The Odyssey of a Seahawk:
From Hilton Head, South Carolina, to Zilina, Slovakia,

with the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program

the Colosseum

New Year's in Rome,
Florence, and Verona

need I say more?

28 December 1999
Happy Anniversary Mom and Dad!!! Twenty-five years!!! Took the train to Bratislava. Incredible snowstorm the entire way there, sometimes I could not see two feet in front of me, the rest of the time I was privy to some of the most beautiful scenery ever. Everything bathes in pure white. At three o'clock PM, took a bus to Rome--a sixteen hour ride. I slept most of the way thanks to anti motion sickness medication that they sell in the pharmacies (lekaren) here.

29 December 1999
Rome. Arrived in the morning. Went to the hotel, packed my backpack with the essentials (camera, guidebook, notebook, pen, highlighter, novel, water) and began the day. I have three glorious days to explore this city, culminating in the Vatican for New Year's Eve. Today I just started, as usual, by walking. My hotel is by the train station, Termini, and it looks pretty central. Wanted to start out with the Diocletian Baths, which houses a church designed by Michelangelo, but is was closed for renovation. Of course. Walked through Via Veneto, a wonderfully elegant street--shops, shops, and more shops, incredible hotels, very posh. Walked through piazzas and past fountains, sculptures that were amazing, saw the Church of the Cappuchins, but the crypt was closed (darn). Arrived at the Quirinale, a huge complex which used to be the summer home for the popes, now it is where the president lives. They were erecting structures for New Years celebrations, and I was glad to see that police cars (and the police) were out in full force. There have been warnings from the State Department for Americans to avoid major European cities where large New Year's celebrations would be held (I plan to be at the Vatican), so I asked my father for advice, and he, as usual, was wise and said I should go, but just be aware of what is happening around me. Smart man, him. Just walked and walked and walked through the streets. Every moment there was something interesting to observe. Walked on to the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. An incredible structure! I am becoming obsessed with relics this year, and St. Matthew's bones (yes, THAT St. Matthew [of the Gospel]) rest in this church. After this, I wound my way down Via Cavour until I saw the sight: to my left was the Colosseum. Incredible. Went inside and spent a glorious hour just pinching myself to see if I would wake up. Here I was, in Rome, at the Colosseum. Something I did not know about this structure: it could be fi lled with water to stage naval battles. After spending probably too much time just walking around, imagining the things that happened over the centuries in this place, I went to a cafe, had a double espresso (feeling just a little tired at this point), and as I had my guidebook, map, and highlighter spread out before me on the table, I hear someone say, "You are very thorough." So this guy and I start talking, and he took me to St. Peter in Chains, the basilica in which are two very important things: Michelangelo' Moses, and the chains in which St. Peter was bound in Jerusalem. Moses has these horns coming out of his head that are very strange, and neither of us knows why, and St. Peter's chains are just about the coolest things I have ever seen. I know it is probably not true, but just to look at them and imagine that 2000 years ago St. Peter had them around his wrists is just mindboggling. By this time, the day is over, and it is dark. Time to part from my guide, and wind my way back towards the hotel. I stop at an Internet cafe, let my parents know I am safe and sound. Seeing as it is rather cold, an outdoor cafe is out, so a restaurant will have to do. Have a really nice meal, red wine, a good book--I am good to go for a couple of hours. Then I walk back to the hotel, taking many side streets, watching the holiday nightlife of Rome happen. And just before I go to sleep, I pinch myself to see if it is all really happening.

Moses, by Michelangelo--why the horns?

the chains of St. Peter

the statue of Marcus Aurelius

30 December 1999
There is something about the coffee in Italy--it is phenomenal. A national treasure. Today I actually have an itinerary. Don't know if I will be successful seeing all of it, but one can hope. Today walked down the Via Nazionale to Trajan's Forum. Of course, it was closed for renovations, but the part that was available to see was stunning. There is a two thousand year old column that tells the story of the Dacian war in 105 A.D. Huge, impressive, and basically a book on a column. Then onto the Piazza Venezia. A very big, monstrous structure with a victory sculpture that looks really incongruous with the ancient ruins. The next adventure was the highest point in Rome--the basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. To reach this church, one has to climb 124 steps (which incidentally, are like a plague column--built to honor the Virgin from freeing Rome from the plague!!). An unbelievably beautiful church. After that, on to the Piazza del Campidoglio, designed by Michelangelo. The only surviving bronze statue of an emperor is there (Marcus Aurelius, who, incidentally, was in Slovakia the year before he died), and it survived because people thought it was the Holy Roman Emperor Constantine, so it was not destroyed for being the statue of a pagan.

