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And Now, the University of Oxford August 10, 2011

Posted by Joseph Mattingly in Travel Log.
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Word is that people think it’s really amazing when you tell them that you attended the world-famous University of Oxford, so that’s the story I’m going to stick with.  When we rolled into Oxford, England, after a journey on the northern shores of continental Europe, through the Chunnel, and halfway through England, we got our first glimpse of our new home for the next month.  Nearly two hundred Georgia Tech students converged on the campus of Oxford’s Worcester (rhymes with rooster, with a slightly shortened ‘o’ or ‘u,’ and in a Commonwealth accent) College to begin the next phase of the Oxford Summer Program.  Before I go any further and make things any more confusing, you should know how the University of Oxford works.  There are several (thirty-eight to be precise, I believe) colleges that are collectively referred to as the University of Oxford.  Each college functions as its own unit, with students living and taking classes on their college’s campus, but they are all students of the University of Oxford.  Students apply to U. Oxford and are sorted into colleges (like Harry Potter, but without mangy talking hats) where they remain for the duration of their studies.  We were sorted, if you will, to the beautiful campus of Worcester College, but not as students of the University of Oxford.  (Our official designation was conference guests.)

On the sacred lawn thou shall not walk.

Oxford is a truly wonderful little town.  Down the street from Worcester is the Eagle and Child Pub, which is notable as the location where Lewis Carroll and JRR Tolkien would meet and write stories that would captivate the minds of the slightly crazed and D&D fanatics, respectively.  Okay, maybe I shouldn’t make unfair blanket assessments based upon my high school English teacher.  It’s crazy to think that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Lord of the Rings were both crafted less than a mile from my Oxford residence.  All of the colleges of the University of Oxford are like castles.  Around each campus is a tall stone wall with a grand portal at the front where entrants are met by the porters, the college keepers.  At Worcester, when one walks through the Porter’s Gate, he/she is met to the majestic sight of the sacred lawn.  As music teacher Ron Mendola describes it, the sacred lawn “has existed for the sole purpose of being mowed twice a week for the last 700 years.”  This means no walking on the sacred lawn.  Surrounding this quad are an abandoned monastery (also about 700 years old), an 18th-century building, and a low, ivy-covered wall.  It is really quite quaint.

Oxford (the city, as well as parts of the University) hold the distinction of being filming locales for the Harry Potter movies.  Unfortunately, these are the venues in town that charge admission fees, so I was peer-pressured into losing money on seeing these locations (which at least turned out to be rather interesting).  I was personally eager to see the University’s Queen’s College, where Daniel Faraday (LOST, anybody?) had his lab, but the college does not admit visitors.

Albert Einstein had nice handwriting.

In my opinion, though, the most interesting venues in Oxford are the free ones.  Christchurch College (which is allegedly on its own time zone of GMT-0:05/BST-0:05) has beautiful meadows which lead down to the Thames and some of its tributaries.  This makes for some enjoyable strolls on a sunny afternoon.  Oxford also has its fair share of free museums, including the Ashmolean (a watered-down version of the British Museum in London), which is the oldest museum in the world, the Pitts River Museum, which supposedly inspired Diagon Alley, and my personal favorite, the Museum of the History of Science, which houses scientific artifacts like Albert Einstein’s black board.

Without a doubt, Oxford is a wonderful place to live, but, as you will see in upcoming posts, the real fun is elsewhere about England.  Until then, cheerios!

Addendum:  Other random pieces of trivia from my Oxford adventures.  The first sub-4:00 mile was run on an Oxford track.  The track itself is quite anticlimactic, with only a vague reference in the form of a cafe which may or may not actually exist.  Boyle discovered his law and Hooke first observed the cell at the University, and there is a plaque on the High Street commemorating such.

