Two of the World’s Most Beautiful Churches Are Found in Florence

After visiting St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Peggy and I travelled on to Florence where we were awed by the Duomo and Santa Croce churches, which we found even more beautiful than the Basilica. These two churches are the focus of my re-post today from our 2015 trip to Europe and are part of my armchair travel in the age of Coronavirus series.

Note: Peggy and I are off on another adventure. This time we will be exploring the back roads of America. Carefully. Covid-19 continues to rage across the country. We have our face masks along and enough sanitizer to bathe in. Even Bone and Eeyore are wearing their face masks! I apologize for not reading posts and comments the past few days but will catch up. One challenge of remote America is the lack of good Internet service. Yesterday, for example, I was in the middle of the Nevada desert on “America’s Loneliest Road” following the route of the Pony Express. I have several more posts in my Adventure Travel series and will then start my Backroad series. Peggy, Eeyore and Bone say hi and urge you to be safe! –Curt

Looking up at the magnificent dome on Florence’s Duomo Cathedral.

There are at least three reasons for visiting Florence’s Cathedral, commonly known as the Duomo. First is the Church itself, second is the magnificent bell tower, which stands next to the church, and third is the octagonal-shaped Baptistery, which stands in front.

The dome of Duomo was one of the great works of the Renaissance. (The church had been waiting since the Middle Ages for its top.) Filippo Brunelleschi, who built the dome, first studied the ancient Pantheon in Rome. Like so much of the Renaissance, the dome represented a return to, or a rebirth of, the Greek and Roman cultures that had thrived 1000 years earlier before the Dark Ages had arrived along with the Barbarian hordes.

A view of the Baptistery on the left, the front of the Duomo in the center, and the dome on the right.
A front view of the Duomo. The bell tower is looming on the right.
Looking up at the Duomo’s intricately painted dome from inside the church.

The 270-foot tall Campanile or Giotto’s Tower, which is located next to the Duomo, was actually completed 100 years before Brunelleschi put his finishing touches on the church. Many consider the bell tower to be among the most beautiful in Europe.

Giotto’s bell tower.
A close up of the top of Giotto’s bell tower. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Looking up at Giotto’s bell tower.

The Baptistery features Ghiberti’s bronze doors. Michelangelo believed these gates were so beautiful they could have served as “the Gates of Paradise.”

The top of Ghiberti’s Bronze Doors on the Baptistery in Florence. Tourists blocked a lower view. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)
A closer look.
And a detailed look at one of the panels.

The Basilica of Santa Croce, a 14th Century Franciscan church, also had some great doors but is better known for the people buried inside including Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Rossini and Galileo. As we stood in front of the church admiring its doors, a man sent bubbles floating into the sky.

A bulb floated up past the carved wooden doors of the Basilica of Santa Croce.
I’ll wrap-up today’s post with a view of the the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence caught in the glow of the afternoon sun.

NEXT POST: Exploring a tiny bit of Florence’s art.

The Go-To Church for 1 Billion Catholics: St. Peter’s Basilica… Armchair Travel

In my last post we stood in St. Peter’s Square and looked at St. Peter’s Basilica. This time we go inside plus visit the Vatican Museum as part of my armchair travel series. This post is based on a 2015 post.

One of the world’s best-loved works of art, Michelangelo’s Pieta, is located in St. Peter’s Basilica.

St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is one of the world’s great churches. It is simply breathtaking. Walk inside and you are ready to join the Faith… whether you are faithful or not. The church was built during the Renaissance utilizing the greatest artists of Italy when Italy had the greatest artists in the world.

Visiting, you might say, is an indulgence of the highest order. In fact the church was built on indulgence… or, more correctly, indulgences: lots of them. Let’s say you committed a very, very BIG sin. No problem, if you were very, very wealthy. The church was willing to sell you forgiveness, an indulgence if you will. It was a guarantee you’d make it through the Pearly Gates.

The practice was so widespread, and so profitable, and so corrupt in fact, that it led a relatively unknown monk by the name of Martin Luther to tack up a list of 95 demands on the doors of a German church and kick off the Protestant Reformation.

But that is all far behind us in the very distant past. I, for one, am glad that the Pope found a way to pay for his splendid monument. And, I suspect, given a few minutes alone with Michelangelo’s Pieta, the most protesting of Protestants would agree.

Bernini’s ornate seven story high bronze canopy oversees the simple altar where the Pope holds Communion.
Looking up past Bernini’s Canopy at Michelangelo’s dome, which towers 448 feet from the floor.
This photo of the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica gives an idea of just how big the church is. 60,000 people standing shoulder to shoulder could stand inside.

