While there are legitimate concerns out there over the authenticity of cultural cuisines and our American foundation of fast food and franchise chain restaurants, taking what is not ours and spinning for profit–it’s easy to get caught up on what is “real” food and what isn’t. One conversation, however, that I feel myself irked by consistently, is what makes Italian food authentic here in the United States. It’s a fair question, after all, because you’re not likely to find meatballs, Alfredo sauce, garlic bread, or a “Hot Dago”  back in the Old Country of Italy. But there is a distinct difference in what is Italian and what is Italian-American. After all, the cuisines of immigrants who came from Italy was heavily influenced in not only their fellow foreigners and adjacency to other cultural cuisines, but also in being forced to adapt old dishes to new based on the availability of foods in The States at that time. What we have here is a hodgepodge of old Italian with a distinctly American flair. How do you make do without olive oil? Butter up that bread instead and use plenty of garlic. And what do you do when you show up in a country that’s brimming with cows? Pack up those meatballs like your friendly neighborhood Swedes and toss them in the sugo! And, speaking of sauce, pretty much the only kind easily made was red because canned tomatoes were the only thing easily found in markets at the time–until you got to Alfredo sauce. “Who is Alfredo?” Native Italians will ask–well, he was a chef in Rome back in 1914 who made a white sauced based dish that happened to be served with fettuccine noodles that day when two American Silent-Film Stars dined at his restaurant. They loved it so much, they took the recipe back home which became a hit among the elite, solidifying its popularity in Olive Garden’s across the nation after Alfredo’s family later opened a few restaurants showcasing the dish stateside in the 1970’s.  So perhaps you can’t find meatball sub sandwiches in Italy, but these are authentic to and traditional Italian-American foods that were invented right here in the United States due to the unique cultural experiences of Italian immigrants at the time.
And probably nothing more storied to this unique experience of cultural history exists in Minnesota than Cossetta’s Market–a pinnacle of Italian-American cuisine and heritage here in St. Paul.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
That’s a question many people ask one another, especially when first getting to know each other. It goes along with other lofty dreams and ‘get to know you’ questions like if you could be anything in the world, what would it be? Having an answer to these kinds of inquiries are automatically idealized, they have to be, because typically one has never actually lived in that place or worked that dream job to know whether or not it’s something worth even placing on a pedestal to begin with. We fall in love with a picture or in what we imagine life with no worries to be like–to be completely absorbed in the local of our choosing and nothing else. How many people answer Paris or Italy, or on a beach somewhere in Florida, or maybe even Japan? Why do those places seem more desirable than the one you’re living in right now? Likely because those other places feel like a perpetual vacation. They’re new, they’re more interesting, and they are filled with culture and history ripe for exploring.
Old train tracks in Northeast Minneapolis
But while most of us are busy looking across the ocean or horizon for something better, some unknown adventure that supposedly exists somewhere outside of our own per view–all of that could be lying in wait in your own hometown waiting for you to explore and appreciate like any ordinary tourist would.
When I was younger, I used to abhor living in Minnesota. Half of the year is dedicated to being an icebox and the other half is so grossly humid and hot, we’re all begging for a blizzard again. It never made sense to me, why anyone would willingly choose to live here–those exasperated statements more common in the throes of polar vortexes clocking -40 degrees Fahrenheit. I thought it was nothing more than a flyover state, shameless in its midwestern lifestyle and stalks of corn and farmland everywhere. I wanted to be anywhere but here and dreamed of traveling and living among the world–where surely culture and history ran rampant.
Minneapolis lookin’ like a green screen
The first time I left the country, I spent three weeks road tripping through France and Italy. Even though I thought they were lovely countries and have since been back to both, when my flight was about to land and I glimpsed the cityscape of Minneapolis, I started to weep. It was then that I realized, Minnesota all along was actually a wonderful and beautiful place to call home. It had everything I needed right here–It’s a perfectly acceptable place to live with its own plethora of culture and great food, Instagram worthy landscapes–and, of course, history.
Chess & Coffee at Blue Ox Coffee Company
There’s Glensheen mansion in Duluth, our own little Downton Abbey–or wait, is that the James J. Hill house in St. Paul? There’s the North Shore and the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. Stillwater and the rock caves, Bemidji and the legends of friendly giant Paul Bunyan and his blue Ox Babe, Rochester and the Mayo family. Local legends like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan, and Prince–all born and raised here. Their footsteps walkable, their hangs and, in Prince’s case home/studio, all view-able. Our local scene of music, food, coffee, etc. is no joke either. The Twin Cities being an incredibly underrated stomping ground just as worthy of anyone’s attention as Chicago, Houston, Miami, and other major metropolises. Yeah, I said it.
