Tuesday, June 2, 2015


Our last full day here is a good illustration of how much of the trip has gone. We did a mere two museums. The first was one we had been to before and failed to completely cover. That turned out to be a nuisance because the galleries we went to see were closed without explanation for a few hours, an we had to juggle and kill time to get to them. It threw off our lunch plans, and we ended up with bad tourist food. All of that happened frequently enough that we might have predicted it.

And the other was the Epigraphic Museum. I guess most tourists don't know what an epigraphic museum is, and I've been to three of them on this trip (and never saw another tourist.) When we arrived this morning, the guard tried to tell us that we wanted to go around the corner to the National Archaeological Museum. (Nope, we've been there twice already.) And when he let us in he had to go find the guy who sells the tickets.

Ancient epigraphic instruments?

We did stumble on one other lonely soul in there, an American graduate student in history working on his dissertation. I won't give away his thesis here, but it involved improving his database of epigraphic evidence directly from the source, examining one letter after another on steles and comparing them to the spreadsheet on his laptop. That could have been one of us, I was thinking, and I'm pretty sure he was wishing it wasn't him right then. He sounded pretty weary when I asked him about it.

Lucky us, we get to go home and just be armchair readers on his focus area and on a hundred other questions that engaged us. Ilene has a new hunger to understand the influence of the Byzantine era on Hellenism. I want to read up a lot more on the middle ages in the territories of the Roman empire and on Renaissance art.

The idea of another long trip like this sounds overwhelming, but I did tell Ilene once a few weeks ago that next time we should reproduce the English major's semester abroad and tour England for a few months. It's been a long, exhausting trip -- probably about a week too long -- but we definitely made the right decision to limit the number of stops and to dig in deep at those. 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Last Days In Athens

We've been here around 11 days I think, and we've just about seen everything a tourist could see I suppose. Somewhere along about last Thursday we were going through a museum where each room was a microcosm of what had been the focus of entire museums we had seen the previous few days, and I sat down on a bench and decided I had learned enough and seen enough and was ready to take the final exam and go home for the summer. Naturally, we've been to several museums and archaeological sites since then.

To name some of the places we've visited since I wrote last:
  • The Acropolis
  • The Temple of Olympian Zeus
  • The Panathenaic Stadium
  • The Roman Agora
  • The Ancient Agora and museum
  • Hadrian's Library
  • A return visit to the Acropolis Museum
  • The Museum of Traditional Pottery
  • The National Gardens
  • The Benaki Museum
  • The Museum of Cycladic Art
  • The Museum of Byzantine and Christian Art
  • Lykavittos Hill
  • Filopappou Hill
  • Pynx Hill
  • The Heraklaidon Museum
  • Keramikos Cemetery and Museum
We also got a private Sunday tour of an exhibit at the library of the American School of Classical Studies, thanks to a colleague of Ilene's who is a native and happens to be here now, along with some other inside dope, and today we took the long tram ride out to Glyfada Beach to try out the Aegean. Tomorrow we're making a quick side trip to Delphi, and on Tuesday we're knocking off a measly two wings of the National Archaeological Museum that we didn't get to on the first visit, and then we're done.

It has been a somewhat bittersweet trip.  It's been hard to enjoy while we see so much suffering around us. As you probably know, the Greek economy has been doing very poorly for several years and things are coming to a head this weekend. The employment rate has been stuck at 25% for years, with youth unemployment at 50%, and public sector workers who do have jobs have had significant pay cuts. I know that I underestimated before what 25% unemployment really means. It's like the first year of the Great Depression, except in this case it's seven years on now, the recovery hasn't started yet, and there aren't New Deal programs to get people working.

I'm no expert in this stuff, but it's plain to us walking around that this is a pretty desperate situation for local residents. Store fronts are empty everywhere you look, graffiti covers everything, there are empty buildings and empty lots everywhere, usually with people living in them, and the city literally smells like shit. In shops and cafes, everyone is courteous, but on the street and subways, everyone looks angry all the time. People are begging on every subway car and at every subway entrance. There are tons of stray dogs, bu the funny thing is none of them are mutts. They are all either thoroughbreds or just a generation removed from the breeders. Except for being dirty and being unaccompanied, they look like they ought to be somebody's pet.

In other ways, we can see that the city is holding it together. The subways run on time and are clean. The parks are clean. The museums look great. We can hear the trash trucks collecting from he bins on our street every night. The tram out to the beaches was packed today.

