A Morning at the Vatican

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Monday, September 23.

2013-09-21 02.18.00We’re up at the crack of dawn, and in the hotel lobby by about 6:30 a.m., taking our places in what seems like the longest lineup ever.

And it’s just the queue for breakfast.

The morning we’re due to visit the Vatican, HUNDREDS of Spanish tourists (or so it seems) are all leaving the hotel at the same time.

After breakfast, Mom decides to grab some foodstuffs from the buffet to make more sandwiches for the day.

I’m waiting relatively close to the dining room entrance, a plate of already-made sandwiches in hand, when suddenly this disagreement breaks out between two of the Spanish tourists – a man and woman – seemingly over a black, vinyl bag (or, perhaps, its contents).

As the argument eases and escalates, I have visions of fisticuffs, me getting caught in the middle, and those delicious, precious bacon sandwiches flying in the air. I silently plead for my mother to hurry the hell up.

Unscathed, we grab our belongings and – after some confusion as to where our group’s bus is parked – are on our way to Vatican City.

The crowds outside the Vatican‘s city walls are already enormous by the time we arrive (see above), just after 8 a.m. Luckily, though, we don’t have to wait long to get inside – we’ve paid in advance, so we get to bypass some of the lines. But, man, do we ever shuffle just to get inside.

After a couple of false starts (one of our fellow tourists loses one of her sons in the shuffle up the escalator in the museum, then my mom’s radio guide – used to hear our guide, Tiziana – refuses to work), we finally get going.

2013-09-21 03.34.40The Vatican Museums include huge halls with ornate columns and ceilings, filled with all manner of sculptures (many of them missing arms), tapestries, painted reliefs on ceilings, and so on.

We’re led outside in a sort of courtyard, where Tiziana gives us an introduction to understanding the different panels of Michelangelo’s frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – the length of time it took the artist to complete his work, where the man left his signature, and even a fun anecdote about what he did when one local cardinal kicked up a fuss about the content of his masterpiece.

We eventually get in to see the chapel. But it’s a bit of a circus, to be completely honest. People are everywhere, being herded like sheep by the guards keeping watch. (Unfortunately, we’re not allowed to take pictures, so you’ll see none here. Google’s your friend for this one.)

Our group moves to one corner of the chapel, where – amid the insanity – I crane my neck and look straight upwards to gaze at as much as I can, before we’re shooed out.

2013-09-21 04.28.18We move along to St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s just as you’d probably just as ornate as you’d imagine – imaginably high domes, marble floors, sculptures in every corner, mosaic tiles galore. And then, there’s that massive, almost menacing, black canopy at the altar.

Embedded in the floor are tiles that compare the sizes of other big cathedrals around the world to St. Peter’s. (From what I understand, St. Peter’s is the biggest basilica in the world.)

Then, it’s out into the sun, past St. Peter’s Square – filled with row upon row of chairs set up for some sort of event – and the famous obelisk, for a break before we start the next leg of our trip.

A Last Day Surprise

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Thursday, September 13th.

I start the day a bit out of sorts, which is usually what happens the day before I have to travel anywhere. What it is exactly, I can’t really put my finger on. A sense of resignation? A heightened sense of melancholy/loneliness? I’ve no clue.

I begin my sightseeing on a sober note, at the information centre for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I have plans to also go to the Topography of Terror. But once inside the visitors’ centre, it’s probably best that things don’t work out that way.

I spend a lot of time in here, and it’s not time that’s wasted. Just reading the stories of families who were almost entirely wiped out – or completely eliminated – not only eresonat with me, but seem hard to fathom.

I see reproductions of letters written to loved ones and colleagues … names of those whose fate was tragic … hearing recollections of experiences … all are quite jarring. What perhaps holds my attention more than anything else, is seeing names and hearing voices of some of the individuals who survived.

Europe, Croatia 316Following the visit to the centre, I collect my thoughts nearby over a currywurst lunch, then hustle off to the Pergamonmuseum. This museum essentially houses fragments and reproduced parts of a specific ancient Roman settlement in a region of what is now Turkey.

