Rome: Ancient Days Edition

Our Italian trip is over and done with, and we are back basking in the humidity of mid-August Taipei, but I want to make sure to document the rest of our trip. Thanks to all my copious photos and Instagramming not to mention the wealth of Wikipedia, I have some great reference points. The most anticipated part of our Italian trip was the visit to the ancient sites of Rome, because I took Latin for six years and studied mythology and Roman history for most of that time. Many sites in Rome hail from the most fascinating times in its history – the late Republic and the early Empire (about 100 BC to 150 AD). In exploring those sites, we trekked through the Colosseum and Roman Forum, the Capitoline Museums, and the Baths of Caracalla.

The most rewarding but easily most tiring day was visiting the Colosseum and the Roman Forum on a joint ticket of 12 euros. We lined up to buy tickets at the Forum as soon as things opened at 8:30 am, and scored a 9 am entrance to the Colosseum, bypassing what easily looked like a hundred and fifty people in line. Eek. The Colosseum was better known in ancient times as the Flavian Ampitheater, begun by Vespasian, who began his reign in 69 AD. His oldest son Titus continued the building, and it was finished by his younger son Domitian. Originally, wooden passageways under the floor of the Colosseum were used to channel the gladiators and beasts who fought in the stadium. Sometimes, they would be removed entirely, and the entire floor flooded with water to provide a stage for mock naval battles. (That ended after Domitian constructed stone passageways to replace the wooden ones.) It is still incredibly imposing, despite a few earthquakes over the centuries that have destabilized one side.

There was much more signage around than when Steve came last time, including some interesting permanent exhibits about the archeology done around the area. For example, we saw a lot of discarded foodstuff, and could extrapolate the ancient equivalent of popcorn and beer that the Romans would enjoy at the races. As we walked around, there was no shortage of folks who had not taken Latin for six years and decided to employed tour guides in various languages. Many of them spoke English, but it was fun listening to one family get a tour guide in very Italian-accented French. It was at least possible to hide from the sun amid the huge arches, so even though it got hot quickly, we did enjoy our time walking around the Colosseum. We capped off our visit by sitting in the shade outside admiring the Arch of Constantine and munching on some tasteless sandwiches. (There are very few food places surrounding these sights in the middle of Rome, so we had purchased sandwiches beforehand, but they were no prize either.)

Continue reading Rome: Ancient Days Edition

Rome: Pope Days Edition

Rome was hot and sunny. We have baked under the sun, trod through her streets, and walked underground beneath her buildings. We have watched many of her sunsets, but only one of her sunrises (it is usually too early for that). This was certainly the most anticipated city, but even a whole eight nights, the longest we’re staying in any one city, wasn’t enough to see everything we wanted to see. To sum up our Rome trip, we alternated Pope Days, which require a bit more modest clothing with long pants and t-shirts or shoulder-covering shirts, with Ancient Days, which generally require more sunscreen and hats since we’re out there walking from “hot ruin to hot ruin”. Steve was also slightly more enthusiastic about Pope Days, his bailiwick being more the history of early Christianity, and I of course wanted to come to Rome mainly to see the classics sites from 2,500 or so years ago, but we have a good overlap of interest in those respective topics.

I’ll get right to our favorite, the Vatican Scavi tour, which is actually a nice combination of our two interests. I think few people know that under the world-famous St. Peter’s Basilica (level one) is a church originally dedicated by Constantine in the 300s AD, and that church itself (level two) was raised above St. Peter’s tomb, which is among a hillside of Roman mausoleums (level three). This was certainly all news to me, but we learned about it during a 90-minute tour that was probably the best bang for buck we’ve spent on the trip.

The visit itself was a re-do for Steve from the last time he was in Rome, which was roughly 15 years ago. The process has not really changed, either. We wrote an email with our availability, and were sent a few dates in response. Then we had to follow another link and pay so that we would be able to go. Days were selling out even months ago! So we were really glad this was all planned in April and May. We had a little trouble figuring out where to go, but after some confusion, we followed the correct police checkpoint on the left side of St. Peter’s Basilica and presented our credentials to the Swiss Guard. The Swiss Guard, by the way, had some fabulous summer costumes on – floofy velvet hats, yellow, red, and blue ribboned pants and shirts, not to mention a very sharp pike in hand. We almost wanted a picture with one!

Inside the Scavi, we and thirteen other guests were greeted by an effusive lady named Daniela who gave us very long explanations of everything as well as some very dry jokes. After some introductions about the history of the building, we directly descended from the level just under St. Peter’s Basilica to the underground scavi. Here, it was damp, cool, and musty. Unexpectedly, we found ourselves walking through what was obviously some narrow paths beside small cottages that were Roman mausoleums. Entire families were buried there, and clear marble inscriptions said that they were for particular families, children, their freedmen and freedwomen as well. We had to duck to pass the doorways in some to look at the mosaics or the wall niches inside which held room for urns of ashes and bone. Outside, we could clearly see some beautiful fresco decorations on the wall, and one that looked like a delicate bird held my attention for a full five minutes. What’s amazing to me is that nobody knew anything about these mausoleums until after World War II. They were only initially excavated in the 1940s to locate the exact remains of St. Peter, and it took a long time to figure out which bones were his, exactly. It turns out that there was a wall built on top of the marble box that was his grave, initially constructed as a part of the wall for the church dedicated by Constantine in the 300s AD. The box itself was empty, but the wall had a cavity which contained a human skeleton, which the church now believes to be the remains of St. Peter.

When the tour ended, we were inside St. Peter’s Basilica proper, which we then walked into. First, we saw the Vatican Grottoes, which is on the second level. We saw plenty of sarcophagi of former popes, which varied from the very Baroque and flowery bronze and gold cover to very worn marble effigies which looked simple and austere. Then we emerged to the upper level,  into the church itself. St. Peter’s is vast. We have seen plenty of churches, and most of them could fit inside St. Peter’s Basilica. There were many statues, especially of marble carved to resemble fabric, like an angel or a saint with flowing robes carved of red marble. Around the frieze just under the ceiling, the immortal words of Jesus to St. Peter were carved: “Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam,” meaning “You are Peter, and on this stone (which is what Peter means) I will build my church.” There were also areas roped off for worshippers rather than idle tourists like ourselves. I even saw several confessional booths which were labeled with the different languages to which they catered – you could make your confession to a priest at St. Peter’s in English, Italian, French, and more. It’s neat things like that that make you appreciate being in a place of such international importance.

