Saturday, June 26, 2010

I took my girlfriend to a Roman brothel...

Since it's discovery nearly 250 years ago, archeologists, historians and tourists alike have been fascinated with one site in Pompeii more than any other - the Lupinar.

Translating to "den of she-wolves," the Lupinar is purported to be the world's oldest surviving brothel - and is the most often visited site in Pompeii.

As popular as ever...

When originally excavated, many places in Pompeii were thought to be brothels due to the erotic frescoes painted on their walls. Later research concluded that these were simply the homes of people who appreciated erotic art, which was greatly appreciated in the ancient Roman Empire.

The Lupinar, however, held several tell-tale signs of being a "professional establishment." The building has far more bedrooms than would be expected for a structure of its size, and along with the frescoes were graffiti left by satisfied customers.

I've slept on rock-hard mattresses before, but never one where the pillow was actually chiseled from stone

Fresco over a bedroom doorway showing the "services offered"

Not much explanation needed here...

Nor here...

Friday, June 25, 2010

This Place is a Mess - It's in Ruins!

Lisa and I took a day trip to someplace that I've always wanted to visit, and which we both found completely fascinating - the ancient ruins of the city of Pompeii.

Buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius on August 24 in the year 79 AD, the ruins of Pompeii were long forgotten. It wasn't rediscovered until 1748, with many structures and building eventually being excavated to reveal a city frozen in time.

It has been a popular tourist destination for 250 years, attracting as many as 2.6 million visitors a year from all around the world - although the Lisa and I had no trouble at all getting and and wandering around during our visit.

The central forum of Pompeii
with the remnants of Mount Vesuvius in the background

Many details of everyday life for citizens of Pompeii can be appreciated by exploring the ruins of bakeries, fast-food emporiums, and ordinary homes.

An ancient Roman bakery - the stone mill for grinding grain into flour is in the foreground, with a brick hearth for baking bread in the background

An "fast-food" joint - the holes in the counter held pots of food,
warmed by fires underneath

Among the ruins of Pompeii are some of the victims of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. They died an excruciating death, inhaling hot gases and ash, and eventually buried under the fallout of pumice along with the entire city.

By the time Pompeii was eventually rediscovered, all but their bones had rotted away - leaving voids in the hardened volcanic ash that echoed when engineers walked over them. Holes were drilled into them, and the empty spaces were filled with plaster - preserving the gruesome postures of the dead.

A display case containing a victim of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius

The death pose

Bits of bone show through the plaster cast of a former citizen of Pompeii

Next up?

A visit to the most popular place in Pompeii...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Off with their Heads: a tour of the Vatican Museum

Although I'm not a big fan of religion I do have an insatiable curiosity of art and culture, so a visit to Rome wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Vatican Museum.

The first word that describes the experience is “overwhelming.” Seven hours of non-stop art covering everything from ancient Egyptian artifacts, Greek and Roman sculpture, Renaissance tapestries and maps, ending with the religious works commissioned by various popes and cumulating with the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Of course, that’s just about the only liberal policy the Vatican has – even when it comes to classical art, they’re prudishly conservative in their attitude towards displaying artistic expressions of one of the most glorious things in nature, the human form.

Fig leaves abound, and not just in paintings of Adam & Eve. While the rest of Europe was enjoying the Renaissance and Enlightenment, a series of popes decided that certain parts of the human anatomy were obscene and directed hundreds of sculptured crotches to be covered with fig leaves.

This isn't Adam... so what's with the fig leaf?

In some cases they even went so far as to have the offending anatomical features chiseled away – off with their heads!

That had to hurt!

I wanted to talk to the Pope about this but I don't think he was home - I didn't see his car in the Vatican parking lot.

No Pope-mobile... he must be on tour.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Eternal City

Photos just don’t do some things justice, including the ruins of ancient Rome.

The Colosseum – so called not because of its size but because of the colossal statue of Nero that once stood nearby – is so enormous in scope that it can only be taken in by your own eyes.

According to legend, the nearby Palatine Hill is where the city was born. The centermost of the seven hills of Rome, it’s where the twin brothers Romulus and Remus were found by the she-wolf that kept them alive. They grew up to slay their great-uncle, who had seized the throne from their father, and eventually Romulus killed Remus in a violent argument. The city that rose up bares his name.

