Archives for posts with tag: Monty & Heidi

Leaving Rome and heading to Paris was quite the adventure. First, we had an hour-long bus ride from our hotel to the airport. Once at the airport, we had a couple hours to kill before our flight took off, which I put to good use…

Jen always tells me she doesn’t understand how I can fall asleep anywhere. I like to say it’s my spiritual gift.

We flew out of Rome just as the sun was setting. It was a beautiful view, the clouds in the burnt orange skyline waving goodbye as we left the city of scooters, breath-taking architecture and the Pope.

We landed in London a couple hours later. After a bit of a run around with our shuttle driver (we called one and got three, go figure), we were on our way to our hotel and tucking into bed for maybe four hours of sleep, if we were lucky.

Saturday: Our first day in Paris

Our alarm came early Saturday morning. The clocks had just reached half past 4:00 when they began buzzing persistently, pulling us from our dreams and soft pillows and demanding we get going. Our channel ride from London to Paris left first thing that morning, so we had to make sure we were all packed up and out the door before the break of dawn.

We snaked our way through the early morning London streets with our luggage in tow. The streets were littered with broken bottles and food wrappers, signs of the fun that was had only a few hours before. Strings of young adults stumbled out of buildings closing, past bouncers, and toward what I hoped was home after a long night out on the town.

Not long into our walk, I turned around to see Brock booking it back from the way we came, with Monty taking up his luggage.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “Where’s Brock going?”

“He forgot his painting at the hotel,” Monty told me with a look of disbelief (referring to the spray paint art Brock had picked up while we were in Rome from the sidewalk performer).

We made it to the channel station with not a minute to spare (with Brock catching up to us at full-spring just before we arrived). Seeing the size of our group, a staff member ushered us into a newly opened line and helped us make our train on-time. We were relieved to have our things safely stowed away and take our seats. The late night and early wake up call provided little time for sleep, but the two-hour train ride would make up for some of it.

We pulled into a large, open-air station a couple hours (and a short nap) later. We pulled our luggage from the train and made our way to the entrance. Our shuttle driver was waiting to greet us as we reached the front of our train. He was a nice guy. He only spoke a bit of English. But he was very friendly.

By the time we arrived at our hotel and got situated in our rooms, we were all feeling a bit tired after all the travels and lack of sleep the night before. I lied down on the floor, tucked myself up into the fetal position against the wall and got some shut-eye while the others talked about plans for the rest of the day. Not long after, the others followed suit, sneaking in a bit of a nap themselves.

It was still very early in the afternoon by the time we shook the sleep from our eyes and decided to wander out to have our first good look at the city. None of us had been to Paris before.

Our first stop was to find something to eat, as we were all pretty quite hungry. We found a small cafe on a street corner with a large man in the front door dressed in a black shirt and black pants. He had a thick, deep-voiced French accent that paired well with his thick frame. He promised us he had crepes (which Heidi said she had to try while we were in Paris), so we followed him inside and took our seats. Turns out he did have crepes, but not yet. Apparently they weren’t served until later in the day.

Looking over the menu, the options seemed rather narrow. Sandwiches and omelettes seemed to jump out at us. All served with french fries (go figure). Jen was the lone person to venture out from the bunch, which almost never happens. She ordered the croque madam, two pieces of toast with ham and parmesan cheese in the middle, served with a fried egg on top.

When our plates were brought out to us, the bright orange sunny-side-up egg on Jen’s croque madam almost seemed to be taunting me for my choice of an omelette. Heckling me for such an uneducated choice.

“Mmmm… That’s good,” Jen said, biting into her sandwich.

Next time I’d be ordering the croque madam, I promised myself.

While we may not have been totally impressed with the state of our hotel (the floor we were on was currently being remodeled when we arrived), the location was great. We were only a short, two-minute walk to the Eiffel Tower.

The Eiffel Tower overlooks the Paris city center, but it also looms high over the River Seine. I love being by water, so this was a welcome surprise for me (I didn’t realize how close the tower was to the river before arriving).

Seeing as how it was a Saturday, the Eiffel Tower was buzzing with visitors. People were everywhere beneath its large base, waiting in line to take a ride to the top. We’d be doing so at some point over the next several days, but for our first day, we thought we’d see a bit of the city.

Jen had really been looking forward to our time in Paris, before arriving. Whereas I had more been looking forward to experiencing Rome. I had been really excited to see the Coliseum, all of the old churches and the museum in Rome, and there just wasn’t a whole lot I had been excited to see in Paris. I had also heard my fair share of horror stories about Americans being treated really badly by the French citizens who weren’t too keen on the American tourists. I’m not big on going places I’m not welcome, and so I just hadn’t really been looking forward to this leg of the trip.

But, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Paris. It was more green than I was expecting, it had a river running right through the heart of the city, it didn’t seem quite so frantic as Rome, and the people were actually great to us. I really did love it there.

I think one of the things that surprised me was how green of a city it is. It seemed like there were trees everywhere. Lining the streets. Bunched up into small forests in the many parks scattered throughout the city. Freshly  blossoming trees welcoming spring were everywhere, and, since I am from the land of trees (the Pacific Northwest), I think it felt a bit like home in that regard.

We crossed the River Seine and caught a bus that brought us to one of the shopping districts, Champs Elysees. Champs Elysees is French for “Elysian Fields,” and supposedly its one of the most beautiful avenues in the world. Shops, cinemas and restaurants line each side of the road, some brand names recognizable and others not. The avenue is just over a mile long, and it climbs subtly uphill from the gardens on one end to the the Arc de Triomph on the other.

