Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Ancient Ostia Antica Day Tour from Rome

Published on Viator Things to do Rome on July 28, 2014

Ruins of Ostia Antica
Our tour guide, Rebecca, told us, ‘Ostia Antica is the better Pompeii,’ which is not as farfetched as it sounds. Just 19 miles west of Rome, Ostia Antica is certainly more accessible. Our small group tour of Ostia Antica from Rome met at the Ostiense train station for the easy 30-minute train ride to the site. The tragic story of Pompeii is more compelling with the violent eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, but the city of Ostia Antica actually does a better job of presenting a typical Roman town. Unlike Pompeii, Ostia Antica suffered no natural disaster. The inhabitants left Ostia Antica voluntarily to avoid malaria and a dwindling economy. Eventually, the ghost town was buried (intact) beneath tons of silt from the nearby Tiber River, creating a dream dig for archaeologists. Ostia Antica is also more tranquil than Pompeii and much greener with lots of shade from numerous umbrella pines (aka ‘broccoli trees’).

In its 9th c. heyday, Ostia Antica was the main port and trading center for the city of Rome, a cosmopolitan place with 50,000 residents including many Jews and foreigners. Although modeled after Rome, this was a town of middle class business people, prosperous and comfortable but not ostentatious.

The theater at Ostia Antica
We walked down the main thoroughfare, the Decumanus Maximus, which was lined with paving stones, some exhibiting wheel ruts made by thousands of Roman carts. We visited the theater, one of the most popular spots in Ostia Antica, where the dramas were so realistic that during the murder scenes, they actually killed criminals on stage (switching out the actor for the criminal at the last moment). And we think our reality TV is shocking!

The Tavola Calda
Rebecca was an excellent and enthusiastic guide who led us to many of her favorite corners of the 120+ acre site making the tour very personal and unique. She led us to the Tavola Calda (hot table) that looked like a cafeteria-style eatery still in use today. Here, a selection of hot dishes was placed on a heated tile countertop for the patrons. Strangely, the best hidden gem was the laundry, virtually intact with large rinsing basins. It is believed that children agitated the clothing via foot power (similar to stomping grapes). This was bone-breaking work made even more distasteful because the Romans used urine to bleach their togas sparkling white!

The House of Diana apartment

 One of the loveliest structures was an early apartment house called the House of Diana, built of fashionable red brick. The Romans actually invented the apartment as a way to house their burgeoning population. Nearby, what looked like a garden of buried amphorae contained dozens of clay vessels used to store wine. The Romans experimented with ways to preserve wine, even adding blood and lead to prevent spoilage. But wine literally saved their lives. When the Romans conquered other parts of the world, they brought their wine with them and mixed it with the local water, killing any deadly foreign bacteria.

The communal toilet room

 The Forum was the most impressive part of town with a temple raised on a hill and an elaborate bath complex that even included a steam room. An estimated 300 gallons of water were pumped into the city every day to support the baths. These baths, that were available to everyone at no charge, were much more than just a place to wash up. Patrons could get a massage, a haircut, and most importantly, get caught up on the latest gossip. Our most amusing stop was the communal toilet room, a place where Roman men would come to chat and conduct business.

At the conclusion of our tour, we were given our return train tickets with the option to catch a later train back to Rome if we wanted more time on the site. Back in Rome, I ate a late lunch at a Tavola Calda that looked remarkably similar to the ancient one I had just seen in Ostia Antica. As French journalist Alphonse Karr once said, ‘The more things change, the more they remain the same.’

The Temple in Ostia Antica's Forum

-Contributed by Anne Supsic

A Tour of Ancient Rome and the Colosseum

Published on Viator Things to do Rome on July 7, 2014

The magnificent Colosseum

I first saw the Colosseum almost 20 years ago, but at that time, no one was allowed inside. So when I returned to Rome this year, one of my top priorities was to enter this magnificent structure and see it all: from the underground chambers to the top tier.

Our Ancient Rome and Colosseum Tour began across the street from the Colosseum where we gazed at the stunning ruin and listened (on handy headsets) as our guide, Alessia, explained that this land was originally part of the gardens of Nero’s Palace. The Colosseum derives its name from a colossal statue of Nero that once stood here. After Nero’s death, the Romans tried to wipe out his memory by altering the statue turning it into a generic Sun God. The Romans also drained the lake in Nero’s garden, creating the perfect location for this arena.

Fifteen thousand slaves spent the better part of a decade erecting this monument dedicated to entertainment. One of the reasons Romans loved the Colosseum so much was that admission was free! Entertainments were actually an integral part of every emperor’s propaganda campaign; a way to keep the people happy and keep himself in power. (The games kept people’s minds off plotting to overthrow the empire.) In 80 AD, Emperor Vespasian celebrated the opening of the Colosseum by offering 100 days of games involving 5,000 beasts (all free of charge, of course).