The other main draw was the Vatican Museums, which was the first thing we saw in Rome on our first full day here. It was a five-hour haul through these museums, the most impressive and large but also exhausting museum that we saw on our entire trip. Steve happened upon the right tickets online, so we jumped on it, and hustled off to the Vatican, evading touts and ticket scalpers all along the perimeter of Vatican City itself. Inside, the museums were an amazing array of everything that every pope has ever commissioned, acquired, or received as a present from various dignitaries and artists throughout the centuries. There were ancient statues like the original of Laocoön and His Sons, which you can tell is the original, because the hands of the children are lost. There are entire rooms of red and black Etruscan pottery from the 400s and 500s BC, amazing in their exquisite detail, of mythological figures or just merrymakers. It would probably take a lifetime to even just walk through every single room and look at each thing that was made more than two thousand years before you were born. One of my favorites was the Gallery of Maps, which was a very long room with exquisite maps painted on the walls of various parts in Italy, in gold and blue. The Vatican Museums was arranged in one long guided route which went one direction and ended up in the Sistine Chapel, and for most of the time, we were swept along by a tide of international tourists. Families from every country on earth it seemed like fanned themselves and chattered to each other or silently followed a tour guide with an upheld flag, listening to the guide through their Bluetooth headphones in different languages. We stepped out of that river of humanity several times to closely examine maps of Sicily or of ancient ports like Brundisium and Ostia.

One of the largest crowds was in the rooms of frescos by Raphael, including the famous School of Athens. It depicts many philosophers known to the Renaissance all arrayed in a marble courtyard, at its center Plato with one finger pointed at the sky and Aristotle with his hand facing down, five fingers splayed. I know the painting well, since I completed a 1,000 piece puzzle of the painting several years ago (not the conventional way of getting to know a piece of art, I know). In person, it’s very satisfying, being the entire width and height of a wall. It also depicts many other philosophers including Diogenes, Epicurus, Pythagoras, and more. I enjoyed that almost more than the final room that most people come to the Vatican to see: the Sistine Chapel. With its immense ceiling by Michaelangelo and surrounding frescos, the Sistine Chapel is more often known as an art gallery, but the truth is that it’s first and foremost a chapel for the Pope. In the Vatican, this is also the place that the cardinals gather to select the pope. However, most days, it is filled with hundreds of tourists (being a rather large room), who are all ushered to the center of the room so as not to impede traffic around the edges of the room. Everyone is gazing at the ceiling, trying to make sense of paintings besides the obvious one that everyone knows (Adam limply brushing the finger of God as an old man). And there’s an amazing amount to see. Possibly more because you’re not actually allowed to take photos in the Chapel. Every five minutes, there’s some guard yelling “No photo!” at some poor lady, which kind of makes it difficult to enjoy the sacred space, but anyway, some people get selfies in anyway. Either way, I appreciate the chance to just look at things. All around the chapel are larger frescos, and the frescos that run lengthwise depict the corresponding events in the lives of Jesus and Moses. There are also paintings of Old Testament prophets like Ezekiel next to paintings of the Delphic Sybil and other Sybils who are also regarded as having predicted the coming of Jesus. All in all, it’s quite a dizzying room, and you can only hold your neck at an angle for so long. At the end of an entire afternoon filled with dazzling art and beautiful examples, it’s in fact difficult not to fall asleep on your feet.

Of course, we enjoyed our time seeing these glittering examples of antiquity and the Renaissance, but it’s a word of warning to the wise: ration your time in museums, and give yourself plenty of time to recover just by sitting around and enjoying the gorgeous light and people-watching in this city. When it comes to museums, there is more than enough to keep you occupied for a whole day, but you only have so much attention and time, so keep your eye on the time.

More to come: Ancient Days in Rome and all the amazing food we ate!

Florence: Not-So-Famous Sights Edition

When we began to plan our trip, Steve spent about four hours browsing the Internet (especially sites like Atlas Obscura) and unearthing a wealth of strange museums and odd gift shops in Florence. We didn’t even get to all of them, leaving behind things like the museum full of medieval armor and fully-dressed warhorse figurines (the legacy of another Medici heir who had more money than he knew what to do with), but we saw a tantalizing few which showcases the history and culture of Florence in a different way. I’m glad to report we enjoyed pretty much all of them!

First off the bat was the Museo Galileo, our first stop in Florence. It sits on a building adjoining the Galleria delgi Uffizi. Once you get past the crowds in line to see that august museum, you find only a few people lingering in the entrance hall of the Museo Galileo, which costs 10 euro to see. This used to be named the Museum of History of Science, but deciding to abandon such a prosaic name, the museum chose to double-down on its collection of actual instruments by Galileo. Like most museums in Florence, it is another Medici legacy, with hundreds of instruments and scientific tools over hundreds of years. Through those tools like astrolabes, quadrants, and distillers, you can clearly trace the development of the disciplines of astronomy, navigation, military arts, chemistry, and more. We saw clever sundials made of thread instead of a wedge, allowing it to be closed like a pocket mirror. The biggest piece in there was a model of the solar system (constructed according to the Aristotelian model of the universe, with Earth at its center). It was gilded all over, with little clever touches such as the face of God painted under the very top of the dome. The entire thing was at least two meters tall. The actual collection of instruments of Galileo included three of his actual telescopes, which did look very old and leathery. Through them, he made discoveries like the fact that Jupiter was surrounded by its own moons (which he called “Asterae Mediciae” or Medici Stars after his patrons), a contrary claim that shook the very foundations of the Aristotelian model. After all, everything was supposed to revolve around the earth. We also saw an interesting scientific paradox machine, which showed that a cylinder does not roll down a slope if there is no friction (I really learned something there), and curiosity machines that demonstrate the effects of static electricity. These were the ways that the European middle class began to explore an interest in the popular science of the day, like electricity and physics. The Museo Galileo probably had the most well-developed English captions and guides of the lesser-known museums we were visiting, but it lacked explanation when it came to the operation and use of these instruments. For example, the thing that I understood best in that museum was a golden protractor, like the kind used in math class. When it came to how these instruments were used to determine the time of day, year, and even location on earth (especially longitude), it would have been useful to have diagrams or examples with simple calculations. In that, it was less of a science museum and more of an art museum, because the scientific instruments of the time were mostly for institutions and upper-class households, who used them to showcase their own learning and leisure through precious metals and decoration.