We waited on a red light for traffic to stop just long enough for us to step out into the median of the road so we could snap photos of the tall archway. Apparently you can take an elevator to the rooftop terrace where a restaurant serves food. The people at the peak of the arch looked like ants staring down at us.

After an hour or two along Champs Elysees of shopping and tucking in and out of foot-traffic of the large crowds that streamed down the sidewalks, we made our walk back toward the Eiffel Tower, stopping in several neighborhoods along the way for photos. Again, I wasn’t expecting it, but the architecture here was really beautiful. Maybe that’s the thing, maybe I just wasn’t expecting much… Either way, Paris is beautiful.

We came to one neighborhood, in particular, that surrounded a small tree-lined park. The streets here were quiet. There was hardly any foot traffic, and no cars were flying by. All seemed so calm, compared to the hustle and bustle of the Champs Elysees we had just left behind only a few minutes before.

I told Jen I could live here. In Paris. And here in this neighborhood in particular. It even included a view of the Eiffel Tower in the distance.

It was just getting to be dusk by the time we made it back to the Eiffel Tower. And it was beautiful. It seemed to be glowing with the many lights hidden within its metal framework.

The River Seine, which runs through the city, right in front of the Eiffel Tower, was quite the sight by this time. With its many bridges lit up in lights and river tour boats floating along, casting waves of light on the surface of the water.

The street lamps on the river’s shore formed a row of floating orbs in the night sky, marking off the borders of the river. It was an amazing view.

From where we stood, it was just the bridge separating us from the Eiffel Tower, lighting the night’s sky.

Street lamps, all lit up, formed a line starting at one end of the bridge and advanced toward the Eiffel Towers’ base before stopping abruptly on the other side of the bridge. Like a small child running toward something in great excitement, only to stop just long enough to turn back and wave you along with his arm, as if to say, “Come on; come check this out!”

Before crossing over the river, we took the opportunity to snap a few photos. First one of Monty & Heidi and Brock & Lacy…

Then one of Tim & Rhonda and Jen and myself.

By the time we made it back to the Eiffel Tower on Saturday night, it was hopping. Crowds of people poured out of the elevator after their tour, and the vast green lawn that seemed to stretch on and on behind the tower was filled with people streaming this way and that. It was a busy place, on a Saturday night. And I loved it. I loved the energy of it.

A handful of food and ice cream vendors filled the air with smells of chocolate and freshly baked waffle cones. And crepes. Which we were happy to see. Several of us put in an order for ice cream or crepes (or ice cream in a crepe), and we made our way back to our hotel. It had been a great first day in Paris, and we were looking forward to seeing more of it after a good night’s sleep.

Sunday: Snow in Paris & Notre Dame

We woke up Sunday morning and started our day with a trip to the boulangerie. The small, corner bakery was filled with freshly baked pastries and croissants. We ordered enough for breakfast, and made our way toward the bus stop. We would be riding the double-decker bus around the city that day, stopping at several spots along the way.

We boarded at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, and we were handed cheap, red-colored headphones as we did. The headphones plugged in to an outlet beside our seat from which we could listen to an automated tour guide as we drove through the city. The woman’s voice pointed out the different sights as we drove, mentioning interesting facts along the way.

From time to time, when she wasn’t looking, I’d switch Jen’s language from English to Italian or French. “Rrrryan!” she’d say. And I’d laugh. I’m a little kid, I know. I often tell Jen she’s going to get a gold star beside her name in heaven for having to put up with me.

We turned around the backside of the Eiffel Tower and the woman’s voice pointed out Napoleon’s Tomb as we did…

…along with the military museum, with rows of cannons at the edge of its expansive green lawns.

I made a mental note to make sure we saw both the tomb and the military museum before the trip was through.

We crossed over the river and made a quick stop beside its edge to pick up some more passengers. Rows of artists and their work lined the sidewalk. Trees provided a border between the river’s edge and the street. Along with a 20-foot drop.

As the bus began to move forward again, I noticed the cotton balls falling in the air. And it brought back memories of driving with my grandpa back home as a young boy.

I remembered, every spring, when the cotton wood trees would begin blooming, casting off thousands of little “cotton balls” into the air, like large snowflakes. They’d pile up along the side of the street, and it’d almost look as if it were snowing as we drove. I remember my Grandpa would say, “When the cotton balls stop falling, that’s when it’s time to open up the pool.”

My Grandpa has an outdoor, in-ground swimming pool behind his house back home, a rarity in our neck of the woods in the Pacific Northwest. But for a few months each year, that swimming pool was my favorite place to be. As a young boy in the just-hot-enough Washington summers.

And so, whenever I saw those cotton balls falling in the air, I knew long days of floating, swimming and playing in the pool on hot summer days weren’t far away.

And it put a smile on my face, remembering those times growing up, even as we made our way through Paris. It brought back memories of long, warm summer days and running around barefoot. It brought back back memories of my Grandpa teaching me how to do the dead-man’s float and smells of Coppertone sunscreen.

“What?” Jen asked, turning and seeing me smile to myself. “Why are you smiling?”

“Oh, I was just remembering something,” I told her.

Our first stop of the day was at Notre Dame. I’m not sure I’d seen photos of Notre Dame prior to our time in Paris, which I’m embarrassed to admit. Or maybe I had and I had just forgotten. Either way, even if I had, I’m not sure they’d do it justice.

I was blown away by how enormous this cathedral was. Even after coming straight from Rome and seeing places like St. Peter’s Basilica, Notre Dame was incredibly large.

I jumped into Lacy’s photo in front of Notre Dame at the last minute and gave my best attempt at a Quasimodo impersonation for this shot…

…which, as it turns out, might be the worst Quasimodo impersonation ever.

