Friday, 28 December 2012

Home is where the Heart is

"I met a lot of people in Europe. I even encountered bits and pieces of myself"

It was a constant rush of emotions as we prepared to bid farewell to Athens, Greece, and Europe.  The whirlwind adventure of travel, food and new faces was coming to an end – but our love for every memory shone ever-bright. ‘Twas the season, as the entire city was decked out in Holiday spirit. Not nearly as decorative as the United States, it still rang true to a merry atmosphere. Setting aside (rather unwisely) the end-of-semester schoolwork and assignments, we frequented trendy bars, many local tavernas and lots of chocolateries that provided yummy comfort and added to our desire to extend our stay. There were delightful visits to the houses of staff members who so graciously invited us for evenings of warm fuzzy feelings (brought on by the copious amounts of wine and delicious home-cooked food) and tinkling laughter.
Dark chocolate Aztec creations, a warm delight for a chilly evening
Food aside, the festivities ensued in the form of lots of get-togethers and parties. The traditional holiday parties attracted excitement at the prospect of returning home. A roommate’s birthday party was a huge success as we hosted most of the students and went all out. The final sendoff party on the last night however, was the most unforgettable; endless displays of food, a video montage of the semester highlights and Greek dancing all forced tears and smiles as we reveled in the moment. That moment we wished we could have frozen in time: we were carefree, beyond grateful for a brilliant semester, and dejected at the fact that we had to leave.
Street performers, Athens-style

As with all good things that indeed come to an end, ours came with quite a bang. The highlights include a day at a fish spa where the notorious doctor fish nibbled at our feet and supposedly ate away the dead and unwanted skin. Whether or not that truly occurred, it was still the weirdest feeling ever – not intended for the squeamish or ticklish. With no idea what convinced me to concede to experiencing it, it was well worth it and our feet did look somewhat ‘polished’ as we carefully extracted them from the aquatic creatures' holds. The day continued with a goodbye visit to the Acropolis, the Agora and the various other ancient monuments in the city. They taught us so much and will always stand clear in our hearts when we remember many a glorious afternoon spent in the timeless Athenian city.
Looking directly at them made it harder not to recoil in fear
Continuing with the fun amusements, there were many stops at local bazaars and markets to splurge on presents and gifts for people at home. It’s going to take considerable will-power to give them away and not keep them myself. Juggling packing, finals and frolicking was difficult, but it had to be done. Papers after papers were somehow written and exams were prepared for; but really all we wanted to do was spend nights out on the town and afternoons in the still-warm Mediterranean sunshine. I tearfully thanked and spent one last evening with the girl I tutor and her family. She had finals as well – that added to the frazzled state of mind, to say the least.By far the most significant event was the day we stumbled upon a silent demonstration. Another protest…in Greece…who would have thought? This one however, was the first of its kind that we witnessed all semester. It was focused on anti-racism and was organized in a spirit of peace. Organized by the European Grassroots Anti-Racism Movement (EGAM), it represented over 27 European countries that assembled to show their solidarity against the growing neo-Nazism in Greece. They have asserted that Greece is the “worst country in Europe when it comes to acceptance of multi-ethnic and multi-cultural diversity”. Probably not a great statistic if the nation hopes to become a prominent player in the European Union and the global network. Immigration and subsequent integration is a central issue to developing and sustaining a socially healthy community.

"Europe against Neo-Nazism"

The next we knew, we were holding signs and being photographed by international media and interviewed by numerous news stations. We held the front banner as they began the symbolic procession from Syntagma Square (also known as Constitution Square) to the Acropolis. Irony aside, this was intended to reinforce the desired approach towards the issue: the current government and political atmosphere is inadequate to address the concern and there needs to be a shift to the ancient but more genuine form of democracy. Several supporting members of Greek Parliament showed up and participated, we met them as well as made friends from all over the continent who were there specifically to voice their perspective on this critical matter.
There has been growing negative illusions about the (permanently) growing non-Greek community, most of them falsely grounded in incomplete knowledge and unfamiliarity. These ‘others’ are perceived as a threat and a risk to a fully functional society. However, we thought it was remarkable that the first and only demonstration that we had encountered that was non-violent, peaceful, practical and ended successfully was this one. It had nothing to do - directly - with the fiscal situation and was largely comprised on non-Greeks. It was promising to meet and observe the few Greeks that were present however. They were all mostly emigrants from Greece themselves and were adamant that things change here – "people cannot expect changes in so many other areas without fundamentally altering their attitudes on this immediate topic".

All of the European organizers - inclusive diversity at its finest
After being invited to a post-demonstration talk and press conference at their hotel, we satisfactorily justified our academic negligence with the real impact we were having. It was the most rewarding instance of being part of the community we have come to call our own in the past few months. We have become invested in their interests and can now to call Athens ‘home’; it goes to show that anyone can belong everywhere. It is true that national, religious and cultural factors, among others, influence true identities and a sense of belonging. On some level, though, it is eternally acknowledged that “home is where the heart is”.
On a different note and at the other end of the spectrum, a couple monasteries within the city were also on the agenda. Just to provide closure to the fact that, for the most part, to be Greek is equivalent to be Greek Orthodox. Beautiful as always, we were blessed and sent on our way with local treats and trinkets from the nuns and priests. Generous as ever, they never fail to add a positive spin to any situation – even if that includes encouraging us to trudge through the mountain of work that never seemed to come to an end.

Casual view from the Acropolis: Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Panathenaic Stadium, and our humble abode
The guards outside the Parliament. Supposedly the most highly trained personnel in the nation
There shall be an Ode of Greece; a heartfelt thank you for the perfect experience it presented; a goodbye that marks only a temporary absence with a promise to reunite and continue life’s unpredictable shenanigans. This is just the end…of yet another new beginning. For, in the end, it is not going to matter much how many breaths you took in the moment, but rather how many moments took your breath away. Rest assured, those moments were ever-present, ever-marvelous, and ever-lasting.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Attack on the Senses

"No journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within "

The fear of not being allowed into a country is very real. Especially when all you want to do is spend an enjoyable weekend away from school experiencing a lovely new place. Especially when you’re a student committed to life elsewhere and will most definitely not be illegally immigrating to this new place. Especially when the people you are travelling with breeze through passport control leaving you to figure out how to avoid a fiasco.

