Friday, 14 July 2017

The Italian Job - February 2017

अबकि बार, सरहद पार… one of my friends posted this on social media when he flew out of India for first time. Same applies for this blog too… our first foreign post.
Visiting Europe for the first foreign trip was in a way awesome. And visiting Italy was a distinctive destination. This was an incentive foreign tour, fully expenses paid by my company.

Europe is famous for its natural beauty – lush green pastures, snow clad peaks in the background & twirling roads along. Italy is an odd-man-out. While rest-of-Europe has Natural Splendor, Italy has Man-made Wonders. Italy can so be called the Heritage Land of Europe – it alone has 51 World Heritage Sites, maximum in any one country.

Italy, or Italia, erstwhile Roman Empire, was the Oldest Republic, the Largest Empire with 2500 years of history, also famous for being birthplace of Renaissance.

February 7, 2017:
We started from Pune by a Cab for Mumbai Airport drop. We had our Emirates flight from Mumbai to Venice (layover at Dubai). We reached airport by 10 am. Our group from all over India had started to gather there. After basic formalities, we started for our boarding procedure.

February 8, 2017:
Our flight was schedule for 4 am. We reached Dubai. We had about 3 hours of layover time. We explored the Duty Free Shopping area just to have a feel, what can be purchased during our return journey (we had similar layover while returning). Dubai is a large airport. We had to walk, catch metro to reach terminal & finally board a 5 mins. bus ride to get up the plane.

We reached Venice (Venezia in Italian) at 1.30 pm local time (5 pm India time). After immigration formalities, we boarded our tour bus & headed for lunch at a local Indian restaurant. Food was awesome. We just loved it. Having such good local food in a faraway land was splendid experience.

As soon we landed, we got a taste of discipline through which these people follow. We were crossing the road, a little sloppily, when a van stopped at good 2 meters distance. No horn, no inching forward, the driver patiently waited till our large group passed by. We witnessed such discipline all along our journey through next week. I didn’t hear a single horn blow. Vehicles followed lane system. When stopped behind each other, distance between two was almost so that in India, a bike-walla will ghusao his bike in-between. Even though Cars were very properly parked.

The Venice city seemed to have no people staying here. There was no rush on the streets.

By 3.45 pm we reached our hotel. It was just for a quick freshen-up, as we had to move by 4.45 pm to reach Venice Islands (Lagoons).
Venice consists of two parts – the famous Islands & the Mainland (called Mestre’ here). We at present were in Mestre’. The airport, our hotel, all the roads & by lanes are in Mestre’. Island is about 15 mins drive from here.

We boarded our bus for a drive to Tronchetto, the island at the west of Venice. It is used as a car park, the last driving point; beyond which vehicles are not allowed. The pier (jetty) here has Vaporetto (Water Bus, Water Taxi) which are used to commute within various Venetian Islands.

We got into one for our ride to Piazza San Marco, the principle public square in Venice. We started for our evening stroll to Venice Islands, the most Romantic Place in Europe.

Venice, by far, is the City of Love & Romance. Decorated with stunning Renaissance architecture, Gondola rides, narrow canals, magical floating buildings, it’s a city one is bound to fall in love with. Venice used to be the Summer Capital for the Kings of the region owing to its cool climate due to its proximity to the Alps (just 300 kms).

It was constructed sometime in 4th Century. The locals, to get away from barbarians’ attacks, came here searching for shelter. They came across 100s of marshy islands. However settlement on these was impossible. Large no. of wooden planks, logs were pierced within the marshes. Over this support, tons of stone boulders, concrete, sand, etc were dumped. And then platforms were built. Over these platforms, buildings were constructed. As the name given, it really is the Floating City. There are such 117 islands, forming narrow canals in between, interconnected with bridges.
Venetian canals

It is a wonder that it is still intact for the past 1300 years. However, they say, Venice is sinking 2 mm every year; thanks to global warming.

The vaporetto ride was chilling. It was just 6 pm, however it had started getting dark. We were witnessing the illuminated floating islands.

We got down at Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square). This is dedicated to St. Mark’s Basilica. It houses the relics of Mark the Evangelist. Saint Mark travelled to Alexandria (now in Egypt) in AD 49 for spreading Christianity. He is said to have founded Church of Alexandria & is honored to have founded Christianity in Africa. Then in 828, Venetian Merchants stole his relics from Alexandria. Alexandria was ruled by Islamic Caliphate. To avoid any search by the guards, these merchants covered the relics in a layer of pork. Pork being haram for Muslims, the guards avoided to inspect the ship closely.

