Virtual Reality Tour of Rome by LivItaly Tours

I was recently invited to go on a special tour of the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill with LivItaly Tours – special because they’ve added VR glasses/goggles so you can see computer generated recreations of the sites while in them.

We – my 10-year old daughter and I – met with a group of other bloggers at the nearby Caffé Propaganda in the Celio neighbourhood, just next to the Colosseum, where we had a drink and demo of our glasses.

They work with your smartphone through an app you download in advance.  Once at a site, you select it in the app, and it recognises your motion, so as you turn the view changes.

We started off at the Colosseum, talking about how it got its name and the colossal statue of Nero that was once next to it – and that thanks to the VR glasses, we could see again.

Being on a group tour means jumping the substantial line, which even in November was pretty long.

Now, I’ve been in the Colosseum many times, and have had a number of guided tours there too, but for my daughter, despite being born in Italy and living here, this was her first time.  She’s currently studying the Greeks in school, so this was an interesting way for her to connect the dots to the ancient world.  She was full of questions, and our guide, Rachel, was full of answers.  The glasses were appealing to my daughter not only because of the cool/fun factor, but because many of the monuments and ruins from the ancient world require a lot of imagination to see what they were really like, and visualising them with the glasses makes it come to life much easier.

Next we headed up the Palatine Hill, where the emperors had their palaces, and saw over the Circus Maximus, the world’s largest sports arena.

For the final part of the tour, we heading into the Roman Forum, once the downtown of the Roman Empire, and thus, kind of the center of the entire world.

The entire tour probably lasted between 3-4 hours, and we were engaged the entire time.

I’m a big fan of walking tours in general.  There’s a number of quality tour companies in Rome and in general they are all worthwhile – the more you’re able to invest, the more likely you’ll have a smaller group size and a more knowledgeable guide.  Visiting many of these sites on your own, without any additional information or guide, can be an underwhelming experience, so I do recommend doing a tour.

Having the VR glasses was a nice addition too, especially for kids, who can be hard to keep interested.  I also felt that our guide was great with kids too – she was happy to get questions and visibly pleased to be able to answer them in a way that kept more questions coming.

The price of their tours are slightly higher than other similar tours, due to the VR glasses, but you get to keep them afterward, and they work for other sites as well (and for other VR apps).  They also offer a guide that’s full of recommendations that go behind the sites – food, markets, shopping, etc.

For more information, check them out at:

LivItaly Tours 

Skype: livitaly.tours 
Vicolo del Divino Amore 18a, Rome

 

Touring the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s with Through Eternity

I’m just going to jump in and say it – if you go to the Vatican museums on your own, unguided, you’re wasting your time.

I’ve lived in Rome, on and off at first, for the last 20 years and had been to the Vatican only once.  I suppose part of that is because it’s what happens to people when they live near a tourist site – you assume you can go anytime because it’s right there, and prefer to wait for a time when it’s less crowded, which never happens.   That’s a good explanation for why I didn’t go for the first 5 years of living here.  The reason why I’d never gone back in the following 15 years is because the experience, frankly, wasn’t enjoyable.  I’ve had visits to the dentist’s office that were better.

Does anyone really enjoy the Vatican museums?  I’ve wondered this often as I hear our guests recount the days they dutifully spend there, first in line outside, then being herded through the labyrinthian hallways to catch a glimpse of the Sistine Chapel.  Despite it being on everyone’s must see list, I’d never heard anyone go on about how amazing it was and how they wish they could have more of it.  For the art historian, I can see how it would be like a kid in a candy store.  But for the average Joe, I always wondered what they actually got out of it.

When my wife said she’d booked us on a 5 hour tour of the museums and St. Peter’s with Through Eternity, I first felt that this would be a great opportunity to see if I could finally, with authority, substantiate my negative opinions of the museum.  Then reality hit and I wondered how on Earth I was going to make it through 5 hours of anything.  Then I just gave up worrying about it and went with it, as zen and open as possible.

Spoiler alert – the Vatican is pretty incredible.  However, it’s not an easy museum, and it’s not optimized for its visitors in any way.  And I’m 100% convinced that it wouldn’t have been worthwhile had I wandered through it by myself without a guide.  In the end, we were there 6 hours, and all of it, except the overpriced food, was great.

