Sunday, February 19, 2012

Roamin' in Rome

The train from the airport into the city passes by a series of high rise apartment buildings. Their balconies are filled with trees and trailing plants which spill over their edges., They are lush and green, soaking up the Italian sun even in these early days of November.

We selected our hotel based on it's close proximity to the train station. Using our city map we lug our luggage through the stone streets stopping once to ask if we were headed in the right direction. Upon finding the hotel we cram ourselves and our luggage into the tiny elevator and travel to the 3rd floor reception desk. Since it is early and our room is not yet ready, we store our bags with the hotel and, using a second map provided by them, with the major attractions clearly marked, we head out.

First up, the Coliseum, a comfortable 20 minute walk from the hotel. As soon as we arrive, we are approached and informed that the final English speaking tour of the inside is about to start. This lets us know 2 things:

#1 The tour is about to start

#2 We do not blend!

We decline the tour deciding to experience the magnificent ruin from the outside bypassing the even more ruined inside. We view the Arch of Constantine, which seems somewhat randomly placed, then proceed to the forum.

The forum is an interesting mix of a millenia old terraced area lined with and traversed by the remains of battered columns. I found myself wishing we had a guide book to the area so that I could fully appreciate my surroundings. Ruins of a massive building with arches stands off to one side. To this day I have no idea what it is. I was able to discern Caesar's grave since the word Caesar in Italian appears much like Caesar in English. I, however, have no idea which Caesar it is.

It is fortunate that the perfectly preserved Senate building has sighs in both English and Italian telling you exactly what it is. It's state of preservation could have to do with the fact that this building was rebuilt after the first burned. This replacement Senate building dates from only 350 A.D., new construction by some Roman standards. We left the area descending the Spanish Steps. We did not know they were the Spanish Steps until our return several days later...please bear in mind that we were extremely jet lagged and had been sleepless for hours at this point.

The Pantheon is a remarkable and iconic structure. It is in a perfect state of preservation from it's front portico to it's high center dome. One can feel particularly insignificant as you enter a door used by countless people over it's 2000 year plus history. The floor was reconstructed in the 19th century, but we were willing to overlook that.

The Pantheon resides on one side of a small, almost cramped plaza accessible only by narrow streets. As you exit the building there is a beautiful church on the right, 16th century as I recall. Other equally venerable buildings ring the rest of the plaza. In one of these, dead ahead of you as you exit the world treasure known as the Pantheon, is a McDonald's. We opted for pasta at a hole in the wall around the corner.

We returned down Rome's ancient streets to our hotel. I've often said that New York City buzzes, while my home city of Chicago hums. Rome shares New York City's buzz, and, frankly, it's somewhat cranky natives, but in a setting anywhere from 500 to over 2000 years old. We collected our bags and took them to our room. Small, with a high ceiling, it's multipaned french window as open and looked out on a airshaft. A little underwhelming for our first room of the trip, but since our train left for Venice at 7:00 a.m. the next morning we would not be spending that much time there.

As daylight faded we decided to venture out once more to see the Trevi Fountain. On our way the lights in the apartments gave us a peek at life in the city. One apartment in particular caught my eye because of the vividly painted beams running across it's ceiling. An occasional chandelier or painting could be spotted proudly wearing a patina of age. We arrived at the fountain and joined the other people there. The couples on the steps, both young and old, enjoying the view of the fountain and the time with one another. Some, like us, at the fountains edge joyfully tossing coins backwards over their heads while making a wish, a tradition in Rome. At night this legendary sight is beautifully lit giving our first look at it an almost magical allure.

We dined on ravioli seated outside at a small restaurant around the corner from the fountain. Surveying the ancient buildings around us I observed that someone sitting where we were 500 years ago would have seen the same sights that we were seeing that night. Except, of course, for the scores of scooters, both parked and racing down the streets like hordes of insects.

Early that morning a light rain passed through awakening me. I can be a notoriously light sleeper. I got up and watched the rain fall outside our room's window for a short time before returning to bed.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Florence and Venice and Rome, Oh My!

In honor of my partners 50th birthday, it was decided that we needed to do something BIG! After some discussion, we settled on 7 days in Italy visiting Rome, Venice and Florence. My partner had never been abroad before. It was a 2nd visit to these three cities for me having initially been there in my mid teens.

Obtaining passports was our first order of buisiness. My partners application was processed promptly and he received his passport within a month. Getting mine proved to be somewhat more problemactic. Due to a snafu with my last name, the stringient policies of the U.S. post 2001 and inept employees at the passport agency, it took some time, and several irate phone calls before mine was finally processed and in my hand. At one point, they were requesting 3 I.D.'s, all containing a photo and signature. Some of the options were, a passport (!!?!??!), nilitary I.D., I am a pacifist and have been openly gay since my late teens or a student I.D., I was 48 at the time. I have resolved since that time to never let my passport expire!
All travel arrangements were booked online. This is always a gamble since pictures of hotels and rooms tend to be "edited" to show the properties in their best light. We have since become somewhat more savvy regarding online booking but at this point we were still somewhat new and green to the process.
In November the flights overseas are less numerous than during the summer months. To get to Rome from Chicago required a stop in Toronto. So we had to fly north to travel south, coming and going.