Adjacent & connected to Baslica is the Doge’s Palace. Doge used to be leader of Republic of Venice. Doges were elected for life & were shrewdest elders of the city.

Just behind the Palace along other island separated by canal is a Prison. There’s a bridge that connects the Palace & the Prison. It is called Bridge of Sighs. The legend says that accused after their interrogation & trial in front of Doge, if convicted, were taken to the Prisons from this bridge. It has windows with stone bars. This gave the convicts one last view of the beautiful Venice (one last view of freedom). Following this they would be taken to the cells for life & may be executed. The name of the bridge comes from suggestion that prisoners would sigh at their final view of Venice (Freedom). It was from this prison, the legendry lover Casanova made his famous escape.

Piazza San Marco comprises of all these buildings with a large open square & a Bell Tower. This is the prime attraction of Venice. Napolean once called this as the “Finest Drawing Room in Europe”.

We had a ride in Gondola, traditional rowing boats of Venice. These boats are the medium of transportation here for centuries. Vehicles are not allowed in the Islands. Either walk or use these Gondolas. Even essential services like Ambulance & Police use boats. We had our “Do Lafzon Ki Kahani” moment – an hour long boat ride into the canals of Venice.

After our boat ride, we had a walk along the Venetian bylanes. In the chilling climate, the market was glittering with colorful light. Name a fashion brand & it had its shops in these lanes. Milan, fashion capital of the World, is in Italy; and its influence is seen in other Italian cities. Fashion Brands included clothes, accessories (bags & purses).

Due to our packed schedule, we had to miss the day tour to Venice. Normally, whatever we visited so far has to be seen in the day. Even the monuments were closed – St. Mark’s Basilica, Doge’s Palace. However, roaming in glittering Venetian bylanes in the night is not witnessed by many. Normally, people visit in touring season of summers when sun sets as late as 11 pm. And the beauty of Floating Islands by the night is generally missed by them.

By 8-8.30, we started to get back to Mestre. Had Dinner again in Indian Restaurant at 10 & retired to bed (after almost 30 hours).

February 9, 2017:
Morning after breakfast, we again boarded our coaches. The same route to Tronchetto and again by Vaporetto, this time to Murano & Burano Islands. The water route was again same till St. Marks Square; we just passed ahead towards Murano. All the buildings which were seen sparkling in night yesterday were now visible with different perspective. And that was awesome.

St. Marks Square (Bell Tower), Doge's Palace, Prison
and Bridge of Sighs in between
(view from Grand Canal)
Vaporetto ride to Murano
After a 1.5 hours ride, we reached Murano at 10.30 am. Murano Islands are similar to Venetian Islands, however smaller in size. These are a group of 7 islands. Murano is famous for its glass making factories. Venetian Glass is famous world over for centuries. It is made by a unique technique of Glass Blowing. Glass makers were treated as prominent & respected citizens for centuries, with secret of Glass Blowing confined within Venice.

Today, Murano has many Glass Blowing Factories with a showroom attached to it. We went to one such factory. The Glass Master, as they honor him, showed us a 10 min. demo on Glass Blowing Technique. It is a sheer hand-crafting; and too at temperatures of about 2500 deg C. Following this we went through their shop; purchased a few items & boarded back to our further journey.

Burano is still smaller with pack of 4 islands. It is further half an hour journey from Murano. It can be identified with its leaning Bell Tower seen from distance. There are many buildings in Venetian Lagoon which are tilting (or have even fallen down tilting) – Pisa is not the only place with a Leaning Tower. This is due to the history of construction of Venice over marshy islands.
Leaning Bell Tower of Burano
Burano is famous for its brightly colorful houses. The location is a treat for artists – painters, photographers. The residents here have to take permission from administration to paint their houses; they just cannot paint the color of their choice. Burano is also famous for its Lace-making Industry. The market there sells these Laced dresses.

After half an hour troll in Burano, we started for our return journey to Mestre. This time, we had an Italian Lunch – Pasta & Pizza. By 4 pm, we bid farewell to Venice & started for Florence. On the way we had a stop at Pisa, to witness one of the Wonders of World – Leaning Tower of Pisa (my second after TheBeautiful Taj Mahal).

