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Pisa & Rome - Tourism on Steroids, but it has to be done

Day 61, 62, 63, and 64 - Pisa, Rome and getting to Aix-en-Provence

sunny 35 °C

We leave Toscana with sadness as we know we were leaving tranquillity and launching ourselves into two of the most tourist visited cities in the world.

The first part was a flying stop off in Pisa which is exactly what I did last time. Luke and Eleanor did us a huge favour by dropping us off at Pisa train station saving us heaps of time and hassles. We made our way down the main mall with the hordes of locals and tourists and after about a 2 km walk, the suburban streets opened up to a huge lawn area. The area was surrounded by museums and there in the middle is the Duomo and the monument to stuffed up civil engineering, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This is basically what everyone comes to see in Pisa and they get in and get out! That is exactly what we did. You can't appreciate the lean on the tower unless you see it with your own eyes (we calculated about 6 degrees).

Jen quickly took some photos, we walked around and then had our snack on the lawns. Just as fun was watching everyone at some point in time get a Pisa photo pushing it over, leaning, holding up, finger on top and numerous other ways. So what did we do? - exactly the same!

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Surprisingly, Pisa actually has some nice architecture and buildings, but sadly most don't get much of a look in.
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Once done it was the walk back to the train station which did have a seedy feel about it so we were glad to catch our train to Rome. Italian train schedules lived up to their reputation and we had about a 1 1/2 delay, Eventually we arrived at our apartment, approximately 200 m from the Spanish Steps. The apartment was lovely, tucked in a tiny lane and close to most things including an ice cream shop 100 m away. That night we decided to cook for ourselves and enjoy the beautiful apartment. Jen whipped up a spaghetti pesto washed down with some Chianti.

Day 1 was a full on self managed walking tour of Rome combined with a 4 hour tour of the Colosseo and the Roman Forum. First stop was the Fontana do Trevi with the mass of tourists.
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Fortunately Jen's camera is very good and it can get all of the fountain and hide the fact that there were over a thousand of other tourists there. Do not ask Jen about what she thinks about people taking photos with their phone or iPad at tourist locales...

From there we walked to see a number of tourists spots:
St. Ignazio di Loyola,
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the very unique Pantheon,
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down along the Fume Tevere,
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stop off at Ponte Fabricio,
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top end of the Roman Forum,
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down along Via del Fori, Imperiali,
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and finally we made it to the Colosseo. All in one morning!
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The Colosseo stands majestically amongst all the other ruins, very well preserved and about double the size of the one we saw in Pula.
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For the history buffs, some really interesting facts about the whole gladiator thing and the Colosseo:

  1. The Colosseo operated with games for about 500 years from the first to the sixth century.
  2. In that time it saw about 500,000 people killed and 1,000,000 animals of which a significant number were lions, to the point where they were almost extinct
  3. It was built on the site of a park where Nero had a massive statue of himself. Nero was not popular, so the locals were happy to pull that down.
  4. I assume most of you have watched the movie Gladiator and it happens to be quite accurate especially how the Colosseo looked and how the gladiators, animals and the like, were kept underneath the timber floored arena.
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  1. The arena was covered in sand to absorb all the blood - which is understood to have been in its day quite horrific. Part of the floor of the arena has been reinstated to show the magnitude of the theatre but also the extent of underground facilities.
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  1. It held 70,000 people and had seating up to top where there were sails for sun protection. Every person was given free entry and a cup of wine. Every citizen was issued a bone tablet with a number to show gate entry and seating area. Let's call them corporate boxes for the senators, the emperor right up front and the poor supporters had the nose bleed sections. Nothing has changed, right?

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The Colosseo walls are covered with pock marks which are holes remaining after all the iron was pulled out when the Roman Empire began to crumble and residents and trades of Rome collected what they needed.
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The steel was needed for making cannon balls, horseshoes and other military stuff. Portions were also restored in 19th Century, and the contrast is clear.

The whole structure also originally featured a façade of Travertine and marble - the majority of which is now gone. Apparently, the steps of St Peters at the Vatican are built from Colosseo Travertine and much of the finery and marble now adorns the Vatican buildings. Italians have a saying that they don't steal, they 'recycle'. Our Vatican guide informed us that there are more Egyptian Obelisks in Rome than in Egypt, so many of them were "recycled"!

A 19th century earthquake caused a portion of the structure to collapse and it was repaired, hence the unique line we know today.
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The Games would be held irregularly, at the discretion of the Emperor as a "gift" to the people for entertainment, but normally after a battle had been won, food harvests or other significant celebration days. The rough schedule comprised: in the morning, animals would be forced to fight other animals and next it was animals fighting humans. Next, mythical theatre plays during lunch which included the real death of "the actor" who would be a convicted criminal condemned to execution. For example, the fable of Icarus was recreated with the condemned, launched by catapult, all during lunch for the spectators.

