Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Visit Vatican City, the Sistine Chapel & St. Peter's Basilica

I will admit it: I'm not a religious person. I am, at times, spiritual. Seeing a gorgeous sunset, viewing the world from a top a mountain, or tasting the salty sea air while lounging on a tropical beach all give me moments where I truly feel spiritual, like I am one with the universe. But I have never been, and most likely never will be, one for organized religion. This is not to say I consider it "bad" - it is just not for me. In fact, there are some things about organized religion that I admire, particularly religion's penchant for aesthetics and beauty. No matter what religion you study, you will always find that it breeds beauty in architecture, art, and music.

The "Sphere Within a Sphere" sculpture in the Vatican Courtyard

A prime example of this can be found in the heart of the Catholic Church's world: Vatican City. I have been there twice now, and each time marvel at the treasures it holds. (Quite honestly, I believe the Vatican alone could solve world hunger if only they were to sell and equally distribute the abundance of gold, valuable paintings, and other treasures they have acquired over the millennium.) The Vatican holds rooms upon rooms filled with marble statues, priceless paintings, gold-leafed books written by masters, ancient tapestries adorning the walls... even the floors are art pieces, with mosaic tiling forming storybook images. I could visit every year and still not even scratch the surface of what the Vatican holds (and if "Angels and Demons" can be believed, no one is even allowed to see a complete inventory of what the Vatican possesses).

The Vatican had rooms upon rooms filled just like this with precious art and artifacts

It is a true adventure to walk through the Vatican Museum, where each hallway is more spectacular than the last. One hallway is filled with giant, ancient maps filling the walls from floor to ceiling; another is filled with detailed and vibrant tapestries. One room boasts artifacts taken from conquered Egypt, while yet another toys with shading and chiaroscuro to make each painting seem 3-D. The ceilings are decorated, the floors are carefully and artfully tiled - your neck hurts from craning it this way and that as you gaze at the beauty around you.

Just one of the amazing hallways in the Vatican, which act as art galleries

I've been to Rome twice, and incredibly, have been guided by the same tour-guide each time. Carla is extremely intelligent and sure knows her stuff - as she very well should. According to her, all guides in Rome must register with a guild, and are tested every year on their knowledge to ensure they are giving visitors to the remarkable city the best experience possible. It was Carla who told us that each room in the Vatican Museum hallway is more impressive than the next due to the competitive behavior of the popes - each pope wanted to leave his mark on the Vatican as an art connoisseur, and wanted to outdo the pope before him.

Posing with an Egyptian relic in Vatican City.

As amazing as the Vatican Museum was, the hallway eventually ended, and we found ourselves outside a simple wooden door. Carla stressed to us the importance of being very quiet, for we were about to enter one of the holiest chapels in the world: the Sistine Chapel.

There aren’t really words to describe the beauty of the Sistine Chapel. Immediately your eyes are drawn to the roof, as it is the pivotal part in the room if you know even the slightest bit about art. If you are lucky, you can find a spot to sit and feast your eyes upon Michelangelo’s masterpiece. However, there is a shortage of seating in the Sistine Chapel - with some benches on the side and in the back, but mostly open space in the middle. You are not allowed to sit on the floor or the marble stairs leading up to the front of the church. (The pulpit? Great, now my ignorance in organized religion is beginning to show!) We saw a few teens shooed away by the “hushers” for sitting on the stairs.

Hmm... what to confess?

Perhaps “hushers” isn’t the correct term for these men, but that’s what we called them. Among the many rules in the Sistine Chapel, such as the one about sitting on the floor, you are also not allowed to bring in food or drink, take pictures (although many of us sneaked in one or two, without flash), or speak. You are expected to be absolutely silent (perhaps a whisper here and there) and drink in the sights quietly to yourself. However, in a room of that size, with that many people crammed into it, there is bound to be some discussion. The noise came in waves. It would be very quiet, then people would start to whisper, then speak in low tones, then in a slightly louder voice, until the room seemed to be filled with a droning sound. That’s when the “hushers”, who were standing like security guards at the front and back of the room, would suddenly go, “SHHH!”, quite loudly. Then everyone would shut up again, for about 10 minutes.