Ladies and “Ghent”-lemen, Waffling about Leaving Continental Europe August 7, 2011

Posted by Joseph Mattingly in Travel Log.
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Belgium is one of those countries I will not be making an extra effort to remember.  For one, by the time we rolled into Ghent, I had been so graciously given the plague that had been circling around our bus.  Also, it turns out that Belgium isn’t so renowned for exciting things to do or remarkable things to see.  On top of that, it marked the end of the travel stage of the Oxford Summer Program, and most of us were getting tired of living out of suitcases.

We based our Belgium adventures out of the small town of Ghent.  Our hotel was right across the street (probably best described as a widened  cobblestone path) from St. Bavo’s Cathedral, which is most notable as the home of the Ghent (go figure) Altarpiece.  The fact that we would be “sleeping across the street from the Ghent Altarpiece” caused our art teacher to go into a fit of excitement and hysteria.  Checking into the hotel was no better.  I was quite irked when I was told that I would have to wait to check in because they were still cleaning my room.  This was 2 o’clock in the afternoon, well after the hotel check-in time, and I waited impatiently in the lobby for over an hour and was given the honor as the last one to check in.  After stashing everything away in my room, which had a caustic stench of cleaning chemicals, I asked the front desk for the location of a laundromat, whereupon they sent me off to a vague location where, after walking for quite a while, I determined no such facilities existed.  I was then sent about as far as you can walk without actually leaving Ghent to a laundromat.  Fortunately, I now had clean, dry clothes, but unfortunately, it began to rain on the way back to the hotel.  I was not amused at Mother Nature’s pitiful sense of humor.  To add insult to injury, I was later informed that the front desk had dispatched other members of our group to a much closer laundromat that actually existed.  Enough of that though…

Our first full day in Belgium took us on a quick stop across the street to see the Ghent Altarpiece, which was only slightly more impressive than the picture we had seen in our lecture slides.  Immediately following, we boarded our bus where we were carted off to Brussels, where our Belgian bus driver was kind enough to give us a tour of his home city.  I found the tour quite nice, except that I couldn’t hear parts of it (from the front of the bus, no less) because several members of the group were disrespectfully loud and generally annoying (and it only got worse).  Then, our bus driver made the mistake of mentioning some bar that sold thousands of types of beer, or something like that, which the bus decided was an invitation to go drinking.  So, en masse, the entirety of Travel Group 1 disembarked the bus and wandered through the streets of Brussels to find this bar.  There, everybody (leaders included) except the bus driver and me, decided to indulge themselves in at least one very large beer stein.  At this point, I was sufficiently uncomfortable that I left the wretched place to wander the streets of Brussels by myself.  I did find a delicious, affordable panini shop where I had a very satisfying lunch.  When the group eventually began arriving back at the bus, the situation started going downhill very quickly.  One student simply never came to the bus, so one of the group leaders and a couple students went to find him and take a train back to the hotel.  Many of the others were very much drunk, some to the point where they were vomiting on the bus or had passed out.  From there, our bus driver took [the conscious among] us to his son’s house, where his son ran a chocolate business.  For the sober, this was a fun way to experience the art of chocolate-making and to acquire some delicious Belgian chocolates.

The following day, we were given the opportunity to go to the quaint town of Brugge, which I happily accepted.  Brugge was a nice Northern Renaissance city with fine window shopping, scenic restaurants, and, most importantly, affordable Belgian waffles.  Mine was a delicious combination of waffle, sugar, a huge mound of strawberries, and a little more sugar.  It was delicious.

Finally, it was time to leave for England and the University of Oxford.  We loaded our bus onto the Chunnel train and made our way to the United Kingdom, where we could drive on the wrong side of the road and read signs in ever-familiar English (duh) units.  More on that in my next post, though.

Crêpes, Croissants, Planes, and Paris August 5, 2011

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Bonjour, people.  Paris holds the distinct honor on our trip of being the city in which we spent the most consecutive days (except, of course, Oxford, which doesn’t really count because that’s not really the travel portion of our trip), which, given the accommodations, was most certainly not the brightest idea in the world.  That aside, it turns out that Paris is a pretty interesting city.

