Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Aventine Hill

Riding the metro into Rome, we took a short walk up the Aventine Hill to see the sights in that area. Our first stop was the Benedictine monastery of Sant' Anselmo. Here's the basilica from the outside.

And here's a mosaic inside the church. The mosaics in San't Anselmo are unique because there are no backgrounds, just the figures.

In the same piazza is the actual country of the Sovreign Military Order of Malta, otherwise known as the Knights of Malta. The Knights fled to Rome after Napoleon conquered Rhodes, and have maintained a presence in this area ever since. Here's one of the gateway decorations with the well-known eight-pointed cross.

And here's the famous view looking through the keyhole of the gate. You can't enter, but it is very popular to take a photograph looking through the keyhole. Due to the bright light, the photo doesn't show that you can see the dome of St. Peter's right at the end of the tree-lined path.

Next we went to the church of Sts. Boniface and Alessius. This church was originally built in the 4th century but has been added on to, restored, renovated, etc...until 1860 when the present version was completed.

Here under the main altar are the relics of Saint Boniface and Saint Alessius. There are also relics of St. Thomas of Canterbury.

There's an interesting story connected with Saint Alessius, which needs to be told to understand this photo. The son of a wealthy Roman patrician, he fled a royal wedding to live a life as a hermit in the East. He lived there for many years but finally returned to his father's house a poor beggar and hermit. His own former slaves, not recognizing him, gave him alms and offered him the small closet under his staircase to sleep. Saint. Alessius remained a hermit in this closet, unknown to his family until after his death. This photo shows the staircase he lived under, enclosed in a glass case above an altar dedicated to him.

Next we went to the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, where the skull of Saint Valentine is.

Here's a shot of the interior of the church, which as you can see, is very old. It hasn't been restored much since the 9th century.

In the gift shop was this 8th century mosaic. It's thought to have been brought back from the East by those fleeing the iconoclastic persecutions.

In the piazza of the same church is the famous Bocca della Verita. This was an ancient drain cover, and legend has it that if you tell a lie while putting your hand in its mouth it will bite it off. Augustin solved that problem by putting his hand in its nose :D.

Across the street on the Aventine Hill is the ancient Temple of Hercules, one of the best preserved Roman temples. It dates back to the 2nd century BC, and owes its state of near-perfect preservation to the fact that it was converted to a church. Like the Pantheon, those ancient Roman buildings that were either converted into churches or maintained by the Church (such as the Aurelian Wall) are the ones that have been best preserved.

Directly across the street is the arch of Janus. This massive barrel vaulted arch is four-sided and was a major crossroads leading out of Rome.

On our way back through Rome we passed through the Roman Forum, where a new dig was being conducted.

We arrived back home in time to make a delicious dinner of pork chops, grilled pineapple, and a spicy pineapple salsa.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Last day in Spain - Toledo

Well, I am happy to report that we arrived safely at home yesterday after a wonderful week in Spain. Our last full day in the country was Thursday, which we spent in Toledo. Toledo is about 70 km South of Madrid, in La Mancha...the land of Don Quixote. Toledo was founded by Jewish settlers in 540 BC, was later a Roman military camp called Toletum, and was captured by the Moors in the 8th century. It was recaptured by Alfonso VI in 1085 and was the capital until 1561 when Philip II moved the capital to Madrid. We took a high-speed AVE train from Madrid to Toledo, which got us there in only about 25 minutes. It was quite fun being on the train; that thing was cruising!

Toledo has been famous for centuries because of the fine swords and steel weapons it has turned out. The city registers are filled with swordmakers' guilds, and the city produces cutlery today using a steel and process as legendary as those of Solingen and Damascus. Toledo's swords have been prized by soldiers throughout the centuries, including El Cid, Columbus, Philip II, and Ferdinand I. Most of the swordmaking shops are located outside the city, but there is still one left inside the town, which we got a chance to visit. We couldn't take pictures of the whole process because it is quite secretive, but we did get some pictures. Enjoy!

