Monday, December 11, 2006

November 2006 - Rome, Italy - The House Party

This week we had a small party in our apartment to say good-bye to our classmates. Pictured here with us from left to right are Giuliana, John, Ana, Klara and Irina.
"You can't imagine . . . ," Irina tells Ana, describing her love for vodka, lots and lots of "vooodka".
Everyone started off just chatting but then Kenny started playing DJ. First, Irina showed us a little Russian dancing.
Then Dante started playing hip-hop. It was so much fun to watch these girls from all over Europe rap to 50 Cent and do the booty dance.
Russian booty meets Cuban booty. I'm afraid the Russian doesn't stand a chance.
But once the salsa music started, Kenny stole the show. He spun all of the girls around the dance floor.
The evening finally wound down and we sat around and talked with all of the great friends we've made. We're really going to miss everyone, but hopefully we'll be able to visit them all in their home countries.
Here is a great group shot expertly taken by Kenny.
We also toured a couple of small art galleries this weekend. Here we are at the Doria-Pamphili Gallery, once home to the son of Pope Innocent X. This gallery has an amazing collection of Renaissance art including a very famous portrait of Pope Innocent X done by Velasquez, which the Pope declared was "too real".
We also visited the Spada Gallery which belonged to 2 rather eccentric "brothers" who were both Cardinals (apparently it was weird even back then for these 2 brothers to live together in this large overly decorated palazzo). They lived here together and collected primarily Renaissance art.
The palazzo has an amazing courtyard designed by Boromini, which shows off his mastery of perspective. It appears to be four times as long as it really is. Very cool!

Finally, we visited the Palazzo Barberini, the most famous of these Renaissance galleries. This palazzo once the home of the Barberini family has been named the Galleria Nazionale di Arte Antico and is a state run museum. The Galleria is said to contain the best collection of Renaissance art in Italy.

In addition, the ceiling of the main hall contains a fresco by Cortona which pays homage to the Barberini family and exhibits their "great virtue." Regardless of the pompous attitude leading to the painting of the fresco, it is one of the most magnificent frescoes we have seen and this gallery is a must see.

November (Thanksgiving) 2006 - Paris, France

We started our weekend in Paris with a small mishap when we arrived at our hotel at 1:30 a.m. (after a 2-hour delay of our flight), only to be told by our hotel's VERY Parisian desk clerk that we were late and our room had been given away. The trip only got better from there.

The next day we returned to the Hotel de L'Academie in the St. Germain des Pres area. (The mean desk clerk did reluctantly help us find another hotel for our 1st night.)

Next door to our hotel is the most adorable chocolate shop with bon bons piled a mile high. The St. Germain neighborhood is trendy and bustling. We took this photo about 10 times to avoid having a traffic jam appear behind Casandra.

Our first museum stop was Musee d'Orsay famous for it's glass and iron barrel vault roof and it's collection of Impressionist art. It was originally a train station built in 1900.

Here is Casandra admiring a ballerina by Degas.

On Thanksgiving evening we joined Erika and Rob for dinner at the Plaza Athenee. This Alain Ducaisse restaurant is, and forever will be, the most expensive meal of our lives. We will have a blog entry featuring just the bill. On our way out they gave us a big hard loaf of bread, as if they knew we wouldn't be able to afford another meal in Paris, and a copy of the ludicrous menu.

The next morning we met up with Erika and Rob for fabulous hot chocolate and croissants at Le Deux Magots in Place St. Germain. That's Paris' oldest church behind Rob and Kenny. Afterwards, we hopped a train to Versailles.

The Chateau de Versailles was built to house King Louis XIV, his family, and the 20,000 people that made up his court. Here is Kenny in front of the portion of the palace dedicated to the Queen's Apartments.
This the chapel located in the palace where Louis XIV and all of his descendants were married.

Here is the hall of mirrors; famous for being the location of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.

This is the palace's theater used primarily for performances of works written by Moliere for the entertainment of the royal family.

This is the grand canal (a great spot for renting a row boat) running between the main palace and the Grand Trianon (used as guest quarters for foreign heads of state - even today).

The Grand Trianon is behind us.

After last night's dinner we couldn't afford the entrance fee to the Grand Trianon, but we got a great tour by just peaking in the windows. The tourists who actually paid to enter looked at us a bit harshly particulary as Kenny and Erika snapped pictures through the windows.
In the evening, after some wonderful Thai food in the Latin Quarter. Then we headed over to the Champs Elysees for the Lido cabaret show. Above is a picture of the Arc de Triomphe at the end of the Champs. The show was a lot of fun. And yes, there were plenty of boobies, just like the ones at the bottom of this picture. It was fantastic!

The next morning we took on the Louvre, originally a medieval fortified castle, later used as art galery by Francois I to show off his Italian loot, and then converted into a palace by Catherine de Medici (Italian royalty), before becoming a public museum in 1793.

Some of our favorite art is the Roman and Greek sculpture (we're more Italian than we'd like to admit). We also saw the Mona Lisa, but no pictures are allowed. Kenny tried and got scolded, Parisian style (trust me, it's not pretty).