Getting to Paris ranks among the less desirable parts of the trip.  After 14 hours on a bus (and in departure of Prague, no less), I came to the conclusion that ground-based transcontinental transportation is not my cup of tea.  Nevertheless, since every cloud has a silver, faux-silver, or off-silver lining, we were treated to a nighttime view of the city of Paris and the Eiffel Tower as we rode into the city.

On our first day in Paris, we took a class trip to the Musee d’Orsay, a museum specializing in Impressionist and Realist art.  Since I am not particularly enamored with either of those styles (I like Surrealism, Cubism, and ancient art), I found much more interesting my travel to and from the museum.  Not willing to spend money on the faster, more convenient underground transportation and also wanting to see more of Paris, I traveled on foot to the d’Orsay.  Along the way, I found the French Military Museum, most notable for housing the magnificent tomb of Napolean.  I really wanted to see this, but there was an entrance fee, and it would not have been a wise use of my time since I had to rendezvous with the rest of the class at the museum at a certain time.  It was here that I got my first good glimpse at the Eiffel Tower and the Seine.  On the return from the d’Orsay, I decided to walk the entirety of the legendary Avenue des Champs-Élysées, which was a bit more of a task than I had expected.  Starting at the Louvre end, I pushed my way through huge throngs of people toward the Arc de Triomphe.  Along the way, I had a run-in with a Georgia Tech graduate who was on vacation that week.  A bit later, I found myself at the end of the Champs where the Arc de Triomphe stands in the middle of what must qualify as the world’s most absurd roundabout.  It turns out you have to walk underground to get to the Arc, which is a good thing, because there’s no way anybody could ever cross on level without getting hit by at least 50 cars.  If pedestrian travel around the Arc was a video game, and getting there was novice difficulty, getting away would be classifiably mythic.  There are no fewer than eight roads feeding into this nightmarish roundabout, and the one I needed to take to walk to the Eiffel tower necessitated crossing the most number of these feeder roads.  I must stress that despite the fact the Eiffel Tower looks just like a pile of metal trusses, it is truly magnificent when standing beneath.  The shear enormity of the structure is awe-inspiring.  For those curious and not, I did not shell out the steep asking price to ascend to the top of the tower.  Later that night, our music class went to a jazz club, which was interesting, but irksome to get to and from after dark.

Because what else to you take pictures of in Paris?

The second day in Paris was dedicated solely to the Louvre.  When one considers the amount of work in the Louvre, it is easy to understand why we would spend the whole day there.  You may be happy or sad to note that I got my tacky tourist picture of the Mona Lisa.  I’m not including it in this post, because it really won’t add any value, and it isn’t difficult to find nearly identical pictures elsewhere.  The museum was enjoyable but tiring, and as it is just another museum with lots of art in it, I will leave it at that.  On our way back from the Louvre, we stopped by Notre Dame, the famous Gothic cathedral where we were unable to locate any hunchbacks, whatever those are.

The third day in Paris, Sunday, June 26, was a completely free day where we could do whatever we wanted.  For me, that was the Paris Air Show.  That Sunday just happened to be the last day of the biannual Paris Air Show, and I, an aerospace engineer, had a 100% free day to attend.  Talk about exciting.  Tickets were €13 apiece, but I would argue they were worth a lot more than that.  I would have gone out to the airfield (which was on the opposite side of Paris in relation to our hotel) first thing in the morning, but I had to pick up my ticket, which was only obtainable at one store on the Champs that didn’t open until noon that day.  On top of that, the bus that stopped at the air show got stuck in the horrendous traffic of like-minded aerospace enthusiasts.  The air show was fantastic in every way from the vendor displays (vendor, as in airplane salespeople, not popcorn salespeople) to the static aircraft displays to the live aerial demonstrations.  They even had an ESA (European Space Agency) hangar and a couple rockets, including the Ariane V, on display.  It follows, thus, that I was very disappointed when the time came to leave.

Our last day in Paris was given to a tour of the opera house, which was very similar to our excursion in Vienna, and the Pompidou museum, which is dedicated to modern art.  By this point, we were all starting to get a bit tired of Paris and were ready to move on.

