Tag Archives: Holiday

When in Rome

Like all parents, I think my daughter is pretty smart. But she showed extreme astuteness when we asked her what were the things she enjoyed the most about our trip to Rome. She thought for a bit and said, “Ice cream, good restaurants, and having fun with our friends.”

streetShe enjoyed the museums, the statues, the grandiose architecture. Rome has those and to spare. It was fun wandering around the city and stumbling across some Egyptian stele or an antique collonade-fronted building. But the Trevi Fountain convinced me that these Big Name sights weren’t the most impressive thing. The fountain, one of Rome’s Famous Sights, was closed for restoration. Workers were cleaning the marble and making the plumbing efficient …and hordes of tourists stood outside the fences, snapping pictures. We quickly moved on, and found ourselves wandering through quiet streets with plenty of ordinary architecture and street life to take in. (And some extraordinary street life: on one street, a woman was busking by singing an absolutely gorgeous rendition of Ave Maria.)

GelatoWe walked around St Peter’s square, but what was on her mind was ice cream. Rome is known for its gelato and there are enough shops in the city to fill a guidebook. (Now, there’s an idea!) Each one has a wide variety of flavors: from the tried-and-true stracciatella to more exotic varieties. Getting a cup and a spoon means several types of pleasures: there’s the obvious one of enjoying a sweet treat. But more than that: you sit and you watch the world go by. You listen to the chatter of other people. You engage multiple senses with flavors, smells, sounds as well as sights. Whether it’s a gelateria, or a cafe, or just a park bench, it’s always worthwhile to stop and look around.

And a restaurant can serve the same purposes as well. Sitting at an outside table in an Italian restaurant and enjoying a meal while the world goes by is a great attraction. However, we found that so many of these places are occupied solely by tourists, and we found it far more enjoyable to find a spot that did not have an English menu (and certainly lacked a tout standing outside in the street urging passers-by to come in!) and was filled with people speaking Italian. It meant more fumbling with ordering, but it definitely made for more memorable meals and a more enjoyable experience.

lunchFinally, our friends made the trip the best thing ever. They weren’t our tour guides through the highlights of Rome: they were our charming and delightful hosts. We had fun with them in their apartment in the north of the city, and on outings to supermarkets, local restaurants, church, train stations and more. Apart from just being incredibly welcoming and fun people, they helped us to feel less like we were tourists in Rome and more like we were living there.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do, goes the old saying. And it applies well to travel. If you focus less on the Big Sights and more on the smaller domestic pleasures, it can make the visit more enjoyable and give you a better taste of what life is like in that place. You won’t tick off all the items on the standard tourist checklist, but you’ll feel connected to the place by more than a photograph.

Don’t go there

The Sistine Chapel is amazing. It’s also appalling: a horrible experience, one which I wish I had skipped.

Don’t get me wrong: the paintings are incredible. The sheer number of them is amazing, and each one is an incredible work of art. The creation of Adam is arguably the most famous painting ever:

1024px-Creación_de_Adán_(Miguel_Ángel)But don’t forget: Michelangelo painted on the ceiling. That means you have to look up. And if you’re lucky enough to get to the closest spot to the creation of Adam, you have to bend your head all the way back and look directly above you. It hurts. And you can’t keep that position for long.

VAT-Museum-sixt-kapSo you move to a different vantage point. Or at least you try. Because there are about 80 thousand other people in the room (OK, I exaggerate: only 75 thousand), all trying to get good vantage points. And they’re trying to get a photograph of the famous paintings.

Except, of course, the room is also crawling with security guards who regularly shout “no photographs!” and “no videoing!” They also threaten to take people’s cameras away, offer to escort you out of the room. One man got shouted at but protested his camera was off, and the guard told him to put the lens cap on.

When they’re not shouting at people to not take photographs, they’re shouting to tell people to be quiet. “Silence!” goes out, and the buzz of people falls quiet for a moment. Then it builds again. “Silence!” Again and again.

And the guards are also shouting at people to keep moving so there’s a path clear. You can stand at the edge or in the middle, but otherwise you have to keep moving. That’s a good thing, because there are thousands more people in the corridor outside moving into the chapel and if the flow doesn’t keep going things could get ugly.

Quite honestly, I was happier to look at the paintings in the fantastic Wikimedia Commons collection, and the Vatican’s virtual tour. Sure, it’s not like being there. It’s quieter, less crowded and doesn’t hurt my neck.

my own photo of crowds making their way towards the Sistine Chapel
my own photo of crowds making their way towards the Sistine Chapel

I’m speaking partially tongue-in-cheek: travel is amazing and it’s a fantastic experience to see things personally rather than virtually. But there is no denying the fact that some places like the Vatican are magnets for millions of tourists and when you visit a spot like that the experience is diminished by the crowds. (Yes, I recognize the irony: I added to the size of the crowds.) Also, the volume of tourists changes the nature of the place: it becomes more commercialized, attracts people who want to take advantage of visitors, etc.

It’s one of the reasons that I enjoy visiting places that are more off the beaten path. There are gorgeous works of art and architecture in Lisbon. Bratislava has a beautiful old town.  Sofia’s churches are simply amazing. (Shhh! Don’t tell anyone else!)

So, do travel to see the famous sites. But be prepared to be joined by many others. And consider alternatives. The artwork in, say, Ethiopia isn’t as famous as the Vatican’s collection, but it’s pretty amazing!