Milwaukee Avenue Historic District
So why am I telling you about how awesome Minnesota is? Because I’d like to show you. Traveling and writing about my experiences abroad is something of a living dream for me–and getting to indulge in history my passion. My next trip won’t be until next Spring, where I’m planning to visit Athens, Greece for the first time–but until then, let me take you on a journey through my home state’s local tourism. If you ever find yourself on this side of the country, I hope I can help show you the very best places to visit when you do!
And, of course, my history posts will still continue as I find time to fit in some good ol’ research on top of it all.
“Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099” Emile Signol (1847)
The 12th century AD was a murderously good time for anyone who was bored and looking for something to go kill in a far away land. Noble youths with unsatiated blood lust who had run out of best friends to kidnap and ransom finally found their calling. When Pope Urban II called for aid to the Byzantine Empire in the form of military ass-whuppery, many of these belligerent teenagers set off to reclaim the territory in Anatolia lost to those rando Seljuq Turks that had seemingly popped up out of nowhere on the world stage. While doing so, they thought–hey man, since we’re already down here and winning, why not shift our fratboy douchebaggery party hoppin’ on over to Jerusalem and just, like, wrestle it out of the hands of those rival Islamic bros and totally blow up their spot? Thus kicking off centuries of The Crusades lobbing that territory back and forth between blood baths and redrawn political landscapes that cause even the most healthy, history of the Middle Ages student a migraine as they attempt to make sense of the disjointed kingdoms and legacies that cropped up as a result.
Eleanor of Aquitaine with dat sass, yo
This was the era of key historical players who are famed for their role in these events. There was the showdown between Richard I the Lionheart and Saladin during the Third Crusade, Frederick Barbarossa was busy harassing the Italian states and making himself Holy Roman Emperor, Eleanor of Aquitaine was retaliating with a decent show of her own “game of thrones”. Genghis Khan was occupied uniting the Mongol tribes and gearing up for a casual, no big deal ride through Asia just to, you know, take in the scenery. The 12th century was rife with so many popes and kings and wars, it’s no wonder people’s imaginations light up when they think of the high middle ages–things were going down.
And so was Henry II of Champagne, incidentally, but he doesn’t know that quite yet.
This time last year, I had the pleasure of witnessing the majesty of Notre-Dame Cathedral for myself–unaware at the time of how startlingly ephemeral this experience would be.
There is a Latin verse from the Middle Ages that goes, Niteris incassum navem submergere Petri / Fluctuat at numquam mergitur illa ratis — “In vain you strive to submerge the ship of Peter / this vessel rocks but is never submerged.” Simplified to Fluctuat nec mergitur — She is rocked by the waves, but does not sink — this motto came to be associated with the city of Paris. From coins, to the coat of arms, the official adoption came at a time during the 19th century when much of the old city was destroyed to make way for new, modern renovations.
And seemingly forever at the epicenter of Paris, the beating heart of Ile de la Cite, stands Notre-Dame Cathedral. This small island is likely where the first building blocks of what would become Paris arose–back when the settlers there were but a small Gallic tribe of ‘Parisii’ embattled with Romans. As the story goes, it was here in the 5th century AD that the patron Saint of Paris, Genevieve, led the city in prayer to save themselves from Attila and his Huns. And later, as the invasions and sieges momentarily cooled–there began the construction of a cathedral that would eventually become Notre-Dame, at the point where all roads in France meet, and where–despite the persistent wars and losses over centuries–it has remained.
“The church of Notre-Dame in Paris is doubtless still a majestic and sublime edifice. But, however beautiful it has remained in growing old, it is difficult to suppress a sigh, to restrain a feeling of indignation at the numberless degradations and mutilations which the hand of time and that of man have inflicted upon this venerable monument…” – Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Ch. 14″
Affectionately known as ‘Our Lady’, Paris saw the beginning of Notre-Dame Cathedral’s construction in the Spring of 1163 AD where both King Louis VII and Pope Alexander III were present for the first stone laying. Maurice de Sully, the Bishop of Paris, was eager to oversee the building of a grand church set in the new style of Gothic–but he would not live to see its completion. It would take another 200 years or so for that day to come.
And since then, Notre-Dame Cathedral has looked upon more than 850 years of history–some good and some bad–all while standing resilient, never sinking. Even before construction was finished, France saw the breakout of The Hundred Year’s War where the Plantagenet kings of England saw the kingdom of France as their rightful claim, having been decedents of Norman kings, when Charles IV of France died without heirs. During the course of this 116 years of conflict, France saw many victories and many defeats against the English crown. One of the famous heroes of these events was Joan of Arc, who bolstered French morale after aiding in the siege of Orleans and ultimately helped lead to France’s inevitable victory in the war. After being captured by the English and summarily executed, Joan of Arc was later beatified in 1909 by Pope Pius X at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris where a statue bearing her likeness resides. There was the French Wars of Religion which led to the riots of the Huguenots in the 16th century, a band of Protestants in opposition to the Catholic Church, who committed iconoclasm upon many of the statues of Notre-Dame. The Black Death swept through Paris repeatedly, coming in waves of plague through the ages, a particularly brutal one occurring between the 16th-17th centuries which likely saw many Parisians finding solace and seeking salvation within the church walls. The long and prosperous reigns of both “The Sun King” Louis XIV and his son Louis XV saw the removal of original stained glass windows in favor of white glass which would bring more light within Notre-Dame along with many other internal altercations more congruent with their period’s style. The iconic spire, which many of us watched helpless and aghast fall to yesterday’s flames, was not even the original–this had been previously removed after having been wind damaged.