Paris was a lovely segment of our trip, and the Paris Air Show was definitely my favorite part.  Going into the trip, I didn’t think I would like Paris so much, but I was pleasantly surprised, and I even left myself more things to do if I go back.

Czech Marks the Spot: Praha and Má Vlast July 4, 2011

Posted by Joseph Mattingly in Travel Log.
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First of all, Happy Independence Day (or Good Riddance Day, as they call here) from the British Isles.  I regret to inform you that all pyrotechnic devices are strictly discouraged in the 700-year-old tinderbox that is the Worcester College of the University of Oxford.  More on that later.

There are so many great things about Prague that I don’t even know where to begin.  Also, in a futile attempt to salvage what is left of what might be my significantly thinned-out readership, I will warn you in advance of the multitude of really bad Czech puns.  If this would cause you to stop reading my blog, this might not be a bad post not to read.

In preparing for our adventures in Europe, I was most eager about and had the highest expectations for Prague.  I am 25% Czech and extremely proud of that heritage.  I took a Czech name (Wenceslas, the one with a Christmas song) for my Confirmation.  I watched Czech cartoons at my grandparents’ house.  I loved my Czech ancestry.  Obviously, there was a bit of pro-Czech bias on my part on the travel portion of the trip.  As a special multimedia treat, I offer you a bit of fine Czech music for your listening pleasure while you read or don’t this entry.  It is “The Moldau” from Smetana’s Má Vlast.  “The Moldau” tells the story of the Vlatava River (also called the Moldau) which flows through Prague as a part of a seven-piece collection which, when translated into English, means “My Country.”  If you are particularly inspired (or just need more than 13 minutes of background music to read this blog), use your favorite music listening service to check out the rest of Smetana’s Má Vlast.

^Hit the play button!

So, Czech out my adventure in Prague.  We drove to Prague through some of the most beautiful Czech countryside in all of Europe.  (Aha! you say.  The only Czech countryside is in the Czech Republic.  You would be correct, but realize that this just means that the Czech countryside is the most beautiful in Europe.)  This was especially true after driving through kilometer after kilometer of Bavarian hops fields in (you guessed it) Bavaria, Germany.  It was finally nice to see accent marks that we haven’t seen before on letters that we would never accent (consonants) to make sounds that are very clearly not there in the spelling.  When we finally rolled into Prague, the beauty and wonder was no less.  After crossing the Vlatava, which is a much more impressive river than any in the other European cities we have explored, we pulled in front of the hotel in a matter of minutes.  The hotel was fantastic, and the welcome dinner delicious, but this is a post about Prague, not our hotel, so I digress.

Because we had to take our art midterm on the first morning in Prague, we were given the rest of the day off.  Armed with a map and a list of things to do in Prague courtesy of my aunt and grandmother, also known as the Czech aficionados, I set out into Prague with a few friends for an afternoon of exploring the capital of my homeland.  First on the destination list was Old Town Square, the heart of Prague.  The main fixture in Old Town Square is the Astronomical Clock, which you see in the picture to the right.  Being the curious Tech students we are, one of our main interests was ascending to the scenic top deck of the clock tower, which cost a mere 50 Kč (16 Kč = US$1), which was by far the least expensive ascension rate of any of the European ascendable monuments.  The view from the top was incredible, as there was an excellent 360° panorama of the entire city.  Next was the church of St. Nicholas, a very small, but very fancy chapel that made for a great quick photo shoot.  We then made our way to the old Jewish ghetto, which is a significant part of the history of Prague.  At that point, I found that I didn’t withdraw enough Czech money from the ATM, and thus only had 50 Kč, so we had to tour the Jewish monuments from the outside.  (Admission was over 100 Kč!)  Perhaps most notable is the old Jewish cemetery.  The density of graves can only be well-serviced by a picture, and this is just the small part we could see through a small fissure in the wall.

