Side Quest: Cambodia Part II

Got up bright and early this morning in the hopes of getting a head start on both the heat and the bulk of the large tour groups who might be heading to Angkor Wat today. Angkor Wat has been on my, ‘Things to do Before I Die’ list for a long time, and while Bangkok is roughly 5-6 hours away, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to try and come see it while I was here. I had a dreadful night’s sleep, mostly because I had my alarm set for 06:30 but for some reason I could hear chirping birds at around 02:30 and at 04:21 and at 05:17… and it sounded exactly like the bird chirping alarm Mr K uses on his iPhone. Either they got weird arse birds here that chirp all night, or the air conditioning system has some weird-arse rattle that sounds like birds chirping. Doesn’t really matter which… the result is the same.

Anyway, popped down for a quick breakfast and to grab some more $$$ from the ATM (stupid thing wouldn’t give me what I wanted last night), and then waited to meet Mr Rolex and Long. They arrived a few minutes early and we were on the road out of town heading out to Angkor Wat by 0:720.

The weather was thankfully overcast and barely 29C (but ‘feels like 35C’, already) which made for some lovely moodily lighting conditions – mind you I couldn’t help but think there’s no way I would want to live in a place that has heat haze at 07:00 every day and it’s not even full summer!

The Angkor Wat temple complex is a mixed Hindu and Buddhist temple that covers and enormous space in the ancient Khmer city of Angkor. It’s like 400 acres or something, so there was no way anyone can see it all in one day. It used to be at the centre of a busy and populous city, and was originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god, Vishnu. A King named Survavarman II started the construction on Angkor Wat in the 12thC and it is understood to have taken 37 years to complete. Much of what is known about the early life of the temples comes from information etched into stone dedication plaques. Towards the end of the 12thC it was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple, and there are many places where the motifs of the two philosophies exist side by side.

While never totally abandoned, the temples of Angkor Wat were left neglected by the end of the 15thC as people left the city that surrounded and supported the temples. Suggestions are that this exodus was caused by extreme and lengthy drought conditions or unrest between the Khmer and their constantly warring neighbours, the Siamese. Archeological finds have never uncovered the usual domestic items that are ordinarily found in a populous city area, so it seems more probable that people left in an orderly fashion. These exquisite ruins were largely unknown to western explorers until well into the late 19thC, when they became of interest to French missionaries, naturalists and explorers and this directly led to the French forming a protectorate over Khmer. To gain control over the land and this important archeological site, the French invaded Siam (Thailand) and then remained in control of Cambodia from about 1863 for the next 100 years. Having said that, no one here seems to identify much with the French language or culture anymore, so that particular colonisation effort doesn’t seem to have taken much root.

These colonnades that cover provide privacy screens over many of the temple’s window areas look like they’ve been done on a lathe they are so uniform and perfect. However Long tells me they were more likely all hand carved without the use of an any type of spinning rig.

Throughout the complex are multiple representations of devatas, which Long described as nymphs… I swear we had a two minute conversation before I understood the word he was trying to pronounce was, ‘nymph’ as his accent is thick and he sometimes has a tendency to put emphasis on the wrong syllable making ‘nymph’ sound more like ‘ninephf’. There are depictions of ‘vanadevatas’, which are forest spirits or nature spirits, ‘gramadevata’ which are village or domestic spirits and gods, as well as devatas of river crossings, caves, mountains etc… I had him write these ones down to avoid confusion! Carvings of the devatas are scattered along walls throughout the inner buildings of the complex an each carving is very intricate with the devata adorned with individual jewellery, clothing, and facial features making each of them unique.

The early 20thC is when the ruins started to see some restoration and reclamation from the trees and jungle that had started to encroach on these ancient and magnificent buildings. In the modern imagination, the romance of the old temples fighting to stay upright among enormous tree roots is part of what draws people to visit, so Long was saying the restoration committees were constantly balancing the desire to maintain the structural integrity of the buildings, with the unusual aesthetic of the buildings having been encroached upon by the jungle.

Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953 and has had proper control over the Angkor Wat temple complex since then. In 1992, UNESCO named it a World Heritage site. Restoration work has continued on the site since French and German archeologists took an interest in the late 1800s. The work was disrupted though during the Cambodian Civil War and when the Khmer Rouge had a stranglehold on the country in the 70s and 80s.

Apparently these two war theatres didn’t actually cause that much damage – the invading armies stripped the temples for timber and there are some bullet holes evident in the stonework and bas reliefs here and there, but the bulk of the vandalism and damage evident in the complex is the result of Thai art thieves during the ‘80s and ‘90s – they stole nearly every head off every statue and much of it is presumed lost or sold into private collections.

Along either side of the main temple walls are 94m long bas relief friezes. They have the most inordinately intricate carvings depicting various Hindu gods battling diverse demons. Long was able to name many of these gods and demons and tell me stories of several of their encounters that were depicted, however it was an awful lot to take in and probably requires significant reading to jog my memory on which stories he was referring to. As a piece of art, it is absolutely stunning and I doubt I’ve ever seen a more significant or labor intensive piece in all of western culture.

It was so hot, even in the shade, but we must have spent 20 minutes walking along this frieze with Long keeping up a fascinating commentary with stories of the gods riding their chariots, dragons and peacocks as they went to fight the in-fant-orry of the monkey demons.

The second area we visited was the Tonle Om Gate which is one of the major entrances to get to the Bayon Temple. It is lined on the right with demons and on the left with gods. The demons with their twisted gnarly mean faces make quite the contrast with the smiling, serene and calm visages of the gods.

From here we went to Bayon Temple. This temple was built in the 13thC by Jayavarman VII, so it is a younger construction than the main temples of Angkor Wat, however it was built in only six years and the workmanship appears to have been less sturdy than the major Temples of Angkor Thom. This temple is believed to have been built to honour the memory of the King’s mother, his wife and his son.

There is much more stone laying around in this temple – archeologists having been unable to restore constructions to their original situations due to the more severe deterioration. It’s like a massive jigsaw puzzle that will probably never be finished. All these temples were constructed without any mortar or cement type processes, which makes them especially impressive. Great piles of stone have been gathered and stacked up in a mish mash of walls and middens they make no sense and will unlikely ever be able to be replaced in their original spaces but they make gorgeous textural installations in their own right.

After this we made our way around to the most famous part of the Angkor City temple complex – Ta Prohm. This is Angkor Wat as it sits in popular imagination thanks to films and documentaries. Long was repeatedly telling me that ‘this spot’ or ‘that spot’ was where something was filmed in the movie “Tomb Raider” – but I have never seen it, so it was neither here nor there to me. He also informed me that the studios paid USD$10,000 to flood the site for the filming so that the large moat areas would look like they did when they were originally built. A paltry sum for Hollywood to use a UNESCO World Heritage Listed area as a playground, in my opinion.

This place is absolutely spectacular – it is now so inexorably intertwined with the jungle that they couldn’t possibly attempt to remove the trees that are providing support for the temple in many parts. The preservationists are having to work with the trees that are hundreds of years old to maintain stability in the structures, and there are many areas that are roped off as unsafe for visitors.

I took so many photographs that I totally lost track of what I had and hadn’t captured. There was just so much to see – and it’s a strange sort of paradise. Thankfully the place was also rather quiet compared to some major tourist sites and I managed to get quite a few photos without too many people in them. This is absolutely the Angkor Wat of National Geographic magazines and tourist brochures and was just as spectacular as I had anticipated!

On the way back out to the van, there was a group of musicians set up playing for charity – on closer inspection, it turns out they are a band of landmine victims raising money and awareness for families and others impacted by land mines. Cambodia still has a major problem with land mines, particularly in the rural and border areas. This is the unhappy legacy of over three decades of war in the late 20thC… there are over 40,000 amputees in Cambodia, and over 1000 mines are still being found every year, which is one of the highest rates in the world.

