Archive for July 23rd, 2009

Big to Just a Little Bit Smaller

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

We left the big city of Rome and realized we should probably find showers. That’s right, I (Matt) had taken Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, the world’s largest church, after traipsing, sweating through Rome and living out of a car for six days without a shower. Thankfully, Jesus accepts me despite the smell. That afternoon, a couple hours north of Rome, we stopped at a rest stop and took real showers for a 2 Euro donation. We walked down to the station’s showers and the woman in charge went off in Italian, something about the cold water. She was quieted by our small token of appreciation and smirked at our condition. The water wasn’t hot but it was comfortable, especially since it cleaned.

Around seven that night we arrived in Florence. We quickly stood at a lookout and looked . . . out, over the city, alongside hoards of tourists. We fled down into the city, crossing the river and winding through the streets to its Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, the fourth largest church of Europe. After St. Peter’s, we were more impressed with the dome and the building’s ornamentation than its size. It’s exterior is covered with engraved marble in shades of green and pink, bordered by white. It’s dome, the largest brick dome ever constructed, was engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi after the Pantheon. After the Romans, the formula for concrete was “forgotten” and Brunelleschi was forced to build the dome out of bricks. Brunelleschi, a smart guy, built the octagonal, double-walled dome on a separate drum and not on the roof itself, do that it could be built without using scaffolding. It was the first dome built this way and weighs only 37,000 tons with over 4 million bricks. Barely smaller.

Unfortunately, the museum housing Michelangelo’s David statue was closed for the evening and was closed on Mondays, the next day. Instead, we saw a replica of David and concluded we hadn’t missed much. You’ve seen one naked guy, you’ve seen them all. We camped for the night just outside Florence and drove east to cook lunch on a bridge in San Marino.

We figured we prepared the only spaghetti and popcorn ever cooked on a bridge in San Marino, the world’s smallest republic and Europe’s third smallest country after only Vatican City and Monaco. More interesting facts: San Marino is the smallest member of the Council of Europe and is part of the United Nations though not the European Union. It’s is the oldest sovereign state in the world. The Constitution of San Marino, enacted in 1600, is the world’s oldest constitution still in effect. A stonecutter, Marinus of Rab, Croatia, founded the nation on the third of September, 301 A.D. As the legend goes, Marinus left Rab, then a Roman colony, in 257 under the future emperor Diocletian’s religious persecution.

Shenk, Ziegler, and I only briefly considered these things as we scaled a cliff to the impressive wall above the republic’s capital, appropriately named the City of San Marino (Città di San Marino). Wisely, David opted to remain below to protect his ankle and watch tennis on clay courts. The Dans and I walked the wall a bit but soon returned to the car before splurging on Gelato for a few Euro. Back in the car, we drove and slept between the small republic and Milan. Around noon Tuesday (July 7), we stopped at a rest area outside the city to begin transitioning to the next phase of the trip. Slightly smaller.

The Eternal City: Empires Old and New

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

We arrived at Rome in the middle of the afternoon on July 2. Roman history is one of my favorite areas of study so I anticipated Rome with more excitement than I any other city we visited. We parked at the train station in EUR, a less than eternal suburb of Rome, and took the train into the city for an introductory exploration. It was the oddest thing to walk out of the dirty metro station and see the Colosseum, one of the greatest relics of the ancient world, right in front of me.

This magnificent stadium was our introduction to a feeling that would soon become familiar during our stay at Rome: a sense stupefied wonder that something so old could still be standing. Because it was only two hours before the Colosseum closed we decided to postpone our tour until we could be sure of enough time to truly experience it. We began making our way to the Pantheon, hoping for an opportunity to watch the rain that loomed in the Eastern sky fall through the hole in the center of the dome. The weather did not oblige, however, because suddenly the sky opened in a truly torrential downpour. We were caught in the open with no accessible buildings within sprinting distance but finally found adequate shelter under the bowl of an nonoperational fountain. We watched with amusement as mobs of shrieking tourists ran by, umbrellas rendered useless by the driving wind, in desperate search for shelter.