A visit to the Vatican Museums is a big commitment and as is true with all big commitments, you should be well informed.  For example – know that if you go on your own without booking ahead, you’re looking at a really long wait to get in:

Perhaps an hour?  Maybe more?  As the picture shows, these folks look like they’ve been there a while already, and this line stretches all the way down the street and around the corner.  This is, of course, the line for those who decided to show up without tickets. If you buy your ticket online and print it before arrival, you can jump this queue and go right to the entrance.  From there, visitors are divided into two categories: individuals and group tours.  If you’ve booked a tour with a guide, then you get even further preferential treatment.  We walked straight past the line for individuals and went right in.  I don’t even think we came to a full standstill.  For a museum that gets about 25,000 visitors A DAY, that’s pretty incredible.

Once inside, you’re part of a crush of humanity, all wandering slowly, trying to determine where to put your attention – because there’s so many options.  Our guide, Mario, told us that if you were to spend a few seconds in front of each painting in the entire complex, it would add up to about 25 years.

Here’s the thing – there are some wonderful,  beautiful paintings in the Vatican Museums and if you want to visit unguided, you can stroll around and look at lots of pretty paintings and sculpture on a variety of themes, like Jesus, Jesus and Mary, Mary by herself, the Apostles, Jesus being crucified, Jesus being resurrected…  I think you get my point – Catholicism is the main attraction.  For someone who’s not religious, and doesn’t recognize the characters in the paintings or the stories being depicted, there’s only so much you can take of this.  Maybe I’m just shallow and uncultured, but in the 1500′s it would have been amazing to see a painting that was realistically portrayed of a biblical scene.  It would have been amazing to see a painting of anything that you had never before seen in real life – like a certain city or an animal or maybe the seaside.  Throughout history, paintings were the only way to really see into someone else’s imagination, or a depiction of something outside your reality.

In 2016…  less so.

My point is that I think realistically and honestly, it’s hard for many people to get out of paintings what people got out of them centuries ago.  We’re jaded.  We’ve seen it all – and in full motion, in 3D, and Photoshopped to perfection.  Seeing pretty pictures just isn’t that amazing anymore.  What makes them amazing, and interesting, is to understand them and the time in which they were made and the history behind them.  It’s the technique and how it evolved.  It’s the politics and motivations that surround them.  It’s the life of the artists themselves.  It’s all about the context, and to get that, you either need to study art seriously, or you need a guide.

Mario, our guide, was not only well informed and passionate, but also theatrical and compelling.  Our visit combined the history of art, and how artists cultivated different techniques in different periods, to the history of religion itself and how religion and politics were (and in many cases still are) inseparable.

The visit to the museum, at that point, became a lot more than about just art.  I think to fully understand Western history, you need to understand Rome, and to fully understand Rome, you need to understand its relation to the church.  To understand that, and even more, to see it, you need to visit the Vatican Museums.

Some other tips about visiting the Museum & Saint Peter’s Basilica:

* The food is terrible and overpriced, so bring a pack lunch.  If you leave after the museum to go eat, and then want to visit St. Peter’s, you’ll have to queue again, whereas if you go from the museum to St. Peter’s, you don’t have to.

* Bring little kids – if you’re crazy, a masochist, and/or a glutton for punishment.  It’s just too crowded, too slow going, and too complex for them to enjoy it (in my opinion as the father of 3 daughters).

* Get there by metro or bus.  You could walk, but it’s exhausting to stand for hours in a museum.  Get there on a full tank, because you’ll be leaving on an empty one.

* Don’t forget to wear something that covers or can cover your knees and shoulders.  It’s a sacred place, and God is weird about knees and shoulders.

* You don’t need a passport.  Yes, the Vatican  is technically a separate country, but there’s no border patrol.

* Plan to go up the dome of St. Peter’s.  You can pay to take an elevator from the bottom to halfway, inside of the dome, looking down into St. Peter’s, and then you climb up through the dome itself to the very top.  If you’re into taking photos, this is a must.

* If you want to hear the Pope’s audience on Wednesday or Sunday, get tickets in advance online, come pick them up before, and them come super early to get a good seat (like 5:30 / 6 am).  Francesco is a popular Pope.  He fills the house.

* Most importantly, go by yourself, and you’ll just be spending hours looking at old, pretty pictures.  Book a tour with a well informed guide.

Thank you to Through Eternity who hosted me on this tour.  Through Eternity is one of only a handful of tour companies we have recommended over the years and if you are staying at our hostel, The Beehive, guests there get an additional discount using a promo code.

Alternative London – Street Art Tour and Graffiti Workshop

Both my daughter and I have been to London before.  We’ve seen Big Ben and St. Paul’s Cathedral, have visited the Tate Modern, and have walked the Portobello Road market.  We had a number of nights in London this trip, just her and I, and were looking for something different – something we could do together, and couldn’t do at home.