After visiting Ta Prohm, it was time to head back to town to grab a bite for lunch, and then start my transit back to Bangkok. It was at this point, when I joined Mr Rolex in the minivan, that I could feel my knee absolutely throbbing from the bashing I had just put it through with all these steps and on so much uneven terrain. Long managed to get me some ice to put on my knee for the drive – which amusingly was just one huge chunk, but it helped!

So it was time to say ‘goodbye’ to Long, and hit the road with Mr Rolex and go hurtling back towards the border. I had taken some extra cash out of the ATM at the hotel to give to Long – without his excellent English and steady efforts to make sure I understood him, I doubt I would have learned as much on this little side trip, as I have. I may have given him the largest tip I have ever given to a guide (or anyone for that matter), and handed him an envelope with USD$200 in it – which will make very little difference to me, but possibly make a huge difference to him and his family. I Googled later and discovered that the average tour guide in Cambodia before Covid was earning around USD$300-400 a month, so I gave him a couple of week’s pay and suggested he spend it on English lessons for his sons – he had told me at the floating village that he was determined his boys would be fluent in English, as it was the key to a better paid life in any field in Cambodia.

Mr Rolex and I had our drive back to the border in a more easy silence this time – it was quite unnerving yesterday being driven into the unknown with someone whom I was unable to communicate effectively with! But today it feel far more comfortable, and Mr Rolex picked me up a refreshing ice cream when he stopped for fuel… normally I’d avoid this much sugar, but after this full on day hiking the temples in the heat (it got up to 43C!), I totally felt that I had earned it!

Part way through this drive, Mr Rolex made a stop so we could use the toilets… and I was like, good plan – I’ve been hydrating like a MOFO all day. At least I thought it was a good idea until I saw this:

Oh noes! I’ve never had trouble with squat toilets before, but I’ve never tried to use once since I tore the meniscus in my knees and was subsequently diagnosed with ‘sever osteoarthritis’ which runs in the family apparently. Le sigh… and then of course I have totally and utterly over done it today. Ended up having to do the world’s weakest hover pee. lol… but what do you do? 🙂

Then it was back to the border and back through the process of being handed from one stranger to another until I was collected by another driver to head back to Bangkok… and of course this driver spoke almost zero English also! My years of learning French and German were of zero use to me on this adventure, and even Google translate wasn’t of much use for some reason… and he was hopeless! Mr Rolex was a very safe and even handed driver – this guy, whose name I didn’t catch at all was all over the place! He was changing lanes constantly, braking late, talking on his phone, watching a video on another phone that was mounted on the dash, all the while making this weird sucking on his teeth noise, and he got totally lost once we got back to the city taking at least four wrong turns each of which added to our arrival time according to Google Maps in the back. Oh, and drinking beer while he drove… nice!

We did eventually get back to the Shangri La in once piece – oddly this guy didn’t get a tip from me. Hmmm. Wonder why? I’ve never been so relieved to walk into the hotel lobby to hear someone singing the Beatles’ “Hey Jude”, very off key with a thick Asian accent! What a crazy day!

Sigisoara to Brasov

Up bright and early for a 0700 breakfast so we can leave the hotel at 0830. Several of the group don’t seem to get the memo though and we leave at 0915. It’s barely my third day with these people and I’m losing a little patience for how self absorbed a couple of them are.

We have a two hour drive to get to a little town called, Sigsioara. The town has about 28,000 people living here and it is a popular tourist stop for the well preserved old town, which is a UNESCO world heritage listed area. First stop was the 13th centrum Clock Tower which is now a small history museum. The Clock Tower is the most obvious town landmark being 64m high and quite pretty.

Dominican Monastery (below), which is closed to visitors – can’t say I blame them, they can be pretty damn intrusive.
The Sigsioara Citadel is also known for containing the house that Vlad Tepes was born in, known affectionately (and unsurprisingly) as Dracul’s House. It was too cheesy for words So I didn’t pop into there.

I did however take an opportunity to pop into the local ‘Medieval Armour Musuem’ a term which sadly must be used loosely because many of the objects on display in the Museum were quite late – 17th to 19th century swords and firearms. There were some cool breast plates though and some enormous muskets.

