story better. We first were each given a map of the area and the path of illumination we would be following. Before we began our journey, our guide recapped the book just in case it had been a while since any of us had read it. The only problem with this was that her “brief recap” was almost a live storytelling of the entire book. Patience is a virtue…one which I do not possess. I was quickly relegated to the days of small fry baseball at Lion’s Park and gave brief thought to sitting down Indian-style, blowing huge bubbles with my bubble gum, and then picking it off my face after it popped. Instead I just stomped around and huffed and puffed loudly to express my boredom.

As we began our tour, we reviewed the famous poem of which Langdon used to guide him on his way:

From Santi’s earthly tomb with demon’s hole,
‘Cross Rome the mystic elements unfold.
The path of light is laid, the sacred test,
Let the angels guide you on your lofty quest

-John Milton

The first altar of science on the path was Santa Maria del Popolo. As you may remember, this was the first element of science/death in the story, earth.

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Immediately to the left after entering, we saw the demon’s hole.

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Just below the demon’s hole was the area where the cardinal was found beneath the floor. Our guide explained to us that since the popularity of the book and the subsequent movie, the priest of del Popolo has since covered the area to preserve its sacredness.

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Also, we were unable to see the angel pointing the way because it too was hidden.

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To get to the second altar of science we took an air-conditioned bus. Being crippled and hot natured, this delighted me. The second altar of science was St. Peter’s Basilica.

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The element of science of the second altar was air. When we approached the basilica, I noticed how difficult it was for Langdon to find the correct symbol. There are approximately sixteen different tiles surrounding the basilica. All of them represent the element of air, and all are pointing a different way. However, being the craft symboligist he is, Langdon knew precisely which one to follow: the only one written in English.

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The third altar of science we visited, the element of fire, was Santa Maria della Vittoria.

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Vittoria was magnificent. There was not an inch of it, inside or out, that was adorned with some sort of mural or decoration. It was almost to the point of being gaudy. However, I found this painting on the ceiling to be amazing.

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All the way at the back in the center was the altar where the cardinal was suspended and being burned from the stack of flaming pews beneath him. If you look closely to the sides, you can see the cables running down from the ceiling on which the cardinal was strung from.

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This was the church where Langdon and the police almost caught the assassin. It was here that the assassin was still in the church when Langdon & Co. arrived. As the assassin began picking off the police, Langdon scrambled for cover and hid in the only place of refuge he could find: under the sarcophagus.

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However, if you notice in the picture, the tomb Langdon crawled under actually has no space between the tomb and the floor. The body in the tomb was actually a bit creepy. It was her actually skeleton with a wax molding placed over it. If you looked closely in her hands and fingers you could see the bones. A bit weird if you ask me.

Here are the angels pointing the way to the fourth altar of science. However, I would like to note here that they are actually pointing the wrong way. But hey, I didn’t write the book.

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The fourth altar of science, water, was Piazza Navona.

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It was here that the assassin dumped the chained cardinal into the fountain and left him to drown. I was unable to show any kind of depth in the water, but just to let you know, it would be next to impossible to drown in this fountain. Regardless, I really liked this fountain. Maybe it was just the heat outside and all I wanted to do was jump in and float around in the cool water.

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Finally, our tour led us to Castel Sant’ Angelo where Langdon had his final showdown with the assassin. This place was very cool and I loved the bridge of angels leading to the castle.

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Especially after seeing the movie it was kind of creepy walking up the winding paths in the castle. Our guide told us there were very few steps inside the castle because the soldiers and such used to ride their horses throughout and up to the top during battles and times of danger.

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Here is a nice view from the top of the castle looking down on the bridge of angels.

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Once inside the castle we visited the room where Langdon and the assassin had their battle royale. Sadly, no pictures were allowed in here. However, the room looks nothing like it does in the movie or is described in the book. It’s actually very beautiful with intricate tiling on the floors and vivid paintings on the walls and ceiling.

I did notice some sort of covered brick walkway spanning all the way from the Vatican to the castle where it connected.

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Our guide told us that back in the day the Pope would escape the Vatican and seek shelter within the castle where soldiers could guard him closely during times of battle. This “secret passage” actually runs from the Pope’s apartment in the Vatican to the castle. Not too secret anymore if you ask me. Although, if I had members of the Swiss Guard to protect me as he does now, I think I would feel fairly safe. I am told that the Swiss Guard is pretty much the equivalent of American special forces soldiers. Of course, that can’t be that ruthless, can they? I mean, look at them:

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During the tour we also got a brief tour of the Pantheon because we walked by it during the tour.

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The Pantheon was an amazing piece of architecture and it amazes me that it was built so long ago and has stood strong through the years. I’ll admit that I was completely oblivious to the fact that the Pantheon has a giant hole in the center of the domed roof.