We made our way into the Cathedral after snapping a handful of photos of the building, and it is just as amazing inside as it was outside. The long stone hallways, columns, arching ceilings and hanging chandeliers made it all seem as if you had just stepped back in time.

The Cathedral’s stained glass windows seemed to amplify the hints of sunlight streaming in from outside, casting it to dance across the stone pillars and walls inside the building.

Spotlights helped to create the effect, pouring rays of light over the stage in front of the church.

The high-arching ceiling seemed to climb up and up and up, as if someone had grabbed the Cathedral from above and stretched it after it had been completed.

A woodcarving along one side of the Cathedral told the New Testament story of Jesus’ life, from birth to resurrection.

Even though the building was full of others, tourists, taking photos, it still seemed quite reverential. There were several spots where people could stop and pray. There were confessional booths, which were made available at certain times throughout the day. And there were even spots where people could light a candle for a lost loved one.

A man with an accent that I could only identify as being from somewhere in Africa was leading a service at the front of the Cathedral. Many people were seated, listening to him, while many others were simply walking by, snapping photos along the way.

Notre Dame really was stunning. Like so much else in Paris, it made a mockery of my expectations.

We’d be visiting the Louvre the next day, one of the few places in Paris I had really been looking forward to. And it did not let me down.


Wednesday: Visiting the Pope and his museum

We had plans to visit the Vatican and the Vatican Museum during our trip, but we hadn’t figured out which day we’d be doing that before we arrived. After hearing that the Pope would be making an appearance on Wednesday morning, we decided that’d be the best day to make our way toward the Vatican, which we did.

For those of you who don’t know, the Vatican is actually it’s own country. But you wouldn’t necessarily know it were you to visit unknowingly. There are no border crossings, but there were security checks when we visited, and I’m sure it had to do with the Pope’s planned appearance.

You’d also find these guards, dressed in colorful uniforms, standing around the Vatican. Along with these poofy shirts, they wore what looked like striped MC Hammer pants. Not terribly intimidating, but I’m sure they know what they’re doing.

The Pope would be making his appearance in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, so that’s where we headed. St. Peter’s Basilica is a giant church (with the largest interior of any church in the world), said to have been built on the remains of  Peter himself. St. Peter’s Basilica is surrounded by these massive columns, circling what’s known as St. Peter’s Square, and it has a giant fountain in the middle. At the top of all these columns that circle the square sit statues of each and every Pope who has ever served in the Catholic Church. It’s a rather incredible place, actually, and it was filled with people the morning we arrived, all lining up to get their view of the Pope when he appeared.

About 45 minutes after we arrived, out came the Pope. In his Pope mobile. He waved and smiled at the crowds as his driver pulled in and out of people, doing circles around the square. A large screen in the far corner of the square displayed the scene with close-up views of the Pope, for those who couldn’t manage to get close enough to him themselves for the crowds.

We cut our visit at the Pope’s appearance short, not waiting around to hear him address the crowds, as we had an appointment for a tour of the Vatican Museum that we had to make. I felt bad leaving and missing out on what he had to say. The Pope’s not one you usually have the opportunity to hear from first-hand, but we had a tour reservation to make, and we were not going to miss it.

We met up with our tour guide just outside the front entrance to the Vatican Museum. He was holding an umbrella in the air to identify himself. His name was Jimmy, and he is a red-headed Irish guy who studied art. He knew his stuff, and he had a particular affinity for Michelangelo, which made him a perfect fit for this tour of the Vatican Museum, home to most of his works.

Walter had told us that if we ever had the opportunity, we must take a tour of the Vatican Museum. He was right. The place was amazing. It was simply incredible all of the art they have there. But the entire place is just breathtaking. Each domed room has these amazing painted ceilings, and room after room has an amazing display of original artwork that you’ve grown up seeing copies and pictures of.

I recognized one statue, the Belvedere Torso, from Justin & Jane’s home here in Oxford. I had never seen it before visiting their home for the first time, but they have a full-size replica in their front entryway, and apparently it’s quite famous. Michelangelo’s own work was influenced by it, we were told. At one point, the Pope asked him to go about the work of replacing the arms, legs and head that had been lost over the years, but he refused. He said it was just right the way it was, and he wasn’t about to mess with it.

One of the things I found particularly interesting on the tour was this…

It’s a giant bathtub. From Emperor Nero. Jimmy told us Nero was insane, with an ego that might remain unmatched to this day. He thought of himself as God, and he ruled as such. He had a good amount of his own family killed, and when things got so bad that he was going to be assassinated himself, he decided to commit suicide. Only he didn’t know how. So he ordered one of his servants to commit suicide in front of him, before following his lead.

So, anyways, Nero had this bathtub constructed for himself out of an incredibly rare stone called Egyptian Marble.This marble is the rarest in the world, and it’s worth a ridiculous amount of money. Apparently it only exists in a handful of places in the world. Here, in the Vatican Museum, is where you can find the largest amount of it.

One of the only other spots this Egyptian Marble exists is back home, actually, in the Pacific Northwest. It’s sitting on the desk of one of the world’s wealthiest men: Bill Gates. He bought some, a while back, for $250,000. Probably just because he could, Jimmy told us. You know how much of this Egyptian Marble that $250k bought him? Enough for a paperweight…

We saw a number of other incredible painted ceilings along the way, and statues. This statue, the Laocoon, is another rather famous piece of artwork I wasn’t familiar with before our visit. Apparently it was created by several Greek slaves. Not famous at all, but just incredible artists. Jimmy pointed out the level of detail given to this sculpture, and how well they knew each and every muscle and how it would’ve reacted to each movement. Apparently this statue, too, was one Michelangelo admired.