The Museo Galilieo is partnered with La Specola, and we got reduced admission to the latter museum a few days later, because both are among the natural history museums of Florence. While Museo Galileo focuses more on the history of science that pertains to physics, La Specola is about specimens and models that focus on biology. The crown jewel of their collection is a set of anatomical waxworks, probably hundreds (maybe even a thousand), which were produced between the 1700s and 1900s. They are incredibly life-like, and were created by wax-modelers in conjunction with doctors and medical personnel of the nearby universities. These were used for medical students to understand the inner workings of the human body, because otherwise, the only other way was to see a live dissection of a cadaver. They range from rather simple waxworks like that of a shoulder or arm with a few muscles attached to entire bodies where the circulatory or lymphatic systems are displayed in all their glory. We paid an extra 3 euro each to take the guided tour, which is the only way that one can see these waxworks. They are after all, so fragile and in need of preservation that you’re not allowed to even touch the glass and wood cases that these are enclosed in. Our guide spoke English with an extraordinarily thick Italian accent, but fortunately, she spoke slowly for our purposes. She showed us that the wax modelers began by creating a clay model of a heart or bone, and used that to create a plaster mold, which they filled with the wax of the color and consistency they needed. Then we moved on to the actual rooms, five or six in all, which were arranged by the systems they showed (circulatory, digestive, lymphatic, nervous, etc.). Each waxwork also had a correspondingly detailed picture which hung on the walls above them, which the wax-modelers also used to help them create the work. The strangest and most interesting them about them is that they look very vibrant and alive, like real people whose muscles and organs are on display. Body Worlds before there were Body Worlds, basically. And they are arranged in various poses, very much like the marble statues that we saw in the art museums. Several have a hand loosely held in front of them, as though they were about to start speaking. All of them have real human hair. One model of a woman has luxurious curls and even a string of pearls around her neck. One model showcasing human muscles is depicted stretched out on his belly and his head turned to the side, one arm flung-out as though sleeping. These wax-modelers were truly artists of their time, who saw no contradiction or even separation between the sciences and the arts. They created beautiful, lively, unsettling works that are scientifically accurate but not sterile. I loved the chance to see this different approach that was much more prevalent before the technological revolution.

Finally, the religious: we were recommended by a friend to visit the Abbey of San Miniato al Monte, high on the south side of the Arno. We went for the views, but also for the services. San Miniato is an active Olivetian Benedictine abbey, and holds masses on weekdays and Sundays in both Italian and Latin with Gregorian chant. Behind the abbey is also the Cimitero della Porte Sante, which is a quiet and lovely place to be laid to rest. To our surprise, the service was conducted with only three brothers – two white-robed brothers and one abbot who wore a gold vest over his white robes. All three sang beautifully, chanting and singing the Latin mass. Predictably, I was a few beats behind everyone else as to when to stand, when to sit down, when to join in and say, “Et cum tuum spiritum” (“and with your spirit,” in English!). There was actually about twenty to thirty people there, some tourists like us who had come to see the service, but some who lived nearby, certainly. After the early evening mass, we also saw the beginning of Vespers, which featured even more brothers. When we left, we purchased a candle and also some delicious gelato made by the abbey. The view was even more spectacular when we left near sunset. From this perspective on the hill, nearly as high as the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, we were able to see the entire city of Florence, spread out. Through the center of the city flows the Arno, crossed in several parts, by bridges new and at least one old (the Ponte Vecchio). Most were destroyed in World War II, but the Ponte Vecchio was preserved. It is so old that it has many stores and buildings constructed on the bridge. To our right was the Duomo, and to our left were smaller churches. Everything was in a golden haze at sunset.

For our last day in Florence, we did some gift shopping. First, we made a beeline for Il Papiro, a handmade paper store. Italy is full of these types of boutiques, selling hand-bound leather books and journals, stationery, sealing wax, stamps, and the list goes on. We were welcomed by an older paper-maker in the back who demonstrated to us the art of making marbled paper. It was a beautiful demonstration: he started by lightly scattering drops of acrylic and oil paints on a gel surface, then swirled and dipped various tools to shape the paints into different patterns, and finally slowly settling a piece of paper on the entire surface. What was astonishing was how the paint was instantly sucked onto the paper, with almost none left behind on the gel. The laborious part was apparently the preparation of the paints, with the right colors, and different proportions of solvents like turpentine and distilled water. We went away with several purchases of the marbled paper products and with a strong appreciation of the art and patience it takes to make this unique product.

For our second stop, we walked nearly to the main train station in Florence. The Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella has a very long history. Since the 1200s, the Dominican monks who established Santa Maria Novella grew herbs and plants for medicinal purposes. They even produced rose water which was supposed to purify, and was in hot demand to ward off the Black Death. Catherine de Medici commissioned them to make her a perfume before she left Florence for Rome, and you can still buy the original formula, which is now called Acqua de Santa Maria Novella. Just walking into the pharmacy is an experience – inside, the air is thickly perfumed with every single scent you can think of. You can buy soaps of excellent quality, perfumes made from scratch, scented soaps or papers, lotions, and much more. The entire pharmacy is also housed in a space that looks very much like all the other museums in Florence – originally, it was most likely a palazzo that is still sumptuously decorated with gold molding near the ceilings.

Overall, Florence was just a perfectly lovely time. We had such great places to visit, and stayed in our favorite Airbnb which was well-located and full of amenities. I wish we hadn’t had to spend almost 100 euros on tickets to these sorts of locations, but one does pay to support the preservation of art and history. Onto Rome!

Florence: Famous Sights Edition

There are some things you feel obliged to see in Florence, as in any world famous city. And being that it’s Florence, which has an absurdly high density of museums per square meter, there are a lot of things you feel you are obliged to see. We made time in our schedule for just a handful, and some of them were very highly rated, while some were slightly more lower rated on the list. Let’s start with the stars:

Galleria delgi Uffizi is one of the most famous museums in the world, and it took us nearly five full hours to complete from beginning to end. In the last few rooms, we were just asleep on our feet! The museum mostly has artwork and icons (anytime between the 1200s to the 1800s) and sculptures, mostly copies from the Renaissance period, of original Greek and Roman sculptures. It won major points for having very lovely paintings like the ones that have made Botticelli famous: Birth of Venus and Spring. Those live up to the reputation, being very large and fairly vibrant in person. There was also an astonishing amount of Caravaggio paintings. We saw the Bacchus which Steve enjoyed as well as the Medusa shield that is so often depicted in textbooks.