the Dacian war column

Spent a goodly many hours (ok, all afternoon) in the Roman Forum. It was without a doubt one of the best things I have seen all year. I cannot describe all the history and majesty and phantasm that I experienced, so I will simply write what I saw:
  • walking into the Forum, there is an inscription for a Senate dedication from 2 B.C.
  • the Basilica Fulvia-Aemilia, built in 179 B.C.!!!!
  • the Niger Lapis, the place where Romulus was killed by his senators because of his abuse of power--dating from 600 B.C.
  • next was the Curia Julia, the meeting place of the Senate, finished in 29 B.C.
  • then the massive Arch of Septimus, built in 203 A.D. as a celebration of victory in some war against the Parthians
  • one of the coolest parts of the Forum: the Mundus, one of the most important places in Ancient Rome, where the living world connected with the world of the dead.
  • the Altar of Saturn from the 6th century B.C.
  • the Temple of Saturn, where cult rituals were performed
  • the Temple of Divus Julius, where Julius Caesar's funeral took place--the amazing thing to me is that flowers were strewn over the site
  • the Temple of Vesta, where the vestal virgins kept a perpetual fire burning to Vesta, the goddess of the domestic hearth--side note: if they broke their 30 year vow of chastity (taken when they were six years old) the punishment was live burial.
  • the Temple of Romulus
  • and finally, on the way out of the Forum on the way to the Colosseum, the Arch of Titus, built in 81 A.D.

the place where Romulus was assassinated

Caesar's funeral was here

the temple of Vesta

Romulus and Remus and the she-wolf

view of the Roman Forum

the steps that Jesus
climbed at Pilate's

So, after spending most of the afternoon in the Forum, it was time to move on. I walked to St. John in the Lateran, the Cathedral of Rome. An unbelievable cathedral. This cathedral was the church of the popes until until 1309, when the papacy moved from Rome to Avignon. The Lateran was also the residence of the popes until this time. The basilica is huge, incredibly impressive, breathtaking. Next to this cathedral is Santa Scala, a church which hold the same marble steps that Christ walked in the house of Pontius Pilate. St. Helena brought the steps to Rome, and at the top of the steps is a private chapel used by the popes. The steps can be ascended only by kneeling--and one received a plenary indulgence when one ascends the steps on their knees in prayer. I don't know if it works or not, but I decided to give it a try. So me and about 100 other visitors climbed the twenty-eight steps on our knees. Slowly. Silently. It was actually pretty cool. Up the street is the basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, which houses many relics, the most important being a relic of Jesus' Cross. Note to self: do research on this relic craze. It is absolutely wild!

the Colosseum

At this point, it was dusk, and I still had a few things to see. So I made it to the Pantheon. Massive, marvelously intact, filled with tombs and statues and art. Spent quite a while there, with my jaw slack, amazed at how old this structure is, and how many changes it has gone through over the centuries. Near the Panthon is the Area Sacra di Largo Argentina, the supposed site of Julius Caesar's murder. Unfortunately, it was already dark by the time I got there, so the pictures will probably not be good. But just to see the place of Caesar's murder, after having taught Shakespear's Caesar so much was quite an experience. There was a quaint little restaurant near the square, just late enough for dinner, wine, and a book before heading back to the hotel. Tomorrow's the big day--New Year's Eve at the Vatican. Can't wait.