Istanbul, Turkey – the weekend was full of frustration, disbelief, and confusion. For the most part though, it was full of color, vibrancy, laughter, flavor and abundance. It started with a glorious nap on the two hour flight, followed by the airport incident. As we left the terminal and headed to customs and immigration, there was Passport Control 1 which had a list of countries – the United States included – from where, if you were a citizen of one of them, all you had to do was have a sticker stamped into your passport and pay the visa processing fee. India wasn’t on there. For a brief but joyous twenty minutes I stood happily in line with every passenger who arrived in Turkey in the Other Passport/Passport Control line; I simply thought I lucked out and wouldn’t have to do anything to enter as a tourist.
To put it gently, I was foolishly wrong. I finally approached the officer; he asked me, “do you want to enter this country or no? Where is your visa? Go stand in line at Passport Control 2”. Well, that makes more sense, I thought. So I grudgingly but much more enlightened, left and walked the ten minutes it took to find this special place. There, I by-passed the endless rows of empty stanchions and walked confidently up to a stern looking official. He looked through my passport and then told me to go find the ticket office to buy a visa permit. Frustration begins to settle in. At least this time I was greeted by a lady, and the sole consolation I received throughout the whole ordeal was that I had to pay significantly less to acquire a visa than citizens from the States. I was then told by her to return to the Passport Control line. This line had now extended to what looked like a forty minute wait because of the large volume of incoming flights that afternoon.
I make it to the front, try a different authority from last time, and smile as I hesitantly hand over my passport and the receipt for my visa. He looks at it, and then right as I was about to breathe a sigh of relief he looks confused and asks for my visa. This could not be happening again. Unbelievably, he told me once more to go and get an actual stamp in spite of the woman informing me I wouldn’t need one. At this point my poor friends were waiting (so patiently) right beyond the invisible line that separated us from the best weekend ever.
I avoided eye contact with all the staring passengers as I backtracked through the mile-long line and headed back to Passport Control 2. There the man who spoke to me earlier started chatting about why I wanted to visit Turkey, what I wanted to do there, and if I was available for dinner and drinks that night. Ten very strange minutes later, I tried not to jump for joy as they stamped something that looked official in my passport and let me pass through without going through the ridiculous line. I was finally free of the burden of transnational border control, free of the traumatic process that it takes to be a world traveler, and free of the frown lines that had almost been permanently etched into my face.
In retrospect it was intriguing: I got to watch a microcosm of the whole world pass through that airport – people from all over the world and how they interacted with their surroundings, I tried to interpret the Turkish signs – desperately failing to do so, and I found a place to exchange my precious Euros for Turkish Liras (one Euro is equal to exactly two Turkish Liras).
With my suitcase off the conveyor belt and in the custody of my anxious travel companions, we grimaced and complained about bureaucracy, put on our smiles and ventured out to begin the real adventure that eagerly awaited us. Navigating the metro stops and hopping onto an inter-city tram, we arrived in the center of the Old City – Sultanahmet – an hour later and began the search for our hostel. Add to this scenario the fact that it was pouring rain: the whole day, and the next day too. With umbrellas out and curiosity out further, we walked through the tourist section and were overwhelmed with the sights, smells and sounds we encountered. True to our Greek-ness, we stayed at the Hostel Agora, which was a great choice. It was super clean and had delicious breakfast spreads (dates ,figs and dried apricots go wonderfully well in yogurt and museli), and the kindest people both running the place and sharing our ten-person dormitory. It was also so inexpensive that we were thankfully not scammed. They helped us settle in, showed us how to get around, advised us as to what to do, and made us feel more at home.
Without further ado, we walked out of the warmth and into the rain to find the Grand Bazaar. After a quick stop at a restaurant called The Pudding Shop (which served excellent tomato-stuffed eggplant), finally tasting the roasted chestnuts from the street that we see everywhere in Greece and Italy as well (and which are soft but chewy but smoky and just full of goodness), and checking the map multiple times (which we very quickly became disenchanted with, considering the whole city is full of people doing and going to the same places), we made our grand entrance into the Bazaar.
Blink, and you'll miss all the magic
Self-described as one of “the most exciting shopping experiences in the world”, they kid you not. Words fail you as you can barely navigate the labyrinthine maze that winds, turns and branches with almost every step. Two things are visible: the elaborately decorated roof with Arabic art and the shops. There are hundreds and hundreds (5,000 to be exact) of stalls, awnings, enclaves, stores, big rooms and side-carts. Don’t even think of coming out empty-handed, if you can manage to come out at all. Goods produced from all over the world are displayed in all their extravagance here. The best “deals” you believed you’ve ever snagged will pale in comparison to the feeling you embrace after spending three hours (like we did) soaking in all that this magical place had to offer.
“Where are you from?” “Here, come let me help you buy something you don’t need” “Hey girls, look you dropped something…my heart” “No, no, just come and see, don’t buy…but you will want to soon, I know” “Come and let me take some of your money from you, it must be heavy to carry around” “Angels! Where is your Charlie?” “Look at my store, I have things almost as beautiful as you are” “See our genuine fake merchandise” “You walk like a lady on a mission…to win my love” “Here, look at all these things you want to take from me”
Non-stop, and on repeat: these one-liners were uproarious and we couldn’t stop giggling the entire time. They will do anything to get you to buy what they have to sell. Including quoting ‘x’ TL initially, only to end up settling on around a fourth of that price. A shopaholic’s and bargain-lover’s heaven, it was consumerism at its finest. A paradise for anything and everything your heart could ever hope to desire, it was like the whole place was pulsating with an invisible energy that propelled you to feel like it is an alternate universe. Which it basically is, for all intents and purposes.
Exhausted and still being harassed by vendors, we somehow made it out alive and well. It was such a rush, and given the chance we could have easily stayed there for quite a bit longer. But the night was still young and there were still things to see and places to go. We found a quiet and quick place for dinner, after stopping along the way at two more street carts to buy little trinkets. It served traditional Turkish dishes like spiced cauliflower, cheese-stuffed zucchini, meat and lamb pies, and copious amounts of rice and bread. Scarfing it down and comparing purchases, we then settled down at a hookah café near our hostel. With apple tea and Turkish delights to keep us awake, we spent a few hours meeting locals and other tourists while learning how to blow smoke rings and play traditional Turkish string instruments.
Winded and ready for an early morning, we woke up the next morning to many things: more rain, breakfast on the roof-top, and a full day of exploring ahead. The first stop was the Blue Mosque. Veiled with scarves and long skirts, we admired the hand-made ceramic tiles and plushy woven carpets that adorn the interior of the mosque. Formally called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, all along the interior façade are delicately engraved blue tiles which lend their notoriety to the mosque’s more popular name. Still a fully functional place of worship, the most interesting aspect we noticed (after learning so much in our classes this semester) were the distinct Byzantine and Ottoman influences on the architecture of the building. It still lives up to its initial claims of grandeur and opulence.
Blue Mosque by night
Shoes on and umbrellas at the ready, we dashed across the expansive courtyard to visit the Haghia Sophia. These two buildings are separated by a majestic hexagonal fountain that by day brings a joyous sentiment to the surroundings and by night enchants those who pass by with its mystical rhythms of lights and water play. First an Orthodox basilica, then a mosque and now a museum, it was secularized by the Turkish Government in 1935 and open to the public. It witnessed a proud and momentous history; the construction of it changed forever the way Byzantine churches would be built and the Ottoman conquest of it added Islamic influences to the structure and aesthetics of it. It is difficult to describe how elaborate the carving and interior decorations are – skillful woodwork and artistic calligraphy are ever-present on both the upper and lower levels.
Haghia Sophia
Feasting the eyes upon centuries of decadence