There were countless religious paintings, giving Steve ample time to let me know about each variety of religious painting. One of the most popular scenes is the Annunciation, where the archangel Michael appears to the Virgin to announce that she is to bear the Son of God, and there’s usually a depiction of the Holy Spirit flying to her in the shape of a white dove (sometimes carried on gold beams); there was actually one novel one where a pair of hands (the hands of God the Father) descends from Heaven to release the dove. Another popular scene is the Deposition, where Jesus is taken down from the cross after his crucifixion. He is usually surrounded by the Virgin Mary and Saint Mary Magdalene, the latter of whom can be recognized by her very long hair as well as a reliquary which she is holding where they collected the blood of Christ as he was wounded on the cross. There was just also an endless number of Madonnas with an Infant Jesus, done in the tonde style which is a round canvas and frame. Those were very common because many middle-class folks would want those for their houses or places of business, so we have a lot that have been passed down, many of them by famous artists.

One of the things that woke me up near the end was seeing Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. I saw it when we rounded the corner to one of the last rooms, and far from being horrified by all the arterial blood spurting out of Holofernes’s head, I exclaimed, “Fantastic!” which caused Steve to burst into laughter. But really, it’s an exceptional painting that is very large, very vivid, and fierce. Judith’s face resembles that of Gentileschi herself, and Holofernes’s face resembles that of Agostino Tazzi, a former mentor who was convicted of raping her. While many have depicted the scene, most artists draw the Biblical heroine with the head in a basket and a clean sword, but this one is drawn in a very naturalist style and captures her mid-action.

We saw the Galleria dell’Accademia on our second day in Florence. It’s a much smaller gallery than the Uffizi, and only took us about two and a half hours to make it through. It’s remarkable for several huge statues. The first is the one and only Michelangelo’s David. It has its own space at the junction of a T-shaped exhibition hall, lit by a circular skylight above. It is a remarkable statue that is larger than you would think. As Steve quipped, “If that’s how tall David is, you gotta wonder about Goliath.” The statue is well over 5 meters tall, and the nonchalant pose with the curly, tousled hair that David affects is very much at odds with his gaze. If you position yourself to look directly into his eyes, you see a direct, even fierce resolve. All the muscles, the veins in his arms and fingers, are so well-articulated and delicate that it is possible to imagine he’s going to breathe or move. When you’ve seen images of the David as much as most people have, you think that all sculpture is going to be like that, but it’s an utterly original, detailed, and striking sculpture of immense size. Michelangelo well-deserves his reputation.

The hall leading up to the David is a wonderful contrast. It houses five other statues by Michelangelo, collectively called the Prisoners. They were meant for a papal tomb, but were not finished before Michelangelo passed away. So not only do they depict bearded and shackled prisoners, but they are roughly-rendered marble statues only partially liberated from the block of stone from which they are carved. Also remarkable was the Rape of the Sabines, which is by Giambologna, a Flemish sculptor (yeah, there’s a lot of classical art out there that uses the theme of sexual assault). It’s a group sculpture of three people carved from a single piece of marble. An older man cowers below a younger one who grasps a young woman in his arms, she herself reaching out for help. It’s a very striking scene that rewards close observation from all angles, so you can look at the detail slowly while walking around the statue, and the various limbs and the position of the bodies invite your gaze to trace an upward spiral.

There were a lot of religious icons, and walking from room to room, you can see the change that came to differentiate medieval art from the Renaissance. Whereas medieval religious art tended to depict some divine scenes, more were of simply an array of saints who were easily identifiable (St. Peter with his keys, St. John the Baptist with his robe of hair, St. Catherine with her wheel), mostly for use in churches or on altars. When it did depict the Christ, they usually used size to show importance, making the face and figure of Christ larger than those of his apostles, who were in turn larger than mortals or lesser saints. Later on, with the advent of the Renaissance, we started seeing use of perspective, for example, at the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven where saints and angels are recognizable but arranged in semi-circles as though in an amphitheater, with all the same sized faces. Others still gave them more naturalistic faces with recognizable wrinkles, flowing hair, and other features.

One of the last things I wanted to mention was that the Accademia had a music space, which featured several gorgeous violins and violas by Stradivarius. We even saw some now-extinct musical instruments which were very popular in its time, like the hurdy-gurdy (a pianoforte variation) and the serpent (something that looks like a very curvy bassoon). They even had several examples that gave us a good idea of how we progressed from having plucked string instruments to the invention of the piano, where hammers were used to strike the strings and then diminished. Though our visit to the Accademia was shorter, I liked being able to see everything and leave by 12 pm so that we had the afternoon to ourselves!

Also well-known are the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens, but as there’s literally historical, centuries-old art everywhere you look in Florence, and you don’t have time to see this, it’s totally fine. Both are complexes of the Medici family, which ruled Tuscany and thus Florence as Dukes for centuries. The Pitti Palace is very interesting because it features apartments of those dukes and duchesses and their family, and feels very much like walking through Versailles or something similar. There are so many incredible paintings on all the walls, many paintings in a single room grouped together on a mythological theme (i.e. “Room of Ulysses”, “Room of Hercules”), that it doesn’t look like art to be admired on its own, but just art grouped together to impress by its sheer scale. What surfaces are not covered in gold leaf are instead upholstered in deep red velvet or satin. While impressive to see and certainly awe-striking, we were pretty bored quickly because there isn’t the same amount of detail paid to the individual paintings, and also, there’s not enough time to look at everything. We also saw the Boboli Gardens beforehand. As for the gardens, though there are many lovely statues that had been arranged there for the pleasure of the Medici family, it was a very hot summer afternoon in Florence. Our favorite part of the afternoon was probably sitting on a shady hill and enjoying a nap.