The drive along the European highway was awesome. The large freeway passed through Adriatic Plains further crossing to Apennine mountains along Brenta river past Bologna to reach Pisa. While watching the large expanse of plain land initially, we had a sleepy drive ahead. We crossed Bologna on the way. It is known for home to famous Italian Automakers Ducati, Maserati & Lamborghini. University of Bologna is the oldest in Europe (11th century).

Our actual plan was to reach Pisa by 4 pm; however, since our delay at Venice, we reached by 7.30. Here also, we reached in the dark. It was unfortunate that we missed this beautiful wonder in its fullest grandeur by the day. However, it was unique that we saw it by the dark, unlike others.

Pisa is a city in Tuscany region of central Italy. It is a birthplace of Galileo & most famous for its Leaning Tower.

We disembarked at the parking. From here the Leaning Tower is about a km away. One may walk or there is a short Toy Train ride till the main gate. We took the latter. We reached the main entrance, what is called as Field of Miracles (Piazza dei Miracoli). It is a group of buildings & structures comprising of a Cathedral, Baptistry, Clock Tower (Campanile) & a Cemetery. The Clock Tower is the reason we & maximum of tourists visit this place. It is renowned as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Tower is an 8 storey structure with 55 meters in height. The leaning started during the construction itself while 3rd floor was completed. This was due to lose sand below (too soft ground in its foundation). The construction began in 1173 & was completed in 1319 (146 years later) with construction stopped in between for about 90 years due to Pisans engagement in wars & battles. It is said that this gap in construction helped in strengthening the foundation. Weight correction was done once construction resumed as the Tower had started to tilt. Top floor (Bell Chamber) is constructed in such a way with one side is taller that other; this is clearly visible. This gives it a curved shape.

During 1990 to 2001, major repair work was carried out – structural strengthening and surface restoration. The lean was corrected and it said that the life of Tower is increased by another 1000 years. Earlier lean was 5.5 degrees, now corrected to 3.99 degrees.

Tower can be climbed up from inside. There are about 294 steps. Earlier, entry was unrestricted. Nowadays after restoration, entry is done for a batch of 20 tourists for 20 minutes during the day. Online bookings are required. Since we reached late, we missed this.

Apart from the Tower, Cathedral & Baptistry are worth a watch. It is said that the Baptistry is also tilting, again due to its loose foundation. Because of time constraint, we had to wrap the visit & could not roam around peacefully.
We had our dinner at an Indian restaurant. Apart from Punjabi buffet it also had Pizza & a glass of Wine (Red as well as White), typical Italian Menu. After dinner, we proceeded to Florence, capital of Tuscany.

February 10, 2017:
Tuscany region in central Italy is famous for its art & sculpture. World renowned artists, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, are from Tuscany. Its capital, Florence, is regarded as birthplace of Renaissance.

Morning after breakfast, we started off to explore Florence (Firenze in Italian), a city of artistic masterpieces. It is believed to have the largest concentration of Renaissance art & architecture in the world. It is so nicknamed as “art palace of Italy”.

Florentine bylanes
Our bus dropped us to a central place & we started our walk. The lanes & streets of Firenze depict artistic essence all the way. It houses masterpieces by many artists in its numerous museums (there are 80 museums in Florence).
We started our tour from Academia Gallery, museum famous for housing one of the most famous sculptures in the world – David, by Michelangelo. The sculpture is so real in human anatomy & facial expressions that makes it a breathtaking masterpiece.
Michelangelo's "David"
The sculpture depicts biblical scene of battle between David & Goliath. David was a young shepherd (future Israeli King) who accepts challenge to fight Goliath, Philistine warrior. David with his sling & 5 stones without even armor faces heavily armed & powerful Goliath. David flings a stone from his sling which hits Goliath on centre of forehead making him fall on ground. David severs his head.

In his sculpture David is tense, clearly showing fear in his eyes as well as worry through his twisted eyebrows. However, still the viewer gets a feeling of faith looking at him. His stance is such that he is relaxed, yet alert, holding his slingshot in such a way that it is almost invisible. The statue stands with its full weight on one leg while other leg taken forward for taking a shot. The bark of dead tree behind one of his legs was provided to give the statue some stability.
The sculpture took 3 years to make between 1501 to 1504. Michelangelo was only 26 years of age then. Originally, to be placed over the eastern side roof of Florence Cathedral, instead it was placed in a public square, Palazzo della Signoria, on September 8, 1504. Since at that time Florence was an independent republic, David was installed with his face towards Rome (a rival state) with his warning glare. Finally in 1873, David was moved inside Academia; a replica was kept in its place which is still present. There are many such replicas placed around the city placed over the time.

