The Basilica di San Clemente, More Than Just a Church

Basilica di San ClementeEveryone knows that there are amazing sites in Rome and many are world renowned but there are equally important and interesting sites that are a lot smaller, hidden and well worth seeking out.  Perhaps my favorite hidden archaeological site in Rome is the Basilica di San Clemente.  The Basilica di San Clemente represents one of the reasons I find Rome so fascinating.  Every turn in this city reveals its past and its layers of history.

Oil painting of the Basilica di San Clemente from the 1860s
Oil painting of the Basilica di San Clemente from the 1860s

The Basilica di San Clemente is located off Via Labicana and is just steps away from the Roman Coliseum.  It may look like just another small church in Rome but it holds a secret underneath the the intricate cosamati floor.  When you enter into the church you are greeted by a hodgepodge of artistic styles.  There are medieval frescos over the altar, a baroque ceiling and the cosamati floor composed of marble from ancient roman ruins.  However, perhaps the most interesting part of this mishmash of art and architecture is the remains of the 4th century church on the right hand side of the church.

Cosmati floors are comprised of fragments of ancient marble to create these intricate patterns
Cosmati floors are comprised of fragments of ancient marble to create these intricate patterns

While the remains on the right hand side of the church may not look like a big deal they actually are part of the walls of the 4th century church which is below the 12th century church that you entered.  And now we get into why this church is one of my favorites.  UNDERNEATH the 12th century church there are 3 other levels of buildings going all the way back to the 1st century and you can GO DOWN AND VISIT ALL THREE LEVELS!  Let the nerdy archaeologist in me freak out for a bit 🙂

When you head down the stairs to the 4th century it is amazing to think that you are going back almost 800 years.  There are few other cities in the world where you can literally step back in time.  Perhaps the most interesting part of the 4th century church, other than being the original basilica, are the mosaics dating from the 900s where you can find the one of the earliest examples of written Italian.

Photo courtesy of Rome Tours
Artist depiction of the mosaic of San Clemente and Sisinnius.  Photo courtesy of Rome Tours

Just to the left of the altar in the central nave of the 4th century church is a mosaic depicted St. Clemente and the Roman senator, Sisinnius.  Sisinnius suspects his wife of cheating and so he follows her but instead of cheating on him she is a secret Catholic.  When Sisinnius realizes that she is a secret Catholic and is attending mass he threatens to arrest them all.  St. Clemente, who is leading the mass, strikes him blind so that he cannot arrest them and all the Catholics escape.

The next day St. Clemente, being Pope, feels bad about striking Sisinnius blind and goes to his house to ask forgiveness.  Sisinnius, hearing St. Clemente’s voice, orders him to be arrested immediately.  Obviously, St. Clemente did not want to be arrested so instead he caused everyone to be confused.  I like to think he waved his hand and said, “I am not the pope you are looking for”.  Instead of arresting him they tried to arrest a column.  You can see this in the mosaic with the writing of “Fili de le pute, traite!” which translated means that Sisinnius was screaming at his soldiers “Come on you sons of bitches, pull!”.  So there you have it, the first written Italian.  To be fair, it is not shocking that the first written Italian is swearing.  Italian was basically a slang offshoot of Latin.  What is interesting is that you see it written in Italian as Italian at this time was not normally written down as it was not an official language.  Writing Italian down shows that the language was developing more and was becoming more than slang.

There are also several other mosaics and frescoes decorating the walls of the 4th century church.  Perhaps my favorite is the fresco of Christ in Limbo which is located in the first nave after you descend the stairs.  The fresco is from the 11th century and shows Christ’s descent into limbo because he actually he died for 3 days.  While he is in limbo he gathers up all the souls who can now enter heaven.  One of the souls who has been in limbo since the dawn of freaking time is Adam.  Can you imagine being Adam and having to wait ALL THAT TIME to go to heaven?  I am assuming he is stoked to leave limbo however, the demon who has been torturing him for the past few thousand millennium is not keen to let him go.  Thank god Christ is there though because the fresco shows him stomping on the demon.

