Thursday, February 7, 2008

Pictures at Last!

At long last, I have finally posted pictures from our trip. If you are wondering why I took my sweet time, please keep in mind that 4,000 pictures is quite a large number to sort through. But rather than post all 4,000 (out of sheer kindness - and also because Flickr won't let you post more than a couple hundred at a time), I tried to choose the best, most interesting, and/or most representative pictures of the trip. The pictures are in chronological order of our visit, so that you can see what we saw, in the order that we saw it. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to post pictures from every single place we visited (none of my Florence or Avignon pictures turned out well, for example). Still, I think you can get the gist of what we saw for three months.

Since I had a limited amount of space on Flickr, I decided to go back and put pictures up in the blog posts where I referred to something particular. So, if you want to see pictures of chairs or signs or other exciting things of that nature, you are welcome to look back through the blog.

Thank you all for your patience and kind words, and now I hope you enjoy the pictures.

P.S. By the way, for anyone not familiar with Flickr, there is a slideshow function located in the top right corner of the screen. This makes it much easier to breeze through the pictures - you can also click on individual shots if you want to see them in more detail.

Oh, and the same can be done with pictures on the blog. If you want to see a larger shot, just click on the picture. I put a picture in this post just so you could test this out - and so you'd believe that I actually posted pictures. . . .

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Broken Beauty

Prague was no disappointment when I visited two years ago at the end of summer, but Prague before Christmas is a place of enchantment at its best. I wish I could have gathered all my family and friends in Old Town Square last Saturday, where huge evergreens twinkle with thousands of lights, aromas of fresh bread and sausage waft on the crisp (understatement) air, Christmas stalls overflow with glass ornaments and gingerbread men, horse-drawn carriages wait in a line, and a choir sings Advent carols from a nearby stage. Tyn Church looms over the square with its dark towers, glowing with yellow light from inside. We went to a 9 pm mass there last Sunday; cold enough to see our breath but mesmerizing with the candles burning in the dark against the black and gold altar. It's been the perfect place for us to end our trip; not a ton to see in the way of museums and churches, too cold to be out for very long,but no end of cafes and restaurants with hot goulash and dumplings where we can observe the outside in comfort.

I keep staring at the people here, trying to see if they all look like they could be my relatives. Some do, but I think the Krestyn family must take more after the Moravian strain of Czech - more gypsy, maybe? It's a strange thing to be in this country where I have many relatives whose names I don't even know. But we're going to try to see some of them before we leave, if possible.

And now for some last words to finish off my part of this three-month blog. It's always a shot in the dark to throw out my thoughts and impressions when I have no idea if they will sound like English to anyone else, but hopefully I still remember enough English to make a little sense.

Here's what come to mind.

Early on in our trip, back in the Franciscan friary in Chester, England, where we went to mass one Sunday, I read something out of a booklet of Benedict XVI's writing that's stuck with me throughout this trip. Writing about beauty, he said that it is the essential form of the world, though now clouded and distorted by sin. Each person, he said, has a part to play to restore to the world its original beauty. These remarks were well-timed for me, as I've had ample time to think about them as I roam the vast and varied scenes of these countries.

I know that beauty can be found everywhere, but sometimes one needs to be awakened to it by the freshness of new landscapes - particularly ones which proclaim the history of humanity in a dramatic way, in the way that the places of Europe do - often merely by being the cites of critical events, but also through art, buildings, and churches. It's a slow sinking-in for me, a gradually deepening awareness of just how all this must be relevant for me and the people around me now. Because if it's not relevant, then it's all fun and games and I can come home and forget about it, or just make art, history, or travel a hobby. But if I can come home with a new interest in continuing to understand how all this matters, this trip will have been well worth the while (and all the cold showers and flights of stairs).

My wiser acquaintances will be happy to know that I'm thoroughly convinced that problems abound everywhere, even nine thousand miles from home. There are most definitely "tears in things"- but they cry out for the restoration of that essential form, beauty. We see enough of this beauty breaking forth from mangled forms to yearn for more, and hopefully this yearning spurs us to action. Maybe it's this motivation to "play our part" that Dostoevsky was talking about when he said that "beauty will save the world."

Out of all the impressions and thoughts crammed into the past months, these are some that rise to the forefront as I think of how to wrap up my share of the blog. To all who have followed us up stairs, through freezing wind and rain, and on and off jammed metro cars, my warmest thanks. I wish for each of you to see these sights for yourselves, instead of relying on insufficient descriptions, but it's been a great favor for us to have an audience and a connection to home through our loyal readers. Notwithstanding the weather and transportation adventures, I hope you've all been encouraged to start planning your own three-month trips to Europe. Here's to the travels yet to be undertaken by each of you!

