Archive | December, 2011

What would you do if your vacation date for a Romantic rendezvous in Rome doesn’t show up?

30 Dec

You fly from across the Atlantic Ocean for a much-anticipated romantic rendezvous over the Christmas holidays. And your date doesn’t show up.

Sure, he’s got his (alleged) reasons, but at the end of the day, you are looking at 10 days solo in Rome when you should be in doppio.

It could have been the worst trip of my life.

But instead, 5 years ago today I met the Italian love of my life, and this year I moved from Canada to Rome.

Happy 5th anniversary, my love!

PS ladies, if you are going to be stood up on a date, I suggest you let that happen in Rome. Italian men will never let a solo woman feel unappreciated!


Now 2011


Descending through layers of history at the Basilica of San Clemente

18 Dec

I realize that with my travel schedule its been a while since I actually wrote a post regarding, you know, Rome.  Today I braved the chilly temperatures and drizzle to visit the Basilica of San Clemente.  San Clemente was one of the earliest bishops of Rome, and a contemporary of Saint Peter (and some say, Christ) in the first century AD; when being an open follower of Christianity predicted a short life and unpleasant death.  Perhaps that was the inspiration for Christianity’s eventual persecution of pagans?

Just a few blocks away from the Colosseum, the Basilica of San Clemente is a fascinating reminder of the uniqueness of Rome’s  layers of history and how many of its Christian traditions were layered upon Rome’s pagan roots. To explore this marvelous church is to walk back in time — and your starting point is 1100 AD.

If you are fortunate, you’ll enter through the square courtyard with its graceful fountain and covered walkways.  Its simplicity belies the richly decorated 12th century church that sits at ground level.  Entering from the courtyard, you are immediately enveloped by the intensity of the rich decor.

The upper level 12th Century interior (CC Rome-Roma)

Unfortunately, I don’t have any of my own photos as photography is forbidden, and only having been in Italy for a few months, I complied with the rules.  This basilica is in remarkable condition despite being a thousand years old and each surface, from floor to ceiling, is adorned in a different style – from inlaid marble floors, to gorgeous frescos depicting the lives of saints and martyrs, to the luminescent mosaics about the main altar.  I loved the frescos depicting the life and trials of Saint Catherine, who was persecuted by the Emperor Maxentius (who was a contemporary of, and defeated by Constantine – the first Christian Emperor of Rome).

Saint Catherine and an angel miraculously destroy the wheel of torture (CC Monkey Fur)

Like I said, layers and layers of history.

While wandering the 12th century basilica is fascinating enough, take a detour through the gift store, pay 5 euros for a ticket and descend through history.

The next level down brings you to the 4th century basilica.  During one of the many sacks that Rome endured in the latter first millennium, this 4th century basilica was filled in and the current ground-level church was built upon its ruins in the 12th century.  The 4th century Basilica is amazingly well displayed, full of lighting and descriptive plaques in English and Italian.  The NYTimes describes it as “completely relit with discreet bronze lamps that shed light on once-hidden angles and cast haunting shadows. It was kind of like participating in a contemporary art installation (except the art was better).” Well done, Irish Dominicans.

One level down in the 4th century basilica (CC newliturgicalmovement-org)

Wait, what?

According to Wikipedia:

Irish Dominicans have been the caretakers of San Clemente since 1667, when England outlawed the Irish Catholic Church and expelled the entire clergy. Pope Urban VIII gave them refuge at San Clemente, where they have remained, running a residence for priests studying and teaching in Rome. The Dominicans themselves conducted the excavations in the 1950s in collaboration with Italian archaeology students.

It gets better…descend one level more and you’ll realize that 2 stories under today’s surface you are now at the level of ancient, 1st Century Rome, before time and neglect covered its civilization in metres of mud.  Hiding in the labyrinth of an ancient Roman patrician’s private villa are the remains of a Mithriac temple.

Let’s get to the patrician’s home first…it was apparently the villa of one of the first Roman senators who converted to Christianity; secretly holding meetings of the faithful in his home.  As I mentioned, 1st century Rome was a dangerous time and place for Christians – the reign of the Emperor Nero who initiated imperially-sanctioned brutal persecutions of Christians and oversaw the crucifixion of St. Peter.  Eventually a catastrophic fire destroyed this area of ancient Rome (attributed by many to Nero so he could build a golden palace).  The 4th century basilica was build directly over the ruins of the villa, and by the way; nearby the Colesseum was built as a gift to the Roman people to help ease their loss off massive swathes of the city in the same fire.  One of the more striking elements in this subterranean villa today is the sound of running water – in and before the first century AD, this villa was served by fresh spring water.  It probably had radiant floor heating too; I regret to observe that Roman interior heating has not evolved much in the last 2,000 years.

2 levels down in the cave of the Mithraic mysteries (CC

The Mithraic temple itself is very much a mystery, and its rituals and beliefs even at the height of its influence in the first century BC were only shared with its initiates.  This temple was meant to resemble a ritual cave, and you can view the altar depicting the slaughter of a bull, and a tiny statue which seems to be Sol Invictus.  Some historians link the cult of Mithras to Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, whose birth was celebrated on December 25.  Merry Christmas!

The vast array of breathtaking churches in Rome can be overwhelming, but although it’s a few blocks off the main tourist circuit, San Clemente is truly unique in its enormous span of history, as well as the the quality of its displays.

You can find it by walking past the Colosseum for a few blocks and turning right.  Or you can follow this map.