A view of the Vestal Virgin apartments

Following that introduction, we headed for Rome’s ‘downtown’ and nucleus of city life, the Roman Forum. The Forum had it all: the Senate for the politicos, the courts for all legal actions, the best markets for the shopaholics, and the temples where priests administered to the spiritual needs of Rome. The only actual residents of the Forum were the Vestal Virgins who lived in special, isolated apartments. Girls joined the order as 6-year-olds and remained until age thirty (when they were too old to reproduce). These girls came only from the wealthiest patrician families, and it was considered quite an honor to have a Vestal in the family. Being a Vestal Virgin was serious business – if a Vestal Virgin was caught fooling around, the man was executed, and the ‘virgin’ was buried alive.

Private playground of the wealthy on Palatine Hill
Next, we strolled up to the rural-feeling Palatine Hill where the wealthiest Romans lived in villas surrounded by flowering trees and fountains. The rich folks even had their own private ‘playground’ to watch athletes compete in various games including chariot races.

View from the arena floor
At last, we headed for the highlight of the tour: the inside of the Colosseum. The entranceway was a madhouse of frantic tourists, but once inside, Alessia led us into a quiet section of the arena floor for a heart-stopping view of the indoor seating that once held 70,000 spectators. I looked around and realized that our small group had this amazing space all to ourselves.

In the cavernous underground

We descended below for our special access to the separate world of the underground chambers. This was the place where exotic animals, and of course, gladiators waited for their grand entrance into the arena. The entertainments were carefully orchestrated with an elaborate system of elevators and trap doors that allowed fierce animals or heroic gladiators to suddenly pop out on the arena floor. Everything was designed to wow the audience and keep them coming back for more.

Top down view of the Colosseum

We ended our tour by climbing several sets of stairs to the top tier. The effort was well worth it as we stood alone on the terrace with plenty of time to absorb a top down perspective of the inside of the arena and gaze outside for sweeping views of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Now I could truly say I had seen this ancient wonder inside and out!
-Contributed by Anne Supsic

Saturday, August 9, 2014

10 of Europe's Best (Lesser Known) Art Museums

Published in the Viator Travel Blog on August 8, 2014

Europe is blessed with an abundance of art museums that extends well beyond the indisputable acclaim granted to places like the Louvre or the Prado. While these art museum giants tend to leave a visitor dizzy after covering hundreds of years of art in one afternoon, the lesser known museums frequently focus on a single artist or time period. This narrower scope is less overwhelming and often provides a unique opportunity to see how an artist evolved and matured.
Here are ten lesser known art museums guaranteed to surprise and charm.

1. Galleria Borghese in Rome, Italy

Galleria Borghese is an intimate 20-room art museum housed in a former villa surrounded by the lush Borghese Gardens. Access is by reservation only in 2-hour time slots ensuring a peaceful visit. The museum’s impressive collection focuses on Italian works that once belonged to Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1579–1633), a ruthless art collector who stopped at nothing to get his hands on a coveted work. He once arrested a man on trumped up charges and only released him after receiving a ‘gift’ of two Caravaggio paintings.

The riotous colors of the fresco-covered main salon give a hint of what lies beyond. Above the main doorway, a dramatic bas-relief depicts a stumbling horse and rider who appear ready to tumble right into the room. This remarkably realistic sculpture was created by Pietro Bernini. Following in dad’s footsteps, his son Gian Lorenzo Bernini became one of the greatest sculptors of the Baroque era, and his dazzling works are the highlight of the museum. Bernini’s ‘Pluto and Prosperina’ is a miracle in marble with Pluto grabbing Prosperina’s leg so forcefully that the imprints of his fingerprints are visible on her seemingly soft skin. But Bernini’s best work is the astonishing ‘Apollo and Daphne’ which captures the moment when Daphne, being hotly pursued by Apollo, is turned into a tree to escape his advances. The leaves that sprout from Daphne’s hands exemplify artistry at its most impossible. The delicacy seems to defy the rules of physics. It is said that if you brushed over the leaves with your hand, they would sing like chimes.

2. Skagens Museum in Skagen, Denmark

The unassuming Skagens Museum holds an enchanting collection of Impressionist-like paintings by young artists drawn to this northernmost part of Denmark by the unspoiled landscapes and the amazing Nordic light. Traveling to Skagen in the 1870’s was so risky that some artists nearly lost their lives getting there, but the journey was worth it to work in this idyllic environment. The artists painted the local fishermen, the villagers going about their daily lives, and they painted each other, often strolling along the shimmering beaches.

These ‘painters of light’ soon formed a friendly artist colony with P.S. Kroyer and the husband and wife duo of Anna and Michael Ancher as the most famous of the group. Kroyer loved to paint what he called the ‘blue hour,’ the time when day fades into night. A good example is ‘Summer Evening at Skagen,’ a painting featuring his wife Marie and his dog Rap on the beach at dusk.
The aim of the Skagens Museum is to display the art in the environment in which it was created. The best place to sense the spirit of the artists is in the dining room of Hotel Degn Brøndum, once the center of social life in the community, which has been relocated to the museum. It became a custom for the artists to donate portraits of each other to the hotel owner, and the old friends are still here, gazing down from the paintings that line the wood-paneled walls.
Note: The Skagens Museum will be closed for approximately six months from October 2014 to May 2015 for a major renovation and expansion project.

3. Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in Albi, France

The Toulouse-Lautrec Museum is housed in a 13th c. palace of massive proportions; a stark contrast with the diminutive artist whose work is on display. Born in Albi, Toulouse-Lautrec suffered from a genetic disorder (perhaps a result of inbreeding among his aristocratic family) that caused severely brittle bones. He broke both of his legs as a teenager, stopped growing at barely 5-feet tall, and needed a cane to walk.

Perhaps because of his physical deformities, Lautrec felt at home in the uninhibited atmosphere of bohemian Paris, and he lived in brothels for weeks at a time creating intimate portraits of the ‘working girls.’ He is considered one of the greatest painters of the Post-Impressionist period, and the museum collection, donated by his parents, follows Toulouse-Lautrec’s life and work culminating in an odd mix of heartbreaking paintings of life-worn prostitutes and stylish posters of cabaret singers.
Often called the father of poster art, Lautrec’s advertisements for Paris hot spots like the Moulin Rouge turned local singers and dancers into celebrities and raised the lowly poster to the level of fine art. Sadly, the licentious life caught up with him, and he died at the age of only 36 from the combined effects of alcoholism and syphilis (which he is said to have caught from a red-haired prostitute called Rosa la Rouge).

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

4. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Bilbao, Spain

Oddly enough, the highlights of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao are outside, beginning with the extraordinary $100 million Frank Gehry building, a groundbreaking 20th c. architectural landmark. The complex sculptural design required the use of computer software initially developed for the aerospace industry, and the flowing outer skin of the building consists of 33,000 paper-thin titanium sheets that change color with the weather.

Much of the art resides outside as well, including the spider sculpture called ‘Maman’ by Louise Bourgeois that looks like something straight out of a sci-fi film and the lovable plant-covered sculpture ‘Puppy’ by Jeff Koons. The 43-foot tall West Highland Terrier actually blooms in a profusion of marigolds, begonias, impatiens, and petunias. In 1997, two days before the museum’s grand opening, ‘Puppy’ was almost the unwitting accomplice in a terrorist event. Fortunately, the three ETA Basque separatists, who arrived dressed as gardeners with Puppy-like flower pots filled with remote-controlled grenades, were apprehended. Today colorful ‘Puppy’ stands guard on Aguirre square, named for the policeman who was killed foiling the terrorist attempt.

5. Cluny Museum in Paris, France

Housed in a beautifully restored 15th c. monastery (one of only two surviving medieval mansions in Paris), the Cluny Museum offers one of the world’s greatest collections of medieval art with paintings, sculptures, tapestries, stained glass, and items from daily life. The somewhat rambling layout includes a small room showcasing backlit fragments of stained glass, providing a rare opportunity to get a close up view of the original glitter. And the basement holds a real surprise: the ruins of ancient Roman baths built at the turn of the 1st c.

Most popular by far is the circular room devoted to the six ‘Lady and the Unicorn’ tapestries. Little is known about the origin of these exquisite wall hangings although they are assumed to have been woven in Belgium during the 1500’s. Described as one of the great masterpieces of western art, the tapestries represent the five senses: touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight. And an enigmatic sixth sense that carries the inscription ‘À mon seul désir’ (to my only desire) which has been interpreted to mean understanding, intuition, or love. Whatever the intended message, this is the only tapestry where the lady has just the faintest trace of a smile!

Cycladic female figure
Cycladic female figure

6. Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, Greece

The Museum of Cycladic Art has one of the finest collections of Cycladic art in the world including marble figurines, bronze tools, and pottery. Although Cycladic art is over 5,000 years old (dating to the 3rd millennium B.C.), the many sleek female figures look remarkably modern, much like a Picasso creation. Which is not surprising since artists like Picasso, Modigliani, and Brancusi were heavily influenced by these ancient masters.

The abstract female figurines stand proudly in well-lit glass cases eliciting a sensation of quiet reverence. The simple sculptures follow a strict design formula: geometric forms posed in frontal positions with arms folded across the stomach and each face empty of any features other than a prominent nose. The elegant female figures are assumed to be fertility goddesses, but little is known about this ancient culture and the statues’ role in Cycladic life remains a mystery.

Song of Songs
Song of Songs

7. Marc Chagall Museum in Nice, France

The Marc Chagall Museum contains the largest public collection of Marc Chagall paintings in the world and was designed in the 1970’s with the help of Chagall himself who decided on the exact placement of each of his works. The museum contains an auditorium with stained glass windows portraying the creation of the world and a mosaic overlooking a pond, but the heart of the museum is a series of 17 paintings based on Biblical themes.

A central room displays twelve large paintings illustrating the first two books of the Old Testament. Chagall’s paintings are filled with fanciful folk art reflecting his Russian childhood and radiating a gentle playfulness; even serious subjects like ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ come with an upside down angel and a flying tree. A smaller hexagonal room holds the museum’s greatest delight: the exuberant 5-painting series called ‘Song of Songs.’ This may be the art world’s most romantic room. The series had a biblical inspiration, but Chagall made it personal, dedicating the room to his wife, ‘my joy and happiness.’ The rosy red canvases are covered with young lovers including the famous image of newlyweds flying over Jerusalem on a winged horse. Chagall once said, ‘In Art as in life, everything is possible if, deep down, there is Love.’