That pink thing on the left is my Beretta baseball cap… I can’t imagine any soldier carrying this thing about.

From Sigsioara we made our way to Targu Mures. Turns out that Targu Mures isn’t a partially popular tourist spot and the only reason it was on our itinerary was so we could learn about the religious tensions that were happening thirty years ago by showing us the Citadel of the town and the Culture Square which encompasses a Catholic Church, an the Ascension Cathedral, which is an Eastern Orthodox Church and the Quo Ante Jewish Synagogue.

We were all a bit confused about it – even our ‘expert’ guide, Gorgy who had never been there before. The driver, Nick got us lost, driving around in circles several times (we went past one statue three times) before dropping us off near a school so we could find the citadel on foot. Not at all impressed by that.

Then it turns out that the Catholic Church (below) and the synagogue are not open to the public anyway, so we only got to go into the Eastern Orthodox Church..

The Catholic Church is located inside the Citadel walls and apparently built their church to be larger than the Jewish synagogue… on purpose.
Which of course caused the Eastern Orthodox mob to build their cathedral even bigger again… quite something for a tiny little town of barely 28,000 people.
They call this the Ascension Cathedral, but it’s actually a church as it is under the purview of priest not a bishop. Construction started on it in 1925, and the frescos and murals were started in 1934. The gold iconostasis was completed in 1939, and then it turns out their plans were a little ambitious for this little town and they had to halt work on the frescoes when they ran out of money. Work eventually resumed they were apparently completed in 1986. The result is that some of the frescoes look 100 years old and are quite dark from age and incense smoke etc, and some look as bright as if they were done in the last few years.

Still, it is a very beautiful church and reminds me very much of orthodox churches I went into in Moscow and St Petersburg, and I’m glad one of the buildings on our stop in Targu Mures was open to the public. We had had a very rushed day today, what with one thing and another (getting lost, people ordering lunch and then their meals taking forever to arrive, and people just not listening to instructions and skiving off), so we were kinda glad to be having a 20 min break to take a moment to soak in the atmosphere here.

When the rest of the group joined us, we jogged off up the road to the Mayor’s house and to wait for Nick, the Boos Driver.
This is the Mayor’s residence, right next door to the Mayoral offices, and it seems the mayor who built it in the early 1900s was heavily into Italian/Latin architecture styles – which ends up in a weird mishmash of an Italian villa with a Romanian looking roof and decoration… I have no idea why Romulus and Remus are prominently out front – it’s a mystery?! And here we remained while we waited for The Annoying American on our tour to finally deign to meet up with the group. Yes, there’s three American’s on our tour, and two of them are delightful – thoughtful, engaging and considerate beautiful humans… and one horrifically entitled, self involved fucking clueless inconsiderate c&%t!!! This person had lost her sunglasses the night before – left them on a table at a Greek restaurant in Brasov, and had been whining all fucking day about not being able to get hold of them to find them for her, ‘My gawd, they’re like, $400 sunglasses, like they should at least be able to find them and like, send them to me in Bucharest.’ When she wasn’t complaining to us about her lost sunglasses, she was skiving away from group trying to find some ‘decent’ sunglasses to buy. So, we had been playing ‘Oh-FFS-Where’s-The-Annoying-American’ all day. Now we were all hurried up and getting ready to leave and she is nowhere to be found. Not answering messages on the WhatsApp group chat and eventually, she replies saying she’s buying sunnies and found ‘gold on special’ (WTF?) and will be there soon. So the ten of us stand around on the footpath outside the Mayor’s house cursing her and waiting for her to turn up.

She eventually shows up and she’s all smiles and happy is wearing her new sunnies “Yo-yo guys, Bul-garee in the house!” … took me a few moments to realise that somehow in this dinky little town she found a department store selling BVLGARI designer sunglasses. She was also showing around the ‘gold’ she’d found and turns out that was a dainty gold necklace with an Irish harp charm on it??? Urgh, we’ve been rolling our eyes about the unbelievable selfish and boastful nature of this woman for the last four days but everyone seems to have comfortably taken to quietly bitching about her behind her back and not addressing the problem.