The final stop on our journey was to Wenceslas Square, the new city center, which is bustling with activity.  Most importantly, at the top of Wenceslas Square is a monument to St. King Wenceslas.  It was a personal high-point in the trip to meet the memorial to my patron and the patron of the Czech people.  (Fun fact, Czech Statehood Day, September 28, coincides with the Feast of St. Wenceslas!)

Me and my man Wenceslas

Our second, and unfortunately last, day in Prague was more class-oriented.  We made our way to the charming Charles Bridge (which actually was also done the day before on our explorations, but was left unmentioned because a certain blogger forgot to Czech his work…), an old bridge central to Prague history filled with statues of many Czech notables.  From there, we ascended the hill/mountain to the Prague Castle, which is actually more of a cathedral than a castle.  The Castle is notably home to such things as the remains of St. King Wenceslas (again, not seen on account of budgetary concerns) and the Defenestration of Prague, which sparked the Thirty Years War.  (Ask me about the Thirty Years War in person.  There are some non-PG things recounted by my high school history professor/demigod that will not be recounted here.)  The Castle was absolutely beautiful inside and out, but even more impressive was the view from atop the hill, which overlooked the city.

Equally important to my Prague experience was souvenir shopping.  I should probably preclude this account with charming stories of my Czech-influenced childhood.    There is a quite wonderful Czech cartoon that most Americans have not seen (and that’s their loss) called Krtek (Czech for “the Mole”), of which I have seen many episodes on account of my relatives bringing home Krtek VHS’s from the Czech Republic.  When I saw a plush Krtek in a souvenir shop, I knew I had to get it, as Krtek was an important part of my childhood.  Because Krtek is a licensed product (think about trying to get a plush Bugs Bunny), I nearly had to sell a kidney to come up with the funds to meet the price tag.  Fortunately, as you may recall from earlier, I am part Czech, and I had full intention of using this to my advantage.  After sweet-talking the clerk with stories of growing up watching Krtek and my incredible pride in my Czech heritage, as well as throwing in some Czech words here and there, I was able to get a nice discount and nice souvenir from my homeland.

The worst part of all was leaving.  I had very few intentions of leaving because I loved the place so much.  Even though I can Czech Prague off on my list of places I’ve been, you can bet I’ll be back again for a much longer rendezvous with my ancestral land.  Until next time, dobrou noc!

Das Münchentrip July 2, 2011

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After Venice, Munich was a welcome relief.  A very modern city (mainly on account of the handsome bombing job the Allied Forces did in World War II), Munich was easy to navigate, had a distinctly Bavarian air about it, and gave me numerous opportunities to practice my fake German (mainly consisting of compounding long strings of words and adding “das” or “die” or “der” to the front).  Bavaria is home to many cultural commodities of our global community, including the Bavarian Motor Works (BMW, though I think I saw more Volkswagens), large pretzels (yum!), cuckoo clocks, and the delectable Haribo gummy bears.  As a nice house warming gift, the hotel gave every resident a nice little packet of Haribo gummy bears on their pillows, that is, everybody except the residents of my room.  To say I was angry is a bit of an understatement, so I’m still pretty bitter about that.  But, alas, Munich.

In what was probably an effort to validate all existing stereotypes about Munich, our art and music lectures were held in a beer hall.  Like a Starbucks in the United States, beer halls and gardens (and whatever other assemblage they come in) can be found in densities of at least one every 200 meters.  I think this gave a few of the students too many bad ideas.  After our first set of lectures, we ventured across town in the rain (now accepted as a will-happen on any occasion) to the Glyptothek, a museum housing Greek and Roman antiquities, or, more simply, an old sculptures museum.  There were some very interesting sculptures and mosaics there including statues from the pediment of a Greek temple and a gallery of marble heads awkwardly staring at the museum guest as he or she entered that particular hall.  We had the rest of the day off, so I walked to the main city square where the city hall has a colossal cuckoo clock tower fondly known as the Glockenspiel.  After standing in the rain to watch the clock come alive on the hour (for a whole ten minutes, too!), I wandered into the souvenir shops where my hopes of acquisitioning a much more modestly-sized cuckoo clock was shot out of the sky with the great multitude of consecutive digits on the price tag (100€, 500€, 1000€, 1500€, etc.).  Similarly my hopes to acquisition a Germany men’s national football (real football, not that American game) team (a.k.a. the best in the world) jersey were brought down by the price tags.  Fortunately, a bag of five giant pretzels only cost 1.19€.