The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel - it is amazing!

Once we finished gazing at the ceiling, we then couldn`t help but stare at the front, where Michelangelo painted a somewhat creepy art piece called “The Last Judgement” in which he is holding his own shed skin in his hand. I actually think I like “The Last Judgement” better than the ceiling frescoes. It has so many hidden nuances and innuendos - honestly, check it out online and read up about it. It is a very interesting piece. But don’t think you will be done then: there are the many paintings on the side walls, some done by my absolute favorite artist, Sandro Botticelli. I could have stayed in the Sistine Chapel for hours, but we had to move on.

"The Last Judgement" by Michelangelo (this pic is from the placard in the Vatican Courtyard)

Our next stop was inside St. Peter’s Basilica. It was a humbling building to be in, which I’m sure was the intent when this massive structure was built. It can hold two football fields in its main gallery; to ensure visitors can accurately hypothesize its length, there are markers along the center of the main gallery indicating different churches around the world, and how they would compare if placed inside St. Peter’s Basilica. Only a few made it past the halfway point.

St. Peter's Basilica - absolutely huge!

The windows allow light to stream inside, highlighting the beautiful sculptures and carvings inside the church itself. (In fact, we saw one man being escorted from the Basilica because he had been standing in a Jesus pose in one of the light beams. Apparently the guard didn’t find it as funny and clever as I did. I took a picture of him.)

A beautiful sunbeam filters through the window and into St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica, besides being grandiose and beautiful all on its own, also contains an artwork that I’m sure most people will recognize: La Pieta. The first time I was in Rome, in late January, there were not many tourists about, and I was able to get front and center with La Pieta and take some great pictures. The second time I went, in mid-April, it was much more difficult to get close to the sculpture (which is already roped off and behind glass). If you want to see the Vatican and its treasures a bit more personally, I recommend going to see it during the winter months.

The beautiful "La Pieta" by Michelangelo, in St. Peter's Basilica

I could honestly go on and on about how amazing the Basilica is. It is huge - you have to go there yourself and stand within its belly in order to really understand what I’m talking about. You don’t have to be religious to feel spiritual while standing there.

Posing as close as I can with a Swiss Guard

Oh yeah, on the way out, I posed with a Swiss Guard. They have great outfits!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Live Through the Rides at the Top of the Stratosphere Casino in Vegas

Life is full of ironies - unexpected contradictions and surprises. For example, I am such a chicken on my rollerblades that I roll to the nearest patch of grass and choose to walk whenever I encounter the slightest incline. I am terrified of going downhill on my rollerblades because I worry I won't be able to stop, and I'll either crash so hard I'll get hurt, or roll straight into a busy intersection and get flattened. (The former scenario I have actually done, and lost a front tooth in doing so, and the latter scenario I nearly did, but ran into a bush at the last minute, in front of a group of very attractive men at that...)

My point is, I am not a daredevil - but I'll do anything for a thrilling theme park ride. I love rides - roller coasters that loop and loop, spinning rides that make me dizzy, and rides that make me wonder where my stomach went to. There's not much for theme park rides in Alberta, unless you count Calaway Park in Calgary (which I do, because I love rides). Each summer I try to hit at least one traveling carnival or rodeo that has a fairway so I can get my dose of ride adrenaline. So when my husband and I went to Las Vegas for New Years of 2008, I begged him to go on all the exciting rides Sin City had to offer. He went with me on all of them, which must mean he really loves me, seeing as he gets sick just by riding the subway.

Waiting in line FOREVER to get on the rides, but enjoying the view as we do so.

Although there are exhilerating rides at many of the casinos, we focused on the Stratosphere as our mountain to climb that first visit to Vegas. I had seen an episode of "CSI: Las Vegas" where one of the characters rode a roller coaster that wrapped around the top of the towered casino. However, to my dismay, when we ventured to the Stratosphere, the roller coaster was no longer in existence. To my delight... they had other rides to try.