Lastly, it was slightly disappointing to see Santa Maria del Fiore, which is the Florence Duomo or Cathedral. It is gorgeous on the outside, all creamy white marble, decorated with pale green marble and pink marble and other colors. It has an immense front façade with statues of pretty much all the main people in Florentine history. However, the line that we had to stand in sapped our patience and overhyped the interior. While you can buy 18 euro tickets that allow you entrance to the cathedral, the famous Dome of Brunelleschi, the crypt, the bell tower, and the baptistery, we were a bit cathedraled-out by Siena. (Not to mention that we’ll have to go see St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican next week!) So we simply stood in line for about an hour to get in for free. Being that we were able to hang out with Steve’s cousin Morgan and her husband Cameron while doing so, it wasn’t as trying as it could have been. When we finally went inside, it was a little bit off-putting to find that it was practically empty. That was thanks to the influence of Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar from the late 1400s who went around Florence preaching against the decadence of the church. He succeeded in swaying many influential painters and artists of the time to paint more austerely, to depict scenes of sorrow, repentance, and remorse. He also succeeded in getting people to basically empty out their churches of “overly decadent” artwork, resulting in the largely bare church we saw in Florence. However, he did not succeed in erasing the frescoes and paintings around the cathedral, which included one painting of Dante and depicts his Divine Comedy, which is a painting I’ve definitely seen in textbooks before. The cathedral does also have a lovely dome, which is made of brick masonry, and is considered the largest masonry dome in the world. Steve and I briefly debated this, and we think that though there’s now the technology to build larger domes of masonry or of different material, the sheer world of possibilities for architecture has moved us away from things like domes which are pretty predictable even though they seemed ground-breaking for their time.

There are most definitely other worthy and commonly-known sights in Florence, but we’re happy to have seen this. Next time, I’ll introduce the lesser-known but even more entertaining sights that we were able to find!

Slowing down in Florence

If you’ve been keeping up with the blog, you may have realized that we’ve been traveling non-stop for the last three weeks, blowing through six cities in Switzerland and Italy. By the time we got to Florence on Tuesday, we were both exhausted. Traveling but taking our time is an art we’ve apparently forgotten all about, five years after our big circumnavacation. So we set about recovering our breath and remembering how to make time for ourselves in Florence.

We have seven nights in this Tuscan city, home of pretty much every single Renaissance painting you’ve ever heard about that isn’t in the Louvre of Paris. Michaelangelo painted here, Botticelli did too, and it’s the adopted home of Leonardo da Vinci. The Medicis ruled here for hundreds of years, gathering the cream of European art and culture and displaying it here in their palaces. When we first sat down with a list of places we wanted to see, it felt like one big headache. I just saw us racing from one museum to another. Needless to say, that’s not anyone’s idea of a fun time. After much deliberation, we balanced the most talked-about places that we agreed we had to see with other smaller quirkier, less-famous museums and sights that we had a personal interest in, and ended up with basically one activity per day. It’s proven to give us enough flexibility, and resulted in enough sleep and down-time.

We found an excellent Airbnb which overlooks a little square in Florence city center, a mere 10-minute walk from the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Florence Duomo) and many other highlights. It has a lofted bedroom and a well-equipped kitchen, as well as one of the firmest couches that I’ve encountered on this trip. Several nights in a row, we’ve been enjoying dinner Italian style with the aperitivo. At many restaurants around Florence, you can hop on in sometime between 6 pm and 8 pm, and they’ll have what they call the aperitivo: for 10 euro, you get a cocktail or drink and enjoy the all-you-can-eat antipasti buffet. You can heap your plate high with any kind of pasta (usually some pesto and tomato variants) offered, olives, bread, veggie dishes like eggplant parmesan, olive or tomato tapenade, slices of fried polenta, stir-fried marinated mushrooms, and much more. We tried it out at a nearby restaurant yesterday, which was fun; I got a Hugo, which is a cocktail with elderflower liqueur, fresh mint, and prosecco. However, even tastier has been having it at home. Our first evening, we bought a local cheese that is gorgonzola layered with marscapone (creamy and stinky, my favorite!), panzanella (a breadcrumb salad), marinated artichokes, olives, and salami, topped off with a freshly cooked baguette. Two days ago, we tried some tortellini instead with white beans and other variants. Tonight, it was freshly fried sausages with an orichette and caprese salad. We have bought our own bottles of Campari and Aperol here, and enjoy making our own cocktails to boot. Honestly, the best hidden tip to travel Europe on a budget is to buy a combination of pre-made supermarket food and groceries and simply cook for yourself. Eating out is a hazard that is more often than not something that doesn’t pay off – we’ve purchased enough dry, tasteless, and prohibitively expensive paninis and pizzas on this trip already, and we’re not even in Rome!

Another observation from our travel fatigue is that we’re not alone. Being tired and traveling abroad is a real challenge, as many fellow travelers can attest to. Florence, Siena, and Venice are all home to very large tourist populations during the summer, and the ubiquity of English means we’ve been witness and accidental eavesdroppers to all kinds of family and couple arguments. En route to San Marco Piazza in Venice, we saw one young Korean couple rowing over what was the correct route to take to the piazza. Honestly, Venice is such a warren of streets that even Google Maps gets confused about where your location is all the time. In the middle of their argument, the woman literally threw up her hands and ran away crying, with her husband in hot pursuit to apologize, but even after three streets (we were going the same way), she would not forgive him. That was one conversation which we did not need to know their language to know it was a very, very bad time. Another time, an American family on the train from Siena to Florence were having a bitter, ill-humored time arguing about cellphones and data usage. The grown son and his wife were sniping back and forth with his mother in very thick Southern accents about exactly how the technology worked and why it wasn’t possible to get messages from the other family members they were corresponding with. It made us both wince each time we heard a “Did you turn the data off again?!” behind us.

We’ll be the first to agree that there’s plenty to get upset about. There’s the hot weather, the bad food where you feel like you’re being ripped off, and the crowds and long queues for every museum, because everyone else is also on vacation visiting Italy. I think what pushes people over the edge is that in the back of your mind, you know you should be happy and having fun. And you are paying a ton of money and spending your precious vacation time to be fly halfway around the world to argue with your loved ones. So of course it sucks – you don’t want your argument by the Trevi Fountain to be your memory of your amazing Italian vacation.

We’ve learned to mitigate the worst of the travel by giving ourselves space and time, rationing time spent in museums to one a day (our record so far is five straight hours) so that we don’t start groaning at the sight of another room with oil paintings, and remembering that we actually do like to hang out with each other – those things all help us from becoming that next couple in someone else’s blog entry! And of course, actually having a lovely travel experience to remember. For example, our favorite memory from our first night was actually taking some time after dinner to walk to the Duomo. After the sun had gone down in Florence, the evening was warm and breezy and comfortable. Many other folks were taking the opportunity to be outside in comfort, not just sticking to the shaded side of the street, and some enterprising musicians were playing guitars and saxophones in the piazza. Looking at the large creamy marble cathedral, outlined in pale green and pinks, we just enjoyed being with each other and going no place in particular.