The Veiled Christ
The Veiled Christ

8. Sansevero Chapel Museum in Naples, Italy

The Sansevero Chapel Museum is the brainchild of an unusual character named Raimondo di Sangro (1710-1771) who was a lover of the arts and sciences, a prodigious inventor, and an alchemist. Reflecting Raimondo’s distinctive taste, the chapel walls are covered with strange alchemistic symbols, and the paint on the 200-year old chapel ceiling is from a special concoction he invented himself. The amazingly vibrant colors have never been retouched in any way. Raimondo’s scientific side is best appreciated in the basement where his ‘anatomical machines’ are on display: two bizarre skeletons with complete circulatory systems that indicate an understanding of human anatomy highly unusual for the time.

Raimondo was also obsessed with intricate sculpture, and the chapel is filled with remarkable examples. In one statue, a figure attempts to untangle himself from a rope net that is fully detailed right down to what look like actual knots in the rope. The supreme creation is a sculpture called ‘The Veiled Christ,’ a wondrous work created by Giuseppe Sanmartino in 1753. Somehow Giuseppe created a translucent marble veil that drapes over the features of the Christ figure beneath it. Christ’s fingernails and his crucifixion wounds are clearly visible beneath the veil. This is a phenomenal engineering and artistic feat but gazing at the statue is also extraordinarily moving – almost a religious experience. As you walk from his feet to his head, Christ’s expression changes from painful agony to peace.

9. Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Spain

Visiting the Dali Theatre-Museum is not your typical day at the art museum. Opened in 1974, this is a surrealist experience beginning with the museum building itself, a rose-colored fortress with walls topped by giant eggs, described as the largest surrealistic object in the world. Dali said, ‘I have Dalinian thought: the one thing the world will never have enough of is the outrageous.’ He certainly outdid himself here in his hometown where he spent over a decade perfecting the presentation of about 1500 eclectic pieces that include paintings, drawings, sculptures, engravings, installations, jewelry, holograms, and photographs. By the way, Dali has not left the building – he is buried right here in his museum.

The inner courtyard definitely has a theatrical quality with niches holding golden figurines that look like oversized escapees from Hollywood’s Oscar Night. In the center of the courtyard sits a black Cadillac that actually belonged to Dalí who was a big fan of the carmaker. Inside, the car is covered with green vines that even engulf the mannequin driver and the two mannequin passengers in the back seat (insert a coin and it rains inside the car!). Another one of Dali’s fantastical works is ‘Face of Mae West Which Can Be Used as an Apartment.’ A viewing platform with a giant lens reveals the face of the sultry sex symbol with a sofa for her lips, a fireplace for her nostrils, and wall paintings for her eyes. Those bright red ‘sofa lips’ look ready to mouth, ‘Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?’

Angry Boy
Angry Boy

10. Vigeland Park in Oslo, Norway

Vigeland Park is the world’s largest sculpture park devoted to a single artist with a quirky collection of 192 bronze and granite sculptures of more than 600 nude figures. Gustav Vigeland began work on the sculptures in 1924, modeling all of the figures out of clay, in full size, in his studio. Then he employed professional craftsmen to do the carving. Poor Gustav worked on the project until he died almost 20 years later and never lived to see the end result.

The bulky, naked figures are weirdly captivating, portraying all types of human relationships: adolescent boys running, young lovers in an intimate embrace, parents holding their children close, and elderly couples with sagging bodies. One of the strangest statues is of a man who appears to be fighting off four babies –one baby rests on the man’s foot as if he is ready to drop kick the child. The most popular is a crowd-pleasing favorite called ‘Angry Boy’ that captures a little boy in the middle of an epic meltdown. However, the park’s most impressive achievement is the monolith: a giant pile up of 121 entwined human figures carved in one piece of stone 46 feet high. It’s hard to say if this is a group effort to reach the heavens or a struggle to climb over one another. When Vigeland was asked about the meaning of the monolith, he replied, ‘This is my religion.’

-Contributed by Anne Supsic

Friday, January 31, 2014

Sydney Crimes and Passions Walking Tour

by Anne Supsic

Published in the Viator Travel Blog on January 30, 2014

The famous Kings Cross intersection
The famous Kings Cross intersection

Walking tours are an ideal way to get the lowdown on a city, and our Sydney Crimes and Passions Walking Tour delivered on its promise to expose the underbelly of Sydney’s notorious past. We met our guide, Valentino, under the oversized Coca Cola sign at the famous intersection known as Kings Cross. He explained that in the 1800’s, this area was an exclusive suburb known for its posh Victorian homes.

Striking view of downtown
Striking view of downtown

Valentino described how life changed dramatically in the early 1900’s when a Navy base opened nearby, and a new law forced bars to close at 6:00 p.m. Interestingly, two women became the first crime bosses of Kings Cross. Kate Leigh established ‘sly-grog shops’ to sell liquor illegally afterhours (eventually expanding into drug peddling as well), and Tilly Devine created Sydney’s largest brothel system. These Queens of the Underworld hated each other, and their gangs were constantly at each other’s throats (literally) using their weapon of choice: the cheap but deadly razor. Their gangland-style feuds became known as the Razor Wars. Eventually the tax man caught up with the ladies and ended their wicked reigns in ‘The Cross.’