Continuing with the theme this semester of visiting holy places, we arrived next at Topkapi Palace. It was the seat of the Ottoman Sultan for 400 years and was the royal palace for state occasions and engagements. Large courtyards to wander through and unimaginable amounts of wealth are concealed behind the Imperial Gates of this palace, and the cloak and sword of Muhammed are said to reside here as well. Stunning in the presentation of the old treasure and fortune, the elaborate layout of the grounds and building in itself was the most impressive feature.
If the urge to ever see an eerie and chilling cistern doused in dim lights and dark waters strikes your fancy, pay a visit to the Basilica Cistern in the city. This water-proof chamber that holds mainly water is enthralling to walk though because at the end lie two columns supported from underneath by Medusa’s head. One is upside-down and the other is sideways, so as to negate the effect of the mythical legend of the observer turning to stone. Its origins unknown, they are believed to have been taken from the Roman Empire. It was built during the Byzantine Empire and we learned that it continued to supply water to Topkapi Palace during Ottoman rule.
Tread carefully, and thus you shall be guided
The Egyptian Bazaar is more fondly known as the Spice Bazaar, and seems to be one of the largest spice trading venues anywhere. It is mind-boggling to ponder over the centuries of trade, commerce and markets that have prevailed under this large indoor souk. Mountains of spices and heaps of herbs, overflowing displays of teas and coffees, dried fruits and nuts, and exotic fragrances and essential oils – it was an attack on the senses. The key is to accept the beckoning venders’ calls to taste and sample their delights (especially the Turkish ones). Not at all shy about trying everything on display, we feasted on the sweet and savory treats this lively enclosure has to offer. We encountered yet more lines yelled at us from the merchants and basked in the glory of pretending to haggle for things we had no intention of buying (but which we were ultimately persuaded to do so anyway – it is inevitable).
Overload on the senses
If that wasn’t enough to exhaust us, nothing is. We headed back to the hostel to take a quick break, freshen up and make plans for dinner. We walked around Sultanahmet and settled on a rooftop terrace restaurant with a view of the Haghia Sophia, the fountain and the Blue Mosque. Artistic presentations are the restaurant’s claim to fame and their play on colors and flavors echoed the eccentric and wild excitement of the Spice Bazaar. Earlier in the day we also ran into a few other students studying at our institution but under a different program. They were visiting Istanbul for the weekend too and they invited us to head over to Taksim Square that night. We were joined also by an Australian dancer who is touring the world and was spending some time in Istanbul before heading off to Israel. He was extremely entertaining to say the least; he was the star of the night with his wild curly blond hair and impeccable accent.
Ahh, Taksim Square. It is considered the heart of modern European Istanbul. With its beautiful nationalist monuments and fountains, we were there to test the famed nightlife that it boasts. With a never-ending stretch of nightclubs and bars, we eventually settled on a very interesting one. The first door leads into a semi-open alleyway with a live Turkish band playing traditional celebration music. There were people eating dinner still (at midnight) and dancing all along the way. At the end of this was a swanky club that looked like it was hosting a raging party. We danced for hours, kept getting free drinks and alcohol from the bartender who apparently took a liking to this crazy group of American youngsters. We would alternate with periods of joining in the revelry outside and met some wonderful Turkish people as well. Not too shabby of a night for exploring life after hours in this cosmopolitan and diverse city.
Too many drinks later and an infuriating taxi driver later, we were sound asleep, only to be rudely woken up by our alarms a few hours later. What instantly cheered us up was the bright and sunny forecast for the day. Not a cloud in sight, and it deigned to allow us one hassle free day in the beautiful city. Actually able to see the sunrise from our breakfast table, we headed out to explore what little we could before it was time to leave.
First up was the Galata Bridge. While architecturally magnificent, this engineering feat is compounded by its symbolic significance. It linked the traditional city of Istanbul proper – with the imperial palace and principle religious and secular institutions of the Empire – with markedly different districts that were home to the non-Muslims of the time, including foreign diplomats and merchants. It bridged the gap (literally and metaphorically) between these two distinct cultures and civilizations. This bond, romantic in itself, can be felt as one traverses the bridge to get to the other side. Steeply angled roads and one short hill later, we entered the Galata Tower. It is the oldest tower anywhere in the world, which is currently open to the public. Also the tallest structure at the time of its construction, it offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the mosques, basilicas, palaces and landscapes that make the city as remarkable as it is. After taking our pictures and wistfully soaking in the glorious horizon, we walked back down and back over the bridge to the Sulimaniye Mosque.
Galata Bridge and Galata Tower beckoning us to visit
The largest one in the city, the mosque is to Istanbul what the Acropolis is to Athens in significance. It too blends Byzantine and Islamic aesthetic elements. We walked around the beautiful garden that encloses the building, noting the cemetery and the well-maintained lawns. Inside the large square courtyard was a newly-wedded couple taking photographs. The Bride’s gown was exquisite – it had pears and beads delicately embroidered around lace details. Her headpiece was similarly extravagant and the whole effect was ethereal (the Groom was dashing as well, don’t worry). Inside the Mosque, while the prayer ensued, the tourists were able to observe the reading of the Quran and respectfully admire the ivory, marble and wood work that creates the intense yet effective tasteful interior.
After we walked down the almost 90 degree sloped hill, it was time to switch continents. It was just another day as we causally decided to make the ten minute journey to Asia. Running to catch the ferry, they slammed the door in our faces just as we were about to board the ramp, and – snickering gleefully – told us to wait for the next one. Soon enough, we were watching the landscape of Istanbul escape our view as we anchored in the harbor of Kadikoy. The whole entire afternoon I found it highly amusing that, technically, I could make it on foot all the way back home to India if I so fancied.
After haggling with a man on the street and buying scarves for one Euro each, we gleefully made our way to the port and walked along the water. We walked through a gigantic park that had so many playgrounds that we had to stop and climb the monkey bars. We swung too high, laughed like silly children on the see-saw and tried to attempt the futuristic new contraptions that looked like they belonged more at a gym than at a park. With the sun playfully guiding us further and further, we stumbled upon a well-hidden gem.
The municipality of Pasa Limani owns the park as well as the adjacent restaurant-café that might well be the most successful establishment we encountered the whole trip. It is an upscale chic eatery with modern décor and very helpful waiters. All outdoor, it is set on the water itself with wooden beams overhead that lend to its extended feel. On the one hand, it is the kind of place that serves high-end entrées and classy inspired desserts to fill you with delightful satisfaction. On the other hand however, the subsidized menu by the local government makes it more than affordable – shockingly so – permitting you to try most of their dishes.
After the best Turkish meatballs doused in tomatoes, eggplant and parsley followed by a chocolate ganache-cake with caramelized pecans and Turkish apple-cinnamon tea, we were all smiles and smugly exclaimed how luckily we stumbled upon this local secret. We remarked at our ability to communicate without any Turkish on our part nor any English on the staff’s part – and still managing to eat an excellent meal.
Sunset in Asia
Sadly it was time to get going, and say goodbye to Asia. We had a very cheerful walk back to the pier and reflected the weekend. What was most compelling was how much we fell in love with the city despite so many mishaps and unfortunate weather. It is a city of so many talents, secrets and quirks. Easy to fall in love with, yet it has no qualms leaving you to figure out your own mess. A city for the mentally courageous, and the physically resilient.
Never a dull moment, Istanbul is a city that compels you to break free of your preconceived boundaries and plunge carefree into the chaos it proudly exudes. Up till the very last minute, when we almost missed our flight, had to persuade airport security to let us in ahead of the line, and ran the length of the entire terminal, the weekend was a grand success. Laden with gifts, happy memories and one last Turkish delight, we made our way back to Athens. Home sweet home for the next two weeks until we are released back into the world and return home home for the Holidays.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Worldly Conquests