Photo courtesy of Ex Ubre
Photo courtesy of Ex Ubre

As you descend down another level you head back to the 2nd century and this level is quite interesting because it houses the cult of Mithras.  It is not unusual for churches to have been built on top of ancient roman pagan temples.  You can see this throughout the city and some of the names of churches reflect this phenomenon like Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (St. Mary above Minerva) near the Pantheon.  What makes this cult different is that Mithra was a god from Persia and he was considered one of the ancient mystery religions.  There is not a whole lot known about Mithra since he was worshiped in secret however we know he was very popular with the military and ex slaves and was a men’s only cult.  Soldiers identified with the Mithraic cult because there were seven levels of initiation which mirrored ones ascension through the military ranks and for ex slaves it mirrored their progression through society.

Mithra was born from a rock in a cave on the 25th of December.  It is thought that Jesus’ birthday was moved from the springtime to the middle of December partly because of the popularity of the Mithraic cult (and other factors including the winter equinox).  The central ceremony of the cult took place in the Mithraic triclinium which is just to your left as you descend the stairs to the 2nd century.  The triclinium was the dining room where they held the feast dedicated to Mithra.  You can see the original altar here and the ceiling of the dining room is supposed to look like the cave where Mithra was born.  In the ceiling there are holes and it is thought that the feast would take place during certain alignments of the sky with the triclinium.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

As you begin to head down to the 1st century you actually cross an ancient alley.  That is right you get to cross an ancient street!  Pretty freaking cool, right?  In the 1st and 2nd centuries you would be outside at this point.  It is crazy to think about this.  This is due to the fact that the Tiber river had a nasty habit of flooding alllllllll the time and so it would slowly cover the city with sediment and bury the older buildings.  Instead of digging it out constantly the romans decided to build on top of it over time and use older buildings as foundations.  Smart cookies.

 

At the bottom of the stairs you can tell you are supposed to be outside because the outer walls are covered in Tufa, which is a volcanic stone you find all over Rome even in the building of the Coliseum.  It is unknown that this 1st century building is but it is thought that it may possibly have been the roman mint, a granary or even a public home.  While it is unknown what the building may have been it is thanks to this level that all of this was discovered.  As you descend lower and lower you can hear running water and this constantly running water was enough to drive Father Joseph Mulooly crazy; enough that he hired an archaeologist to find the source of the water.  Eventually they made their way down to the 1st century and discovered that the source was an ancient roman pipe that was still active.  The water still flows through the building today and it is amazing to see that these ancient roman pipes still work today 2000 years after they were built.  I just wouldn’t drink the water as this could result in severe lead poisoning.

Basilica_di_San_Clemente_-_Abside

There is so much to explore at the Basilica di San Clemente and it is so much more than just a beautiful church.  If you find yourself around the Coliseum with some time to spare I would certain suggest a stop at this incredible site.

Roman Neighborhood Guide: Piazza Navona and The Pantheon

Neighborhood Guide-Piazza Navona, Pantheon

The area around Piazza Navona and the Pantheon is probably one of the most trafficked areas of Rome.  Part of the Centro Storico, or the historical center, this is the heart and soul of Rome bordered by the Tiber on one side and connecting to the Vatican via the Ponte Sant’Angelo, a beautiful pedestrian bridge with angels designed by Bernini and leading to Castel Sant’Angelo.  Piazza Navona and the Pantheon are located in the northern half of the Centro Storico with Campo dei Fiori neighborhood dominating the southern half of the Centro Storico.  There is so much to see, do and EAT in this area that we just had to share our favorite things about this neighborhood.