Jimmy told us that, from a very young age, Michelangelo knew he wanted to be an incredible artist. One of the best the world had ever known. And so he set out to be just that from a very young age. He knew that, in order to accurately portray the human body, he would have to have a very intimate knowledge of it’s inner-workings, which found him cutting into cadavers at the age of just 14 years. Apparently it paid off, as Michelangelo’s work is world-renowned to this day.

Obviously one of Michelangelo’s works that you cannot miss if you ever go to Rome is the Sistine Chapel, and it was breathtaking. It’s hard to put into words just how massive this painting is. It took Michelangelo three years to complete his painting of the 12,000 square foot ceiling. And by the time he was done from it, he was nearly blind, Jimmy told us. Working so closely to this massive painting for so long, with paint regularly dripping directly into his eyes, it took quite the toll on him physically.

Needless to say, he was happy to be done with it by the time he finished. But he was also a bit resentful of the process, after being hounded by the Pope to hurry up and finish it so everyone could enjoy it, but him in particular (this Pope was aging and in poor health, and he wanted to make sure he got to see the final product). Michelangelo later painted himself into the Final Judgement, another painting that was commissioned later on and that hangs on the far wall. In the painting, one of the characters is seen hanging onto another man’s skin. That man is Michelangelo, thus portraying himself as literally skinned alive by this process the church had put him through, and for all the years he devoted to these paintings.

Jimmy filled us in on all the ins and outs of the Sistine Chapel before we entered, because, as he explained to us, you’re not allowed to talk or take photos while you’re in the chapel. I was surprised to find so many people when we entered, though. They’d talk in whispers, but if you get enough people in a room, even whispers can become quite loud. And it was distracting, I thought, while taking in the massive painting.

Every once in a while, two security guards standing at the front of the room would let out a loud, “Shhhhh…”, but it’d only do any good for a few minutes, and then the whispers would grow loudly again.

These security guards would also clap their hands and say, “No pictures!” whenever they spotted anyone trying to take a photo. I even saw one of the guards approach a woman after seeing her take a photo. He asked her to scroll through her photos and delete those he found. I was not about to try my luck at snapping a photo, but I would’ve liked to have had one to share.

I was surprised when I found out why people aren’t allowed to take photos of the Sistine Chapel. It’s certainly not what I expected to hear. Apparently Fuji Film Corporation financed a cleaning of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling back in the 1990’s. As part of the deal, they were given copyright of the Sistine Chapel, and they decided they didn’t want anyone taking photos of it. Crazy, right? I’m sure the Vatican hasn’t gotten any flack for that one.

After showing us all the ins and outs of the Vatican Museum, Jimmy told us “goodbye” and sent us off to St. Peter’s Basilica, where he told us we had to see the Pieta: Michelangelo’s famous depiction of Mary holding Jesus’ lifeless body.

Jimmy had warned us that the Pieta would be behind glass, and it was. But apparently it hasn’t been this way for long. The reason it is now protected is because a man from Australia came here, to St. Peter’s Basilica, and, in broad daylight, began attacking this statue with a hammer. Apparently he did a good amount of damage to the statue before the crowd finally pulled him off of it. Jimmy told us the man was lucky to escape alive, as the crowd was about ready to tear him limb from limb. I certainly wouldn’t want to mess with an angry mob of Italians, and destroying their prized artwork seems like a good way to do so.

Jimmy told us a bit about the Pieta, before sending us off to see it for ourselves. He said to pay particular attention to the size of Mary and of Jesus. He said you’ll notice, if you’re looking, that Mary is actually quite a bit larger than Jesus, and that was intentional. He told us Michelangelo was depicting here Jesus as Mary’s child, but fully grown, and after his crucifixion. Apparently, what Michelangelo was wanting to communicate with this statue is the realization Mary would have had after receiving the news that she would give birth to the Messiah, and all of the pain and grief that she would experience as a result, as a mother. That she would one day see her child experience a horrific death, as the Savior of the world. That is what Michelangelo set out to show with this statue, Jimmy told us, and I thought it was beautiful.

Jimmy told us that, if we looked close enough, we could find Michelangelo’s signature on the Pieta. It was carved into a strap that goes across Mary’s gown and over one of her shoulders. Sure enough, if we looked close enough, we were able to see it. Jimmy told us that this was actually the only statue Michelangelo ever signed. He was in his early 20’s when he completed the piece, and he was told he was not allowed to sign it (because he was too young and hadn’t established himself as an artist).

Well, Michelangelo was deadset on getting his name on this piece, after overhearing several people comment on it, and wonder who’s work it was. He wanted to make sure no one else got the credit for his work, and so, sneaking in one evening, after everyone had left, he carved his name into the sculpture. Apparently he felt pretty bad about it afterward, because that was the last sculpture he ever signed.

St. Peter’s Basilica itself was beautiful. Just massive, with incredibly ornate architecture and paintings. It was breathtaking, really. With all the stone, the massive interior of the church building stayed quite cool, and so it was also a pretty refreshing place to be. It was a welcome break from the hot air outside.

After seeing the inside of St. Beter’s Basilica, Tim, Monty and I climbed to the top of the church. Well, we took an elevator halfway up and then climbed what seemed to be an endless number of stairs to get to the top. The stairways were very tight, and circled on top of each other, stretching up and up and up. But, once we arrived at the top, and we were able to look out over the Roman skyline, it was worth it. It really was an amazing view.

Looking down at St. Peter’s Square from this height, where we had gathered with the crowd earlier that day to see the Pope, the people looked like tiny little ants scurrying around. And the statues on the top of the Basilica, looking out toward the Square, which stood as giants before, now seemed so small. It really was an amazing view, taking in the city from this height.