Apart from the natural elements, David was harmed by manual attacks too. Political protesters threw stones at it, it was damaged during an anti-Medici uprising and a mentally challenged person attacked it with a hammer (damaging its toe).

Apart from David, Academia displays numerous sculptures & paintings from various artists. However, due to paucity of time, we spent majority of our time at David & just quickly glanced through others.

Michelangelo's unfinished sculptures
Further, we walked to the topmost attraction of Florence, The Duomo (Florence Cathedral). It is one of the largest churches in the world with its dome being the largest so far until modern era; it still is the largest brick dome ever constructed. The octagonal dome is the main attraction of this Duomo. It is by the eastern side of this dome was the original place for placing the statue of David.

The Cathedral Complex consisting of the Basilica, Baptistry & Clock Tower is located in Piazza del Duomo. The structure is huge. It is adorned with white & green marble designs, sculptures & paintings depicting various instances from Bible.

The Baptistry adorns what Michelangelo called “The Gates of Paradise” on its eastern entry (facing the Duomo). These are a pair of massive gilded bronze doors which guarded the Baptistry until 1990. These were severely damaged due to natural elements and pollution, and hence were taken into restoration. What we see at present is the copy of these doors. The original are preserved in one of the museums here (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo).
Created by Lorenzo Ghiberti, these took 27 years to complete (also 27 years to restore later). The doors depict scenes of 10 stories from New Testament.

We walked towards another attraction of Florence, Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace). It is the City’s town hall with a large public square, Piazza della Signoria. This is where David was installed originally. Apart from the replica of David, there are many sculptures mounted here. The Piazza also houses an open air sculpture gallery.
Palazzo Vecchio, Piazza della Signora

Ahead we passed through short bylanes of Florence towards Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge). It was the only bridge in Florence till 1218. It is made of stone over the river Arno. There is a bust of Benvenuto Cellini, great Florentine sculptor. Many padlocks are seen on this bridge, mainly on the railing of this bust. Lovers fix these locks & throw its key into the river, thinking that it makes them eternally bonded. However, this is banned by the administration attracting a heavy penalty (in Euros).

Arched walkway near Ponte Vecchio

Love Padlocks
From here we walked towards the Railway Station. We had a Bullet Train to catch to Rome. Again walking through the Florentine lanes, we reached the station by 11 am. We had our train at 11.30 am. Our buses had already moved ahead to Rome in the morning itself carrying our luggage.

This was my first ride in the Bullet Train. It was different experience. The train covers about 270 kms in 1.5 hours. The max. speed it reached was 250 kmph. Normally, one doesn’t feel the speed inside; however at max speed, I felt like having ear blocks (like in flight).

The train cruised through the green meadows & beautiful scenes & reached Rome by 1 pm. Coming outside, our buses were waiting for us. We moved for lunch in an Indian restaurant. On the way, we passed through the iconic Colosseum, identity of Rome. It is huge & looks beautiful from outside. Tomorrow, we were going to have a look inside it. Post lunch, we started for Vatican City.

Vatican City is a country located within a city. It is a smallest country of the world – area of 110 acres & population of about 800. It is said to be the richest country per square foot. Home to Catholicism, it is the world’s holiest sites among Catholics. It is the spiritual centre of world’s Catholics. It is also world’s most powerful country because of its diplomatic & cultural influence. The Holy See, which held sovereignty of Vatican City, has diplomatic relations with almost all countries of the world.

The Pope (Bishop of Rome) is the Head of Vatican City & ex-officio leader of Catholic Church. He is believed to be successor to Saint Peter, one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus & the first Pope. Apart from spreading Christianity, Popes act in resolution of disputes, building interfaith dialogues, charitable works & defending human rights.

Vatican City has many religious & cultural sites including many gardens. The Vatican actually means Garden (see Vaatika in Sanskrit also). There are three major attractions to see here – St. Peter’s Basilica (with St. Peter’s Square), Sistine Chapel & Vatican Museums. There is a guided tour of 1.5 hours which covers these three. To visit here, make sure you cover your shoulders and knees. This is applicable to men, women & children.
Dome of St. Peter's Basilica - viewed from Museum terrace
We started from the Museums. Immense collections by various Popes over the centuries are on display here. Number of Sculptures and Paintings by various artists are on display. We could see some of them being cleaned & renovated by the workers here; this would also be a massive work. It is said that the Museums have 70,000 artifacts out of which 20,000 are no display.