Archway to the Centro Storico

Eats

Osteria del Pegno

Located on Vicolo di Montevechhio

We have literally written an entire article on this restaurant and I do not have much to add except for the fact that you have to eat here.  If you visit Rome and do not eat here you are crazy! I have had some of the best meals of my life here.  Their ravioli in an orange cream sauce with saffron and zucchini blossoms can seriously change your life (it convinced me I like squash blossoms after all) and even their fennel salad with oranges was heavenly.  I cannot stress how amazing this restaurant is enough.  It may not be “traditional” Italian cuisine but damn it is good and made the Italian way with simple good ingredients.

 

Cul de Sac

Located on Via Governo Vecchio

Cul de Sac is another restaurant we have talked about before in our Rome City Guide and it keeps popping up because it is an outstanding enoteca or wine bar.  The wine list is a BOOK and just a few pages but a massive book which covers all regions of Italy.  I wish I knew then what I do about Italian wines now, because I would have definitely taken advantage of the wine list more.  Go out of your comfort zone while you are here and order a wine you have never heard of; I guarantee you have not heard of most of them on the list anyways since Italy has an obscene amount of grape varietals.  This restaurant does not only have stellar wine but they also have amazing food.  This is the restaurant if you want to try the roman specialty tripe, but if you are not feeling that adventurous their lasagna is one of the best in the city.

 

Bar Amore

Located on Via dei Banchi Nuovi – A continuation of Via del Governo Vecchio

I have a soft spot in my heart for Bar Amore.  I used to visit this bar almost daily for my cafe e panino.  This bar makes one of the best panino in the city because you can customize it.  That’s right people, a build your own panino shop in Rome.  I took full advantage of this by always ordering the same thing, a tomato and mozzarella panino…….  And by advantage I mean not at all but it was/is SOOO good.  They do have a wide range of ingredients you can put on your panino including brie, artichokes, prosciutto and more.  If you are looking for a great panino place and you are near Piazza Navona search this place out.  Just beware it fills with UC Rome students around lunchtime 😉

 

Pizzeria Baffeto

Located on Via Governo Vecchio

Are you looking for authentic pizza in the heart of Rome and like waiting in line?  Then you need to head to Pizzeria Baffeto.  It might be weird that I am mentioning lines but to this day this is the ONLY restaurant in Rome I ever saw with a line before it opened.  I have had to wait for Cul de Sac but nothing compares to waiting in line for Baffeto.  Things have eased up a bit since they opened up Baffeto Due but I prefer the wait.  Baffeto also has the most perfect location for me; across the street from Abbey and next to Frigidarium.  Baffeto specializes in Roman pizza larger than your face.  They only serve pizza and jugs of wine.  The pizzas range from the traditional Margherita to the Diavola with spicy sausage but perhaps my favorite one is the pizza fagioli, which is a basic margherita pizza with cannellini beans added on top.  It may sound strange and I was certainly skeptical when my sister ordered by my god is it good.  There is just something about the creamy cannellini beans and the cheese and sauce that is so simple but so good.  Even if you are indifferent about pizza (which who is?) at least head to Baffeto for the atmosphere.  The tables here are jammed packed into a two story building which during the summer spills out into the streets.  Service is quick and no frills and you can hear all the waiters and cooks yelling at each other across the restaurant.  It is quintessentially a Roman restaurant.

 

Il Clan

Located on Via Sora

Il Clan is the perfect restaurant when you need to relax from all the chaos of Rome and God forbid eat something other than Italian food.  Il Clan is the only Brazilian restaurant in town, that I know of anyways, although there is an Argentinian restaurant not too far away (never been though).  This is the perfect spot to relax amongst the bright colors that decorate the restaurant and indulge in a caipirinha or two…. They do not have an extensive menu but what they do have is fresh and authentic.