It’s certainly interesting. But perhaps my mistake is trying to take on the special exhibitions. This eats up SO much time, I don’t have enough time to see what I REALLY came here for: the Near East and Islamic exhibitions, which I hear are absolute must-sees.

I get as far as the artifacts from Babylon, before I decide I’m too overwhelmed, and I call it a day. And with good reason – I just found out the day before that a travelling friend, Jeremy – whom I met in Spain five years ago – just happens to be in Berlin with his boyfriend. They’re staying in Kreuzberg, and just arrived the week before.

We arrange to meet at Alexanderplatz; Jeremy directs me to meet him under “the big world clock”. Now, keep in mind I’ve criss-crossed that open public space around the train station a handful of times over the past few days, and for the life of me, I CANNOT picture this clock.

So, of COURSE I walk around and around and AROUND, and I can’t find it. And because I can’t get my German SIM card to work (and my phone battery is almost drained) I return to the flat to get some WiFi and message Jeremy to tell him that, well, I can’t find him.

Eventually we figure it out, and I meet Jeremy and Mark on the S-Bahn platform. We take the metro to Fredrichstrasse and find a restaurant along the same strip I’d visited with Jennifer from New York. This time, we pick the Indian restaurant a couple doors down from that Cuban restaurant.

Even though it’s brief, it’s simply great to see someone I recognize – one of the small beauties about travel I cherish and appreciate.

We walk back to Alexanderplatz, passing a string of prostitutes – all in similar outfits, as if it’s some sort of regulatory “uniform”. (Not that I’ve never seen prostitutes in other places, but it’s certainly the first time I’ve seen them on my trip.)

After getting me back to my neighbourhood, we all part ways, and I return to the flat to putter around and pack again, for my next – and last – destination.

My Random Wednesday

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Wednesday, September 12th.

Europe, Croatia 293Today, I’m hoping to make a go of Museum Island – specifically, the German Historical Museum, as recommended by my walking tour guide from Sunday.

But I have a bit of a slow start – I think I’ve hit my personal wall, and have realized that I’m supposed to be on vacation and need to SLOW. DOWN.

I eventually make it down to the museum by noon and start from the beginning, sans audioguide.

Here’s the problem with me, when I visit museums: I still haven’t mastered the art of efficient museum-visiting. I somehow have this annoying inclination to look at everything – every single cup, armband, plate and sword.

Europe, Croatia 298As if I’m POSSIBLY going to miss something.

So my intention to breeze through the entire building – or at least, the main wing – turns into a huge time-sucking exercise, which only lands me somewhere around 1830 before I decide to put an end to my visit.

I go to the museum café for a sit-down and a pastry. At first, no one so much as gives me a menu to peruse – and the café isn’t even all that full. So I move from the four-seater to the closest table for two – right in front of the glass case filled with case, and the cash register.

A floppy-haired, moustachioed server comes up to me and says, “Tach!” which startles me. I’ve no idea what my face looks like to the server, but I’m hazzarding a guess that my eyes may have opened to twice their size, and I’m possibly sporting the blankest expression I’ve ever worn since my vacation began.

The server says it again. If the bewilderment on my face was slight before, it’s on full display now.

He finally ends my suffering by explaining it’s some type of casual greeting, to which I was supposed to have replied, “One beer, please”, in German. Sadly the moment’s wasted on me, since my language skills are non-existent; I awkwardly ask for a hot chai and a piece of cake.

By the time I emerge from the museum, I realize I don’t have enough time to visit the Pergamon Museum, which was my other goal for the day.

Europe, Croatia 311So instead, I wander over to the DDR Museum – an interesting and (in my opinion, almost absurd) look into life for East Germans under the Iron Curtain.

This museum is a bit nuts. EVERYTHING – from the fashion, to specifically-made products, to when (and HOW) East Germans vacationed (which includes a diorama-display of naked miniatures), makes the impression these people were under … almost surreal.

And to think: this went on for decades. And it didn’t even end all that long ago, if you think about it.

