Venice Day 2: So “Doge”alicious

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!

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Glass blowing demonstration in Murano! ❤️

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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!

Venice Day 1: Heard You Like Canals, So I Put a Canal in Your Canal

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.

Carbonara pizza

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!

Florence Day 2: Mo’ Money, Mo’ Medici

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.

Young Michaelangelo

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:

some guy

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.

This goes without saying too

Tomorrow we hit the canals, see you in Venice!

Florence Day 1: Birth of the Italian Renaissance

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.

Disco Inferno

Michaelangelo

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!

A holy relic of St. Francis of Assisi!

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

All about that Alexander the Great, I’m so me

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

Spaghetti bolognese

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!

A domani!

Roma Day 3: Holy History & Catholicism, Batman!

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.

#BigMood

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.

Pretty sure this cat is a descendant from the ones Cleopatra brought back and introduced to Rome for her boyfriend Julius Caesar. Leave the jokes at home, please.

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!

Roma Day 2: Nero is a Great Big Jerk

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.

This is what heaven tastes like. Francis will surely back me up on this tomorrow, I’ll ask.

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.

Buonanotte!

Roma Day 1: Espresso, per favore?!

I have a tendency to weep over beautiful things. If I happen to witness a tender moment between two people who love each other–be it family or partners–I’ll get choked up. The same thing happens to me when that Warner Brother’s logo zooms in among fog and John William’s Hedwig theme starts playing. Crying over things that deserve our appreciation is nothing new to me it would seem, so it should have come at no surprise to anyone that I began tearing up the moment our plane from JFK finally touched down in Rome. Or that when I first got to stand in the open air outside, a beautifully sunny 65+ degrees with the smell of Spring in the air, I wanted to hold my mother and cry tears of joy. And, of course, the moment our taxi driver took us through and under the first walls of Rome my eyes started brimming–because I knew I was back again.

Everything here is Art

Two years ago, I barely got to see Rome and it broke my heart ever since. I remedied a similar circumstance with Paris just this last year with my mother in tow and wanted to do the same this time around as well. My father overheard our plans to visit Rome, Florence, and Venice, however, and decided that he wanted to be apart of it as well–to see the things of the Roman Empire and to stand at the Colosseum where gladiators once stood. I’ve been versed in the history of Rome since I was a child thanks to my father’s general interest while growing up, so a part of me thought it only right that he should get to see these things with me too.

Our hotel in Rome is pretty darn swanky

First things first, after finding our way to our hotel courtesy of our lovely taxi driver Luca (my mother made sure to loudly proclaim how cute she thought he was. Don’t worry, we’re sending her to Francis on Friday to atone for her brazenness), we decided to check out a restaurant he recommended to us as having the best pasta in all of Rome–Brazilai Bistrot. Now, we were running on precisely two hours of sleep and had been awake for more than 24+ hours at this point so we were also determined to cram in as much as we could along the way to help stay awake. Before we got ourselves all full and fed, we took a quick stop to say hello to my old friend the Trevi Fountain. I tossed a coin in last time I was in Rome, so I wanted to make sure to let it know that I held up my end of the bargaining fortune.

Afterwards, we started the long walk to our food coma destination. Since our hotel is located in such a prime location here in Rome, I thought we should try to walk everywhere as much as we could. I’m an idiot though and I resented myself pretty quickly into the walk when I was reminded of how exhausted I was from traveling, but we trekked on somehow. Stumbling into the restaurant after a good half hour of shuffling our way around cobbled streets and trying not to pass out, we took a seat and were immediately recognized for the tourists we are! I was determined to practice the Italian I’ve been learning these past few months though and asked if I could try in Italian when our server spoke to us in English. We proceeded to have the rest of our ordering conversation in Italian, so I hope I made my favorite Roman and teacher Ileana proud!

Amatriciana sauce in Rome!

Good and wined, it was hard to miss the lure of the Colosseum poking out and waving at us from down the street after existing our restaurant, so we decided to go pay the Flavian Amphitheater a visit too. We learned from our family in Italy that this whole week is Cultural Week–which means every museum is free except The Vatican. We figured the Colosseum would be insanely busy, especially considering the timing when we decided to stroll up (2 hours before close? Nah maaaan). But even though we weren’t intending on going in for a tour today, we ended up running into a guide who was able to help us skip the line (which was disgustingly long and stuck at over capacity). We figured we had all that pasta to walk off anyway so we went along with his group and decided to do the Colosseum, despite how sleep deprived we were feeling.