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So of course I wondered what happened when it rained? I mean, if it was a massive downpour, that place would flood like downtown Charleston. But our tour guide explained to us that the floor in the building was actually slopped to the center, sort of like a shower drain, and has tiny holes in the floor for the water to escape.

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Finally we got to see the coliseum. However, we didn’t have time to see much of it so we didn’t want to waste the money to see it on the inside. One of the seven wonders of the world? Eh, I’ll catch it next time.

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The A&D tour was great and I am certainly glad we fit it in our schedule. It was a great way to wrap up our time in Rome. Tomorrow we head to the Amalfi Coast, Italy. I hope to have some great stories there. I’m looking forward to being on a beach and some cold water to jump into!

Posted by bowentg 08:16 Comments (0)

Rome

Hindsight is always 20/20, isn’t that what they always say? Well, suffice to say, it certainly would have been much wiser to simply fly into Rome rather than attempt to make the journey via train from London. I knew prior to the trip that our rail journey would take us from London to the Gare du Nord station in Paris. Once in Gare du Nord, we would have to purchase a separate ticket on the “luxurious” overnight “sleeper” train from Paris to Rome. More on the “sleeper” status later. So, we left London and had a pretty easy trip of about two hours. We did, however, ride through the underwater “chunnel” crossing the channel. Although this would have been much cooler if the chunnel had some sort of windows or portholes to see the ocean. Other than that, it was simply a black tunnel that made my ears pop incessantly.

As we rolled into Gare du Nord, the first thing I noticed was the graffiti. It was everywhere. It reminded me of New York City…but worse…even though I’ve never been to NYC. Yep, another reason the USA is so much better than France. Gee, I hadn’t even stepped foot on French soil yet and I was already being cynical. This, coupled with the fact that Kate said the station was in a pretty seedy area of town, and I was not anxious to experience the scene. At least I was only changing trains there. It couldn’t be that bad…could it?! Yes. It could, and it was. As the train grinded to a halt, I heard the unmistakable sounds of a very chaotic protest of some sort taking place in the station. Great, here it goes, I thought to myself. As I stepped off the train I heard some frenchie screaming something I obviously could not understand from his megaphone followed by about four or five minutes of chanting, flag waving, screaming, and beating on the tables and boxes. And it continued to cycle as such the entire time I was there. Of course, I at least wanted to know what they were so happy about or so adamantly opposing, but I could not understand their words nor read their flags. So I assumed it was pointless and stupid. Cynicism – ain’t it great? All I wanted to do was get my ticket for the overnighter to Rome and get the heck out of dodge as fast as possible. After wandering for about twenty or thirty minutes, we finally found the correct ticket counter. Naturally it was the counter with the longest line in the whole joint. We purchased our ticket and were informed that our train to Rome was actually leaving from the Bercy station…not Gare du Nord. However, we of course made certain that we would not be sharing our cabin with anyone else. I asked the cashier if we had time to make it to Bercy. He informed me I certainly did and that we either needed to take Train X to Station A where we would switch to Train Y and ride it to Station B. Upon arrival at Station B, we had two options: we could either jump on the bus to ride the rest of the way to Bercy, or we could walk down a dirt road for about ten minutes to reach Bercy. Now, let’s think about this, I’m already sweating like a Bowen on an August afternoon in Columbia and as angry as Kenneth with a tube of toothpaste as a victim…do you think I opted for the bus or to drag my 50 lb. suitcase down a dirt road? Exactly, I decided on the bus. Seems simple enough, right? Wrong. We had about fifteen minutes to reach Bercy and we still had to fight through the mob of protesters at Gare du Nord and purchase rail tickets. We decided to use the self-serve machine to purchase rail tickets because that would be the quickest and easiest. Wrong. All the instructions were in French and my debit card would not work. More anger. So I had to hurry and get in yet another line to purchase the ticket while Kate stayed with the self-service machine to try it with her card. More anger, in fact, it’s becoming dangerous to my health at this point. Finally we get the tickets, and we’re hustling to the subway, “Home Alone” style. In fact, I’m pretty sure I heard “Run, Run Rudolph” on the house stereo. Somehow, by an act of the big man himself, we made it to the end of the line at Bercy. We jumped off the train and asked the first attendant we saw how to get to the rail platforms for Bercy. “Oh, it’s just up those stairs,” she said. So we hustled to the stairs, and I lugged my suitcase as well as Kate’s, because I’m a gentleman (a total weight of close to 100 lbs.) up 53 stairs, yes I counted. Turned the corner, 28 more stairs. I finally made it up those and started to see daylight. Now my blood pressure is starting to decrease back towards a healthy level. However, as the daylight grew brighter, I realized something else that caused another speed bump in my heart rate: more stairs. I can’t make this stuff up. What is the deal, France?! Ever heard of the Americans With Disabilities Act?! You should have one too! How about implementing one too and help us cripples out with an elevator or something. Before I made the journey up what I thought was the last flight of stairs, I had to stop and rest. I felt like I was in the middle of one of Coach T.J.’s August football practices. I’m sure David knows what I mean when I say I was about to “monkey in the heat”. Nonetheless, I made it up the last flight of stairs, handed off Kate’s bag to her and still had another quarter-mile hike through the streets and sidewalks to make it to Bercy. As we rounded the corner and saw Bercy, there it was: another flight of stairs…the biggest yet. I must say here that I am not embellishing whatsoever for dramatic effect. The stairs of the Paris rails will haunt me to the day I die. However, as we approached the stairs, Kate spotted the escalator and was thrilled to point it out to me. I raced toward the escalator only to have my dreams crushed when I saw they were not in operation. Probably another kid playing on them and they had to shut ‘em down. Regardless, I made it up the stairs, looking like I had just climbed out of a swimming pool and we made it to the train with about three minutes to spare.