Lighting a candle for my dear Joan.
Notre-Dame Cathedral also bore witness to the French Revolution in the late-18th century and saw itself, along with the monarchy, become a target of the new Republic. It became temporarily the house of the Cult of Reason and was plundered of its treasures and had many of its religious iconography destroyed–statues of biblical kings beheaded by the guillotine like French monarchs. It became nothing more than a beautiful, Gothic warehouse for food until Napoleon Bonaparte liberated and restored it as a church–holding his coronation as Emperor of France there in 1804. But by the time of Victor Hugo, the cathedral was largely in disrepair and rapidly decaying–prompting Hugo to feature this relic of Paris in his novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The popularity of this book brought with it renewed love and attention, prompting King Louis Philippe to order Notre-Dame’s immediate restoration with the help of renowned architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. They re-created much of the sculptures and glass that had been previously lost and were responsible for the reconstruction of the spire, which will undoubtedly be remade again after yesterday’s tragedy. Notre-Dame Cathedral was also there for both World Wars, the second which saw France fall to Germany in 1940. It was the liberation of Paris in 1944 where Notre-Dame took a few literal bullets for its people.
And yet, Notre-Dame Cathedral has remained through all of these events, housing treasures such as the Crown of Thorns, a piece of the True Cross, and a nail from the crucifixion. Relics from St. Denis, St. Genevieve, and the tunic of St. Louis. All irreplaceable and at least the Crown of Thorns and St. Louis’ tunic confirmed to be saved from yesterday’s fire. The Rose Windows, breathtaking feats of stained glass from the 13th century are remarkably said to have been saved from complete destruction along with the Great Pipe Organ. Though the catastrophe of the fire has yet to be fully assessed, there is some solace to be found in that Notre-Dame Cathedral is still standing and the people of Paris and the world with it.
I, too, watched in anguish yesterday as the fire ate away at the cathedral–scared of what could have possibly been the complete destruction of a monument of world heritage and history, and dismayed at how helpless I felt in those moments. I’m not naive enough to think that anything lasts forever and it can certainly not be the case with history–but I am relieved that the greatest tragedy has been averted and that is in forgetting Notre-Dame Cathedral existed at all. So many things in history have been inexplicably lost to us forever, both in physical wonder like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the Colossus of Rhodes, or in lack of memory such as to the contents of the Library of Alexandria–but Notre-Dame will not be forgotten and certainly not after today. Watching the world stand up and cherish what this cathedral means to the arresting spirit of humanity and our desire to build on beauty, or the solidarity of Parisians as they came together to sing hours worth of hymns and to aid in the saving of artworks and relics from inside, the motto of Paris chimes particularly loud today while the bells of Notre-Dame Cathedral take their momentary rest:
She is rocked by the waves, but she does not sink.
Today is our last full day in Italy before we head back to the frozen tundra we stubbornly call home. As Venice is a beautiful, seaside city we wanted to soak up as much sunshine as we could.
But first, we ducked in to visit The Doge’s Palace not far from our hotel to start our day. The palace was built to house not only the Doge but the entire government–filled with senate and judicial chambers as well as a frighteningly cold prison.
The palace was also hosting a temporary exhibition featuring paintings and artwork from Venetian painter Canaletto as well as others. Canaletto was most famous for his stunning portraiture of Venice, so it was pretty cool to see what the city used to look like back in the 18th century compared to today.
Old Venice from Canaletto
New Venice, still pretty though!
We also got to view the palace’s extensive collection of armory and weaponry–I’ve honestly never seen so many swords, axes, and crossbows in one place before and I am a frequent player of video games.
It was time now to visit the prison. The excited feeling I had of momentarily stepping into a real life Pirates of the Caribbean quickly vanished as I realized how truly miserable these dungeons were. They were dank, cold, and lifeless. No window, no nothing–really. They were stone chambers reminiscent of Edmund Dantes’ vacation in Chateau d’If. Knowing that was to be one’s punishment upon misbehaving, I can’t understand why anyone would even bother.
After touring the palace, we thought we’d go island hopping for a bit. It was a gorgeous day out, despite the chilly breeze, and the piazza was otherwise packed with tourists. Before we caught our boat, we witnessed an irate Gondola driver chewing out two people who had just ridden with him–apparently they talked too much!