When the skies finally cleared we made our way towards the Pantheon once more. It proved magnificent both inside and out. Unlike most relics of ancient Rome, the Pantheon has not crumbled under the weight of dozens of centuries and still appears (except for the replacement inside of Catholic saints for Roman gods) as it did when it was first constructed. Its huge dome is still a mystery to modern architects. From the Pantheon we walked to Vatican City and St.Peter’s Cathedral before turning back towards the Colosseum metro station. On our way back we got what was to become a staple of our stay in Rome: Gelato ice cream. It was nearly as magnificent as the city itself and we had it every day of our visit.

The next morning we toured the Colosseum and Capital hill where Nero and the Flavain emperors (Vespasian and sons) built their stupendous palaces. It was spectacular to be walking in and around structures that were in use almost 2,000 years ago (The Colosseum was built 80 AD). Many aspects of the Colosseum were on par with modern stadiums (e.g., Retractable roof and efficient exit system that evacuated 50,000 spectators in minutes), though perhaps the fact that it can still accommodate visitors after thousands of years on earthquake-prone gound is most impressive. Capital Hill was also amazing in this regard. Structures towered over us, arches and half domes and tunnels millennium old, but made of brick that could have been laid a few days ago. That evening we dined on genuine Italian pizza, with beverage and appetizer, for only eight euros. It was probably the best money I have ever spent.

We spent our last full day in Rome in Vatican city. We began with a tour of St. Peter’s, which was free unless you didn’t have sleeves. Its size alone is awe inspiring, but before you have fully absorbed the height of the vaulted ceiling or the length of the sanctuary, you become aware of its astonishing sculptures, paintings, mosaics, and decorations. No where else in the world could the Superbowl be played inside while Michelangelo’s Pieta looks on. The other highlight of Vatican City was the Sistine Chapel. It was as spectacular as I have always believed, trumping even Raphael’s incredible paintings which we saw en rout. Though taking pictures and conversation were prohibited, everyone in the chapel did both with unrestrained enthusiasm in spite of the attendant’s feeble (And very disruptive) attempts to stop us.

On the Sunday of July 5 we attended mass in St.Peter’s. It was fascinating to see how many of those present were just tourists like ourselves and how many were genuine Catholics, going to church at the epicenter of their faith. To take mass in the capital of Catholicism, with your church’s most magnificent expression of devotion to God souring above your head and with the bones of Peter and beneath your feet, would have to be a truly religious experience for a Catholic. I was left a bit bemused, however. Should the Pope’s words or Christ’s be the guide of our religion? Are buildings like St.Peter’s the way God wants the Church to make its mark, or should the funds used to build it have been utilized instead to feed the poor? Should we place more importance on where Peter is buried or on the gospel he died for? Whether or not the Church is meant to be so physically rooted in this world, Rome’s power is still very real and its impact on millions of people is undeniable. Though its jurisdiction is spiritual instead physical, Rome remains the center of a mighty empire whose influence spreads across the globe. It truly is the Eternal City.

Daniel Shenk

Drive Baby Drive

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

Leaving Madrid wasn’t anything too exciting, it’s a nice city and the roads are fine, although many main roads were still above ground. We drove east toward Italy, passed Barcelona that night and slept outside Avignon, France. The next morning (06/30) we visited Avignon, where the pope once lived and where one of the antipopes made their headquarters (remember when we were in Konstanz? That was the council where they ousted the antipopes, one of whom lived in Avignon). A very nice city, we decided after hiking a little hill to see the city, although the road system was a bit tricky. Then we were on our way again.

We hit the French Riviera to the west of Monaco and traveled along the winding but beautiful roads toward that famous and expensive little town. Monaco was packed with people, as was most of the French Riviera—not surprising on a beautiful June day. We found some parking and visited the port, full of sleek sailboats, ostentatious yachts, pleasant rowboats, a few fishing boats, and dozens of yachties there to do the dirty work for the rich and famous. Along the dockside a Ferrari 360 Spyder and a Porshe Carrera GT found spaces between Bentleys and Mercedes and $600 suits enjoyed debonair lunches with $800 purses at secluded sidewalk cafes.