A Chapter Closes

Since extreme weariness and writing don't mix terribly well, this will be my last post of substance (I'll post a quick note when I've finally uploaded my pictures from the trip, probably in the next week or two). Fatigue causes subject matter selection to become rather more challenging than one might think; suddenly, freak rain storms take on incredible significance and rank more highly than things like, say, a visit with the pope. But the city of Rome deserves a bit more attention, as it is a fascinating place. As far as I can tell, no other modern city is built up to the same extent around such glorious ancient ruins. My growing desire to study history more deeply has been sealed by our time in Rome. One of the most moving experiences was the day we visited the Colosseum where countless numbers of Christians died for sport and then traveled less than two miles out of the city to see the catacombs along the Appian Way where these same Christians were buried. Christians were apparently required to be buried outside the city walls by Roman decree, so it seems like poetic justice that the Appian Way is now more beautiful than most of Rome. Overall, this city is a place that everyone should see at least once.

But as fascinating as Rome is, I'm not sure I could actually live there; I'm afraid I'd spend half my life stranded on street corners. More than any other city we've visited in Europe, Rome's driving situation is absolute chaos (even the people who live here think so). In London, you can safely follow the locals when crossing the street, while in Paris, you learn to do the exact opposite of the Parisians. But in Rome, you do well to dispense with crossing streets altogether. Here, there are no such things as lanes for cars to travel in. If the width of the street reasonably allows three cars to fit side by side, you can be sure that in Rome, seven cars will be packed in (and several of them will have drivers leaning out of the windows, shaking their fists and screaming at each other). Scooters and Vespas aren't required by law to stop at red lights, and major intersections in the most crowded parts of the city have no traffic signals to halt oncoming traffic. Pedestrians must rely on the strength of painted crosswalks on the street and the finely-tuned reflexes of alert Italian drivers coming back from heavy meals of pasta and wine to ensure their safety in getting from one side of the street to the other (and these aren't typical crosswalks; they span the length of several normal crosswalks). One night, after seeing two local women nearly killed by such trust, I refused to cross the street and we got lost in our attempt to find a crosswalk with a signal many blocks away. As you can imagine, it was terribly disconcerting to be taken back to the exact same intersection several nights later by an American girl who has lived in Rome for several years now. Only the fear of losing sight of my companions induced me to step into the swirling mess of Rome traffic, and I learned immediately that it is astoundingly difficult to proceed along a crosswalk when oncoming traffic is rushing at you at extremely high speeds and then screeching to a halt just inches from your person. I wasn't sure if I'd be around to actually write up the experience. . .

Fortunately, we've moved on to a calmer, more pedestrian-friendly place: the city of Prague. Prague is worlds away from the hustle and bustle of Rome. In fact, it is a city that is worlds away from anything I've ever seen. We have somehow managed to save the best for last on this trip. I've been looking forward to seeing Prague for quite a few years now, and it is a city that absolutely does not disappoint. It is a magical, breathtaking city, made up of the stuff of fairy tales and far-off lands. It is freezing here, but the light dusting of snow and the brisk weather fit in perfectly with a city that seems to function best at Christmas time. Though the pictures I've seen of the lovely greenness of Prague in the summer look wonderfully appealing, I've been told that Prague is a place that knows how to do Christmas, and the truth of these words is evident everywhere you look. They've been setting up Christmas decorations since we arrived, and this gorgeously charming city with beautiful old buildings is made all the more lovely by the strings of Christmas lights and huge Christmas trees decorating every possible open space. We are being put up in what is effectively our own little apartment (complete with a full kitchen) by some very kind and gracious friends of Anna's family (anyone noticing a pattern here?). We are taking advantage of the situation by relaxing and drinking as much tea as possible so that we can brave the cold each day for the few minutes it takes to reach whatever coffee shop or restaurant we've decided to visit for that day (our schedule is quite full here, as you can imagine). Prague is the perfect end to a long and wonderful trip.

We've had a marvelous time these past few months and it's been all the more enjoyable to write things up for this blog. Thank you all for following along and keeping up with us all this time. We've had fun trying to pick out some of the most interesting (and absurd) things to share with you; we hope it's been at least somewhat entertaining. I imagine there will be all sorts of things I can say later about what I've gained from this trip, but right now, I'm too tired to sort it all out. At the very least, I can say I've truly enjoyed this grand adventure, and I look forward to seeing what comes next (after a long, much-needed stint at home, of course!).