"The world is a book, and those who do not travel read but only a page"

“When in Rome…”

Oh wait, we were in Rome, that magical city which pretty much dominated the Western World for a significant amount of time. As soon as we hopped off the train and onto the platform we noticed: it was a huge metropolitan train station that looked fancier than most international airports with a mix of high-end boutiques, fast food chains and loud eastern music. Marveling at the grandeur, we followed the instructions from the hostel down Via Marsala and turning at Via Gaetta till we rang up to the hostel. After checking in and being moved to their second location a street over, we were pleasantly surprised that they upgraded us to an apartment suite instead of just one room.
Stunned at how all the accommodation worked out so perfectly throughout the trip, we settled in and soon headed out to explore. It was Thanksgiving Day and a friend’s birthday; a celebration was in order. After stopping by Piazza de Republica and admiring the first glimpse of modern Roman architecture down the ubiquitous Italian high-end shopping street, we headed in search of dinner. A graduate from the University who now works at the Vatican suggested we try the “restaurant in the alley” that night which would steal us away from tourist traps and indulge our palettes with sumptuous local fare. After meandering through the busy streets for over an hour and expertly using the free map we were given, we entered the inconspicuous red-and-white checkered door to a dimly lit room that could comfortably fit no more than ten tables.
There was no menu, simply the house specials, and tons of free bread and red wine. A heaping of gnocchi and many bites of pizza later, we were at the customary post-meal phase so typical of Thanksgiving. We thanked them profusely and left to see what Rome looked like by night and get lost in the cobble-stoned streets and narrow slanting alleys. Unintentionally and miraculously, we ended up in front of Trevi Fountain – its sculpture reflected exaggerated motion and dramatic poses – the largest Baroque fountain in the city. We grabbed a more-than-generous helping of Gelato and with cameras at ready, we turned around and tossed coins into the sea-blue waters over right shoulders. This, according to legend, will ensure we return to Rome one day.
Trevi Fountain - close your eyes and make a wish
Heady with happiness and excited for the morrow, we tucked in for the night. Early the next morning commenced our visit to the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica, adding another country that has been visited this trip. The Vatican Museum offers discounted student tickets and a great way to spend about at least three hours. Along with ancient Egyptian artifact sections and Roman sculpture exhibitions, the exquisite yet classic Rafael rooms stood out by a mile (by a kilometer really, since we’re in Europe). The four Stanze di Rafaello form a suit of reception rooms, the public part of the papal apartments. They depicted running themes such as the victory of Christianity over paganism, the heavenly protection granted by Christ to the Church, worldly and spiritual wisdom and harmony, and the lives of Popes Leo III and IV. In the Stanze della Segnatura, the first one to be decorated by him, it focuses on the four great arts: theology, philosophy, jurisprudence and poetry. Each is exemplified in a fresco of its own, but the School of Athens masterpiece takes the crown. It represents the degree of knowledge or truth acquired through reason, namely the esteemed practice of philosophy. It is widely believed that nearly every great Greek philosopher was portrayed in it, but it is not completely certain because Raphael himself never really indicated thus. It was challenging but rewarding to search for Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Plato, Euclid, and even Pythagoras (I take back all the negative energy I sent their way during many a dreary math class in school). I could have sworn I saw Leonardo Da Vinci wink back at me.
Of course, the long stroll at the end led to the provocative Sistine Chapel. Although many famous artists contributed to this famous abode of the Pope, Michelangelo’s in particular stand out for a reason. The Last Judgment was as grand as can be imagined – although very embellished and not exactly true to biblical detail, it still boasts of bold colors and emphatic bodily contours. The Creation of Adam – the famous one with God and Adam almost touching at the fingertips – is smaller than expected, but still provokes a powerful emotional response. It is interesting to contemplate his choice of the appearance of God as an elderly and wrinkled white-bearded man while Adam, who is supposed to have been created “in the image and likeness of God”, is depicted in the nude with a powerful physique and a sense of vulnerability as he faces Him.
With that to keep the wheels turning, it was time to visit the actual Basilica. After a security check slightly more invasive than one at an international airport, walking through the majestic columns shields from view the striking St. Peter’s Square with its Tuscan colonnades and giant Egyptian red-granite obelisk. With the elliptical open air papal audience arena behind you, all you can do is nervously walk past the pokerfaced Swiss Guard and into the Cathedral itself. It is no wonder it is the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture. It marks the burial site of Saint Peter, one of the twelve apostles of Christ and the first Bishop of Rome (he was thus the first in the line of papal descent).
Wouldn't ever want to cross him
Past the façade of the square and through the narthex entrance, walking inside the Latin Cross-shaped structure imposes a sense of wonder at the superior granite, marble and stone work. “An ornament of the Earth”, the interior is of vast dimensions and rows after rows of pews allow for the faithful to pray and relish this moment of reverential pilgrimage. The real surprise of the day was yet to come; a real treat and out-of-body experience.
St. Peter’s tomb is a site in the necropolis under the Basilica. It includes several graves and burial sites and also lends its fame to the initial reason for the construction of the Vatican in the first place. During the time of the alleged martyrdom of the Saint, the landscape was that of a hilly terrain with a lone Circus of Nero arena distinguishing the surrounding land. Said to have been crucified upside-down and buried away from prying eyes there, St. Peter remained peacefully so until Constantine I’s reign when it was partially demolished and the first Vatican Church was established. Centuries of history, controversy, mystery and unwavering faith later, the 20th century saw secret excavations during the World Wars of the site to determine if indeed, evidence held true to legend.
How did we learn all of this? Just our young and attractive British tour guide who guided us through a private tour underneath the Basilica and into the grave-site to – again organized by the student who graduated earlier and who works there.
In the year 1968, on my birthday, the current Pope announced the remains of St. Peter had been uncovered. After disappointing finds in the actual hole where he was rumored to have been placed, an Italian expert arrived on the scene and quickly cleared things up. After examining the archaeological evidence, she stumbled upon symbolic illustrations on the side of an additional ‘graffiti wall’ placed next to the original burial site. With Greek letters and symbols, it was deciphered to read “here lies Peter” (or, “here is buried Peter” which we actually understood with the amount of Greek we have already learned). To stand literally ten feet away from, and actually see, the bone of the body was an incredibly powerful moment. Whether or not the proof was compelling or not, the mere suggestion of it has brought countless to this holy space to admire and pray here. Knowing it was an experience only privileged few receive annually, we took advantage of the moment to observe the magnitude of our situation and promptly bombarded our generous host with a hoard of questions and remarks.
Inside the Imperial Basilica of St. Peter
Leaving St. Peter’s and the Vatican with that piece of precious understanding put many things into perspective. It certainly evoked much thought and consideration regarding the basis for, the controversy surrounding, and the prevalence of the Church and Christianity. Next on the schedule was walking all the way back to the center of the city to meet up for dinner with a group of friends. Along the way were stops at many famous piazzas with elegant carvings and tall arching vaults. The Spanish Steps is a set of…surprise surprise…steps; they connect two piazzas with a Church standing at the very top. Along the way up is the house where English Poet John Keats lived and died in the 19th century. Most famous for its media appearances in movies and music, the steps glitter with lights, fountains and the smiles of visitors beholding the dazzling sight.