My mother was most excited to visit the island of Murano so that she could browse the glass shops. She was also hoping we could find a factory and see how it was made–my mom usually gets what she wants, so the universe answered in kind. Here’s a demonstration from a glass blower making a sculpture in 1-minute!
After cruising around the islands in the sun for awhile, I wanted to warm back up with my coffee from Caffe’ Florian. Casanova used to hang around there in particular because that’s where all the pretty ladies in Venice used to go–so I thought my mom and I better sit inside this time!
Chicken salad sandwich with Florian sauce!
The rest of our time in Venice was spent walking around and trying to commit the city to our memory forever. It really is a beautiful city and I’ve heard negative things about it from some people who insisted it smelled–honestly, I didn’t get that all. Though I had the impression we were visiting in the off-season and perhaps things don’t get as funk when it’s not summer time! Needless to say, Venice did not disappoint–I’d definitely love to come back again some day and explore!
Closing out the night, we visited a highly rated restaurant called Bistrot de Venice which specializes in showcasing traditional Venetian cuisines. I ordered Pasta & Goose, which includes pinenuts, raisins, goose sauce, rosemary, and sage. It’s a traditional dish born from the Jewish Ghetto in Venice around the 16th century.
They gave us these for desert!
It’s now time for me to head home–Italy will surely be missed. I know I’ll be back again soon someday, however. Thanks for following along with my adventures and I hope you stick around on my blog and continue to follow along with my adventures delving into various history topics–always with a good sense of humor, of course!
Ah, Venezia. Routinely named one of the most beautiful cities in the entire world and, from a historical standpoint, a consistent maritime trouble-maker. This little city filled with canals, gondolas, and a raging Carnivale was the birthplace and stomping ground of a lot of famous figures including explorer Marco Polo, composer Antonio Vivaldi, and Giacomo Casanova–a man not easily summed up in one noun.
Most of what I know of Venice had to do with their dastardly deed’s during the 4th Crusade in the 13th century when Enrico Dandolo was the doge. Crusading was the thing to do in this era, and when another bout of armies appeared in Venice with the intention of once again trying to wrestle for control over the holy site of Jerusalem–the Venetians commandeered The Crusading forces and convinced them to attack Zara, a rival and pirate port. Then, Enrico took a bribe from a grouchy son of a deposed emperor to overthrow his uncle, and the gang thus went ahead and sacked Constantinople too for giggles and moneys –all the while Pope Innocent III was shrieking alone in Rome like OH MY GOD THAT’S NOT WHAT I SAID!
Today, however, Venice appears a lot more calm and is bustling with tourists rather than wanna-be knights.
First thing we did after taking a water taxi through the Grand Canal and navigating our way through narrow streets to our hotel, was visit the Piazza San Marco which we are staying about a 2-minute walk away from. Looming over the plaza is St. Mark’s Basilica, which we were able to go inside to tour. Like with other religious sites we’ve visited in Italy before, photos and cell phones weren’t allowed. There are certainly many people who break these rules and I cringe whenever I see them doing it, even if they don’t get caught. I understand that we are all tourists, but there is something extra gross about running around a church which explicitly discourages photos and then trying to waltz around areas where only those intending to pray are allowed. Either way, I was able to take in the basilica and it’s decidedly Byzantine aesthetic–the inside was covered head to toe with golden mosaics you’ll have to simply dream about (or do a Google Image search in the hopes of one of those rule breakers having posted them, I guess). Also, the basilica houses the relics of St. Mark. I sure do love me some relics and doing a Histastrophe post on them one day is still on my extensive backlog list of ‘to-dos’.
Also to be found in the same area is a place I’ve been excited to visit for year’s as a coffee connoisseur–the world’s oldest coffeehouse, Caffe’ Florian!
Built in 1720, (It’s older than the United States of America, yo!) Caffe’ Florian became the coffee hangout spot of Casanova, Lord Byron, Proust, and even Charles Dickens. I’ve always wanted to sit at these tables and sip a coffee–hoping to catch even a little bit of the inspiration these guys had!
I went with hot chocolate today—coffee tomorrow!
While we were sitting on the patio at Caffe’ Florian, enjoying a violin and piano concerto, a sudden storm cloud blew threw and high winds with rain ended up cascading through the piazza, scattering everyone–including the merchants! We had flirted with the idea of taking a boat ride to Murano island today but had opted to save that for tomorrow and we were glad we did! With the now rainy and chilly night ahead of us, we decided to rough it out as much as we could walking the cobbled streets and grabbing dinner at a nearby pizzeria.
Most of the shops we encountered were tourist traps with the same repeating souvenirs everywhere you looked and redundant leather shops carrying similar stock. I started to understand pretty quickly why local Venetians hate tourists so much. I understand the appeal of souvenirs, but when literally every shop carries them–there is little in the way of the actual history and culture of Venice present. I want to see how the Venetians live, but I’m starting to realize perhaps they don’t even exist in these areas which is even sadder to me.
