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The Leopard's Travel Blog

Here they are, sometimes overly detailed accounts of the Leopard's wanderings in lands near and far, foreign and familiar. To see articles posted before 2010 with travels in Barcelona, India, Lisbon, Madrid, Vancouver, Maine, Berlin, and elsewhere, please go to the Archives section.


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 27

We decide to finish our tour of food and wine at one of our favorite places, Cul de Sac enoteca. The Sparrow starts with a Lazio Cesanese (€4.90), a regional red varietal. I have a Lombardia Monsupello Chardonnay (€3.50), different from Chardonnays I am used to. We enjoy the wine with an assortment of four cheeses (€10.70). For dinner I have amazing lasagna (€8.50), and The Sparrow has the duck ravioli (€8.90). The Sparrow has another Cesanese with dinner, whereas I try the Conti di Buscareto Lacrima di Morro d’Alba (€3.50). Lacrima is an ancient varietal from the town of Morro d’Alba in the Ancona region on Le Marche’s coast.

Many of the museums in the city are open for free after 8:00 pm for tonight’s “Notte dei Musei.” We have decided it would be fun to take advantage of this special event and see a couple of last sights. We first stop at the ruins of the forums around Piazza Venezia and take a look at Trajan’s Column, completed in 113 AD. A continuous frieze wraps around the column and depicts Trajan’s two victorious campaigns over the Dacians.

We step into the Musei dei Fori Imperiali, a small museum of antiquities located in Trajan’s Market, a complex built 100-10 AD. The oldest purpose-built shopping mall in the world is three stories high and once housed hundreds of traders. The main hall of the museum is located in an area where free wheat was once distributed to the people of Rome. The complex includes a 13th-century brick tower that is not open for viewing. The best parts of the museum are the outside views of the Imperial Forums below. These were constructed between 46 BC and 112 AD. The first was a Forum of Caesar designed as an extension of the Forum proper. Later ones were built by Augustus to celebrate the Battle of Philippi, by Vespasian to celebrate the conquest of Jerusalem, by Domitian probably just for the sake of building one, and by Trajan for the conquest of Dacia.

We take a bus to the Castel Sant’Angelo on the other side of the Tiber. Originally, this fortress was a barrel-shaped tomb built 135-9 AD for Emperor Hadrian. A garden and a statue of a chariot drawn by four horses graced the top. Remains of succeeding emperors were also interred here, the last one being Caracalla. In 401 it was converted into a fortress and incorporated into the Aurelian Walls. All of the urns and ashes were scattered by Visigothic looters during Alaric’s sacking of Rome in 410. Further conversions transformed the edifice into a papal fortress in the 6th century. An underground passageway linking to the Vatican was used when Pope Clemente VII held up here during the 1527 sack of Rome by the troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

We have to wait in line for a bit as the views from the top are a definite draw when entry is free. We wait on the Ponte Sant’Angelo bridge built by Hadrian in 136 AD to provide access from the city center to his new mausoleum. A number of angels were added in the 17th century, one of which was designed by Bernini.

After entry, we walk up a winding ramp to get into the upper levels. The ramparts and courtyards contain a big crossbow and a number of cannonballs. The palace rooms are richly decorated, particularly the frescoed Sala Paolina. The big draw is the very upper level where we can look out upon the city at night in a semi-circular courtyard with the castle’s titular angel statue looming over us. I am reminded of the last act of Tosca, which takes place here and depicts the heroine’s fatal leap from this rampart after the execution of her lover. Before his death by firing squad, Cavaradossi sings the magnificent aria “E lucevan le stele” (“and the stars shone”), a melody that runs through my head as we gaze out under the stars on our final evening in Rome.

Posted 25 January 2012


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 26

Closeby is Palazzo Altemps, part of the Museo Nazionale Romano and accessible with our Archaeologia Card. The reputedly finest museum of antiquities in the city is located in a 15th-century palazzo. Among the interesting pieces we find a rather staid sculpture of Dionysus, a relief celebrating a victory over the Parthians, and a sarcophagus with a frieze depicting a battle with barbarians. What is known as the Ludivisi Throne has a marvelous bas-relief of Aphrodite emerging from the foam. The same room has a Renaissance-era fresco depicting the ten plagues of Egypt. Some of the sculptures have uncertain subject matter. One is considered a statue of Orestes dwarfed by a taller Electra. For me, the most suspicious interpretation involves a frieze of a number of women that allegedly references the myth of Phaedra, though the women are those lamenting the tragedy rather than any of the main players in the story. One of the most striking sculptures is the Gaul Killing Himself and His Wife, a 2nd-century AD Roman copy of a Greek original. The titular warrior thrusts a short sword into his breast while in the other he holds the slumped figure of his dead mate.

We walk south and stop at a pleasant little café called Bar Farnese on the strip between Campo de’ Fiori and Piazza Farnese where a friendly, green-jacketed server pours us macchiati for a decent €.80 each. We continue south and move east along the bank of the river. At Via Ottavia we head north into the Jewish Ghetto. Rome’s Jewish community is the oldest in Europe, dating to the 2nd century BC. However, Titus’s victory in Jerusalem in 70 AD changed the status of Jews to slaves. Confinement to the ghetto started in 1555 by order of a Papal Bull that included various humiliations and restrictions. The area was originally walled and subject to flooding by the river, making conditions extremely unpleasant. The ghetto existed almost continuously under the authority of the pope until 1882 after the Papal States were incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy. Of course, the alliance of Mussolini with Hitler and the later German occupation brought new horrors to the Jewish community, as evidenced by a plaque on Via Ottavia that marks the spots where Roman Jews were rounded up on 16 October 1943 and sent to Auschwitz. Only fifteen survived of 3,091 deported.

The nearby Area Archeologica del Teatro di Marcello e del Portico d’Ottavia allows access to two antiquities sites. The Portico of Octavia is a four-sided porch built in 23 BC by Augustus as an entrance to temples in the area. A fish market was housed here until the 19th century. Walking on past the portico bring us to the remains of the Theatre of Marcellus. Augustus had the 20,000-seat amphitheatre completed in 11 BC and named it after his favorite nephew. During ancient times it served as the city’s main venue for drama. In the 14th century a palazzo was built above the remains by the Savelli family and apparently still contains apartments. Today, the outer semi-circular shell of the theatre is still visible, the arcade dramatically topped with the Renaissance-era palace.

We walk north back into the Centro Storico. We are ready to eat something but find that many places have shut for the afternoon break, something we are not accustomed to as we have been generally back at the flat during this interval. We end up getting a bite at a pizza al taglio place called Zazá (Piazza Sant’Eustachio 49), which specializes in all-organic toppings. Two etti of pizza topped with cicoria (curly endives) is €4.11. One of the perks of this place is being able to enjoy the pizza sitting on a pleasant out-of-the-way piazza.

A large parade with marchers carrying Palestinian flags starts up on the main avenue Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. We later realize that the protest is one of many around the world on the date of Israel’s founding. To circumvent the parade we go down side streets and are met with an astonishing sight on Via dell’Arco della Ciambella where three buildings on the north side of the alley are enclosed within a semi-circular ruin. These are apparently the remains of the Baths of Agrippa, Rome’s earliest public baths. The name of the street alludes to the odd architecture as a ciambella is a circular-shaped cake with a hole in the middle.

For pre-dinner drinks we go to L’Angolo Divino (Via dei Balestrari 12), an enoteca. The owner is a bit inattentive to us as he seems occupied with a couple who have arranged for a private and no doubt expensive wine tasting, but we stay for one round. I have a Moscato secco from Terre di Orazio (€5.00), which tastes as I would imagine a dry Moscato would. The Sparrow tries the Nuragus di Sardegna “Pedraia” (€4.00). Nuragus is an ancient Pheonician varietal found in southern Sardegna. The owner calls it aromatic and indescribable, though we find it fairly easy to describe. We are at least pleased that the bottles are placed on the table for our inspection, and the place does have a nice wooden interior. We are also frequently amused at the conversation between the wine novice couple and the owner, particularly when the young man tasting the wines insists that the Italian word “macerazione” (“maceration”) means “maturation” in English.

Posted 18 January 2012


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 25

We begin our final morning with two cups of cappuccino oscuro at the pleasant café on Via Enea. Our objective is to spend our day seeing some final sights at a leisurely pace. We first stop at the Manzini station and walk north to the Porta Maggiore, a gate to the city built by Claudius in 52 AD and later incorporated into the Aurelian Walls. We can also see the remains of an aqueduct. The neglected sections of the wall are fenced off but seem to be inhabited by a few homeless people. The adjoining plaza seems to be the terminus for a number of light-rail trams. We jump on one and ride to the metro to get to Flaminio station. From there we get on another tram that goes north up Via Flaminio.

The tram terminates at a bend in the Tiber River at a bridge called Ponte Milvio. The spot has become popular with lovers who leave locks clamped on fixtures installed here for the purpose. Those that have shown up without a lock can purchase one from an entrepreneur who has set up a table. I know the bridge as the setting for a pivotal battle. In 312 AD, Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius here, guaranteeing his sole rule and possibly changing the course of Western history by paving the way for converting the Empire to Christianity. The original bridge dates from 109 BC. In 1849, Garibaldi and his troops blew it up to stop the forces of the French. It was rebuilt a year later.

We take the tram back to the Piazza del Popolo and wander around a bit to the south of the square. We find a tabacchi shop and buy a stamp to mail a postcard. We head west to the Tiber and locate a pleasant spot to lunch on the pizza we brought with us, left over from last night’s dinner.

Near this part of the river we find the Museo dell’Ara Pacis. The Ara Pacis was completed in 13 BC and consecrated by the Senate in 9 BC as a monument to honor Augustus’s triumphal return from Hispania and Gaul and to proclaim the Pax Romana. Mussolini had it reassembled and moved to its present location in 1936, part of his program to forge a link between his regime and Rome’s past glories. In 2006, American architect Richard Meier designed a controversial glass pavilion to encase it, the first modern construction in the city center since World War II. The glass at least allows us to appreciate the monument without paying the entry fee. The friezes feature themes of piety and depict recognizable people rather than idealized types.

Unfortunately much more neglected is the Mausoleum of Augustus just to the east. The mausoleum was built in 28 BC in the style of an Etruscan burial mound topped with a huge bronze statue. Augustus was buried here in 14 AD. Mussolini had it restored in 1936 and planned to be buried here himself, but of course his ambitions were not realized. Since then it has been allowed to crumble and appears as a fenced-off pile of bricks and grass. We also pass ‘Gusto, a sort of food and wine complex that is apparently the inspiration for New York’s popular Eataly.

We take a stroll down Via del Corso, the main shopping district. We break off to the west at Via della Borghese. The Sparrow is in the mood for gelato, so she gets a cone (€2.00) at Fiocco di Neve (Via del Pantheon 51). We step into the Pantheon again to pay our respects to the engineering marvel. At Piazza Tor Sanguigna we see some arches remaining from the Stadium of Domitian that was paved over for the sake of Piazza Navona.

Posted 11 January 2012


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 24

We leave Ostia behind and ride back into Rome, reaching the flat just an hour later, which is actually less than the time it took us to return from the catacombs the previous day. We make a brief stop at the pasticceria next door, which the flat owner has recommended for good desserts. We pick up a , a flaky chocolate pastry, and a tartufo (total of €3.50). The tartufo is a round confection filled with dense chocolate. All are extremely tasty.

After we get out for the afternoon we ride to the Repubblica metro station. At the northeast end of Piazza della Repubblica we can see another side of the Baths of Diocletian. One section, the central hall, has been converted into the Santa Maria degli Angeli church. It was originally designed by Michelangelo but little of his plan was completed.

We wander the streets of the Monti neighborhood for a bit until it’s time to settle down for pre-dinner drinks. We go into an enoteca called Al Vino al Vino (Via dei Serpenti 19). The place seems frequented by locals a bit older than those who pack the nearby Ai Tre Scalini. I enjoy a Vermentino di Gallura 2009 (€4.00), a white varietal produced in the province of Olbia-Tempio in the north of Sardinia. The Sparrow has a Prosecco (€4.00).

A little farther to the north we stop at another enoteca, La Barrique (Via del Boschetto 41b). This place is more of a serious wine bar, as evidenced by the bottles from major European producers lining the walls. Wine by the glass is listed on a blackboard. We have a Nebbiolo (€4.50), a red Italian varietal from Piedmont, and an Aglianico (€4.50), a red grape from Campania. A number of snacks for aperitivo are stacked on plates at the bar. We are just about ready to help ourselves when one of the servers gives us a plate piled with a generous portion of various hearty, square-shaped appetizers in a variety of tasty flavors.

We try a restaurant up the street, but reservations are required. We reason that at this time on a Friday evening we may not be able to get into many of the popular places listed in our guidebook and head back to our neighborhood. The owner of our flat has recommended a Neapolitan pizzeria called La Caletta on Via Eurialo. I have a pizza with salsiccia (sausage) (€8.00) and the Sparrow has tonno (tuna) (€8.00). Small beer on draft is €2.50.

Posted 4 January 2012


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 23

Another interesting complex in Ostia Antica is the House of the Millstones, once a sort of factory for the production of baked goods. We can see the remains of millstones and ovens. Walking north leads to a small museum containing some of the sculptures found on the site. Another fascinating building is the Thermopolium, an ancient café. The L-shaped counter for the bar has a water basin and shelves for glasses, a basic design that hasn’t changed much in the intervening centuries. The walls have paintings showing the food and drinks available for sale. The adjoining courtyard has a bench for seating patrons.

The central area of the city is of course the Forum, a plaza with a number of official and religious buildings including the Curia, a meeting place for the city council; the Temple to Rome and Augustus; and the Capitolium, a temple dedicated to the main Roman deities. We are able to walk up the stairs of the pedestal that this temple is placed on.

Farther along the main avenue is a small shopping center with stores arranged around a courtyard in a configuration recognizably like a modern mall. Across the street are two buildings that housed fishmongers. A stone table is intact in one, as is a mosaic of a fish and the phrase “Envious one, I tread on you.” Scholars have come to no consensus on the meaning of this peculiar sentence.

We soon come to a fork in the main avenue and proceed on the street heading northwest. From this point on we encounter few other visitors. These sections are also less guarded with fences and such, allowing for a deeper exploration of the ancient site.

The remains of the House of Amor and Psyche offer a glimpse of how the upper crust of the city lived. The small mansion is named after a room with statues of the two mythic lovers on a pedestal. Just to the north is one of the most engrossing sections, the Baths of Mithras. The building has a number of hidden caverns that can be explored. One room once held a water-wheel for the baths’ hydraulic system. Wear marks of the wheel’s axle are visible on the stone. One staircase leads down to a service area where water still fills the underground basin. My favorite part is a tunnel in the rear of the building leading to a statue of the Persian god Mithras killing a bull. The sculpture, a plaster cast of an original in the museum, is dramatically showcased by sunlight that streams in from above.

Beyond is the Guild-seat of the Grain Measurers, distinguished by a mosaic with a group of men measuring out grain. On the other side of the road is a complex with a number of interesting locales. The section by the road features a number of shops around a courtyard with some apartments on the second floor. We are able to climb the stairs and get a view of the area. A small shrine has stucco relief of Serapis, an Egyptian deity. A central round hall has a large mosaic of hunting scenes. Adjoining it is a room with paintings of Greek sages. We pause here to eat a picnic lunch in an ambiance that few restaurants could match. Other portions of the complex have paintings of charioteers on the walls.

The Garden Houses were a luxury residential complex located near what was once the shore line, demonstrating that criteria for prime real estate have changed little over the centuries. In our wanderings we come across a little museum of wall frescoes that is locked up, probably as not enough staff are available to man it. Some of the works are visible from the outside.

We circle back to the road that proceeds in a southwesterly direction from the fork and continue along it to the farthest point of the site. On the way we encounter plenty of fascinating mosaics, graffiti, and paintings. We continue to be surprised and delighted at both the expansive nature of the site and the accessibility. The kinds of rare, preserved mosaics and frescoes that are kept fenced off in ruins in Rome can here be walked up to and touched, though we are certainly mindful of their preservation for future generations. And even though the site is only thirty minutes from the city it seems that it is largely undiscovered by the tourist hordes that clog up the Forum, Palatine, and Colosseum.

We pass a guard post used for sentries on the road into the city from the sea. In a cluster of remains at the farthest point we discover the sepulcher of an important citizen and a Synagogue that dates from the reign of Claudius. Details of a menorah are clearly visible in a relief on the walls of what is apparently one of the oldest synagogues in the world.

We make our way back along the road and explore some of the buildings to the south of the Decumanus Maximus. The Forum Baths are a well-preserved series of adjoining rooms, though in terms of sheer size they are nothing compared to the baths we’ve seen in Rome. One of the most interesting buildings is a Public Latrine with marble seats and a channel for water running in front of them. Our guide pamphlet mentions that a sponge on a stick could be moistened in the water, though it tastefully neglects to describe what the sponge would be used for.

The pinnacle of luxury living in Ostia seems to be the House of the Fortuna Annonaria, a mansion with a nice interior garden complete with sculptures. Our final stop in the site is the Fulling Mill where clothes were once laundered. In the center are large basins for depositing clothes for soaking. On the perimeter are a number of pressing bowls that workers would fill with clothes for stepping on.

Posted 14 December 2011


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 22

We have designated this morning for a little day trip outside of the city. We take the metro to the Piramide station, which connects directly with the Porta San Paulo train station. The train west to the sea takes thirty minutes to get to our destination. After we get out of the train station, we traverse a busy highway by means of a pedestrian bridge and stroll down a quiet street to the entrance of our destination.

The ancient Roman port city of Ostia Antica was founded in the 4th century BC but was completely redone in the 2nd century BC and subsequently served as the supply port for Rome. At that time it was located at the mouth of the Tiber River, but the coastline has since shifted. In 42 AD Emperor Claudius started constructing an artificial harbor a few kilometers to the north called Portus. Most of those who worked in Portus lived in Ostia. The population shrunk during the political chaos after the end of the Severan dynasty. The city was abandoned in the 5th century AD due to barbarian invasions and the outbreak of malaria. The remains were buried in river silt, offering visitors a city almost as well preserved as those buried in the ash of the Vesuvius eruption.

Entry is €6.50, a bargain considering the expansive nature of the site. Maps are available for an additional price, but I managed to locate and print out a comprehensive guide from the website that is nicely detailed and aids us with our visit. The entry gate leads to the main street, Decumanus Maximus, once the continuation of the road from Rome to Ostia. Wheel ruts of wagons can still be seen in the cobblestones. We pass the tombs of the Necropolis on the left. The first noteworthy section is the Baths of Neptune, built by Hadrian and Antoninus Pius. We are able to take stairs up to a roof to see the extensive mosaics from above. Adjoining the baths is an open area used for athletics called the Palaestra.