Which of course meant I was the one confronting her about not being able to leave the group like that and keep us all waiting. Even the tour guide didn’t take her to task. This is the second time in three days that I left her standing agape looking like I’d slapped her.

Urgh… Annoying American finally acquired, so Gorgy called the bus driver and we head off to Cluj-Nepoca. When we get there – we find the Cluj-Nepoca’s Union Square in the middle of evening summer concerts of traditional music and not-so-traditional tunes being played on weird traditional instruments – very loudly! Thanks to Her Nibs being late, we weren’t able to check out some of the buildings around the square that were on the itinerary but we did manage to check out the cathedral very briefly because it was closing at 1900.

The square was full of locals out to enjoy the evening and the noise.The Matthias Corvinus sculpture – you know, the guide didn’t tell me who he was or why there was a statue to him and I didn’t bother supplementing that for a change by googling it myself (which is another recurring theme lately), so this is him, but fucked if I know what he did to be worthy of a huge sculpture in the town square.

Ok, I lied… Fresh to you from Wikipedia: was King of Hungary and Croatia from 1458 to 1490 and after conducting several (presumably successful) military campaigns, he was elected King of Bohemia in 1469, and adopted for himself the title, ‘Duke of Austria’ in 1487. There’s way more to the dude than that, like his lineage etc, but that’s the TL;DR.

St Mikhail’s Church is the second largest church in Transylvania (behind the Black Church from yesterday). The construction was begun in the St James Chapel (in the back of the church). The money to pay for this was largely collected from indulgence income apparently – man we should go back to the good old days of selling indulgences, only maybe the money could go to building housing for the homeless or something.

Anyway, the first documents relating to the building of the church date back to 1349. There are some fragmented frescoes in the church that make sense with that time period, but they’re pretty dilapidated, covered over and poorly kept. The construction was completed between 1442-1447 apparently, the original tower was built between 1511-1545, but the tower that can be seen now was erected in 1862.

Small evidence of poorly kept frescos… I don’t seem to have taken a photograph of the saints on the wall whose faces were all scratched off when the church was turned over to Lutheran hands in the 16thC.

By this time it is well on 1930 and we are hunting for dinner, along with every other resident of Cluj-Nepoca by the looks of it. We eventually found a restaurant with a vacant table and wouldn’t you know it a place called, ‘Toulouse’ in Romania doesn’t have French or Romania food, but burgers, pizza and pasta. Sigh… there was one oddity worthy of taking note of; in the back of the drinks menu was a cigarette menu and every table had a Dunhill ashtray on it. Yuk. Thankfully there was a decent breeze (blowing the right way for us) and we were able to while away an hour or so over some cheap ciders – $4 bottles of Strongbow.

We leave town to go the hotel about 2130 because of course the Annoying American is late again. We serve up yet another episode of the Blind Leading the Blind as our guide and driver got lost. Again. Seems Nick is using a decade old Tom Tom to navigate us around Romania and Gorgy can’t seem to read Waze properly but here we are in the back of the bus with Google Maps open trying to tell them the hotel is only 200m further up the street when Nick does a three point turn and goes back in the wrong direction only to discover they’re moving further away from the hotel and to do another three point turn and go back the way we were… ugh. We eventually pull up outside a restaurant and the Hotel sign can be seen in the back and I’m like, ‘Hello, according to the map, we need to go to the next driveway.’ Gorgy goes in to check things out, Nick meanwhile is unloading baggage, and when Gorgy comes back, he says ‘We need to go up to the next driveway.’ So we all carry/drag our bags up to the next driveway to get in the hotel.

Such a long day. It’s well and truly 22:30 by the time we got settled into our room and I had no energy to do this so, this was yesterday’s clusterfuck. I’ll get onto today’s clusterfucks in a few moments.

Pantheon and the Vatican today.

Another gorgeous morning at the beautiful Hotel Fontana. Wandered outside to take yet another set of photos of the gorgeous fountain, ever mindful of the glorious vanity of long dead Popes that allows us to enjoy this beautiful place. Ran into the Kazakhstani cycling team who were out early to check out the fountain too.