Artifacts are lined on the walls as well as on ceilings with beautiful lightings. We passed through each room adoring these. One room was dedicated to maps, mostly of Italy and around. It is the world’s largest geographical study. There are paintings depicting Biblical stories & stories of Christianity made on cloth. The frescoes are too beautiful. They are so made that they seem very real; indeed give a 3D effect.

The Museums end into Sistine Chapel. After shuffling down walkways of Vatican Museums past statues, frescoes, crossing a long corridor & a stair, one reaches the entry to one of the creative explosions; greatest work of art in history, the Sistine Chapel.

Sistine Chapel is the part of official residence of Pope. Also, a site of Papal Conclave, a process of electing new Pope happens here. It is named after Pope Sixtus IV. However, it is famous for its art by famous artists. It actually is a Paint-House.

Tapestry (painted curtains) by Raphael on the walls seem so real, with its pleats. One level above, adorn the Biblical scenes on the life of Moses & Jesus. A level above are the paintings of 32 Popes. Beyond this, are the paintings which form the Ceiling of Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo.

The Ceiling was painted by Michelangelo between 1508 to 1512 under patronage by Pope Julius II. The paintings constitute scenes from Book of Genesis (1st Book of Bible), twelve Prophetic figures, Ancestors of Christ. Creation of Adam is one such iconic painting with its “hands of Adam & God” being reproduced in many imitations.

The wall behind the Altar depicts a large fresco with colorful paintings on blue background. It is the famous painting of The Last Judgment, again by Michelangelo. It was painted between 1536 and 1541 under commissioning by Pope Clement VII & Pope Paul III. The painting is huge, all over the wall with 391 figures & each one is unique. The painting is all about souls of humans who rise & descend to their fates as judged by Christ. There is The God in the centre with all figures surrounding Him. Michelangelo’s Revenge is one such painting famous for its story.

The paintings all over create a 3-D effect inside. Photography is prohibited. Even it is not allowed to talk loudly; the guards do interrupt in case you do so. But once inside, you agree that this place needs that silence to just look around peacefully and marinate all the art that is available around onto your mind. The place is a heaven for artists & historians. It is said that about 5 million people visit here every year to witness the art-fair which is on display since 5 centuries.

Out of Sistine Chapel, we moved towards one of the greatest attractions of Vatican, the place for which Vatican is known & famous for – St. Peter’s Basilica. It is the largest, the richest & by far the spectacular church in the whole world. It is said to have been constructed over the tomb of St. Peter. The High Altar inside the Church is built right above where St. Peter is buried.

Previously there used to be a Byzantine church built by Constantine (Emperor of Rome) in 349 AD. Over the years it fell apart & construction of Basilica started in 15th century & finished in 1626 (lasted for more than 100 years). The highlight of the Basilica (which now has become the identity of Vatican), the Dome is designed by Michelangelo; however, he was not alive when it got completed.

The inside of Basilica is huge & deep. High Altar is at the far end, with large Nave to walk towards, flanked by large decorated Columns & Arches on both sides; there are aisles on extreme both sides. The aisles have number of chapels lined up. There are about 100 tombs within the Basilica which includes those of 91 Popes & few others like a Roman Emperor Otto II and a Swedish Queen who converted to Catholicism to name a few.

After the entry, towards immediate right is another attraction of this place – Michelangelo’s Pieta. Pieta is the subject in Christianity depicting Virgin Mary cradling dead body of Jesus Christ. This sculpture by Michelangelo is unusual as he sculpted a very young & beautiful Mary for a mother of 33 year old son. The emotion of grief is clearly identified on her face & the flowing garments over her body seem so real. Completed between 1498 to 99, this is the only artwork by Michelangelo, which he has ever signed. Today the sculpture is protected by a bullet-proof glass panel.
Michelangelo's "Pieta"
Another main attraction is the design at the High Altar. With huge Dome above, a 4-pillared bronze frame designed by Bernini catches the eye. It is exactly above the burial place of St. Peter’s, serving a holy place. It is said to be largest bronze structure in world & is made by melting the bronze from the ceiling of Pantheon (temple in Rome).
High Altar
Once outside, what you see in front is the magnificent St. Peter’s Square (Piazza San Pietro). The Square was designed by Lorenzo Bernini. It was laid out between 1656 to 67. There are two sets of colonnades on either side in circular form; it is symbolic in such a way that the Church is opening its arms to welcome you. It has 284 columns with statues of 140 saints over it. At the centre is the Obelisk (Egyptian column) erected by Emperor Caligula. The Square was designed by Bernini around it more than 100 years later. Almost every important square in Rome has an Obelisk; all brought from Egypt by various Roman Emperors. There are two Fountains between the Obelisk & either colonnade. And the astounding part is both these Fountains are designed by different artists at different times. Carlo Maderno designed one Fountain. Bernini matched another Fountain on other side of Obelisk & designed his embracing colonnade accordingly.
St. Peter's Square (as seen from the Basilica)