My museum-seeing day done, I go to meet fellow Fat-Tire tourist Joanna in another part of town – we’re going to try some currywurst and some (apparently) good falafel.

Before we embark on our evening’s adventures, we stop by Joanna’s vacation rental so she can collect something from her guest room. She’s renting a room in the industrial-looking live/workspace of a German couple. The wife is an interior designer; the husband makes furniture.

The whole scenario is cordial, but absolutely (almost painfully awkward). Me, a complete stranger, waiting for another complete stranger, in the kitchen of complete strangers. We make conversation which, as brief and a bit uncomfortable as it is, is not terrible. We speak about the cycling communities in Berlin and Toronto – the couple says in Berlin’s case, it’s actually becoming a problem (although, I suppose, that perspective all depends on whom you speak to).

I even find out that the wife – when she was in high school – did a student exchange program in Canada. In Brampton. I’m not kidding.

The awkwardness ends when Joanna and I take off, for Curry 36 – said to be one of the best places for the famed currywurst. It’s well worth the trek. It is ONE of the tastiest things I’ve never had. I split one with Joanna, then we go to the falafel stand just feet away, and split a falafel (with no onions). Also very tasty! And not filling, which is a nice feeling.

We take the metro to Revalerstrasse, where the warehouses of RAW are located. Compared to seeing it during the day by bike, it looks a bit daunting/sketchier in the dark. As we get closer, though, we see the glow of lights in various establishments.

Europe, Croatia 313Joanna wants to check on this one bar (relatively new to the area), which caters to gamers. The exterior (which we saw the day before) is spraypainted with images of video game characters.

The interior, however, is anime-sleek – a bar at one end; tables for dining, and special sections for playing games out in the open … as well as “VIP” rooms for parties, and another room at the far end, specifically with a roundtable for serious gamers – complete with monitors.

On this night, it’s empty, as it’s only mid-week, and we’ve arrived about 40 minutes before closing. So I get a drink for the road and we continue wandering.

We drop in at another bar, where it’s sparsely populated, and the DJ was already spinning. (I couldn’t tell you what genre, to save my life. It could’ve been drum-and-base, for all I know.)

I order another drink, and we take in the scene before us. The place eventually begins to fill with more patrons, all obviously younger than ourselves. Joanna starts getting into the music and starts moving in the corner we’re occupying. Two female Berliners notice Joanna’s jiving, and obviously start making comments about her dancing abilities, amongst themselves. I see this and think it’s not really warranted. But who gives a shit?

I eventually leave my seat and let myself to move to the music. It’s feels like an eternity since I’ve done something familiar that doesn’t require a verbal language. And it feels good. For a while.

We set out for “home”, but discover that the metro has stopped running. So we split a cab and go our separate ways – with Joanna asking me to remember the cab number, just in case anything happens. (Wait – I get, that it’s all about “safety first” and all that … but are cab kidnappings a thing in D.C.?)

It’s a nice evening out, and finally a chance to get a little taste of Berlin’s nightlife during my stay.

Out of The Hole …

I haven’t had the chance to write for a couple days, and that’s mainly ’cause I’ve been a bit worn out by all the things I’ve been trying to cram in. I just got home not too long ago from Birmingham, so while I’m up, I’ll fill you in.

On Friday, my friend Mandy and I went to St. Paul’s Cathedral. I’d been there the last time I was in London, but never got to go above the ground floor due to renovation/restoration. But it certainly felt like I was going in again for the first time (especially when I found out I had to pay 9 GBP. I definitely do NOT remember that part). Being the Baroque style of architecture, the craftsmanship is phenomenal and elaborate. The artwork is unbelievable. The whole place is ridiculous, but in a good way. It just boggles my mind whenever I see stuff like that, to think human beings are capable of such massive works of architectural art. And that’s the old stuff.

A couple things I learned about myself (or at least admitted once again):

(a) I am an out-of-shape loser. There are 530 little, tiny steps going up into the upper areas of the cathedral, and I got winded after about the halfway point. Meanwhile my friend – the runner – didn’t even break a sweat. Note to self: Resume cardio when I return to Toronto.