We will be flying out of Prague next Monday, and then out of London next Thursday. If you could please remember us in your prayers those days, we'd be most grateful. Can't wait to see (or hear from) you all soon!

Monday, November 26, 2007

For two people as tired and zoned out as Mary Jane and I are getting as we reach the end of three months' travels, it becomes increasingly challenging to get excited about new places and sights. We keep thinking about hot showers, kitchens that we can use as we please, days when we can get up and turn on the tv and do nothing.
Only a place like Rome, then, has the power to shake us from our weariness into wonder. I don't have the words right now to describe it well, so I'll just say one thing that has struck me before I speak more factually.
It's a place with the same mix of architectural beauty and modern sludge that other famous cities in Europe have, but there's more behind it than in other places. More behind the merely perceived beauty and ugliness - something which reveals itself only when sought. I haven't figured it all out yet, and to escape from the risk of rambling on without making much sense, I'll stop here, but I think what I mean has something to do with "let those who have eyes to see see, and those who have ears to hear hear..."
And on a more practical note: We were very lucky to have a tour by private car on our first day in the city, provided by some kind friends. We got an eight-hour, intense whirl through all the major sights - Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, Borghese Villa, Pantheon, Colosseum, and St. Peter's. At some point I pulled out my pocket notebook and started jotting down bits of info from our guide, Alfredo, who never stopped talking. He was fun; he kept complaining about how crazy the scooters are here: "You just have to not have normal brain to ride scooter in this city..." and taking us down Via del Corso, the fashion strip: "My wife is strictly forbidden to bring my credit card here..." It was great to be seated and taken around all day, and made us happy to be on our own the next day to explore what we'd seen. We tried to get to the Colosseum three times last week before we made it during the open hours; it's getting harder to do things before nightfall now that the days are short. We've also haunted the Spanish steps and the three-story McDonalds next to it several times.
Another great thing has been meeting up with people here after not knowing anyone in Italy. It's been our longest stretch of not hanging out with any friends or relatives; now that we're here, I seem to be related to everyone somehow. Have met a number of the Angelicum and Santa Croce people; we find after a few minutes that we have some mutual acquaintance and then go down a list: " Well, if you know so-and-so, then you must also know so-and-so-and-so..." We watched an old movie during a rainy afternoon at one of the girls' apartments yesterday - I had forgotten what that's like.
Highlight: we went to the papal audience on Wednesday and got a blessing for all our family and friends at home, so everyone should be feeling particularly holy for at least a few days.
Tonight is a big mass at the Lateran Basilica in honor of the consistory of cardinals, with a reception at the Irish College afterwards (we met some entertaining Irish seminarians yesterday), so that should be fun. Tomorrow we're going to the Vatican musuems and are sitting in on some classes at the Angelicum.
Two more days in Rome, then to Prague.

Time Well-Spent in Rome

One would hope that after all this time, I'd be learning some things as we go along. Something I mentioned at the very beginning of this blog was, "If something seems too good to be true, it probably is." Well, in case the lesson wasn't completely cemented, our time in Rome has certainly helped in that area. After coming from freezing cold weather in Assisi, we've been enjoying some fine warm weather in Rome. All week long, the temperature has stayed reasonably constant and our coats and scarves haven't been as firmly affixed to us as in other places. We started out on Tuesday with a wonderful all-day tour of Rome led by Alfredo, an extremely knowledgeable Italian man. The weather was beautiful, brilliant sunshine the entire day. The tour provided the best overview of a city I've ever had; all we had to do for the rest of the week was to go see things for ourselves up close (rather than from a car). We scheduled some good sight-seeing days and visited museums, the Colosseum, the Forums, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps (we've been here several times, as this is a fantastic people-watching spot from any of its 136 steps), St. Peter's and Vatican City, etc. We've also had the chance to meet up with some friends of friends, giving us a good introduction to life in Rome.