St. Peter's Basilica, Bernini's fountain in foreground

Carlo Maderno designed the façade of the Basilica
Over its top are lined 
13 statues - 11 Apostles, Christ & John, the Baptist
Dome is designed by Michelangelo
This was the end of our Vatican Tour. Whole experience was as if going inside a Dan Brown book. After a shopping spree at the souvenir shop, we marched for an Italian Buffet Dinner. It was an experience; with names of dishes in Italian, hotel staff not knowing English, no identification of Veg & Non-veg (by the way Red & Green Dots are only seen in India; here food is food, there is nothing like veg & non-veg). Me, being a vegetarian, had tough time to choose & identify. Finally, I had to settle with desserts & ice creams.
Panorama - St. Peter's Basilica, Square & its embracing colonnades

February 11, 2017:
Today we were to experience the Power City of the world; the oldest Republic & the centre of the Empire which once ruled the whole world, well almost. In Rome, they say, the past is always present. The City is full of historical sites which give an idea to its visitor, about the Empire that was. The Roman Empire was among the most powerful economic, cultural, political and military forces in the world of its time. It was one of the largest empires in World history. There goes a saying “All roads lead to Rome”; and it was literally so with its boundaries surrounding Mediterranean Sea, constituting today’s Britain, Spain, Italy, Greece, parts of Africa & Asia upto the Middle East. It was said that about 21% of world’s population then, were Romans.
Castle of the Holy Angel - along the banks of River Tiber
Rome was founded sometime in 773 BC. Twin baby brothers, Romulus & Remus, were thought as a possible threat to his rule by their uncle Amulius. He had earlier displaced his brother, King Numitor, now ordered his guard to kill the twins. However, the guard didn’t have fortitude to kill the babies and hence he just left them to die in the forest on the banks of Tiber River. However, the babies survived. A She-wolf took care of them and nursed them till a herdsman found them. A She-wolf nursing a pair of human babies is a well known sculpture in Rome, since it is associated with its history of foundation.
Once adults, they decided to build a City of their own. However, they had a dispute in selecting the location. They argued & in turn Romulus killed Remus. He went on to build the City that he named it as Rome after himself.

Rome grew slowly & steadily. It was the largest city of the world between the period 100 BC to 400 AD. It was witness to the world events that changed the course of history – it became world’s first Republic in 509 BC, Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC (end of Republic era), followed by establishment of Roman Empire by Augustus, rise of Christianity in 1st century AD, Fall of Western Roman Empire in 5th century, followed by Middle Ages (Medieval Period) of 1000 years, Establishment of Papal States in 7th century AD, start of Renaissance with building of St. Peter’s Basilica in 14th century AD and then Unification of Italy in 1870 AD.

Then we started with our “Roaming around in Rome” – sight-seeing. Nearby was Monument dedicated to Victor Emmanuel II, first King of united Italy (1861). It is largest monument in Rome. It appears gigantic, with wide stairs, large array of columns at the top, two symmetric statues of Goddess Victoria on each side. There is an equestrian sculpture of the King Emmanuel at the centre. Also present here is Tomb of Unknown Soldier built under statue of Goddess Roma. An eternal flame also burns by its side.

The monument overlooks a large square, Piazza Venezia. It once served as an Embassy of Republic of Venice. Hence the name. Italian dictator Mussoloni used to deliver speed from Palazzo Venezia (Palace of St. Mark – used later as Venetian Embassy).
Piazza Venezia

Ancient buildings Piazza Venezia, Trajan's Column on right
Piazza Venezia also has another distinctive architecture, Trajan’s Column. It was built by Emperor Trajan. It is a victory column which has the sculptures showing the events from war between Romans & Dacians. It is said that the column served like a newspaper – all events happening at the war were carved on the column run-time, which helped the citizens to understand war news.

