jump to navigation

Ancient (and Modern) Rome May 9, 2013

Posted by stevenseligsohn in Travel Log.
comments closed

Historical significance is one of Rome’s best-known qualities. Roman ruins are ubiquitous throughout the city, in the most expected and unexpected places: the coliseum, subway stations, the Roman Forum, in a McDonalds. But by far the most wonderful thing about Rome was how the city now lives and thrives atop such a rich and well-preserved history.

The first thing we did (after eating some authentic Italian pizza, of course) was to leave Rome and head to Vatican City. Walking through the Raphael rooms of the Vatican museum is an incredible experience. Every surface in the room is painted with a different beautiful mural, each with its own story and complex meanings. Originally intended as papal apartments, they were painted by Raphael and his followers in the early 1500s, but have been used as reception rooms in the papal palace. Perhaps the most famous fresco here, The School of Athens, [pictured below] was painted by Raphael to portray truth acquired through reason, as a series representing the transition from classical philosophy to religious faith.

Image

Clearly, it was well worth the cost for us to take the paid tour: we learned of the history underlying the exhibits in the Palazzo di Popolo.

After the Raphael rooms, we were allowed a tour of the Sistine Chapel. Of course, it is very famous. I never understood why, exactly, until I was permitted to wander through it. The walls and ceilings are not only very beautiful frescoes, but they all tell stories that impart meaning on the viewers. The ceiling, painted by Michelangelo, tells the biblical stories of the creation of man and mankind’s fall from grace. The walls, commissioned later, tell the opposing Old-Testament story of the life of Moses and the New-Testament story of the life of Christ. Regardless of one’s belief system, these paintings are beautiful and meaningful, and it was awe-inspiring to absorb them.

Then, we found ourselves in St. Peter’s Basilica. Again, the place was fraught with religious sculptures, paintings, and relics. Meandering through the walkways, seeing these incredible works of art and architecture contrasting life and death, salvation and damnation, was hauntingly beautiful.

Image

After afternoon gelato, some wandering, a hearty pasta dinner at a romantic Italian restaurant, and a full night’s sleep, it was time to explore Rome on Easter Sunday.

Because many tourists were at the Vatican that day, many of the secular Roman historical attractions were less crowded. Therefore, we started our day with some exploration of the Roman Coliseum. The 2000-year-old stone structure is amazingly intact. It is very easy to imagine the throngs of Roman spectators bustling through the walkways, sitting in the tiered seats, watching some great spectacle of animal against man.

Image

Afterwards, we walked through the Roman Forum and the Palatine hill, the ruins of many ancient Roman government buildings and palaces. The buildings and structures are incredibly intact and well-put-together for the tools that the Romans must have used – such structures would be expensive and time-consuming, even with modern tools.

Wandering through the streets of Rome, experiencing the juxtaposition and coexistence of ancient and modern throughout the city was a very new experience for me. The people of Rome today are familiar with and proud of their history, and they gladly help others to learn from it. Rome was an experience I will never forget. 

Off the Beaten Path March 18, 2013

Posted by stevenseligsohn in Travel Log.
comments closed

                    All across Europe, there are big cities that attract tourists like new suburban couples to IKEAs – Paris, Rome, Vienna, Barcelona, etc.  But of course there are other cities, ones that draw less of a foreign crowd. Say for example, Ljubljana and Bratislava, the capitals of Slovenia and Slovakia respectively. For capital cities, they held a certain charm and intimacy that only smaller cities can. From our arrival in Ljubljana, the people there were incredibly welcoming. The first night there, we went to a traditional Slovenian restaurant, Sokol. The waitstaff was very kind to us, and helped us learn about the various traditional Slovenian dishes (very similar to traditional German: schnitzel, goulash, etc.) in surprisingly good English. More intimate though, was the city market, which we found the following morning. Each vendor was glad to talk to us about their wares, to the extent that we could understand each other. Even buying breakfast there from a small pastry cart, the vendor took care to explain each item and to make sure that I got a good deal for my money. Eventually he helped me settle on a huge pastry filled with cheese from the region and a carton of drinkable yogurt, apparently a common practice there. From the market, we went to make our museum tour of the city. There were three museums in the building we first found: the Slovenian National History Museum, Natural History Museum, and a museum that exhibited the Roman past of the city Emona, which stood at Ljubljana. The most unique exhibit was the full whale skeleton, hung from the ceiling of an exhibit room. ImageThe museum wasn’t crowded at all, and the clerks and guards would help us with bits of history as we walked through the different exhibits. One pointed out the prize of the natural history museum: a complete mummy with sarcophagus and burial artifacts. On the way out, the clerk even notified us of a free museum across town that she thought we would enjoy: the museum held a large exhibit on medieval warfare, especially focusing on knights. One exhibit on the history of swords held a lightsaber, and we were able to interact with many of the exhibits, which would have been impossible in a much more tourism-focused city.Image

                    Many of the paths up the mountain the next day were unoccupied: another benefit of the lack of tourists. We hiked up to the castle and found many locals exploring the castle or eating at the various restaurants there. The best part, though, was the massive spontaneous snowball fight on the way down the mountain!