Friday, May 22, 2015

First Days In Athens

We landed in Athens two days ago and had a much smoother transition than we did with the last two legs of the trip. We're getting better at the initial setup, and the internet was working, which removed a lot of stress. Our apartment here is much more comfortable than the previous two, thought it's not in the greatest neighborhood. The weather is pretty warm and very sunny, though, like in Italy, the humidity is surprisingly low. The same temps and sunshine at home would be a bigger drag.

We've had two great days since then soaking up a lot of archaeology. You may know that Greece built and opened a new Museum of the Acropolis about 7 years ago to display material from the Acropolis still in the country and to shame England into returning the Elgin Marbles. (Which we saw and loved at the British Museum in London.)

We spent all day there yesterday. It's a rarity in any circumstances to see a new large world-class museum, and this one is beautiful and, to my amateur eyes, does a great job. The key architectural and design decision was to site it with a view of the Parthenon from the top floor, to imitate that temple's footprint, and to lay out the surviving fragments in their relative position. Less frequently noted about the new Museum of the Acropolis is the presentation of artifacts from temples prior to the Parthenon and a gallery that imitates the climb up the hill. Also, the cafe there must be the best deal in the city.

I'm not going to take sides in the Elgin debate, but I'll share a couple of observations. One, the presentation of the new museum is gorgeous and more "accurate" in scale than the gallery in London, so when you're standing there, it does seem like a shame not to be able to view them all together. Two, when we were in the Egyptian collection at the National Archaeological Museum today, most of it "gathered by Greek collectors" in the 1800's, I didn't see any case being made for repatriating all of that to Egypt.

The National Archaeological Museum is also very well done, by the way, despite a pretty shabby exterior. (More on signs of the recent economic troubles here in a later post.) We spent hours there today just following the sculpture path and never got to the second and third floors. After nearly two months of museum going and reading, we've just about got to the point where we're connecting all the periods, understanding who was influencing who, and can develop our own informed questions and guesses.

We also spent a lot of time in a special exhibit on the Antikythera Machine. I had never heard of it before.

Leaving aside that we haven't climbed the Acropolis yet, laying eyes on it is the culmination of a long dream for us. Ilene, of course, was a studied this subject avidly in college after a formative experience with a Western civ class in high school, and for as long as we've known each other we've been planning a trip to Greece without ever pulling it off.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Winding Up In Florence

Wow. Were'd the 2 1/2 weeks go? We're packing up this afternoon to leave Florence by train tomorrow to overnight at the Rome airport hotel before moving on to the last leg in Athens.

I was too busy to keep updating much here about what we've been doing, but the short version is we loved Florence. As the guidebooks say, you can walk everywhere, and we did. We hit absolutely every sight noted in our short guidebook, and we ended up circling around to several sites for a second visit. We've gotten used to wandering from one gallery to the next without seeing anyone else. Today we even found our way to a Medici library so overlooked that no one onsite spoke English, and the guard couldn't understand why we were there. He kept trying to direct us to the Medici Palace down the street and once we got in, the librarian seemed pretty surprised to have a visitor.

It was interesting to me how different Florence felt from Rome. One, though it is overrun with tourists in the same way, they are much more patient with us here. Most everyone is wonderfully easygoing. Two, it feels like a city entirely devoted to a 100-year period of art history -- 1450 to 1550 -- with very little reference to proto-history, antiquity, the Roman Republic, the middle ages, the Baroque, the turmoil of different papacies, etc. Whereas in Rome, all of that can be seen literally layered on top of one other wherever anyone has dug a hole. There isn't even very much presentation of Renaissance history beyond the art. If you want to learn about the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, why they were building all all these palaces and towers, or the economic and social factors that nurtured all this art, you're on your own.

A typical day for me here was an hour or so working before Ilene got up, hitting a museum about mid morning, a big Italian lunch, hanging around a piazza reading as much and as fast as I could on Renaissance art history, coffee, gelato, more reading, and a big dinner. It was a great crash course in a single period of art. The second visits, in particular, were a luxury that make all the difference in what I experienced and learned. You can concentrate a lot more on the art when you walk in already knowing where the bathrooms are.

We weren't so successful with the side trips because of a couple of sick days and some weather delays. Long story short, I ended up tagging along on a wine tour that even Ilene didn't enjoy and didn't go along with her to Sienna yesterday, which I would have much preferred.

We've been living a little rough and are tired. Our landlord was great and the location of our apartment couldn't be beat -- a few steps from the Uffizi, the Arno, and Santa Croce. But the apartment is a carved out cell in a medieval building with just enough light and air to breed mosquitoes but not to dry our laundry. The airport hotel tomorrow is going to feel like a holiday.