Thursday: Getting outside of the city center

We didn’t have anything scheduled for Thursday, so we took it as an opportunity to wander around the city, and to see parts we hadn’t seen yet. After seeing a handful of famous tourist spots that every visitor is supposed to see, such as the Spanish Steps (below), we made it outside of the city, which may have been my favorite part of Rome…

I loved getting outside of the Roman city center. The city center in Rome actually feels quite modern. Full of lots of scooters flying around the city, and lots of Smart Cars. Lots of restaurants. Like any big city, today, I guess. But this part of Rome, outside of the city center, it was different.

We took a bus that led us beyond the hustle and bustle of the city, into a smaller, more intimate neighborhood that felt more like Italy as I’ve always imagined it. Wooden shutters on the windows. Vines on the sides of buildings. Laundry hanging from clothes lines between buildings. Cobblestone alleys. It was beautiful, and it felt like Italy.

We found a nice little place for lunch outside, on another sunny day. Tents lined the building, and there was plenty of room for our rather large group at several of the tables underneath.

We were shocked when we saw their menu. Rome is not a cheap place to eat. Not in the least. But this place was surprisingly reasonable. We found four-course lunch specials for the same price we were paying for a single entree in the city center. Needless to say, we were all pretty happy about this spot.

“We need to come back here for dinner!” someone said as we perused the menu.

And the food was amazing, too. So good. If you like Italian food, you would’ve loved this place. Several of us ordered the Lasagna, which made you want to cry a bit after biting into it. It was that good. Several others ordered the roast chicken, which was also really, really good. I ordered the spaghetti, just to try something traditional. It was right up there with the best spaghetti I’ve ever eaten. And a couple other people ordered  the house pasta, which was a creamy, corkscrew pasta that came with peas. Jen’s not a fan of peas, but even she loved it.

For dessert, Lacy and I ordered a slice of berry pie, while Brock and Jen ordered a caramel dish. It turned out the caramel dish was actually flan, and it also turned out that those who ordered the caramel dish aren’t fans of flan. Which meant I ate three desserts. After my own first three courses. And I did so with a smile on my face.

We were pleasantly full of some rich, tasty Italian food at this point, and we wandered the neighboring alleyways next, taking in all the sights of this beautiful little piece of Rome on a sunny afternoon.

It was an incredible spot, and it really actually felt like we were in Italy, more so than being in the Roman city center. I loved it.

It seemed like the locals in this part of town were proud to be off the beaten path. So was I.

There was one tourist attraction along the way, though. A person dressed up like an Egyptian statue, who would only move when coins were dropped in their donation jar. I challenged the statue to a staring contest; I did not win.

After wandering through these cobblestone alleyways for a couple hours, we crossed back over the river that cuts through Rome, and we returned to the city center, to snap a few more photos of  some spots on our last night there.

One of the spots we walked to was the Trevy Fountain, another beautiful piece of architecture, and a very popular tourist spot. Back to the crowds we went. . .but it really was an amazing sight.

This was another spot where those selling anything they could get their hands on flocked to. More of those little squashy balls being thrown on the ground. More camera tripods. And a bunch of guys selling knock off purses.

At one point, we saw a group of these guys running down an alley with their arms full of purses. There must’ve been close to 10 of them, and they kept looking back over their shoulder as they ran. We had no idea what was going on, but it looked like they had just run through the crowd and stolen each and every purse they could get their hands on. Turns out, these guys must’ve not been allowed to sell these purses where they were putting up shop (in the alley), as we came across this several times.

They had these purses set up in several rows along the ground, and one of the men would be on watch for any police walking through. As soon as a police officer was spotted, these men had their purses on their arms and they were running. It was quite funny to watch, actually, and we began joking that we should just shout “Police!” as we walked by.

Along with the street vendors were several performers. One guy was painting incredible pictures with a row of spray paint cans. He was crunched low to the ground, leaning on one knee, and he was covered in paint. He worked fast, grabbing this can for a quick spray, returning it, and grabbing another for another quick spray.

After 10 minutes or so of using spray paint cans in more ways than I could have ever imagined, he’d hold up an amazing picture of a waterfall set against a forest. Or the Coliseum set against a massive skyline.

It was really impressive. Brock ended up buying a piece for 10 Euros. I was more entertained just by watching him work.

Friday: Our final day in Rome

We were scheduled to fly out of Rome late Friday afternoon, which meant we had most of the day to take in any last-minute sights we hadn’t seen so far.

We visited one last church, called “St. Mary of the Angels and Martyrs,” which was set in another circular square with a fountain in the middle. The church itself had a pretty inconsequential exterior, but the setting was impressive.

Inside, the church was just massive. It really is hard to put into words how tall some of these churches are inside. It’s amazing. And their walls are covered by these large, incredibly detailed paintings. I loved it.

I was taken aback by one of the paintings in particular. And I spent a number of minutes taking it in, with my neck cranked looking up at it, because of how large it was.

It was a painting of Peter, and he was hanging upside down. A crowd had their hands on him, and he was being fixed to a cross. And I remembered what I had heard long ago about Peter’s crucifixion experience. About how, after being condemned to death by crucifixion, he refused, and he literally begged not to be crucified. But, the interesting thing about this is that it’s probably not why you’d expect.

Peter wasn’t against being crucified, per se. He knew he was dying a martyr’s death for his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, and he wasn’t about to try and argue his way out of it. But he was against his own death by crucifixion in the traditional sense, because that’s the death Jesus died. And he didn’t see himself fit to suffer in the same way as his Lord. He didn’t think he deserved to be punished in this way, because it would have been too honorable a death for him. Instead, Peter made the rather odd request to be crucified upside-down, and his request was granted.