Off one side street we find a partial mosaic depicting a bottle and the phrase “Fortunatus says: drink wine from the vessel because you are thirsty.” Naturally, a bar was once located here. Farther on is an interesting public water basin with spouts for water and depressions in which buckets were placed. Holes on the side were used to lower in buckets, and the grooves for the ropes are still visible. A little off the road are the barracks for the vigils, a sort of all-purpose emergency squad who responded to fire emergencies and patrolled the streets to prevent burglars. They also captured runaway slaves and returned them to their owners.

One large plaza was once the Square of Guilds, used for business transactions between locals and foreign merchants. Each of the small rooms along the courtyard perimeter has a mosaic denoting a different guild. Ships, the names of harbor cities, dolphins, and even an elephant are represented. In the center of the square is a temple to Ceres, the goddess of grain. The deity’s presence is expected given the huge amounts of grain that were shipped into this port to feed Roman appetites.

Between the square and the road is an Amphitheatre built by Augustus’s right-hand man Agrippa in the 1st century BC. We are quite impressed as Rome has no theatres in such a well-preserved state. We are able to walk up the steps to gaze from the highest seats in the 4,000-spectator venue. In the front of the theatre are the remains of a tiny chapel marking the spot where Christians were martyred in 269 AD.

Posted 7 December 2011


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 21

After resting in the flat for a bit we take bus H from the Repubblica station to Viale di Trastevere, the main strip of the Trastevere neighborhood. We walk around a bit in the area, enjoying the tangle of little streets. Originally the home of immigrants and fishermen, the Trans Tiberim (“beyond the Tiber”) area was incorporated into the city during the reign of Augustus, and a section was encircled by the Aurelian Walls. In later years it became a working class district and still retains a gritty edge despite its present status as a hip destination.

We stumble upon the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the oldest churches in the city. The original church was built in the 3rd century on a spot where a fountain of oil miraculously sprung from the ground. The land was granted by Emperor Septimius Severus to settle a dispute between Christians and tavern-keepers. In the 12th century the basilica was redone in Romanesque style. The mosaics on the façade date to this period. More impressive are some lovely apse mosaics from the 13th century. On the altar is a spiraling Cosmati candlestick that marks the spot of the legendary fountain. The columns holding up the ceiling are in a mix of styles and were plundered from the Baths of Caracalla. An organist seems to be either auditioning or warming up while we are visiting. A selection of organ standards are played, including “Ave Maria,” Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March,” Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus,” and “Pomp and Circumstance.” On the wall in front are some stones that appear to have been taken from the catacombs as they bear crude Christian symbols and designs.

On our wanderings in the neighborhood we pass the Porta Settimiana, a gate in the Aurelian Walls built in 1498 at Via Della Lungara. We search around a little for a place for dinner and settle on Da Lucia (Vicolo del Mattonato 2). We are told that the inviting outside tables are all reserved, so we sit inside. We consider the reservations a good sign as it means that locals actually eat here, as only locals would know enough to book ahead. I decide to brave the trippa Romana (Roman-style tripe) (€9.00). The waiter even warns me that it comes from the stomach of the cow. Though the texture of the tripe strips is not my favorite, they are cooked in a nice tomato sauce and I thoroughly enjoy eating my dish with bread. The Sparrow has pasta in an arrabbiata sauce consisting of tomatoes, garlic, and red chili (to provide the “anger” of the dish’s name). A full 750 ml bottle of wine is €6.00. Coperta for the two of us comes to €3.00. The place seems to be an old family-run establishment. An elderly gentleman seated at a table doing prep work is occasionally tended to by the younger members of the staff. He particularly needs help with his suspenders.

On our way back to Viale di Trastevere The Sparrow has a cup of gelato (€2.50) at Fior di Luna (Via delle Lungaretta 96). We pass a small square with a DJ warming up for what will likely turn into a dance party, but the night has ended for us. We catch a bus on Viale di Trastevere and head home.

Posted 30 November 2011


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 20

We decide that today we are going to see one of the catacombs and other sights along the Appian Way. With the help of the ATAC website we determine that no. 218 is the best bus to take. The route begins close to the San Giovanni metro station and passes the Porta San Sebastiano. Once known as the Porta Appia, the 5th-century turreted gate is one of the most intact in the Aurelian Wall.

We are soon on the Via Appia Antica (Appian Way) proper. Construction of the stone road began in 312 BC to provide rapid deployment for the Roman military during the Samnite Wars. Eventually, the road extended to Brindisi (formerly Brindisium) in southern Italy. Today the ride along the Appian Way provides a nice way to get a touch of the leafy Roman countryside on a sunny day. The view was likely not so pleasant on a certain day in 71 BC when 6,000 members of Spartacus’s slave army were crucified on this route between the city and the town of Capua, the location of the gladiator school where the revolt originated.

We pass the Chiesa del Domine Quo Vadis?, a church built on the spot where the apostle Peter allegedly met a vision of Jesus. According to the legend, Peter was fleeing from Rome and asked the vision of his master the question “Quo vadis, Domine?” (“where do you go, master?”). Jesus replied that he was going to Rome to be crucified again, prompting Peter to return to Rome to accept his own crucifixion. The martyrdom may have occurred during the persecutions of Nero after the 64 AD fire.

We get off on Via Ardeatina and walk back to Via delle Sette Chiese to find the catacombs we wish to visit. Entry to the Catacombe di Domitilla is €8.00. We manage to arrive in time for the last tour before the place shuts down at noon. The grounds for these catacombs were donated to the Christians by Flavia Domitilla, a niece of Emperor Domitian who was exiled for her adherence to the new faith. Her two chamberlains, Nereus and Achilleus, received a harsher sentence and were beheaded.

A young Italian woman gives us and a Scandinavian family the twenty-minute tour in English. We are first led into the underground basilica, lit by windows installed at the very top that admit sunlight from the outside. The basilica was built for the martyred saints Nereus and Achilleus. One of their graves has a symbol combining the Greek letters Chi (X) and Rho (P), the first two letters of the word “Christ” in Greek.

After an introduction in the basilica we are led into the catacombs. The complex contains 150,000 tombs of Christians distributed over 17 kilometers. The winding tunnels are complex enough that the man who discovered the location was apparently lost for four days. Most of the tombs are very small but some are larger and contained whole families. Those of the rich were covered with plaster and frequently decorated, like one we see that has a fresco of Peter and Paul. Those of the poor were covered with terracotta. Invaders looted the tombs looking for treasure, though we see some that are still intact. We also see some of the lamps that were filled with oil and burned to cover the smell for the benefit of those working in the space.

We walk down the road a bit to the Mausoleo delle Fosse Ardeatine. The monument commemorates one of the atrocities committed by the occupying German army during World War II. After a group of partisans attacked a column of German policemen, resulting in the deaths of 28 policemen and a couple of Italian civilians, the Germans rounded up 335 civilians, POWs, partisans, inmates, and Jewish citizens and killed them as a reprisal. The victims were shot in the head at this site. We walk into the cavern and see the Grotta dell’Egidio, where mines were used to collapse the walls of the cave and bury the bodies. A small museum has documents related to the event. The bodies were later recovered and buried in a number of tombs, now covered by a huge slab.

Back on the main Appian Way and a bit farther on is the Basilica di San Sebastiano fuori le mura, built in the 4th-century. Saint Sebastian was allegedly martyred and buried here during the reign of Diocletian. One chapel on the left has a statue of the saint. The chapel opposite has one of the original arrows that miraculously failed to kill him as well as the footprints of Christ, supposedly a relic from the “Quo Vadis?” incident that took place farther up the road. Scholars believe that the footprints were more likely a Roman votive offered to the gods to safeguard travelers.

We walk east along the road for a bit and pass the ruins of the Villa of Maxentius, a complex built 306-12 as the emperor’s palace. Adjoining it is the Circus Maxentius, a well-preserved race-track built around 309. The most prominent feature we can see from the road is the tomb of Valerius Romulus, a son of Maxentius who died in 309.

A little farther along we come to the Mausoleo di Cecilia Metella, a 1st-century BC burial chamber for the daughter of consul Quintus Metellus Creticus. Cecilia was apparently married to the son of Marcus Licinius Crassus, member of the first triumvirate and the general most responsible for crushing the Spartacus revolt. We enter the small complex with our Archaeologia Card. Though interesting to see, the barrel-shaped tomb would hardly be worth a visit if we were not already in the area. In the 14th century, the Caetani family added a tower to use the site as a fort to threaten people into paying tolls.

To get back to the bus stop we pass through a pleasant pedestrian park housing the Catacombs of Callisto, the most popular. At the stop we wait for the 218 bus on Via Ardeatina. By the time three busses pass on the other side we conclude that for some reason the bus going our way has been rerouted and no notice has been put up. Everyone else waiting is also a tourist, so they would not know any better than we would. We walk back to the Appian Way to catch the 118 bus, which arrives soon enough.

Posted 23 November 2011


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 19

After our morning at the Vatican Museums, we walk along the walls and sit under an arcade in the piazza of St. Peter’s. Our intention had been to see the church afterwards, but there is a long line to get through security and we are just not up for standing in it in the sun, so we instead go back to the flat to rest from our taxing morning at the museum.

Afterwards, we decide to take things a little easier and focus on enjoying the city at a more leisurely pace. We get out from the Barberini station and walk down Via del Tritone. To cross one busy street we go through an underground passage and are a little surprised to find a bookstore that needs to be traversed. One might expect to find a card shop or newspaper stand, but a full bookstore is an odd sight.

We take a little detour to see the Fontana di Trevi as it seems obligatory to pay our respects. The iconic 1732 sculpture depicts Neptune’s chariot led by Tritons with sea horses. The water comes from a 1st-century BC underground aqueduct. The area is of course thronged with tourists, so we don’t stay long. We get on one of the small electric buses to get to Centro Storico.

The Sparrow has decided that we need to begin indulging in gelato, and our guidebook has a host of recommendations for the major neighborhoods. Giolitti Gelateria (Via degli Uffici del Vicario 40) seems like a good place to start. The classic place started as a dairy in 1900 and used to deliver ice cream to Pope John Paul II. Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck drop by in Roman Holiday. A small cone (€2.50) strikes me as rather large and can contain a mix of more than one flavor should one choose. Cream can also be added for a little extra. The Sparrow has a chocolate and I a cioccolato fondente (dark chocolate). Payment first needs to be made at the register, then the receipt is taken to the serving area to choose the gelato. Though frozen dessert is not my favorite, I enjoy the creamy texture and rich chocolate flavor of my cone. Gelato is distinguished from ice cream by a lower butterfat and a higher sugar content.

We wander around for a bit in the Centro Storico and go down the Via dei Coronari, which is lined with various antique shops. The word “coronary” means “rosary-bead sellers,” and other streets in the area are likewise named after various medieval professions. Though we are not consciously attempting to do any sight-seeing, we do stumble upon the Santa Maria della Pace church, most impressive for its 15th-century exterior with elaborate portico. The façade has projecting concave wings that resemble a theatre set. We are able to pop into the adjoining Chiostro del Bramante, a masterpiece of Renaissance proportions.

When we are ready for pre-dinner drinks we make our way to Caffè Farnese (Via del Baullari 106), ideally situated on Piazza Farnese. I have a Punt e Mes (€6.50), a bitter vermouth with a taste half-way between sweet vermouth and Campari. The Sparrow has a glass of Pinot Grigio (€5.00). We are served some salame sandwiches for the aperitivo.

We have chosen to eat in Trastevere this evening and cross over the Tiber on the Ponte Sisto, seemingly frequented by young punks with rather big dogs. A main square called Piazza Trilussa leads into a number of tangled, tiny streets that rival those of Centro Storico in narrowness and sheer quaintness.

Our destination, a pizzeria called Dar Poeta (Vicolo del Bologna 46), is easy to find due to the number of people waiting outside. Unlike a pizza al taglio place, a pizzeria will serve individual round pies made to order. I have a boscaiola, a style with mushrooms, mozzarella, and sausage (€7.50). The Sparrow has a bufala (buffalo mozzarella) (€9.00), bursting with big chunks of cheese. A half-liter of water is €1.50 and a half-liter of wine €4.00. The delicious pies are based on a crust that is a hybrid of the Roman thin style and the Neapolitan thick style. We finish with a grappa (€2.00) and limoncello (€3.00). The waitress seems charmed by my attempts at Italian.

Posted 16 November 2011


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 18

In the morning, we take the metro to the Ottaviano station and walk south to the Vatican. A long line has already formed along the north wall, though it will certainly get worse later. We purchase our €15.00 tickets for the Musei Vaticani and enter. Our first objective is the Cappella Sistina (Sistine Chapel) as we reason it is better to see it first thing to avoid the inevitable crush of people who will inhabit it for most of the day. Handy signs point out an express route.

We find the chapel less crowded than expected and are able to spend some time sitting on the benches and contemplating the art. The chapel was originally built in 1484 for Pope Sixtus IV. Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to decorate the ceiling in 1508. The master proceeded to work on it over a period of four years. The Genesis panels on the ceiling were painted in reverse order, so the earlier paintings of Noah are more formal in conception than the later paintings of God and creation, which have an abstract quality that suits the subject matter. Ancestors of Jesus from the Old Testament appear at the corners. A number of Hebrew prophets and pagan sybils are interspersed throughout. As on my previous visit, I find that the overall design makes much more sense when one is able to see it in the context of the space. The Sparrow observes that Michelangelo seemed to have little interest in the enterprise of painting beyond rendering the kinds of human shapes already familiar to his sculptural hand.

Pope Clement VII commissioned the Giudizio Universale (Last Judgment) on the end wall 22 years later, serving as the final chapter to the recurring cycle of sin appearing on the ceiling. The zeitgeist of the Reformation era certainly contributed. A later pope had Michelangelo student Daniele da Volterra add fig leaves and loincloths to preserve the modesty of the nude figures.

Frequently overlooked are the walls of the chapel, painted 1481-82 by a number of artists. One wall shows stories from the life of Moses, including The Trials of Moses and Punishment of the Rebels by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) and Moses’s Journey into Egypt by Pietro Perugino (1446-1523). The stories from the life of Jesus on the opposite wall include the Baptism of Christ and Delivery of the Keys by Perugino and the Temptation of Christ by Botticelli. Each painting reflects thematically on its counterpart on the opposite wall in an interesting way. For example, the events depicted in The Trials of Moses match the similar narrative told in The Temptation of Christ.

We circle back out and take a closer look at some rooms we sped through on our way to the chapel. The Galleria degli Arazzi (Tapestry Gallery) houses ten huge tapestries on religious themes, some designed by students of Raphael. The long room that follows contains the Galleria delle carte Geografiche and 40 detailed, topographical maps spanning Italy.

We next seek out the second most significant body of work in the museum, the Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms), commissioned in 1508 by Pope Julius II. Some were painted by the noted artist himself, but others were completed by his students. The first room is the Sala di Costantino, finished by Raphael’s student five years after his death. The theme of the four paintings is the triumph of Christianity over paganism heralded by Emperor Constantine and his conversion. The Vision of the Cross shows the apparition of a cross appearing to Constantine on the eve of battle bearing the legend “By this, conquer.” In response, Constantine had crosses painted on his army’s shields, a gesture to which the victory at The Battle of the Milvian Bridge in the next painting is attributed. The other two paintings, Donation of Constantine and Baptism of Constantine, follow the theme of Constantine’s religion devotion.

The Stanza di Eliodoro was painted by Raphael from 1512 to 1514 and is named after the painting Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple. Others include Mass at Bolsena and Encounter of Leo the Great with Attila, the latter depicting Pope Leo I parleying with the Hun leader and convincing him not to sack Rome. The most interesting work is the dramatic Liberation of St. Peter, a study in light and dark contrasts depicting the freeing of Peter from the prison of Herod by an angel.

The Stanza della Segnatura was also painted by Raphael. On one wall is Disputation of the Sacrament. On the opposite is the secular counterpart and one of Raphael’s most famous paintings, The School of Athens, a tribute to classic philosophers and scholars that may also include a brooding Michelangelo as a nod to Raphael’s peer after he had taken a glimpse at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The other two paintings in this room are The Parnassus and The Cardinal Virtues.

The Stanza dell’Incendio del Borgo is named after the Fire in the Borgo fresco and contains paintings likely executed by Raphael’s assistants. The other three are The Oath of Leo III, The Coronation of Charlemagne, and The Battle of Ostia, the latter depicting a naval victory over the Saracens at the port of Ostia.

We then pass through the Appartamento Borgia and the collection of modern religious art. We are a little baffled by the inclusion of a painting by Francis Bacon, whom one would hardly consider a devotional artist. Because of the regulated flow of visitors through the museum, we are funneled through the Sistine Chapel again and come out to circle back and see some of the other galleries now that we are finished with the most significant works. The Museo Pio-Cristiano contains a number of early Christian antiquities, included relics salvaged from the catacombs to the east of the city, one of which we will visit soon. We are a little disappointed that the Museo Gregoriano Profano is closed as it contains an exhibit of classical statuary.

Another pride of the museum is the Pinacoteca, the art gallery. The initial rooms contains such notable works as the Stefaneschi Altarpiece by Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337), Filippo Lippi’s (1406-69) Incoronazione della Virgine, Lucas Cranach the Elder’s (1472-1553) Pietà, and Perugino’s Virgin and Child with Saints. One room contains a temporary exhibit devoted to Fabergé icons, plus a few eggs thrown in for familiarity’s sake. The real masterpiece of this room is Raphael’s stunning Trasfigurazione, completed by his students after his death in 1520. Completely unfinished is Leonardo Da Vinci’s (1452-1519) San Gerolamo. Other fine paintings from the Renaissance and later include Gentile Bellini’s (1429-1507) Pietà, Caravaggio’s Deposition, and Nicolas Poussin’s (1594-1665) gory Martirio di Sant’Erasmo.

We finally get a good dose of antiquities in the Pio Clementino, a gallery devoted to classical statuary. Three of the most famous works include the Apollo Belvedere, a 2nd-century Roman copy of a 4th-century Greek bronze; the Laocoöaut;n Group, a brutal depiction of the hero from the Iliad and his sons attacked by serpents; and the Torso Belvedere, a Greek sculpture from the 1st century BC said to be much admired by Michelangelo. The Sala degli Animali has a number of quaint sculptures of animals, including a crab that the Sparrow is quite fond of. The majestic Sala Rotonda has a floor mosaic featuring sea monsters and centaurs. In the center is a huge basin made of a single piece of porphyry stone found in Nero’s Domus Aurea palace. On our way out, we pass the sarcophagus of Constantine and his mother. Naturally, exiting the museum requires going through the Sistine Chapel one last time. By now the crowds have taken over and have to be periodically shushed by the guards.