Dinner at a local ristorante and then we met and chatted with some German students staying at our hostel. A few beers later, a very loud football game later, and many weird music videos later, it was time for bed. The next morning was just like all the others: full of sunshine, a wholesome breakfast (of fruit, yogurt, bread and an omelet) and lots of promise. A twenty minute walk later ended us in front of the Coliseum. Considered one of the greatest works of Roman architecture and engineering, it is an elliptical amphitheater. Throughout history it was most famously used for gladiator performances, entertainment, residential dwellings, executions, and even dramas based on classical mythology. In the upper floor of the outer wall of the building is a museum which boasts of hoards of archaeological artifacts from the ancient Roman Empire. The territory spanned across continents, claiming people from all walks of life. The museum very aptly dedicates much information to the memory of the victorious empire. In the Eulogy of Rome (and in the museum itself) is epically stated: “neither the sea, nor vast distances of land could prevent one from being a Roman citizen…all opportunities are open to everyone”. It proudly narrated the means by which Rome ruled – very successfully – most of the “civilized” world.
The 'diploma' certifying when a resident of the Roman Empire became an honored Roman citizen
Walking through the arena and the 50,000 capacity audience stands, the stories take your through an emotional journey of a time of pleasure, excesses and an overall good time. Betting, gambling and lots of drinking used to happen during the sacrifice or game being held. Animals were hauled inside using a complex system of pulleys and levers. Extreme hierarchical differences were reinforced by means of priority and ranked seating. Some shows could have lasted for days, and people had nothing pressing to attend to that would distract from the ensuing source of entertainment.
The stunning views aside, right by the Coliseum is the Ancient Roman Forum, Constantine’s Arch and many old monuments erected, destroyed and reconstructed. The city is a treasure trove of Baroque-style architecture and is full of rich diversity reflected in its design. The Il Vittoriano is a monument built in honor of Victor Emmanuel; he was the first king of a unified Italy. Standing tall amongst much controversy, it is built entirely of blindingly white marble and I somehow managed to pass by it at least twelve times during the course of the day (intentionally, of course). Climbing the side steps to the back of the building (without pausing; much harder than it looks) led to a secret chapel. A secret chapel that turned out to be huge with marble and wood inlaid interior decoration. Competing in size and opulence with even St. Peter’s Basilica, the real surprise was the royal orchestra that happened to be performing at that very moment.
Constantine's Arch
In patriotic memory of Victor Emmanuel
Vibrating through the body and touching the heart, the music was lavish and stately. Feeling slightly out of place, tourists understandably did not stay longer than needed to snap a few pictures and walk out with a definitely bounce in their steps. Onwards and forwards, the Pantheon was offended it hadn’t been visited, and so with the trusty (and already well-worn) map provided by the hostel, we meandered north through more piazzas, shopping districts, as well as a demonstration. It felt like Athens all over again. Literally, as we turned the corner we were stampeded by a mass of young students carrying flags and chanting as they swept us along with them. Managing to extract ourselves and finding the closest shopkeeper, we grilled her at length about what was happening. She said what we’ve all heard before: nobody is happy with the European austerity measures. Even “Italians can demonstrate, like the Greeks” she said. The police were unprepared however, since it is not a common occurrence. They were geared in full preparation and stationed all across the city. With helicopter back-ups that patrolled the skies for the rest of the day, the city was torn between its nature to play host to the visiting world and remain a home for those who live there and who need their opinions to be expressed.
A “temple built for all the gods” soon became a Roman Catholic Church and is now the resting place for a couple of Italian kings who were interred there – the Pantheon is an extremely well-preserved granite colonnaded structure. Its coffered, concrete dome is the largest unreinforced dome in the world, and the building has been in uninterrupted use since the 7th century. It is open and free to the public, who can walk around and spontaneously join any mass that happens to be taking place if they are lucky enough. Clearly a symbol of national pride, the square around it also plays to the respect and popularity attributed to the Pantheon.
The Pantheon basking in all its glory
Rome wasn’t built in a day, as evidenced by the plethora of things to see and do. A necessary experience is a walk along the Tiber River and a stroll across the ridiculously small “neighborhood” of Isola. The style of buildings doesn’t change dramatically, but it becomes more upscale and residential. Charming Churches with ringing bells and schools letting out for the weekend exposed how the real “Romans” currently live. To stop for a cappuccino, a pastry and a chance to watch the world is a relaxing way to spend an evening by the water. You can climb down the numerous bridges and walk right next to the River if it so strikes your fancy. Of course we did, strolling by the lapping and rushing waters for a while. Then we walked around the two buildings on Isola which is on one of the bridges connecting the two sides of the city. The crème de la crème of society live in this part of town, and it provides a secluded walk through the Autumn-themed streets and the chilly evening wind. The only companions are the smell of something baking, the running footsteps of children in the playground and the distant tinkling of the perfect cup of freshly-brewed coffee.
Evening always comes too quickly. Being winter, the nights come sooner and the darkness hits deceivingly early. A quick freshening up and we were out again to make the most of our last night in Rome. A little research and we committed to the “Graffiti” trattoria; without reservations (honestly, who ever remembers to make one of those?), we cajoled our way into acquiring a table in the best part of the restaurant, and even bargained for free wine and bread. The menu was extensive and offered avant-garde options like wrapped veal, pastas that most probably do not exist outside of Rome, spiced clams, and pineapple infused mushrooms. We ate a lot. And then some more. It was good. Very good.
Brilliant performance by the Royal Orchestra in the hidden Cathedral
It seems almost unnecessary to describe what happened next. The last few hours of the whole trip. It all boiled down to this evening. We saw everything we wanted to see, and far beyond what we hoped to. Ignoring the 6.30am departure time the next morning, we bravely set out on the last and final expedition.
The quest for the best gelaterias in town began quite a while ago – Grave conversations with locals, arguments with other tourists, and meticulous direction-drawing on the map led us to three special locations. The first one was fittingly the oldest one in Rome. It is simple, elegant and hits the spot. With a few classic flavors, this one-of-a-kind homemade ice-cream artist doesn’t even offer cones because they take away from the humble yet effective taste of his cold creations. It also happened to be the cheapest we encountered during the whole week. Next up was a favorite with the tourist crowd because it has over 150 different flavors. Overwhelming to say the least, they understand the tough decision they force upon you and thus allow endless samples. Right when I though no choice could possibly be made, I settled on a triple-chocolate concoction that made my heart very happy indeed.
It was hard to say goodbye to the 147 flavors that I didn’t get to devour, but the final stop compensated spectacularly. Rivaling the first oldest shop as the best gelato in Rome, the only customers in this bakery were locals. We hit the jackpot. Forgoing extravagant blends of tastes, we kept it delicious and classic (and sinful). Mostly because we were full beyond measure, the timeless chocolate-caramel-Irish cream sufficed as we had no regrets (until the next morning) about consuming all of it.
Quintessential image of the city
Yes, gelato was definitely a huge part of this trip, along with other culinary masterpieces we were fortunate enough to taste. Monuments and historical sites enhanced our classroom and textbook education, showing us that seeing truly is believing (and admiring). The people in Italy were so sincere and hospitable, welcoming us with warm smiles (and warm rooms, thankfully) and were always dressed to impress. The travel was hassle-free for the most part, and gave us beautiful glimpses of the dazzling landscapes and different parts of the country. The presents we brought home will always remind us of an unforgettable and perfect time. It was time to return to Athens and (the more comprehensible) Greek, to the routine of classes and assignments, but also to find a renewed appreciation for our new “home” away from home. Only a few more weeks till the adventure comes to an end; it’s now or never.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Journey Onwards