Here is the wall of the shop we saw, displaying all the swords they make.

Here is a picture of sword blanks.

The swords nearing completion. The pommels and guards are on, all that remains is wrapping the handles and finishing the blades. All of their swords are hand made, forged out of a piece of Toledo steel, not stamped or cut.

Us with the owner of the shop, Senor Zamorano.

Alex holding up a BIG sword. Unfortunately swords this big were very expensive, but I was able to buy a small dagger.

Toledo is also famous for its inlaid gold work. We stopped in a shop to watch this artisan at work. 24 karat pieces of gold are cut, then inlaid into various items, then stamped and decorated with various shaping tools.

The finished products......

And a closeup of a finished vase.

I had thought Toledo was a busy metropolis. I was wrong. The streets are both winding....

And hilly.

But once you get to the top of the city you get a great view. This picture shows the three layers of walls that protected the city.

The local specialty in Toledo is its Marzipan. I'm not particularly fond of it myself, but I couldn't resist taking a picture of this cathedral built entirely of marzipan.

Toledo's most famous monuments include the Alcazar. The Alcazar is legendary because of the seige it withstood from the Communist forces during Spain's Civil War.

Here, you can see part of the Alcazar's wall, with this concrete column still pocked by bullet holes.

And here you have one of the four towers of the Alcazar, showing how much of it was destroyed by Red artillery. The mortar lines show what is the original Alcazar and what has been reconstructed.

Another view from the top of the city, showing the Tagus River and the plains of La Mancha.

And I'm not really sure which Castle this is, but here's a random Castle dotting the landscape.

As we left Toledo, we passed through this gate.

And into this train station. The train station is one of the most beautiful in Spain, famous for its Mudejar style of architecture.
Some of the tiles on the floor.
We left Toledo and got back to Madrid in the evening, had a wonderful dinner with the Victoria family and then packed our bags. Our flight out was at 6 am the next morning, so we got up at 3:00, screamed in Felipe's car to the airport, and landed in Rome about 8:20 am. Goodbye Spain!

Friday, June 22, 2007

June 20th - El Escorial

Our next stop was the massive monument and Palace of El Escorial, located in the Guadarrama Mountains. El Escorial was built by Philip II, who personally chose the site of its construction. It was begun in 1563 and finished in 1584. The vast building is a rough gridiron, approximately 224 metres by 153 metres. Contained within the compound are a monastery, a Palace, and a college. The entire building is made out of locally quarried granite, and is so large that it ranks as the second-largest stone structure in the world behind the Giza Pyramid.

This is one of the original tools used to construct El Escorial. The architect who headed the project, Juan Bautista de Toledo had worked on various other famous projects, such as St. Peter's in Rome.

The shape of El Escorial is like a gridiron, dedicated to St. Lawrence, hence the gridiron motif on many items inside the castle, including these original trowels.

Part of the gardens inside the monastery courtyard.

This chair belonged to Philip II.

And this was the room where he used to go walking, watching the mountains, enjoying the view.

Down in the crypt there are many tombs, including this one of Don Juan of Austria, hero of Lepanto. Unfortunately we didn't get to visit the tombs of the kings though.

This is the hall leading from the palace to the monastery.

And this is the monastery church.

Here we have the courtyard right outside the church.

And then a view looking backwards, at the double towers flanking the entrance to the church.

In this close up picture you can see the gold brick of the spire (the one with the ball on top, to the right of the center of the church) which was the last brick laid of El Escorial.

Here we have the Royal Library. This contains nearly 45,000 books, along with 5,000 manuscripts in Arabic, Latin, and Greek.

One of the halls leading outside.

And a view outside in the garden of Andrew, Julian and Alex, with the Guadarramas in the background.

From this photo you can see a large section of El Escorial, and some of its 2,673 windows.