We did walk by a few residential places, which from what we’ve heard, is extremely expensive on this island–but the only indication of life seemed to be small boats tied up in the Canal with personalized decals like one we saw with the caped crusader, Batman.
Perfectly golden espresso for dessert!
Tomorrow, we have plan’s to visit the Doge’s palace and hop on a boat to explore the islands!
Today is our last day in Florence and I think we’re all good and stuffed with Art History now! We started our day with the usual espresso (make that like 4 espresso) and croissant while we planned our attack route of as much of Florence as we could squeeze in. One of the first places we wanted to hit up today was the Piazzale de Michaelangelo so we could get our panoramic view of the city. It was fairly quiet today as it was in the low 60’s and overcast with wind–didn’t seem like many people were up for venturing out. To us, we knew it could be way, way worse outside (like -50 degrees worse, Hi Minnesota) so we made it work. We were able to take in the view without much interruption from other fellow tourists.
Next, we took a tour bus up to visit the site of Fiesole–now a spot up in the hills overlooking Florence with tons of villas I’d kill to own one day. Back in yesteryears, however, Fiesole used to be a sassy little Etruscan stronghold that struggled to resist the Romans as long as it could, getting sacked and razed by those imperial scoundrels and then again by the Byzantines and lastly by Florence itself, which squashed Fiesole into submission and used it as a quarry. The site still consists of well preserved Roman ruins, especially an amphitheater, but our tour bus only stopped and allowed us 20 minutes to get off–a laughably short time just long enough to find a bathroom and walk back.
Here is the main Piazza Mino though
It was pretty cold up in the mountains anyway and we were starting to eye up those Firenze scarves every kiosk was selling, so we didn’t exactly mind heading back down and off to our next stop. Before we met up at the Pitti Palace, we grabbed an Italian style hotdog for lunch.
Okay, now THIS is the best hot dog I’ve ever had
Now on to the Pitti Palace (still free–I love Cultural Week), the largest museum in Florence. It’s a Renaissance building that was originally constructed (mostly) by a fellow banker and friend of The Medici, Luca Pitti. After he died before it had been completed, one of his descendants Eleanora and wife to Grand Duke Cosimo I de’Medici (Descendent from Lorenzo “the Magnificent” Medici on his mother’s side and Caterina Sfroza on his father’s–fanning myself here.) took over the palace.
Cosimo of really cool genes
The Medici Family eventually all moved in and expanded the structure as well as including the Boboli Gardens which you can catch a small glimpse of below:
Once all The Medici died out, the palace passed to the Hapsburg-Lorraine line and became Holy Roman Emperor Francis I’s new treasure trove. Things got fun for a bit when Napoleon showed up, and then it eventually fell into the hands of the Savoy House and was finally donated to Florence by King Victor Emmanuel III where it is now an art museum, costume gallery/fashion exhibit, treasure room, and royal apartment wing.
I need to own every single one of these
Medici Coffer—I imagine it held a lot of moolah
By the time we managed to claw our way out of exhibits of animal-inspired dresses by famous fashion designers, rooms filled with with all kinds of treasures I started to feel like Aladdin in the Cave of Wonders, and rooms lined with paintings entirely reminiscent of Versailles–we realized we were losing daylight fast. We knew we had just enough time to make one more stop, the big one in Florence.
On our way, we crossed the Ponte Vecchio–the oldest bridge in Florence supposedly first built during Roman times and rebuilt subsequently after continuous flooding when the Arno kept destroying it. It’s extremely cool to walk along the merchant shops and see the clearly Medieval influence in their build. Most of the shops were jewelers or gold sellers so we spent a considerable amount of time gawking at the displays wishing that we were Medici so that we could be able to afford such purchases and start our own treasure room back home!
And finally, we found him:
On the menu for dinner tonight was the Bistecca Florentine, a cuisine speciality. It was amazingly juicy and the sear was perfection–I’m definitely down with steak the Florence way. It came with a salad which consisted of fresh tomato, artichoke, corn, and olives and I have honestly never had better. We also had Tuscan bread dipped in olive oil but that goes without saying.
The first thing one notices when stepping off the train tracks and into Florence is that it is quite a bit more young looking than Rome. I have to say, it took me a bit to re-adjust to the era change like I similarly do when I’m in a specific History headspace when writing–I found myself yearning for those crumbling ancient ruins and was mildly resentful that I couldn’t keep enjoying my petty Roman Emperors and the marks of their shenanigans all over Rome. But, of course, Florence is every bit as magical in its own way.