If St. Peter’s isn’t enough to pull you into the Vatican, its magnificent museum with over four miles of art should. The tour ends with the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo spent four years on his back filling 5900 square feet with art.

Our tour of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum was far too short. Even cutting out half of the museum, I felt like an Olympic sprinter. Give yourself a couple of days to explore these outstanding treasures.

The collection of the Vatican Museum ranges from ancient Egypt to modern times. This is a statue, I believe, of the Egyptian God Anubis who had the body of a man and the head of a jackal.
I was quite taken with this lion in the Vatican museum. Note the eyes.
Man’s best friend! Woof!
Finally, I wanted to emphasize how incredibly ornate portions of the Vatican are. This was the ceiling of the map room. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)

NEXT POST: We will visit Rome’s ancient forum.

A Walk to St. Peter’s Square: The Vatican Part 1… Armchair Travel

Today we will visit St. Peter’s Square as part of my armchair travel series for the Age of Coronavirus. This is based on a post I did in 2015 after a visit to Rome.

Cloudy skies provide a colorful backdrop for St. Peter’s Basilica with its magnificent dome designed by Michelangelo. This photo is taken while standing in St. Peters Square. Look closely, and you will see ant-like people waiting to enter. Our turn would come.

Our hotel in Rome, the Giulio Cesare, was within a mile of the Vatican. We walked over twice, getting mildly lost both times. It didn’t matter. Rome is chock-full of fascinating architecture and tantalizing history.

The first time we went via the Tiber River, passing by the Castle St. Angelo and its neighboring bridge, the Pont St. Angelo. Eventually this brought us to the broad avenue leading up to St. Peter’s Square and Basilica. Mussolini built the avenue to provide visitors with a better view of the church. He also gave the 100-acre Vatican its independent nation status. Today the Vatican serves as the religious center for some one billion Catholics.

The Victor Immanuel Bridge reflected in the Tiber River of Rome.
Peggy, her brother John and his wife Frances stand in front of the Tiber River and the Pont St. Angelo (the Bridge of Angels). The bridge was once the Bridge of Emperor Hadrian and dates from the Roman Empire.
Pont St. Angelo received its name during the Renaissance when Bernini oversaw a project to line the bridge with angels reminding the faithful of Christ’s crucifixion. This one carries a lance representing the spear used by a Roman soldier to jab Christ in the side.
The rounded Castle St. Angelo stands next to the bridge. Built originally as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian, it would later become a prison and then fort. Today it serves as a museum. St. Michael stands on top of the castle with sword drawn to fight off the plague.Hmmm, I wonder if he would take on Covid-19? (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
A view of St. Peter’s Square featuring a portion of Bernini’s Colonnade. Statues of 10 foot tall saints line the top.
Another perspective of St. Peter’s Square. This is taken from the Basilica looking back. The boulevard built by Mussolini is in the distance. Bernini’s Colonnade opens out, welcoming the faithful.
This obelisk, seen in the previous picture, dominates St. Peter’s Square. Once upon a time it resided in Egypt, but its home in Rome predates that of the Vatican when it stood over Nero’s race track where Christians were persecuted and Peter was crucified upside down.
The top of St. Peter’s Basilica, like Bellini’s Colonnade, features saints. The saint on the left is Simon the Zealot. You can tell your saints by the tools they carry. Simon was a carpenter and is shown with his saw. Simon was called the Zealot because he left his wife and kids to follow Jesus. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)
This lamp from St. Peter’s Square is here because I like it. You’ll see it peeking out on the left hand corner of St. Peter’s Basilica at the beginning of this blog.
I took this photo of the massive columns in front of St. Peter’s Basilica because I felt they provided an interesting perspective on the size of the church. We will be visiting the Basilica in my next post.
No blog on the Vatican would be complete without showing the changing of the Swiss Guard carrying pikes. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

When in Rome: The Colosseum… Armchair Travel

I’ve been reading Mary Beard’s history of early Rome, “SPQR,” so I had fun going back and revisiting Rome with my posts from 2015. In fact, I had so much fun, I’ve decided to share them with you as part of my armchair travel series. We will go on a walk-about where Peggy and I barely avoid pickpockets, visit the ancient Forum, stop off at the Vatican, and take a trip to Rome’s grand Colosseum where I met a ghost of the great cats that once fought gladiators.

Rome’s Colosseum is lit up in the evening.