The once endangered Victoria Street
The once endangered Victoria Street

Knowledgeable Valentino shared other stories of murder and mayhem as we strolled along lovely Victoria Street, a street whose charms were almost destroyed by a crime boss named Abe Saffron aka ‘Mr. Sin.’ Abe planned to bulldoze the marvelous old Victorian homes on this street and make a fortune putting up ugly high rise buildings. However, he didn’t count on the vocal opposition of a local journalist named Juanita Nielsen.

One day, Juanita went to a meeting at the Carousel Club (which just happened to be in the same building as one of Abe’s nightclubs), and she was never seen again. The case is still unsolved and remains one of Australia’s most famous missing person cases. After Juanita’s disappearance, the public outcry prevented Abe’s demolition plans, and Victoria Street remains a graceful gem lined with backpacker places. However Victoria Street has not totally changed her stripes – Valentino pointed to a pretty house called ‘The Golden Apple’ and told us it’s a famous brothel.

The Bourbon, formerly known as the Carousel Club
The Bourbon, formerly known as the Carousel Club

Next we headed for the heart of the action along Darlinghurst Road, known as ‘The Golden Mile.’ Despite being in the red light district, our walk took us past gentrified private homes and even a convent school for girls (talk about a diverse neighborhood!). Soon alluring neon signs touted the names of nightclubs like Bada Bing, Porky’s, and The Bourbon which was formerly known as the Carousel Club, the place where Juanita Nielsen was last seen alive.

Nightclubs along ‘The Golden Mile’
Nightclubs along ‘The Golden Mile’

The crime boss tradition still continues, and the current ‘King of the Cross’ is John Ibrahim who reputedly owns 18 venues in the neighborhood. However, he denies any involvement and leaves no paper trail which has earned him the nickname ‘Mr. Teflon.’ In some ways, ‘The Cross’ has cleaned up its act with police corruption a thing of the past, legalized prostitution, and a Legal Injecting Room offering a clean environment for drug users. But after the sun goes down, party-hearty crowds still throng the streets around the landmark El Alamein Fountain, and scandalous stories, both new and old, are just waiting to be told.

The El Alamein Fountain
The El Alamein Fountain
- Anne Supsic

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Magic of Turin: 7 Reasons to Visit

by Anne Supsic

Published on the Viator Travel Blog on August 29, 2013

Turin has never approached the popularity of top Italian tourist draws like Venice or Florence, but that undiscovered quality is just part of its charm. Turin, or Torino as the Italians call it, is an elegant city of arcaded streets and monumental squares, and on a clear day, the Alps gleam in the distance. But the magic doesn’t end there.

The world is supposedly composed of lines of energy and Turin is part of a triangle of white magic connecting with Lyon, France and Krakow, Poland. But Turin is also part of the black magic triangle that includes London and San Francisco making it the one city with a foot in both camps. Filled with both religious images and symbols of the occult, this truly is a city of good and evil.

Here are 7 reasons to take a magical mystery tour of Turin:

1. The Shroud

Shroud of Turin
A copy of the Shroud. Photo credit: Krzysztof Dobrza?ski via Flickr.
The greatest symbol of white magic in the city is, of course, the revered Shroud of Turin. The actual shroud is kept hidden in a vault within Turin Cathedral; however, many copies of the Shroud are on display around town. The best one is the enlarged version of the face on the Shroud that is prominently displayed near the altar in the cathedral. A silent video plays constantly on large flat screens positioned nearby, providing a tutorial (in Italian subtitles) that explains how the Shroud was placed over the body and describes flaws in the Shroud, such as holes and burn marks from the fire of 1532 and stains from water damage over the years.

To really get the skinny on the Shroud, visit the Sindone Museum (sindone means shroud in Italian) run with great efficiency and heartfelt dedication by a team of sweet, little Italian ladies. The museum is careful to make no claims about the origin of the Shroud, but it is clear from all the evidence that the Man in the Shroud (as the museum refers to him) was crucified by the Romans. And the Shroud has been around for centuries, showing up repeatedly in paintings and other artifacts throughout the ages (a wonderful example of art supporting historical and scientific investigation). What is not clear is how the man’s image was imprinted on the Shroud. Scientists are still studying this phenomenon; their best guess is that it was the result of some kind of geologic radiation.
Visit the Holy Shroud

2. Arcades and Piazzas

Piazza Statuto
Suffering miners commemorated in Piazza Statuto.
Photo by Frank Supsic and may not be used without permission.
Turin is a great city for walking with about 12 miles of arcaded streets providing ornate, pillared porticos to protect pedestrians from the elements while shopping or just strolling the streets. The city is also filled with beautiful palaces and many graceful architectural features. Masonic and satanic symbols are said to be hidden in the structural designs, proof that Turin really is a city of both white and black magic.

When Napoleon conquered Turin in 1798, he envisioned a city of gardens and public spaces, and as usual, he got what he wanted. Turin has numerous piazzas — huge open spaces surrounded by impressive architecture like Piazza San Carlo with its historic cafes and Piazza Castello with its amazing baroque palaces.