I’ve always been stunned by that story. And that’s what I thought about as I stared up at this large painting hanging there in the church that afternoon. About Peter’s humble death on the cross, and how, even in his final moments, this man was completely in awe of the death Jesus had died before him. I could just picture him, being confronted with this death sentence, and replying, “No, no, no. You cannot crucify me like that. That’s the way my Lord was crucified!”

After seeing everything on our list, we realized we still had a few hours to kill before it was time to leave for the airport. We were all hungry, and so we decided to find a place for lunch. At this point, though, after eating pizza and pasta all week, no one was too excited about finding yet another Italian spot. I know, I know, it sounds really bad, and this is the point I’d be shaking my head at myself if I were in your seat reading this, but we all wanted a bit of a break from the Italian food. We all wanted something different.

So, while walking back toward our hotel, we spotted a Hard Rock Cafe, and we were all sold on the idea of some good old fashioned American food. Which is funny because, on our first night there in Rome, Brock and I had been cracking jokes about how lame the Hard Rock Cafe is as we walked past it. But, at this point, we had no shame. After eating pizza and pasta and bread all week, we gladly ordered burgers and pulled pork sandwiches as our last meal in Rome before our flight back to London, and before continuing on to Paris. Don’t judge me…

A couple weeks into my spring break here, we were visited by some good friends of ours from back home. Monty & Heidi. And their son Brock and daughter Lacy. Monty & Heidi have been good friends of Jen’s parents since way back when, and we always have a great time with them.

Their daughter Lacy is graduating from high school this year, and she’s been wanting to take a trip to Europe for, well for a long time, from the sounds of it, so they decided to make a trip out of her graduation gift and see us along the way. Jen’s parents, Tim & Rhonda, had been planning on visiting us in the spring, so we all decided to take a vacation together. Starting in Oxford and then moving on to London, Monty & Heidi would spend a few days touring around the UK before Tim & Rhonda arrived several days later and we all continued on to Rome and Paris.

Monty & Heidi and Brock & Lacy arrived here in Oxford on a Thursday afternoon. It was their first time in the UK, and so Monty had a lot of fun driving their rental car (a stick shift) on the wrong side of the road for the first time. They all looked happy to be out of the car when they arrived.

“We hit six curbs getting here,” Lacy said with a wide grin shortly after they arrived.

“Only six?” I asked. “Well that’s not so bad.”

We helped them unload their luggage from the rental car and showed them around Oxford. I was impressed by how much energy they had after all the travels.

We showed them my college. We walked past Eagle & Child and I pointed out where Lewis, Tolkein and others used to meet every week. We showed them Christ Church, and we rounded out the evening with a trip to the Gourmet Burger Kitchen. I ordered the Sydney burger: served with beet, pineapple and a fried egg.

Lacy asked why I liked egg so much (after hearing about the ham and egg pizza I had ordered at the pizza place across the street). I shrugged my shoulders while finishing chewing a big bite of my burger.

“Because they’re good,” I replied, after finishing chewing. “And good for you.”

A trip to the Cotswolds, the Kilns, and Eagle & Child

The next day, we took a drive to the Cotswolds, stopping into Bourton on the Water first. It’s a beautiful little village with a wide, shallow stream that runs through the middle of it.

Wide, green lawns provide plenty of space for families to walk, kids to run, and couples to play frisbee. It’s a beautiful place, particularly on a sunny day.

A handful of ducks floated softly along the surface of the water the afternoon we were there, as walked on the cobblestone sidewalk in front of the store shops. Jewelers, clothing boutique shops, and small game stores rounded out the village.

We ordered lunch at a place on the edge of the village with sweeping lawns and a large willow tree. We ate outdoors, as it was a sunny afternoon, and most everyone ordered the fish and chips. Except for Lacy, who ordered the chicken nuggets. Everyone liked their fish, but most were not big fans of their side of mashed peas. Which meant I had loads of peas to go along with my fish (I’m one of the few people I know here who’s a fan of mashed peas).

We looked at a handful of shops after finishing our lunch and, before leaving Bourton on the Water, we stopped at a small ice cream shop. The cool ice cream was a welcome treat on the warm afternoon.

For our next stop, we visited another small village, called Lower Slaughter. This village is even older than Bourton on the Water. It really makes you feel like you’ve traveled back in time when you’re there. Like Bourton on the Water, Lower Slaughter is also built right on a stream, and there are small footbridges that make a path to cross it throughout the village.

Two young girls were seated on one of the footbridges when we walked past, kicking their legs in the air hanging over the stream and smiling in the sunlight.

The large, wooden water wheel at the end of the lane was flowing, turning over and over as the water flipped it round and round.

The homes in Lower Slaughter are amazing. The kind you would expect to see in a Thomas Kincaid painting. One after another after another. Stone homes, with thatched rooftops, and low, wooden gates at the front of each walkway leading to the front door.

After a walk around the village, we climbed back into the rental car and made our way back to Oxford. We pulled into town just before 5:00 that afternoon, and we decided to pull up to the Kilns for a quick tour before heading home. They were leaving for London the next morning, and they were hoping to see the Kilns before leaving. I called Deb and made sure she didn’t mind us stopping by. She was in town doing a bit of shopping at the time, but she told us to go ahead and stop in, that one of the scholars in residence would likely let us in. So we did. It was fun showing them around, where Jen and I work, and telling them about the house.

By the time we finished and made it back to our house, it was dinner time, so we walked to the city center and introduced them to their first pub experience, at the Eagle and Child. Monty and Brock followed my lead and tried their luck with the bangers and mash. They were not disappointed.