Trajan's Column

Trajan's Column, with Monument of Victor Emmanuel II in background
Post lunch we visited the Colosseum, another Wonder of World. This was our 2nd in a single trip. Colosseum is an amphitheatre & was used for gladiatorial contests watched by Romans as a part of public entertainment. It was built by Emperor Vespasian, with its construction started in 72 AD & completed in 80 AD. It still is the largest amphitheater ever built. It is oval in shape & with seating capacity of about 45,000. The number was much less than the total population of London which was just a village at that time.

Gladiators who contested with each other or with wild animals were the slaves captured by Romans from faraway lands. It was their destiny to fight & live, until one is killed by another. Romans used to pay to watch these fights / games. Gladiators were spilling blood in the name of entertainment for centuries. But people of Rome were eager for bigger & bolder exhibition. Colosseum became their permanent & state-of-the art killing field. Colosseum also displayed naval battles. It had a mechanism to fill-in & drain-out bottom floors with water from aqueducts of Rome. Colosseum was in use for such spectacle till 6th century.

Below the main platform used to be the Hypogeum or under-stage (like a back-stage in case of Plays & Dramas). This was the place where Gladiators awaited for their turn to go up the platform for a fight. Wild animals were caged here. Prisoners who were to be executed also awaited their turn. The place had mechanized lifts & trap doors to enable the fighters & animals to suddenly appear on the battle arena.

The entry to the Colosseum used to be from many Arches at the ground floor. These arches were numbered in Roman script (seen even today) and like today’s stadiums, patrons could only enter inside with a ticket having numbers printed on them. Going through the arches, there is intricate network of corridors & staircases which take you to the relevant floor for watching the games. There were 140 drinking water fountains & 2 restrooms. There used to be a mechanism of retractable roof using curtains, wooden poles & ropes. The curtains could slide towards inner side as per the position of Sun providing required shade for the viewers. Mounting holes can be seen from outside surrounding the outer walls at the top.

There are remains of structure outside the Colosseum on the other side of the present road. It is believed to be the remains of the local shops selling food & goods items during the games.

Once inside, the seat arrangements can be seen encircling the central arena. At the centre once used to be a sand covered platform. Today what we see are the remains of Hypogeum.

Hollywood movie “Gladiator” have shown Colosseum in its actual use.

Its usage as a fight arena stopped after 6th century. It was severely damaged during a massive earthquake in 13th century. The damage to its outer wall can be still seen today. The stones which stumbled were used to construct other buildings in Rome elsewhere. Construction of Colosseum was such that stones & marble was fixed using bronze clamps over concrete & sand. Over the time, these stones & marble were stripped down & were used elsewhere. The bronze clamps were hacked out of the walls by robbers causing numerous scars to the building.

By the side of Colosseum, is the Arch of Constantine. It is a triumphal arch constructed to honor the victory of Emperor Constantine I in the year 315 AD.

There is one more archeological site near Colosseum, which was at one point the centre of Roman public life – Roman Forum (or just Forum). It is located between Palatine & Capitoline Hills. It was site where victory marches took place, public speeches & criminal trials happened. This is the place where people met & discuss; this is the reason why the online discussion places today are called Forum.
Roman Forum
It is a vast rectangular expanse excavated over time, located in middle of today’s modern Rome. The structures included places where the Senate met, Judicial buildings. There are remains of multiple Temples (of Saturn & Vesta) and Arches. Julius Caesar was burnt here (Temple of Caesar). Majority of buildings were demolished in 410 AD during sacking of Rome. Over the years, during Middle Ages, The Forum collapsed & got buried under earth & debris. It was only in 19th century, the excavation started.

From here we boarded our bus towards Circus Maximus, big brother to Colosseum. Prior to Colosseum becoming the venue for entertainment for Romans, Circus Maximus was the place for Chariot Races. It is shown extensively in Hollywood blockbuster, Ben Hur.

Situated between Palatine & Aventine Hills, it was said to accommodate 250,000 people – a quarter of Rome’s population at that time. It was built much before Colosseum in 6th century BC.
Circus Maximus
Ruins of Imperial Palaces on Palatine Hill in background
This ended our discovery of Rome for today. We had a Gala Dinner lined-up, being our last night in Italy.