One of the most interesting piazzas is Piazza Statuto said to lie at the apex of the black magic triangle. The piazza looks pretty tame with a tranquil park where locals push baby carriages and walk their dogs. However, the square was once a Roman necropolis, and a guillotine was hard at work here during the days of the French Revolution. The statue at the front of the square is also quite disturbing — a craggy pyramid draped with male figures in poses of great agony. The monument was dedicated to the miners who suffered and died while building the Frejus Rail Tunnel connecting Italy with France.

3. The Egyptian Museum

Egyptian Museum in Turin
The Egyptian Museum. Photo credit: Sonietta46 via Flickr.
Believe it or not, Turin has the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts outside of Cairo, some of which date back to 2000 BC. The Egyptian Museum offers a remarkable array of sarcophagi (some still holding dried up mummies), canopic jars that held the mummy’s internal organs, actual papyrus, and a whole army of shawabti (doll-like figures placed in tombs to perform agricultural work in the afterlife so the deceased could take it easy)
One room contains the treasures from an unplundered tomb, a rarity in itself since tomb robbers seem to find their way into all the Egyptian tombs. Kha and Merit were a wealthy, but non-royal couple whose tomb was filled with an assortment of belongings: a board game similar to checkers, dried up bread (that has held up pretty well over the millennia), and even an early western-style toilet. The best room of all is the Statuary Hall; a dark room lined with enough well-lit statues of pharaohs, Egyptian gods, and sphinxes to make you forget you are in Italy!

4. Mole Antonelliana

Mole Antonelliana

Mole Antonelliana. Photo credit: Turinboy via Flickr.

The graceful 547-foot tower called Mole Antonelliana is the symbol of Turin, much like the Eiffel Tower is the symbol of Paris. It was the highest brick building in the world when it was completed in 1889 and offers stunning views of red rooftops, many historical buildings, and the Po River which flows nearby.

The Mole is also home to the Cinema Museum (Museo Nazionale del Cinema) with exhibits on the history of cinema from shadow puppets and simple optical tricks to Edison’s first attempts at making moving pictures. Other displays include clips from a variety of movies, a copy of the original screenplay for The Godfather, and Marilyn Monroe’s bustier!

5. Home of the Fiat

Fiat in Turin
A Fiat in Turin. Photo credit: Tony Harrison via Flickr.
Lingotto is an area south of the city center that was once the headquarters for car manufacturer Fiat. The sprawling former Fiat factory has been turned into a giant shopping complex that also houses an art museum called Pinacoteca Giovanni Marella Agnelli. The small but significant collection includes several paintings by Canaletto, some colorful Matisse canvases, and a lovely Renoir. Nearby, the multi-story food emporium ‘Eataly’ offers the best edibles of Italy, including entire aisles devoted to pasta and bread sticks.

Turin was once known as the ‘Detroit of Italy’ and its car building heritage lives on in the Automobile Museum (Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile). This museum explores the history of the automobile along with a jaw-dropping collection of Ferraris and Alpha Romeos. A video collection of car commercials is also fun with early commercials such as an Oldsmobile sing-a-long (just follow the bouncing ball) called ‘Me and my Merry Oldsmobile.’

6. Temptations of Turin

Gelato in Turin
Gelato in Turin. Photo credit: Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar via Flickr.
The gastronomic temptations of Turin are buono non basta (goodness non-stop) with an array of gelaterias and the most alluring old chocolate shops loaded with only the finest of goodies. All of which seem to magically appear around every corner. Don’t miss Turin’s sweet-tooth specialty: a luscious combination of chocolate and hazelnut paste called giandujotto.

Another special treat in Turin are aperitivos. Much like tapas in Spain, aperitivos are served in bars during the pre-dinner Happy Hour. However, rather than paying by the individual plates as you do in Spain, in Turin one small charge (usually about 8€) buys a generous drink plus all the aperitivos you can eat. It’s like a tapas smorgasbord!

7. Easy Day Trips

La Venaria Reale
La Venaria Reale. Photo credit: Matteo Solbiati via Flickr.
The list of day trip possibilities from Turin is long and varied. A rack railway accesses the scenic Basilica di Superga, the hill-top tomb of the Savoy kings with incredible views of the city below. Another easy option is the Venaria Palace (La Venaria Reale), a sumptuous baroque palace with magnificent gardens.

Forays into the Piedmont will satisfy even the most discerning wine connoisseur. Trains connect to the famous wine towns of Alba and Asti with plentiful opportunities to taste Barolo, known as ‘the wine of kings, the king of wines.’ Even the city of Milan beckons: her elegant cathedral and da Vinci’s Last Supper are only a short (45-minute) train ride away.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Behind the Scenes Tour at the Eiffel Tower

by Anne Supsic

Published on the Viator Travel Blog on June 27, 2013

For me, a visit to Paris is never complete without a view of the Eiffel Tower, and this time, I decided to take a closer look at my favorite Parisian monument on a behind the scenes tour at the Eiffel Tower. Fittingly, our tour began at the base of the tower in front of a statue of the man who created all the excitement: Gustave Eiffel.