The next day, our art adventures leaped forward a couple millennia to the Alte Pinakothek, a museum filled with lots of non-ancient (post-1400), non-modern artworks (pre-1900).  At this point, it is difficult to say anything exciting about an art museum since I’ve already recounted several of these adventures, so I will refrain from any unnecessary commentary.  Later that day, we were given the opportunity to visit the site of the Dachau concentration camp, one of the most infamous Nazi camps in World War II for what happened there.  This was made especially surreal by the fact that earlier in the day I had walked past the building that was the founding place of the Nationalist Socialist German Workers Party (the Nazi Party).  We saw the facilities were the Nazis’ prisoners lived and often died.  I can remember feeling and overwhelming sadness and anger that something so horrible could ever be allowed to happen, especially in an otherwise civilized nation.  Even so, Dachau as it exists today serves as a fitting tribute to a regrettable period in our human history, to the lives that were lost because of that, and the humanity we retain despite the strife.

^Click up there to enlarge!

For the two days we spent in Munich, I feel that we experienced a lot of Germany.  Still, there was more I wanted to do.  Sources tell me that a certain Deutsches Museum in Munich has a large collection of material pertaining to the great Wernher von Braun.  (For those of you who aren’t aware, von Braun = my hero.)  I guess Munich will just have to be one of those places I go back to at some point in my life.  I’m already several cities behind my own schedule, so you’ll probably hear about Prague tomorrow.  Until then, adieu!

Venezia and the End of Italy June 22, 2011

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So, Venice.  I’ll keep this short and sweet since I don’t have too much to say about our final Italian destination.  Of all the Italian cities we stayed in (Florence, Rome, and Venice), Venice was definitely my least favorite, which is kind of funny since most everybody else thought it was the best.  For me, Venice was nothing more than a set of bridges linking distinctly non-gridded alleys, as well as a heat and humidity sink, with very little in the affordable attractions department.

In Venice, we went to two art museums, the Accademia (yes, another one of those) and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.  The Accademia had a lot of interesting art (interesting in its colossal size), but nothing spectacular.  The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is a museum dedicated to modern art.  I appreciated the Spanish art (Picasso, Dali, and Miró), but the rest didn’t do much for me.  We were also treated to a concert interpretation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which was quite excellent, possibly the high point of Venice.

Our last in the Venice area was actually used to explore not-so-nearby Padua to see the Arena Chapel, a religious building painted by the early Renaissance artist Giotto, and Maser to see a really nice villa designed by the Italian architect Palladio.  This trip was an interesting break from the regular and gave us the opportunity to walk on the beautiful Italian countryside.

To resolve any questions I know you, my ever-diminishing fan base, might have, no, I did not go on a gondola ride.  Because of the prices involved, nobody wanted to go with me, so I did not partake in that distinctly Venetian tradition.  I promise I’ll get Munich posted soon, so stay tuned for more exciting European adventures.

All Roads Lead to Roma June 18, 2011

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Friends, Romans, countrymen–lend me your ears!  For everyone wondering why I didn’t make this post in Venice, and also for those who didn’t, it is because Venice most decidedly has one of the worst communications infrastructures on the planet.  (Sorry folks, no postcards.)  Rome has definitely been the most interesting part of the trip thus far because of its *minor* historical significance as the cradle of western civilization and the fact that the Romans revolutionized engineering (see previous post).  So let’s just say I was excited to go to Rome.