I ended up not taking many pictures inside because it was so busy in there with people and I was too distracted listening to our tour guide, but a lot of it was under renovation anyway (which is awesome!). I’ll have to do a proper write-up of the Colosseum some day, but suffice it to say–I thought our guide did a fantastic job bad mouthing the inaccuracies of the movie Gladiator. And I wasn’t about to pick a fight with him when he said the Roman Empire collapsed with the sacking of Rome (though the Eastern half was just fine with Constantinople kicking, k thanks) All in all, it was a good nerdy time.

Lastly, I stuffed my face with pizza and more wine which helped a little bit but now I really need to sleep for like 10 hours so I’ll let you all know how tomorrow goes!

On the Agenda: Lots of Gelato!

A domani!

Tomato or Tomato?

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Tomatoes are NOT native to the Mediterranean despite what some pasta-loving purists may believe.

The tomato is actually native to the South American Andes where it was first cultivated around 500 c. BC and later became a prominent food source for the Aztecs in Mexico which means salsa pre-dated marinara, folks!

The Italians didn’t first see what they would later call, “The Golden Apple” (Pomodoro!) until around the 16th century, when it was thought that the Spanish (Possibly Hernan Cortez) brought it over from the new world. The first mention of this exotic vegetable (or fruit. Have we ever settled on this?) in Italy was by a physician and botanist in 1544 named Pietro who mistook it for an eggplant, who, given his profession, should probably have quit his day job.

The reputation of the tomato didn’t fair any better after this, being assumed as poisonous due to its variety of bright colors. But, given that this was during the hay day of the Renaissance and poisoning was the preferred method of anyone trying to play a decent joke or a murder or ten, the caution was probably substantiated.

Eventually though, a recipe book showed up in Naples in the 17th century detailing how to cook with the apple/eggplant thing and the rest is history, where the tomato will eventually feature in pizzas, pastas, and bad stand-up comedy shows for centuries to come.

8 Things I Learned While Traveling in Italy!

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I’ve always been proud of my family heritage. Since I was young, I delighted in being asked whether or not my family once had ties to the Mafia (they did) or how many times we ate spaghetti and meatballs in a given week (a lot). I’d throw around my grandfather’s old slang (like ‘Bacowzoo [sp?]’ which meant bathroom) like a badge of honor and claim the achievements (and embarrassments) of the Roman Empire in my historical comparison discussions on who was more badass. As far as I was concerned, I was Italian and presumably more authentic than Olive Garden.

I was so very very wrong.

You’re Not Italian; You’re AMERICAN!

Surprisingly, no one was really impressed with the story of how my great grandfather came to America with a potato in each shoe and a grape stem in his sock–not when there are literally native Italians everywhere. What makes you feel special in America because you’re one of maybe 15 million is inconsequential in Italy. Fact is, your family LEFT and even if you still have some that stayed behind like me, you’re more different than you are similar. As an Italian-American in Italy, don’t be surprised when no one understands your Italian or when locals can smell the tatertot hotdish on you and immediately try speaking to you in English. They’ll ask you about George Clooney as if he’s your next door neighbor and offer you a spoon (which is uncustomary to an actual Italian) to eat with your pasta because you seemed to be suffering with your fork twirl. They’ll hastily explain away that you’re an American when you embarrassingly order the same flavor scoop for your double gelato and they’ll giggle at you when you knock back your first Italian Digestive like a fool assuming it’ll go down as smooth as Pepto. And you know what? That’s okay. Going to Italy as an Italian-American is your chance to learn about the culture your family left behind and realize that, in its absence, you’ve created and reclaimed your own back home–one built on meatballs and tommy guns, Rocky Balboa and wooden spoon beatings, “gabagool” and Cesar salads. Own it.

“It’s Not Dinner Unless There is Pork on the Table!”

I thought the worship of bacon was an exclusively American concept but I’d be willing to wager that Italians love their pig more than we do. If you don’t believe me, let’s take a second to run down the list…prosciutto, capicola, cacciatore, soppressata, guanciale, spalla, bologna, panchetta, speck, culatello, salt pork, etc. You’d be hard pressed to find a menu or a table that didn’t have pork included–in fact, I’d say it was the meat of choice for most dishes and pasta (and even fruit!). It’s hanging everywhere in the market, it’s in nearly every sandwich, and most rural areas you can smell it wafting among the streets as if there was a little piggie walking right next to you.