I first viewed Rome’s grand memorial to gladiators in 1967 on my way home from serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa. I was as impressed with the number of feral cats living in the ruins as I was with the structure. Massive renovations have taken place since then. Today’s Colosseum is crowded with tourists instead of cats. We joined the throngs.

This is the one cat I found in the Colosseum. I am sure it had aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, kids somewhere. But check out the stance— ears back, paw posed to strike. He was ready to take on a gladiator, or at least a camera toting traveler.

Originally the Colosseum was known as the Flavian Amphitheater, after the family of emperors who built it. Nero, who had a bad case of self-adulation, built a huge statue of himself nearby. It was known as the Colossus. At some point, the name was applied to the Colosseum. A later emperor removed the head from Nero’s statue and affixed his own stone likeness on top. Why pay for a whole statue? It became the custom with each succeeding emperor. So much for everlasting fame…

When completed in 80 AD, the Colosseum could seat 50,000 screaming people. During its 100-day inauguration, some 2000 gladiators killed each other and 9000 animals.

While their taste in entertainment left much to be desired, the Romans’ engineering abilities were superb. The Colosseum is high testament to this. Modern stadiums are still built on a similar model, designed to move large numbers of people in and out quickly. I was amused to learn that the Romans called the entrance/exit passages vomitoria– hence our word, vomit.

Spectators were issued tickets on pottery shards that listed their entrance gate, section, row and seat numbers. The higher your rank, the better your seat. The top rows were saved for slaves, foreigners and women. Some people, such as actors and gravediggers, weren’t allowed in the Colosseum at all. Now actors are idolized and even elected as presidents and governors. Gravediggers still dig graves.

A number of illustrations are found in the Colosseum that reflect what it was like at the Colosseum in Ancient Rome. This one of the nose-bleed section reminded me of a tailgate party. Cooking, eating, drinking, fighting and betting were all part of a typical day. As was carving graffiti on the benches.

The top could be covered for bad weather by a large canvas awning that was put up and taken down by sailors from Rome’s navy. The true gem of engineering was the floor, however, which covered a network of tunnels and cages where wild animals and props were stored. Eighty different elevators operated by pulleys served to bring scenery and wild animals to the surface. You might be in the middle of an African jungle for one scene and a Greek city the next. Imagine the job of being prop master! The floor could even be flooded for sea battles.

Here’s an illustration of what the cover looked like.
This illustration from the Colosseum shows a cutaway of the floor with its elevators, wild animals and gladiators.

You never knew when or where the next wild animal might pop up, which could be bad news for gladiators. Cats at the Colosseum then meant lions and tigers with long claws and sharp teeth. There were also elephants, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles and even giraffes— although I can’t imagine why or how you would fight a giraffe. I once chased a herd across the Serengeti Plains in a Volkswagen beetle, however.

Gladiators came from the ranks of slaves, poor people, and criminals. (Contrary to legend, there were very few Christians.) The most successful earned fame, fortune and freedom. Rick Steves, in his book, Mediterranean Ports, reports they even gave endorsements. I can see it in neon lights, “Barbarian Bob eats at Papa’s Pizzeria.”

Looking down into the basement of the Colosseum where wild animals, props and scenery were stored.
I took this photo from the opposite end of the Colosseum. It provides a perspective on what the floor might have looked like. Only about a third of the original Colosseum remains. While earthquakes have done their share of damage, much more was done by Romans taking building blocks and iron supports for use in other construction throughout Rome.
We started our tour on the upper level of the Colosseum. In addition to providing views into the arena, the walkway provided views of the surrounding city and Rome’s ancient Forum area, now covered with trees. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)
Peggy took this photo from the lower level looking up at the upper level. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)
A closeup view of the basement. Imagine it filled with lions, hippos and giraffes.
A final view of Rome’s Colosseum in the evening. I took this photo when we were seated outside a small restaurant eating the most expensive gelato I have ever eaten. Sock it to the tourists! But it was worth every euro.

NEXT POST: Going on a walk-about in Rome.

Face Masks During the Plague— Plus Window Shopping: Venice… Armchair Travel

Another post from my armchair travel series during Covid-19. This time I’ll take you on a window shopping tour of Venice with an emphasis on glassware, including face masks that come with a long nose…

Venice is known for the creative glass masks made there. What is particularly interesting about this one is that it is a replica of what plague doctors wore in the 1600s. At the time, doctors believed that the plague was spread by the bad smell generated by the disease. The nose of the mask was packed with herbs or flowers such as lavender that would counter the smell, and, so the doctors believed, counter the disease. If nothing else, possibly they would scare the plague away!