 

Tapa Loca

Located on Via di Tor Millina

Tapa Loca is, as you may have guessed, a Spanish tapas restaurant.  It is just down the street from Piazza Navona and is a great spot to drink sangria on a hot summer night and eat a ridiculous amount of paella.  Alex and I made the mistake of ordering one between the two of us and had leftovers for days!  It didn’t help that we ordered a bunch of appetizers as well.  This restaurant has a fun vibe and is a great place for a large group of people. Think pitchers of sangria 🙂

 

Insalta Ricca

Located on Via Governo Vecchio

We have mentioned Insalata Ricca before in our Trastevere Guide but as there is another location near Piazza Navona it seemed worth noting.  I went here a LOT when I was a student at UC Rome as it is just down the street.  My roommate and I would always split a pesto pizza and a greek salad…. and a liter of wine.  It is Italy after all!

Liter of Wine at Insalata Ricca

 

 

Mimi & Coco Panini Shop

Located on Via Governo Vecchio

I am not a huge fan of Mimi & Coco’s restaurant, I find it a bit overpriced for what it is, but I do love their panini place just down the street.  Their panini are open-faced sandwiches and are more like pizza then panini.  My favorite is, per usual, the caprese.  The bread is a bit like focaccia and they just pile on the tomatoes and fresh mozzarella and then grill it up on a panini press.  I love to grab the sandwich and walk to either Piazza Navona or the Pantheon and just sit and enjoy it.  This is perhaps one of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon in the heart of Rome.

 

Smoothie Place

Located on Via di Tor Millina

Ok we cannot remember the name of this place but it is part gelato shop and also smoothie shop.  It is the only place that we know of in Rome that serves smoothies and after all those carbs sometimes it is nice to have some fruit that is not ice cream.  They have smoothie combinations and you can also build your own as well.  This store is located just off Piazza Navona and looks slightly touristy but is awesome!

 

Frigidarium and San Crispino

Located on Via Governo Vecchio and Piazza della Maddalena respectively

Gelato

These are HANDS DOWN my all time favorite gelaterias!  That is a bold statement, I know, but I am not taking it back.  I talked about both of these places in my 5 Reasons Why I Love Gelato post but they deserve a second mention, mainly because I wrote that article almost 2 years ago.  Frigidarium is my go to for traditional Italian gelato.  You get the basic flavors here but they are sooo good.  I am obsessed with their canella (cinnamon) and their raspberry sorbet.  San Crispino is the place to go to hunt down seasonal gelato.  I love their white peach sorbet and the Sicilian honey gelato.  They switch the flavors up a lot and always have something amazing.

 

 

Drink

Abbey Theater

Abbey

Located on Via Governo Vecchio

Abbey will always have a special place in our hearts because we met there of course!  Actually that is not it at all (although we did meet there).  Both of us had been going to Abbey before we met each other and it is our favorite expat bar.  This is place where we always felt welcomed.  If it had been a rough day and we were just sick of Rome this was the place we would go to unwind.  Plus they had awesome chicken curry.

 

Bar del fico

Located on Piazza del Fico

Bar del Fico is a hole in the wall Italian bar.  While I have never eaten here it always gets rave reviews but it is a great spot to pop in for an evening drink.  The atmosphere is lively whether you grab a table outside or inside.  You will always find locals here, playing chess usually and egging each other on, which can be rare in such a heavily touristed area.  This is one of the greatest bars to catch up with friends and spend a relaxing Saturday night.

 

Fluid

Located on Via Governo Vecchio

Fruit Cocktails at Fluid

Clearly Governo Vecchio is one of my favorite streets in all of Rome and Fluid is my favorite aperitivo bar.  The cocktails here are top notch especially in a city that doesn’t have a huge cocktail scene, although I hear that is changing.  Plus I am all for a place that charges 7euros for a cocktail and then you get unlimited food.  They will occasionally serve pineapple with drizzled nutella; I never knew how good that could be until Fluid.