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Do You Speak Inglese?

Don’t go to Italy assuming everyone speaks English–they don’t. We were lucky to run across a number of helpful folks who could speak a little, but it was mostly trying to figure out which words we knew in each other’s respective language in order to construct a sentence the other could understand. Most waiters and waitresses in high tourist cities can speak enough to provide you with excellent service but please don’t try to order an American alcoholic beverage like my travel companions did and try to explain to them, in English, how to make it. Things descend into confusion fairly quickly. Your best bet is to learn as much conversational Italian as you can before going, this way, you can gesture along and try to explain what you need using words both of you understand or just rely heavily on Google Translate like we did when we needed some extra help to explain ourselves. It’s true that most Italians have taken English in school, but do you remember much of your world language of choice in high school if you didn’t go on to study it in college? Exactly. Try to learn and use Italian, it’s their country after all.

Driving is for Lunatics

It shouldn’t come as too much of a shock that the Land of the Ferrari likes to squeal its wheels and ignore most roadway etiquette. For every Nutella croissant I ate, I feared for my life in equal measure on the road. The Autostrade or major highway is merely a place of suggested speed, there aren’t many stop lights so don’t expect an easy navigation through an intersection, double parking is the norm, and incessantly honking at backed up traffic that has no place to go is just common practice. Save yourself the heart attack and take the train.

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Pretty much it

Ain’t Nobody Got Room for Breakfast

Italians don’t really eat breakfast–not like we do in America. You eat a croissant and enjoy a cappucino, that’s all you should give yourself room in the tum tum for. We’re, of course, used to far more protein than that in the form of eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, and lard but in Italy, you should save the real feast for later. When we ate with our relatives, we learned that it was common to start eating for real around 12pm and work your way through the courses for the next 3 hours over family time and conversation with that being the main meal of the day. Ultimately, you eat big once, saving room throughout the day with eating and drinking only what was necessary to survive. And if you’re having trouble keeping away from delicious food until dinner? Don’t worry, everything with food closes in the afternoon and doesn’t re-open until 7:30pm. Get ready to be hungry and lose some of the American fat around the waist you brought with. Also, don’t forget the Italian Digestive!

Coffee is the Real Deal

Knowing my extensive professional background in coffee, I was completely prepared for the kind I’d experience in Italy. My travel companions, on the other hand, weren’t. Assuming you’re the type to drown your coffee in creamer or are prone to taking your dose of caffeine blended in ice with syrups and sugars–the coffee offerings in Europe are going to be quite a culture shock. I spent most of my time assisting my companions in ordering what I thought they’d be able to drink or creating a mutant concoction at the self serve that would be sweet enough for them to enjoy. It’s all about espresso, espresso, espresso and it is DELICIOUS! Unfortunately, the espresso that comes out of the machine at your local coffee shop is a bit more bitter and unrefined than the variety they serve in Italy–for example, it’s completely possible to drink it straight up and not gag. Espresso in Italy is slightly bitter but not overpowering, sweet but not overly so, a bit heavier in body, and savory in the aftertaste. You can order with milk if you wish, but there is no need for syrups and sauces like back home–in fact, good luck finding the option!

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Stray pup knows what’s good

This Place has Really Gone to the Dogs

Italy has an interesting relationship with dogs. It’s normal and encouraged to bring your pooch with you everywhere–from shopping malls to restaurants and as long as they don’t poop anywhere (which I was unfortunate enough to waltz into at a shoe store) they are more than welcome. You’d think then that a place which clearly treats dogs as a part of the family would be prone to sticking together–but for every family dog you witnessed happily accompanying their owners on errands, there was also a stray dog prowling around for food and the kindness of strangers. It’s ordinary enough for passerbys to toss food their way as if they were homeless beggars and smart strays who know which patio is attached to a tasty restaurant will visit in routine–waiters merely side-stepping the four legged guests. No one shoos them but everyone gives a little from their table to the dog in need. It was really hard for me to not just adopt every single dog I saw–they were always polite and sweet and responded to commands like sit, stay, and lay down. Clearly, these dogs have gotten used to their life on the road but I couldn’t help but ache for them to find a good home.

Nutty About Nutella

And last but not least, let me just confirm that Italians really are obsessed with Nutella. No joke. It’s in EVERYTHING.

What is Fascism?