Next up, leapfrogging back over ancient Roman ruins to the ancient Greek art that inspired everything we've been seeing so far.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Fresco Hunting

Once we got settled in last week and caught up on work, we started hitting the museums hard, doing the big three -- the Uffizi Gallery, the Pitti Palace and the Academia -- in three days.

The Uffizi, home to Renaissance Italian painting, was the highlight for me. I don't have anything to add beyond the centuries of commentary about the place already. The crowds are a little tough, but we did put in a solid 4 hours lingering as much as possible with all the biggies, including the Venus on the Half Shell.

After those few days comes the real point of a trip like ours -- digging in deeper and seeing the stuff the guidebooks note in small print or not at all. We knew we had 18 days between Rome and our next flight, and we seriously debated hopping around to different cities every three days to cover as much  as possible. Not doing that means not seeing Venice, for example, but it's the right choice for our style.

Mostly we've become dogged fresco hunters, tromping to any church with remnants that connect the dots in Renaissance art history from the Baroque period to Mastaccio to Filippo Lippi to Boticelli to Ghirlandaio.

Some of the places we've been in the last few days have been relatively well-trodden sites like Santa Maria Novella, San Marco and San Lorenzo. Some are well known but don't get that much traffic because they're a little outside the central area, such as Santo Spirito, Santa Trinita and Santa Maria del Carmine, where this morning we got to see Mastaccio's Expulsion fresco.

And some are left all to us, like Cenacolo di Sant'Apollonia, overlooked not just by contemporary tourists but by most of history. In the chapel of a convent that kept the gates locked pretty tight is a Last Supper fresco that no one outside knew about for hundreds of years until about 1880, along with the remnants of other long-lost frescoes that have been covered up.

A long trip also means not jamming every day full. On Sunday we lingered at breakfast until our favorite panini stand opened, packed a picnic, tramped across the river, outside the city walls and up to the rose gardens overlooking the city.

Hollywood Comes to Florence

We and every other visitor to Florence the last two weeks have been keeping their eyes peeled for baseball hats in hopes of spotting Ron Howard, who, along with Tom Hanks, is in town to shoot scenes for the movie Inferno. No luck so far.

We do frequently see burly town car drivers idling outside expensive hotels, trucks full of equipment, cranes, prop tables, streets taped off, etc. We watched a couple crowd scenes being filmed. I've been taking lots of pictures for my movie mad nephew.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Prato Before the Crowds Come

On Sunday we lucked into a unique and privileged experience that will probably be harder to reproduce as time goes on, the highlight of which was a half hour sitting in the choir of Duomo di Prato studying the Filippo Lippi frescoes there.

Prato is a small city about 30 minutes drive from Florence but feeling overlooked by their Chamber of Commerce. I know I had never heard of it, and it's not in the "side trips from Florence" suggested by our guidebooks or one of the numerous stops in the Tuscany section. The Chamber wants in on the action and has organized a series of free bus trips with guides from Florence, and we were lucky enough to notice the ad in an English-language paper. We were really the only "tourists" -- all the other English speakers were people living here temporarily and more plugged in than us.

This happened to be the first week of the experiment. Each week has a theme, and this one was food and art. Perfecto!

We started not in Prato, actually, but in a small village outside called Paggio a Caiano where one of many Medici villas in the region is located. This one has a unique role in the history of architecture (the first one without the fortress design and an interior courtyard) and it still houses an interesting art collection, much of which focuses on food, plants and still lifes. Someone in the Medici clan along the way was obsessed with documenting everything exotic collected by naturalists around the world and all the hybrids in the garden, and he commissioned painters to catalog it all on canvas.

These figs for example, are labelled with little numbers and the scroll is the key.

For lunch, we were set loose in the sleepy little village without any tourist attention, and we got the real deal at a trattoria serving the local Sunday afternoon crowd -- one of the best meals I've had yet.

Then it was in to Prato for a couple of sites. One chapel in the Duomo has some interesting frescoes by Agnolo Gaddi documenting a nutty legend about a belt Mary supposedly gifted to St. Thomas and that eventually showed up as the dowry for a poor girl marrying a Prato merchant traveling in Jerusalem. A lot of traditions have grown up around the sacred relic, and now it's kept in a locked box disguised as an alter, which requires three keys to open, one each held by the bishop, the mayor and governor. That's so the people of Pisa won't steal the belt. Five times a year the town gathers on the piazza for the displaying of the belt from the unusual exterior pulpit.