(b) The older I get, the more uneasy I am of heights. I’m not scared, per se. Otherwise I never would’ve said, “Let’s go up to the top!” The sections outside the actual building were fine. However, when we got to the Whispering Gallery up in the Dome and I looked waay up to all the artwork above, my stomach and my brain both said, “Oh, hell, no!” in unison, and I held on to that metal bar with at least one hand (and clutching my stuffed MEC bag with the other). Of course, Mandy – being the fearless runner friend she is, ducked in between the railing. Show-off.

Climbing the spiralling metal staircase to get up to the Golden Gallery, the uneasiness continued. I didn’t dare look down, and I didn’t even attempt to look up. Just straight ahead – or at least at Mandy’s feet as she ascended the steps ahead of me.

Once I was outside at the top, I was pretty much fine. I snapped a couple of pictures, took in the skyline, which is quite the sight. But I felt the slight vertigo return on the way down. And I specifically remember getting back down to the ground floor of St. Paul’s and feeling a slight wobble in my legs. That can’t be a good sign.

We also spent part of the afternoon in the Museum of London. Nope, not the British Museum. There’s an actual museum dedicated to the history of London, from prehistoric times onward. I can’t speak for my friend, but St. Paul’s tuckered me out, so we never made it past Roman times. Luckily the Museum was free.

Then we met up with Mandy’s friend from work and we had dinner at or near Kew Gardens. It was a cute little pub called the Rose and Crown. Definitely good food, and the building – like most in London – had a history behind it.

More a bit later …

A Tale of Two Houses

So two out of three ain’t bad.

I wanted – more than anything – to visit the British Library (a.k.a. Wordgeeks’ Paradise), but I just stopped short of actually heading inside the premises before having to turn around and head down to Canary Wharf to meet a friend.

(That’s what you get when your friends give you a phone you can receive calls on, but can’t make because you have no phone minutes and your phone hasn’t been topped up. Problem later resolved, though.)

However, I did hit the Dickens House Museum over on Doughty Street (after getting lost on foot – surprised?) first. It’s an interesting, if slightly cheesy, place. First I caught a 30-minute video on Dickens’ life. (Well, most of it. This was the cheesy part. And I think I was caught nodding off by this 11-year-old blond girl sitting right next to me. I didn’t look right at her – who needs dirty looks from a tween, anyway?)

Then I took a bit of a self-guided, brochure-free (one pound fifty pence EXTRA for the freakin’ brochure!) tour. Not bad. Saw some objects that inspired his works. Did you know he and his family spent time in debtor’s prison ’cause of his dad? Totally sucks, if not character-building for his literary works. He also apparently had quite the gaggle of lady-friends throughout his life. I even got a photo of the last desk he worked on before his death in 1870 (which I’ll post later).

Compared to Dickens’ residence, Sir John Soane’s Museum may look like a typical nondescript historical home on the outside (it’s actually three adjoining houses), but the inside is another kettle of fish. I went in blind, not knowing who the guy was (one of Britain’s leading architects in the 19th century; responsible for designing the Bank of England), and was actually impressed.

Dude was eccentric. For serious. Mirrors. Tinted yellow glass in the roof. Crazy, beautifully designed domed skylights and ceilings. Artifacts up the yin-yang. Folding walls of paintings with stories. (Oh yes. Folding walls). And oh yeah – there’s a sarcophagus in the basement.

Of course, like most museums, I couldn’t photograph any of the wicked mirrors or skylights, so all I could really get is this lousy picture from outside (above). But that place seriously makes for good photography. If anyone finds a way to sneak a camera in and snap one of those convex mirrors, I’ll be your BFF. Well, maybe not – I’d just think you’re really cool for, like, a week.

Update: Responding to my comment about my friends’ loaner phone. I was being sarcastic and was explaining a brief moment of frustration, which quickly passed.In all seriousness, I am indebted to them for letting me stay with them during this trip and tricking me out with a phone and other things at my disposal while I’ve been here. It’s leaps and bounds more than most people travelling do get. I’m very lucky and I know it.