31 December 1999
Got up early, gathered my things and put my travel backpack in a locker at the train station and packed my day pack. I figure, why get a hotel for a few hours when my train to Florence leaves at 6 am and I am sure that I will not get out of the Vatican until at least 2?, so I will just go to the train station and wait for the train. So I walk through Rome to the Vatican. There are THRONGS of people in the streets. The air feels electric. Make my way to the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, by the Pantheon. In this church lies the body of St. Catherine of Sienna, and near the altar is a sculpture of Christ on the cross, by Michelangelo. Walked over the Bridge of St. Angelo on the way to the castle of Saint Angelo. Angels adorn the bridge, and the castle is quite impressive. This is where the Queen of Halicarnassus built a tomb for her husband, King Mausolus. Hence the word "mausoleum." Later, the castle was used as a fortification (complete with safety passages) for the Vatican. It was also used as a place of imprisonment and torture. Ah, the glories of the Catholic Church. So the rest of the day was spent at the Vatican. Spent a good two hours in St. Peter's Basilica. The pope earlier that day had opened the holy door of which had been opened on Christmas Eve, the first official action of the Jubilee Year. So I passed through that holy door to the glory that is St. Peter's. Again, I am not even going to attempt to describe what I say, other than to say that Michelangelo's Pieta was smaller than I expected, but more striking and emotional; seeing St. Peter's throne literally brought tears to my eyes. All of its opulence was beautiful, striking, and magnificent, but I also could not help thinking that people throughout the ages have given their life savings (and sometimes their lives) to the Church, which in part I am sure helped build such a structure. There is much I do not agree with the Church about, but I definitely felt "Catholic" today. Note to self: check museum times on holidays. I spent so much time wandering through Rome to Vatican City, and then spent so much time in St. Peter's that I missed the Vatican museums. They closed early because of the holiday. Instead of beating myself up for not checking, it just gives me a reason to return to Rome (as if I needed a reason!!). So I walked around Vatican City for a few hours, had lunch, watched the hoards of tourists make their way to get a good view of the evening's festivities. There was a Jubilee information center in the city (of course), so I spent some time reading about the history of Julibee years in the church. I was not sure about the crowd, so I went back to St. Peter's Square to assess the seating situation. It was getting pretty crowded, so I settled in the colonnade. At 6 pm there was a benediction over which the Pope presided. When I was at Barbora's for Christmas, we watched the Mass from St. Peter's, and poor John Paul II looked so frail, he could hardly walk down the aisle (which is huge), so today he had this a moveable staircase that he rode up the aisle. Of course, the benediction was in Italian, so I did not understand it, but there really was a sense of peace. The crowd was completely quite, and the crowd was quite large. After the benediction, the police cleared out the square, I guess to do a bomb search before the "real" festivities started. Everyone filed out in an orderly manner, and no one knew how long it would take. After two hours (!), we were allowed back in. By this time it was about 9 p.m. There were musical groups (one apparently really popular Italian singer and an American gospel group, a couple of other groups that were surprisingly non-religious in nature. Everyone in the crowd was having a great time, dancing, singing, laughing, and at this point I feel a little (ok--a LOT) lonely. So here I am, just observing. Thinking I maybe should have stayed in Slovakia, but then again, I would never have had the chance to see Rome (and later Florence and Verona) like this, and to see the Pope. So it is almost midnight--the Pope gives his New Year's address and blessing from his apartment window. I have a great view. Right under his window. He does not look so frail now. He finished the address, gives his blessing, and the bells chime Midnight. He waves and then disappears. Everyone goes insane! Champagne pops, fireworks go off, people are hugging and laughing and crying.

(note: I must have done something really, really bad in my last life to deserve such karma, but neither of the rolls of film I took that day developed.)

1 January 2000
I walk back to the train station (quite a long walk, but the streets are really crowded and it feels really safe). I get there, and what do you know, they CLOSE THE STATION until 5 a.m. So me and about 2,000 people are huddled against the cold, waiting the two hours until the train station opens! So much for my brilliant idea of not needing a hotel!! Finally the train station opens, and I get my ticket to Florence. It is more crowded in the train station than it was in the entire Vatican!! I had a ticket for the 6 a.m. train to Florence, but there were so many people on that train that I could not get on it. I am not exaggerating here, but people's legs were literally hanging out of the window, piled in the train cars two deep. So they announced another train, I RAN like the wind to the next track (along with tons of others) and just happened to make it by a door. Was literally lifted onto the car by the crowd and made it into the car. So for the three hours it took to get to Florence, I was sandwiched and surrounded by still-drunk revelers laughing and singing and talking on their cell phones. It was horrible. In a car with the capacity for 100 people, there must have been 250 or more people. NOT AN EXAGGERATION!!! After being alone in Rome, and being on this horrible train ride, the new year is not looking so great. Wait a minute, I am travelling from ROME to FLORENCE. I retract that last statement.