Had another lovely breakfast looking down on our fountain (Yes, it’s mine now – I’ve decided I need to keep it!), while making plans for how best to attack the day.

First stop this morning is the Pantheon. We dropped by on Tuesday but were unable to go in due to it being closed for the Feast Day of St Peter and St Paul… yeah figure that one out; religious holiday so let’s close the churches?! This morning we arrived around 8:45am expecting it to open at 9am, but we found the place open and largely empty. It is exactly as I remember it. Grand on a hard to imagine scale with its 49m diameter and 75m high dome and the lovely artworks and marble floor. We stayed and enjoyed the peace and beauty for nearly an hour. It was lovely but of course started to fill up with too many noisy tourists. (For the record, I’m a very quiet, unobtrusive and mindful sort of tourist, keen to observe local customs and traditions and I have long since given up wishing every one would be half so considerate.)


pantheon-interiorAfter the Pantheon we hopped a taxi and crossed the Tiber to our pre-booked ‘Skip The Line’ English guided Vatican tour. There were 22 of us in the group and we set off at 11am as per the schedule. Then ensued, what can only be described as a sort of organised chaos… or in Aussie parlance – a complete clusterfuck. There was a public line to enter which streamed out into the street and around the corner in the heat waiting to go in – and there was the ‘Skip the Line Tour Groups Only’ line, stretching in the other direction winding back and forth like a Disney theme park ride queue, to get to the point where we could BUY A TICKET. There were people of all nationalities everywhere, lined up in the heat all wearing the same slightly confused, ‘What the fuck is the hold up’ and ‘Didn’t I pay extra to avoid this queueing nonsense?’, look on their faces. We eventually get inside, put our things through a metal detector where a handsome young Italian ‘security officer’ was busy smiling and winking at young girls and didn’t once look at the monitor of bags being scanned!

Get to the other side of ‘security’ and it was like, ‘Welcome To The Crush!’. For the next two hours or so we were kept moving at an annoying slow and halting snail’s pace through the ‘highlight galleries’ of one of the world’s most prestigious and most visited museums. Lots of beautiful things to see and study – no time allocated to even precursorily do either. Seems there should to be a special tour for people actually interested in history and art to get any in depth analysis or even a bit of background on what we are looking at, instead it seems organised tours are very, ‘Oh look at this… it’s very old, very beautiful and very valuable.’  Or if you lucky a vague… ‘This was commissioned by Pope Snacktyback in the fuxteenth century, you can see the statue of <insert random God/Saint> is made of marble.’  Marble?  No shit!  Didn’t know they did that.

Kill me now.

Pagan sarcophagus ‘recycled’ for Christian use (detail below).

Flemish tapestry c.1500-1600s (yes, the info we were given was so vague as to date something to ‘sometime in those two centuries’) depicting the Barberini Cardinals.

Barberini Bees

For yale and Niall… this thing was easily five times the length of my foot!

Many of the galleries have stunning mosaics under foot – only the most special ones are fenced off from the traffic, others are left to fend for themselves…

Floor mosaic

Perseus brandishing the head of Medusa.Perseus with the head of Medusa

Elaborate ceiling in the Map Gallery that connected Papal apartments to the Basilica.Map Gallery

The tide of somewhat travel weary humanity carried us on through the galleries, and I ditched the volume on our poor guide several galleries before the Sistine Chapel being quite capable of recognising Papal keys and the Barbarini bees without her assistance. We entered the chapel and were herded – actually herded – to the centre of the room by security, for fifteen minutes to enjoy the chapel; cheek to jowl with our fellow sweaty and dehydrating travellers. It was equal parts absurd and ironic… cover your knees and shoulders when entering into a religious site.  Moments later, *alarm buzzer* “Please remain silent in this holy place”, blared loudly over a PA system, while strapping security guards moved through the crowd pushing people aside and loudly declaring “No fotographs!” Of course we had a good look around, but I felt more like I was in the mosh for a silently boy band comprised of all the saints looking down from wall depicting the Last Judgement. Last visit we were able to sit on the stairs and enjoy for a few moments and the place was silent as nuns patrolled the room with nothing but stern looks.  Let me tell you, those nuns were far more effective than these security guards and their megaphones!  Oddly, I decided to move through, rather quickly.