I promised a window-shopping trip in Venice so window-shopping we will go. Staring in store windows is fun. Like people watching, it falls under the category of vicarious pleasure. And it’s free. Of course the shop owners have other objectives in mind.

Window shopping in Venice is one treat after another. Noted for its masks and glass work, I thought this owl caught both.
Window shopping in Venice is one treat after another. Numerous windows display masks or glass work, I thought this owl caught both.

Venice does a fabulous job with window displays. We saw mouth-watering pastries, chocolate fantasies, clunky shoes, a bejeweled rear end, and an interesting ceramic cow.

I am sure these clunky shoes are stylish but I confess to not getting it.
I am sure these clunky shoes are stylish even though I don’t get it. I do get that I would hesitate to get in an argument with the woman wearing them.
This 440 euro sculpture of a butt challenged my imagination like the shoes above. I did find the glass beadwork fun, however.
As ads go, this ceramic cow in Venice was quite creative. Got paint?
As ads go, this ceramic cow in a Venice shop was quite creative. Got paint?
A Venetian chocolatier created a ski scene from his product in his window.  I almost lost Peggy...
A Venetian chocolatier created a ski scene in his window. I almost lost Peggy. “Chocolate!” she exclaimed. Of course we had to go in. And left a few hundred calories later.

What impressed me the most about the window displays in Venice were those featuring glassware and masks. Both reach back into the city’s ancient history.

How many places can claim they have been “supplying quality glass products since 1291”? That’s the year that a Venice made of wood required all of its glass makers to move to the island of Murano in the Venice Lagoon. Community leaders feared that the glass making process would burn the city down. Venice quickly became the center of Europe’s trade in beautiful glass objects.

The upside for the glass makers was that they were invited into the highest ranks of Venetian society. The downside was they were threatened with having their hands chopped off or assassination if they moved and took their talents elsewhere.

I suspect the artist who created this sculpture of glass blowers had devilish fun with his work.
I suspect the artist who created this sculpture of glass blowers had devilish fun with his work.
I liked this Venice window display because it captured different types of glass work including the elephant.
I liked this Venice window display because it captured different types of glass work including the elephant and shows off various techniques of coloring glass.

Venetians apparently carried out numerous activities they felt were best done while wearing masks. For example, in 1339 Venice passed a law that forbade inhabitants from visiting convents while wearing masks. One can only wonder. During plague times doctors wore long nose masks they believed protected them from the disease. Today masks are a central part of the Carnival of Venice that ends on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras).

The Venetian masks displayed in shops can be quite beautiful and elaborate.
The Venetian masks displayed in shops can be quite beautiful and elaborate. A “plague” mask is on the left.
The masks of Venice can also be a bit on the scary side such as this mask of Medusa. Note the masks covering the eyes on the snake heads. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
The masks of Venice can also be a bit on the scary side such as this mask of Medusa. Note the masks on the snake heads. See no evil, hear no evil, smell no evil, speak no evil? (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
This mask making shop had their creations lined up assembly line style. Their eerie see through character made me think of them as ghost masks.
This mask making shop had their creations lined up assembly line style. The eerie see-through look of the masks made me think of ghosts.
I’ll conclude with modern mask featuring a steam punk theme. It made me think of Burning Man.

NEXT POST: Continuing on our armchair journey during Covid-19, it’s off to Pompeii to visit with the gods.

Mykonos: Armchair Travel in the Time of Coronavirus

Peggy and I are continuing to self-isolate ourselves, as are so many of you. Medford, Oregon, the medium sized town where we do most of our shopping, is on the edge of becoming a coronavirus hotspot. (Nowhere is safe.) We have zero desire to go there and have enough food— and wine— that we don’t have to for a couple of weeks. I even have older blogs to repurpose. (Grin.) Something like 900. I’ve been blogging for 10 years. Last week I re-posted a blog on the Greek island of Corfu. Today is Mykonos. Stay safe.

The area known as Little Venice is one of many charming sites on Mykonos.
The area known as Little Venice is one of many charming sites on Mykonos. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)

The maze-like town of Mykonos (Chora) was designed to discourage invasion. It was easy for invaders to get lost in the narrow, winding streets that ran into other narrow, winding streets that ran into other narrow, winding streets.