A week and a half of European Christmas Markets

11 Dec

Christmas Market in Old City, Warsaw

These past 2 weeks have brought me on a veritable tour of the Christmas markets of Europe. I travelled to Budapest, Bratislava, Brno, Prague and Warsaw. With the exception of Prague, all were cities I visited for the first time. Sadly my schedule prevented me from seeing much (OK, any) of the local sights. But I found much solace in wandering the streets of each beautiful city; following the trails of sparkling lights to find the Christmas markets scattered throughout.

There are many compelling reasons to visit the Christmas markets in this area of Europe, but personally my favorite is wandering in the cold while sipping hot mulled wine. Variably called “varene vino” (Slovakia), “forralt bor” (Hungary), “grzaniec” (Poland), or “svařák” (Czech)…

Bratislava Christmas Market

I guarantee you will not need to know how to pronounce it and you will have no problem finding many stalls offering it at very cheap prices (1 Euro in Bratislava), and many friendly locals drinking it at this time of year! Warm wine sweetened and spiced with lemon rind, cardamon, cloves and more is a sublime treat on a cold night. The local foods are another fantastic reason to spend time at these markets, and you can spend many hours wandering, nibbling and sipping under the lights and stars.

At the end of November, Budapest’s Christmas market stalls (map: Vörösmarty Square) seemed as though they were barely getting started with only a few lonely shops in the midst of a boisterous central eatery. A shame too, as the few stalls that were open looked like they had the best array of unique local products, and not just the stuff you’d find in the tourist traps.

Bratislava has not one but 2 Christmas markets in Old Town, one complete with a skating rink at Hviezdoslavovo Námestie – well done, Bratislava! They are within easy walking distance, your varene vinowould not even get cold walking from one market to the other. I noticed that shops selling toys and non consumables closed down early, before 8 PM. But for me the market in Bratislava was to marvel at the foods of my Slovak ancestors.

Meat, and more meat in Bratislava

I am surprised with all the Slovak foods I was raised on (Halušky, kapustnica, rosky) that I was never initiated into the delights of varene vino. And I am also surprised with all the fried meat that my grandparents were healthy enough to embark on their trip to Canada.

Learning how to order mulled wine at the Prague Christmas Market, with the aptly named Noelle

Prague seemed full of Christmas markets and vendors selling outdoors in its atmospheric squares. But the main event can be found in the Old Town Square where again mulled wine and hearty quantities of meat were the order of the day. I feel that Prague is one of the most astounding cities of the world, and its whimsical architecture makes the perfect fantasy Christmas backdrop.

Finally, in the Christmas markets of Warsaw, in the Old Town Square and in the shadow of the uber communist relic Palace of Culture & Science, I discovered the most important rule of Chrismas markets – they are romantic! So bring someone to stroll with, even if he does not share your passion of varene vino.
So, christmas markets in Europe, to sum up: shop early, bring your appetite and above all, get into the Christmas mood with some mulled wine.

Grateful for a Lack of History

9 Dec

It’s easy to feel, compared to the great cities of Europe, that Canada is pretty boring.  2 days in Warsaw changed my mind.

We Canadians & Americans imagine how fortunate those are who live amongst Europe’s historic monuments and architecture, but we rarely understand that there is a darker side of those historic neighborhoods.  Here in Rome, monuments and triumphal arches thousands of years old illuminate wars and conquests of ancient heroes and villains.  Yet, somehow it’s easy to reflect upon the glory of those ancient events, and not the agony they caused.

Warsaw is very different.  I didn’t ever stop to consider why Warsaw had not been on my list of top places to see in Europe.  Perhaps I had just never been aware of anything really…famous…to see.  And of course I knew that Warsaw had suffered in WWII, but hadn’t so many places?

After my trip this week to Warsaw, I understand why.  I am humbled by the story of this city, and I am grateful for the distinct lack of a history like Warsaw’s in my native Canada.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

I didn’t know for instance, that Warsaw staged one of the greatest resistances to initial Nazi invasion…in the 1939 Siege of Warsaw the Poles defended the city for 20 days before it fell to Nazi occupation.  This is compared to the 9 days it took Paris to fall, despite being defended by the world’s largest standing army at the time.  The siege was one of the first instances of terror bombing, where Nazis targeted hospitals, schools, marketplaces and columns of civilians leaving the city.
Years later when the Nazis were starting to falter, in 1945 Warsaw staged an uprising that was eventually crushed.  The result was that the Nazis not only systematically massacred the people but virtually 90% of the city as well.

Brilliant Christmas tree in Warsaw's old city district today

I didn’t realize that the “old city’ was actually a modern recreation painstakingly rebuild based on photos and descriptions…that virtually no buildings of historic and cultural relevance exist today as they were targeted in a brutal campaign of retribution by the Nazis against this heroic city that dared to resist.

One of my older clients got tears in her eyes as she told me about this.  And yet the people of Poland are very sweet; although there is sadness there is no bitterness and you get a sense of a city which is re-finding itself.
I did snap a picture of one historic place that does still exist: one abandoned row of tenement flats that was a part of the horrific Jewish ghetto.  The holes in the wall are bullet holes. You can just feel the sense of abandonment, hatred, grief and desperation in these bricks…

Remnant of Warsaw's horrific ghetto. You can still see bullet holes.

It was a sobering reminder that the challenges and problems we sometimes face today are so insignificant….and how fortunate I am to have grown up in Canada.