The XScream ride (image via because my camera at the time was awful for night photos)

We went to the top of the Stratosphere after eating a late dinner, when the sun was beginning to slink into the horizon. It was an attempt to avoid the glaring sun and heat which we figured would inevitably be a part of standing on roof of one of the tallest casinos in town. What we really didn't think about was that everyone else would have that same idea. Note to travelers: if you want to ride the Stratosphere rides in the evening, be prepared to wait in line! A long time! The line up zigzagged across the top of the casino roof, filling every square inch with human bodies.

Insanity Ride - my favorite one. This image is borrowed from the casino's website.

We waited in line for over an hour to try the XScream ride, which is basically a giant teeter-totter with vinyl seats and chest straps. The teeter-totter tilts you back towards the center of the Stratosphere roof, sliding the seats towards the downward pointing end, then tilts over the edge of the roof (1000 feet above the Las Vegas strip) and sends the seats screaming over the side to rest at the other end of the teeter-totter. (P.S. - It also takes really embarrassing pictures of you as it does so. You can buy them for $25.00 a shot.) It dips you over the edge a few times, then lets you back on to the safety of solid ground. But that's not the worst ride at all!

 The video has no sound... sorry! It was taken with a really old digital camera before I 'upgraded'.

Insanity was my favorite ride. This ride consists of several chairs, suspended from a crane-like structure, arranged in a circle. You are guided into a chair, strapped in, and then told to hang on. The crane lifts you off the ground, then swings you over the edge of the roof, where you can view the twinkling lights below from between your dangling feet. If this wasn't freaky enough, the crane then begins to swing you, around and around and around. As you watch, the Vegas skyline glitters, then quickly changes to the side of the Stratosphere tower wall, where you feel like you just might bang into it. Then it's back to the Vegas skyline again. I loved it! It was frightening and gorgeous all at the same time.

The insanity of Insanity - once again, taken with my ancient digital camera.

The third ride is called The Big Shot, but we didn't get to try it. After waiting in line for an hour for the XScream, and nearly another forty-five minutes for the Insanity ride, we felt that we just couldn't handle one more line-up. We vowed to try it next time, and then went shopping in the Stratosphere shops, which are one level below the rides.

Please, don't let the line-ups deter you. These rides are thrilling, fun, and simply unforgettable. (Not to mention, safer than rollerblading down a hill!)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Ride the Chunnel

Tunnels are fun places. Every kid loves to crawl inside them, engineers dream of building the perfect one, treasure hunters covet them and what they may contain. I used to hold my breath every time we drove through one on family vacations, particularly while driving through the Rocky Mountians of British Columbia, where tunnel after tunnel gobble up the highway. If you made it through the entire tunnel without letting go of that breath, well, I'm not sure what you'd get but it was always a challenge.

Please don't challenge yourself to hold your breath while traveling through the Chunnel between England and France. Either you will fail miserably or you will pass out and/or die. The Chunnel is 32 miles long, with 23 of those miles actually located under the sea floor. This is a long way down, folks!

A Chunnel train, bright yellow and ready to roll. Image via.

It takes approximately thirty-five minutes to zoom from one official end to the other, but you would never know because outside the train windows it is pitch black. When you first enter the Channel Tunnel, you think, "Oh, we're going into another tunnel." Half an hour later, you emerge into the light once more and realize you are actually in another country and just journeyed under the ocean at an amazing speed. It isn't really exciting or mind-blowing until after the fact.

The Chunnel tunnel - not much to see but cool that it is under the ocean! Image via.

I myself spent my Chunnel trip sitting across from four fourteen-year-old boys who had hit a convenience store before we departed English soil on our way to Paris. They had more junk food crammed into their backpacks than any normal human being could possibly consume, or so I thought. I was way off! These boys ate so much sugar and carbs during that thirty-five minute time span that I think MY butt got big by watching them. It was an entertaining way to fill the time gap while the world beyond our windows went black.