"Travel is more than just sensing a new surrounding – rather it is a change that goes on within: in the deep and permanent ideas of living"

Arriving into Firenze (Florence) central train station demands basking in the delightful scenery the rural Italian countryside has to offer. Tuscany is the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, and its capital Florence is considered the ‘Athens of the middle ages. It was meant to be – we were destined to visit this rustic region. After a short bus ride to our hostel to check-in, we went back again to the central old city to start exploring.
San Lorenzo Basilica is one of the many churches in Florence that claims to be the oldest. Behind it is the San Lorenzo Mercato Centrale, inside of which lies a labyrinth of culinary stalls offering exotic elements like wild boar, cow’s stomach, black corn ears and pig’s intestines along with classic favorites like ripe figs, spicy prosciutto and nutty cream cheese. It was a simultaneously furtive search for samples of the enormous chestnuts and purple grapes, as well as a swift escape from summons to try the liver of [insert animal of choice here]. Once outside again, we strolled through the famous leather stalls, all of whom sold high-fashion authentic Italian leather that caught our eyes.

San Lorenzo market full of leather and leather...and leather
We saw a leather jacket that we liked in a stall, passed by it and walked into the outrageously overpriced retail store instead. We promptly walked back to the stall, walked past it into the store behind it, walked through that and ended up in an ominous looking warehouse with rows upon rows of leather jackets on display. Choosing the right size in an instant, the owner of the store started talking to us in every single language possible. From Kashmir, he spoke to me in Hindi, to us both in English, to my friend in Spanish, and to us both again in Greek. Alone spectacular in itself, he then proceeded to explain that there was a “special 50% discount for you because you are from my country” (a recurring theme in Europe that I am not about to start complaining about). It was a done deal – except for the fact that it didn’t fit quite right. Not at all a problem: within ten minutes he had cut off, resized and re-stitched the sleeves and sides till it looked tailored to fit.
More than the jacket itself, the experience was well worth it; especially the solid thirty minutes I spent seriously contemplating a spontaneous impulse purchase of a beautiful leather trench coat that I promise was calling my name. Sanity prevailed and I meekly walked out empty-handed. The next test of resolve was at the Lindt store that almost cruelly dared me to ignore its taunts. It was hard, but not impossible to say no to the mint, coconut and hazelnut drops of heaven. By that point it was definitely time for dinner. An artsy trattoria (restaurant) with the friendliest waiters and a big warm earthen pizza oven by the entrance served us so well that we returned there another night to dine again. One word: Finnochiona. With a slight hint of fennel, garlic and white pepper, this cured meat (the speciality of Florence) is a bite into savory pleasure. Delicate slices with balsamic vinegar to enhance its smokiness made this the perfect accompaniment to the fagiola zuppa (white bean soup) that night. Dinner was a success, but desert was yet to be judged. Suspiciously, gelaterias were just about closing by then and we were almost afraid that night would be the first without any. Au contraire; the bus stop by our hostel revealed a cozy and late-night bakery with the richest assortment of flavors imaginable. After ‘tasting’ over seven of them, I settled on a combination of three different chocolate ones. Perfection is a wonderful feeling, especially experienced through taste.
The next morning saw us leave the hostel bright and early for a full day in the old city again. The real main church of Florence is the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, or simply the Duomo. It is a magnificent marble paneled gothic-style cathedral with green, white and pink highlights that take your breath away each time you turn the corner of San Lorenzo market and behold the entire structure. Inside are the conventional yet nevertheless remarkable mural motifs of biblical scenes and a high altar that gazes down at the worshippers. We chose to climb the four hundred and sixteen steps of the adjacent bell tower, and thus we witnessed the most inspiring panoramic view of Tuscany one can only dream of experiencing. Almost symmetrical rows of terracotta roofs all aligned to meet at the base of the rolling countryside hills. Huffing and puffing, we admired the expansive view and promised to somehow acquire residences in the distant horizon that exuded traditional and idyllic archetypes.
Duomo with marble facade and Renaissance golden doors
The Duomo sits behind its baptistery and this building is famous for its golden doors. The artistic decoration on these doors are said to represent the first ever elements of the Renaissance. We stood in awe and pretended to fully grasp the gravity of the situation. Along the same vein, one cannot visit the region of the origins of the Renaissance and not visit Michelangelo’s David himself. Standing tall and towering over the rest of the exhibits at the Accademia, the statue is very…intriguing. The hands are disproportionately large because when it was sculpted, it was meant to be atop the Florence Cathedral. The whole body is an amalgamation of perfect aspects of the human body simply synthesized together. To make David “more beautiful than God”, Michelangelo added the beautiful elements from various real people and created the sum of these parts as the biblical depiction. The uneasiness that washes over the viewer due to the unnatural portrayal is overcome, however, with a sense of wonder at the contours of the nude male stance that has historically been interpreted as one of the most unsettling albeit marvelous masterpieces.
Piazza della Republica: marking the site of the ancient Forum and the center of the city
Continuing our ambling about, we stumbled upon a Jewish synagogue and other intermittent huge structures that functioned for administrative and official purposes. The whole city is intended to allude to a sense of grandeur and majesty. Nobody looked out of place, and both tourists and locals alike blended seamlessly into a crowd of sophisticated style. Next was the Piazza della Signoria that hosts the Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace) as the town hall of the city. It is a massive, Romanesque fortress palace and is one of the most significant public places in Italy. It also happens to be a great spot to eat a relaxed lunch, watch the world go by and make fun of little children who are eating servings of gelato twice the size of their heads (now that is good parenting).