 

Sant’Eustachio Il Caffe

Located on Piazza Sant’Eustachio

Sant’Eustachio is a cafe in the heart of Rome that has been around since 1938.  Today’s incarnation looks almost similar to the original cafe with even the paving and furnishing the same as in 1938.  They are known for the caffe d’elite and the shakerato.  Sitting at one of the 6 tables at Sant’Eustachio is like stepping back into Rome’s past.

 

See

Piazza Navona/Ruins of Diocletian’s circus

Alex Strolling Through Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona is probably the most popular square to visit in Rome.  Whenever I imagine the square I am filled with romantic notions of artists selling their wares while couples take romantic strolls and academics debate Bernini’s famous fountain.  And in truth you do get this along with hordes of tourists.  I tend to avoid Piazza Navona during the summer during the day but love to spend hours here in the evening.  Rome is so hot during the summer even at night that it is lovely to spend time near the fountain (personally I think the sound of falling water makes it feel cooler, mental air conditioning…).  I love staring at all the different angles of Bernini’s fountain especially the statue which faces Borromini’s church as the two were bitter rivals and this played out in Bernini’s art.

Bernini's Four Rivers Fountain
I love how the figure is shielding his eyes against the horror of Borromini’s church

 

Another reason I love Piazza Navona is because the history behind the famous piazza is so much more than just the Baroque period of Bernini and Borromini.  If you head around to the north of the piazza on the outside you can see the ruins of the Stadium of Domitian which was built in the first century CE.  Today Piazza Navona still retains the same shape as the original stadium that was used for foot races.

 

Pantheon

The Pantheon

I have stated time and time again but I will say it again, The Pantheon is my favorite building EVER.  The fact that Hadrian rebuilt it in 126 CE and people still do not know how he built the dome amazes me!  I love all the history of the building and except for the fact that it is now a church it was left relatively untouched from the Roman times.  Also if you have a chance to visit during Pentecost a stop in to the Pantheon is a must as they throw rose petals from the ceiling.  This is one of my favorite memories from our time in Rome.

 

Bernini’s Elephant

Bernini's Elephant in Rome

Located on Piazza della Minerva

Bernini’s elephant in front of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is just one of the delights this church holds.  I love that Bernini carved this white elephant.  I am not sure why I love this little statue so much but it seem like such a whimsy addition to a city filled with high art.

 

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Located on Piazza della Minerva

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is a church with an excessively long name which means the Church of St. Mary above the Temple of Minerva.  Throughout the city of Rome churches were built over pagan sites.  This was mainly to encourage pagans to convert to Christianity, the logic being that people do not like to change their routine so they will continue to go to the same site even when the religion changes.  While you can no longer see the remains of the Temple of Minerva, who also goes by the Greek name of Athena, the church is still worth a visit.

 

Before you head into the church and after you have spent time admiring Bernini’s elephant take a look at the plaques that are on the right hand side of the building.  The plaques mark the height of the flooding of the Tiber River.  Before the huge embankments were places along the Tiber, the river used to flood annually and covered much of the Centro Storico.  It is amazing to think that the river used to flood all the way to this church.  It is about a ten minute walk to the river from the church.

Christ the Redeemer by Michelangelo
It looks much better in person than through the grainy lens pf my iphone 3 – Yup you read that right. I took this photo about 2.5years ago…. Clearly was not preparing for a life of blogging

 

The church also has a beautiful statue inside, Christ the Redeemer, which was carved by Michelangelo in 1519.  The statue was carved for a private patron who lived near Santa Maria Sopra Minerva but there were actually two versions of it carved as the first was abandoned when a black vein was discovered in the marble.  The first version was placed by Metello Vari, Michelangelo’s patron, in his garden and the second completed statue was placed inside the church.  The first statue was actually lost from the early 1600s to 2000 when it was discovered in a sacristy in Bassano, just outside of Rome.  This statue was famous during its time and was described by a contemporary as having knees worthy more than the whole of Rome.  Those are some pretty bad ass knees…

 