This method of transportation was convenient and quick, but nothing really to write home about other than to say I had done it. But the Chunnel is indeed a miracle of engineering and is a blessing to any traveller looking for a fast way to cross the distance between the United Kingdom and France.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Visit Windsor Castle and Maybe see the Queen

It's British fever these days, what with the Royal Wedding hot in the news: William and Kate, Pippa and her show-stealing dress, and those oh-so-cute miniature flower girls. So I thought, what better time to talk about visiting Windsor Castle, home of the Queen and her royal family?

The lush gardens of Windsor Castle in London.

I was lucky enough to visit Windsor Castle in April of 2010 with my school Travel Club trip. If you're a regular reader of this blog, I'm sure you're sick to death of hearing about this trip, but we saw so much during this journey that it is inevitable that I'm going to blab about it again and again. So here I am - bragging about my Travel Club AGAIN! ;)

Standing with the pre-pubescent guard at Windsor Castle.

A side trip to Windsor Castle was an optional side trek offered by Explorica, our travel company. I signed us up for it, without even consulting the participants, as I thought it would be an interesting and valuable experience. I was right! Windsor Castle is impressive in its architecture, decor, and historical value. My students thoroughly enjoyed their day tour to both Windsor Castle and Windsor Village.

The outer castle walls, separating Windsor Castle from Windsor Village.

I won't go through our tour step-by-step - I think you should experience that for yourself. But I will outline the highlights of the Windsor Castle tour. The moment that still reverberates in the minds of my students, a year after their voyage, was visiting Queen Mary's dollhouse. The dollhouse takes up the entirety of a State Apartment room, and is impeccable in its attention to minute detail and its obvious perfection. My students pointed out the fact that the jewelry resting on the dollhouse dresser's table looked like real jewels, and each and every light and chandelier in the dollhouse glistened with real electricity. The drapes were made of real silk, the ceilings were covered in real gold leaf, and the grandfather clock actually chimed on the hour. Even the basement cellar contained casks of wine - we weren't sure if there was real wine inside!

An example of the resplendent rooms at Windsor Castle, taken from a postcard.

The State Apartments were also amazing to view. The splendor of the castle is indescribable - walls, ceilings, and chairs were covered in gold foil. Thick, luxurious velvet drapes lined the grand windows. Giant paintings covered the walls. Armory and weapons glinted in the chandelier light. Photographs are not allowed in the State Apartments, so I did the touristy thing and bought a pack of postcards to use as a memory aid for when I'm old and senile. This was one place that I did not want to forget!

One of the gold-themed rooms in the Royal Apartments, also from a postcard.

Another favorite place to visit was St George's Chapel, located within Windsor Castle's walls. The architecture is distinctively Gothic, with its towering spires and arched windows. Inside, you feel like you are stepping back in time, passing over the tombs of such famous personages as Henry VIII and his favorite wife, Jane Seymour, the Queen Mother and her husband, King George VI, as well as many others. The stained glass windows are breathtaking, and the choral area is stunning with its carved wooden panels. Once again, there are no pictures allowed, so be sure to look up this wonderful structure online to see what I mean.

Standing outside the Gothic-looking St. George`s Chapel.

My students and I looked in vain in an attempt to sight the Queen. Atop the Round Tower (where we were told the Royal Gardener made his home) the Queen's flag, known as the Queen's Standard, was flying. This meant she was home. We excitedly poked our heads into every nook and cranny we could find, hoping to catch her out walking her Corgi dogs, but to no avail. Perhaps maybe next time!

As we headed back to our tour bus at the end of the day, we had a bit of time to explore Windsor Village. If anyone reading this has the chance to visit Windsor Castle, don't just go to the castle and then home again! Explore Windsor Village, which is cute, quaint, and full of surprises. Our favorite moment was discovering the Crooked House, randomly built on a side street in the village. It was the delight of adults and youths alike!

The crooked house in Windsor Village.