Remnants of an aqueduct on Palatine Hill

In fact, Rome sprang from settlements of the Sabines and the Albans on the Palatine about 1,000 BC, and by the time of the Roman Republic the Palatine was the home of many of Rome’s most distinguished citizens.

Nearby is the Roman Forum, where many of the most important structures of the ancient city were located and around which the ancient Roman civilization developed. The Senate, government offices, Tribunals, religious monuments, memorials and statues cluttered the area – along with the complex where the Vestal Virgins resided and performed their duties.

The Forum

All of these structures have, over time, been damaged by earthquakes, looting and scavenging for stone and marble for other uses. The Pantheon, however, still stands much as it did in ancient times thanks to its adoption and continued use by successive religions.

The Pantheon was originally built and dedicated by Marcus Agrippa in 27 BC on what was then the outskirts of Rome on the Campus Martius, which served as a gathering place for elections and the army. Rebuilt twice after fires devastated the area in 80 AD and 110 AD, the Pantheon eventually passed to the popes who converted it to a Christian church, which saved it from the abandonment, destruction, and the worst of the spoliation that befell the majority of ancient Rome's buildings during the early medieval period.

The Pantheon

After thousands of years, the Pantheon still holds the record for the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome, and has served as an architectural inspiration for St. Peter's Basilica to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello to the U.S. Capitol.

While most tourists do a hit-and-run visit to the Colosseum – getting their picture taken with a gladiator before running off to have pizza for lunch – and don’t bother with the rest, Lisa and I spent an entire day taking it all in and roaming the paths where Augustus, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian once strolled.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


As we planned our trip Lisa and I realized that we had an extra night between our departure from Tuscany and our arrival in Rome - and agreed that it was my responsibility to surprise her with a special destination.

Italy is known for it great red wines, but there is one white wine that we've always enjoyed, and since the town where it's made is in Umbria - right along our route to the Eternal City - I decided that it was the perfect place for a layover.

Orvieto is a town rich in history: its position high on a steep hill made it a defensible position that was valued as far back as the Etruscan era, and it continued to be a place of strategic significance through Roman times and the Middle Ages, eventually becoming the refuge of five popes during the 13th century.

Being high on a hill is only one of the benefits of Orvieto's location - the other is the kind of hill it's on, composed of a soft volcanic rock called tuff that is easy to tunnel through and excavate.

The result is that the town sits atop a complex labyrinth of caves and tunnels that have served a variety of purposes for centuries.

Lisa descending into Underground Orvieto

Our tour group inside one of Orvieto's many underground galleries

Niches carved into the walls were nesting spots for domesticated pigeons, which were a source of meat, eggs, and income for Orvieto's noble families until as recently as the 19th Century.

Many of the chambers beneath Orvieto descended through several levels beneath the homes of their former owners, and had openings through the cliffside through which the pigeons had access to the surrounding countryside.

An ancient well dug hundreds of feet below the surface - many of these were long forgotten, and only discovered generations later when the digging of new tunnels bisected them.

Of course, history wasn't my only reason for choosing Orvieto as a place to spend some down time...

Lisa and I enjoyed wandering the narrow cobbled streets of the ancient little hill-top town, and sampling the great local food and wine - more on that later!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Getting Around - Italian Style

Enough of the food and wine - here are some travel-related images from our trip...


The Cable-Car up to Orvieto

The Metro in Rome

Instructions for using the Metro in Rome


Giro d' Italia, the bicycle racing's grand tour of Italy, promoted in the window of the finest restaurant in Montalcino

A "Critical Mass" bicycle protest poster, outside a Metro station in Rome

Some serious "bikes" hanging from the wall of the Cafe Ducati in Rome


The Appian Way, south of Rome

"Propaganda Way" in Rome

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Super Steve makes "Sassy Sauce"

There's nothing better after a day of sampling the great food and wine of Tuscany's towns than returning to our villa for a great home-cooked meal - accompanied, of course, by some of the very fine wines that we've picked up along the way.

I've enjoyed playing in the kitchen ever since my childhood, when I spend endless hours with my MiMi (grandmother) in New Orleans. I've grown my repertoire considerably since then, and have developed a few specialties along the way - one of which is "sassy sauce."

I'm not about to give away all of the secrets - let;s just say that, in all due humility, everyone who's ever had it has agreed that it's worthy of something called "sassy sauce" made by someone called "Super Steve."