Our departure date arrived and we headed to the airport for our flight(s). Once we landed in Toronto an airport worker, seeing us walking through the terminal, graciously offered us a lift on the back of her motorized cart. After going through security a second time we settled into seats in the shuttle that wopuld take us to the terminal where we would catch our flight to Rome. I looked around and asked my partner "Where is your carry on?" He realized that he had left it at the checkpoint we had just gone through.We raced back, retrieved it and caught another shuttle, arriving at the gate with just minutes to spare.
Flying over the Atlantic is tedious. Flying over the Atlantic at night is even more tedious. Somewhat sleep deprived, we arrived in Rome.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Do You Canoe?

I am aqua phobic. I have been for as long as I can remember. While I have overcome this fear enough to paddle around in a pool or take a cool, refreshing dunk in Lake Michigan on a searing hot summer day, I still will not, willingly, put my head underwater, other than a shower. And, while I have been rolled by an occasional large wave playing in the ocean along Mexico's Pacific Coast, therefore finding my head underwater, the act was not purposeful and is a tale for another day.

With this in mind, when my partner suggested we spend an afternoon canoeing down a river on a camping trip in Michigan, I remember replying something like "ARE YOU MAD!!!" I'm paraphrasing here. I believe I said much the same thing when he first suggested the camping trip. I only relented to remind myself the extent to which I loathed sleeping in a tent when perfectly serviceable motels are nearby. Aside from the hard ground and lack of personal hygiene facilities, bugs love me. Regardless of how much insect repellent I slather on, as evening falls insects flock to the point where I begin to look like I am traveling about in the center of a buzzing fog. Let it be said, here and now, nature and I have our differences.

I do not remember how in convinced me to partake in this aquatic adventure or why I finally agreed to it, but I soon found myself inside a metal boat resembling an oversized gray banana with a red plastic oar in my hand.

It was determined that he would sit in back and use his oar as a rudder to steer the damn thing, while I would sit in front and use my oar to propel us forward when the current was not strong enough to do so. I was also to help keep us on course through the level 1 and 2 rapids we would encounter on our trip down the river.

It was mid August and the river was shallow. Time and the heat of the summer had tamed the rumbling torrent it became in spring when the snow melted filling it's now dry and rocky bed with cool, clear, icy water. A faint line along each of it's banks bore witness to the depth and volume of it at it's peak, but now, at this time of year, it carried us gently and languidly down it's course.

The river's world was quiet and tranquil. A hawk flew overhead and landed among the gray weathered branches of a dead tree which stood along the river's bank. Occasionally tiny fish could be seen swimming past or underneath us.

The first rapids we came across were small and easy to navigate. My partner had instructed me to guide the canoe through the center of the "V" formed by the water as it tumbled over and around the slick, moss covered river rocks. The river's banks would transition between barren rocks and small sand beaches to thick stands of tress which provided welcome cool shade under their overhanging branches.

We stopped and pulled the canoe up onto one of these beaches near our campsite to rest and eat the lunch we had brought with us. My partner had doubted my claim of being an insect magnet. A bee came along giving me an opportunity to prove my point. It immediately flew towards me and began to buzz around my head. "Watch this", I said. Slowly, quietly, I moved several feet away. The bee flew in circles for a moment, then came towards me and resumed it's orbit around me. Slowly, quietly, I moved again, further away this time. The bee followed. I have discovered over the years that covering my head will make an insect lose interest in me. I wrapped a towel around my head and the bee moved on about it's business. From that day on, my partner has understood a portion of my aversion to the great outdoors, at least during fly, bee or mosquito season. We pushed the canoe back in the river and continued on.

The water became deeper and the rapids increased in their ferocity. The metal sides of the canoe clanked as they struck the rocks the water swirled and raged around., Ahead of us a tree branch reached out low across a particularly deep and fierce section of the rapids. I bent over double and went under the branch with only an inch to spare. Then the canoe stopped. The first thought that I had was that my partner in the back had not bent over in time and I would turn around to find him wrapped around the limb miles from any medical help. Cells phones were not ubiquious then as they are now. As I turned I saw him grasping the branch with both hands. He had put his oar up between him and it at the last second. As I struggled to keep the front of the boat steady he "walked" along the branch with his hands until he had maneuvered himself to a point where he could safely pass under it.

After that close call the waters began to calm and the river returned to it's former, more shallow state. A tiny mammal climbed out of the river unto the bank as we passed. We reached a dam where we would have to portage the canoe which signaled that we were neat the end of our journey.

The canoe rental agent met us on the bank and hoisted the canoe into his van as we returned to our rental car. We had traveled only 7 miles as the crow flies but had covered 21 river miles that afternoon. As we drove off a family of deer appeared at the edge of the forest almost as if bidding us farewell.