Mediterranean – Western
This is going to be a difficult area to write about as there is so much to see and experience that every country in itself can be enjoyed in detail. We have been to the Mediterranean area a couple of times and I am just going to touch on a few highlights encompassing the visits we made.
I am going to start with the city of Rome in Italy as that place is really the hub of much travel in the Mediterranean area. On our first trip to Europe we flew into Rome, booked a hotel and spent many wonderful days and nights right there before moving onto other places.
During the first day, we simply walked from our hotel to the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain and then to Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica where we saw many beautiful frescoes and learned how they are done (which was a good thing to know about in Rome as one encounters frescoes in almost every church).
We also spent time learning and exploring the metro as that would be our mode of transportation for the next 4 days.
The following day took us to St. Peter’s Square
where we toured a very small portion of the Vatican Museums,
overlooked the Vatican gardens, spent some time in St. Peter’s Basilica
and also in the Sistine Chapel.
The following day using the blue line metro we traveled to Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus) where we began our exploration of ruins by imagining 300 000 Roman spectators cheering as the chariots roared around the ancient racetrack.
Just above Circus Maximus lie the ruins of Palantine Hill where the Emperors lived and from where they were able to watch the races. The standard distance for all ancient races was 7 laps (1 lap was 3/4 of a mile).
Palantine Hill now is a sprawling archeological garden with extensive, not very well marked ruins.
From Palantine Hill we headed into the Roman Forum where there was a great deal of archeological ‘dig’ work going on as well as a lot of restoration happening. The Roman Forum was the nerve centre of the most powerful Western civilization in history for the better part of a thousand years. It is where political decision were made, public speeches heard and market activities took place.
Our tired feet took us on to the Colosseum or Flavian’s Amphitheatre (72-80 A.D.) often thought of as the theatre of slaughter. At the height of the Roman Empire, games were held almost every other day, in times of special celebration, and often would last for weeks or even months. Against swords and gnashing lions’ teeth, gladiators and animal fighters fought to the death. The Colosseum could seat about 65000 Romans who could be seated in the arena in a matter of minutes as there were 80 numbered entrance/exit passageways. The fights in the Colosseum ended in 523 A.D.
The Pantheon, built as a temple to the gods by Hadrian between 118 and 125 A.D., is the best-preserved and most elegant ancient building in Rome.
It has a perfectly hemispherical poured concrete dome open to the sky and larger than the dome of St. Peter’s. The Pantheon also houses the tomb of Raphael.
We visited the San Callisto Catacombs located outside the city walls (ancient Roman law forbade burials within the city boundary). The hand dug tunnels with niches in the walls were massive dormitories for the dead. Christians were buried here between the first and fourth centuries. Only a few are open to the public and all bones and skeletons have been removed from these catacombs and placed in the Basilica (the very first church we saw on our first day in Rome).
From the Catacombs, we traveled by bus to San Giovanni Cathedral in Laterno. This Cathedral is the ‘mother church’ of all churches in Rome and certainly was the most impressive one that we had seen. It was dedicated to St. John. This ‘gold laden’ and ‘statue ridden’ Cathedral dates back to 1646 and the ‘chorus line’ of statues dates from 1735.
Genoa is renowned as Italy’s main commercial port, but also offers plenty of tourist attractions. The historical centre is very near to the port so it is relatively easy to make ones way around on foot.
Genoa has one of the largest historical centres in Europe made up of an intricate tangle of alleyways, called caruggi, that often open up unexpectedly onto small squares where different smells, tastes and cultures mix and mingle.
There are interesting ancient buildings and churches set between stores and shops that have been there for hundreds of years.
A rental car provided us with the transportation to get to Florence and was well worth the anxious moments of parking and finding our way back.
Our first stop in Florence was at the Gothic Church of Santa Croce which holds the tombs and monuments of many famous florentines, among them Galileo, Michelangelo and Machiavelli. Unfortunately, the church was closed to the public.
We sought out Michelangelo’s statue of David which stands beneath the clock tower of the squares’s Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s town hall. It is a copy with the original being housed in a museum, the Galleria dell’Accademia, which we didn’t get to.
We then made our way to the Ponte Vecchio (old bridge). It is Florence’s oldest surviving bridge which was built in 1345. The bridge, most appropriately named The Golden Bridge, has been occupied by goldsmiths and silversmiths since 1593.
On our way to Lucca and Pisa, we enjoyed the countryside of Tuscany which is definitely a place to come back to and to spend time exploring the rolling hill sides which are covered in vineyards and a variety of crops.
Lucca is a quiet ancient city, devoid of the crowds of tourists we encountered in Florence. The streets were narrow and one never quite knew where you were going or where you might end up. After the frenzy of Florence, it was a restful peaceful walk as we explored this quaint old city.
The tower is supported on a shallow stone raft only 3 meters deep. In 1274 when the 3rd story was added, the tower started to lean. The tower has 8 storeys which consists of galleries with delicate marble. In 1990, the removal of earth corrected the lean by 5 inches.
The ruins of Pompei are found about an hour drive from the city of Naples. We booked a tour as we wanted to hear the dialogue on the history of this site.
Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D, burying the town in 6 meters of pumice and ash.
Excavation began only in 1748, revealing a city frozen in time. It is believed that the gases created during the eruption caused the death of people as they were going about their everyday activities. Everything was covered by ashes and rocks – hence it was well-preserved.
The streets were lower than the walkways with stepping stones to get from one side to the other. The stepping stones were strategically placed enabling the chariot wheels to pass through. The stepping stones also provide a dry passage for pedestrians in getting across the street as rain and swill would have been prevalent on the streets. The grooves in the streets would be from the chariots and the marble corners provided the night lights to mark the way.