As we're nearing the end of our trip however, we're finding that we need more time to just sit and relax. So on Saturday, after several days of fairly constant sight-seeing and visiting with people, we decided to head over to the Borghese Villa area. This is one of the major park areas of Rome, and its acres and acres of lush green grass and trees are often compared to Central Park in New York. We'd glimpsed the area from the car on Tuesday, bathed in the lovely November sunshine, and couldn't wait to go back and spend time there later in the week. Despite warnings from our guidebooks that November in Rome was often rainy, we headed out on Saturday into the first overcast day we'd had in Rome yet. Blissfully ignorant of what was to come, we emerged from the subway stop into the grassy parkland and strolled deep into the foresty area, looking for the perfect spot to sit and read for awhile. We settled onto a park bench overlooking a huge green field and had only been sitting for perhaps 15 minutes when Anna chanced to remark that she loved sitting outside on days like this. I looked up at the dark, ominous clouds in the sky (actually seeing them for the first time that day) and said that I wasn't so fond of such days, since all I could think of was the possibility of rain. It wasn't cold though, and somehow expecting that fact to protect us from any foul weather, we kept talking and relaxing on the bench. We did start noticing great streaks of lightning all across the sky, followed some seconds later by loud claps of thunder, but for some reason, we still made no attempt to move. We were undoubtedly quite secure in the notion that it was impossible for us to have chosen the only rainy day in Rome as the day we wanted to sit outdoors for several hours. It wasn't until sudden drops of rain became more insistent that we actually got up to look for shelter. Thinking it would pass quickly, we strolled somewhat casually through the park, looking for an awning to stand under momentarily. But it turned out that we didn't just choose the only day of rain we'd seen all week, released in the form of light sprinkling; no, we chose the day with an unbridled torrential rain storm, complete with gailing winds that blew the rain in all directions. The umbrella pine trees we were standing under (so called because of their shape) suddenly developed holes and we were drenched in a matter of minutes. We did our best to keep cameras and backpacks dry under our coats, all the while desperately looking around for better shelter, but since we were rather deep in the park, cafès and restaurants were a bit harder to find than they are in the heart of the city. We finally made a run for it, seeing that the rain wasn't about to let up anytime soon, and we found a small amusement park ride to crowd under, along with a number of other people caught in the same predicament. Amazed that the rain was continuing unabated, we decided to buy an umbrella from the quick-thinking entrepreneur who appeared out of nowhere, laden with an endless supply of brightly-colored umbrellas. Now equipped with a bright yellow umbrella of our own (we weren't given a choice), we headed down the path to a cafè across the way. Of course (as you can all surely guess), as soon as we settled down inside with our overpriced thimbles of cappuccino to wait out the rain, it stopped completely. Classic.

The whole situation ended up being so absurd, it was just funny. One of those things where you almost can't be upset by it. Almost. But I guess the unmistakable lesson to take away here is that if you are in a car touring a large city, and the weather is absolutely gorgeous, don't count on it to be the same a few days later. Instead, leap out of the car as soon as possible and seize the day on foot. You may never get the chance again. . .

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Travels Continue. . .

One of the things we will surely miss most when we come home are all of the flights of stairs we're encountering here. I've mentioned flights of stairs before with regard to some of the sight-seeing we've been doing, particularly in Paris. But Italy takes the prize for endless amounts of stairs in all the best places. Every hotel we've been to in Italy has had its entire operation located on at least the second floor, if not higher. (And in case you're not aware of the distinction, Europe doesn't number floors the way we do. Here, the second floor really means the third floor.) We're truly enjoying the free exercise we're getting - it's particularly good since we're dead tired after coming off of navigating train stations and the streets it takes to find these hotels, all the while dragging our luggage behind us. Initially, we thought that perhaps Milan was something of a fluke. Surely every hotel isn't located on the second (third) floor of a building. But Anna, intuitive thinker that she is, knew something was up in Venice. After climbing up and down countless small stairways with all of our luggage, and then needlessly climbing the Rialto Bridge twice (at least 20 small stairways combined), all she could say when we finally found our hotel and looked up at its entrance on the second floor was "I knew it. I just knew it." The devastatingly sad tone of her voice and the look of utter exhaustion was almost more than I could handle, and it was only the sight of our hostess at the top of the stairs that kept me from near hysterics.