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Benito Mussolini, Leader of the Nationalist Fascist Party who became Prime Minister of Italy in 1922 until he decided Democracy was for squares and seized control of the nation as dictator.

People like to throw around words that hurt, words that no one wishes to be associated with because of the troubled history these definitions carry, regardless of their accuracy. Many of us are able to recall the stain from lived experience while others of us unknowingly feel discomfort upon hearing their whisper, ghosts of a time we were fortunate enough not to have witnessed. It’s not out of the ordinary to hear someone called a ‘Communist’ or a ‘Socialist’ for simply being disagreeable rather than because of any formal affiliation with a political faction, for example. These words used to mean something. Rather than an insult insinuating how “un-American” an individual may be, these words used to come with a benchmark of ideals and theories characterized by aggressive political leanings that have, in History, sparked revolutions. These words used to matter.

Democracy is beautiful in theory; in practice it is a fallacy. You in America will see that some day. –Benito Mussolini in 1928 [1]

The sands of time are no kinder to concepts and words than they are to ruins, and so it is possible to forget or wave away its meaning as a figment of the past. Fascism, like many other features of World War II, has NOT been buried or vanquished like the Third Reich–It’s a symbiotic strain of Nationalist sentiment that still, to this day, rears its ugly head in every day discourse and goes on unnamed and, ultimately, undetected for what it truly is.

Fascism as a political theory falls on the spectrum of far-right radical leanings characterized by severe Nationalist sentiments and in opposition to Liberalism and Marxist beliefs. Fascism operates on the idea that Democracy is failing and that the true way to unite the state is under one party with a powerful, preferable, Dictator to solidify the stability necessary to combat military and economic crisis. To do this, Fascism encourages violence, war, and Imperialism, as a means to help jump start and heal the nation unilaterally and advocates an economic market with isolationist, aggressive restrictions on foreign trade to further the goal of self-sufficiency.

a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion –
Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism [2]

On social issues, Fascism attacked and categorized homosexuality as a deviant behavior, condemned forms of birth control utilized by women, [3] and relegated the roles of women as ‘reproducers’ and regarded their role in the work force as responsible for unemployment and incompatible with child bearing. [4]

Though not the creator of Fascism but certainly founder of the Italian movement, Benito Mussolini remains the world’s leading example of Fascism in action. Once a socialist, Mussolini grew despondent towards his party’s preference to remain uninvolved during World War I which he was eager to serve in and was later discharged after a wound sustained by an accidental mortar bomb explosion on the Italian Front. Upon his return, he denounced his former party and founded the National Fascist Party with an emphasis on renewed focus of Italian Nationalism. Mussolini came into power in the last week of October 1922 when, with his band of paramilitary supporters known as the ‘Blackshirts’, marched on Rome demanding the resignation of the current prime minister Luigi Facta and the right to rule–which was handed over by the king Victor Emmanuel III. Mussolini then subsequently became the youngest Prime Minister in Italy and used his authority to further his Fascist agenda by establishing, with the help of his secret police and sets of defining laws, a one-party dictatorship with himself at the helm.

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It was a long complicated road. When Mussolini took office, the Parliament was filled with many opposing political factions–leaders intent on curbing the Fascist enthusiasm Mussolini now brought with him (along with some muscled brutes for good measure). In an effort to garner support on the outset, Mussolini targeted new reforms toward the Working Class to reduce the work day which guaranteed 8 hours, ignored profiteering of the Industrial sector during WWI, catered to the wealthy by reducing death duties, and rubbed elbows with the Roman Catholic Church by mandating religious education as obligatory in all elementary schools. All in all, everyone was pleased.

Except, of course, his political enemies. To deal with them, Mussolini initiated a Grand Fascist Council which would decide upon policy reforms while shutting out any dissenters or opposing party factions. This group immediately brought forth a law known as Acerbo Law which sought to change the way members of parliament were elected into seats. Now if a political party, such as the National Fascist Party, received at least 25% of the vote in elections, they were now guaranteed at least 66% of the seats in Parliament ensuring them a solid majority.  Those brutes I mentioned before served as a useful tool in getting the law passed despite its obvious connotations for anyone not a member of the Fascist party. Once passed, the Fascist hold over Parliament was secured with more than 2/3rds of the available Parliamentary seats. Obviously, this did not go unnoticed by the concerned populace in Italy and a prominent Italian politician by the name of Giacomo Matteotti stood before the Parliament and publicly accused the Fascists of rigging the election in their favor and accused Mussolini of inviting those brutes, outside busy fiercely cracking their knuckles, to the party.

