Sunday, June 14, 2009

Europe: Josh's Top Ten (2 of 4)

Continuing on with Josh's Top Ten...

6. The Vatican

As we walked into St. Peter’s Square for the first time, we knew that we were in for a grand experience. The vast, curving colonnade really sets the stage for the massive scale and artistic excellence of the entire Vatican. We went on to tour the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basillica, and the splendor of each surpassed the expectations that were established for us.

The normal highlights of the museums, the Sistine Chapel and the Raphael Rooms, were obviously a delight, but it probably won’t surprise anyone that I was most enthralled by the massive Gallery of Maps. This 16th century gallery, longer than a football field, acts as a complete map of the Italian peninsula. After it was painted, it allowed the Pope to get a better idea of the geography of the surrounding countryside without ever having to leave Vatican City.

The scale of the basilica was really a surprise. It is so much bigger even than the other massive cathedrals that I’ve seen (St. Paul’s in London, Notre Dame in Paris, etc.) that it just overpowers the senses. It is an incredible building, and the structure itself is noteworthy in its own right, but even this can’t overshadow the wonderful collection of artwork that is housed inside. From the soaring Baldacchino by Bernini to Michaelangelo’s Pieta, it was incredible to walk through the basilica and see all of these masterpieces.

While it could be argued that the splendor of Vatican City may not be the most effective use of church resources (I’m still not completely sure where I stand on this), as a tourist it was absolutely incredible.

The Map Rooms:

Raphael's Deliverance of St. Peter:

Standing on the spot where Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in St. Peter's Basilica - a little crazy.

The dome was really impressive.

5. The Neighborhoods of Paris

Of the three major cities that we visited, Rome had the best sights, Amsterdam had the nicest neighborhood (more on that later), but Paris was the most consistently beautiful city of the three. From Le Marais (where we stayed) to Montmartre and the Latin Quarter, I was really impressed with the walkability and community feel of all the neighborhoods that we saw.

Although I would have liked to spend more time almost everywhere we went, this would especially apply to Paris. Unfortunately, we were really only able to breeze through these neighborhoods with the amount of time that we were in town, but even in that short amount of time, it was easy to see why so many people seem to like Paris. It would be a fun place to live someday to really gain a better understanding of the city.

4. The Hill Towns of Tuscany

After our time in Rome, we stayed in Florence for two nights before renting a car and exploring the Tuscan countryside on our own. Florence was wonderful (I’m sad that I have to leave it off this list), but the hill towns that we encountered on the road will probably bring us back to Italy for another vacation.

We stopped at three towns in the course of our day on the road. The first, San Gimignano was a fascinating medieval citadel with over a dozen tall towers that overlooked the rolling countryside. Significantly less touristy was the walled city of Volterra that was a bustling city of the Etruscans almost 2500 years ago. Finally, we made our way to Siena, a somewhat bigger, less quaint, but amazingly beautiful city in Central Tuscany.

While they all provided a different view of Tuscany, the real highlights were San Gimignano and Siena. The towers of San Gimignano provide a spectacular backdrop for the quaint twisting streets and storefronts that lie below. In Siena everything revolves around the central square, the Piazza de Campo, and this is truly one of the most spectacular squares I have ever seen. We spent a couple hours just sitting in the square, and it was a great way to end our wonderful exploration of Tuscany.

Our little quasi-automatic car:

Overlooking San Gimignano:

A tower in Volterra:

The square in Siena.  It is hard to tell from this shot, but it is fan shaped and slopes down toward this building.  A perfect place to sit and spend an evening.

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