The highlight, though, is the crowded choir space behind the main pulpit where Lippi painted The Stories of St. Stephen and St. John the Baptist, including the dancing Salome figure that is so often reproduced but rarely seen. I think it's equal to and as important as anything in the Uffizi gallery -- Botticelli's Venus, for example -- and I can't believe the luck we had getting to take some quiet time with it.

If the Chamber of Commerce and the enthusiastic young people running this tour have their way, we won't be the last to see it, but we'll be among the last to do so in such a charming a way. Inside the church, a worshiper scolded our tour guide for talking aloud to our group, but they're used to that in Rome and Florence, and they might have to get used to that in Prato.

Waiting for our ride back, we sat at a cafe on the piazza watching locals take their Sunday stroll. There was room enough for people to circle their bikes around, to let their dogs run loose, to recognize and flag one another down, and for kids to kick soccer balls. There wasn't a postcard rack or selfie-stick seller in sight.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Transitioning to Florence

We wound up Rome with several more whirlwhind days trying to pack in all the museums we hadn't been to yet. (I'm working in a series of photos showing galleries empty except for overlooked art and antiquities.)

The branch of the Capitoline Museum in the south of the city, Centrale Montmarti, was especially cool. It's set in a decommissioned power plant with much of the heavy equipment still on post among the sculpture and mosaics illustrating an interesting point in the art of ancient Rome when suburban villas were becoming all the rage.

On that day made a stop at Eately, which is an interesting visual feast.

And I don't remember how many other old family palazzos converted into art galleries we crammed in. I try to be good about noting them all in my journal every night. Good thing, too. The other day I flipped back a few pages to our trip to Paris about five years ago and read about a very charming evening out that neither one of us had any memory of.

We made last stops at a couple restaurants that had become favorites, packed up and on Friday started the trip to Florence. It was May Day and when we finally did get a cab to the train station, it was the most fun ride we had the whole time zipping through nearly empty streets. The high-speed train was a pleasure and makes me annoyed all over again at the lousy train system we have to deal with in the U.S.

We've once again had internet troubles at this apartment, and dealing with that and other errands to get established and has sucked up a lot of time in the first few days. But apart from that, we're loving it here. It's very friendly and easy going compared to Rome, and there seems to be a lot more care with design and presentation in the shops. I love just looking at the signs at the high-end stores. We're also eating a lot better here. Our apartment is a couple of cells in a medieval building and comes with a lot of space, design, electrical and plumbing challenges. Also it's impervious to cell phone signals.

So far we've only hit one museum, the Bargello, home of the best regarded collection of renaissance sculpture and a lot of interesting material on the transition from medieval to renaissance. We have our "skip the line" tickets for the Uffizi gallery tomorrow, the likely highlight of the trip for me.

We've had one other side trip that I'll tell about later, and there's something else interesting going on town right now that I'll tell about later, but here's a hint . . .

Monday, April 27, 2015

Museum hopping

Once we got past the 4 or 5 "top sights" that a weeklong visitor will hit, we started finding museums without the lines and crowds. In fact it's quite common for us lately to be the only people in galleries, one corridor after another filled with antiquities. Just outside we have to box our way down the sidewalks to get to these places or out to lunch.

The best deal in Rome that I know of is the Museo Nazionale Roma, which is spread out over 4 locations. The 7euro ticket is good for multiple entry in all of the sites over 3 days. (It's worth the price for the bathroom access alone.) The Palazzo Massimo location has the most amazing collection of frescoes and mosaics we've seen, and the best curation and presentation, also.

Across the street is the Terme (Baths) di Doicleziano. Much less remains than of the baths of Caracalla, but it's easier to get to, and the attached museum is a good place for the scholarly impulse with in-depth presentations on proto-history of the region and on epigraphic history.

Palazzo Altemps has some excellent overlooked sculpture and gives a good insight to how antiquities collecting happened in one family.

And Crypta Balbi show how one layer of history is piled on another and how archaeologists work to peel it back. We've seen the same point made elsewhere, but this was the most expansive presentation of it and it's at an interesting location, on a road that was important to the city in Caesar's time and important today. (We ride the bus through it every day.)

Thursday, April 23, 2015


Well, Mt. Vesuvius kept its cool for another day, and we were able to fulfill a childhood dream of Ilene's, who has had a fascination with Pompeii since she read a particular National Geographic article about it and Herculaneum over 30 years ago.