Ruins at Lago Argentina

The ruins at Lago Argentina are interesting because they have literally built a traffic hub around them.  Several bus lines, tram lines and a major road all surround these ruins which are below the surface.  I think it is always worth it to brave the traffic to cross the street and view the ruins.  The ruins date back to the Republican period of Rome and include four temples and the ruins of Pompey’s theater.  Julius Caesar was assassinated at the Theater of Pompey in the curia and it is thought that this site is part of the ruins of Largo Argentina.  The ruins also act as a cat shelter for the homeless cats of Rome of which there are many.  So you can hang out with some kitties and check out ruins.  Who needs cat cafes?

 

Do

Via dei Coronari

Via-dei-Coronari-1

Via dei Coronari is a quaint little street with hundreds of little local shops.  This street is where I pick up all of my Christmas gifts as I can always find something unique here for family and friends.  It is also a great place to take photos of quaint Roman streets.  There are cute little cafes, spots to grab gelato and sit on the stairs, and a range of boutiques and vintage stores.

 

Glass store

Located on Via dei Coronari

We for the life us cannot remember the name of this store but we absolutely LOVE it.  Alex and I discovered this store while we were wandering Via dei Coronari and it is our favorite store in Rome.  The owners actually makes their own glass for all of the jewelry and home decor in the shop.  While it may not be the famous murano glass, it is locally made and each piece is unique.  The store owners are so amazing that when Alex and I went in there with a picture of what Alex’s mom wanted from the store and they didn’t have it, they made it for us there on the spot.  If anyone visits this glass shop or knows the name of it we would love to know!  We love this place and want to give them proper recognition!

 

Vintage shopping

Located on Via Governo Vecchio

All along Via Governo Vecchio from Abbey to Bar Amore there are adorable vintage shops just filled with treasures.  I loved popping into these stores in between classes to check out what they had.  While it is possible to find some deals at these stores be prepared to shell out a pretty penny if you really want some amazing vintage pieces.  Either way it is always nice to pop in and see some more modern Roman history.

Street Corners of the Centro Storico
This is Rome. Beautiful street corners with bags of trash next to them…. It is a beautiful AND a living city with highs and lows

 

So there you have it, our tips and recommendations for the northern half of the Centro Storico from Piazza Navona to the Pantheon.  This is such a wonderful area to take in the history and the daily life of Rome.  While it can be touristy there are still many authentic roman places to eat, see and shop.

 

 

Sunday Wine Down: Ancient Wine Part 2, The Phoenicians

Sunday Wine Down: The Phoenicians

Welcome again to Sunday Wine Down. It is time to pop that cork, pour yourself a big glass of wine and enjoy life. We are back again for our second weekend of the Sunday Wine Down and we are going to continue with our lesson of Ancient Wines. Last week we covered the basics; we discovered how old wine actually is and talked a little about the Egyptians and their influences on wine. The lesson is not over yet as we have a few more Ancient civilizations to talk about before we get into modern wine. So enjoy that glass as you learn a little bit more about ancient wine!

This week we are going to start with a civilization that was a major player in the migration of wine and viticulture throughout the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians were consider great merchants and they saw the importance of wine as a commodity for them to trade. We can thank the Phoenicians for spreading wine to Greece, Rome, and Spain and then indirectly  to France through the Romans. Phoenicians helped elevate wine into a valued product with their knowledge of growing grapes, wine making,  and transportation of the final product. So lets dig into this fascinating culture.

 

The Phoenicians 

The Phoenicians were based in the northern reaches of Canaan and the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. To give you all a better picture, they came from modern day Lebanon. Their trading network expanded throughout the Mediterranean and they were the ones who introduced/encouraged the idea of wine through modern day  Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. They also may have have had an indirect effect on wine making up into France.