I’ll write soon about all the museums we’ve seen here so far (the current count is three), and we’ve definitely had fun with all our destinations so far, but honestly, the most important thing about Florence is that we’re enjoying this city more than any other place we’ve been to in Europe so far, and that’s mostly because we’ve slowed down!  

City of bells

Siena is a cacophony, which can be nice for a day or two, but it could really get on your nerves in the long term. Every morning, what can only be described as a cacophony of bells from several different churches start ringing at 7 am, and again at 8 am, continuing each time for about a minute. In the evening, they ring around 6 pm and 7 pm. For a small city which had 50,000 inhabitants at its peak in the 1300s, this city has a lot of churches. Outside our window, there are church bells on top of a parish that is literally next door. If you lean outside far enough, you can see San Domenico di Caterina, a large, elegant brick building to our right which is very typically Romanesque and does not have a lot of large windows, and then dominating our view from the apartment is the black and white striped masterpiece that is Il Duomo, Siena Cathedral.

To give a little background (though we’ll really dig into the history soon), Siena is about an hour and a half by train south of Florence in Tuscany. It used to be its own republic and a mighty city-state that once defeated Florence in war, but subsequently, became much more impoverished. As a result, Siena never had the funds to pull down their medieval buildings, and to this day, most of the city looks very similar to when it was built, sometime probably between 1100 and 1555 (the time of the Republic).

The first afternoon we arrived, we trekked nearly half an hour from the train station into the city, climbing the hillside to the city through a series of escalators and ramps, and then into the guts of a small medieval city with very narrow passageways that are lucky enough to fit one car and steep enough to merit stairs in a few places instead of smooth or scored stone pavement. Our Airbnb has an excellent view of Il Duomo as well as the surrounding hillside, and off in the distance, blue-purple hills punctured by the dark green poplars that are the hallmark of the Italian countryside. Outside our window are a few lovely restaurants who are capitalizing on the great view, and entertain folks deep into the night. Every day, there are also sparrows. They have colonized this city, perching in all sorts of small holes built into these buildings where they raise their young. They swoop about all day, but especially plentifully during dusk, scooping up insects and bugs. Perhaps that’s why we’ve had such a mosquito-free time, in comparison to our time in Venice!

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Islands of glass and sand

Venice boasts more sights than a person can see in four days, not just because it’s full of beautiful art and cultural destinations, but also because Venice is a whole lagoon, and the main island that the city is on is not host to all of its wonders. We took time to see two of the islands in the lagoon during the time that we were there, and it provided us a glimpse of a different side of Venice. At the same time, I think there were many things we didn’t get to see, which makes me a bit sad. In the end, there are definite trade-offs to the decisions you have to make about the brief hours and days you are given here.

Our first island was Murano, which is internationally renowned for its glass. We took a ferry of just 10 minutes from the north side of the city, going past San Michele, the city cemetery. I had joked to Steve about what the people in Venice go when they die, and apparently, they are buried on a whole different island. Venice is such a small place that they barely have a city park, so I imagine green space is a bit harder to find. On the ferry, we got a good glimpse at San Michele, which is like a brick-walled island, with dark green cypresses encircling it, and one very creamy marble church. Ezra Pound and Igor Stravinsky are just two of the famous people who are buried there. When we finally disembarked on Murano, we found a distinctly different island, where there were barely any people around once you got off the main tourist strip, and many houses had signs of “VENDENDI” meaning for sale. I think that many parts of Italy, away from the tourist masses, are suffering economically, as many of the industries that used to thrive there have died away or left for cheaper countries. We saw some of that on Murano, but nevertheless, it still has some of the charm of Venice. We were there for the Museo del Vetro (Museum of Glass), housed in a former villa. It began in the 1860s, which is a neat thing I like about the Venetian museums. Even before the 20th century, people started recognizing that there were many traditions and artifacts worth preserving, and began these museums like Museo del Vetro and the Doge’s Palace.

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A city on the water

When we stepped out of the Venezia Santa Lucia train station, I was floored by the view in front of us. The Grand Canal lay before us, its waters translucent green in the sun, and marble, brick, and stucco facades of buildings side by side rising above it. I don’t know how else to say it – tears literally came to my eyes because it was so beautiful, and yes, a bit unexpected. We’ve traveled to many cities, and some places, you’ve really got to dig for the sights that you expected to see, whether it’s a trek up a mountain or building, driving for an hour outside the city, or walking all the way downtown to find yourself surrounded by neon billboards. Venice doesn’t make you work for it. Everywhere, it is completely unapologetically what it is: a very, very old city that is crumbling at some corners, with waves lapping at its feet, but bright and beautiful under the Mediterranean sun. Each corner is an Instagrammable combination of colored houses, shadows on water, and gondoliers plying their gracefully curving boats up and down. In this respect, Venice does not disappoint at all.  

In other respects, Venice is very unreal, and that’s because it’s been hollowed out by tourism. When we checked in, our landlady told us this house had been owned by her parents, and that she and her sister now rent it out. She asked if we’d been here before, and Steve responded that he’d visited more than 15 years ago. She shook her head sadly, and told him it had changed very much because of the tourists. And it’s true – while we have seen villages and towns completely occupied by tourists in Grindelwald and Zermatt, Venice is the largest city I’ve seen which has very few traces of its actual inhabitants. It’s possible to hear every single language on the streets, from Russian to Chinese to French to Gujarati, not to mention the very flat American accented English, and little wonder at that: the city has about 58,000 inhabitants, but 20 million tourists come through every year. That means every single restaurant you can see has sprung up to serve the tourist trade. Every other store seems to be a compilation of tourist kitsch, selling you Venetian “masks” with feathers and checker patterns, marbled paper, leather or fake leather handbags, pashmina scarves, straw boaters (the preferred hat for men here) or white lace dresses (the preferred dress for women here), tiny “Murano glass” animal figurines, and endless nonsense along those lines.