Posted 9 November 2011


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 17

We go back to the flat for a bit to rest after our morning at the museum. For coffee we stop at a café on Via Enea and order macchiati. They are served with glasses of sparkling water and cheap at €.70. We find the coffee better at this place than at the café across the street from the flat. On Via Appia Nuova we catch bus 671, which takes us directly to our next destination.

The Baths of Caracalla were begun by Emperor Antonius Caracalla and inaugurated in 217 AD. The complex was once a leisure center that could accommodate 1,600 people and contained pools, athletic rooms, and even a library with Greek and Latin texts. The baths were sacked by the Ostrogoths in 537. Today it is a ruin that we can enter with our Archaeologia Card. In the summer opera performances are staged here.

Unlike some of the better preserved parts of the Baths of Diocletian, the ceilings of these baths caved in long ago, so most of the remains consist of looming walls and floor mosaics. In one large hall we see a basin that once contained the main pool. The place is quiet in the afternoon, lending a solemn mood to the atmospheric ruins. Seagulls cluster and call overhead, as if evoking the cries of the Ostrogoths who plundered the baths. A form of plundering seemed to continue well into the Renaissance, as we see artifacts from the baths incorporated into fountains in Piazza Farnese and the columns of Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere church.

After we leave we head west towards the ancient center. We pass the remains of the Circus Maximus, a stadium built in the city’s early days, expanded by Caesar in 50 BC, and rebuilt by Trajan after the 64 AD fire. It once held 250,000 people and served as a venue for chariot races. Today it is little more than a basin of grass. The ruins of one of the palaces of the Palatine loom just to the north.

We get on the subway at the Circo Massimo station and ride up two stations to Cavour. Two sets of stairs from Via Cavour bring us to the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli, a 5th-century church built to house the chains that bound St. Peter at Carcere Mamertino prison before his crucifixion. The chain itself is housed behind glass under the altar. In the apse are a number of frescoes, including one depicting Peter released by an angel after being imprisoned by King Herod. The real lure of this church is Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses (1505) to the right of the altar. The statue was originally intended to serve as the centerpiece of Pope Julius II’s unfinished tomb. The other statues around it are probably by his students. As with most of Michelangelo’s work, Moses is portrayed as ruggedly muscular, somewhat reminiscent of Charlton Heston in his take on the patriarch.

We are ready for a little pre-dinner drink. The Monti area is home to many students and has a slightly ragged quality that lends itself to good, local places for food and drink. One establishment that is particularly recommended is Ai Tre Scalini (Via dei Serpenti 19). We hear that this bar gets crowded in the evening, but things are just starting to get going when we arrive. The friendly staff seem to be getting ready for the rush to come and for the moment are enjoying sips of wine themselves. Wine by the glass is listed on a blackboard. We have Cardinal Prosecco (€4.00) for our first round. For my second I enjoy a small Menabrea beer (€3.00), brewed in northern Italy. We receive our induction into the wonderful Roman ritual of aperitivo, a form of Italian happy hour. The drinks are no cheaper, but they are accompanied by little snacks. We are given some roasted garbanzos, cheesy pretzels, and little ham sandwiches. The place gets more crowded and people spill out onto the sidewalk to smoke. On our way back to the subway we pass a fountain in a square packed with young types enjoying beer and wine al fresco.

As we want to be up early in the morning to see the Vatican Museums, we decide to eat in our neighborhood tonight. Incontrada (Via Turno 30) is one of the restaurants recommended by the flat’s owner. As the place seems to specialize in seafood, I try the risotto alla pescatore (“fisherman’s risotto”) (€12.00). The Sparrow has the orecchiette con vongole e broccoletti, pasta with clams and sweet baby broccoli (€12.00). A 250 ml carafe of white wine is a steal at €2.50. Coperta is an additional €1.50 each. Both entrees are exceptionally hearty. The place seems to be a local favorite and attracts both couples and families. I am not displeased that the television is showing the Coppa Italia semifinal game between Palermo and AC Milan.

Posted 2 November 2011


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 16

We make our way to Piazza Venezia again, passing some ruins as we walk along the southern side of the Vittoriano monument. Above looms the Capitoline Hill, one of the original seven on which Rome was founded. Temples dedicated to Jupiter Capitolinus and Juno Moneta were once on the top. We walk up the staircase and reach the Piazza del Campidoglio, a charming egg-shaped plaza with elegant interlacing designed by Michelangelo. The placement on top of one of Rome’s most important hills is of course symbolic, but so is the orientation of the plaza, which looks towards the Vatican rather than the ancient Forum on the other side. Nevertheless, the Rome of old makes an appearance in the form of a copy of a bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in the center.

Three buildings border the piazza. The two facing each other constitute the Musei Capitolini (Capitoline Museums), established in 1471 and now the world’s oldest national museums. The website seemed to indicate that one could get a ticket for just the permanent exhibit, but it seems that the temporary and permanent exhibits are intermingled and only one ticket is available for €12.00. The special temporary exhibit consists of Roman portraits, primarily busts.

We begin our visit in the larger building, the Palazzo dei Conservatori. In many sections the rooms themselves are artistic marvels. I particularly enjoy a room adorned with a 15th-century fresco depicting the feats of the Carthaginian general Hannibal. In one room we find the famous Lupa Capitolina, an Etruscan statue of a wolf dating from the 5th century BC. The twin figures of the infants Romulus and Remus suckling were added in 1471. One large hall contains a number of fine antiquities, including the original of the Marcus Aurelius equestrian statue, originally erected in 176 AD. Another bronze depicts Gemanicus, a general who was a favorite of his great-uncle Augustus and who died in suspicious circumstances if certain sources are to be believed. In this hall is located the foundation of the Temple of Jupiter that once graced the hill. A model shows how little of the grand edifice remains today.

A number of rooms contain intricate mosaics and frescoes from the ancient era. I am intrigued by a marble statue of the mythical satyr Marsyas, who challenged Apollo to a music contest and was flayed alive for losing. Huge patches of purple marble vividly illustrate the pitiful figure’s brutalized flesh.

Another floor contains the Pinacoteca, the painting gallery. Our Caravaggio interest is satisfied by two of his paintings: La Buona Ventura (The Fortune Teller, 1595), depicting a gypsy stealing a man’s ring while pretending to read his palm, and San Giovanni Battista (St. John the Baptist, 1602), a sensual depiction of the Biblical figure. The main room is currently closed off as a press release is in progress for the upcoming “Notte dei Musei.” The Sparrow has seen some signs for this event, and when I check the internet I find it will be in progress on Saturday. We are able to peek into the room enough to see Pietro da Cortona’s Rape of the Sabine Women. The painting is particularly appropriate to this location as according to legend the Sabines settled on the Capitoline Hill once peace was made after the notorious abduction of the women.

Once finished with the Palazzo dei Conservatori, we descend into an underground area called the Tabularium. Corridors lead into a fascinating set of ruins underneath the piazza. These are the remains of a building constructed in 78 BC to hold the official records of Rome. An adjoining balcony area offers some dazzling views of the Forum below. The effect of this atmospheric space is only slightly hampered by some odd New Age music.

We complete our passage through the Tabularium and ascend into the Palazzo Nuovo, the museum’s other building. Highlights among the ancient statuary include a realistic sculpture of a drunken old woman, quite a contrast to the standard idealized figures. One statue of Venus was apparently found inside somebody’s wall, as if he was trying to protect it from whatever group happened to be invading at the time. The most well-known statue is the Galata Morente (Dying Gaul), a Roman copy of a 3rd-century BC Greek original. The swooning figure has a wound detailed with emerging drops of blood.

Posted 12 October 2011


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 15

We have gotten into the habit of having coffee in the flat in the morning as I have managed to improve my barista skills with the apartment’s De’ Longhi espresso machine, which has a decent milk frother for producing cappuccino oscuro.

We get out of the subway at the Manzini station to take a look at the Museo Storico della Liberazione (Museum of the Story of Liberation), housed in a building that was the HQ of the SS during the German occupation of 1943-44. The exhibit occupies three small floors of the building and mostly consists of documents, photocopied newspapers, and photos, many of which are displayed in cells where prisoners were held. All of the information is in Italian only.

Mussolini’s Italy fought with the Third Reich for most of the war. But on 3 September 1943, a secret armistice was signed between Italy and the Allies after Mussolini was dismissed and imprisoned. The armistice was announced on 8 September, at which point German troops disarmed Italian forces and proceeded to take over. In Rome, an Italian infantry division fought the Germans but was defeated on 11 September. The building housing the museum served as the cultural office of the German embassy but was transformed into a prison in January 1944 to hold partisans fighting the occupation. At first, the sunny above-ground location seems odd for a dungeon, but in one cell we find a window partially bricked over and a placard indicating that all of them were completely walled up during the occupation. Some of the exhibit is dedicated to the massacre at Fosse Ardeatine, which we will experience more closely when we visit the monument dedicated to the site. A sign indicates that 265 Catholics and 70 Jews were killed in this atrocity.

What we find most engaging are two narrow cells that are covered with scrawled graffiti of final testaments, poems, and marks counting the days, all left by prisoners. One scratched epigram reads: “la morte è brutta, per chi la teme” (“death is ugly for the one who fears it”). In the second narrow cell the light does not work, so I ask a man who seems to work there. He tells us it is not functioning and proceeds to give us an impromptu tour in English. He points out a message and a Union Jack left on the walls by a British POW. We learn that the cells were used for those awaiting interrogation and torture. He shows us one room that contains a number of reward posters put up by the Nazis for resistance members, including one for a prostitute who killed a German officer.

One room is dedicated to the liberation of Rome by allied forces. We are told that the Allies employed Catholic bombardiers on missions over Rome as they would be more inclined to be careful with their aim and protect the Vatican and other holy sites. One room displays underground newspapers published by the resistance. Our guide indicates one Communist newspaper was actually printed by the Germans as a way of ferreting out partisans. At first it only stands out to me because it has a hammer and sickle prominently displayed on the heading, whereas the others are all basic in design. But our guide points out that the hammer and sickle sign is backwards and printed in the color red. Naturally, clandestine print shops had neither the resources nor the time to print in any color other than black-and-white. The final room we see is dedicated to the oppression and deportation of Jewish residents, which started when Italy joined the Axis and was scaled up during the German occupation.

Posted 5 October 2011


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 14

We walk back into Centro Storico and make it to Sant’Agostino, an early Renaissance church. We do not make a full circuit of the interior as a service is in progress, but we are able to see Raphael’s fresco of Isaiah on the third column in the nave. Jacopo Sansovino’s (1486-1570) sculpture of Virgin Mary, Madonna del Parto (1521), is rumored to be based on a sculpture of Agrippina holding Nero, likely as far from the Madonna and child as one can get. Naturally, our favorite work is another painting by Caravaggio, Madonna di Loreto (1604).

We can no longer put off an obligatory walk through crowded Piazza Navona. The 1st-century AD Stadium of Domitian was once located on this site, but the 30,000-seat venue was paved over for a market in the 15th century. The present piazza still retains the shape of its predecessor. Three distinctive fountains adorn the space. Bernini’s Fontana del Quattro Fiumi in the center was completed in 1651 and depicts the Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Plata rivers. The Fontana del Moro at the southern end was designed by Giacomo della Porta (1533-1602) in 1576. The 19th-century Fontana del Nettuno is at the northern end.

For a pre-dinner drink we go to Cul de Sac (Piazza Pasquino 73), a nice enoteca (wine bar) and ristorante. The menu in four languages posted outside would generally give us pause, but we have enough good recommendations to give the place a try. The menu for bottles is extensive, but the menu for wine by the glass is also decent. I appreciate that the wines are categorized by region. We have a glass of Nero di Troia (€3.40), a red wine grape from Puglia, and Montefalco Rosso (€4.40), a red table wine from the Montefalco region in Umbria. The place seems staffed entirely by kindly middle-aged men and we are made to feel very comfortable.

We walk south into the Campo de’ Fiori, another piazza that was once the site of public executions, as probably most central, open spaces were during a certain era. This one’s most famous victim was Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake here in 1600 because his rationalist inquiries into the nature of reality upset the Catholic Church. He is commemorated with a statue. During the day the square holds a public market, at night it becomes a party center fed by the bars and restaurants around its perimeter.

An alley to the south leads to the less-frequented Piazza Farnese. At the southern end is the impressive Palazzo Farnese, a Renaissance palace that was worked on by such notables as Antonio da Sangallo (1484-1546), Michelangelo, and Giacomo della Porta. The interior frescoes by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) are reputed to be magnificent, but as the building houses the French embassy we are only able to peek up into a window and get the barest sight. Opera fans know the palace as the setting for the second act of Tosca. Two fountains in the square that Goethe considered one of the world’s loveliest are housed in huge bathtubs that were once in the Baths of Caracalla, a ruin that we will see later.

We enjoy dinner outside at Osteria Ar Galletto, a restaurant on the square. An osteria is traditionally a sort of neighborhood inn that focuses on a loyal clientele. For contorni (side dishes) we have the asparagi (asparagus) (€6.00). I have the bucatini all’amatriciana (€10.00), a dish originating in the nearby town of Amatrice and consisting of thick, hollow noodles in tomato sauce, onions, pancetta, cheese, and chili. The Sparrow has the gnocchi, smothered in a rich cheese sauce. The wine list only includes wine by the bottle. We request something smaller and are offered a half-bottle of Chianti (Fattoria Bacio 2009, €8.00), which goes very well with my tomato-based dish. We are also able to avoid the bottled water and get simple tap water, acqua di rubinetto. A coperta of €4.00 is added to the top, a cover charge that appears in many restaurants. This place seems to cater equally to tourists and to locals and is certainly a good value given its location on a charming square.

We get back to the main avenue Corso Vittorio Emanuele II and catch a bus back to Termini, but we find that the metro A line is not running after 9:00 pm all week due to ongoing construction on the expected C line. Our subway route is currently replaced by a shuttle bus called the MA2, which gets us home in good enough time and allows us to enjoy the outside air.

Posted 28 September 2011


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 13

The best way to get down to Centro Storico from Piazza del Popolo seems to be a small electric bus that goes down Via Del Corso. Its progress is hampered by throngs of people walking in the middle of the busy shopping avenue. We debark at Piazza Venezia and are confronted with the imposing sight of Il Vittoriano, a monstrous monument of white marble that looms over the busy traffic circle. The construction variously known as “the wedding cake” or “the typewriter” was begun in 1885 to commemorate the unification of Italy and to honor King Vittorio Emanuele II, who appears in the form of an equestrian statue. The tomb of the unknown soldier is inside. The monument has an imposing fascistic air, but the Sparrow comments that its gleaming marble echoes the former grandeur of the ancient city. And as with many of the monuments of old, a neighborhood was destroyed to make room.

We walk down Via del Teatro di Marcello and are struck by the impressive sight of the Theatre of Marcellus, the remains of an ancient theater topped by a palazzo. We will return later to see this ruin in greater detail.

We come across San Nicola in Carcere, an 11th-century church that was built upon the ruins of three Republican-era temples. For a donation of €3.00 each we are able to climb down into the crypt and explore at our own pace. Some human bones are interred at the bottom of a pit in one section. The remains of the temples mostly consist of the bases of a number of columns. The remnants of an Etruscan vegetable market can also be seen below. On the exterior of the church we can see columns from the temple incorporated into the wall.

As we are in the area, we decide to make our first venture across the Tiber River. We cross Rome’s oldest standing bridge, the Ponte Fabricio from 62 BC. To the south we can see the remains of Ponte Rotto, a bridge that was almost completely swept away in a 1598 flood. The bridge brings us to Isola Tiberina in the middle of the river, apparently the world’s smallest inhabited island. Most of the northern end is taken up by the Ospedale Fatebenefratelli hospital. The island’s association with healing goes back to ancient times as a temple to Aesculapius, the god of healing, was erected here in the 3rd century BC. When Emperor Claudius learned that slave owners were abandoning their sick slaves at the temple, he passed an edict freeing those slaves and punishing the owners.

In a piazza in the southern part of the island is San Bartolomeo all’Isola, a 10th-century church built on the ruins of the temple to Aesculapius. Some of the columns date from Roman times, but the bell tower is from the 12th century and the façade and ceiling are from the Baroque era. The church contains the relics of St. Bartholomew the apostle. A marble wellhead in front of the altar is believed to stand over the spring that provided the temple’s healing waters. Each chapel is dedicated to the victims of political violence of a different continent.

We walk from the island to the other side of the Tiber on the Pons Cestius, a bridge built in the 1st century BC. We see that the island is surrounded by a concrete platform providing a pleasant area for walking. We walk north along the river on the Trastevere side and cross back over on Ponte Sisto, a footbridge built in the 15th century by Pope Sixtus IV.

Posted 21 September 2011


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 12

Later in the day, we emerge from the metro at the San Giovanni station and pass through the Porta San Giovanni, a gate constructed for Pope Gregory XIII. Of greater interest to us are the Aurelian Walls that extend from the gate. The earliest known walls around Rome were constructed in the 4th century BC and are known as the Servian Walls. These were built to prevent a repeat of the sack of Rome by the Gauls after the Battle of the Allia. Remains can still be seen around Termini Station. After the city expanded beyond these walls, the Romans had no reason to build new ones as no foreign army was able to get close enough to threaten the capital. The situation changed in the 3rd century AD, when barbarian tribes started to flood across the German frontier and almost defeated the Roman army. In response, Emperor Aurelian had the present walls built 271-5 AD. These enclosed all seven hills plus the Campus Martius and the Trastevere district.

A short walk from the gate leads to the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano. Founded by Constantine in 324 AD as the first Christian basilica built in Rome, the church was the pope’s main place of worship until the 14th century. Today it is Rome’s official cathedral, though the Vatican still retains authority over it. The late-Baroque façade is broad and imposing, more so for the 15 statues of religious figures staring grimly down at us from the top. The bronze doors in the center of the façade are originally from the Curia in the Forum. Much of the interior was designed by Borromini, though the mosaic floor dates from the 15th century. On top of the baldachin is a reliquary that supposedly contains the heads of Peter and Paul, though I wonder if anyone has confirmed that lately. In one chapel is a fragment of a painting by Giotto.