It was in Rome that I came to the realization that the things I like about Italian food may not, in fact, be Italian.  I was thoroughly confuddled by the lack of anything alfredo with anything on any of the menus in any of the restaurants.  All the pastas and all the pizzas seemed to include a certain pomodori ingredient.  That means tomato, a flavor I find repulsive.  This made Italy significantly less exciting for me and significantly more so for everyone else.  Enough of that, though.

Our first day in Rome, we discovered the Pantheon, a magnificent piece of Roman art and engineering that fell into the hands of the Pope before it fell into the hands of history.  Instead of standing a magnificent marble-clad building with a grand bronze dome and magnificent Roman statues, the Pantheon is now a large hunk of concrete gutted of its proper interior and refitted to be a Catholic worship space and the eternal resting place of the artist Raphael.  We also went to the Borghese Gallery, a Cardinal’s house (seeing a trend yet?) turned art museum with some very famous statues and a very big (several acres), very nice front yard.

The next day, we made the journey to the Vatican City, which consequently is the first country we haven’t vanquished in a war yet, to visit the Vatican museum and St. Peter’s Basilica.  (Catholic-ness for the win!)  To put it bluntly, the Holy See is loaded.  Its interior walls and ceilings are painted by all the great artists and the rest of the empty space is filled with sculpture and such that might best be described as highly sought-after.  On top of that, St. Peter’s, which clocks in at the biggest Catholic church in the world, is a magnificent piece of art dripping in fine carving and gold leaf.  It was quite visually spectacular.

The last day in Rome was dedicated to the Roman ruins, the obvious thing to do when in Rome.  Our first journey was to the Coliseum, which was quite exciting to see.  I was quite shocked, however, at its size; I was expecting a ruin exceedingly massive.  Indeed, the Coliseum is massive, but it could probably still fit comfortably inside Bobby Dodd (or for the folks back in the homeland, the KFC Yum! Center).  Right across the street was the ruins of the Roman forum area.  As we ventured through the massive complex, we saw what remained of the Temple of Romulus (later converted into, you guessed it, a church), the forum, and the curia (home of the Senate and place of expiration for Gaius Julius Caesar).  It was a fantastic way to spend the morning, but I would really have liked to see the remains of the circus maximus and Via Appia (in true nerd form), but nobody else seemed to share that sentiment.

 So it sounds like I’ll have to go back to Rome again at some point in my life, but the first experience was definitely a great one.  I’ll post Venice in a day or two, so stay tuned for more exciting stories!  Ciao.

When in Rome, take lots of pictures of Roman ruins.

Firenze, Italia: Renaissance Revisited June 11, 2011

Posted by Joseph Mattingly in Travel Log.
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Firenze, or Florence as most English speakers know it, is most notable as the birthplace of the Renaissance, and thus, too, is its fame today (though I hear the city is also gaining attention through a certain television program that represents everything that is wrong with America, which I’d rather not discuss).  When we arrived in Florence from Vienna (see the previous post) 13 hours after our departure, it was raining enough to flood the streets to a point where the police closed the streets and our bus driver deposited us 700+ meters from the hotel to venture through the streets-turned-canals.  (Guess I missed the memo to pack my submarine…)  Apparently we were nice enough guests that the rainy weather decided to stick with us for all of Florence, as it rained most of our stay in the Tuscan capital.

The first full day in Florence (6 June 2011) we explored the narrow winding streets (not on grid layout:  minus 3 respect points for Roman city planners) of Florence and toured the Santa Maria del Carmine, a famous Renaissance church with even more famous paintings.  The following day was reserved for exploring the Bargello, a museum with lots of famous sculptures, and the Uffizi, a gallery with more historically significant paintings than the mind can imagine.  Unfortunately, the Italians have an incredible phobia of people taking pictures of their artwork (paintings and rocks alike), so my apologies for not supplying appropriate pictures.  The last day in Florence was spent in the Accademia, better known as the residence of Michelangelo’s David, the colossal size of which cannot be appreciated in any other way than right beneath it, and the Medici chapel, the powerful Florentine family’s ultimate display of mon€tary pow€r.  (Okay, so Euros didn’t exist back then.)  In all, Florence is a fantastic city, but it’s really easy to get really tired of the narrow streets, rainy weather, and the constant whistling of the Carabinieri.