Tuscany showed us its magnificent landscape with charming low hills covered in olive groves, vineyards, woods, isolated cypress trees and adorable old farmhouses – all part of a landscape that seems to have been carefully tended to since the dawn of time. It is a refuge for the soul as well as an ideal place to get lost in contemplation; no wonder the Renaissance had impetus to start here and changed the rest of the world. It certainly struck a chord with my heart and sang a tune my spirit was only too happy to comply with. Ponte Vecchio is a medieval stone arch bridge across the Arno River in Florence. Its claim to fame is the array of shops and activity that happens in the bridge: all the residences and commercial estates are built into the structure itself and it stands testament to life that prevailed and prospered once upon a time. Currently, it is inundated (in a positive way) with gold, silver and jewelry stores. We didn’t see too many couples; either the men conveniently crossed it off their maps or the women stole their wallets and magically found their way there. At the very least, it offered, if not any expensive purchases, a dramatic view of the urban dwellings of Florence proper in the foreground contrasted with a far-off, almost magical rural setting in the background. A suitable souvenir came in the form of an Italian-bred English-educated artist who produced touching geometric representations of Tuscan themes. After a warm conversation with her about her life and work, we left with a new friend and colorful keepsakes that accurately yet creatively captured the essence of the region.
It doesn't get any more perfect than this. The view from Ponte Vecchio bridge
Dinner that night was at a lively tourist pizzeria with good music, interactive chefs and run-ins with familiar faces halfway across the world. Full though we were, the usual splurge (financially as well as nutritionally) on gelato from the same bakery near our hostel rounded up what was a long but thoroughly satisfying day. The only hitch was on the way back. In Europe, public transport tickets must be self-validated. Many people lose interest and simply reuse old tickets and ‘stamp’ them repeatedly because honestly, “nobody ever checks”. Wrong – they check sometimes. And those sometimes are enough to make it worth it to always have a valid and usable ticket. After spotting the conductor hopping onto the bus and make his way through all the passengers, we pressed the emergency next stop button and ran off the bus and all the way back to the hostel fueled by adrenaline, sugar and bizarre laughter. Needless to say the one time we decided not to renew our tickets was when we nearly paid dearly for our mistake.
With that bout of excitement and a good night’s rest, the last day was actually all set up to take place in Pisa. Not just the one picture in front of the leaning tower, but spending the full day in the dynamic city that produced famous personalities such as Andrea Bocelli and Leonardo Fibonacci. The minute we glimpsed the tower from afar, the first reaction was that of laughter. It was the funniest thing I had felt: just looking at it was humorous and it was amusing to try and wrap my head around it. Physically I understood exactly how the silt and weight of the building allowed for the comical slant, but visually the anomaly was just plain silly. It is surrounded by well-manicured lawns and the day was bright and sunny, inviting all visitors to lie in the sun and enjoy looking straight-on at the lopsided bell tower known so fondly the world over.
The straight baptistery, the straight cathedral and then the not-so-straight bell tower
Apart from the tower and of more significance are the cathedral, baptistery and cemetery of the Cathedral of Pisa. They are impressive marble structures with intricate architectural features that are very aesthetically pleasing. As the premier college town in southern Italy, it was a welcome change to be surrounded by locals our age and perks available for “EU students” (which we fortunately are) all around. The friendly white-stalled local street market was selling traditional cannoli cream sweets, chocolate pies and sugary treats. After much (almost too much) tasting and settling on red-pepper-and-walnut pesto spread, we boarded the train back to Florence. Much easier said than done – after what seemed like predictable the hour-long train ride, we disembarked onto a station that we thought was Florence. It wasn’t – far from it in fact. After nervously asking around, running across rail tracks multiple times and dancing on the platform to the music from the speakers, we caught the next train for the thirty minute ride back to the correct Firenze SMN station.
Too many run-ins with near-disastrous situations seemed to be the running theme of these few days. As a surprise the last night in Florence, I dragged everyone to a legendary ‘secret bakeries’ at midnight. Most retail bakeries receive their delicacies from central bakeries that start rolling out baked goodness from midnight to around 3.00am. Although not completely legal, locals will knock on these sign-less, light-less buildings and creep in to snag all the yumminess. For a few Euros, the bakers hand everyone little samples of fresh pastries, sandwiches and of course a twinkle-eyed smile to go with. It was heavenly: although we were clearly out of place among the regular customers and the police guards who were sneaking a quick bite as well, we were clearly a source of great amusement to everyone who chuckled at our innocent and inexperienced conduct.
Bird's eye view of the city: this is what dreams are made of
Some places offer great cuisine, some offer scenic views. Others will reveal hidden mysteries, and still others provide a personal search for fulfillment. Florence attacks directly on all the senses and effortlessly captures the heart. A graceful city if there ever was one, the city is ever-so-poised in its demeanor and leads to a blissful discovery of elation and yearning. It certainly worked wonders with our hearts, and raised the bar even higher for the next and last leg of an already-incredible trip. To Rome we departed, for more sights to see, more people to meet, more food to eat and more of life to fall in love with.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Colors of Life

"A person often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it"

The train pulled into the floating station and we excitedly trickled out onto the Island of Venice. It looks nothing like how it is portrayed in the media or popular entertainment – it is infinitely more charming and pleasing to the eyes. Everything functions via water: taxis, public transport, ambulances, trade and even the postal service. With a pass for our entire visit granting us unlimited access to the ferries, we hopped onto the nearest one on the way to the Island of Lido where our hotel was. Off the south-west coast from central Venezia, Lido is 12 km long. In our opinion, it has the best pizza and the best gelato in all of Venice. After checking in and settling down we were determined to explore every inch of our ‘home Island’ that night.

