OMG Rome

Mass in St Paul’s Cathedral at the Vatican is an otherworldly experience.  Straight from the hotel, we drop our bags, throw on our wrinkled Sunday best, and slip in just in time for the final service at 17:45.  We are a hushed, small crowd of pilgrims huddled on humble wooden pews, surrounded by absolute magnificence.

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My eyes are hypnotized by the altar – a throne sits on a golden plume of smoke or clouds, floating under a mosaic of stained glass with a dove at the center.  As the choir begins to sing, the evening sun shines through the dove, casting a massive beam of light over our heads.  Dust lingers in the sunbeam and the notes linger in the air, then rise into the domed ceiling.

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Mass, ever mysterious to me, is mystical through the Bishop’s deep and melodious voice, reverberating through this massive cathedral in Latin and Italian.  I look around the congregation of collared priests, nuns in modest habits, even a sprinkling of monks.

This is where priests and nuns go to church, I think.

“Wow” doesn’t quite cut it.

After the service, the Bishop is gracious enough to allow the crowd to take photos of the altar for a few minutes before closing up.  I look at Sal, who shakes his head.  We forgot our camera.

We come back the next morning and the queue is an endless snake of camera-studded tourists.  It’s a totally different experience in the cathedral.  The altar is darkened and roped off, the air is buzzing with loud voices and peppered with camera flashes instead of melodious Latin and wafting incense.

St Peter's Basilica from the outside looks more like a government building than a cathedral

St Peter’s Basilica from the outside looks more like a government building than a cathedral

We mail a postcard or two from the Vatican post office.  At the Vatican gift shop, I pick up a silver dove necklace to remind me of that stained glass, shining with mystery and loveliness.

Besides, maybe the Pope blesses these necklaces personally.  You never know.

The Basilica is also home to Michelangelo's Pieta, which is one of Sal's favorite sculptures. It's behind glass now, since some fool attacked the Virgin Mary with a hammer or something.

The Basilica is also home to Michelangelo’s Pieta, which is one of Sal’s favorite sculptures. It’s behind glass now, since some fool attacked the Virgin Mary with a hammer or something.

This structure marks the place where St Peter is *maybe* buried

This structure marks the place where St Peter is *maybe* buried

Gondola Friends

If you don’t ride a gondola while in Venice, you upset the equilibrium in the universe.  Fortunately, there are approximately 2,976 gondoliers in each of Venice’s 150 canals.

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Gondola tours vary – from a romantic ride in an exquisitely elaborate boat with proper thrones, punted by a gondolier in a stripey shirt and straw hat, singing as he glides you down the blue-green water….to a guy in a sweaty tee shirt, texting on his cellphone while punting a modest gondola-shaped canoe stuffed with people.

Venice, I heart you.

Venice, I heart you.

We opted for a group tour of about 30 minutes, booked through a tourist office.  Our gondola friends were two Asian chicks, taking turns posing for photos in Venetian masks, a guy from Rome and his Russian girlfriend.

Not the picture-perfect tour of the movies, but still a great experience – and there’s no better way to see Venice than from the water.

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A tiny bite of Switzerland

We emerge from the train station in Lausanne, Switzerland with our bags and hike up a hill of respectable steepness to our hotel.  Dropping our bags on the floor, I rush to the window and throw open the curtains.

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Lord, have mercy – Lausanne is drop dead gorgeous!

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Have you ever stepped into a postcard?  Everything – every little thing in Lausanne is beautiful, from the designer people shopping in the sunshine, to the jumble of medieval and modern architecture, to the elegant curve of fountains flowing with cool water.  The fountains are intuitively placed, little rewards for taking the time to explore Lausanne’s back streets and alleys.  We wander up, up, up towards the Notre Dam cathedral and are rewarded with spectacular views of the medieval section.  Our eyes are overwhelmed with cobbled streets, clay tiled roofs, and glimmering magic.

The Notre Dam

The Notre Dam

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View from the Notre Dam area

View from the Notre Dam area

One word of caution to the frugal traveler – Lausanne is expensive.  We share fondue meals and buy our chocolate gifts at the grocery store instead of chocolatiers, which are glorious but outside our budget.  I recommend Globus‘ grocery section – great selection of Swiss chocolate.