So it was no surprise when, 11 days after this declaration, Giacomo Matteotti turned up murdered and people maybe thought that Mussolini had something to do with it. Since no evidence was found in trial condemning Mussolini in the involvement of the murder, historians still debate the validity of this claim today. Regardless, the Italian public believed and upon numerous journalist outcries and calls for resignation, a number of the non-Fascist Parliament members staged a walkout in protest (Which…well, made things even more Fascist-y than before in Parliament) and begged the King, Victor Emmanuel III, to remove Mussolini from office. The King, for reasons that remain petty and politically mind boggling, didn’t much care for the protestors stance on the monarchy to begin with since they favored a republic and ‘Pah!’d them away allowing Mussolini to solidify his hold.

Swiftly, Mussolini shut down those trash talking newspapers and sent out his army of brutes to silence further dissenters. By 1926, all other political parties had been banned from Italy. A year later, a secret police was formed with the reintroduction of the death penalty to facilitate this ban. Mussolini was now free to exert full control and had no one standing in his way (unless Victor Emmanuel III ever decided to get off his duvet and do something about it). The precursory period before WWII saw the same dance of propaganda, cultural revere, and idolization of Mussolini (Apparently he could play a mean violin?)  as was usual for other growing dictatorships in Europe. This caught the esteem of Adolf Hitler. The two eventually formed an alliance with the instigation of WWII, despite Mussolini’s political allies discouraging him to do so. Mussolini was confident that Germany would soon be victorious, however, and that the war would be short lived.

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It wasn’t. Most of us know exactly how WWII plays out and I’m not going to recite it all here, though needless to say, Italy didn’t do so hot. By 1943, Italy had suffered major setbacks on all fronts, exposed itself to invasion by Allied forces, and resource output ground to a halt with factories lost in frequent bombings and food shortages starved out the population. The stress took a toll on Mussolini himself, being diagnosed with gastritis and duodenitis which both served together to bring on one helluva an IBS rager which forced him to stay home seated on the porcelain throne rather than in government.

Victor Emmanuel III was finally ready to do something. With the help of Count Dino Grandi (Member of the Fascist Grand Council and enemy of Mussolini after opposing Italy’s entry into WWII), they orchestrated the removal of Mussolini by calling for a vote of no confidence among the council which succeeded. Mussolini merely shrugged and showed up the next day viewing them mostly as advisors of which his ousting he did not care to follow. The King then invited Mussolini to his palace where he was ambushed with an arrest and was told that he was being replaced with a new Prime Minister. Mussolini was then imprisoned and moved around in order to hide his location from his best friend forever, Hitler, who was hell bent on re-inserting him to power. He was eventually ‘rescued’ by his pal and encouraged to spearhead a new regime intent on stealing back Italy. Now operating under the tutilage of German forces, Mussolini retired himself to Lake Garda where he ordered a few executions of his betrayers while sipping a bellini while Hitler ran the show on the front.

In April of 1945 (a few days before the suicide of Hitler), Mussolini was stopped along with his mistress on their way to escaping to Spain by communist partisans. The pair were captured and brought to Mezzegra where they survived their last night before being shot to death along with their entire convoy. It didn’t end there. After loading their bodies into a van and heading down to Milan, the bodies were dumped unceremoniously at the Piazzale Loreto. Civilians came out in droves to beat and abuse the corpses which were eventually strung up by the ankles and hung from a gas station so that they made for easier targets in stoning.

With the death of Mussolini and the conclusion of WWII, the National Fascist Party was outlawed in Italy. Many successor neo-Fascist parties arose instead, and some do exist in modern times around the world today though not to the same extent or level of power as Mussolini’s rise in Italy. However easy it is to kill a man or his party, remember that it is not as easy to kill an idea. Though the usage of the term Fascism is deadened by its limits in political relevance today, many policies and ideals characterized by its fervor are still very much alive and well. Fascism still means something and we would all do well never to forget it.

Footnotes:

1. Quote from Mussolini as told to Edwin L James of the New York Times. (1928)

2. Paxton, Robert. The Anatomy of Fascism. Vintage Books. ISBN 1-4000-4094-9.

3. Maria Sop Quine. Population Politics in Twentieth Century Europe: Fascist Dictatorships and Liberal Democracies. Routledge, 1995

4. Durham, Martin, Women and Fascism (Routledge, 1998) p. 15.