Quintessential view from Rialto Bridge (overlooking where we ate dinner that night)
It was a fairly local town with hardly any tourists but huge residential complexes that probably house the rich Italian elites who escape here in the summer. Mansions rose magnificently around every corner and it was possibly the only place where we saw any real cars on the road; dozens of cafés, bars and specialty food stores beckon seductively to the lone passer-by. We ate dinner at an upscale restaurant that served the best red wine we’ve ever tasted and claimed to have over two thirds of the tables reserved for loyal patrons who would show up around 10.00pm.
It had to be done: stratiacella and hazelnut gelato completed the night. It was fudgy but creamy, sweet but not overpowering, and as close to perfection as one can hope to realize. We silently devoured each mouthful and gleefully envisioned nights and nights of endless deliciousness.
What better cultural experience than to watch a movie in a foreign language? Watching the new 007 James Bond movie in Italian without subtitles in the cozy theatre behind the crowded gelateria in Lido, Venice. It goes to show how universal our ability is to pick up on subtleties presented to all our senses – we were confident we understood more or less the finer points of the plot and were quickly proven right by the internet. A great start to a city waiting for us to befriend it; befriend it we did as we rode countless water boats, walked practically the entire central island, hopped off a boat at a random island on a whim, visited three different islands in addition to the main one, and did justice to the familiar souvenirs urging us to take them home.
This about sums up Venice: adorable and unbelievably enchanting
Starting at the very top of the Grand Canal the next day, we made our way through the busy market streets as well as the simple alleys that revealed to us people hanging out of their windows conversing with each other, hanging up their laundry in the middle of the street and cooking something that smelled inconceivably mouthwatering. We browsed the famous Rialto street market, bought Venetian masks, carnival decorations and out-of-season-strawberries. We were astounded by Piazza San Marco and the Church of St. Mark, both the principal public spaces in Venice. We ate lunch with the pigeons by the sea-side (really, it is the lagoon-side) and walked quite a ways along the coast, stopping at the Bridge of Sighs, the Navy museum, street shows and the public gardens. It was surreal: we were in Venice – the city above water, the city of romance, the city of color, and the city of magnificent architecture. The plethora of Churches and grandiose buildings glistened powerfully in the early morning dew and mist from the waters. Words are not enough to do the view justice, but maybe pictures might help.
St.Mark's Church in Piazza San Marco
Artsy snapshot of the Bridge of Sighs (made of limestone; windows provided convicts of their last view of Venice before their imprisonment)
Nonchalance is this Church's middle name. Inside we witnessed a Catholic service (the Nicene Creed) in Italian
As we tiredly but cheerfully sat down to dinner by the water, we marveled at the clichéd-ness of the situation. With portions of dinner outrageously insufficient, we still savored the novelty of eating dinner by the Grand Canal in Venice. What was savored even more was the dark (and I mean almost black) chocolate gelato with mint chocolate chips that followed. Twice…because once just wasn’t enough that night. It was a moment of delirious happiness and the night could not have gotten any better. However, being the semester that it has been thus far, of course it did. It always gets better: with impressive and unexpected twists of events, we returned to the hotel to discover that Notre Dame is ranked number one for college football. Not knowing too much about the sport, it still means the world to me. While I am having the most spectacular time in Europe, I can only imagine the blissful delight and exhilaration that is gripping campus. It will be the best welcome home present. Go Irish!
Halfway done with our time in the city, the next day was dedicated to the islands of Murano and Burano. And the special island we spontaneously disembarked onto. After what seemed to be a never-ending ferry ride to the island, when we finally arrived we were more than satisfied. The glass-making collection of Venetian Islands boasts of prosperous beginnings and thriving trade. It consisted of streets and streets of neatly lined and decadently stocked stores selling original Murano glass. Imagine the wildest contortion of glass possible, and then add about twenty different colors. Make it shiny and translucently radiant and you have only come close to beholding an image close to the actual magical objects of wonder.
Glass fire in the middle of the paved walkway. Sent chills down the spine
All but a couple of furnaces were closed that day and we hesitantly approached the biggest retailer hoping to get a demonstration of glass-blowing. As we walked around and headed hastily towards the heat and the light, we were overjoyed to learn that they decided to give us a free presentation. It was more than we could have hoped for. With front row seats and interactive moments, we were mesmerized by the speed, accuracy and flair that go into a work of such perfect art. It ended with the glass-blower presenting me with a free glass-flower painted a delicate shade of baby pink. Italians always know how to win hearts everywhere. Ecstatic with our purchases, we left and headed to the next island.
On the way we took a small detour and landed in Cimiterio, the only cemetery in Venice. It was a huge island and we walked past the legacies of those lost over the years. With beautiful graves and burial gifts, they ranged from the early 1800s to the present. It was established by Napolean, before which people were simply buried in parish plots across town. With a long philosophical discussion about life, death and whatever else may or may not exist to keep us company, we paid our tributes and made our way to Burano. Think Venice and think pastel colored houses with black wrought-iron balconies. Think bridges over narrow waters, a peaceful distant melody that harmoniously drives the relaxed way of life, warm comforts that awaken the palette…it is Burano you’re dreaming of. The most colorful assortment of vivid buildings side by side is on display, sure to stun you and never let you put your camera down. Boats and gondolas float enticingly nearby, innocently watching the world go by. The intricate lace pieces produced by the island are the icing on top of the cake. It is impossible not to sound cliché while describing the beauty there is to behold.
No such thing as a favorite color in Venice
With the evening getting dark and chilly, we pensively made our way back to Lido for a quiet dinner by the hotel. It was quiet alright, but it was also the best pizza in the whole world. Everything about it: the crust that effortlessly flaked off, the tangy tomato sauce highlighted the flavors of all the toppings, and each bite was irresistibly devoured. For dessert we strongly decided against the nutella pizza, but weakly gave in to the gelato cravings that hit duly as soon as we stepped outside. It was a necessity, and wasn’t regretted in the slightest. Tucking in to a nostalgic movie was a great way to end the day and end our visit to the city. We awoke fresh and eager to continue our journey, gratified by our immensely fruitful stay in Venice.
Hidden alleyways that only the lucky few stumble upon
‘Twas the city that promised many things and had tall orders to live up to; it truly was the city that exceeded by all measures everything we could ever hope to experience. Before we boarded the train we were approached by some bold young school-going children who inquisitively interviewed us about where we are from. It was highly amusing and enlightening to meet them and their teacher and be a part of their assignment to “see the world and the people who come to visit the city of Venice”. Talk about perfect goodbyes. Onwards to the next leg of our shenanigans – Florence: under the Tuscan Sun shall we forever be.
"To build a city where it is impossible to build a city is madness in itself, but to build there one of the most elegant and grandest of cities is the madness of genius."