February 12, 2017:
Today was our Day-2 for Roman Exploration. We got down from our bus near a place called Spanish Steps. These were built by French in Italian city of Rome; truly Globalization. These are called so because of Embassy of Spain located nearby. And so that square at the bottom of Spanish Steps is called as Piazza di Spagna. The area is also known for great English poet John Keats, who lived here.

Here we came across the first fountain of Rome, Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of Ugly Boat). This is a 16th century fountain designed by Bernini.
Rome is famous for its number of Fountains; almost every major piazza in Rome embellishes a fountain. Water for these fountains comes from several Aqueducts. Romans constructed these to bring water from distant sources into cities & towns through gravity. Some among these are the source of pure drinking water even today. Even after so many centuries, the water is still flowing from these adorning the beauty of the fountains.

We walked towards another beauty of Rome – it seemed for me as one of the most beautiful places in Rome – Trevi Fountain. It is a giant fountain with extravagant façade located at junction of three roads (hence the name). It was constructed in 17th century, designed by Nicola Salvi. It represents a scene from story of Romans locating a source of pure water to ancient Rome. For me, it is the most beautiful place I saw in Rome.

The fountain became an eminent attraction in Hollywood movie of 1950s, Three Coins In The Fountain. The movie had a plot where the three women characters throw coins in to the fountain waters to fulfill their wish to return to Rome. This movie made this coin throwing tale as a perpetual ritual for anyone visiting Trevi Fountain. Approx. 3000 Euros are collected in the fountain daily; these go to charity. It is a crime to steal coins thrown inside.

We walked towards Pantheon, considered to be oldest temple still in good shape. It is almost 2000 years old. Formerly a Roman Temple, it was later converted into a Church in 6th century. The present building was built some time in 2nd century AD by Emperor Hadrian. Previously, on the same site, there was a temple built by Emperor Augustus which was burnt in a fire.

Front façade with rows of large Corinthian columns and a cylindrical building behind (rotunda architecture) makes this a unique building; also not to forget a large dome at the top with an oculus (central opening). The building displays its ageing which is result of weathering as well as damages by humans (its bronze fittings were ripped off).

Once inside through the massive bronze doors, the space opens up in vast circular expanse. Beautifully decorated dome is with oculus in centre. Altars & Chapels are lined-up around the circle. Pantheon is a site of burial of important people – painter Raphael, two kings of Italy Emanuele II & Umberto I.

Front of Pantheon is graced with a fountain & surmounted by an Egyptian obelisk.

Next was Piazza Navona, one of the important public squares; I felt it to be one of the most happening places in Rome. It is an elegant square with a lively marketplace, glitzy fountains and European architectural buildings. Artists performing live music, doing live paintings (& selling them) adds a sparkle to the surroundings. Restaurants lined around the perimeter provide an opportunity to sip a coffee & have Pizza while you enjoy this Piazza.

The Piazza is elliptical in shape. This is because it was built on a 1st century AD Stadium of Domitian. It was used for athletic contests & could occupy 15 to 20,000 people. Piazza Navona with its 3 fountains & church were made later in 16th & 17th century.

Central fountain and a Church behind are the main attractions of Piazza Navona. Fountain of the Four Rivers designed by Bernini showcases 4 River Gods. They represent major rivers of 4 known continents of the time – Nile (Africa), Danube (Europe), Ganga (Asia) & Rio de la Plata (America). It was a moment of pride to see our Mother River, which we Indians have been worshipping, was selected by Bernini representing Asia in the 15th century. River God of Rio de la Plata is shown as fearing the façade of Church of Sant'Agnese. The Church was designed by Barromini, rival of Bernini. Tall Egyptian Obelisk is mounted on the rock centrally. There are two more fountains at each end – Fountain of Neptune & Moor Fountain – making this Piazza one of the most beautiful architectures.
River God of Ganga, with Church of Sant'Agnese in background
This was our end to the Roman Holiday. Rome has a history of 2500 years, it is said to be one of the oldest inhabited places. We spent about two full days to roam around in Rome. Hopefully, we covered important sites, though may not all; and also spent considerable time in important one’s – Vatican & Colosseum.

Rome, they say, was not built in a day & it can’t be seen in one either. Rome is a city best severed slowly like a glass of wine. And in case you miss something to see, toss a coin into Trevi Fountain for a guaranteed visit to Rome one more time.

Ciao, for now.

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