We felt out of place, and, as a $1M helicopter launched from its seaside berth, we meekly citröened* our aging VW out of the country.

We got on the motorway and took our aim for Italy. We skirted Genova and headed to Torino where we saw the old Olympic Village, a cool bridge, a Latin-American Festival and then found a spot to eat some supper and sleep. The next day, we saw the famous Shroud of Turin (with the image of Jesus on it). Not all of us were convinced and most of us were skeptical and others of us were dubious, but we were glad to have seen the big box that contains the shroud.

The next day we got on a road and began following it figuring this was the best way to navigate since we were in Italy and all roads lead to Rome. It did not, in fact, lead to Rome, instead it led to Pisa so we stopped and saw the tower which was still leaning and the churches and other buildings in the complex were were also leaning or had previously leant. One thing none of us had known previously was how big the complex was that included the leaning tower.

We departed that evening, found a road which did lead to Rome and followed it. The next day we arrived.

* Have we explained this yet? In Bad Pyrmont we visited the VW dealership and were told that if we didn’t repair our leaking hydraulic suspension (for about €100) we would end up bouncing like a Citröen. We decided that was a risk we were willing to take. A month or so later we noticed a pronounced bouncing in the back end and christened the unpredictable and sustained trampoline-like movement “citröening.”

Disappointment and Esperar from Granada to Madrid

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

Warning: The following post involves various forms of disappointment. Reader discretion is advised.

First, the night of June twenty-fifth we headed north from Granada to Córdoba to see their famous Mezquita, a mosque with apparently really impressive columns dating back to the Roman period, its construction begun in 784 A.D. Christians converted it into a Cathedral after the Reconquista. Disappointingly, the building was already closed by the time we arrived. Ziegler and I (Matt) halfheartedly continued our quest for the cool pants we had seen in Granada, the really loose, comfortable, gypsy-looking pants. No luck. Disappointed, we continued to Seville. There we walked through the old town and saw the its cathedral, one of the largest of the Gothic style. It was closed so we missed the interior, the longest nave in Spain. Disappointing. We left and and arrived at Vila do Bispo, the southwestern tip of Portugal by the next morning. Along the way, we passed Huelva, Spain, where Christopher Columbus departed when he crossed the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic is much prettier on its European shore, and in Portugal we played an intense game of Ultimate Frisbee before a refreshing dip. We passed through Lisbon, found disappointingly little to occupy our interest, and pressed into the continent.

We slept just outside Madrid Saturday night (June 27), completely unaware that the next day would hold the greatest disappointments of the trip thus far. Actually, it was early Sunday morning when we stopped, the Dans having tag-teamed driving into the night. Sunday morning David drove us into Madrid to the Mennonite church. There we enjoyed lively and encouraging worship and a timely message. Bruce Bundy reminded us that the Spanish word for to wait, “esperar,” also means to hope. Timely for 4 guys traveling together; we were able to apply its lesson that very night. Merly Bundy translated this for us to supplement my completely rudimentary understanding of Spanish. After the service we got to know the Bundys, Bruce originally from Zimbabwe and Merly from Cuba before meeting in Pennslyvania and working in Madrid, and their two boys. We joined the lovely family for a delicious meal and interesting conversation about the state of the Spanish church. After years of rigorous Catholicism, the backlash has unfortunately led to many rejecting all faith. Instead, Spaniards value family and friendships, a path the Bundys hope to pursue with their church plant and Mennonite Your Way involvement.