The city is not gigantic, but it will take you some time to cross. Possibly the only pedestrian city of its size in the world, Venice is shaped like a flat oval, and the curve of the Grand Canal cuts a winding backwards-S through the oval from the northwest to the southeast. There are only a handful of bridges over the very large Grand Canal, like the Ponte Rialto, a graceful, white structure that has covered shops on top. Another one is the Ponte dell’Acaddemia, next to the Academy of Fine Arts, which is in red-hued wood. The train station sits to the northwest of the city, where the bridge to the mainland begins, and at the very southeast corner where the mouth of the Grand Canal spills into the Adriatic is the world-renowned San Marco Piazza, which is home to the Basilica of Saint Mark and the Dogal Palace of Venice. The smaller bridges are everywhere, because the smaller canals are everywhere. To get from our apartment to San Marco Piazza, we cross approximately four canals, so four little bridges which are all picturesque and provide a glimpse of a gorgeous little canal with houses, flower boxes, and reflections on the water. And yes, the obligatory gondola. The gondolieri are a proud, conservative bunch of men, whose licenses are restricted artificially by the city to around 400 or so, so that’s why each ride on the gondola is prohibitively expensive (80 euro). (Uber, here’s the market you should be disrupting!) Nonetheless, you see plenty of folks who are enjoying their time on the gondola with each other and their selfie sticks.

For our first full day, we made a trip out to the Doge’s Palace which is next to San Marco Piazza. We thought this might take about an hour, but it turns out sampling the cream of Venetian culture and political domination takes a while. The palace itself is where the doges of Venice (not related to the actual canine meme) ruled the Serene Republic for more than a thousand years (early 700 AD to 1797). One of the first fascinating things that we did was to wander through a small museum within that featured the original columns and capitals on the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica of San Marco (Saint Mark’s Cathedral). These were carved in the 1300s and 1500s and replaced in the 1800s, so on one hand it’s amazing that it’s been preserved since then, but it’s also that they are made from marble so it’s not a surprise that they’re around. The history of these capitals were also well-preserved – we learned about the artists who were commissioned to carve them, and what I loved to do was poring over the capital and the figures or the animals which were carved between the acanthus leaves to figure out what they actually were. One had the letters URSUS carved above what definitely did look like a bear, actually biting a piece of honeycomb (shaped like honeycomb and also sprinkled with large bees on top). Sometimes the words were missing, and it was hard to figure out who or what was being depicted, but we enjoyed using the combination of allusions and Latin and signs to puzzle out that original art. Between my collection of Latin vocabulary and Roman history and Steve’s knowledge of religious history and Biblical stories, it’s usually a fun game.

When we finally tore ourselves away from that museum, we entered the Doge’s Palace proper, a set path which took us up and down through various stairs and hallways and down to the dungeons. We walked up the Golden Stairway, which was gilded with incredible amounts of gold leaf but also beautiful paintings, large and small. We went between different chambers and rooms, which were normally named for the council or the group who met there. In this way, we learned about people responsible for courts in Venice, military and naval powers, foreign policy and trade, and much, much more. In many cases, we were given details about the history of the artists and the commissions which led to the artworks that we were looking at. One of the things that struck me about them is that it was as much propaganda as it was decoration. Over and over again, we saw a lot of allusions to Mars and Neptune, the gods of war and the sea, in an allusion to Venice’s power and domination over land and sea. The religiously themed paintings often featured past doges of Venice paying homage to the Virgin or being welcomed into Heaven by the Son himself. The most interesting place was the Council Maggiore, which was the place where the largest council of between 1,500 to 2,000 noblemen would be able to meet. All around the top frieze were the portraits of the past doges, each circled by a banner which noted the most important achievements of his administration. One exception, though: Marino Faliero. In the place of his picture, there was instead just a black curtain painted onto the wall, noting in Latin, “This is the space reserved for Marino Faliero, beheaded for his crimes”. He was actually the 55th doge, and he was executed for a coup d’etat, which failed due to poor planning. It was neat to see this actual example of damnatio memoriae, which is the punishment of being removed from history.

Though Venice has been beautiful, it has also been incredibly tiring. I don’t know why but we have taken to the habit of very late afternoon or almost evening naps, sometime between 3 pm and 6 pm. It’s proven necessary after so much sun, wine, and aperitifs which saps the body of all energy. At the same time, the summers in Europe also extend late into the day. Even after getting up at 6 pm, we get to enjoy three more hours of sunshine in which to maybe make a leisurely dinner or walk around and enjoy the views of the city at golden hour. It does make it difficult for us to get up earlier in the day, however. We look forward next to a short stay in Siena (3 days) and a longer stay in Florence (7 days). Maybe with a bit more time under our belt, we’ll be able to adjust a bit better.

Cathedrals old and new (wherein Connie explains physics)

The other highlights of our trip in Geneva were visiting the Cathedrale Saint-Pierre and CERN. First things first, we walked downtown from our apartment (about a 30 minute trip) to the old city in Geneva and got lunch en route (Bolivian food for once!). We reached the Cathedrale Saint-Pierre after going through some passages. Downtown Geneva is made of a bunch of hills, but over the centuries, they’ve been scraped down some and removed in other places or just tunneled through so that they fit in more or less with the street structure. That does mean sometimes there are two levels of streets or roads. Some of these passages are closed most of the year, but we came up one that emerged just behind the church. The cathedral itself is interesting because it was a Gothic cathedral built in the 1500s, but during the Reformation, it became a Protestant church removed of all the gilt, icons, rood screens, and art that Catholic cathedrals are well known for. Inside, you can even see a few examples of where stone carvings are defaced and cracked. (I’m guessing they took that second commandment real seriously.) The only thing that’s left are the rose windows and stained glass windows. The Cathedrale Saint-Pierre is known for being the church of John Calvin, who preached at the church literally thousands of times. There was one wooden chair known for being Calvin’s chair in the building, and it seemed kind of small, but then, as Steve remarked, they were all smaller back then.

We paid 5 CHF each to climb the tower to the top of the cathedral. It was a gorgeous view in all four directions. To the east, we could see over Lac Leman where the Jet d’Eau comes out. To the south is Salève the mountain and France. It’s apparently the shortest mountain (or something that could be called a mountain) in France, but looming way behind it is Mont Blanc in France, the tallest mountain in Europe. To the north and west are the Jura Mountains/ national park in France, which are also quite tall and form a solid barrier of sorts. So Geneva looks quite closed off for that reason. After we checked out the cathedral, we walked around the Jardin Anglais which is downtown by the lake. There were public pianos around, which some people kept playing tracks from Amélie on (just in case you forgot you were in the French part of Switzerland), and it was a lovely sunlit afternoon. We walked home afterwards.