The city was made famous by a handful of powerful figures–a few of them having been a part of the House of Medici, the noble and influential family which held sway in Florence for centuries. They were bankers and became wealthy enough to exert their control in governance. While ruling Florence, they also spent their exuberant wealth on the arts, becoming the prime patrons of some of the most famous artists of the Italian Renaissance. This included the likes of Michaelangelo, Raphael, Donatello, and Leonardo da Vinci–so thanks a lot, guys! Florence is also the city of famous scientist and astronomer, Galileo Galilei, as well as noted writer Dante Alighieri of The Inferno. And let us not also forget our often misrepresented and criminally referenced Niccolo Machiavelli of The Prince fame. It is readily accepted that because of these later two,among other works of the era, the Florentine dialect became what we know of today as Italian. Okay, add birthplace of the modern Italian language to Florence’s moniker too, I guess.
Since half of our day was spent traveling to Florence, we missed out on a large portion of touring time and opted to jump in immediately with all of the above historical figures by paying them a visit at the Basilica of Santa Croce where most of these famous men are entombed.
Galileo G—darnit, now Bohemian Rhapsody is stuck in my head.
Machiavelli, being so much less flashy
Similar to the feeling I had when walking among the catacombs of the Vatican, I could feel an energy in this room too–but instead of power, I felt the weight and force of creativity each of these men possessed–be it in writing, painting/sculpting, scientific discoveries, or political pursuits. I felt minuscule in a much different way, with that sense of having not quite accomplished enough in my own passions to be able to stand confidently among them. The rest of the intrigue for Santa Croce is in its museums and religious paintings!
Reconstructed after the Arno flooded in 1966 and damaged the painting to what looked like beyond repair
After we were finished paying a visit to some of Florence’s most famous residents, we decided to try free walking it to the Doumo since we could see it poking out above the buildings. On the way, we learned that the Museo Nazionale del Bargello was still open for another hour, so we stopped in quick (it’s still free!) We learned after the fact that the Bargello used to be a prison and that many executions were carried out in the courtyard. The same courtyard I flounced around in with my camera with a merry smile on my face because I assumed it was some stuffy rich guy’s Medieval castle.
Nope, deaths happened here
Today it is an art museum and houses sculptures from Michaelangelo, Donatello, Cellini, Bernini, and Verrocchio. I’m not very good about taking pictures of artwork, preferring to enjoy them in person as much as I can–but I am nothing if not predictable, and I couldn’t leave without recording these:
This bust of Michaelangelo will serve as a stern reminder to get writing when I am feeling extra procrastinate-y
By the time we made it to The Duomo it was getting dark and we just missed seeing the Statue of David by a few minutes. We’ll try and catch him again tomorrow.
Oh, and of course, on the menu for today:
There is espresso under here I promise!
Melon and prosciutto, my fave
For tomorrow, we continue with another day in Florence where we will attempt to tackle David, seek out the Medici, and find me some ruins to explore!
Today is the day we force my mother to atone for her sins which include waking my brother and I up for school by turning on the lights and leaving them on for over 10 years and for never understanding any of our obscure movie references. My mom always likes to say she is a good Catholic girl (I’m laughing along with the rest of you who know her well, don’t worry) so it was particularly exciting to continue her pilgrimage from last year where she received mass at Notre Dame to stepping into the Vatican itself–the holy capital of the Catholic Church and residence of the Pope.
We took an Uber since it looked like a bit too much of a walk to the Vatican City first thing in the morning sans coffee, so we enjoyed a pleasant little ride with our driver who told us about Queen Margherita when we passed the US Embassy. The location used to be the residence of her and her husband King Umberto according to our driver, and the famous margherita pizza was named after her because she had requested pizza in the colors of the Italian flag–basil, mozzarella, and tomato sauce. How true this is, I’m not exactly sure–but it certainly sounded cool to hear on International Women’s Day!
We planned in advance and booked a skip the line guided tour which we were very thankful for having done, because even though we are not visiting during the peak season (which we heard can see up to 28,000 people in one day–yikes) it was still very busy and the lines outside were incredibly long. Before getting started, however, we quickly filled up with a quick breakfast Italian style–espresso and a hazelnut croissant!
Our tour guide for the Vatican was a stylish and sassy Italian woman named Alessandra who is everything I want to be in the next 20 years. She got a degree in history and spends her free time leading tourists through a whirlwind romp of the Vatican museums cracking jokes and dishing on the sex lives of Raphael and Cleopatra to name a few, stopping for 10 minute espresso breaks, dodging Sistine Chapels guards so she can break the silence rules like a devil-may-care rebel, and topping the whole tour off by waving us into the Vatican so she could go get herself a bottle of wine. She’s my new role model. I need to get my dual-Italian citizenship so I can live that kind of hardcore history life.
Once inside, there is a fountain with fresh spring water that has been blessed by Pope Francis himself. I took a drink hoping to gain immortality or something, so that remains to be seen if it worked or not. See you in the year always and forever.