Champagne fondue makes me want to cry with joy.

Champagne fondue makes me want to cry with joy.

When you’re tired of wandering, the metro is easy, clean, and will take you just about anywhere.  We spend an afternoon in Ouchy, a sweet little beachy area on the lake.  Cupped by the French Alps, the Lake Geneva is so wide, you can squint into the mist-shrouded distance and fancy yourself by the sea.  We play a bit of chess in the square (with knee-high chess pieces) and feast on Earl Grey flavoured ice cream.  Later, a glass of rose in a cafe by the shore.  I hold my glass out, enjoying the contrast of pink wine against the sparkling bluey-green water, dotted with white sails.  A live jazz band plays in the background, the breeze lifts my hair.

What can you do but grin and sigh?

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Tour of the deceased in Paris

Our last visit to Paris, we spent 98% of our time in the The Lourve.  This time, I drag my artist companion from his museums to the catacombes de Paris to spend some quality time with France’s deceased.

It’s only 10am and the queue is already wrapped around the park!  I can’t believe how many others want to spend a beautiful summer day gawking at mounds of skulls in Paris’ underbelly.  TWO AND HALF HOURS LATER, we descend into the moist earth, winding our way down, down, down…

Ahead of us is a tunnel glowing with amber light.  I place a palm against the stone – it’s soft, cool, and moist.  The catacombs were first mines, and these stones are the building blocks of Paris.  We pass a science-y section describing the prehistoric significance of the stone and blah blah blah.  Right, where are the skulls?

Apologies for the blurriness.  Most of our photos didn't come out.  I blame ghosts for this.

Apologies for the blurriness. Most of our photos didn’t come out. I blame ghosts for this.

To enter the crypt area, you pass through an appropriately somber stone doorway.   On entering your voice, footsteps, and thoughts fall to a hush.

Skulls, knucklebones, joints, limbs – human remains are the mortar, death is the architecture of this tiny underworld.  Skulls glimmer in the low lighting, are piled in mounds, arranged to form crosses, rings, borders.

There are quotes carved into the walls, from poets, philosophers, and the Bible.  They’re in French, of course, so I can’t understand them, but  I am sure they are somber, appropriate words.

You can’t look for too long, as there are many death tourists with clicking cameras waiting for their turn.  A sign asks us not to touch the skulls.  Who needs to be TOLD these things?  I pass a skull with graffiti on it – someone wrote their initials on the shiny forehead with permanent marker.  Everything in me shudders to see this.

I don’t know what to think of the catacombs.  I don’t know how to feel as I walk past these thousands of people, jumbled all together.

I turn a corner into a tourist-free tunnel.  I call out for Sal, but my voice is muted by the stone walls.  I stand for a minute, waiting.

It’s just me and the skulls.

Nothing creepy happens.  I feel a settled sort of peace, which surprises me.

Later, when I lie in bed, I think about what it would be like to be trapped down there for a night.

I don’t fall asleep for a while.

Europe Farwell Tour Day 4: In which I ingest a questionable substance in Amsterdam

Yes, the rumours about Amsterdam are true.  The “coffeeshops” dotted on every corner heave with partakers from morning to late.  Pot smoke doesn’t just waft, it penetrates everything – by dinnertime, you are breathing about 40% air and 60% second hand pot smoke.  And the infamous Red Light District?  As it sounds – a square of several blocks teaming with sex shops, coffeeshops, and yes, ladies beckoning from red backlit windows.

It strikes me that I am the wrong demographic for Amsterdam.  I don’t care, I love it.  Wander along the canals, shimmering with golden lamplight, and try not to fall in love with this city.  No house or building is alike, and they lean whimsically – as if the city arched its spine and the buildings shifted to and fro like disjointed vertebrae.  It’s something to do with the foundations, having first been built of wood, then re-poured with cement.

Amsterdam has about 1,000 bikes per capita. *Photo courtesy of Sal.