So I get into Florence at about 10:30, find a hotel, and sleep for a few hours. Then I get up in time to walk around and familiarize myself with the city. The streets are empty and champagne bottles are literally everywhere! It's smaller than I thought it would be, and it is JAM PACKED with churches. My hotel is by the Duomo, so that was my first stop. Wow. Green and white marble that has an almost pinkish tint. There are three brass sculptured doors on one of the buildings, the Baptistry, that one could spend much time piecing together the biblical stories they tell. The art! The art! The art! Just walking around the cathedral is like being in the National Gallery. After that, I walked to the basilica of San Lorenzo. Michelangelo designed the fantastic interior. Then I went to the Medici Chapels, which also houses a crypt in which many of the Medici's are buried. There is an octagonal chapel whose walls are filled with semi-precious stones, huge mausoleums, and whose dome incredibly ornately painted. There is a monument to Lroenzo di Medici by Michelangelo that is absolutely amazing in its detail. At this point, most things are closed, so I did the usual--read a book, have dinner, and went to bed early, as Rome took just a little bit out of me!!!

2 January 2000
Started the day early today, as I have to catch a late afternoon train to Verona. I'll spend a day there before my bus leaves back to Slovakia. Went to the Church of San Marco, which was beautiful. Then onto the Gallery of the Academy. Of course, the main event here is Michelangelo's David. There is a sculpture hall leading to the David, with other works, some unfinished by Michelangelo. I did not realize that our friend David would be so tall (almost 14 feet!)!! After this walked over the Ponte Vecchio, the most ancient bridge in Florence. This is the only evidence of what I saw as a tourist trap in Florence. Tons of shops, of street vendors. It was entirely (and too) crowded. I decided to forego the palace, in the interest of time.

the cathedral, the Baptistry, and
the clocktower of the Duomo


an unfinished Pieta by Michelangelo

Ponte Vecchio

the tomb of Michelangelo

There were a few more churches I wanted to see. The church of Santi Apostoli being one. This church was supposedly founded by Charlemagne in 805. Unfortunately not much of the art was available for viewing, as there had apparently been a bad storm last year and renovations were in progress. The next church is the basilica of Santa Crocce. The sculpture and painting in the church pleased me most. Here there are the tombs of Michelangelo, Dante, Machiavelli, and Galileo. Next was a quick pop into the Basilica of Santissima Annunziat. In the piazza also is the oldest hospital in Europe for orphans or abandoned children. Now, apparently, it is junkie/drunk central. I thought that was rather ironic. Last stop before the train was the Piazza Santa Maria Novella, where chariot races used to take place, and the church in front of it, the basilica Santa Maria Novella. And that was Florence. Took a late afternoon train to Verona.

Got to Verona after everything was closed, so I got a hotel, walked all around the city (it is also not terribly big), and, of course, dinner and a book. Verona also has a colosseum and a very interesting Roman excavation exhibition in the middle of one of the streets. My hotel is right across from a medieval castle, the Castle Vecchio.

the tomb of Machiavelli

Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou . . .?

3 January 2000
Spent the day walking around Verona. Not a large city at all, and it was quite relaxing not to have any real plan. Verona is filled with many side streets, so I think I walked on all of them. Went to Juliet's house--of course it was closed, as it was a Monday. Note to self: remember that museums in Europe are closed on Mondays. But at least I was able to see the balcony!! That was, I must admit, a little cheesy, but really exciting. There were people there writing all over the walls, even though signs posted around the courtyard clearly say "Do Not Write on Walls." Next, to keep with the Shakespearean theme, I went to Juliet's tomb. Of course, that was closed too . Was only slightly bummed at this point. There were many really beautiful churches in Verona. The views of the city from its many bridges were fantastic. Walked for hours through parks and forts (lots of forts in Verona) and had a generally quiet and relaxing day. Tomorrow up early for the l-o-n-g bus ride back to Slovakia. I a ready to talk to people again!! I think next time I should not plan such a long trip alone!!

4 January 2000
Left Verona this morning and got into Slovakia around midnight. Very uneventful bus ride, except the scenery was incredible. Whereas last time most of the trip was at night, this time most of the trip was during the day and the Alps were something to see. We drove through the Italian and Austrian Alps--magnificent!

the door to Juliet's house:
Do not write on walls!!

statue of Giulietta in her courtyard

her tomb

a view of Verona from one of the many bridges