A couple of the photos I was not supposed to take in the Sistine Chapel, one of the ceiling… but also one of the floor which no one really seemed to notice, but which I thought looked grate (just for you Luke … how tired am I?).After that we descended into the grotto to see the tombs of all the past Papi, and the alleged tomb of ‘the’ St Peter. It was a lot lighter, and more museum-like, than I remembered. Actually, felt more like wandering through a long forgotten government archive than a crypt, but that could be my memory playing tricks on me. No photos allowed. Again. Seems to be a recurring theme.

Pope Bonifacivs VIII had an amazing heraldic display on his tomb… including what looked to be a heraldic shroud.  So I had to hang back and take some quick pics.

From there we ascended through a back door directly into St Peter’s Basilica… which didn’t quite have the *angels singing* <added AWE> effect it had on us last visit.  It is, nonetheless, truly spectacular… and with the light just so, it’s beautiful.

Above: One of the first chapels on entering the Basilica – with added #awe.

The lettering you can see below the dome is 2.7m high.  The marble statue you can make out is 7m high, but because of the enormous scale of the place, everything looks much smaller.  This centre altar is made of bronze – most of which was ‘repurposed from the roof of the Pantheon’ – the horror of that notion. Rip the bronze off an ancient building to make a Renaissance/Baroque folly of a thing for the middle of world’s largest Christian church.  I’m guessing their preferences tended towards immediacy rather than preservation.  The courthouse, over near the Pont Saint Angelo was constructed in the 13thC with stone cadged from the Colosseum!

Mosaics at the base of the dome.  There are large frescoes throughout the Basilica which are copies of famous paintings – only they are not traditional frescoes, they are tiny minute mosaics made of thousands of pieces of tiny colour stone.  To look at them (below) you’d never guess they weren’t paintings, they’re so detailed.  Below: this is a mosaic about 5m high… Detail of the mosiac work in this piece… it’s incredible.  When we came to the Vatican and St Peters many years ago, the old old pope JP2, was holding an audience in the piazza and we went around the crowds who were attending the audience, to wait for the huge doors to the Basilica to be opened when he finished his blessings. When we entered the building there was only about 15 other people in there with us for about the first half hour or so… you could have heard a pin drop and the grandeur and opulence of the Basilica silently washed over us. If there was a god, and if god was anywhere, it felt like he/she was here. I vaguely recall thinking at the time, ‘Imagine how people throughout history, people with no TV, no cinema, no mod cons, and limited education, reacted to this place!’ It would have been overwhelming.  It was an unforgettable experience.

Today’s experience was somewhat different. Still being buoyed along by the babble of tourists, I have to admit, it just wasn’t quite the same. An absolutely fantastical and ostentatious display of wealth and power, but somehow diminished by the chatter of a few thousand snap-happy tourists.  I was glad when the tour ended and we were free to move at our recognisance and that, most immediately, meant finding a space not currently occupied by at least two other visitors.

I know some people come here with limited time, and they know they may never be back, so everyone tries to see it all in a day or two.  And given this isn’t my first trip to Rome, I had no intentions of attacking the sights that way – but far out, it feels like we done the Real Tourist™ thing today and I do not recommend it. If at all possible, do not come to Rome in high season, there are just too many people.

After our Vatican experience we decided to take a taxi back to Trevi.  Grabbed a hail down outside the piazza and told him where we wanted to go – he said it was going to be a flat rate of 15 Euros to go to the fountain, now given that it cost us only 8 to get there, I asked him to turn on the meter.  He said, it’s a flat rate.  So… I said, turn on the meter or let us out of the car right now.  Wanker pulled over and let us out of the taxi.  Hah.  Fancy that, an obnoxious cabbie trying to take advantage of the tourists.  Next two cabs that came past, I asked first before getting in, and they both said it was a flat rate of 18 Euros to get to Trevi…? What?  We wandered down the road a bit, and turned left, found a cab rank and about a dozen cabs with no one in them.  I asked the one lady cab driver there how much to Trevi, and she pointed to the meter, saying ‘how much it says, no more than 10 Euros’.  So we jumped in and drove back.  Got back to Trevi and surprise, surprise, the meter said 7.80, so we gave her 10 and wished her a nice day.  It’s no wonder cabbies have such a bad reputation world wide!

