Sunday, July 31, 2011

Europe Trip: Part 1 (Rome, Italy)

After two nights of no sleep on my three flights, I arrived in Rome very tired but excited to explore. I took the Leonardo Express train into the city and then a taxi over to my hotel. Teatropace 33 was great, originally a Cardinal's mansion, the hotel had a huge staircase spiraling up the center. While I waited an hour for my room to be ready, I ate lunch in the nearby Piazza Navona where I had a traditional Roman dish, Spaghetti alla Carbonara. Made with eggs, parmesan and pancetta, it was perfect for a late breakfast.

Fountain of Neptune in Piazza Navona
Spaghetti alla Carbonara and a beer.
The talking statue of Pasquino.  People hung signs on the statue to critique the government.
After checking into my room, I went to the Palazzo Altemps, one of the three branches of the National Museum of Rome. Filled mostly with sculptures of Greek and Roman gods, my favorite was the Suicidal Gaul, made for Julius Caesar after his victory over that country. The museum was not too big so I saw everything before walking over to the Vatican Museum for my 2:30 tour. I'd been to that museum when I visited Rome for one day back in 1995 but I wanted to see it with a guide this time for more depth. Our guide had a lot of great jokes, pointing out the statue that looked exactly like Bill Clinton or the resemblance to Sylvester Stallone in one of Raphael's paintings. The Vatican Museum is amazing, stuffed with so many artifacts, but it's very crowded and hot with hardly any seats. Halfway through the tour, the lack of sleep really began to strain my attention span.

Statue of Suicidal Gaul in Palazzo Altemps.
Raphael's masterpiece, The School of Athens in the Vatican Museum.
A Statue of President Bill Clinton in Vatican Museum?
We ended the tour at St. Peter's Basilica. It was the middle of a Mass so I did not get to visit the far end and take a picture of my favorite piece by Bernini, the Alexander VII monument. Flowing drapes of marble envelop a skeleton raising an hourglass beneath the statue of a pope. I took a picture of it with a disposable camera back in '95 but it didn't come out too great. Even though my feet were killing me after the four hour tour, I wanted to climb to the top of the basilica's dome. The gate to the cupola closed right before I arrived so a test of my will-power was avoided. Taking the Metro over to the Piazza del Popolo, I climbed the hill to the Pincio and watched the sun set over the city and then visited the Spanish Steps filled with dating couples. I had planned to continue on to the Roman Forum so I could take pictures of it and the Colosseum lit up at night, but after eating dinner, I couldn't fight sleep off any longer. I stumbled into the hotel at 10 and passed out.

Inside St. Peter's Basilica.
Inside St. Peter's Basilica.
Obelisk in front of St. Peter's Basilica.
Sunset view of Piazza del Popolo and St. Peter's Dome from the hilly Pincio.
I really wanted to sleep in on Sunday when my alarm woke me up at 7:30am but I didn't want to skip my bike tour. After a cappuccino, I perked up. Starting above the Colosseum, we worked our way across all the major sites and neighborhoods in a big circle, stopping frequently for our guide to explain the history of the place or to check out the inside of a basilica. It was great way to see Rome with breaks for pizza, gelato or cappuccino. It was over four hours long, but I was still sad when it ended. So far, it has been the highlight of my trip. Very fun!

Bike riding through Rome.
Trajan's Column depicting a Roman victory.
Bike riding toward the Spanish Steps.
Eating Gelato from Fior di Luna in Trastevere.
After switching hotels to join up with my group after the bike ride, I went to another of the National Museums of Rome, the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. The first floor contained the realistic sculptures of important roman citizens during the Roman Republic while the second floor concentrated on the more idealistic sculptures from the later Imperial Era. It contains a statue of Augustus Caesar, the nephew of Julius and the first Emperor. There also was a life-size bronze statue of a boxer that I really liked. Both branches of National Museum I visited were great. Spacious rooms with just a few impressive items in each, all labeled in English. (Big difference from French museums.)

Boxer of Quirinal at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.
Impressive sarcophagus at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.  I stared at it for awhile.  So much detail!
Statue of Dying Niobid.
That evening I met my group before going to dinner. Except for Eugenio from Costa Rica and Jana from Germany, the rest of us are from North America. Much different from South America where Chad and I were in the minority. After dinner, I took the Metro down to the Colosseum with Erin and Patrick to make up for skipping it the first night. I got a lot of great night pictures of it, the Roman Forum and Capitoline Hill but the Metro closed before I finished. Luckily, we found a bus heading back in the right direction.

Colosseum lit at night.
Roman Forum lit up at night with the Colosseum visible in the distance.
Capitoline Hill lit up at night.
This morning after breakfast, I walked down with the others toward the Colosseum again, stopping at the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain. I was going to go up on to Palentine Hill while the others went to the Vatican, but the line was so long that I decided to walk over to the Capitoline Museums on the next hill. Big mistake, they are closed on Mondays. Bummer! I ended up going to visit the Basilica di San Clemente south of the Colosseum. The excavations below the church are one of the best places in the city to see the different levels as Rome built up over the last two thousand years. It has three levels below the surface. The current church sits atop the original basilica built 1000 years ago while the level below that dates from 200 AD during the Roman Empire. There is a third level dating from 200 BC but it is not open to the public yet. Too bad we were not allowed to take pictures inside, but I snuck one shot. (They had some kind of sensor alarm that beeped when I took it. Heh!)