We next ride to the Flaminio station and exit onto the delightful Piazza del Popolo, laid out in 1538 at what was once the northern end of the Aurelian Walls. At one time it was the site of public executions and attracted a very different crowd from the tourists who currently wander around in it. In the center is an obelisk that once adorned the Circus Maximus, and two matching Baroque churches provide symmetry to the southern end. In ancient times, the Flaminian Way originated here and proceeded over the Apennine Mountains to Rimini.

For us, the reason to come to this piazza is the Santa Maria del Popolo church on the northern side. The first chapel built here was constructed in 1099 to exorcise the ghost of Nero, who was buried here and allegedly haunted the locale. The present structure dates from the 15th century. Inside, the Chigi Chapel was designed by Raffaello Sanzio (a.k.a. Raphael, 1483-1520) but finished by Bernini. The apse was designed by Donato Bramante (1444-1514) and has frescoes by Pinturicchio (1454-1513), who also decorated the pope’s family chapel. The true highlight is the Cerasi Chapel, which features two paintings by Caravaggio: Conversione di San Paolo (Conversion of St. Paul) and Crocifissione di San Pietro (Crucifixion of St. Peter). Each one is a masterpiece that would justify the admission price to any museum, yet we are able to see both of them for free thanks to the patronage of the Catholic Church.

Posted 14 September 2011


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 11

We finally pass out of the Palatine and onto the grounds of the Forum, a dense complex of temples and government buildings that developed over the course of nine centuries. Once an Etruscan burial ground, the compound became the center of the Roman Republic in the 7th century BC. After the 4th century AD its importance declined. The grounds are much more packed with tourists than those of the Palatine, likely as its bleached white pillars better fit with most people’s conceptions of the ancient era.

We pass the remains of the Temple of Antonius and Faustina, one of the best preserved buildings. Emperor Antonius Pius built it in honor of his deceased wife Faustina in 141 AD. Its columns now surround a church. In contrast, the Temple of Julius Caesar has only scant remains. This one was dedicated by Augustus in 29 BC on the site where Caesar’s body had been cremated as part of his project to deify the former dictator.

In one corner we find a brick building called the Curia, a 1937 reconstruction of an original built by Domitian. The various incarnations of this building served as the meeting place for the Senate. The original building may have been constructed in the 6th century BC by King Tullus Hostilius to house elected representatives of the people. Inside are some statues associated with the Nero exhibition. In front of the Curia, a piece of black marble called the Lapis Niger covers what was believed to be the tomb of Romulus. The shrine was likely built during Caesar’s time.

The three columns of the Temple of Castor and Pollux constitute some of the more iconic remains. Legend has it that the two demigods fought with the Romans against the Latin League at the Battle of Lake Regillus in 496 BC. Naturally, they warranted a commemorative temple as an expression of gratitude.

One of the more formidable artifacts is the triumphal Arch of Septimius Severus, built in 203 AD to celebrate a victory over the Parthians by the emperor and his two sons. Scenes from the war appear on the panels. Close to the arch is the Millarium Aureum, a monument erected by Augustus that once marked the center of Rome.

We find the remains of the Rostra, a podium whose name has an interesting origin. After the Roman naval victory at Antium in 338 BC, six captured ship rams (rostra) were affixed to its front. Speeches were made from this platform, including the one made by Brutus and Cassius to placate the crowd after Caesar’s assassination. It was also used as a stage to display defeated enemies, most famously when Mark Antony hung the hands and head of Cicero here after the proscriptions of 43 BC.

In one corner are the remains of a number of temples. Eight granite columns mark the Temple of Saturn, which was also the state treasury. The Temple of Concord was allegedly erected after certain reform laws were passed by Furius Camillus in 367 BC. The Temple of Vespasian was built by Titus and Domitian to honor their father.

Another artifact of the Flavian era is the Portico of the Consenting Gods, dedicated to a number of Greek and Roman gods. Along the Via Sacra, the main strip of the Forum, we pass by the foundations of the Julian Basilica, a law court begun by Caesar and finished by Augustus.

Further on is one of the more interesting sites from both a cultural and aesthetic perspective. The only remains of the Temple of the Vestal Virgins are some broken columns in a circle. Next door is the House of the Vestal Virgins, once a three-story palace and now a pleasant park with some sculptures. Starting in the early years of the Roman kingdom, young women would be inducted into the cult of the Vestal Virgins to tend the sacred fire of Vesta. However, the sacred duty carried a heavy price as punishment for breaking the vow of chastity was being buried alive. Crueler still, the offender would be buried with a few days of food and water so as not to technically break the law forbidding burial within the city limits.

One of the most intact buildings is the circular Temple of Romulus, built by Emperor Maxentius for his son, who died in 307 AD and was deified. Naturally, Constantine had it re-dedicated after his victory. A passage in the back of this building now connects it with the Santi Cosma e Damiano church. Another building associated with the defeated emperor is the Basilica of Maxentius, the last major construction in the ancient Forum. It was begun in 308 AD but finished by Constantine. The large building was used for business and the administration of justice. The basic design of the basilica (a nave flanked by two narrower aisles) was the basis for the early Christian churches. We approach the exit and take a look at the Arch of Titus, built in 81 AD by Domitian to celebrate Vespasian and Titus’s victories in Jerusalem. One panel depicts a very recognizable menorah among the spoils carried off from the Temple.

Posted 7 September 2011


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 10

In the morning we go to the café across the street for coffee. Within the main types of coffee drinks available in Italy are many variations. A cappuccino can be served oscuro ("dark," also known as "dry" in the U.S.) or chiaro ("light," known as "wet" in the U.S.). The former entails a higher proportion of foam to steamed milk, the latter a higher proportion of steamed milk to foam. The Italian terms seem odd, but perhaps the more foam in a drink the more coffee color comes out and hence the darker the drink. We choose to have coffee oscuro style this morning.

Having the internet available at the apartment confers many advantages. For one thing, I am able to access the website for Rome’s public transit system (known as ATAC), which has a handy feature that displays the best means of travel between two points with public transportation. This morning I find a bus to take us to the ancient ruins. Bus 85 picks us up on Via Tuscolana just to the north. It gets caught in morning traffic a little, but we are at least able to see more of the city than if we travel by subway.

As the bus approaches the Colosseum, we see the remains of the Domus Aurea on the right. Nero had his palace built after the area had been razed in the fire of 64 AD, which led to speculation that the decadent emperor was responsible for the blaze. The enormous complex once covered three of the hills of Rome, but much of it was converted or razed by subsequent rulers. The little that is left is not currently open for viewing.

After debarking, we pause to take a closer look at the Arch of Constantine, the newest of Rome’s existing triumphal arches. Many of the panels come from older sculptural friezes, so Constantine appears in the company of the beloved emperors Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. The site-specific portions date from 312 AD and commemorate Constantine’s Italian campaign against Emperor Maxentius, culminating in the victory at the Milvian Bridge in the north of the city. The main inscription reads: "To the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantinus, the greatest, pious, and blessed Augustus: because he, inspired by the divine, and by the greatness of his mind, has delivered the state from the tyrant and all of his followers at the same time, with his army and just force of arms, the Senate and People of Rome have dedicated this arch, decorated with triumphs."

The Palatine and the Forum constitute a single complex spanning a number of ancient ruins in varying states of preservation. The same ticket allows entry to the Colosseum, Palatine, and Forum, but in our case our Archaeologia Card covers them all. We begin our visit at the Palatine. Legend has it that Romulus killed his brother and founded the city of Rome on this hill in 753 BC. Archeological evidence does suggest that Rome originated here, and human habitations have been found dating back to 1000 BC. In later years the Palatine became Rome’s poshest neighborhood and housed many palaces. Most of the existing ruins are from Domitian’s Palace.

We first come to the remains of baths and a palace built during the reign of Septimius Severus. Next we look down into the Hippodrome of Domitian, most likely a venue for foot races. Beyond this is the Domus Augustuna, the private residence of Emperor Augustus. We are able to look down into one open area and see colored marble floors. A vaulted cavern was discovered here in 2007 that may be the Lupercale, a hallowed site where the ancient Romans believed Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf.

Nearby is a small museum with various items found in the area. The most aesthetically interesting are some marble inlay panels and a painted plaster frieze depicting Bacchic rites. I am also intrigued by a bust of Agrippina, the mother of Emperor Nero. Beyond the museum we come to the Domus Flavio, the public part of Domitian’s complex, which was built by the emperors of the Flavian dynasty. One section consists of a portico with a floor inlaid with floral designs. We get some relief from the sun in the Orti Farnesiani (Farnese Gardens), a leafy 16th-century botanical garden laid out in what was once Tiberius’s palace.

One of the key sights is the House of Augustus. Entry is limited to a few spectators at a time, so we have to wait in a line. When we get in we find a series of frescoed walls. Nearby is the House of Livia, the home of Augustus’s wife. The structure is not accessible, but we can look through the windows and see decorated floors and frescoed walls.

Nearby we find a series of excavations known as the Romulan Huts as it is thought that Romulus and Remus were brought up here after their discovery by a shepherd. Past the House of Livia is the Criptoporticus, a long corridor lit by windows along the top and decorated with stucco designs. Emperor Caligula was assassinated here. Nero later used this corridor to connect his Domus Aurea palace with the Palatine. Temporary exhibits have been set up at some points in conjunction with this year’s Nero exhibition.

Posted 31 August 2011


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 9

The day’s antiquities tour continues with the Crypta Balbi, part of the Museo Nazionale Romano. The museum offers an interesting insight into the tradition of construction over the bones of the past that has characterized much of the city’s architectural history. The site was once home to the Theatre of Balbus, constructed in 13 BC. The building was incorporated into newer structures during medieval times. By the time of the Renaissance, little was left of the original. For now, only the upper level of the museum is open. We see some exhibits depicting how the site would have appeared in various periods, but the lower level with the foundations is only accessible with a guided tour that begins at 4:00.

As we have an hour before the tour we head to a nearby café and have macchiati for €1.00 each at the bar. The word macchiato literally means "marked" or "stained" and refers to the spot of milk added to the espresso. The customer is generally asked whether the milk should be hot or cold. As usual in a café, we first order and consume the drink, then pay at the cashier. We walk around the area for a bit and stumble upon the Fontana delle Tartarughe (Turtle Fountain), a 16th-century fountain depicting four boys hoisting turtles up to a pool of water. The turtles, a seeming afterthought, were added by Bernini in 1658. We return to the Crypta Balbi for the tour and are led downstairs to see the ancient foundations of the building, comprising the section that was once the complex behind the theatre’s stage.

Churches tend to close during the rest interval from 2:00 to 4:00. Now that we are in the late afternoon we finish up the day by visiting some of the key churches in the Centro Storico. Our first stop is Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. The 13th-century church was built on top of a temple to Minerva and is considered the only Gothic church in Rome, though one would hardly guess that from the flat, rectangular façade. Inside, the Gothic attributes are apparent in the ribbed vaults and pointed arches. Highlights include the Cappella Carafa and its two 15th-century frescoes by Filippino Lippi (1457-1504). The altarpiece of the Madonna and Child in the northern transept is attributed to Fra Angelico (1395-1455), who is buried here. St. Catherine of Siena’s tomb is under the altar. Left of the altar is Michelangelo’s (1475-1564) Cristo della Minerva (Christ the Redeemer) (1520) statue, featuring a rather well-built Christ holding the cross as if it’s a flag he’s planting. In the square in front of the church is the Elefantino, a sculpture of an elephant with an Egyptian obelisk on its back. The pachyderm was sculpted to a Bernini design in 1667.

The next church is Sant’Ignazio di Loyola, a 17th-century Baroque church with a façade by Carlo Maderno. The church is set in an elegant 1727 piazza designed with wings to resemble a stage set. The highlight of the interior is the bold, exuberant ceiling fresco by Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709). A swirl of figures appear to float in the sky around St. Ignatius Loyola, who is being welcomed into paradise by Christ and the Madonna. The painting includes some trompe l’oeil effects depicting portions of the church’s structure extending into the space above with the ceiling opening up into the sky. When I first visited this church in 1997, much of the fresco was covered by scaffolding for a restoration. It now appears in full.

Our final church of the day is San Luigi dei Francesi, a Baroque church that has been home to Rome’s French community since 1589. We have decided to try to see all of the churches in Rome that house paintings by Michelangelo Caravaggio (1571-1610). This one is particularly special as it contains three that the master painted 1600-2. The paintings known collectively as the St. Matthew cycle include La Vocazione di San Matteo ( The Calling of St. Matthew), Il Martiro di San Matteo ( The Martyrdom of St. Matthew), and San Matteo e l’Angelo ( St. Matthew and the Angel). We join a huddle of admirers standing in front of the chapel containing the works. Somewhere in the church is a minder charged with watching the crowd. Whenever the noise level gets too high or someone uses a flash, a voice of admonishment sounds out from a loudspeaker as if from the heavens.

As it is Sunday we reason that many restaurants will be closed, so instead of seeking dinner in the area we decide to back to our neighborhood. We catch a bus at a stop on Corso del Rinascimento and ride to the subway. Most places in the neighborhood are closed as well, so we make a simple meal with our groceries and some pizza from Il Mago della Pizza, by now our favorite pizza al taglio place. We are told that a fresh tray of pizza margherita will be ready in a few minutes, so naturally we wait. The simple and classic pizza margherita was made for Queen Margherita when she visited Napoli in 1899. The colors of the three ingredients—mozzarella, tomato sauce, and basil—echo the colors of the Italian flag.

Posted 24 August 2011


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 8

The bus gets us into the narrow tangle of cobblestone streets of the Centro Storico. In ancient times the area was known as the Campus Martius (Field of Mars) as it provided a ground for military training and the mustering of soldiers. Armed detachments could only cross the wall in the ceremony known as the triumph, a ritual celebration of a commander’s military success. During the late Republic, construction began in the area even though it was outside of the Servian Wall that encompassed Rome’s seven hills. The later Aurelian Wall was erected around the expanded city and enclosed the Campus Martius. The district became the center of the city in the Middle Ages and continued in prominence during the Renaissance. In the Baroque age the building craze took off, and many of the churches date to that era.

As the bus goes up Via del Rinascimento, a gentleman onboard helps us out by pointing to the stop for Piazza Navona. Though not our destination, it is close enough. We walk through the tight alleys and emerge into the open space of a piazza crowded with tourists that encloses the Pantheon. The iconic temple dedicated to the classical gods was built in its present form by the Emperor Hadrian in 120 AD on the site of an original temple built by Marcus Agrippa, whose name is still prominently inscribed on the pediment. Inside, the building impresses with its sheer volume of interior space. Though the press of tourists is annoying, one only needs to look up and lose oneself in the square coffers of the tremendous dome, all leading up to an oculus open to the sky. The dome was the biggest in the world until the 15th century and is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome. The marvel of ancient engineering was partly made possible by the oculus, which reduces the weight of the roof.

In 608 AD the Pantheon was consecrated as a Christian church, a measure that ensured its careful preservation. Secular residents include the artist Raphael and King Vittorio Emanuele II, who are both buried here. The old statues of Roman deities have long since been replaced by Christian icons and paintings. Most of the walls have been resurfaced, but we can still see some older brick portions with holes where surface decorations must have been affixed. Because it is a church it has an altar, before which a few sad-looking benches have been placed that are mostly occupied by tourists leafing through their guide books. When we exit we circle around the building and can peer down into the foundations.

We walk south to an open space known as the Largo di Torre Argentina and past a sunken area called the Area Sacra. The foundations and ruins of four temples dating to the 4th century BC are visible below. The remains also include those of the Theatre of Pompey. The structure was financed by Pompey the Great in 55 BC and set the standard template for the Roman theatre. In 44 BC Julius Caesar was assassinated in the area behind the stage where the Senate was preparing to meet. The area is now home to a cat sanctuary, so the ruins are crawling with felines.

Posted 17 August 2011


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 7

Our original intention had been to also visit the Palatine and the Forum today, but as the sun is getting hot we decide to instead do some indoor sight-seeing. We get on the metro and ride to the Termini station. Past the bus ranks in front of the train station we find the Baths of Diocletian, one of the four museums that make up the Museo Nazionale Romano. Entry to all of these is facilitated with our Archaeologia Card. The complex is primarily devoted to a museum of antiquities. Among other interesting artifacts, we notice a set of arms that once belonged to a warrior and a number of votive figures of household gods (lares and penates) of the kind that are memorably carried in the arms of Aeneus as he escapes the destruction of Troy in the Aeneid. One room has a number of honorific bronze bands, including one for the Emperor Claudius. Some tomb slabs are on exhibit, including one for Epaphroditus, the freedman who helped Nero kill himself. Another sarcophagus is finely detailed with pastoral scenes. One room is devoted to sculptures of the Persian god Mithras, around whom a cult centered from the 1st to 4th centuries AD.

The main part of the museum leads into a courtyard known as the Michelangelo cloister due to its attribution to a drawing by the architect. Scattered in the open area are a number of sarcophagi and sculptures. The huge animal heads that adorn the fountain in the center are thought to come from Trajan’s Forum. In the interior of the cloister are some exhibits detailing the protohistory of the Latin tribes.

We exit the museum and enter the actual bath complex. Built between 298 and 306 AD during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, Rome’s largest set of baths could once hold 3,000 people. Most of the structure is undergoing restoration. The only accessible portion is an arched hall with a dizzyingly high ceiling. Contained inside are two tombs with frescoes on the walls.

We walk south from the baths and stop for a quick snack of tramezzino sandwiches, each consisting of two triangular pieces of soft white bread with the crusts removed. Our next objective is to find a bus that will take us into the historic center of the city. Rome currently has only two subway lines as digging tunnels tends to threaten the foundations of millennia of historic buildings. Instead, public transit is primarily provided by an extensive network of bus lines.

Each bus stop is conveniently marked with the number of a line and the stops that it makes, but if you don’t know which stop is close to your destination you may have a difficult time. I have a bus map that I printed from the public transit site, but it doesn’t actually trace the lines, only numbers associated with the stops. We soon get on a bus that seems to take us close enough to our objective, and as the week progresses we get more familiar with the system and are able to get around much more easily. Some of the major stops even have real-time information on when busses are due to arrive.

Negotiating payment is easy with our weekly pass. If you buy a single ride ticket you need to validate your ticket onboard, but as our weekly pass was validated on our first trip we are able to forego this step. Sometimes on a crowded bus people are unable to reach the validating machine, and the person closest to it ends up taking on the duty of validating all of the tickets passed on by hands outstretched over packed bodies. Properly validated tickets need to be presented to a ticket inspector, but we never encounter one during our travels.