Finally, the day's main event would be Gladiator vs. Gladiator. This was much like our current UFC. It was not normal for a gladiator to die, they were to valuable to their owners due to the gambling that went on the side. The Gladiators would fight just enough to have one be over powered. If he fought well, with bravery and honour, the crowd would show a thumb down to indicate put your sword away and he fights another day. If the crowd thought it was a poor fight and the gladiator do not put up a worthy show then the crowd would pull their thumb across their throat meaning kill him.

After the Colasseo it was down to the Roman Forum and I must say this was very impressive.
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The condition of the ruins, the history of the area, the massive buildings built during the Roman Empire and just the sheer magnitude of how big this city would have been. We learned much about the chronological timing post the Roman Empire, which declined in from about the sixth century.

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The Roman Forum was taken over by other eras, built over the top. The church we dubbed the Lasagna Church has distinct layers of roman foundations, medieval footings, then middle ages below an 18th / 19th Century building.
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Our guide also explained to us how much of the finery during the height of the Roman Empire was pinched from Jerusalem, including a mythical Menorah, the actual is long gone, but records of it remain.
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Eventually, the site was abandoned and eventually sediments filled it in and it became a paddock with cows and livestock. It was not until 1899 the area started to be excavated and unearthed this amazing area. We went down along the Fori imperiali, Fori de Cesar and through the arc di Constantino. There is a Basilica in ruins, identified by three large arches, which is bigger than any Basilica we still have today, which is impressive.

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A great lookout of the area - Palentine Hill - is called the Palantino, the actually birthplace of Rome and the basis for the word "palace". Unbelievable in its size and remnants of grandeur, including yellow marble shipped whole from Africa.

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Behind the Palantino was the original emperors' palaces. This place in its time would easily rival any palace in the world but now lays in ruins.

Final walk was along the Circo Massimo (being set up for a Bruce Springsteen concert), back along the Fiume Tevere, Piazza Navona
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and eventually home. Those of you who have been to Rome know that's a big walk and that's only 2/3 of Rome excluding the Vatican.

The next day was the big one, "The Vaticano". Jen did well and got special early start with tour guide and headphones. On arrival at the Vatican we quickly appreciated getting these special tickets, as the queue was 200m long at 8.30am. The tour was made up of 4 sections: the museum, the Sistine Chapel, St Peters Basilica and the front area of St Peters Basilica, including the Pieta. The first part was a corridor of over 100m with the walls covered in massive tapestries depicting the life of Jesus. Their quality is amazing, and the eyes seem to follow you around the room. They are cleaned on a rolling basis, exclusively by a sect of nuns, and only them.

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The second corridor was even more impressive being 170 m long and the walls covered with accurately surveyed geographical cartography frescos of Italy.

Now it was into the Sistine Chapel. This was a shuffle one by one along a corridor and steps and then into the chapel. No talking, and no photos although there was still some idiot tourists who disrespectfully took photos, despite being told not too, playing cat and mouse with security. Simply because they could sneak a photo, didn't mean that they should - especially in the crypts. There's something icky about taking photos of a coffin. Makes for a most disrespectful experience. I won't go into historical detail other than it took 3 years to paint and 10 years to clean. The chapel has only been recently cleaned and a couple of uncleaned patches have been left to appreciate the task. The pre-cleaned state was almost black! To be fair to the Vatican, the whole process went pretty smoothly and yes it was crowded but nothing we did not expect. You have to keep moving and not linger. It is a very impressive piece of art work.

Next into the Basilica, the biggest in the world standing at 150 m high and 250m long.
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It is impressive, ornate, historical, massive in size, fascinating, renaissance art and tourism at its peak. All the art work on the walls are mosaics, the frescos disappearing a long time ago. The mosaics however have faithfully replicated the original art and are magnificent. Because the tiles are immune to fading, flash photography is allowed - again, just because one can photograph something, doesn't mean you should. Flashes going off everywhere makes for a different experience and not one that is ideal for appreciating the space.

The theme of today is Michelango's first, last and greatest works. The Dome was his last work (finished after his death) and the Pieta, his first at the age of 23, and of course the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is his most magnificent undertaking. Looking at the Pieta, you just marvel at how can somebody convert a single block of marble and make something so detailed, folds of fabric, body details and emotion in a face. This is very much like his statue of "David" in its lifelike quality.

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After this it was a wander around the front courtyard which you all know is where the pope stands to give his services. Witness the Vatican Guards change.
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The funny side of things was entering the religious tourist shop where you can buy all forms of stuff including a calendar of the pope or the top 12 hottest priests.

Phew we got through that without totally being overwhelmed other than a little churched out. Home was another walk along the Via Cola di Rienzo, Ponte Margherita and the Piazza del Popolo. We stayed in and again cooked a delicious pasta but the night was not finished.