Gustave Eiffel, the man who started it all

I had scheduled an evening tour, and as our small group of ten walked to the green expanse of Champ de Mars, the Eiffel Tower suddenly came alive with 350 projectors bathing the legendary tower in golden light. It’s hard to believe now, but this iconic structure was not well-received initially. When the tower was first constructed for the 1889 Universal Exhibition, it was considered an eyesore and was scheduled to be demolished. Gustave Eiffel convinced the city that the tower had scientific value and bolstered his case by cleverly emblazoning the names of prominent French scientists and engineers all around the first level of the tower.

Entering the hidden, underground bunker
The average tourist would never even notice the entrance to the underground bunker, but our tour guide, Emanuel, led us down an obscure stairway into a hidden room below. The bunker is a well-kept secret — in fact, this tour has only been available for the last 8 years because prior to that, the underground space was not suitable for public access. The bunker was an important asset during WWI, housing critical telegraphic equipment. Strangely enough, the bunker now serves as a food locker for the Jules Verne restaurant, the Eiffel Tower’s famous second floor eatery. All the food has to be sent up to ground level via elevator, trucked over to the east pillar of the tower, and then it rides up a special Eiffel elevator to the restaurant.

The effervescent Eiffel!

It is no easy feat to keep the Eiffel Tower in top condition. The tower must be repainted every 7 years requiring about 60 tons of highly durable paint! And the tower is constantly being updated to maintain that ‘wow’ factor. Twenty thousand twinkling lamps were added to the Eiffel in the year 2000 to celebrate the new millennium. These sparklers were supposed to be temporary, but Parisians loved the effects so much (and complained so bitterly about their proposed removal) that the twinkling remained and occurs for five minutes at the top of every after-dark hour. To provide even more thrills for tourists visiting the Eiffel Tower, construction is currently underway to add a new level featuring a see-through glass floor.

Inside the Engine Room
Next, Emanuel led us into the engine room to see the unique hydraulic elevators with their pulley/cable system that moves visitors safely up and down the tower. By the way, these elevators do a lot of hoisting: 7 million people visited the Eiffel in 2010. When Germany occupied Paris during WWII, Hitler wanted to see the view from the top, but as Emanuel gleefully described, the French had sabotaged the elevators so Adolf would have to walk all the way up!

Private viewing area atop the Jules Verne restaurant

Our last stop was a private viewing area above the Jules Verne restaurant on the second floor. Here we enjoyed fabulous views of the city (and the guilty pleasure of bypassing all those people waiting in line). As I was leaving, the tower started twinkling with its now-famous effervescent lights. It was as if the Eiffel Tower were saying, ‘Merci et au revoir!’

A view of nighttime Paris

Saturday, June 1, 2013

7 Reasons to Roam Romania

by Anne Supsic

Published on the Viator Travel Blog on May 31, 2013

Hand-pitched haystacks of the Maramures

As prices in Western Europe continue to rise, the cheaper countries of the continent gain more and more appeal. One of the most fascinating is Romania, a country with much more to offer than just the legend of that guy with the long eye teeth.

Romania is a place where the harshness of the recent past, dominated by oppression and injustice, is juxtaposed with the timeless charm of ancient medieval towns, beautiful castles, interesting beaches, and a genuine peasant culture that has all but disappeared from most of the world. Here are seven reasons to roam Romania:

1. Maramures

Horse-drawn wooden cart in Maramures

In the rural region of Maramures, peasants continue to work the land as they have for hundreds of years. The fields are dotted with hand-pitched haystacks, and the favored transportation method is a horse-drawn wooden cart. This region is a modern-day ‘Brigadoon’ — the legendary village, made famous in a Lerner and Loewe musical that remained unchanged because it only appeared for one day every 100 years. The hottest local activity is the weekly Animal Market where everything a peasant could want is for sale including fresh produce, kitchen pots, furniture, clothing, shoes, and squealing piglets.

For a closer look at the peasant lifestyle, you can stay in one of the many charming guesthouses where your hosts will treat you like family (and ply you with local specialties). Every meal is sure to be a culinary adventure from the incomparably creamy polenta called mamaliga to an assortment of delicious soups. Everything is made from scratch using the freshest local ingredients: baskets of just-baked bread, extra spicy pickles fermented with horseradish, featherweight crepes served with homemade jam, and a traditional home-brew called palinka (plum brandy) that will definitely cure what ails you. Your greatest challenge will be how to avoid offending your generous hosts and still manage to fit into your clothes!

2. Simpler Times

Romanian woman tending livestock

Rural Romania offers a glimpse of a simpler time, and the sweet Merry Cemetery is a perfect example. In this very colorful cemetery, each hand-painted, bright blue cross displays a likeness of the deceased along with a poignant personal epitaph. The bright colors are intended to remind us that death is not a sorrowful thing but a new beginning, and each epitaph begins with the reassuring words of the dead person, ‘I am relaxing here…’

The delightful Popa Museum explores peasant traditions with a remarkable collection of local artifacts including many peculiar-looking masks. In traditional Romanian villages, it was considered bad form to gossip or to criticize your neighbors. However on one day of the year, ‘the gates of heaven opened,’ and people were allowed to tell each other the unpleasant truth. To encourage full disclosure, the ‘advice’ was given from behind the anonymity of a mask. So once a year, the entire village donned masks and let loose, telling each other what they really thought. The intention was that people would learn and improve, but you have to wonder how many hurt feelings (and personal grudges) resulted.