When we got on the train I was anxious to check out how spacious our “sleeper” cabin was since we had at least a ten hour ride. I’ll just say this: I’ve never been claustrophobic in a room or space specifically designed for people to sleep in. The entire cabin was about 6’ x 6’. Somehow it managed to have two bunk beds in it. However, it made my freshman dorm in Snowden look like The Ritz. At that point I just didn’t care anymore, I was just ready to leave Paris. Thankfully we had a nice American woman and her son from Oregon next door. So at least we had some friends to chat with.

We finally arrived in Rome and I had the worst case of cabin fever known to man. After stretching my legs and teaching myself how to walk again, we went to the Vatican to preview some sights before taking a guided tour. We saw the typical sights of the Vatican and I was finally treated to my first true Italian food: a ham and cheese toasted sandwich from a street vendor. It. Was. Phenomenal. The only thing I can say about these sandwiches is that I lived off of them almost the entire time I was in Italy.

Posted by bowentg 08:15 Comments (0)

London

The next transatlantic flight I take, I’m really giving serious thought to selling doughnuts, a kidney, something to have enough money to fly first class. Seven hours on a plane is miserable. I couldn’t get comfortable, I couldn’t sleep. If my spine looked like a question mark prior to the flight, it looked like the letter S after the flight. However, if there was any silver lining to the flight it was the entertainment selection. I had my own choice of about four or five movies as well as four or five different TV shows. I was very fired up to see one of the shows available was The Mentalist, which has quickly become my new favorite show. Too bad every episode they showed I had already seen. Kate decided to opt for 27 Dresses or You’ve Got Mail or some other chick flick. Thankfully I had my laptop loaded with a couple seasons of Boston Legal and season 10 of Friends, arguably the best season ever.

Regardless of how stove up I was when I climbed off the oversized Cessna, I quickly forgot about it once I felt the London air. The last outside air I remembered was the mid-nineties of the South and it was a cool, crisp 60 degrees in London.

We stayed in an area just outside the city called West Byfleet. Thankfully, Kate had a friend, Alistair, who lived there and was gracious enough to pick us up from the airport and offer his flat for us to crash in for the night. The only slight problem initially was the size of his car. Don’t get me wrong, if I lived in a European city, I’d have the smallest car possible. All I am saying is that it is not very conducive to transporting our massive pieces of luggage.

After getting settled in, Kate, Alistair and I took the train into the city to do some sightseeing. I decided to leave my fanny-pack at home for this one. We first went to see the London Eye.

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The London Eye is the biggest ferris wheel I have ever seen. I mean, seriously, look at this thing, the rusty death wheel at the S.C. State Fair ain’t got nothin’ on this beast of a ride.

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The wheel had a series of pods for passengers to stand in encased in glass for riders to see the city as it rose higher and higher. It offered a great view of downtown.

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As we began our descent down, we were given a great view of the river just past Parliament and Big Ben.

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Look kids: Parliament, Big Ben!

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After seeing the city from the sky, we moved on to see Buckingham Palace. There wasn’t much to see here, and I guess the queen wasn’t in. Nevertheless, Buckingham was pretty massive and had a cool fountain out front.

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Finally we went to Parliament in hopes of getting a glimpse inside and possibly seeing a debate if they were in session. They were in session but we were informed we would have to wait in line for possibly up to two or three hours to get in to the chambers. So we just got to walk around the outside and view the architecture.

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Overall I enjoyed London and was not looking forward to the language barrier that was ahead in Italy. Tomorrow we leave for Rome. See you in Italy.

Posted by bowentg 08:03 Comments (0)

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