Posted 10 August 2011


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 6

The tour route for the Colosseum takes us up a set of steep stairs into the passageway that rings the structure. A number of objects are on exhibit here, including the bones of a variety of animals that were killed during the hunts staged inside. This summer a number of special exhibitions have been set up in various sites in the city showcasing Emperor Nero. The exhibits in the Colosseum feature a number of artifacts, including a bust of the emperor himself with a very typical Caesar haircut.

We enter the inner section through one of the many interlocking passages that were used by spectators for entry and exit. The design of the structure is so efficient that it hasn’t really been improved upon, and modern stadiums still feature the same basic layout. We walk around the perimeter and take in the breathtaking expanse, imagining how it must have looked when the 50,000 seats were filled with cheering hordes. I can’t help but wonder why Ridley Scott felt he needed to make the Colosseum appear larger in his film Gladiator as it already seems grand enough to my eyes.

An interlocking series of pens that once held animals are visible below. A wooden floor once covered this area and was coated with sand to provide traction and to soak up the blood. A new wooden floor covers one section to give an indication of how it must have appeared. The arena was used for gladiator combat, wild animal hunts, and possibly simulated sea battles, though the latter is disputed as it is difficult to imagine how the stage could have been waterproofed. Contrary to cinematic depictions, most gladiatorial combats were not fought to the death. Owners invested good money in their gladiator slaves and would have hardly wanted them to be killed. Likewise, the dramatic phrase "those who are about to die salute you" was probably seldom used if at all.

We reach a box that seems to have been the podium that was reserved for emperors, senators, and other important types. On the lower level we find a cross dedicated to Christian martyrs. In 1749, Pope Benedict XIV decreed that the Colosseum was a sacred site where Christians were killed. Although Christians were certainly murdered during the reigns of certain emperors, no evidence has been found indicating that any suffered in this stadium. However, up until the pope’s ruling the structure was being gradually stripped of materials, so we do owe the Colosseum’s preservation to his decree.

Posted 3 August 2011


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 5

Morning brings a generous amount of light streaming into the airy flat. The weather report predicts a high of 23° C (74° F) for today, which is the general temperature for our week. Neither rain nor serious cloud cover appears at any time. We have some bread with butter and jam to get started and then go to the café across the street for cappuccino and filled cornetti (croissants). We will learn that coffee is cheaper in this neighborhood than in the center of the city. A cappuccino goes for €1.00 whether consumed at the bar or at a table. Most places in town charge that much for an espresso and only when drunk at the bar.

We find that the ancient Roman acronym SPQR appears on all sorts of public works facilities, from drinking fountains to sewer grates to garbage bins. The acronym stands for "Senatus Populusque Romanus" ("The Senate and People of Rome"), the official slogan for the governing structure of Republican Rome. Today the legend provides continuity with the city’s heritage, though I am more used to seeing it emblazoned on standards carried by Roman legions in the movies than on sewer covers.

At the metro station we purchase a CIS (carta integrata settimanale) ticket (€16.00), good for unlimited rides on the transit system for a week. The ticket is validated upon the first run through the turnstile ticket validator. We experience what will prove to be the worst part of our many subway rides when we transfer at Termini, the crossing point of the two lines where hordes of people crowd into narrow passageways to get from one platform to the other.

We ride to the Colosseo stop and emerge into a throng of tourists. We want to begin our sight-seeing with the Colosseum this morning, but the guidebook has recommended that we purchase our combination ticket at the nearby Palatine, and indeed that line is much shorter. As we have decided to focus on antiquities during our visit, we purchase the Archaeologia Card (€23.00), which is good for entrance to nine sites. The other option would be to buy the various combination tickets that cover these sites for a total of €25.00, but these tickets are only valid for a few days, whereas the card is good for nine days and allows us to take our time and experience these sites at a slower pace.

Hovering around the area are a number of beefy men in cheap Roman soldier outfits mugging for cameras for pay. All of them look rather ridiculous, but those with visible and anachronistic tattoos particularly stand out. I would be impressed if any of them bore an "SPQR" tattoo, which would at least be historically accurate.

It didn’t take long for the aristocrats and magistrates of ancient Rome to realize that they could win the people’s favor more cheaply by putting on lavish entertainments than by providing practical services, a practice the satirist Juvenal would later characterize as "panem et circenses." Julius Caesar himself won early popular acclaim by investing his funds into public spectacles, and many of the emperors followed his lead. The Colosseum was intended as the biggest of the venues for crowd-pleasing extravaganzas. Construction began under Emperor Vespasian and was completed in 80 AD under Emperor Titus. It was originally called the Flavian Amphitheatre but gained its more common name from a bronze Colossus of Nero statue that once stood in this area as part of the emperor’s Domus Aurea palace complex. The massive project is thought to be partially funded by treasure seized after the Roman victory in the Great Jewish Revolt. The grand exterior features three levels of arcades with Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian capitals, three of the four capitals codified in De Architectura, the seminal 1st-century BC treatise by Vitruvius.

Posted 27 July 2011


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 4

We take a walk through a pleasant little park and into a neighborhood known as Monti. Sunken in a little courtyard below street level we find Santa Pudenziana. What is today the church of Rome’s Filipino community dates from the 4th century and is one of the oldest places for Christian worship in the city. The façade has some frescoes across the pediment, but the true wonder is the 4th-century apse mosaic inside, the oldest of its kind in Rome. The mosaic depicts Christ flanked by two female figures who are crowning Peter and Paul and other apostles. Floating above are the totem figures of the four evangelists.

Our final stop for the day is the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, one of Rome’s four patriarchal basilicas. The imposing church occupies a prestigious position on the Esquiline Hill, one of the original seven hills of ancient Rome. The 5th-century structure has been redone many times over the centuries, but its present form retains the dramatic sweep of the wide nave and flat ceiling. The oldest details include 5th-century mosaics in the apse and nave depicting Old Testament scenes. We also appreciate the 12th-century patterned floor paving, designed by a family called the Cosmati who were known for their skilled mosaic and other decorative work. The architect Bernini is buried here, though the rather standard Baroque elements seem hardly worthy as a final resting place for someone of his unique gifts.

As the churches in the area seem to be closing for services at this point, we get on the metro at the Vittorio Emanuele station and head back to the flat. Back in our neighborhood we stop at the Dem supermarket just down the street to stock up on supplies. The place fulfills most of our food needs and includes a well-stocked wine section as well as a good deli counter. Getting a bag for carrying groceries costs an extra €.05.

For dinner we consult a list of local recommendations that the flat’s owner has left us and decide to try pizza. Il Mago della Pizza, located just around the corner, serves pizza al taglio ("pizza by the slice"). A number of varieties are laid out in large, rectangular sheets and are sold by the etto (100 grams). The usual method is to just indicate how much you want through gesture. We pick up a pizza margherita, a pizza with mushrooms, and one with fiore di zucca (squash blossom) and anchovies for a total of €8.00. At the flat, we enjoy our slices with some local Frascus Lazio red wine we picked up at the grocery store. We get to sleep early due to the long overnight flight and jet lag.

Posted 20 July 2011


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 3

Having been duly reminded of our mortality in the crypt of the Capuchin monks, we head to another church for a very different experience. Just north of the piazza we find Santa Maria della Vittoria. The church itself was designed by Carlo Maderno (1556-1629), a late Renaissance architect best known for the façade of St. Peter’s. The highlight of the interior is Bernini’s sculpture Santa Teresa traffita dall’amore di Dio, known in English as The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. The saint is depicted as pierced by a golden shaft wielded by an angel, an incident recounted in her autobiography. Both the source text and the sculpture have undeniable evocations of sexual ecstasy. The sculpture is very nicely installed in the space. A window above lets in light and provides perfect illumination at certain times of the day. At other times, dropping a €1.00 donation in a box activates lighting, which is common in churches with popular pieces of art. On the other side of the aisle from the piece is a sculpture of a man in a similar, though hardly rapturous, pose.

We go for a walk down the main thoroughfare Via XX Settembre, a name that commemorates the date in 1870 when Rome was captured by the forces of unification and Italy was united in a single nation. We reach the intersection of Via delle Quattro Fontane, a quaint crossing with 16th-century sculptures at each corner depicting the goddesses Diana and Juno and the rivers Tiber and Arno.

At the intersection we find the church San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, designed by Baroque architect Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). The undulating façade leads into a lovely, light-infused interior that has a much more airy feel than the tight space would suggest. The ceiling of the dome has an intricate pattern of crosses, octagons, and squashed hexagons in gleaming white.

Just down the street is Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, a church designed by Bernini. The façade’s classic pediment is livened by a curved entrance portico. A wedding is taking place inside, but we are able to take a peek. The oval interior is masterfully designed, carrying the eye up to a golden coffered and domed ceiling.

The close vicinity of these two churches by Bernini and Borromini allows an interesting comparison of the styles of the two contemporaries and rivals. Among other scandals, Borromini was enraged that Bernini was chosen to take over the design of St. Peter’s basilica after Carlo Maderno’s death. Bernini was the chosen artist of Pope Urban VIII (of the Barberini family) and Borromini a favorite of his successor Pope Innocent X. The two differed in approach as Bernini aimed to evoke an emotional experience with his designs, whereas Borromini was more interested in the intricate use of pure geometric forms.

Posted 13 July 2011


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 2

Our temporary neighborhood in Rome consists of a compact series of residential blocks between the two main streets Via Appia Antica and Via Tuscolana. Interestingly enough given our fascination with the city’s ancient history, the area seems to have many streets named after historical and legendary Romans of the pre-Imperial era. Some refer to characters in Virgil’s Aeneid: Via Enea (Aeneas), Via Eurialo (Euryalus), Via Niso (Nisus), and Via Turno (Turnus). Two others, Via Muzio Scevola (Gaius Mucius Scaevola) and Via Clelia (Cloelia), are named after legendary heroes from battles against the Etruscans in 508 BC. Viale Furio Camillo (Marcus Furius Camillus) and Via Manlio Capitolino (Marcus Manlius Capitolinus) commemorate two leaders pivotal in the defense of Rome during the 387 BC invasion by the Gauls. Via Coriolano (Coriolanus) references the likely legendary general whose story is most memorably told in Shakespeare’s play.

We walk down the main street Via Appia Nuova, which runs parallel to the ancient Via Appia Antica to the south, and reach the Furio Camillo metro station in just a few minutes. The €1.00 ticket is good for any combination of rides on public transit for a period of 75 minutes once it is validated. In general, we find the metro very efficient. Displays on the platform indicate when a train will be arriving, which is seldom longer than three minutes. A recorded voice in the train announces the stations and indicates which side the exit will be on. The ride into the center of the city takes only about 15 minutes.

We get off at the Barberini metro station and emerge at Piazza Barberini for our first glimpse of the city center. The piazza is named after a family who arrived in Rome in the 16th century after fleeing the Medici in Florence. They obviously did very well for themselves as Maffeo Barberini was elected Pope Urban VIII. In the center of the square is Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s (1598-1680) Fontana del Tritone (Triton Fountain), depicting the sea god Triton. At the northeast corner is Bernini’s smaller Fontana delle Api (Fountain of Bees), a charming fountain that incorporates sculpted bees from the Barberini family crest.

We then proceed to the nearby Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, a 17th-century church. We take a quick look inside the simple and unadorned space before exiting to wait in line to see the crypt, the real reason to visit the place. Cardinal Antonio Barberini, the brother of Pope Urban VIII, was a member of the Capuchin order who initiated the tradition of having the remains of deceased Capuchin brothers exhumed and transferred to the crypt. The total at this point is about 4,000 skeletons of monks, all brought here between 1528 and 1870. Not content to simply place the bones in tombs, the monks instead devised elaborate decorative schemes with the remains of their brothers and ended up with what is today a morbidly fascinating tourist attraction.

The crypt takes the form of a long, narrow hall along a number of divided cells. Entry is limited to a few people at a time due to the tight space. A €1.00 donation is requested. Each cell contains hundreds of human bones, some combined in inventive decorative ways and others stacked up on the sides. Some cells contain graves and mummified remains. Even the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling are made of bones. In the final cell is the pièce de résistance, a sculpture of the Grim Reaper complete with scythe and balance made entirely with human bones. The memento mori message is made explicit on a placard with a phrase in a number of languages: "What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be."

Posted 6 July 2011


Rome, the Course of Empire: Entry 1

I found Rome a city of clay but left it a city of marble.
—Emperor Augustus’s official final words

The Sparrow and I recently took advantage of the springtime weather to take a trip to Rome. Though we naturally spend a lot of time enjoying the food and drink, we also made an effort to focus on the ruins of the wonders of ancient Rome. The entries that follow will relate our experiences.

We land on time at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, located on the Mediterranean coast near the mouth of the Tiber River. This modern port of entry is close to the site of Ostia Antica, the ancient Roman port just to the south. After quickly clearing customs and immigration, we work on calling the owner of the flat we will be staying in. We first made contact with her through an online service,, and chose to stay in her place after some cordial correspondence. The first public telephone we try is only semi-functional and eats the coins we put in it. The second one is better and I am able to call and leave a voice-mail message for €.50.

We next have to get a train from the airport into the city. The simplest and most popular line is the Leonardo Express to the central train station at Termini, but we have been informed of a route that is cheaper and more direct for our destination, the FM1 local train. The automatic ticket machine at the station adjoining the airport is confusing as our destination station is not listed, but we punch in another station on the line and are able to purchase tickets for €8.00 each. We next have a problem identifying the correct train as the train number is not listed anywhere. We figure it out after asking one of the conductors and verifying the final destination of the train on the regional transit map.

The train isn’t very full as most people take the express train, and we are glad to avoid the inevitable mess of transferring to a subway at Termini even though our train makes many local stops. The green Italian countryside soon gives way to blocks of suburban housing and after about 40 minutes we reach the station called Tuscolana. The walk to the flat takes us about 15 minutes through a very residential neighborhood.

Once we reach the building we are buzzed in and ascend to the third floor on a charming little elevator. The owner gives us a warm greeting and comments that we have arrived faster than any of her previous guests, which makes us feel a little better about our stumbling around at the train station. She shows us around a bit and leaves us a long pamphlet describing everything we need to know. The flat is full of amenities made available to us. She has even left us a variety of simple breakfast foods as well as sliced meats, eggs, milk, juice, and other items in the refrigerator.

Her brief description of the three separate bins used for recycling and garbage proves to be a little confusing, and we need to cross-reference the city recycling website with an Italian-English dictionary before we really figure out what goes where. The bins down on the sidewalk by the building are for recycling only. Regular garbage and food waste is apparently picked up by a woman who comes by on certain mornings, but we are also able to find garbage bins on the main street to drop off refuse.

We settle into the place after the owner leaves us. The flat is on a corner of the building and gets plenty of light. The balcony is a nice perk, though we observe that people in this area use their balconies more for storage and for hanging laundry than for sitting and enjoying the outside air. After the Sparrow manages to figure out the drip function on the coffee machine we get some caffeine into our systems and snack a bit before getting out for some sight-seeing.

Posted 29 June 2011


Guadalajara, Mexico’s Cultural Capital: Final Day in Guadalajara

For dinner I go to a restaurant called La Chata (Avenida Corona 126 at López Cotilla). The place has been known for its comida típica (home-style food) since 1942 and is recommended in all of the guidebooks, but I have always hesitated coming here as there is a line every time I walk by and my sense of propriety has kept me from occupying an entire table by myself. Tonight, the promise of delicious food compels me. One peculiarity is the placement of the kitchen in front and the dining area in back, perhaps a design intended to lure in passersby that is clearly unnecessary as the place does very well on its reputation. The specialty of the house is the platillo jaliscience, a combo of chicken and five side dishes. The pozole is also considered special. I instead opt for the plato combinado (M$73) with an agua fresca de horchata (M$22). The extraordinary meal begins with chips and four kinds of salsa: verde, pico de gallo, chipotle, and spicy red. I know I should save my appetite for the main course, but the salsas are so fantastic that I cannot stop eating chips. The main plate consists of chicken drenched in rich mole (Thick sauce made with dried chiles, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and spices), a chile relleno (A dish originating in the city of Puebla consisting of a mild poblano pepper stuffed with melted cheese and other ingredients, then battered and fried), rice, frijoles refritos, and tortillas. I eat my fill and much more so, but it is truly one of my most memorable meals in the city.

After today’s lessons, I have lunch with my classmates at the Sirloin Stockade (Galeana 387 at Avenida Juárez), a bizarre place that closely resembles an American chain steakhouse. I opt for a cheeseburger served with papas a la francesa (french fries) for M$71.

After lunch the three of us go back to the school for the conversation session. Strangely, today there are more foreigners than Mexicans, and I am paired with a young man named Paul. Paul was in my group yesterday as well and struck me as not quite Mexican in his style and mannerisms. I find out he is actually from Switzerland and has been living here for the past ten years as an artist.

Today there are a number of signs that the city is preparing for the Día de los Muertos celebration coming up on 1 November. The Mexican tradition is a combination of the ancestor worship rituals of the indigenous peoples and the Catholic All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Offerings to altars are made to remember friends and family who have passed away. Skulls appear in a number of whimsical forms as a way of honoring the deceased. A market has been set up in the Plaza de los Martires selling skull-shaped candies, pastries, and other products. Along Avenida Juárez and in some of the plazas have been erected many skeleton sculptures constructed I believe by students. Each one is a marvelous piece of found-object cleverness and sense of craft.

I visit the Mercado Libertad just south of Plaza Tapatía. What is still sometimes known as the San Juan de Dios market was constructed here in 1888, but the present three-tier structure dates from the 1950s and is reputed to be the largest indoor market in Latin America. I enter on the southwest side and am immediately struck by the smell of fish as I have managed to walk into the seafood market section. I walk on and pass by a number of sections for clothing, electronic goods, and fruits and vegetables. The food stands are particularly tempting, and I wish I hadn’t eaten such a big lunch.

My final bit of sight-seeing is the Templo de Aranzazú (Fray Antonio Alcalde and Prisciliano Sánchez). One of my guidebooks calls it one of the prettiest churches in the city, but it has always been closed when I walked by. This afternoon the doors are finally open. The little church was built from 1749 to 1752 and boasts three gilt Churrigueresque altars, each with a number of sculptural details and statues. I find it perhaps a little too Rococo for my taste, but I can certainly appreciate the uniqueness of this church.

For dinner I head to my favorite taquería, Los Faroles, and order a chicken huarache (A dish consisting of a masa (cornmeal dough) base fried and topped with a variety of ingredients) (M$40) with salsa verde. The salsa needs to be chosen in advance as the corn flat is smothered with it before adding the chicken and onions on top. Afterwards, I stop at a pleasant café lounge called Café Benito (Avenida Juárez and Ocampo) and order a Minerva, a locally brewed Vienna lager (M$35). The bar apparently specializes in various concoctions made with beer, and I am asked if I want the beer mixed with chocolate. I choose the simple, unadulterated option.