One last thing about Sunday: Switzerland is very trying on Sundays. That’s because absolutely nothing is open. Pretty much all the supermarkets and normal stores are closed on that day, and it’s very sleepy indeed. The church was probably the only thing we could count on being open. I was definitely kind of disgruntled that we were not able to visit the Coop to buy presents and groceries, and probably the only person around who really wished for Monday to come faster.

On Monday itself, we got up early and took the nearby tram 18 all the way to its end at CERN. I had almost forgotten CERN was here when we booked our trip to Geneva. Thankfully, a friend who is doing his post-doc there asked if we wanted a tour, and we were very glad to accept. CERN is the European Organization for Nuclear Research, established in 1954. It’s more appropriate to call it the European laboratory for particle physics these days, since that’s what CERN has been concerned with since then. It is presently the home of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which is a 27-kilometer long circular tunnel where particle beams are collided at high speeds to simulate what the world looked like closer to the Big Bang. That’s the 5-second explanation. In reality, what we learned about was much more complicated but also more interesting.

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A wedding in Geneva!

We are fresh off four lovely days in Geneva, which proved to be simultaneously smaller and larger of a city than I had imagined. Though those days were in no way jam-packed, we managed to wander into a craft beer festival, attend a much-anticipated wedding, visit an internationally renowned research institution, and climb the tower of a 15th century cathedral. Pretty efficient use of time!

We stayed in an Airbnb in Carouge, a city which was swallowed up by the growing municipality of Geneva sometime in the last few centuries. However, it maintains its own character, with its own churches, market, and town square. When we arrived the first afternoon, we sat in one of those squares munching on sushi and tea from the local Coop, waiting for our Airbnb to open up at check-in. To celebrate having our own kitchen again and our own space, I made a much-anticipated meal of red curry with chicken and rice which we had with a glass of red wine, our third-story window open to the street. Being in high summer, the sun would not set for another two hours. Afterwards, we wandered around the neighborhood, which is how we found La Festibière, which gathered what seemed like all the young people in Geneva with beards and buns to enjoy craft beer. We used our French skills to buy a cup (entrance to the festival) and tokens which let us sample deciliters of different sorts of beer, ranging from Double IPAs to amber ales to very sour ales indeed. We also listened to a swinging blues band and a hometown pop-metal band who had three guitarists and sounded just like Blink-182. The weather was warm and sultry, and I almost didn’t want to go to sleep.

The next morning was a bit colder and rainier, and I learned to my dismay that going to the market in Switzerland wasn’t quite like going to the market in France with Sam and Sarah. Everything was quite expensive here – like 7 CHF (~7 USD) for a kilo of green peppers! So we went to the supermarket instead to get a few staples like pasta sauce and only stopped back at the market for one thing: freshly made pasta. We picked up three each of two very large heavy cannellonni variations (au viande, and épinards avec ricotta), which I wasn’t sure how to cook, but it turned out needed to be baked with sauce and cheese over it. Thus we had a second lunch at home with wine, and it all turned out to be quite delicious, even if it was expensive for a homemade meal. After a nap, we started to get ready for the wedding ceremony and dinner. While we were intending to leave the house around 4:30 pm for the tram, we were greeted at the door with a burst of heavy rain and gusting winds. After eying each other’s wedding clothing (dress for me, blazer and leather shoes for Steve) and trying to get a few Ubers and other services which all canceled on us, we decided to stay put for the time being. It ended up being a wise decision, because it began to hail as well. For the next twenty minutes, the storm vented its fury on the outside, and outdoor furniture from nearby restaurants even fell over in the street. We finally ventured out when it had slowed down, and the rain was no longer going horizontally. Still, my sandaled feet immediately were soaked in freezing rain, and we missed the first tram. At the transport to our next bus, we waited at the bus stop for at least half an hour through an abhorrent traffic jam before Sam’s brother materialized out of the air to bring us over in his car. Thank goodness! About an hour late, we were some of the last guests to arrive at the wedding location, which, just to put the cherry on the sundae, had also recently lost its power in the storm. The venue was darker and lit with candles throughout, and while guests drank champagne and made conversation with each other, some men in work overalls and boots walked around in the background with scowls trying to get the electricity back on. Fortunately, it had not dampened Sarah or Sam’s spirits, and soon after we arrived, the ceremony commenced. Sam’s mother conducted the ceremony, and Sarah’s mother read a lovely excerpt from the homily that their pastor from Tennessee had written for the Nashville ceremony. Steve and I took part in one ritual in the wedding, the handfasting, where we helped tie a red yarn around their hands to symbolize passion and love. It was a really lovely ceremony, and it made both of us think of our own ceremony just a year ago.

Afterwards, the sun had decided to come out again, and we had the reception in the garden where we enjoyed drinks and snacks while also taking family photos. Steve and I were reunited with Sam’s grandmother, whom we met five years ago while we were traveling in France on our big trip. We had visited her and her husband (Sam’s grandfather), who passed away a few years ago, in Montchanin-les-Mines, which was a very small mining town in a rural part of Burgandy, and I remembered well her excellent cooking as well as the quaint house they lived in. She was actually delighted to see us and remembered me but not Steve, which made us all laugh. I scrounged up enough French to speak with her a little bit about how much we enjoyed being guests at their house, and it made her pretty happy.

Finally, the dinner was ready after the delay from the lack of electricity, and we sat down at a table of fellow international friends. There were a table each for the French and American sides of the family, as well as French and Swiss friends of Sam’s, and the final table was made up of us American friends and international friends who had come to join them. We were joined by the happy couple for the first course, and we enjoyed the food as well as the conversation with our new friends. The dessert was an especial favorite for me, which was called craque-en-bouche, literally meaning “cracks in your mouth”. It turned out to be cream puffs which were glazed with a hardened caramel-like sauce which had a pleasant crunch to it, with a side of raspberry sorbet. All the food was absolutely delicious, and the waiters kept champagne, red and white wine, and even seltzer water flowing throughout. We ended the evening with disco lights, dancing, and even though the lights went out again, we hardly missed it. When we grew too tired, we said goodbye to Sam and Sarah, and wished them well on their honeymoon next week to the Caribbean!