A morning walk through Rome.
Visiting the Trevi Fountain.
Recreating Greg's pose from 1995 trip.
The weather in Rome is wonderful. I got lucky! It is supposed to be boiling at this time, but it has been in the low to mid 80s with nice cool breezes. Tomorrow morning, we leave for Naples. Can't wait for pizza!

Courtyard of Basilica di San Clemente.
A sneaky photo from the lower excavated levels of the Basilica di San Clemente.

p.s. The chair in this internet cafe is so freaking uncomfortable.

p.s.s. I thought bruschetta was always just bread and chopped tomatoes, but last night we were brought a plate with five different varieties. The regular type plus ones with eggplant, salmon, beans, or cheese & anchovies. Very Interesting!

Fountain of the Naiads in the Piazza della Repubblica.
Fountain of the Naiads in the Piazza della Repubblica.
p.s.s.s. I've learned that clinking glasses started as a tradition against the practice of poisoning anothers wine. I already knew that you are supposed to take a drink before setting your glass back down, but Peter explained that good eye contact is required as well. Now we're all sharing an exaggerated glance with each clink. :) Takes a little longer, but it's very fun.

The Pantheon, the only surviving Roman Temple.
Inside the Pantheon.
The inside of the Pantheon dome.  All the copper was stolen from the ceiling for St. Peter's Basilica.
p.s.s.s.s. While I waited for the Basilica di San Clemente to open at 3pm, I ended up having lunch at a place that turned out to be a very gay restaurant. I didn't notice it until I sat down but I was surrounded by rainbow flags and the waiters had the name of the restaurant spelled out in rhinestones on their black uniforms, "Coming Out". A Canadian at the next table, Greg, started up a conversation, telling me he found the restaurant on the internet and was waiting for the basilica to open as well. We ended walking over and touring the church together after eating.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Las Vegas - Chad's 40th Birthday

Since I will be traveling in Europe and miss Chad's 40th birthday on August 1, I went out to celebrate it early with him at the Hard Rock Hotel. Chad got a special deal on a suite after working a conference in Vegas all week. My Jeep Wrangler has no air conditioner and struggles on long hills, so I rented a Chevy Impala and drove out Friday night after work. I arrived at midnight, drank a shot of Tequila, and hung out with Chad and Heidi, who he met Thursday night.

Chad in the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
After breakfast, Chad and I went out to the Rehab pool at 11am where he rented a daybed. It was blazing hot, but our waitress started bringing us ice buckets filled with Coronas and Smartwater. The pool area was relaxing at first, but it soon got crazy as the music started up and the crowd grew and grew. We hung out with the couple renting the daybed next to us and Heidi came out to visit us. Normally, I control the amount of alcohol I'm drinking, but on Saturday I lost track with the heat and never-ending bucket of beers. Whenever my hand was empty, I was given another opened Corona with a slice of lime.

Rehab at the Hard Rock Hotel.
Rehab at the Hard Rock Hotel.
Though we had a blast at the pool, it destroyed our plans for the evening. Around 6:30, I staggered up to the room. I was very drunk but I managed to shower and change for the Soundgarden concert at 8. When I came out of the bathroom, Chad was passed out. I crawled into my bed and the next thing I know it was 1:35am. We missed the concert and I had a throbbing headache. We had a tiger in our room and it was clawing at my brain.

Bouncing balls in the Rehab pool.
Noah and Chad at Rehab.
Attempting to rally, we met up with Heidi and went down to Mr. Lucky's for some food. I was trembling and barely hanging on while we ate, trying to avoid looking at the drunk guy in the next booth. Watching him flop around made me nausous. This was the worst hangover since my last night in Rio De Janeiro. I had promised myself that I wouldn't get wasted because of my upcoming Europe trip, but Vegas will win every time. Oh well!

Chad cheering on the action.
Chad and Malibu Rum Girl.
After sleeping in on Sunday, we went down to Pink Taco. I always judge a Mexican restaurant by their salsa and the three different kinds that came with the chips were delicious. The tortilla soup was not as good as La Especial's in Leucadia, but the carne asada tacos were excellent. The meat was very tender and the tortillas were hand-made in the restaurant. I regretted squeezing the lime on my tacos though, the smell reminded me of all the Coronas I drank at the pool. I don't think I will be able to drink another one for a long time.

Hard Rock Hotel
Chad and Heidi at Rehab.
After a few hours recuperating at the hotel's West Pool, I left at 5pm thinking I would get home by 10:30 but the traffic between Baker and Barstow kept slowing to a crawl. It was 9:30 by the time I stopped for a bite. I thought I had passed the worst of it, with only a small section of red traffic in Victorville showing up on my iPhone, but I was wrong. It turned out to be horrible and I spent well over an hour traveling 4 miles. At 11:30, I finally wised up and checked for traffic-free roads off the freeway. I found a clear frontage road and jumped off the I-15. I cruised the last 8 miles alongside the frozen freeway and got back on after passing the accident. After nine hours on the road, I arrived home at 1:30am.

Setting sun as I drive home from Las Vegas.
p.s. This was my first time staying at the Hard Rock and I loved their down pillows. I tried to buy one at the hotel, but they don't sell them. I did get the website address of the company that sells them though.