3. Medieval Towns

View of Sighisoara

Romania offers some of Europe’s best preserved medieval towns, including the walled citadels of the Saxons who came to Transylvania during the mid 1100s from the German state of Saxony. One of the most beautiful of these towns is Sighisoara, a 16th c. jewel of winding cobblestone streets and defensive towers like the famous Clock Tower that offers incredible views over this atmospheric old town. Sighisoara’s most famous home boy is none other than Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler). Vlad ruled the province from 1456 to 1462 and inspired Bram Stoker to create fiction’s most famous vampire, the ever popular Dracula.

Another example of Saxon ingenuity is the perfectly situated medieval town of Brasov surrounded on three sides by scenic mountains and protected by sturdy ramparts. The town’s central square is one of Romania’s finest, and the picturesque pedestrian-only Republicii street is lined with colorful old merchant houses. Brasov was once an important trading stop between the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe, and its massive Black Church displays an impressive collection of Turkish carpets. Hanging from every conceivable niche inside of the church, these incongruous decorations were donated by grateful merchants – happy survivors of the journey over the dangerous bear-infested Carpathian Mountains.

4. History at its Harshest

Inside the former prison at the
Memorial of Anticommunist Victims

Until recently, the modern history of Romania has been a sad story of domination, first by the Soviet Union and later by the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The dark side of Romania can be fully explored at the Memorial of Anticommunist Victims in Sighetu Marmatiei. Here is just one small example of the kind of oppression suffered by the Romanian people. In those bad old days, owning a typewriter required a special permit and permits were given only to those who needed a typewriter to do their jobs. But it didn’t end there. Every year, each typewriter owner had to submit a designated text typed on their typewriter which was kept on file, so that it could be used like fingerprints to identify the source of any subversive pamphlets or documents!

A visit to the ostentatious Parliamentary Palace in Bucharest exposes the megalomania of Nicolae Ceausescu. This marble-covered monstrosity, the so-called ‘people’s palace,’ cost over 3 billion euros — a ridiculous outlay, especially during a time when many Romanians were starving. The main ballroom was originally intended to feature a painting of Nicolae at one end and a painting of his wife Elena at the other. But Nicolae, being a modest fellow, decided to replace Elena’s painting with a mirror (that would, of course, reflect the painting of himself). A fitting bit of poetic justice is that many palace meeting rooms are now named for revolutionaries who played a part in bringing the brutal dictator down.

5. Dracula and Queen Marie

Castle Bran, aka Dracula's Castle

Dracula and Queen Marie, one of the best-loved queens of Europe, make a very odd couple, and yet their stories converge at popular Bran Castle. Although the castle seems like the perfect lair for a vampire, with a secret passageway that some say Dracula used to sneak out after dark, the bloodthirsty Count never even spent a night here. However that did not stop local entrepreneurs who for many years cashed in on the infamous legend. The site is still known as ‘Dracula’s Castle,’ and vendors still line the main entranceway hawking Dracula t-shirts, fake fangs, and strings of garlic.

Today, the focus of a visit to Bran Castle is on Queen Marie who lived here in the 1920’s. Queen Marie was one of the most extraordinary women of her time, a legendary beauty and a darling of the press who many have compared with Britain’s Princess Diana. As the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, Marie certainly had the proper pedigree, but she also had a down-to-earth style, and much like Princess Di, was adored by her people. In fact, the people of Romania gave her Bran Castle as a sign of their appreciation. It is one of the can’t-miss destinations in Eastern Europe.

6. Timeless Achievement

Painted monastery at Voronet

Romania has more than her share of manmade wonders including the fabled wooden churches of Maramures with their scalloped shingles and towering Gothic spires made entirely of wood. Inside, the church walls are decorated with faded, unsophisticated paintings by local talent, exemplifying a simple devotion that perfectly matches the people who live here. In nearby Bucovina, the famous 15th century painted monasteries are a bit more showy with intensely colored frescoes inside and out.

These remarkably well-preserved 15th c. paintings depict many popular Bible stories as well as frighteningly detailed visions of the last judgment. A typical day of reckoning scene shows sinners (political enemies such as the Turks are always at the front of the line) being heaved into a red river of fire by a grinning devil.

7. Painted Eggs and Cabbages

Intricately designed hand-painted eggs
A visit to Romania is all about simple pleasures like a stop in the small village of Milisauti, known as ‘cabbage town’ because of its prolific cabbage crop. We had never seen so many cabbages in one place — literally mountains of cabbage piled on wooden wagons surrounded by a constant stream of customers stocking up by the sack full.

You can also try your hand at the painstaking craft of egg decorating. This marvel of reverse engineering is not as easy as it looks. Designs are created with hot wax applied to the egg using a special ‘pencil’ with a narrow metallic spike. The wax preserves each previous color as the egg is dipped into a sequence of dyes: yellow, red, and black. The best moment comes at the very end when the wax layers are removed and the colorful design magically appears.

If you are lucky, you can even bum a ride on a farmer’s wooden cart. Just be careful you don’t end up in the middle of a field with a scythe in your hands!

-Photos and writing by Anne Supsic