Jen wanted to get some night photos of the Trevi fountain thinking its 10 pm and crowds must have gone by now. We ventured off, and as we passed the last corner into the square, we were met with a couple thousand people all gathered around the fountain.

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In fact there was more people at night then there is during the day.
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This kind of summed things up: you will have thousands of tourists in Rome, Florence and Pisa in what ever you do but "you just have to see it".

Arrivederci Italy.....now onto Aix-en-Provence.

Our transfer from Rome, Italy to Aix en Provence, France was all straight forward and our bags arrived this time. The weather has cranked itself up again and now we are in the south of France and we are back up to the low 30's and dry heat. Another AirBNB and settled into an apartment about 50 m of the main drag.

Posted by tszeitli 10:32 Archived in Italy Tagged churches history church italy crowds rome photos tourists vatican michelangelo roman_ruins trevi_fountain pieta Comments (1)

Sunday in Beijing, the old and the new!

Day 8 Beijing

sunny 30 °C

Today is a big sightseeing day as tomorrow we go on the Great Wall trek and then its onto Ulaan Baatar. We tend to get up at dawn, say 5.30am and get ourselves organised and plan our day’s adventure. Today its Tian’anmen Square, the Forbidden Palace, Olympic Stadium and the Temple of Heaven. In my 6 months living in Beijing I never had a clear sunny day. A constant haze was always covering us. Today was clear skies, I could see the sun and its hot. We walked to Tian’anmen Square and we suddenly met up with thousands of tourists. So much for trying to beat the crowd. About 99% of the tourists are local Chinese from inner China going on tour groups to visit Beijing. Yes, we had to go through token security scan but otherwise there was very little police or military soldiers and I did not get the feeling there was a strong Chinese security watching us at all times. If they were it was discrete. Jen did get a sense of apprehension about the place as this was the place where the 1987 Tian’anmenn uprising took place and I pointed out where the guy ran out in front of the tank. The place does have a dark side to it. Chairmen Mao mausoleum is at the south end and the Forbidden Palace at the north end. It is surrounded by quite majestic buildings that look like typical communist type structures. The square is massive and represents the first ring road in Beijing of which they have now 6.
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We made our way across to the Forbidden Palace and joined the mass of people entering the large doors under a picture of Chairmen Mao. Just above his picture is where you see the key government leaders stand when there is a parade in the square. Tip: Passport is required to buy a ticket, which we forgot so we used our travel business cards that Jen made up. The grumpy lady at the ticket booth was not impressed but sold us the tickets. We got the headphones that give you a personal description of the palace and GPS triggered.
The Palace was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty (1420) to the Qing dynasty (1912). It was constructed from 1406 to 1420 and the complex consists of 980 buildings and covers 72 hectares. The palace is now classified as a world heritage site.
You have to marvel at the grandeur of the place, the architecture and the detail of the whole site. It is a very impressive attraction and as Jen has advised me go see “The Last Emperor” and you will see what we are talking about as the movie was filmed all there and depicted the life of Emperor Pu Yi.
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We came out the other end about 2 hours later and walked down a bit and stopped at some shops. You will see now on Jen at times is wearing a traditional communist cap! Suits her!
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Next stop is the Olympic Stadium north of the Forbidden Palace. This place is huge and you just marvel at the layout with all the stadiums. The two building that stand out are the Water Cube Aquatic Centre and the Birds Nest Main Stadium, both are an iconic piece of architecture. Jen went nuts with the Water Cube as the bubbles on the wall and the light passing through it makes for a great photo.
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The Chinese love their mascots and pop up characters and numerous ones crop up all the time. The 5 mascots for the Olympic Games were out front of the Birds Nest so we could not resist to get a photo taken. Kids!
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Next stop is the Temple of Heaven just south of Tian’anmen Square. It’s based in a large park and you have a series of temples that run south to north. We strolled through them all with the hundreds of other tourists but it was very pleasant, slow and time to just do some people watching and take in the moment of being in Beijing. The main temple is called Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.
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The last part of the walk as we were coming out of the park was to stroll through the gardens with rows and rows of beautiful roses. Also Sunday in the park is for classical dancing by the Chinese. The get dressed up and put music on and then just start dancing, quite beautiful to watch. Also as we passed under a gate there were 2 small orchestras playing Chinese music with traditional Chinese music, utilising the acoustics. Is was very peaceful and we with the small crowd just stood there quietly listening to the beautiful music.
We walked back and by this time late in the afternoon Jen had suffered a small dose of heat stroke. The day was hot and we almost spent all day outside walking on concrete or marble so the day’s events took its toll.
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That was one full day but really captured a big chunk of stuff in Beijing. Tomorrow its trekking the Great Wall.

Posted by tszeitli 16:40 Archived in China Tagged history trekking china crowds Comments (1)

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