After heartfelt thanks, we set off with content stomachs into Madrid to its main park, Parque del Retiro. The park was created as a royal park of the palace built in 1632 by King Philips IV as a retreat for the Royal family. It was quite the lovely retreat. The park was full of Spaniards enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon lounging about on the forested lawn, rowing around the central pond, or simply enjoying some drums in a small amphitheater-like structure. A group of young men were performing a carefully choreographed African drum session. Meanwhile, Bohemian locals created their own rhythms on numerous drums around the semicircle. Around the crowded lake, numerous other musical performers entertained alongside dancers, magicians, and even a Minnie Mouse with definitely manly hands. We left the park and wandered around before finding a pub by 8:30, ironically an Irish pub in Madrid, to watch the Champions League final. It was the pinnacle of the year’s international soccer (fútbol) season between Brazil and the US. At the beginning of the match, we held reserved excitement that only grew over the first half as the Americans built a two goal lead. Then the disappointments began. The Brazilians began to play as I had expected them to play and won 3-2. Utterly disappointing. We worked on our esperar. On the bright side, we hope the match will continue to raise awareness in the States of the value of soccer, the international sport. We returned to the Bundy’s, keenly disappointed but doing our best to wait and hope.

The next morning, our disappointment continued when we found the El Prado Museum, Madrid’s largest art museum, was closed on Mondays and entrance to the Palace was way out of our price range. Instead, we visited the Hagia Sophia, a modern art museum. Among others, we saw numerous, fascinating works by Pablo Picasso. We also saw numerous, disturbing works by Salvador Dalí. The contrast between the two modern Spanish artists was significant. We left the two, took the subway back to the Bundy’s, filled our water jugs, and drove out of the city. Our disappointments were short-lived, however…

Leaving Morocco

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

On June 24th we left Morocco. Our ferry trip was much calmer and nicer than the trip down, because we were allowed to wait to have our passports stamped until we got to Spain. We made it through customs after a nice drug-sniffing dog checked our car. Nice to know we didn’t accidentally pick up any drugs. Then we were back in Spain… for a few hours.

We stopped that late afternoon in Gibralter. Driving through the streets was a bit challenging, but I had been there before so at least we didn’t get horribly lost. We stopped at Europa point, a rather boring lighthouse, but the view is pretty neat. You can see the coast of Spain across the gulf and there, across the strait, the mountains of Morocco, garbed in mist, rising up in the fading sunlight.

At the point there was what must be the only open space in Gibralter (the entire area is mainly just a small mountain). In that area was a game of cricket! We were a bit excited because we had hoped to see some cricket in the British Isles, but had failed. So, we watched the game, were utterly confused, and after something undecipherable happened the game ended and we wandered away feeling as though we had witnessed an amazing event but had no idea what it was. Like looking at a piece of modern art and knowing that it means something, but you have no way of knowing what that is.

We headed up The Rock to try to find some Apes (Barbary Macaques, actually, but they’re called The Gibralter Apes). We did. About three quarters of the way up, we came around a sharp corner and there on the rock retaining wall were two Apes, sitting there looking mysterious. Just a bit further down the road was a pull-off point where even more Apes were cavorting about, eating the food the other tourists (there were about 5 of them) were feeding them illegally. We did not feed them illegally, although at one point I opened up the back of the car to get my hat out and a large, female Ape swung around the corner of our car, grabbed a black plastic bag and ripped it open. She seemed quite disappointed to find laundry detergent inside and was not hard to chase off with my flip-flop.

After hanging out with the Apes for a while, we descended the mountain. I spent the rest of my British Pounds (four of them) and we departed heading toward Granada.

We arrived at Granada late that evening, after having a bit of difficulty finding the right part of town using a map and a bit of dead-reckoning navigation on my part. Our time in Granada was short, but very nice. We hiked the second highest point in continental Spain with Kevin and Evan (who did quite well at a long and arduous hike). It was a lot of fun with spectacular views the entire way up.

Our second day, we visited the Alhambra (made better for me by the fact that I had been reading Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra on the trip) which was quite worth the visit, pictures will portray it better than I can, but if you ever get the chance, you must visit it and leave yourself plenty of time. If you can, have a picnic in the Generalife gardens. We didn’t, instead we had spectacular paella prepared by Wendy.

The entire time was flavored by our interaction with the Mayers who made us feel so welcomed and whose company we enjoyed greatly.