Amsterdam has about 1,000 bikes per capita. *Photo courtesy of Sal.

We stop for tea in the courtyard of Hofje Wijs – a charming café on Zeedijk with a respectable selection of teas and coffees.

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Of course, the menu’s in Dutch but sprinkled with English.  White…red…green…even ‘blue tea’!  Never heard of that, let’s give it a whirl…I order something called “Opium Hill”.  Sal raises an eyebrow.

“You want to ask what’s in it?” he mummers.

“No, I’m just going to try it.”

The tea comes out in a lovely metal pot, decorated in leaves that look like…marijuana.

“Um…”  Sal nudges me, “you sure you don’t want to ask?”

I pour a bit into the teacup.  It has a golden colour – not blue at all.  I take a cautious sniff.  It smells like tea.

“I’m sure it’s fine,” I say with confidence I no longer feel.  “Besides, I don’t think you drink weed.”

Sal disagrees and we debate this quietly.  “They put it in brownies.  You eat brownies,” he argues.

I raise the lid of the pot.  “It looks like tea.”

He laughs, “It’s leaves!  What else is it going to look like?”

“Maybe there’s weed in your beer,” I jeer.  He’s drinking a very benign-looking beer, golden with a silky foam on the top.

I take a tiny sip – it has a light, buttery taste.  “It tastes like tea.”

Well, the only thing to do now…is wait.

Look closely at the teapot...

Look closely at the teapot…

Berlin, baby

At some point in the aftermath of war and political upheaval, someone clearly took stock of Berlin and said, “Right – let’s re-spin this thing, let’s start fresh and do this right.”  It’s creatively re-designed, with thoughtfulness that makes an urban planner type tear up a little.  The centre is very clean and walkable, with a huge leafy park, wide sidewalks, plentiful public transport.  There are solar panels on top of the bus stops to power the glowing advertisements.  In the Reichstag Building, a huge spiralling funnel covered in 360 mirrors has a tri-focus of inspiring awe, diverting rainwater, and reflecting light for the parliamentary meetings below.

*Photo courtesy of Sal

*Photo courtesy of Sal

The line between west and east Berlin has blurred over the years, but an undertone remains.  The west side centre is chock full of big name shops and is squeaky clean.  East Berlin just over the bridge (near Warschauer Str) is a bit rougher but lovable and has better graffiti.

I could spend some serious time in the Skalitrzerstrasse area, on the river side of the East Side Gallery (a strip of the Berlin Wall left standing and decorated with art).  It’s what the Brick Lane area could be if the hipster was turned down and the artsy turned up.  We have a beautiful burger at Görli Burger and wander into a half-lit hovel called Madame Claude.  It looks closed, but a waft of trip-hop music floating up from the darkened stair beckons us below.

We enter a tiny world of the absurd.  The ceiling’s a floor and vice versa – there are chairs, an umbrella stand, flower pot, and sundries mounted above our heads.  The décor is trip-boutique-grunge…some brown 70s-era eye things dot a wall; around the corner, a forest room; the ladies’ room has no water in the tap.  A very burly man with a big grey beard and a towel over his shoulders wanders around, clutching a bottle.  Some guys are saying the “F” word a lot, sprinkled in boisterous German.

A couple of musicians invite us downstairs for a “concert” of trip-hop music with “colourful sounds”, followed by a burlesque performance.  The music takes a turn towards foreboding  – organ zings and a man demanding “du kam!” or something.  Wind noises.

My beer is called “Lagerbier Hell”.  I’m in Berlin, baby, and I love it.

Yeah, me too.

Yeah, me too.

Chaos Ensues

My dearest readers, the next few weeks will tumultuous.  Next week we’re off on a rail trip through Continental Europe for two weeks, and then moving our lives across the Atlantic.  From there we will take a road trip across the U.S. from D.C. to California.

I will not be blogging with consistency or predictability.  My posts will be random and free, like tumbleweeds on the open road I will soon be travelling.

But we will ride it out together, and when the dust settles, I will go back to my weekly, predictable blatherings.

And maybe throw in a cow or two if you’re extra lucky!