Fortunately though, our endless stair-climbing isn't always in vain. In the Cinque Terre, after climbing a rather steep hill to check into our room, we were led back down the exact same hill to an apartment building that housed the room we'd be staying in. Squeezing through the extremely narrow door, we looked up at the steepest stairs we've ever seen. Your stepping leg has to be at nearly a 90°-angle in order to master the step properly. There were exactly forty-four such steps (Anna counted on the way back down), zig-zagging all the way up to the top of the building. Sadly, there were eight more steps we didn't take (I was ready to see if we could switch rooms), but all of that stair-climbing led to the best deal we've had yet. We ended up getting an apartment all to ourselves: a room for each of us, a living room with a kitchen table and a sofa, and a full bathroom. Not so bad climbing all of those stairs in slow season, I guess. . . Most of the time, no one bats an eye at all of the stairs (I'm assuming all of the other similar-looking buildings have the exact same set-up we've been seeing). But in the Cinque Terre (once again), your efforts are recognized and appreciated. On the hike between the second and third town (Manarola and Corniglia, for those who are interested), there is a set of stairs that takes you up a steep hill, switch-back style. You don't necessarily realize when you start that you'll be heading uphill for quite some time, so it doesn't occur to you to count the stairs until you're breathing hard, wondering how much longer you've got to go. But a pleasant surprise awaits you at the top. A large sign reads, "Congratulations, you've just climbed 382 steps. You're now in Corniglia, right in the middle of the Cinque Terre." (Yes, I took a picture of the sign; it was too good to pass up.) I wish I could say I was immediately refreshed by such recognition of my achievement, but I think the long rest at the bench placed strategically next to the sign did me more good.

Aside from all of our unexpected exercise, we're still enjoying our tour of Italy. We've now come to the first spontaneous part of our trip, though, and have tentativly decided that perhaps it's good that we planned the rest of our trip in such great detail after all. . . After arriving in Assisi on Thursday, we decided we liked it so much that we wanted to spend an extra couple of days there. We changed our Rome accomodations without difficulty and were promptly rewarded for our decision the next day with 25°F weather and strong, freezing winds that continued for an entire day and night. We also discovered (too late) that grocery stores in small towns don't exist to actually feed people; they often just take up space between religious gift shops and patisseries (pastry shops). The only open ones we made it to (posted times don't correspond to reality) had very little to offer if you need more than canned food or hunks of uncooked meat. Consequently, the only meal we could count on each day was breakfast at our hotel. Despite pangs of hunger, we did enjoy our time in Assisi. The basilica was gorgeous, and being underground in St. Francis' tomb was a moving experience. Needless to say, we're glad to be in Rome now, with all its big-city convenience. The train station in Rome apparently has a huge underground mall, full of all the shops you could need, so since we're staying in a place right next to it, I don't think we'll be having the same sorts of difficulties as in Assisi. And now, as if we haven't gotten enough of stairs, we're going to head over to the Spanish Steps. . .We'll make sure to count them all for you and report back in the next post.

When in Rome...

Our path has finally brought us to Rome. We were actually planning to arrive this past weekend, but we changed our plans and spent two extra days in Assisi after seeing what a great hotel room we had (Assisi was beautiful, too, but more on that in a minute). It was so great that it made up for having severely limited food options for four days. We had lukewarm pizza from the little stand-n'-eat shops and that was about it; it was fun to listen to each other's stomachs growling all night. There's just not much in the town. Of course, we did miss a few decent places by making refuge from the elements our greatest goal. The wind was raging for the whole first day - so much so that on the second day, my ears were hurting and I had to suffer Mary Jane's laughter at me in wrapping my scarf up to my eyes. Luckily, there was a warm cafe right around the corner from our hotel; they got to know us pretty well over our stay.
All that said, Assisi is as everyone says: peaceful, gentle, and spiritually uplifting. Faded frescoes from the life of St. Francis adorn even the outer stone walls; Franciscan monks and little nuns pepper street corners and churches. One of the mornings, we got up for the early prayers of the monks at the basilica of St. Francis; considered one of the finest churches in Europe, it houses the tomb and major relics - such as a hair shirt - of the saint. (I realize that the last sentence sounds like it's straight out of a travel guide book. Don't ask me where that came from.) I wanted to take the 90 minute hike to his hermitage on top of the mountain outside the town, but considering the blustery weather, it's probably best that I didn't. Unless I wanted to just become a hermit somewhere along the way myself. Anyway, the monks and nuns truly do exude a joy that none can fail to be drawn by. You get the feeling that St. Francis is watching over his little brood with the same exuberant fondness he must have had on earth.
We took the train to Rome this afternoon, so here we are, with about ten days ahead of us to run around and soak it all in. We've only seen the train station and the few streets to our hotel, which is really an apartment masquerading as a hotel room, but we had no need to look farther than the full-scale grocery store in the station before realizing that Rome can only be wonderful. We love the breaks in the quiet towns, but it's always exhilarating to get back into a big city where the days are chock-full of sights and your stomach can look forward to something more than pizza.