All images of the Sistine Chapel are taken from Wikimedia Commons. (I didn’t use my camera: don’t arrest me!) Paintings by Michelangelo Buonarroti are in the public domain.

Open every door

One of the joys of travel is the unexpected surprise and the unanticipated glimpse into another culture and society. We had this in spades while traveling in Slovakia this past Easter. One incident in particular stands out for me as an excellent example of this – and an inspiration for me to not be too shy or dissuaded from closed doors or unknown places.

While walking around Bratislava during the late afternoon/early evening of our first day there, we saw a sign for a “folk arts” centre/shop. We walked in to see what was on offer, thinking of souvenirs to take back for us and family. The entrance led into a small entranceway/courtyard with doors on either side. Peering into the windows, we saw workshops for pottery, basket making, fabric work, etc. All were empty of people and the doors were shut. It seemed like the centre was closed & we’d have to go back again the next day to see what was on offer. As we were walking out, we saw another door that was open and a couple of people going in. There was no sign saying what it was for (certainly nothing that my minuscule Slovak would understand!), but on the spur of the moment we walked in. The door led to a small staircase – we could hear some voices upstairs. So we went up.

Upstairs we were surprised and delighted to find that there was a small art gallery with a folk art demonstration/class in progress! Seated around a few tables were a few groups of women making traditional Easter eggs. There were various adults and children watching them and browsing in the art gallery, with a low murmur of conversation. Fascinated, we joined in and watched what was going on.

giving a lesson in egg decorating

One woman was gluing long strands of flexible fiber (some type of soft grass) to plain eggs. She was explaining what she was doing to an eager student who was watching, listening and taking notes. The process was quite intricate, and although she worked quickly, it was obvious that it took great care.

egg gluing

The results of her work were beautiful. Plain – all the grasses were white and the eggs plain and not coloured – but the intricate decorations made the eggs absolutely gorgeous. I wished I had more Slovak at my disposal to ask her about her designs.

At another table was a larger group of women. No students were taking notes, but they were chatting amongst themselves – talking about their designs or the latest gossip?

group of eggsters

These women were using thread to create intricate and beautiful colorful eggs. They used small paintbrushes to paint glue on the eggs and then wound the thread into curlicued and looping patterns. The eggs were all on sale, but we were delighted to just watch. The resulting eggs were gorgeous!


What a delightful find …that would have laid undiscovered had we relied on guidebooks or had been afraid to poke our noses into unknown areas.

So my new traveling motto: open every door.

Roll out the red carpets, here come the priests!

roll_out_the_red_carpet “When are they coming?” had to have been asked at least ten times. “Which way are they coming?” was asked a few times. People looked at their watches & scanned both ends of the street.

“Didn’t she ask that already?” Leulseged asked me. He was confused by the multiple questions. I laughed and said that the problem was that if such a procession was happening in the US or Europe, the parade route would be published in the newspaper with specific times for road closures. It’s hard for people used to that to accept the relaxed vagueness of the timing of the Ethiopian Timket parade.

So there we stood, a dozen or so farenj and one local, watching the bustle on the street below and waiting for one of Ethiopia’s most colourful spectacles to start.

Timket is the Ethiopian Epiphany – 12 days after the Ethiopian Christmas which comes in early January. (The Ethiopian Church follows an Orthodox calendar.) The main public spectacle is the parade or procession. Priests from each church take the tabot – a copy of the Ark of the Covenant (the original is up north in Axum – so they’ll tell you, but they can’t show it to you!) – out of the church for a ritual baptism evocative of Jesus’ own.

After an overnight ceremony at the river – I’d heard the service dimly from my house – the tabot was now returning back to its home church. As the procession was coming down the main street between my house and the school, it was a perfect opportunity for watching and recording the colourful celebration.


We stood on a balcony overlooking the street. We watched the build-up as people found shady spots to sit and see the street, more dedicated ones walking up the street to join the procession. Police arrived to control and then shut junctions, kids looked up at us and waved. Soon the crowds thickened, we heard distant drumming and then the carpet brigade came. The red carpet is in sections, and teams of men unroll them one after another to form a clean and special path for the priests bearing the tabot to follow. They then run to the rear of the procession so they can roll up a vacated carpet section and then bring it to the front. Repeat. Again and again and again!

singers Various groups of people – mostly men, with some women – would sing songs, beating drums and blowing tin horns. They would march down the street, singing and dancing, waving flags and tinselled crosses clapping and exhorting the crowd to join in. Occasionally – and often it was directly opposite us – they would stop and form a circle, dancing in and around each other, or clapping on the few in the center. The enthusiasm and excitement was palpable and infectious.


Finally, the crowds surged around the corner and the street filled – priests and tabot and church officials on one side and the general population on the other. The priests were brightly decked out in their fine robes, carrying beautiful embroidered cloth umbrellas to shade them from the hot sun. Reds and golds and plenty of white glittered in the sun.


On the other side of the street, most were dressed in traditional white clothing – particularly the women. Many danced and sang along with the church bands – leading the procession with drumming and singing.

The procession quickly passed by, with only a glimpse of the priests carrying the tabot over their heads, covered with thick gold-embroidered cloth. The teams rolled the carpet up behind them as the procession headed down the street towards the church. More groups of unofficial singers and dancers followed, the crowds thinned and the police started traffic flowing again. Melkam Timket!


More photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/j_iglar/sets/72157632564034403/