Next we toured around in the Vactican museums, ogling Medieval paintings with lapis lazuli and getting a crash course in refresher Christian history. Alessandra routinely opened the floor to questions to see if any of us knew the answers, and I got to show off a little if any of it overlapped with any prior knowledge I already had like why Peter was crucified (he wasn’t Roman, Caracalla was a douche and a half but at least he made everyone Roman and thus rendering crucification moot) or why he was buried upside down (because he didn’t believe he was worthy to die in the same way Jesus did, especially given that he had denied him). Or what led Constantine the Great to converting himself and subsequently the Roman Empire to Christianity (he had a vision, yo!). Other new tidbits we learned, however, included poor San Lorenzo who was executed via BBQ and is now the patron saint of cooks–but hey at least he gets to live on in eternity in paintings sporting a halo and the very grill that killed him.
Then we walked through the cartography room which was positively my favorite–I’ve always been a huge fan of maps, especially ones which have been painted to take up entire walls, and can easily spend hours inspecting every detail and location. My brain likes to visualize historical events by points of interest as well, so looking at a huge map for more than 10 minutes ends up turning into a History of the World for me. If there wasn’t tons of people packed along the halls and Alessandra wasn’t also eager to get her afternoon espresso dose, I could have spent all day there. Essentially, every region of the Italian Papal States and their territories were represented on those walls with a compass–and served as an early precursor to Google Maps.
My family hails from the Calabrian region!
Next, we made our way to the Sistine Chapel–the legendary commission of Michaelangelo which served as a back and forth headache between the church and artist integrity. Michaelangelo wasn’t about to go into that forced modesty thing and put any fig leaves over any private parts, and there is certainly many of that to go around in the chapel–which, unfortunately, I can’t show you. No pictures are allowed to be taken–which didn’t stop people from trying and prompted Alessandra to bark at them to cut it out and to not use flash because it can damage the art work (Seriously, she’s a hero). Suffice it to say, the Sistine Chapel is an experience everyone should have at one point in their life and I am unable to show you any of it here so you better get out there and make plans to see it for yourself!
The Holy Door, only opened during Jubilee. Pilgrims are able to wash away their sins when opened but otherwise the portal on the other side is encased in cement which can only be broken by the Pope.
We had to say goodbye to Alessandra (wine awaited, I understand) and so we headed on into the church of the Vatican and–holy opulence–the place is so massive and so grand, I definitely understood how different Christian sects in history rose up and started to complain about that (more on that later).
After I was done staring slack-jawed at the altar, we turned around and headed into the catacombs where we could spot the tomb of Peter (THE Peter, you know, Jesus’ numbero uno bro supreme, The Rock, the first Pope, etc. etc.) That was a wild experience. Unfortunately, another instance where pictures were absolutely not allowed but I will forever have his tomb seared into my brain. Among the catacombs are many other great Popes as well, the whole place felt like it was teeming with power and historical remanence.
Here is a small part of Peter’s Tomb from top level!
After looking at all those centuries old dead guys, we got super hungry and had to stop for a quick lunch before hitting Rome up again and chasing down the remainder of The Forums.
Artichoke the Rome way!
I’m a baptized Catholic but I eat meat on Friday’s during lent, whoops!
By the time we got to The Forums it was 5pm our time and they were unfortunately closed. Bummersville. We decided to walk up the small portion that happened to still be open and free and that’s when I started to notice the Stations of the Cross as we walked and realized, “We’re not in Ancient Rome anymore.”
At the top of the Palatine Hill is a church dedicated to Bonaventura–a Franciscan and philosopher–as well as a monastery where another famous Saint Leonard of Port Maurice resided. As with all things unplanned, we stumbled upon this little church and happened into a small, intimate tour with a volunteer who was excited to show us around the church and tell us more about its history. We learned that Saint Leonard was responsible for saving the Colosseum from further destruction when he consecrated it as a church. There is a glass mosaic dedicated to this event inside the chapel as well as a holy relic of Bonaventura himself. We were able to go inside and tour a little bit of the church itself and see where the friars who still live there today hang out.
Franciscans may live modestly, but I’m pretty sure they have the best view of them all. I might have to give up my dream of becoming Alessandra one day and instead live the life of a tranquil friar in Rome.
Tiber River feels
In fact, I thought a lot about what it would be like to live here–what it must feel like to walk into a building called home with old, chiseled Latin in the doorframe. To start the day with a morning jog around the Circus Maximus, or to drink espresso with book in hand on a rooftop garden overlooking a piazza below. What does it feel like to walk down a street every day and witness the time lapse of multiple centuries down a single block?
Circus Maximus with The Forum backdrop
Before getting dinner and tucking in for the night where we’ll head to Florence in the morning, we tried to visit the Mouth of Truth but suffered the same problem as The Forum. It was closed. Apparently, Truth only has a certain window of time to be evaluated. Either way, I blame Audrey Hepburn for this somehow.