A poorly-timed trip to London and Addison’s Walk

The next morning, Jen prepared some freshly baked scones before seeing Monty & Heidi and Brock and Lacy off to London. They’d be spending the next two days there before we all flew off to Rome.

Unfortunately, when they arrived in London, they were met by hundreds of thousands of protesters. There’s no way they could’ve seen this one coming when they had booked their trip, but apparently the people of London chose this weekend to stage a massive protest over the recent government cuts. It was the largest protest in London since the 1960’s, and they all found themselves square in the middle of it.

People were climbing buildings and shouting. Others were throwing paint on shops and breaking storefront windows. Apparently it was peaceful for the most part, but others decided to take it as an opportunity to cause some ruckus. After getting their phone call to tell us they couldn’t do anything they had planned because of the protesting, we turned on our TV to see it all unfold. Sure enough, there were hundreds of thousands of protesters; it looked like quite the mess. We felt horrible for them, and told them they were welcome to return to (protest-free) Oxford if they liked. They decided to stick it out, and they made it safely back to their hotel. It really was terrible timing.

After seeing Monty & Heidi off, we met up with Rich & Christine and Max & Michelle. It was a beautiful, sunny day in Oxford, and Rich suggested we take advantage of it by going to Magdalene College for a walk. Magdelene College is where CS Lewis taught here at Oxford, and it’s famous for its beautiful gardens. I had yet to go take it all in, so I was quick to take Rich up on his suggestion.

We met up with the rest of them just outside the large, stone college walls, and we walked through the massive courtyards before making our way to the back of the college and into the college gardens.

Oxford really is a beautiful place to be in the spring time. All of the trees have transformed their previously skeletal-like frames into these amazing, blossoming towers that seem to reach out at you from every corner, as if to hand you a bouquet of freshly blossomed flowers. Seemingly out of nowhere, flower beds have sprouted up, spreading fields of bright colors where there was previously only greens and browns. The entire city smells amazing, like it’s all just coming awake from the long winter and it has put on it’s finest, flower-scented perfume.

Addison’s Walk leads visitors along the river that runs through the Magdalene College grounds, and beside Deer Park, aptly named for all the deer that call it home.

C.S. Lewis loved being outdoors. He loved going for long walks, and he often did so here at Addison’s Walk. But, what makes this walk particularly meaningful for those interested in Lewis is that this is the trail where he first seriously began rethinking the Christian Faith. Thanks to a conversation with a good friend of his by the name of J.R.R. Tolkein, as well as another friend by the name of Hugo Dyson, in 1931, C.S. Lewis gave second-thought to this idea of God writing Himself into our story, to pay a death on behalf of His own creation, so that they might be made right with Him.

It was the kind of story of myths and fairy tales, which, as a Professor of Literature, Lewis loved. But, as Lewis’ friends described to him that afternoon on their walk, this was one myth that was more than myth, it was historic fact. Of this conversation, Lewis later wrote to his best friend Arthur Greeves,

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: and again, that if I met the idea of god sacrificing himself to himself…. I liked it very much… provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels… Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with tremendous difference that it really happened…. Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) that this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths; (b) that it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly sure that it happened….”

Monday: flying out to Rome

Jen and I woke up Monday morning to wrap up the last of our packing before heading off to the airport. We would be meeting Tim & Rhonda there before flying out to Rome, while Monty & Heidi and Brock & Lacy would be flying out that morning. We’d meet up with them at our hotel in Rome.

We arrived at the airport at the time Tim & Rhonda were scheduled to land. But they didn’t come walking out of their gate until nearly an hour later. The anticipation of seeing them mounted as we waited, and I told Jen this is what it felt like waiting for her to arrive that first time her and Steve came out last fall.

Finally, after nearly an hour of waiting, Tim & Rhonda came wandering out of the arrivals gate looking relatively well rested. I was impressed, and it was great to see them. We exchanged hugs and made our way to check in for our flight to Rome.

We had a bit of a wait before our flight, so we grabbed lunch at a restaurant in the airport. A pub. It was great just to talk and laugh with them again. And it was a weird feeling, thinking we were actually in England with Jen’s parents.

We made it into Rome around 9:00 that evening. We hadn’t eaten since lunch, and so we were all quite hungry. Having landed ahead of us, Monty & Heidi told us they had found a great restaurant not far from our hotel. Sounded good enough for us.

We were greeted at the airport by our shuttle driver, and he whisked us along the Roman freeway to our hotel, about a 40-minute drive away. He pointed out things along the way in his thick Italian accent.

“Here are the walls to the old city. The Coliseum is that way… The Vatican is that way…” he said, pointing as he drove.

It seemed so unreal. Being here, and having things like the Coliseum and the Vatican pointed out. I was excited to see it all, but particularly the Coliseum.

Lots of motorcycles pulled in and out of traffic as we made our way to the hotel. Our driver acted like it was perfectly normal. The city felt alive, even though it was nearly 10:00 at night.

We met up with Monty & Heidi and Brock & Lacy at the hotel, dropped off our things in the room, and made the short walk to the restaurant for dinner. It was 10:00 by this time, but, strangely, it didn’t seem too late to be eating dinner. Other people were at the restaurants we passed along the way. And this restaurant, too, had a handful of other people eating. 

It was a nice-looking restaurant, and we were lead to a large, round table in the back of the room by a waiter dressed in a white shirt with slicked back hair. I ordered a pizza with eggs and ham. Lacy and the others laughed. It sounded good to me, I told them.

I was surprised to find it not quite how I had expected it when it arrived, though. The eggs were served hard-boiled and halved, and four of them sat perched atop my pizza alongside thinly cut pieces of pancetta (thinly cut, salted pork belly). Again, not quite what I was expecting, but I dug in anyway.