That image above is from Herculaneum which was swallowed in lava. Pompeii was smothered in ash, buried to a depth covering even the tallest temples so that no one knew it was there for 1700 years. When it was discovered, the excavation revealed spooky human-shaped casts made of ash showing how the citizens were frozen where they were caught.

Only a few are still on public display. I didn't expect the Pompeii site to still have the streets strewn ghoulishly with bodies like in that old National Geographic article, but I was surprised at how stripped and denuded it was. The houses and streets are all empty of furnishings, carts or other debris, and that frozen-in-time quality is hard to sense.

What you do see is one lane after another of intact structures, more preserved than any ancient ruins we've seen. Most remarkable is the frescoes still on the interiors of some buildings.

You have to imagine that vaulted room (a public bath house) completely filled in with ash and that piazza (the site of the Temple of Apollo, I think) covered over the height of the columns to get a sense of the eruption.

The visit is also a little bittersweet for us. We've been referring to this trip as the semester abroad we never had. In-depth trips with our favorite professors to Greece and Rome in Ilene's case and to England in my case always seemed on the horizon when we were in college but never did work out. We've always regretted missing them. We're making up for a lot of that now, but the flying visit to Pompeii without the scholarship (and having forgotten so much of our Latin in the meantime) makes us miss our youth a little more.

Monday, April 20, 2015

I Think I Can . . . Climb the Vatican

Even with a couple of rest days built in we've been wearing out our legs, not least because of getting very lost a couple times. The less said about those difficult hours the better. When we get to our destinations, though, we're seeing some amazing sights.

Most churches are open to the public from an early hour, so we used that on Friday to beat the lines for a visit to St. Peter's Basilica. The line usually snakes all the way around St. Peter's Square and doubles back on itself, but we rose early to be there at 7 a.m. before they had even turned all the lights on. Still, there was a mass going on in most of the 10 or so chapels around the perimeter. Looking for a bathroom, I stumbled into some kind of dressing room where a bunch of priests and alter boys were getting suited up. Ilene said she would be pretty jealous if I ended up meeting the pope that way.

It's a dramatic space, of course, with a lot to visit, though a lot of it is roped off for masses. Visitors are kept about 30 yards back from The Pieta.

Next we climbed to the cupola at the top of the dome, similar to the experience we had at St. Paul's in London about 13 years ago, except I'm down one ankle, one knee and one hip since then. The passageways get progressively narrow until you are squeezing between the inner and outer skins of the dome, with the stairs climbing and tilted sideways at the same time.

As I've said before, our apartment is near the Vatican, and this sequence of photos gradually zooms into our apartment from the top of the dome.

The light blue roof is the Russian Orthodox Church I mentioned. Our apartment building is the orange one immediately to the right. We're on the top full floor (not counting the one under the eaves) under the rain gutter on the side nearest the camera. If you can make out a dirty awning under the gutter, that's our veranda. The yellow two-story building at the train tracks at the bottom of the hill (nearest the foot of the blue crane) is the San Pietro Termini, which is where we usually jump on the bus into the center of the city. Where the tracks cross a viaduct over the road (Via del Gregorio VII) is the main business strip of our neighborhood where the tobacco shops, bars and fruit stands are.

Speaking of distant views of apartments, our next visit to the Vatican was on Sunday to see the man himself. Pope Francis has kept up the tradition of making a brief speech and blessing from his window at noon on Sunday. (As well as a Mass on Wednesday.) It looked to me like about a baseball stadium's worth of people were in the square -- maybe 50,000 people -- all of them absolutely silent except for a period where he gives shout outs to visiting groups and the groups cheer back. It was all in Italian, so I wasn't able to follow, but the news reports that he was commenting on the recent drowning deaths of many immigrants to Italy.

In the meantime, we went out of our way to get to the Appian Way and take a country walk, toured some catacombs, hiked all the way back into the city, visited the Baths of Caracalla, visited the Basilica of St. Mary in Trastevere (my favorite), the Basilica of St. Cecilia in Trastevera (including the Roman-era archaeological dig and decorated nun's chapel underneath and rediscovered murals in the nun's choir above), the Jewish Ghetto, the Theater of Marcellus, the Portico of Octavia . . . and we've had a few meals. Basically, I at this point, I eat anything on the menu described as de nonna. For lunch today it was pasta con ragu de nonna and torte de nonna, my new favorite desert.

And then each day we climb back up the hill from the bus stop to our apartment.