The taxi arrives early, so I quickly eat breakfast and go. The ride is a brisk twenty minutes to the airport and costs the promised M$200. Everything is efficient and there is no immigration line to go through.

One of the reasons I have arrived at the airport so early is to allow plenty of time to shop for tequila in the duty-free shops. While trying to sort through an extensive selection in one of the stores, I get into a conversation with a young clerk named Andrés. He is apparently a self-taught language student who has studied a number of European and Asian languages and is working on Hindi. We chat amiably for a while in English and in French. When his shift ends I finally settle on a couple of bottles. While waiting for my flight I am approached by a man taking a survey on airport facilities. I am happy to answer his questions as they represent my final opportunity to converse in Spanish.

Posted 13 April 2011


Guadalajara, Mexico’s Cultural Capital: A Museum of Local History

This morning I finally see other guests at the hostel, a man and a woman who are apparently in town for a medical conference, though I find it odd they are staying in such basic accommodations. After class, I get lunch at the super market again and pick up a can marked chabacano juice as it sounds like some exotic fruit. Only when I sip it do I discover it is simply apricot juice. Such are the quotidian surprises of negotiating foreign languages. For today’s conversation session I am paired with three locals to engage in a sort of mock trial in which the English speaker is to take on the role of the accused and defend himself against the others, after which we discuss crime in general and I am filled in on the places to avoid when travelling in Mexico.

After the conversation session I go to the Museo Regional de Guadalajara at the northeast edge of the Plaza Liberación. I am able to get in free due to my student card from the school. Admission is usually M$40 with a camera fee of M$45. The building was originally built from 1743 to 1758 as a convent, but it has been a mansion, a barracks, and a school. The courtyard is lovely and has a grove of trees and a few old carriages. The exhibit begins with a full skeleton of a mammoth unearthed in 1962 and continues with artifacts from the early cultures that inhabited the area, including the Tarasca and Chupicuaro cultures. My favorite objects are some dog sculptures and obsidian knives.

The art collection includes paintings from the colonial period that are clearly influenced by Spanish art, including the canvasses of Jose de Ibarra (1685-1756), one of the most important Mexican painters of the era. Ibarra was born in Guadalajara but didn’t get started until he went to Mexico City. The most interesting paintings for me are a series of eleven huge canvasses depicting scenes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi that are reputed to come from the school of Bartolomé Murillo (1617-82) in Sevilla, if not from the noted Spanish painter’s own hand.

The exhibit chronicling the history of Jalisco state is also interesting. A number of maps show the early routes of the conquistadores of the area. Paintings depict key events, including the 1862 Battle of Puebla against the French, the event commemorated on Cinco de Mayo. A number of old pictures show how the colonial buildings and churches that now look out open spacious plazas were once in more crowded settings.

In pre-colonial times the primary civilization in the western central highlands of Mexico was that of the Tarascos, who managed to maintain independence from Aztec domination. The Spanish conquest arrived in the form of Nuño de Guzmán, a particularly brutal conquistador who brought the area under his control from 1529 to 1536. His atrocities against the natives were heinous even by the standards of the day, and he was sent back to Spain and imprisoned for life in 1538. The first town called Guadalajara was founded by Guzmán in 1532. He christened it after his home town in Spain, whose name derives from the Arabic word wad al-hayara ("valley of stones"). But the settlers moved in 1533 to a site near the village of Tonalá, now part of the greater municipal area. This location was attacked by indigenous peoples in revenge for Guzmán’s cruelty, and the occupants moved again in 1542, this time settling near where the Teatro Degollado now stands. The city was made the capital of New Spain’s Nueva Galicia province in 1560.

Once the Mexican War of Independence began in 1810, rebellion leader Miguel Hidalgo retreated to Guadalajara after a number of early successes. He set up a revolutionary government and signed a proclamation ending slavery that is commemorated in the Palacio de Gobierno, but he and his soldiers were forced to flee in 1811. The independence struggle ended successfully in 1821, and Guadalajara was declared the capital of Jalisco state in 1823.

In the 1850s, struggles between liberal and conservative sides erupted into the War of the Reform. During this time liberal President Benito Juárez installed his government in the city, and heavy fighting took place here from 1858 to 1861. Later, Juárez’s suspension of interest payments to foreign countries prompted the French Intervention and the entry of French troops into Guadalajara in 1864. The uprising against the dictator Porfirio Díaz in 1910 led to the Mexican Revolution and heavy fighting in the city between Pancho Villa’s army and constitutionalist forces. After the nation achieved political stability, the city’s population started to experience rapid growth starting in the 1930s. Recent development and the influx of foreign capital have led to the city becoming the center of Mexico’s tech industry.

Next week: Last day in Guadalajara.

Posted 6 April 2011


Guadalajara, Mexico’s Cultural Capital: One More Piece by Orozco

For dinner I decide to try out one of the choices recommended in the handbook given to me by IMAC. La Gorda (Avenida Corona and López Cotilla) has apparently been serving traditional Mexican fare since 1956. I understand that one of their specialties is pozole. Pozole (literally "foamy") is a soup with chicken or pork, hominy, lettuce, and radishes that is very common in Jalisco and nearby states. Chiles or tomatillos are frequently added to produce red or green varieties, respectively. The dish has pre-Columbian origins and once had ritual significance. Some research even suggests that human meat from ritual sacrifices was once used, but the Spanish conquest thankfully resulted in a more palatable recipe.

The pork pozole can be ordered in a number of versions: cachet (cheek), trompa (snout), lengua (tongue), pierna (leg), or oreja (ear). I play it safe and order a medium pierna for M$46 and a small agua embotellada for M$16. The meal begins with tasty salsas and a plate of tortilla chips, which are commonly served in the form of whole small corn tortillas instead of the triangles I am used to. The enormously tasty bowl of pozole comes with shredded pork leg, lettuce, onions, and grits swimming in a broth. I can’t help but be charmed when the waitress repeatedly calls me "joven."

Today we spend part of the morning class taking a field trip. The five of us are paired up with five locals so we can practice speaking in Spanish and English on our walk to our destination, which is the nearby Santuario de Nuestra Señora del Carmen (Avenida Juárez and Calle 8 de Julio), a neoclassical church constructed from 1820 to 1830. The most interesting detail is the fresco in the dome. We then walk across the street to the Ex Convento del Carmen, a former convent that was nearly destroyed in 1860 by cannon fire during the Reform War. It now houses various art spaces. The main gallery is closed, but we are able to see some photographs along the courtyard wall.

Today I finally locate a supermercado at Avenida Juárez and Enrique González Martinez and pick up fruit and a sandwich for lunch. After the conversation session I head outside the Centro Histórico. My walk takes me west on Avenida Juárez through the Parque Revolución, which is a bit more rundown than the other plazas but is popular with skateboarders. I come to a building affiliated with the Universidad de Guadalajara (Avenida Juárez and Escorza). The modern art museum, Museo de las Artes, is closed as there is no exhibition on, but I am able to go into the Paraninfo, an auditorium with a fresco painted by Orozco from 1936 to 1939. Over the stage, a clutch of emaciated forms in flames attack men wielding books. I am not sure what the painting signifies as it seems to be a particularly odd one for a university, but perhaps it is a critique of the kind of book-learning and theorizing that offers little help to the starving masses, a lesson anyone in a university would do well to remember. The cupola depicts a group of what I assume are historical figures bunched together.

Just to the south is the Templo Expiatorio, a looming Gothic church built from 1897 to 1972 in a very northern European style with rustic chandeliers, intricate ribbing, and tall stained glass windows. Three times a day, figures of the twelve apostles march out from a door in the clock tower, but I don’t feel like waiting around to see them. I walk on a little into the Zona Rosa area, an upmarket neighborhood, but it is more of a night-spot than a daytime area and I soon turn back.

Tonight at the Teatro Degollado is a tango performance by a singer named Esther Solar and her group. Couples demonstrate a very showy ballroom tango, but I do enjoy the duets with keyboard and bandoneón, and Esther Solar herself is a fine singer. The group also performs some Argentine folk dances. I also see a group of women performing energetic mariachi music at the bandstand at Plaza las Armas.

I drop into the Templo de San Francisco (Fray Antonio Alcalde and Prisciliano Sánchez) for a peek. The church features stone pillars and a dome with some very modern stained glass windows. For dinner I go to my favorite taquería Los Faroles again. This time I get a set of tacos, which are M$7 each but very small. I get a couple with the standard and very comforting pork al pastor but also try the carnitas with oreja (pig’s ear). I also get a quesadilla (M$12) with tasty cheese. This time I am able to fully indulge in the suite of four types of salsa to spice up my food. To drink I try an agua fresca de Jamaica (hibiscus) (M$17).

I understand that one of the local fútbol teams, C. D. Guadalajara (better known as Chivas), is playing in town tonight. The club plays in the Primera División and has historically been very successful in Mexican tournaments, but lately they haven’t been doing so well and are pretty far down on the current league table. On the way back to the hostel I find an exuberantly decorated bar showing the game on multiple screens. Unfortunately, the only beer they have is the oversold Corona (M$20), but the local crowd is very involved and enthusiastically cheers on every attempt at goal however feeble. The match against Toluca ends in a disappointing scoreless draw.

Next week: The history museum.

Posted 30 March 2011


Guadalajara, Mexico’s Cultural Capital: Orozco’s Masterpiece

This morning I have time for a more leisurely breakfast at the hostel and can relax with my coffee and undistinguished Bimbo brand white bread toast. By this point it has dawned on me that I seem to be the only one staying at this hostel. Throughout the week, I will become acquainted with the three staff members who man the place: the young man who arrives in the morning and puts out breakfast; a young woman who takes over in the afternoon; and an older gentleman who works the night shift and whom I usually see watching TV in the little patio in the front of the place.

As I had quite a load of meat yesterday I decide to have a simpler and healthier lunch today after class. I have trouble finding any sort of supermarket beyond the ubiquitous Oxxo shops (a sort of local 7-11) and have to settle for a small tienda abarrotes ("grocery store"), where I pick up bananas, fruit juice, bread, and some fresh queso blanco.

In today’s conversation class I am grouped with three other Mexicans as there are many more locals than foreigners. Although we are first told to come up with an ad campaign for a fictional cleaning product, we soon move on to chatting about other matters like cultural differences and politics. Explaining both why Texans feel passionately about the Alamo (an event that my conversation partners have never heard of) and why most Americans don’t care presents quite a challenge for my Spanish skills. When the conversation covers Mexican politics I am ashamed that I know little about the current president Felipe Calderón but am not surprised that he is known for his aggressive battle against the narcotraficantes.

After conversation I take a quick walk to do some sight-seeing. On one of the pedestrian stretches leading to the Plaza Tapatía I see a fountain spraying in time to a recorded waltz. I need to stop being surprised at the little grace notes I come across in this very cultural and artistic city.

The Instituto Cultural de Cabañas at the eastern end of Plaza Tapatía is free today and is open until 6:00, so I take my time enjoying it. It costs M$30 extra to take pictures, but the main exhibit is too darkly lit for photography anyway. The extensive complex was founded in 1810 as an orphanage and home for invalids and was designed by famed Spanish architect Manuel Tolsá (1757-1816). It was converted into a cultural center in 1980. The many halls along the courtyards hold a number of permanent and temporary exhibits, but the main reason to come here is a central building with rotunda where from 1938 to 1939 Orozco painted a series of 57 murals that many consider his masterpiece. A number of benches allow for calm contemplation as well as lying down and looking at the ceiling, where some of the finest murals are located.

The north section of the building seems to deal with the early years of the conquest of the New World and depicts horses with vague riders bristling with spears, a mechanical horse with a mounted gun and a chain for a tail charging pained figures, armored soldiers clashing in a riot of swords and armor, a wheel rolling over buried forms, a half-metal Spaniard with corpses at his feet looking mournfully into a woman’s eyes, and faceless armored soldiers lurking behind columns. At the far northern end, two solemn bearded Spaniards preside over the slaughter.

The south wing appears to be inspired by a later stage of the colonial era and has robotic creatures, dark figures raising their fists in rebellion, men with odd heads tied up like bundles of straw agitating behind barbed wire, a Spaniard resting against a cross, a knight on a two-headed horse and a robot felling foes, women bowing before a priest as he blesses young girls, and a robed priest with a cross sharpened into four sword points with a man huddled at his feet.

On the ceiling of the cupola is a painting depicting a man in flames rising past the blackened forms at his feet, an image that suggests both transcendence and Promethean sacrifice. Along the base of the dome are a number of small icons: a headless sculpture, a figure trapped in a block of stone, an Icarus figure with wings in flames, a man swimming towards a ship, a stack of girders, and several more ambiguous images. At the corners of the dome, men armed with guns and swords climb up the stones as if battling their way towards the promise of release by fire.

In the east and west wings are smaller paintings depicting two pious men ignoring the corpses piled behind them, two figures savaging each other before an Aztec pyramid, two grotesque creatures before another pyramid, and a ship being engulfed by a gigantic wave. Much of the symbolism obviously refers to the bloody decades of oppression and slaughter that make up Mexico’s history, whereas other images are more obscure. Together the murals form an impressive body of work, a sort of negative image to the Sistine Chapel painted by an artist who had lived through too many horrors to have much faith in the human spirit. I spend quite a long time soaking in the work and have the chance to listen in on a guide explaining some of his interpretations to a tour group.

Afterwards, I walk through the various galleries. One is filled with local arts and crafts. Another has portraits and other art inspired by Miguel Hidalgo and other revolutionary figures. A few galleries contain a temporary exhibit of modernist landscapes by Mexican artists.

Next week: Never enough Orozco.

Posted 23 March 2011


Guadalajara, Mexico’s Cultural Capital: Birria, Local Specialty

Apparently, October is a cultural festival month and many events are scheduled for the "Fiestas de Octubre." Each evening at 7:00 a free performance is put on behind the Teatro Degollado. Tonight, a group from Colombia called Herencia Viva are performing folk dances that resemble mating rituals to the music of traditional instruments. Even more interesting is a solo artist dancing Cumbia, a genre indigenous to Colombia.

On the way back to my hostel, I stop at the central square of the Nueve Esquinas neighborhood, which boasts a nice fountain and benches. A placard states that this area was once the commercial heart of the city, though I never quite figure out which corners comprise the nine that give the barrio its name. Birria, a spicy meat stew originating in Jalisco made with goat, lamb, or mutton and a base of dried roasted peppers and other spices, is a specialty here, and all of the guidebooks recommend getting it at the Birriería las Nueve Esquinas (Avenida Colón 384 at Leandro Valle). The restaurant is open to the square and colorfully but tastefully decorated. The menu has a number of selections but only two types of birria, barbacoa de Borrego (slow-cooked lamb traditionally roasted in maguey leaves) and birria de chivo (steamed goat). I opt for the chivo (M$69), which comes in a number of sizes: orden, chica, and machito. The waiter explains that a machito is a little bit more ordered by a customer who hasn’t quite had enough. I get the chica and am glad I do as it is already quite large and comes with a number of sides, including chips, two types of rich house-made salsa (a roja and a verde with pieces of avocado), frijoles refritos, raw onions, limes, and pickled onions. The meal also comes with tortillas made fresh in the restaurant’s tortillería. The birria is served in a ceramic casserole and is superb. I order a Negra Modelo (M$19) beer with the meal.

The common Mexican beers like Corona, Pacífico, and Tecate are as undistinguished as the standard macro lagers that one finds mass produced in the United States. However, the intrusion of the French and the installation of the Austrian Emperor Maximilian I from 1861 to 1867 had an unexpected beneficial effect on Mexican beer. Brewers in Vienna had developed a style known as Vienna lager in 1841 and imbued it with more complex flavors than a standard lager. Some of these Austrian brewers emigrated to Mexico and brought the style with them. Today the most popular Vienna lagers are Dos Equis Amber, Bohemia, Negra Modelo, and Minerva, the last one a local Guadalajara brew.

Next week: Orozco’s masterpiece.

Posted 16 March 2011


Guadalajara, Mexico’s Cultural Capital: Touring the Architectural Delights

After all of my school activities are done for the day I finally have some time for a bit of sight-seeing. I begin at the Palacio Municipal (city hall) north of Plaza Guadalajara. Though it looks like another colonial building, it was actually built in 1952 in the colonial style to fit in with the surrounding architecture. At the end of the lovely interior courtyard is a stairway over which is painted a mural by Guadalajara artist Gabriel Flores (1930-1993) called Fundación de Guadalajara (1962). Each of the five panels takes a cynical view of the history of the city:
La Conquista Material contrasts the corpses of the natives with the resplendent armor and horses of the Spanish invaders.
Muerte de Pedro de Alvarado shows a conquistador notorious for his cruelty suffering a fatal fall from his horse while dead souls bear witness from beneath the earth.
La Fundación de Guadalajara depicts the triumph of the Spanish.
La Conquista Espiritual portrays a priest planting a cross in a ground littered with corpses.
El Paseo del Pendón shows the city complete and constructed.

A block north of the Plaza de la Liberación I find the Galería Jorge Martínez (Belén 120 at Avenida Independencia), an art gallery with an exhibition of self-portraits by Jalisco artists. I have heard that Guadalajara is known as Mexico’s cultural and artistic capital, so I am not surprised to stumble across small galleries and public art displays.

At the eastern end of the Plaza de la Liberación is the Teatro Degollado, begun in 1856 and finished 30 years later. The neoclassical building was modeled on La Scala in Milan, and the pediment has quite a frieze depicting Apollo and the Nine Muses. Behind the theater extend two long pedestrian strips ornamented with fountains and lined with a number of shops. They meet up with a wide square called Plaza Tapatía. Tapatío (or tapatía) is an adjective that refers to the city itself, and the residents are known as tapatíos. The highlight of the plaza is a modern sculpture called Inmolación de Quetzalcoátl (1980-82), a group of five bronzes crafted by Víctor Manuel Contreras (b. 1941)—one of which soars to a height of 80 feet over its fountain base—all depicting the ancient mesoamerican serpent god. At the end of the plaza are bronze sculptures of figures in the shapes of chairs designed by Guadalajara artist Alejandro Colunga (b. 1948).

Just to the south is a small square called Plaza Pepe Guízar (after a composer) that more popularly goes by the name Plaza de los Mariachis (Calzada Independencia Sur and Avenida Javier Mina). Though mariachi music is indigenous to Jalisco, I imagine the rechristening of the plaza is due to commercial rather than historical reasons as the area has all the appearance of a tourist trap before it has been sprung. Touristy restaurants line the plaza, which is filled with metal tables that I understand get populated after dark. Some sad-looking musicians in mariachi regalia are sitting around waiting for the evening to begin.