For dinner, we feasted on linguine with seafood and lobster–look at this insanity!
And finished it off with delicious tiramisu from Pompi!
I’m seriously contemplating hanging it all up and staying here forever, guys, just so I can eat tiramisu and gelato for eternity and bask in the glory of Roman History.
3 days was certainly not enough, but hey–Florence awaits!
Today is a brand new day in Rome and I woke up determined to tackle as much as I could. Unfortunately, my dad didn’t feel like getting up for another few hours–my mom likes to say this is because “he’s old.” We eventually made our way without a cornetto and cafe’–too late in the day now to justify ordering one as lunch menus were being put out on the sidewalk instead. We decided to try and continue our tour of the Palatine Hill area where we left off at the Colosseum yesterday. We made the mistake of wandering into The Forum with our ticket while still on empty stomachs, and I put in a very hangry mile before I insisted we stop and eat something instead. We’ll be back to The Forum to finish it out tomorrow–it’s all free!
Among the ruins of aqueducts and living quarters lies the ancient seat of the Roman Empire. The Senate and birth of The Republic resided here too as well as temples built during the old kingdom (including the remnants of the Vestal Virgin house where the women inside were tasked with keeping the flame of Rome lit). We managed to spot the Circus Maximus from afar–picture chariot races and, well, mass Christian persecutions because Nero is a terrible person.
With my tummy grumbling, it was 2pm when we finally made it back up to living civilization and turned off on the corner to visit Angelino–a restaurant I had the pleasure of experiencing the last time I was in Rome. We grabbed a table outside on the terrace where we could look out at more remains of the old Forum as we ate. We ordered a specialty ‘Angelino’ antipasti for the table and I got myself a plate of Cacio e Pepe as I’m determined to make my way through dishes of Roman cuisine!
Oh, and since it is technically winter here in Rome (but as I reside in the polar vortex of Minnesota, I find this distinction laughable) we were told to get hot chocolate here as the Italian version is much better than anything we have back home in America. And, I’ll say right now having tried some in Rome, much better than Angelina’s in Paris (which was fantastic too) but this stuff is no joke.
With pasta and chocolate in my belly, my body was able to momentarily forget that I hadn’t had the required 5 cups of coffee I typically consume in the morning to start my day, and we were on our way again!
Since we had the evening free, I proposed a small walking touring to some other historical spots not far from our hotel before we ate some more. (Most of the day spent in Rome seems to be dedicated to killing time before the next meal here because the food IS SO GOOD. 😘👌🏼) I took us back through the alley past the Trevi Fountain and off in the direction I thought The Pantheon to be located.
It wasn’t far before the telltale sign of Corinthian columns jutting up to the sky confirmed that we had stumbled upon Hadrian’s other famous contribution to Roman history aside from his walls in the UK to his deification of boytoy Antinous–The Pantheon. It’s a Roman Temple which was built over a much older one that had presumably been destroyed in a fire and was filled with statues of the Roman gods–supposedly dedicated to all of them which is highly unusual if true, as most temples had a single deity to worship to at the time. Much more of a personal touch assured to be more successful if you’re begging Mars specifically to come down and gut your neighbor Vinnius for eating up all your garum sauce.
Inside, however, The Pantheon is much different than what the old Romans had been used to. Sometime in the 7th century, the Byzantine Emperor gave it away to the Pope in Rome at the time and he converted it into a church. Now you can find crucifixes and altars inside as well as other Christian iconography. Victor Emmanuel, the first king of a unified Italy, is also entombed inside.
Also on the list of Classical Roman things that have since been turned into Christian churches are the remains of the bathhouse of Emperor Nero. I had them marked on my map and when we walked by them, I got a good long chuckle when I saw what had eventually become of them. There is a great irony here for a man who had once blamed the fires in Rome and summarily executed a group of people who now had the sweetest revenge on his legacy–building a church on what little remained of his bathhouse ruins. Now we were on the hunt for dinner and famous gelato (another recommendation from Ileana!)
Pasquino, a talking statue in Rome. Tradition is to attach criticisms at its base (nor there is a board next to it to leave notes). I had a lot of catching up to do…
Not far from the statue was a restaurant we were all but ushered into by the friendly servers, and I was finally able to try some fried artichoke the Jewish way and chicken Saltimbocca the Roman way!
And last but not least, some gelato from Frigidarium. The greatest tragedy yet is knowing that nothing like it exists even remarkably similar to it back home.
Underneath this heavenly mound of chocolate (which Rome appears to have in plenty supply) are cherries and white chocolate and fudge and…
Alright, now to fall into the blissful tranquility of a sugary coma. Tomorrow, we see if my mother says a naughty word at The Vatican like she “accidentally” managed at Notre Dame.