Postscript:  Since I’m drafting this in Roma, I might as well talk about the trip from Florence to Rome with regards to our pit stop in Pisa.  It is with a grand scowl that I must report that for all the great things the Romans did for engineering (they must have gone to Georgia Tech…), the rest of Italy made up for in bad engineering (well, you know where they went…).  Yes, the tower is still leaning and very much so, though apparently all further leaning has been halted by the use of hi-tech concrete and such.  As you may have suspected, the Leaning Tower is the main attraction in Pisa.  This is certainly true, evidenced by the 15 euro fee to enter the tower which we all hastily bypassed.  Even so, Pisa still made for a great photo-op.

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Mia culpa...

Despite the writing of this post in Rome, the Rome post will come sometime later–probably in Venice.  So, until next time, ciao!

Wien, Austria: a few of my favorite things June 4, 2011

Posted by Joseph Mattingly in Travel Log.
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3 comments

Hallo from Wien, Austria (or as you might call it, Vienna)!  After arriving in Vienna, Austria, at some point in some time zone on June 1, I can say that I am in fact in Europe, and I have a stamp from Charles de Gaulle airport (European connector) to show for it.  Our bus driver, a Belgian who goes by the name of Baloo (think Jungle Book), picked us up at the Vienna airport to take us to the Hotel Donauwalzer.  He even brought our travel group a box of fine Belgian chocolates with a Georgia Tech logo printed on them.  A couple things occur to you when you arrive in Vienna for the first time.  First, the drivers are terrible.  For the Viennese, traffic signs and signals are more of a suggestion than a guideline, and American drivers are saint-like.  (I’m told it only gets worse.)  Second, the Danube River (the Donau) is tiny.  Very, very tiny.  I drive over creeks that are bigger than the Danube when I drive to Atlanta.  It is very impressive to me how such a small waterway can have such political and economic significance.

Our first full day in Vienna included a tour of the local opera house (a sight to behold), an excursion to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and a concert by the Wien Mozart Orchestra.  The opera house in Vienna is one of the finest in the world, hosting operatic greats like Vienna’s favorite son Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  The Kunsthistorisches Museum, or KHM, is Vienna’s

Scholars of the fine arts

museum of fine arts.  You can find everything from Brueghel the Elder to Titian to Raphael to Caravaggio and more in one of the museum’s many galleries.  My favorite, however, was the KHM’s antiquities collections.  The museum houses permanent exhibitions of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman antiquities.  The KHM is one of the few places in the world where you can see so many Egyptian mummy sarcophogi (including and alligator mummy and its sarcophogus!), a wide variety Roman statues, and a vast collection of Greek urns and jewelry.  Later in the evening, we were treated to a collection of Mozart operas and instrumentals by the Wien Mozart Orchestra (not to be confused with the Vienna Philharmonic, which is the big-time orchestra around here).  It was quite an impressive experience, as the players were all dressed in brightly-colored historical attire and the instruments used were more or less akin to the ones that Mozart would have written for.  Then there was the conductor.  Our music instructor Prof. Ron Mendola warned us that the conductor liked to dance around and that we should try to ignore him.  Indeed, that’s what the conductor did–he all but danced around the front of the stage.  On top of that, he led the audience in a choreographed clap, making this the first (and probably only) time I would clap in timed unison at an orchestral event.

The second day was reserved for an adventure in the Belvedere Palace, an Austrian imperial palace-turned art museum that hosted some of the stranger pieces (in my opinion) of art in Vienna.  The palace was impressive, as was the French garden between the upper and lower palace complexes.  Today, the third and final day in Vienna before heading to Florence tomorrow, is a free day, so I will be exploring some of the fabulous inner-city facilities and sending post cards (if I can find out how).

Until I get to Florence and post an update there, I say adieu to all and extend wishes of a happy summer!

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