After the Louvre, we strolled over to St. Chapelle, built in 1248 by Louis IX to house relics he acquired during the Crusades (including the Crown of Thorns, fragments of the Cross and drop's of Christ's blood) and to serve as his private chapel, with discrete access from his adjacent royal palace, which today is Palais de Justice. Inside is the most beautiful stain glass work we have ever seen. The glass contains depictions of over 1100 biblical stories from Creation to the Apocalypse (in the main rose window).
Afterwards, we strolled back to our hotel through St. Germain, which has some amazing chocolate shops. In case you hadn't noticed, those cuddly little penguins next to Casandra are made 100% of chocolate.

In the evening, we had dinner at L'Ami Louis. This is the best French dining experience we ever had. This restaurant is about as authentic as it gets. Here we are with Erika, Rob, Mark and Penny feeling oh so stuffed.
They're pretty serious about their frites.

This restaurant was so great - not only was the food a wonderful example of French cuisine (including, escargots, foie groie, frites, veal shank in cream sauce and their famous roasted chicken with herbs and truffles), but also, the waiters were incredible nice and funny!!! Here are Rob, Kenny and Mark with one of our waiters.

Our last day in Paris gave us beautiful blue skies and amazing weather, so we climbed to the top of Notre Dame . . .

for a bird's eye view of Paris,

and of the famous gargoyles that line this majestic cathedral's rooftop.

Casandra was hoping they would let her ring the bell (named Emmanuel) just like Quasimodo.

Also magnificent is the rose window from the outside (south).

Here we are in the gardens on the back (east) side of Notre Dame, from which you can admire its famous flying buttresses.

Finally, we needed a quick and efficient way to see the rest of the major sites, so we hopped on a river cruise down the Seine. Here's a shot of us in front of Paris' most beautiful and ornate bridge, the Pont Alexandre III, which was build for the 1900 Exposition Universelle and dedicated to the Franco-Russian alliance of 1892.

We got off the boat at the Eiffel Tower. Casandra had never been near it and was surprised by it's size and lacy iron construction.

After walking the grounds surrounding the tower (and taking scores of pictures), we jumped back on the boat and headed back to our hotel to collect our things and fly back to Rome. On the way, we snapped a couple more pics of the Louvre but this time from the Seine so you can see the Pont Royal, which joins the Jardin des Tuileries, adjacent to the west of the Louvre, to the St. Germain area across the river to the south.

Here's one last picture of Kenny with the Louvre and the more modern Pont du Carrousel in the background.

Next stop . . . Rome!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

November 2006 - Rome, Italy - Jazz Festival, Bowling & Calcio

We started the week at the Roma Jazz Festival held at the Parco della Musica in the upscale Parioli district. We watched Brad Melhdau play his modern jazz piano compositions. Later in the week we went out for a night of sushi and bowling with our classmates. The bowling alley located in a Roman suburb at Parco Leonardo looks like a nightclub and made us feel like we were bowling in Miami.
Here is a picture of Kenny and our cookiest classmate, Irina from Moscow, Russia.

Here is Casandra with Maria, another classmate from San Francisco but of Calabrese origin, and Irina.

Irina and Maria enjoy sushi in Rome.

And here are some more classmates - Klara and Ana (from Sweden), Emilia (from Chicago but originally from Poland), her boyfriend (a local Roman Carabinieri and the reason she is learning Italian) and Kyle (from Munich, Germany), who's in a more advance class than ours.

We hit the bowling alley and performed like pros (NOT!). I think it was the flourescent balls and the black light that threw off our game. On our team, only Kenny broke 100 and Ana was the all around champ bowling near 140 each game.

We feel lucky to have had such wonderful classmates. Kenny feels lucky to be the only man in our class.

At the end of the week, we went to another calcio game. This game, Roma v. Catania (in Sicily), had the highest score we've ever seen in a calcio game - 7-0 - ROMA WINS!!!

We went to the game with Maria and her boyfriend Marcos - 2 more ex-pats living in Italy for a year or maybe more . . .

Calcio games are full of interesting characters. This guy sells roasted peanuts. Seems normal enough? Well, actually, he roasts them at home and packages them himself in little baseball shaped packets that he can throw about 20 rows away. When you buy a package of peanuts, you get a dance. We had a front row seat for this performance (where he made change for a fan with bills he keeps in his socks).

Here is a photo of the Catania team sitting across the field from us. They are surrounded by police and isolated so that no one can sit in the sections next to them. Yet, they still manage to light there section on fire. Here is a photo of the 7th goal. As you can imagine, the crowd went crazy as if it were the 1st. You can actually see the ball in mid-air just wizzing past the goalie's left hand.

Some things are better said in English.

Fans come in all sizes. This little guy is in training for when he is big enough to climb the 8 foot plexi-glass wall that divides the Curva Sud from the rest of the stadium. Then he'll be able to cheer with all the crazy flag-waving, screaming, flare-lighting and canon-firing fans.

Look at the intense look of concentration on the faces of the people around us. Only tourists like us can take their eyes off the game long enough to snap a couple of pictures.The game was a huge victory for Roma and the fans left the stadium completely crazed over this amazing score.