After ordering water with our dinner, we were surprised to find that it’s impossible to order “tap water” in Rome. At least it was for us. Instead, you end up paying for still, bottled water. About 3 euros a bottle (or well over $4). Crazy.

We thanked our waiter for the dinner, paid our bill, and made our walk back to our hotel. It had been a long day of traveling, particularly for Tim & Rhonda, and we were all anxious to get a good night’s rest before taking in the city the next day.

Tuesday: The Coliseum and ancient Rome

Waking up in Rome on our first full day in the city, I was surprised by how warm it was. It must’ve been close to 80 degrees out, which feels like summer for those of us from the Pacific Northwest. You add palm trees to the mix and you can put money on the fact that I’m g0ing to be taking full advantage of the opportunity to dust off the shorts and flip-flops. When we went to Cabo after our wedding, I did my best to wear just my swim trunks and flip-flops to as many places as possible. I could gladly be that guy the rest of my life.

But the funny part about this is that the Italians are the complete opposite. It’s 80 degrees outside and they’re wearing full-length coats and scarves. I didn’t understand it. In the Pacific Northwest, we’re known for people wearing socks with their velcro sandals, so clearly we don’t come from a place that values fashion over function.

Our first stop for the day was the Coliseum. A short walk and a subway ride away. I had been looking forward to the Coliseum from the time I first found out we were visiting Rome. Jen and I watched Gladiator just before coming, so we were well-prepared for it.

And it was something else. Just huge. As you’re walking up to it, it completely consumes your view, making you feel so incredibly small as you stand beside it.

We purchased some sort of tickets in advance, which meant we didn’t have to wait in the (long) line to get in. I was quite happy about that. There were loads of people there they day we visited. Tours, classes and families filled the walkways that led in and out of the enormous ruins.

The Coliseum has not aged well, either. Sure, it’s been a couple thousand years, but it looks it. The stone frame is broken all over the place, and it literally looks like it’s been through a storm. Apparently the Coliseum used to be covered in marble, but it was later pulled apart and much of it went toward the construction of the Vatican Museum (which we’d be visiting the next day). But, I don’t know, I think that’s part of the appeal, too. It wouldn’t seem quite so ancient if it were all shined up.

Like I said, it was a beautiful, hot day when we were there at the Coliseum, and the big blue skies provided quite the backdrop to take it all in.

We didn’t take a guided tour of the Coliseum; we just showed ourselves around instead. I listened in to one tour guide for part of the time; he seemed to know quite a bit about the place. I’m a little bummed we didn’t take a guided tour of the Coliseum, actually, as I think there is a lot I would’ve liked to hear about it, but didn’t.

I did read a few plaques along the way, though. I read one story about a famous gladiator who fought and killed a bear, a lion, a rhino and a number of other animals all in one day, with his bare hands. I thought that was something else. The Coliseum had on display a rather large collection of animal bones that they had found during their excavation work. From animals that had been killed as part of the entertainment at the Coliseum. It was rather remarkable how many different kinds of animals they had brought in there. Everything from exotic animals like elephants and giraffes to violent predators like lions and bears.

We snapped a group photo before wrapping up our time at the Coliseum, and I couldn’t help but wonder how successful the Coliseum would be if they still put on such shows today.

When we left the Coliseum, we were barraged by men trying to sell us things. There were men dressed up in Roman gladiator costumes trying to sell photo opportunities with them, and there was a seemingly endless amount of men dressed in black jackets and jeans trying to sell those passing by everything from camera tripods to Coliseum post cards and refrigerator magnets. Others were selling these squishy little figures in the shape of a ball that they would throw on the ground. When they hit the ground, they’d squish down flat, but then quickly reform themselves into a ball.

Guys were lined up on the sidewalk, one after another, for miles, trying to get you to buy these things, right outside of the Coliseum. I wasn’t a fan. It seemed like a good way to ruin this incredible place. To cheapen it.

And these guys were persistent. They’d walk right up to you, shoving whatever it was they were interested in selling directly into your face, and then ask you to buy it. Over and over again. And they wouldn’t leave you alone. They’d follow you, long after you had told them you were not interested in a camera tripod.

The next place we visited after the Coliseum was the oldest part of the city, the ancient Roman ruins. Apparently the oldest part of the city used to be built on a hill just across from the Coliseum.

We walked up the hill to take in the old city ruins. The walking path was lined with these trees that reminded me a bit of Dr. Suess. They shot up high into the sky, and they didn’t have any branches until they reached their highest point, before spreading out wide into an umbrella-like figure. I really liked the looks of those trees. I’ve never seen anything like them. Apart from these trees, there were loads of old city ruins, which made the Coliseum look pretty good in comparison.

After a short hike along a trail that wove back and forth with several switchbacks, we made it to the top of the hill, and we found a pretty spectacular view of Rome. It seemed like we could see for miles, looking out across the city. It was a great spot to take it all in. Homes and hotels were built in a more modern architecture, and they were interspersed among lots of incredible, older buildings. It really was a beautiful sight.

We took the opportunity to snap a few photos here, including one of ourselves.

Not long after we reached the top of the hill, dark clouds began rolling in, bringing a deep stroke of grey to an otherwise beautiful, blue skyline. It created a rather ominous scene, there from the top of the hill. One of the buildings, with winged angels on chariots at its peak, looked quite apocalyptic.

With the dark clouds came a bit of rain. And wind. Soon, I found myself standing in my shorts and flip-flops wishing I were the one wearing a full length coat and scarf. Maybe those Italians know a bit more about their weather than I give them credit for.

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