Overlooking the square is a church called the Templo Santa Eduviges, built in 1726 and characterized by a sort of gaudy blue and gold interior. The Templo de San Agustín (Morelos and Belén) is more attractive, a baroque church with a single nave with rusticated stone arches, columns, and altar. It was constructed at the end of the 17th century by the Agustin order. The final church of the day is the Templo de Santa María de Gracia (Avenida Hidalgo and Venustiano Carranza), another stone church that functioned as the city’s first cathedral from 1549 to 1618. At this hour, the interior possesses a particularly nice aesthetic effect as the view along the dark nave leads to a dome letting in light gently streaming down through stained glass.

Next week: Birria, another local specialty.

Posted 9 March 2011


Guadalajara, Mexico’s Cultural Capital: Torta ahogada, my new favorite Mexican dish.

After class I get out for some lunch at a taquería recommended in the guidebook called Taquería los Faroles (Avenida Corona 250 at Prisciliano Sánchez). I order a torta ahogada (M$24) and agua fresca de horchata (M$17). I let the waiter know I don’t want the dish too spicy and he agrees to give me a media ahogada.

The name of the dish literally means "drowned sandwich." A torta is simply a sandwich made with a bolillo (a small crusty roll similar to a baguette). A torta ahogada is a Guadalajara specialty consisting of a sandwich dipped in a sauce made from dried chile de árbol. A torta ordered media ahogada is partially submerged in the sauce, whereas a bien ahogada is completely submerged. The crustiness of the bolillo allows the bread to get soaked without getting soggy.

The sandwich comes in a bowl to properly contain the full complement of spicy sauce that covers the bread and meat. Eating the thing without making too much of a mess is a challenge, but the big chunks of pork and tasty sauce make the enterprise worth it. The torta even comes with two small tacos. I am also pleased with the sides: a plate of limes, a bowl of raw onions and cilantro, and four types of salsa, which unfortunately I don’t try as the dish is already spicy enough. The check comes with mints, which I find common and rather necessary given the spices and onions that predominate in Mexican meals. I sit in the nearby arcaded plaza of the Templo de San Francisco and enjoy the rest of my agua fresca (literally "fresh water"), water mixed with sugar and various fruits or other additives to make a refreshing drink that nicely complements spicy food, available in varieties that include horchata (rice and cinnamon) and Jamaica (hibiscus).

From 3:00 to 4:00 I decide to try out the free conversation session that takes place at the school. Unlike other Spanish schools in Latin America, this one provides instruction both for foreigners who want to learn Spanish and for locals who want to learn English. Indeed, the majority of students are natives learning English. The conversation session brings everyone together. Each day a different theme is introduced and people are broken into groups mixing foreigners and locals. Today the numbers are even and I am paired with one local, but the ratio varies by day. The session facilitator asks us to begin in English but has us switch to Spanish after fifteen minutes or so and then back again at regular intervals. I find the session enormously helpful for enhancing my conversation skills and invaluable for forming a closer connection with the lives of the locals.

Next week: Touring highlights of Guadalajara’s rich architecture.

Posted 2 March 2011


Guadalajara, Mexico’s Cultural Capital: First Day of Class

A complimentary breakfast is served at the hostel from 8:00 to 10:00, but I have also been asked to be at the school at 8:00 in the morning for registration and such. I reason I can probably fit in a quick bite and arrive a little late. Breakfast is simply white toast with butter and jam, juice, coffee, and cereals, but it allows me to get something in my stomach in the morning and the coffee is made fresh. Breakfast is also provided in the pleasant courtyard area just below my room, so at least it is served with ambiance.

The Instituto Mexicano-Americano de Cultura (IMAC) (Donato Guerra 180 at Madero) is just a 10-minute walk from my hostel. I am provided with a handbook and student card and taken to an auditorium where the new students are given a helpful orientation. Some of the advice is very no-nonsense ("if you drink the water, you will get sick"), and I am quickly impressed by how organized everything is at the school. I am given an interview in Spanish by a teacher to assess my spoken skills, which is used along with a written test I took earlier by e-mail to place me at an appropriate level. The handbook contains guidance on the school and city, including a list of restaurants and some recipes.

Class begins at 9:00. My instructor is a charming young woman who is sometimes not quite sure of herself but is very bright and patient as a teacher. She knows very little English, which is actually helpful. Class is every day from 9:00 to 1:00 with a 15-minute break at 11:00. The sessions consist of grammar lessons broken up with interactive games and group activities. The week focuses on the use of subjunctive and relative clauses, both of which I have a better grasp of after my time is over, and I generally find that the class is at a good level of challenge for me. Once class is done for the day, I am provided with an orientation for the computer lab. Computer use is free to students all day. Each machine has the internet and a number of learning programs of varying efficacy for both Spanish and English students. The lab is a definite plus as it allows for extra practice and easy internet access, and there are enough computers that I never have to wait for one.

Next week: The glories of a torta ahogada.

Posted 24 February 2011


Guadalajara, Mexico’s Cultural Capital: José Clemente Orozco

At the southern end of the plaza is the Palacio de Gobierno, the Jalisco state hall. The neoclassical building was begun in 1760 and sports many Churrigueresque details. It was originally the center of government for the Spanish province of Nueva Galicia. Miguel Hidalgo, considered the father of Mexican independence, proclaimed the abolition of slavery here in 1810, as commemorated in a bronze plaque. In 1858, the reformer President Benito Juárez was nearly assassinated here. Although it is a government building, visitors are allowed free access to its pleasant, shady courtyard.

At the south end of this courtyard a grand staircase leads to the highlight of the building, a fresco of 400 square meters on the walls and ceiling painted by José Clemente Orozco in 1937 depicting the violent struggles of his era. On the right wall the political circus of the decades between the wars is imagined as a host of grotesque clown-figures bearing swastikas and hammers-and-sickles struggling with each other. Religion is given a similar treatment on the left wall, a dark mass of brooding figures, vague bishop miters, crosses, coiled snakes, and skulls. At the head of the stairs are the suffering masses, bearing red flags and slaughtering each other. A single figure holds his arms outstretched as if calling upon the heavens for succor. Above it all is the immense figure of Miguel Hidalgo bearing a torch, trying to light the way to liberty.

In the upper level of the courtyard the Sala del Congreso contains another mural by Orozco from 1949 with a similarly complicated take on Mexican history. At the bottom, a group of figures including revolutionary Emiliano Zapata gather round President Benito Juárez as he signs the liberalizing laws of reform that helped Mexico’s transition to a democratic state in the late nineteenth century. Over him looms the figure of Miguel Hidalgo again, this time signing a document emblazoned with the word "LIBERTAD." Around him are a number of figures. One is masked and thrusts his bound hands at Hidalgo, another in chains screams, and others mutely suffer various other horrors. Along the east side of the upper courtyard is a hall with a dining table and various portraits and finery. It also allows fine views of the Plaza de Armas outside.

Born in the state of Jalisco, Orozco’s family lived in Guadalajara before moving to Mexico City. He was partly inspired to be an artist by the social engravings of José Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913) and studied at the San Carlos Academy in Mexico City. He began his career doing politically motivated cartoons. The era of the Mexican Revolution, the struggle against the dictator Porfirio Díaz, began in 1910 and provided inspiration for Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, collectively known as "los tres grandes" of Mexican muralists and the leaders of the Mexican Mural Renaissance. All three were influenced by leftism and social concerns and sought to express their ideas to the wider public through murals in public spaces. Unlike Rivera, Orozco held a more cynical view of the Mexican Revolution and the suffering it was producing. His symbolism is also frequently more obscure, and he seldom explained the meaning behind his works, leading to multiple interpretations. He received commissions that took him all over Mexico as well as to California, New York, and New Hampshire. His works in Guadalajara belong to his later period and include the murals in the Palacio de Gobierno (1937, 1949), the Hospicio Cabañas (1938-39), and the Paraninfo of the University (1936-39).

To the east of the Palacio de Gobierno and just south of the cathedral is the Plaza de Armas. The square’s many wrought-iron benches circle around a cast-iron Art Nouveau bandstand, made in France and given to the city in 1909 by the dictator Porfirio Díaz, not surprising as during the time known as the Porfiriato the main artistic influences came from Europe. The iron shell is tastefully decorated with caryatids with musical instruments. Local bands frequently perform here in the evenings, and while I’m sitting an orchestra strikes up various classical pieces, including a Viennese waltz and the overture from Cavalleria Rusticana.

I am finally ready for dinner and check out a place recommended in a guidebook. Café Madrid (Avenida Juárez 264 at Avenida Corona) is a classic diner featuring simple, tasty food and gentlemanly, middle-aged waiters in white jackets and bow ties. I select the enchiladas de pollo con mole poblano (enchiladas in a thick chocolate-based sauce)(M$55) from the antojitos menu with agua embotellada (bottled water) to drink (M$8). The plate comes with the ubiquitous frijoles refritos (well-fried beans), which have never been a favorite of mine, but the mole is exceptionally rich with a nice balance of chocolate flavor and spices.

Next week: Classes begin.

Posted 16 February 2011


Guadalajara, Mexico’s Cultural Capital: the Centro Histórico

My wanderings on my first day in the city take me through a number of large, leafy plazas fronted with colonial buildings. The first large open space I come to is Plaza Guadalajara, full of cafés and laurel trees. Looming over the plaza is Guadalajara’s Cathedral. Begun in 1558 and consecrated in 1618, the building went through a lengthy period of construction that saw the integration of a mix of architectural styles, mainly due to revisions under a succession of rulers. One can detect elements of baroque, neoclassical, and Churrigueresque (a Spanish baroque style). Most impressive is the neoclassical façade with its two yellow-tiled towers, constructed in the 1850s after the originals had been destroyed in an earthquake. The dome boasts a similar colored tile pattern.

The interior features Gothic vaults, Tuscan-style gold-leaf pillars, and gilt altars gifted to Guadalajara by Spain’s Fernando VII. One of the most venerated sections of the church is a glass case along the western section of the north wall. Here are contained what are allegedly the blood and hands of Santa Inocencia, a young woman who was an early Christian martyr during the Roman persecutions. Instead of the imagined disembodied appendages, I find a mannequin of a girl in a white dress. The one visible hand is mummified and covered in chainmail. Another highlight of the church is a stained glass representation of the Last Supper above the altar. I understand the sacristy contains a painting by Spanish artist Bartolomé Murillo, but it is not currently open.

The cathedral is in the center of a series of four plazas laid out in the shape of a cross. To the north is a little park that contains the Rotonda de los Jalisciences Ilustres (Rotunda of Illustrious Jaliscans), a circle of columns and bronze sculptures dating from 1953 that commemorates 20 noted locals from Jalisco state. Some of the illustrious ones are actually buried here. The only name I recognize is the painter José Clemente Orozco. To the east of the cathedral is a rectangular plaza called the Plaza de la Liberación, created in the 1980s by clearing out two blocks of old colonial buildings. The plaza is full of craftsmen selling stone sculptures.

Next week: A look at the art of Orozco.

Posted 9 February 2011


Guadalajara, Mexico’s Cultural Capital: Introduction

As another attempt to sharpen up my Spanish skills, I signed up with an immersion course in the city of Guadalajara, Mexico, and was pleased to find that the experience was rewarding in many ways. What follows is my account of the experience.

Through the window of my plane, I can see the razor-back mountain ranges, winding roads, and isolated valley villages of Mexico’s central plain finally give way to the city sprawl of Guadalajara, the capital of the state of Jalisco and Mexico’s second largest municipal area after the capital. My flight lands in the afternoon in the city’s modern and efficient international airport. Immigration and customs are both easily managed, and after getting some cash from an ATM I get out to the curb and find one of the airport-affiliated taxis that the school has pre-arranged to take me to my hostel. The driver is amiable and we chat a bit about my plans to study in the city. The ride into Guadalajara’s center takes around twenty-five minutes.

The Hostal de María (Nuevo Galicia 924 at Avenida Colón) is a pleasant little hostel located on a small plaza adorned with a dormant fountain. The standard accommodations are bunk beds in dormitory rooms, but I have reserved one of the two private rooms, which is accessed by steps leading up from an attractive courtyard with tiled fountain. The room is functional if a bit rough around the edges. Hot water is a challenge in the bathroom, but I think the problem is city-wide. Perks include cable TV and complimentary bottled water. The room is also reasonable at M$390 a night (with an exchange rate of around 12 Mexican pesos = 1 U.S. dollar).

After settling in I go out for a walk to get acquainted with the city a bit. The temperature is a pleasant 83º F and varies little during my stay. The evenings are cool enough to sleep comfortably without air conditioning, though I sometimes employ the large fan in my room to drown out noise or to keep the mosquitoes away.

The hostel is located in a quiet neighborhood called Nueve Esquinas ("nine corners") and has a typical lazy Sunday feel today. However, as I head north I soon get out of the local neighborhoods and enter the Centro Histórico. Here the streets are teeming with people out and enjoying the weekend. The stereotypical image of the standard Mexican town tends toward disordered and dusty, a contrast to Guadalajara’s well-groomed plazas, preserved historical buildings, and wide pedestrian walkways. My impression is that many people are middle-class in this area, though I understand that other parts of the city are even more affluent. People seem to have a strong sense of civic pride in streets that are clean and in common spaces that are well-maintained. The overall feel is one that I find European.

Next week: Wanderings in the Centro Histórico continue.

Posted 2 February 2011


Fighting the Good Fight in Lusaka, Zambia: Downtown Lusaka

As I still have time before my flight leaves, I decide to make an attempt to see as much as I can in the city. I start out by walking down Independence Avenue until I come to the Lusaka National Museum, which is really only fifteen minutes away by foot. The sign states that it opens at 9:00, but when I show up at 8:30 the helpful staff lets me in. The foreigner price is $2.00, but I get a discount by paying in local currency, Kw 8,000. Photos are not allowed, a policy I respect despite the absence of cameras or guards.

A museum plan shows the rather optimistic proposed new design of the museum, which was supposed to have been begun in 2000 but scarcely resembles the museum as it is today. The displays are unfortunately a bit dusty and have a thrown-together quality, but the intent behind them seems sincere and I imagine the facility suffers more from lack of funding from local donors than from lack of conviction on the part of its curators and staff. The upper floor of the museum is historical, much of which consists of poorly wrought text, photos, and newspaper clippings. The exhibit begins with early hominid skulls found in the region but jumps ahead to a map showing the course of David Livingstone’s Zambezi River expedition of 1858-64. In general, the period before 1900 is barely touched upon, perhaps because little native history was written down and what we know primarily comes from European explorers of the era.

A lot of material is presented for the colonial era, which is told from an appropriately Zambian perspective. Although the region then known as Northern Rhodesia was proclaimed British territory in 1888, Western interest really grew upon the discovery of copper in 1928 in what is now known as the Copperbelt area. In 1959, the United National Independence Party (UNIP) was formed and led the newly formed Republic of Zambia upon independence in 1964.

A number of artifacts round out the text on the colonial era. Particularly interesting is a memo from the colonial administration that defines the word "native" for the purpose of enforcing a form of apartheid. A few poor paintings depict the struggle for independence. More compelling are some grim artifacts that offer reminders of how terrible the era was, including a pile of dried sepe, an itchy substance applied to opponents as torture. Also displayed is the finger tip of a UNIP chieftain torn off by a bullet fired by a colonial policeman in 1961. For some reason, the skull of a lion that killed a woman is displayed among these objects.

Another interesting exhibit chronicles an incident in 1978 when Rhodesian commandos raided Zambia’s Luangwa district during the colonial government’s war against guerrillas belonging to the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA). A number of weapons captured from the Rhodesians are displayed. Much of the floor is taken up by a full-size mock-up of a village complete with huts and figures undertaking various village activities. The model certainly looks no more antiquated than some of the ethnographic displays at the Natural History Museum in New York.

The witchcraft exhibit is the one thing that most guidebooks recommend the museum for and rightly so. The exhibit presents the subject in an objective manner and stresses that it makes no judgment on the practice itself, merely presenting it as an aspect of the local culture. Witchcraft has been illegal since the colonial era, as evidenced by a copy of an ordnance. Various artifacts are supposed to be vested with magical properties, including an antelope horn, gourds, and several wooden figures belonging to the Chokwe people that each have specific functions. Not surprisingly, many of the objects are designed to further a man’s sexual conquests. One is a kaplati, a gourd made of bush baby skin that, when fed with peanuts, water, and mealie meal, allows the owner to sleep with other people’s wives in the night. A python skin similarly allows the bearer to commit adultery with impunity. Other objects are more malevolent, such as a figure crafted by the Nyakazi people that is used to cause fatal accidents on the road. Certain charms are used by a witch or sorcerer to attack a victim, whereas others are used by a witchdoctor and victim to ward off the attack, an arrangement that I’m sure allows for both sorcerer and witchdoctor to profit.

Another display depicts the Mukanda ceremony, an initiation rite for boys in which they are circumcized and taught basic life skills. Masks used in the ceremonial Makishi dances in accordance with these rites are on display. The musical instruments exhibit includes a rudimentary banjo made with gourd, a wooden piece, and strings; a thumb piano; a gourd crafted into a sort of xylophone; and leg rattles. The museum’s children’s corner displays charming drawings and paintings by children who have won art competitions. On the ground floor is a contemporary art collection that mostly features wooden and metal sculptures. The blend of traditional and modern in their design reminds me of some of the primitivist art popular in Europe during the modern art era, and perhaps some are a response to artists like Picasso who appropriated the African aesthetic. A final, curious object is a Fiat Topolino automobile from 1931. While making my way to the exit, I notice an HIV/AIDS information center in the lobby, another of the constant reminders of the devastation the disease has brought to this part of the continent.

I continue walking west down Independence Avenue, which gets considerably more active as I get closer to downtown. The main road passes both a Hindu temple and a mosque. Close to the museum is the Freedom Statue, a potent image of a man breaking out of chains dedicated to those who lost their lives in the independence movement.

The road passes over a set of train tracks and finally comes to Cairo Road, the heart of Lusaka. I am surprised that this main strip only has two lanes separated by a leafy walkway, making for a very pleasant pedestrian path. The road is lined with financial institutions, hotels, and many stores. Although I am the only non-African face visible, I never receive unwanted attention. I head east again on Church Road, which eventually gets me back to the hotel, making for a fine loop walk. I get back in plenty of time to change and freshen up before checking out.