We were happy to find out about Alternative London and get off the beaten track into one of my favorite neighborhoods,  Shoreditch.  We decided on this particular tour and workshop because we liked the idea of doing and not just seeing.  We wanted to be exposed to something cultural, but also to create something.  Extra points went to the fact that it was one of the most affordable things we did on our trip (£25 per person for a 4/5 hour tour and workshop).

Organized by Alternative London, a local artist’s cooperative who do a variety of artistic tours and workshops – art walks on the streets and in local galleries, as well as bike tours and food/pub crawls.  We booked on-line through their website for an 11am Saturday tour with a meeting point by the Old Street tube station on the Northern Line – easy to get to from anywhere in London (took us about 20 minutes from Soho).

Our guide, Rae, an artist/skater who is clearly passionate and deeply involved in the local art scene, told us all about the history of graffiti and street art, and the differences between the two, in an intelligent, animated, and entertaining way.  She touched on the political and the economic messages without any hint of preachiness.  She was thought provoking and light hearted at these same time.  She was great with her subject, but also great at connecting to all of us on the walk, something that not all guides do well.

After the walk, we took a short break to get something eat, and then after a brief lesson on stencil making, retired to their double decker art bus to get started making our own.

She then gave us a demo of different techniques for spray painting and we took turns on a few boards outside before working on own stencils.

Those of us who wanted, had the option of buying a canvas bag or t-shirt for a few extra pounds, to paint our stencil on.

London  has a lot to offer and the choice of museums alone can be overwhelming.  If you want to do something that supports the local art scene, gives you a street-eye view of what’s going on, and makes you really feel the pulse of the East Side, this is a great, affordable thing to do.

Plus, you get to take home your own handmade, one-of-a-kind souvenir.

Alternative London
The Alternative London Bus
1-3 Rivington St
London
EC2A 3DT
Email: info@alternativeldn.com

Ottoman Mosque Architecture

by Steven Brenner

Were I to choose my religion based solely on the places of worship, there’s no doubt it would be Islam.

Coming from Rome, with over 400 churches, it’s amazing to see the contrast in Istanbul -  the largest city in the middle east, with the greatest number of active mosques (almost 3,000).

When we think of typical mosque architecture, with the dome and minarets, we’re really thinking of Ottoman mosque architecture, developed in the 14th and 15th century.

Normally when I travel, I don’t do much sightseeing unless I can do it with a knowledgeable guide who can help me understand and appreciate it properly.  I prefer taking one guided tour on a specific subject that’s really in depth rather than spending a week on my own roaming around sites that I don’t fully connect with.  So in Istanbul, to better understand the history of the mosques (which in turn reveals a great deal about the relationship between people and their religion) I went on 3 hour walk by Context Travel (which lasted 5 hours!), focusing on just 2 of the most important mosques designed by Sinan, the great Ottoman architect. We visited Sehzade Camii, dedicated to Suleyman’s son, Prince Mehmet and the complex of Sultan Suleyman “the Magnificent”.

After taking off our shoes, careful to not touch any sacred ground, we would sit and discuss the various elements of each building, using photocopied images from our guide to help put things in context.

The Catholic churches of Italy that I’m so used to – those overwhelming, overly ornate places with so much iconography -  don’t always succeed in making me feel closer to God.  In Sehzade Camii, my first impression is how nice it is to not have every inch of space covered with images and stories.  Instead, there’s beautiful Arabic script flowing along the walls and ceiling.

My second impression is how much what seems to be decoration is really so much more.  The Islamic scholars were very advanced mathematically.  This geometry is symbolic of the universe – a  place of elegance, of sense, of structure, and this sacred mathematics seemingly brings us closer to God.

Visiting the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are of course on everyone’s list of sites to see in Istanbul.  I highly recommend visiting Sehzade Camii and Suleyman’s, especially with a knowledgeable guide.

Here’s a little video interview I did of our guide and expert, Yavuz Sezer.

 

 

Barcelona – City of Chocolate

by Amy Knauff

This is probably going to sound crazy (or obnoxious), but I’m currently living in a Central American country with a tropical climate and… I miss autumn! I can just picture readers out there glaring mental daggers at me, or getting ready to submit this post to whitewhine.com. Don’t get me wrong, having beach weather almost year-round is pretty awesome. But autumn has been my favorite season my whole life, so when I see friends posting pictures on Facebook of gorgeous red-gold-orange-yellow trees, sidewalks filled with satisfyingly crunchy leaves, and trips with their kids to pumpkin patches or apple orchards, I can’t help getting a little nostalgic for my old East Coast autumns.