We had a quiet hour or so in the afternoon before meeting the others for dinner and a trip to the Colosseum to see it in twilight/dark.

Such a very long day and such sore feet… we had our well deserved (second) gelato and called it a night!

Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini Crypt

Went upstairs to the rooftop terrace this morning for a lovely buffet breakfast consisting of breads, pastries, charcuterie, cheeses, eggs and all good thing while wondering what to do today.  Both of us have been to Rome before and see a lot of the highlights and while we are scheduled to check out places like the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Pantheon and the like, later in the week – we had no set plans today based on the ‘wait-and-see-how-we-pull-up-after-shitty-long-flight’ factor.

So we decided we’d go for a wander about 10 mins from here (being the Fontana di Trevi… did I mention the Trevi Fountain is right outside our window, and is the stunning backdrop to our breakfast on the rooftop patio?) to the Santa Maria della Concepzio de Cappuccini.  Which is a gorgeous church (below), complete with museum, and crypt full of the bones of 3700 Capuchin order friars semi-interred in an artistic interior design display.

capuchin church santa maria della

Apparently, when friars arrived at this church in the 1630s, they brought 300 odd cartloads of deceased friars’ remains with them.  There was a strange-ish friar Fr. Michael of Bergame who was responsible for the arrangement of the bones in the crypts.  They also had soil bought in from Jerusalem thanks to the generosity of Pope Urban VIII in order to bury any monks that would subsequently die… So when another monk died, they were buried in the crypt without a coffin, and allowed to decompose in the soil from Jerusalem, and when they ran out of room, they would exhume him and add his bones to the decorative motifs surrounding the interesting soils of the crypts.  Bodies spent roughly 30 years in the soil before being exhumed and added to the artwork.

The Church (and the guides here) insist that the display  is not meant to be a sort of danse macabre, but rather a contemplative reminder of how short our lives on Earth are and a sharp refresher on the nature of human mortality, in case any of us forget.

Photography is forbidden in the crypts, so I have plucked some images off their website and various… I have a feeling there is going to be a lot of ‘stock’ photos plucked off wikipedia for posts on this trip, if they keep up this ‘no photos allowed’ shite.

capuchin crypt in Rome

The central motif of this ‘piece’ is the crossed arms that is the symbol of the Franciscan order – the skeletal arm of Jesus, crossed with the clothed arm of St Francis, surrounded by columns made of skulls, in between a wall lined in skulls and femurs, under an archway made of shoulder blades and tailbones.

capuchin ossuary crypt rome capuchin crypt 2 capuchin monk crypt rome

All of these displays are made with the bones of exhumed friars/monks.  The last friar who was buried in the crypts was exhumed in 1870, so good to know it’s not a ‘work in progress’ still.  O.o  The bones are artistically display to depict many religious symbols and reminders of Earthly life.  There are tailbones used to create hour glass shapes, skull used to create walls with the entire skeletons of some friars used to show the walk of man through life.  There is bones used to make lanterns, bones lining the walls, the roof the archways.  It is really fascinating in a absolutely creepy kind of way – I don’t care what the Church says the intent is.

Many famous persons have come to visit here over the centuries – Mark Twain, the Marquis de Sade, and Nigel Hawthorne to name a few,

“The reflection that he must someday be taken apart like an engine or a clock…and worked up into arches and pyramids and hideous frescoes, did not distress this monk in the least. I thought he even looked as if he were thinking, with complacent vanity, that his own skull would look well on top of the heap and his own ribs add a charm to the frescoes which possibly they lacked at present.” ~ Mark Twain

Might look for something a little more cheerful to check out after lunch!