While waiting in the lobby for the shuttle to the airport I see a van come by marked "African Trophy Hunting," picking up two typically attired great white hunters. I bid a final farewell to the doorman, complimenting him on the regalia of pins from all over the world affixed to the front of his uniform. Two African gentlemen ride in the shuttle with me, and I find out they are both in the international development business. We make jokes about the light traffic compared with that of India and other African nations. Shop talk quickly devolves into ribald banter about male circumcision. Their loud, boisterous laughter is contagious.

I’ve honestly never been able to spend so much time talking about my profession with people, but it seems like foreigners have very little other business in this part of Africa.

With that, my brief first visit to Africa comes to an end, though my work will likely bring me back if not to Zambia then certainly to other countries in the region. The area needs a lot of assistance in many sectors, and I’m just pleased to be part of the struggle to improve people’s lives in this part of the world.

Posted 19 January 2011


Fighting the Good Fight in Lusaka, Zambia: Zambian Cuisine

We have some time before our afternoon meetings, so we are taken out for some genuine Zambian food. The restaurant, Twa-Pandula, is apparently new as few people are aware of it. Food is served cafeteria-style. A number of meats are offered, including chicken, pork chops, bream, beef, sausage, kapenta (sardines) and the game meat of the day (buffalo). I opt for the sausage and game meat; I don’t feel as bad about eating buffalo as I would about consuming kudu or impala. The vegetable selections include Chinese cabbage, Chinese cabbage with peanut sauce, beans, eggplant, and a local plant we never properly identify whose bitterness is cut with peanuts. I take a little of everything and enjoy it all.

We eat on a pleasant outside patio under a thatched roof. To complete the meal, we are served nshima, a compacted corn meal ubiquitous in this part of Africa, where it goes under a variety of names (sadza in Zimbabwe, mealie-pap in South Africa). The nshima is rolled in the hand to form a base with which to scoop up the food. I note that only the right hand is used for eating, which requires some skill, especially when ripping apart the sausage. The total for all three of us comes to Kw 75,000, which is a great price for this quantity and quality of food and just shows that it’s usually better to eat local.

Tonight we go out to dinner with another ex-pat couple. The two take us to a restaurant at the Arcades shopping center on the Great East Road. Now that I see the Arcades close up I realize that it is a very typical mini mall that wouldn’t look out of place in any suburb of the United States. We eat at a place called Arabian Nights, a sort of Pakistani-Afghani-fusion place.

We have some issues with the service at the restaurant as our food arrives slowly, the beers are not cold, two of us order additional beers that never materialize, and our waiter is generally inattentive. They point out that he is definitely not Zambian. The food is very good when it does arrive. We share bruschetta, and I have the tandoori fish masala (Kw 76,000), which is very nicely flavored and presented, along with a Castle lager. I keep the parable of the African wedding in mind and am content enough.

My final day closes with fond farewells to the local staff and ex-pats. I feel that I’ve accomplished quite a bit in the short time and am pleased that all seem to concur. I also have to say good-bye to the trusty driver after he drops me off at the hotel.

Tonight is apparently Indian night at the Jacaranda café and a buffet is laid out. I instead opt to eat dinner at the Steaks ‘n’ Grills again. This time I have the fish tikka methi (Kw 85,000), served grilled and steaming hot with buttered naan. The fish is kingklip, an eel found off the coast of South Africa, and the meal tasty. I try a Namibian beer, Windhoek (Kw 30,000). The lifeless band is performing again. Each cover tune sounds identical as they all have the same tempo and same lackluster vocal delivery. However, the band later switches to some African songs that they perform in much more spirited fashion, eliciting applause from the African members of the audience. I finish my evening at the Marula bar and lounge with a Mosi on draft (Kw 30,000). A sinuous female singer performs African pop with a two-piece back-up. At some point, I finally decide to stop checking work e-mails and consider my weekend to have commenced.

Next week: A walk through the center of town.

Posted 12 January 2011


Fighting the Good Fight in Lusaka, Zambia: Into the Field

Today is an early day for us. My colleague has arranged to make a field visit and has invited me along. I jump at the opportunity to finally see the front line of international development. The only wrinkle is we need to be ready at 7:00 am in the morning. After packing in an early breakfast, we meet the head of our project in the lobby. He is sporting a shirt in a fantastic pattern made from traditional chitenge cloth.

We drive east on the Great East Road, not experiencing any traffic after getting out of the city limits. The road is lined with little circles of very African-looking thatched huts. Our destination is the Chongwe district, a region with about 250,000 people just to the east of the Lusaka district. Chongwe is so close that the airport is technically inside its limits. After about an hour, we arrive at a local clinic in the town of Chongwe and gather in the office of the district medical officer. A number of other representatives from local organizations are present, including the district AIDS coordinator.

We have to wait quite a while before the doctor arrives, but nobody seems worried. We talk about President Obama and how Zambians are behind him. Zambia even has an Obama Whiskey named after the president. Once the district medical officer finally arrives the meeting begins in earnest. The officer describes the district and the various challenges. The local clinic provides a whole range of HIV/AIDS activities including voluntary counseling and testing (VCT), antiretroviral treatment (ART), preventing mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT), and male circumcision. The current policy of the Zambian government is outreach and bringing these services as close to families as possible, but naturally transportation is a challenge.

We give the doctor an explanation of our project to gauge his interest. The meeting finishes up with the doctor agreeing that the project is a worthy one and requesting everyone to think about how to go forward before a second meeting is called. We consider the meeting a success. After the official meeting is adjourned, the doctor makes some jocular remarks about the new American embassy, which he says looms over the city like a medieval castle. He asks why "you Americans make yourselves so conspicuous." I retort, "and then we complain when we’re attacked." "You said that, I didn’t," he cheekily replies, to laughter all around.

We are then given a tour of the clinic. The squalor of the tiny facility is visceral and hits with unpleasant smells and sights. A number of people are lined up in front of the clinic for services, all looking ragged and sad. We are given a tour of the AIDS ART clinic, a humbling experience. Behind the facility is a lab for testing for HIV/AIDS.

On the way back to the office, we think we should see the new U.S. embassy that the doctor was talking about. We take a detour and come across a building that looks exactly as the doctor described, a vast fortress set up on a hill and surrounded by multiple layers of security. We are told that underneath the embassy is a tunnel that goes to a nearby road by the American school. The construction of the tunnel caused mysterious tremors in the ground that startled residents.

Next week: At last, a taste of Zambian food.

Posted 5 January 2011


Fighting the Good Fight in Lusaka, Zambia: The Ex-Pat Way

The day is full of meetings, which isn’t the best thing for me given continuing issues with jet lag, but I get through it all right. I attempt to get some money from a Barclays Bank ATM and find that it doesn’t accept my card as I have a Mastercard bank card and only Visa is accepted. Some research on the web reveals that this is a general problem in Zambia, and only the ATMs affiliated with the South African bank Stanbic reliably accept Mastercard bank cards. Nobody is aware of any close-by Stanbic branches, so my colleague and I agree that she can front me cash and I will pay her back. I honestly had never thought to check this detail in advance, and I’m lucky that I have plenty of colleagues to help deal with the problem.

Tonight we break up our work routine with dinner at the hotel’s other restaurant, the eponymous Steaks ‘n’ Grills. The atmosphere here is more formal dining, complete with candles and an extensive list of mostly South African wines. The restaurant is housed in a large thatched hut near the pool and is decorated like the set of Bwana Devil or some Bob Hope road movie set in Africa, basically what foreigners think of as "Africanness." The menu is divided into Indian specialties and standard steaks and chops. Interesting additions include crocodile tail, ostrich, and the game meat of the day, which is kudu today. I have the spatchcock chicken (Kw 72,000), young game chicken marinated in a mustard sauce and splayed out in butterfly fashion, and Castle lager (Kw 15,000), another Zambian beer. The tomato concasse sauce adds nice spice to the chicken, which is otherwise a little bland for my taste. The restaurant stage is occupied by what is probably the most unenthused house band I’ve ever seen, decked out in oversized suits and slogging through covers of Johnny Cash, Tom Jones, and Marvin Gaye. The lead singer, who sports a slimmer suit and a stylish hat, at least has some sense of conviction as he croons out the standards in Zambian-accented English.

I am able to devote much of the next day to working with local staff. My interaction with them is one of my best experiences in the office. For lunch, we get pizza at a popular place called Debonairs, another South African chain. The most distinctive item on the menu is the tikka chicken pizza (Kw 25,000), which turns out to be very good and nicely spiced, though the mind reels at the transmission of this gastronomical oddity: Italy to India by way of America and infused with African spices.

One of the ex-pat officers have invited my colleague and I out for the evening, allowing an interesting glimpse into the ex-pat lifestyle. She and her husband have a lovely home with pool in a neighborhood inhabited by a number of ambassadors. My colleague tells a story about how to be at ease with the African way of things. She was once stuck in Juba, Sudan when the only flight out experienced a breakdown. A colleague was accompanying her and told her what I will relate with my own embellishments and call the Parable of the African Wedding:
The typical African wedding is a disaster. The bride is having a breakdown, the groom is fighting with his best man, the in-laws can’t agree on anything, the caterers are late and everyone is hungry, the cake is early and the frosting is melting in the heat, the priest is drunk, and the band can’t play in tune. And yet, the wedding eventually happens, and everyone has a great time.

My suspicions that Zambia is very different from other African nations are confirmed by the widely travelled pair. Nairobi, Kenya apparently better fits my preconceptions, with obnoxious beggars and aggressive traffic. One of them describes his time there as existing in an atmosphere of perpetual low-grade rage. After a quick drink, we proceed to dinner at a restaurant called Marlin, located on the grounds of the Lusaka Club (Los Angeles Boulevard and Haile Selassie Avenue). The club is a relic of colonial times, and though it was fully integrated after independence it still has a largely ex-pat clientele.

The restaurant is gaudily decorated, but charmingly so, and features a menu heavy on steak, chops, and fish. We begin with a trip to the "salad bar," a table with big bowls filled with cold slaw, some sort of eggplant salad, and other rather undistinguished selections. The pepper steak is reputedly a fine choice, and three of us choose it (Kw 60,000). I am quite pleased by the cut of meat and the spicy pepper gravy, though the portion is huge and augmented with chips. I have a Mosi Gold (Kw 12,000) to drink, considered more palatable than the ordinary variety.

Next week: On the front line of international development.

Posted 29 December 2010


Fighting the Good Fight in Lusaka, Zambia: Work Begins

In the morning, a copy of the Times of Zambia is slipped under my door. The somewhat cheaply printed paper is filled mostly with local news. I go down to the Jacaranda Café for the complimentary breakfast buffet. The extensive choices include a variety of sausage, bacon, baked beans, potatoes, mixed vegetables, sambhar (though no idli), cereals, breads, three kinds of juices (guava is my favorite), and a selection of fruits. Eggs, pancakes, and waffles are made to order. I vary my selection by day, rarely resisting eggs and bacon or sausage except on days when I am glutted on meat from the night before. Good, strong coffee completes the morning. I have arranged with the local office to be picked up at the hotel at 8:30 in the morning.

As I wait in the lounge, I see cars marked with various aid agencies pull up. My organization doesn’t have a dedicated office vehicle, so I am picked up by a beat-up old Corolla driven by a friendly taxi driver, whom the office has contracted with as a semi-regular driver. My driver will be a constant source of reliable transport, good humor, and international and Zambian pop on his stereo. He greets me with an interesting three-part handshake: first the standard handshake, then what we in America know of as the "soul shake," and then the standard handshake again. It turns out both men and women employ this style with each other.

Soon after my arrival at the office, a weekly staff meeting commences and I am able to meet all of the employees. During the meeting I am struck by how incredibly soft-spoken all of the Zambians are, so much so that I feel like a loud American even with my generally low tone. I find this to be a general trait in Zambians, violating one of the stereotypes many people have of Africans.

A colleague and I stroll down to a local shopping area for lunch, passing a number of take-away places and convenience stores. We eat at Nando’s, a South African chain that incorporates cuisine from the Portuguese-influenced food of Mozambique. The menu features a number of simple salads and wraps. I get a chicken peri-peri wrap for Kw 24,000. I am warned me that even the mild peri-peri (African bird’s eye chili) is quite hot, so I avoid the medium and hot versions.

I spend much of the afternoon planning the various meetings I will have to face in the coming few days. The day goes quickly. Back at the hotel my colleague and I do some work in the lounge. One of the major drawbacks of business travel is feeling compelled to keep checking e-mail and staying on top of things during the duration of the business day in New York, which lasts from 3:00 pm to 11:00 pm Zambian time. We do take a long break to have dinner at the Jacaranda café.

We both opt for Indian choices, which I am hoping will be palatable as it is an Indian hotel. I am also frequently told that there are many Indian immigrants in Zambia, but I see few outside of travelers at the hotel. I have the non-veg dinner for Kw 75,000, consisting of a thali plate with generic curry chicken, some type of saag, dhal, spiced potatoes, rice, and some odd flatbread. Everything is tasty, it’s just a little different from what I’m used to as Indian food. Also odd are the rice-puff papadums served with mango chutney and pickled relish but no coriander sauce. We have a long conversation reflecting on our observations of Lusaka.

Next week: A glimpse into the ex-pat lifestyle.

Posted 15 December 2010


Fighting the Good Fight in Lusaka, Zambia: Meeting the Locals

My room at the Taj Pamodzi Hotel is nicely appointed with all of the expected amenities, though curiously it doesn’t contain an iron and board. I have to assume one is expected to send clothing out for pressing, an extravagance I never indulge in despite my expense account. My balcony looks out on a pleasant wooded area by the pool.

As it is still fairly early in the afternoon, I want to try to see something in the city. I check down at the reception desk for options but am told that the museum I am interested in closes early on a Sunday. I settle for taking a walk around the area. The doorman seems puzzled when I tell him I don’t want a taxi. I imagine guests rarely go for strolls.

Nasser Road in front of the hotel is lined with lovely purple Jacaranda trees in full bloom. I stroll down the avenue and pass the Lusaka Playhouse off of Church Road. A group of men grilling meat outdoors call me over and engage in affable conversation. I tell them where I am from and my business in the city. One of them is in the health field and knows of my company’s work. I am offered some of the meat on the grill but politely refuse. They let me know that nothing will be on in the playhouse until Friday, when a comedy show will be performed.

The area holds little of interest, but it is still nice to get acquainted with my surroundings in a new country. I pass a modern Anglican Cathedral on Independence Avenue, but mostly businesses take up the streets, and most of these are closed today. My simple circuit in the vicinity of the hotel brings me back around to the playhouse again where a young couple in the parking lot asks me if I am looking for something. I am rapidly getting the impression that foreigners don’t usually wander around this area, despite the presence of the hotel. The young woman explains that she is a stage actress and has a role in a soap opera.

When I get back to the hotel I sign up for the wireless internet, best available for Kw 200,000 for the week. I find the connection fairly reliable, though some of my colleagues complain about it. As the hotel does not have an ATM, I change $20 in cash for Kw 96,000 at the cashier, which strikes me as a good rate. I check my e-mail on one of the comfortable couches in the tea lounge. Occasionally, a house piano player will perform a suite of standards in this area. For dinner, I eat at the Jacaranda Café in the lobby. Tonight, there seems to be a buffet with an odd mix of continental choices. I stick with vegetables, grilled bream (a freshwater fish very common in Zambia), chicken, and a common locally grown green for some reason known as Chinese cabbage. The buffet costs a steep Kw 125,000 and a local Mosi lager (the local name for the famed Victoria Falls) costs Kw 30,000. The three most common beers, Mosi, Castle, and Rhino, are all brewed by Zambian Breweries. I get to bed early tonight as I am still jet-lagged.

Next week: Duty calls

Posted 8 December 2010


Fighting the Good Fight in Lusaka, Zambia: Introduction

The next series of blog entries will be a bit different as my trip to Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia, was business with little time for pleasure. But I experienced enough of the local culture to tell some interesting tales. I will just do my best to go easy on the shop talk.

Everything goes according to schedule on my South African Airways flight. Upon reaching South Africa, I change planes in Johannesburg’s modern and efficient Tambo airport and catch the two-hour flight to Lusaka. As the plane descends out of the haze I notice fields with sparse trees and wandering buffalo, clear signs that I am over Africa. The crop fields are curiously circular rather than rectangular in shape.

My flight lands on time in Lusaka’s international airport, which is definitely the smallest airport I have ever seen in a national capital. My airliner is the only plane of its size that I can see, dwarfing a few small planes that look barely flight-worthy. The letters "Lusaka International Airport" are written across the terminal in a font that appears to date from before independence (1964). Naturally, getting into the terminal involves a walk across hot tarmac. Immigration consists of a fairly long line but is easily managed as I already obtained my entry visa in the States.

When I get outside the terminal a representative from the Taj Pamodzi hotel is there to greet me as arranged. As the van from the hotel has not arrived yet, I get back in the airport to use an ATM, but none of them seem to like my bank card, which I will later find out is a problem I will not easily overcome.

As it is a warm 33°C (93°F), she and I opt to wait for the shuttle inside. The temperature scarcely varies over the week of my stay: hot and dry during the day, cold enough at night to sleep with a blanket. Barely a cloud appears all week. As we sit and wait, Ndinawe clues me in on Zambian culture. Ethnically, Zambians encompass a number of different tribes. The most common native languages in Lusaka are Bemba and Nyanja, both members of the Bantu language family. Because no single native language dominates, the universal language is English. The dominant religions are Catholicism and various Protestant sects. I am told that climate-wise we are now in what is known as the hot dry season (September to November), which will be followed by the rainy season (December to April), and the cool dry season (May to August). She describes Lusaka as a very friendly and safe city, which others and my own experience will confirm.

The trip from the airport takes about a half-hour on what is known as the Great East Road, a major conduit built by the British that links Lusaka with the eastern provinces all the way into Malawi and Mozambique. The road is good, the traffic light, and the way lined with trees. We pass the leafy grounds of the University of Zambia and a shopping mall called the Arcades, which today houses an open-air market. I will later learn that the shuttle ride costs Kw 96,000, but being oblivious of these details is one of the perks of business travel.

The Taj Pamodzi Hotel (Church Road and Nasser Road) towers over the surrounding area. I learn that the word pamodzi means "together." The five-star establishment is part of the Taj chain owned by the Tatas of India. Though I see the occasional stern-looking Indian manager wandering about, most of the staff is local. They are also extraordinarily friendly, which I find is general for Zambians. Every transaction begins with a mutual exchange of greetings and a friendly "how are you today?" before getting down to business. As a get-to-the-point American, it takes me some adjusting, but I find it a very congenial and civilized way to approach everyday transactions.

Next week: Boots on ground in Lusaka.

Posted 1 December 2010