And the food! Don’t get me started on the food I’m missing… those hearty comfort foods that can only be truly enjoyed and appreciated when it’s chilly outside. The ham stews and pumpkin pies of my childhood. And from my years living in Italy, roasted chestnuts, pasta with funghi porcini, truffles. And one of my favorite cool-weather, warm-you-up treats? Hot chocolate!

Actually, I find chocolate in general much more satisfying when in cool weather. As I sit here in the tropics sweating and being bitten by mosquitos, I don’t really crave melty, messy, super-sweet chocolate (try a refreshing fresh-squeezed lemonade instead). But oh, when it’s gray and bitter outside, nothing gets those endorphins moving like a gorgeous dark chocolate truffle.

My European friends tell me that the cool weather has finally hit there. It’s nearly November, summer is well and done by now, and it’s time to really embrace the fall and everything that comes with it. If you’re visiting Barcelona around this time, I cannot emphasize enough that you should not miss all the delicious chocolatey treats you’ll find around the city.

I always knew that chocolate con churros was famous in Barcelona — and on my first visit I made sure to try the thick, gooey hot chocolate accompanied by fried churros sprinkled in sugar. It was the perfect rainy December afternoon merinda. (It’s also a favorite post-discoteca snack in the wee hours of the morning among young Spaniards, much like a trip to a 24-hour diner in the US, or a cappuccino and freshly baked cornetto in Italy.)

But it wasn’t until I took Context Travel’s “City of Chocolate” tour last time I was there (oh god! a whole tour about CHOCOLATE!) that I realized the importance of chocolate to Barcelona. When thinking about chocolate in Europe, Switzerland or Belgium probably pops into your mind: but it turns out that Spain was actually the first place that chocolate arrived in the Old World, when Columbus brought back unprocessed cacao beans with him into the port of Barcelona. In fact, after taking the chocolate tour, I suddenly started seeing chocolate shops and granjas (cafés that specialize in chocolate and sweets) all over the place when I hadn’t even noticed them before.

The “City of Chocolate” tour is led by Esther, a native Catalana with perfect English, who met us near the port and led us around the city for about 3 hours, ending in the Eixample neighborhood just north of the Old City. Context keeps their tours small (my group only had 5 people), which means you can get to know each other and the guide during the tour, easily ask questions, and the guide can personalize the tour a bit based on what the group seems to be interested in.

During the 3 hours Esther mixed a good amount of chocolate history and culture in Barcelona with interesting tidbits about the city, commenting on things as we walked, both chocolate-related and non-. I learned odds and ends that I wouldn’t have from a guidebook, like:

-the Columbus statue in the port is meant to be pointing to the New World, but it’s actually pointing in the wrong direction

-the bronze plaques you see on the ground in front of some stores signify that it’s an historic food shop

-thick, bitter hot chocolate drinks were used to keep sailors energetic, full, and warm during long trips (without weighing the ships down with too much food)

-the street performers on Las Ramblas actually have to audition and get permits to perform there

But of course the most fun part of the tour is the tasting. Esther brought us to Granja Dulcinea, one of the oldest granjas in the city, where we sat down and tried hot chocolate with melindros (a ladyfinger-like cookie) as well as a bottled cold chocolate drink called Cacaolat (which kind of looks like a Yoo-Hoo… remember those?).

We stopped in three chocolate shops later on in the tour — first at one of the oldest ones of the city (with one of those historic plaques in front), Fargas, where we saw a piece of old-fashioned chocolate-processing machinery and lots of different kinds of classic chocolate bonbons. Esther picked out several different flavors for each of us to taste-test as we walked along to our next tour stop. The second tasting stop was at a sweets store/café on Las Ramblas, filled with interesting, trendier chocolate designs and combinations, where we tried chocolate-covered mint leaves and bright red chocolate lips. Our final stop at the end of the tour was a modern, elegant shop filled with gorgeous, perfectly arranged chocolate bonbons of all different types, both classic flavors and unusual ones (ginger, Caribbean lime, strawberry-champagne, etc). Everybody on my tour was so chocolated-out by then that we all opted to take our chocolates away to have later, once we’d come down from the sugar high.

The “City of Chocolate” tour is a must-do for chocolate lovers like me. (By the way, there’s also a chocolate museum in Barcelona — not included on the tour — that looks like it’d be worth a visit: www.museuxocolata.cat) If you’re not a chocolate fanatic, Context Travel offers plenty of other tours you can choose from — on food, art, architecture, history, and even tours geared towards kids — in Barcelona and in 15 other European cities, 4 US cities, and 2 Asian cities. Visit their website www.contexttravel.com for details.