Some of the excavations uncovered houses, arenas, bakeries, artifacts and bath houses.
It has been learned that the bathhouses were really sophisticated, existing of change rooms, separate baths for men and women, cold baths, tepid baths and hot baths. Each room was thoroughly heated with hot air which came from a central furnace and circulated under the floor.
All of the streets were numbered and named. It would appear that at one time, this site was a very busy active city.
Most of the artifacts from the excavations have been moved to the Museo Archeologico Nationale in Naples, contributing to one of the world’s most outstanding and fascinating archeological collections.
We arrived early morning in the very old city of Dubrovnik, Croatia which was founded in the 7th century. An hour’s walk took us by beautiful scenery and colourful markets to the entrance of the old city which is surrounded by tall walls begun in the 12th century and continued work for 500 years. We entered the old city through the Pile Gate where we discovered the long promenade known as the Placa (Plac-tsa).
Dubrovnik with its medieval walls and historic core in on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Palermo is Sicily’s largest and main city and port. Six of us hired a driver with a mini van for the day. Unfortunately, our driver did not speak English very well so things were a bit of a guessing game.
We walked up to a very strange church which had been built into the rocks high up overlooking the city. In the entrance was the crypt or tomb of a young child. In another niche was a ‘black madonna’. The entire place felt quite eerie. I believe the church was called Montepellegino.
A visit to the catacombs in Palermo is an unforgettable experience and the memory of this will remain with me forever. Unlike those we saw in Rome where there were no bones or skeletons remaining in them, here there were bodies in boxes, in niches along the walls and hanging from the walls.
These catacombs are still used today by well-to-do people who pay a great deal for this service as opposed to burial.
A tour around the Piazza Pretoria took us around a fountain built in 1550 for the garden of a Florentine villa. When acquired by the Palermitan Senate, it became known as the fountain of shame because of its statues of nude.
The land of which Monaco is comprised was bought from the Genoese in 1309 by the Grimaldi’s who remain the world’s oldest ruling family. The Grimaldi family who has shaped the image of this country have managed their degree of independence and always kept Monaco as an exciting country.
Of course we had to stay to watch the changing of the guards in front of the royal palace. We did not get to the tombs of Princess Grace and Prince Rainier (died at 81 in 2005) who reigned for 55 years, which are located in a 19th century Neo-Romanesque Cathedral.
The entire country of Monaco is only half the size of New York’s Central Park.
As we strolled down from the palace, we appreciated the narrow, unique streets of the old city. Monte Carlo, one of the 6 neighbourhoods of Monaco is world known for its casinos. On our way to the Grand Casino, we walked by thousands of yachts – lots of money in the French Riviera.
A statue of Christopher Columbus at the port side of La Ramble helped us to get our bearings. We walked in the early morning down the almost deserted wide avenue of La Rambla, lined with shops, businesses and mimes getting ready for their day. At the end of the day, the wide street was congested with wall to wall people.
To do some exploring of Barcelona, we used the ‘hop on, hop off’ bus.
The influence of Gaudi, the Italian architect, is very evident in the streets of Barcelona and I now have an appreciation of the word ‘gaudy’. La Pedrera, one of Gaudi’s freest works, was built between 1906 and 1910 as a house but today a bank occupies the main floor.
The Sagrada Familia is the great unfinished work by Gaudi (1852-1926). It was his life’s work and he lived like a recluse on the site for 16 years. Gaudi is buried in the crypt of this church. At his death, only one tower on the Nativity facade had been completed. The Sagrada Familia continues to be under construction financed by public subscription. It is to consist of 12 spires – one for each apostle. Each spire is topped by Venetian mosaics. 400 steep steps in each tower allow access to the towers and upper galleries. We didn’t go in as the line-ups were several blocks long and people coming out said that most of the interior was blocked off due to construction.
Barcelona is a very modern city which really cleaned up when the Olympics were held there in 1992.
We ventured up to Tibidabo, the highest part of the mountain range of Collserola and offers superb panoramic views of Barcelona. It took us many steps, a trolley and then a tram car to get there. Unfortunately we hit a cloudy day and there was lots of pollution in the air so our views were not spectacular that day. Tibidabo is an early 20th century temple dedicated to the Sacred Heart and an amusement park which dates back over a hundred years.
We visited a pearl factory
and then the Caves of Drach which are a series of caverns that hide the world’s largest underground lake. They were magnificently eerie but picture taking was not allowed.
The Palma Cathedral, begun in the 14th century with the vaulting being completed in 1587, is an impressive sight as it stand alone along the promenade. In the 19th century, Gaudi remodelled the interior.
In order to explore this area where we were unfamiliar with the language and customs, we chose to book a tour for the day with an English speaking guide. We were glad we did as we found the people in the places we visited to be reserved, aloof and not very friendly toward tourists.
Our first stop was at a graveyard where we were required to pay a Euro to take a picture. According to our guide, the ancient Carthaginians sacrificed their first born son – hence, the numerous child headstones.
Our next stop was at the Bardo Museum, just outside the city center where we were required to pay another Euro to take pictures. This museum holds one of the richest collections of Roman mosaics in the world. The mosaics include the portrait of the Roman poet Virgil, flanked by Clio and Melpomene, muses of History and Tragedy. The collection of artifacts also included statues and jewelry.
The ending for the day trip was a shopping adventure among very aggressive vendors. We didn’t dare stop to even look at anything …………………………. head down and back to the bus!!