Cooking with wine!

Sassy Sauce simmering on the stove

Tossing in the pasta

I'm sorry there aren't photos of everyone enjoying the meal - we we're all so busy enjoying it that no one took pictures :-)

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Blood of Jove

There are three crucial elements to enjoying Tuscany - seeing the picturesque hill towns, enjoying the spectacular food, and sampling their outstanding wines.

When most people think about Tuscan wine, they think "Chianti" - the stuff a previous generation of Americans identified as inexpensive red wine in straw-lined jugs.

But serious wine aficionados know that Tuscany has so much more to offer - each part of the region, from one town to the next, does something special with what the land and climate has to offer.

If "Sideways" were set in Tuscany instead of Santa Barbara County, Niles would've been extolling the virtues of Sangiovese - the Italian red grape varietal whose name derives from the Latin sanguis Jovis, "the blood of Jove."

It seems like every hill in Tuscany has it's own clone of the Sangiovese grape that's used to produce a special local wine: endless varieties of Chianti, the famed Brunello di Montalcino, and the one-time favorite of Renaissance noblemen Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

No visit to Tuscany would be complete without seeking out the source of these great wines - and one of our day-trips was dedicated to doing exactly that.

A sampling of wines at a great restaurant in Montalcino...

...and some food to accompany them!


Cheese and Honey

Cheese and Spinach Ravioli with diced Tomatoes

Pasta with a sauce of Wild Tuscan Boar

And that was just Montalcino!

We ventured on to Montepulciano where we had a less filling but every-bit-as-enjoyable stopover at a lovely little place with fantastic view, the perfect place to sample their take on what to do with Sangiovese - blend it with a bit of Canailo Nero and Mammolo to make Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

Lisa, Gilles and Daria take a wine break in Montepulciano

The Terrace

The View

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Under the Tuscan Rain

Every vacation has its minor disappointments, and ours included the weather.

When I spent time cycling around Tuscany in late-April 2007 the weather was spectacular - warm sunshine the whole time.

This time, in spite of us arriving in mid-May, we didn't get the warm temperatures and sunshine we were hoping for - so much so that we never even got to hit the pool :-(

Sunrise and sunset were glorious each day, but it never warmed up beyond the low-to-mid-60s and it was usually overcast for much of the day.

Lovely ladies Daria, Jamie and Lisa wearing sweaters attest to
the uncommonly cool weather as we walk through Volterra

In fact, our first major day-trip for the entire crew was interrupted by a brief storm while we were having lunch in Volterra. Fortunately, we'd opted for lunch indoors and were able to avoid the worst of the weather, and still managed to have a great time.

The weather wasn't what we expected, but the food sure was!

Our day in Volterra and San Gimignano didn't yield the photos I'd hoped it would, but it was a great introduction to the hill towns of southern Tuscany - every bit as scenic as we'd hoped, and the weather did manage to keep the crowds dispersed.

More later...


Saturday, June 05, 2010

Under the Tuscan Sun

I didn't do much blogging from Italy, since I was having far too much fun doing other things - but now that Lisa and I are back it's time to fill everyone in on the great time we had on our second big trip together.

The first half of our vacation was spent with some friends at a fabulous place in the Tuscan countryside about halfway between Florence and Siena.

Jamie & Curt met Lisa and me at the train station in Poggibonsi; they are both friends of Lisa's whom I hadn't met before, and we had a wonderful evening getting to know each other over some local wine and a great home-cooked meal.

Lisa, Curt, Jamie, and Steve dining alfresco in Tuscany

We spent our first full day in Tuscany with a roadtrip to Siena; we roamed the town, climbed the tower, had a great lunch, and Lisa acquired a new leather purse!

Lisa and her new Italian leather purse!

When we returned to our villa our friends Gilles & Daria from Seattle were waiting for us, having arrived late because their flight from southern France to Rome was canceled due the volcanic ash.
Gilles & Daria shoe-shopping Montepulciano

That night, the men took to the kitchen and prepared a meal of artichoke hearts and pasta - mmmmm.

Gilles & Steve shucking artichokes

Sauteed artichoke hearts

Over the course of the next few days, we saw some magnificent Tuscan towns and sampled the great wines that the region is known for.

More on that later...