Modern day invaders, otherwise known as tourists, also find it easy to get lost. But that’s half the fun. Except for finding a restroom when you really, really need it, there is no danger. You can easily spend an hour or several wandering along the town’s crooked roads and paths. There are beautiful white buildings slathered in stucco to admire, shops to explore, and cats to photograph. You may even find a Greek musician playing the bouzouki, a mandolin-like instrument that produces what most people think of as Greek music.  Picture Zorba dancing.

White is the common color for buildings on Mykonos, Santorini and other islands of the Cyclades in the Aegean Sea.
White is the common color for buildings on Mykonos, Santorini and other islands of the Cyclades in the Aegean Sea.
One of the main streets in Myconos.
One of the main streets in Mykonos. This road is freeway size in comparison to most routes through the town.
Routes through Mykonos are much more likely to look like this.
Routes through Mykonos are much more likely to look like this. Note the blue trim used to add color to windows and doors.
This blue Mykonos door is decorated by a cactus.
This blue Mykonos door is decorated by a cactus.
My wife Peggy on the right and two of our traveling companions, Kathi and Frances stand in front of another blue door.
My wife Peggy on the right and two of our traveling companions, Kathi and Frances stand in front of another blue door.
Bougainvillea seems to be the flower of choice in Mykonos.
Bougainvillea seems to be the flower of choice in Mykonos.
A street musician entertained us by playing his
A street musician entertained us by playing his bouzouki…
And a cat confiscated a cafe chair for its mid day snooze.
And a cat confiscated a cafe chair for its midday snooze.

We managed to get both lost and separated. There was no hope of finding each other in the labyrinth, but fortunately we had a plan. We would meet at the island’s famous windmills. Long since retired, five of them remain hunkered down on a ridge south of town. Mykonos is noted for its winds. The locals even have names for them based on their intensity: bell-ringer, chair thrower, and knock you off your horse. We experienced a brief example of chair thrower but fortunately missed knock you off your horse.

The windmills used cloth sails to capture the winds and run mills for grinding grain. Local bakeries then turned the grain into sea biscuits, aka hardtack, which is flour and water baked several times into a consistency of hardness just this side of rock. The value of sea biscuits is they are basically indestructible. Before modern refrigeration, they were used on long sea voyages. Throw in a lime plus a generous dollop of rum and it was dinner. Producing these ‘delicacies’ was the island’s main industry.

One of the windmills of Mykonos. Dark clouds brought brief rain and a "throw a chair" wind.
One of the windmills of Mykonos. Dark clouds brought brief rain and a “chair thrower” wind. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)
Three of the five windmills.
Three of the five windmills.

Following the coastline back into town we came upon Little Venice (pictured above), a community where sea captains of yore built mini-mansions perched on the ocean edge. Since it neither looks like Venice nor has canals, my thoughts are its name is derived from its proximity to water. Either that or a real estate agent was involved. The community is quite colorful, however. I’d be glad to call it home.

Mykonos has some 70 churches to meet the needs of its 7000 residents, which seems like a lot. I am reminded of the number of Baptist churches found in the rural South of the United States. When I was traveling through East Texas on my bicycle in 1989, I estimated there was one for each family. The Mykonosians had a unique use for their churches, however. They enshrined the bones of their dead relatives in the walls. I doubt the Baptists do this but it might give new meaning to the old saying, “the family that prays together, stays together.”

Scrunched between Little Venice and the harbor is the Church of Panagia Paraportiani, the most unusual church on the Mykonos. Once upon a time five different chapels existed side by side. Then they morphed together into what has become one of the most photographed sites on the island, with reason. We contributed our share of picture-taking.

The Church of
The Church of Paraportiani of Mykonos.
Another view of the church.
Another view of the church.

The small harbor area of Mykonos definitely fits the description of picturesque. It was our last stop (except for lunch) on our way back to the ship. That’s where we met Petros the Pelican.

We have this photo of Petros on our living room wall.
Petros playing ghost? Or possibly drying his wings cormorant style.

Unfortunately, it was Sunday and the local fishermen had taken the day off. We satisfied ourselves with admiring the boats. The area also features a small beach that would be crammed with sun worshippers in the summer. Now all it featured was golden sand and blue sea.

Idle fishing boats in the Mykonos harbor.
Idle fishing boats in the Mykonos harbor.
The golden sands and blue waters of the Aegean Sea of the small beach in Mykonos.
The golden sands and blue waters of the Aegean Sea of the small beach in Mykonos is a good place to end this post..

WEDNESDAY’S BLOG: Santorini. I’ve posted on this more recently but this beautiful island is always worth revisiting.