                    Bratislava was slightly different, but just as intimate. The first day, we wandered the city near our hostel. Around dinner time, we came upon a small Slovakian restaurant, where the waitress knew approximately two English words. Of course, none of us speak Slovakian, so it was an interesting experience, which mostly consisted of us asking the waitress what she liked entirely in gestures and excited pointing at the menu. Communication at it’s finest. The food was delicious: I had a hearty chicken stew, along with a soda-beer called Kofola that is popular there. The next day, we got to explore the mayoral palace in the city. Historically, the palace is the foremost political headquarters of the region. Currently it is the headquarters of the Slovak Republic. Being the only tourists there, it was a very warm and welcoming experience. The palace was restored and is now kept as it was in the 19th century. Afterwards, we were able to meander through the Slovakian history museum, learning about this region’s history. Then, we were able to walk right up into the courtyard of the Bratislava castle, which was very grand. ImageAdmission was prohibitively expensive, sadly. While exploring the city afterwards, we discovered a little shop that served the best-tasting ice cream I’ve ever had. We then found a fairly large cathedral, St. Martin’s. The church was empty, so the curator was able to take the time to explain to me the shrine that held the preserved body of Saint John the Merciful, the Patriarch of Alexandria from the 7th century!

                    From both of these cities, I was expecting the typically portrayed Eastern European rundown city with grey skies and dilapidated buildings everywhere, barely civilized. Okay, that may be exaggerated a bit. However, we were met with nothing but cheerful kindness and excellent food. In most of the larger cities, we are treated as a batch of tourists (“Hello – how are you – here’s your ticket – thank you – next!”) but here we were treated more as important individuals. It was a good feeling to understand that these people wanted us there, and they were glad to help us learn about their culture. 

Val Cenis February 11, 2013

Posted by stevenseligsohn in Travel Log.
comments closed

ImageDead silence. Stillness. Complete solitude. A muted world. A pair of feet barely hanging over a near vertical wall of bright white that curls off in the distance. Beyond that, a gaping valley, across which majestic mountains rise. To the right and left: dense forests of trees on a thick white carpet of snow. The world freezes, unmoving, tensing as if waiting for something. Motion. The wall is suddenly behind me as I plummet downwards along it. The only sound now is the panting of my own breath and the low hiss of skis sliding across smooth snow. An uncontrollable grin reaches from one of my ears to the other. The skis dig in: cut to the left. ImageThe wind grasps at me as we race, intertwining down the mountain, one gaining, the other falling behind repeatedly. Bent knees, cut into the snow, sharp turn to the right. The forest around me slows as my skis bite the snow hard. Too hard. The snow is now above me, my skis no longer caress it. A rough shock travels through my body. The skis are finally on the snow again, but my feet aren’t in them. Sliding now, through the snow, limbs flailing. A soft, cold landing in a snow bank. The skis skid, stopping meters away. I collapse on my back, my grin never fading, and I laugh. A hearty laugh, the combined side effects of adrenaline, pain, and exhilaration. I rise to my feet, snap the skis on, and I’m moving again, the rush of the slope enough to counter whatever hesitation I may have felt about continuing on this crazy journey.

This is just a tiny fragment of one of my days in Val Cenis, skiing in the French Alps. There is but one problem with this place: I cannot decide what part I like most! The night before this wild skiing adventure, the hostel served a family-style dinner: an aperitif of cheese and kir, a homemade white wine and blackberry juice cocktail. Next, a magnificent salad, covered in thick diced bacon and cheese cubes with a dressing to put America to shame. Then, the chef and hostel owner bring out big steaming pots, full of melted cheese, and baskets of bread cubes. Thankfully, the French family next to us, with whom I could rudimentarily communicate, taught us proper manners for cheese fondue. These were quickly forgotten as we tasted the fondue, which is now a major contender for the best meal I’ve had. The cheese pots were scraped clean before long. And for dessert, a decadent chocolate cake served with vanilla ice cream.

But by far the most valuable thing I gained from this trip was cultural perspective. In this small ski village, the hostel owner told us, American visitors in the winter are few and far between. Nonetheless, we were shown no shortage of hospitality by anyone. A woman who owned a small store for ski lessons near the ski lift offered to let us shelter there, in the heat, while waiting for the bus. One of the Georgia Tech students traveling with us met a man on the ski lift who offered him free ski lessons for the day. While stopped on the slope, waiting for friends, I had a number of skiers come offer assistance. The hospitality offered to us, despite political and cultural barriers, was incredible. 

Image