Around 1000 BC is when business of wine became an extremely important trade and commodity and the demand rose. The Phoenicians took advantage of this and used it to their advantage.  They would travel through the sea with their sailboats that carried large amphoras of wine, different species of vines, wine making equipment and their knowledge of where to plant the vines to produce wine. They did not only trade wine that was produced in Canaan but also set up other markets for wine produced in other colonies and port cities. The Phoenicians were smart when it came to setting up their trading post and developing a network that helped them spread their influence throughout the Mediterranean. Having direct contact with the Greeks, they educated the Greeks on the practices of wine making, viticulture, and shipbuilding which encouraged the Greeks to continue to expand and trade pass the Aegean sea. If it was not for these Ancient adventurers and entrepreneurs wine not be where it is at today.

Terroir

Carthage was the Phoenicians most successful colony, which is located in North Africa were modern day Tunisia is now. In this hot north African colony the Phoenicians saw the importance of where they planted their grapes. They planted on the side of the hill to help protect the vines from the hot North African sun. They started figuring out the benefits of planting grapes in an ideal area. They took that knowledge and again spread it throughout all the major wine trading posts in the world that was set up by them. The world of wine started to change with this revelation. The world began to see the importance of terroir and the strategic way of planting vines in an area that suited the grapes. This in turn helped to harvest high quality grapes and eventually better wine.

The Phoenicians had the first significant influence on the world of wine. They helped elevate the level of wine that was being made around the Mediterranean, helped build a business and encouraged the practice of wine making to spread like wildfire. The Romans and the Greeks can thank the Phoenicians for sharing their knowledge so that one day the Greeks and Romans could help elevate the art of wine making even further. So as you finish up your glass of wine think about and raise your glass to the greatest merchants of wine in Ancient times. We have a lot to owe them.

Next Sunday Wine Down we will finish up our Ancient wine section with the Romans and the Greeks. We are going to learn how much influence these two empires had in the making of wine. So come back and join us for Ancient Wines Part 3: The Greeks and The Romans.

Angkor Wat in Black & White

ANGKOR WATAngkor Wat is something I dreamed about seeing ever since I was young.  I should have known I was going to major in archaeology since the top places I have always wanted to visit are the Pantheon, the Parthenon, the Pyramids, Machu Picchu, the Hagia Sophia and of course Angkor Wat.   Angkot Wat was always so far away though.  I never really considered actually visiting Cambodia.  I figured one day I would get there but it was never a first choice.  But then my best friend, Christopher, decided to teach english in Malaysia and bam! I had an opportunity like no other to visit.  I knew immediately that we would have to visit Angkor Wat.

 

Angkor Wat was everything I dreamed of and more.  It was HUGE and imposing, crumbling and in ruins and yet standing majestically and proud.  The complex was almost overwhelming and I wish we had had more time to explore.  We were able to hit several different temples throughout the day especially with the 4am wake up call.  Here is just a little glimpse of the temples we explored while I pretended I was Indiana Jones 🙂

The Moat before Angkor Wat
The moat that surrounds and guards Angkor Wat
The famous main temple of Angkor Wat.  We got here before sunrise to catch the mythical sunrise but of course it was so overcast we couldn't see anything.  The best thing about coming early was we were there before all the tour buses
The famous main temple of Angkor Wat. We got here before sunrise to catch the mythical sunrise but of course it was so overcast we couldn’t see anything. The best thing about coming early was we were there before all the tour buses

Angkor Wat Temple Details

Baskei Chamkrong is a small temple we discovered when we decided to walk to Banyon Temple.  Walking was one of the best things we could have done because it allowed us to explore lesser known temples.  We were able to climb to the top of this temple and view the Sanskrit writing on the temple doors.  The temple lists all the Khmer kings even before Angkorian times.
Baskei Chamkrong is a small temple we discovered when we decided to walk to Banyon Temple. Walking was one of the best things we could have done because it allowed us to explore lesser known temples. We were able to climb to the top of this temple and view the Sanskrit writing on the temple doors. The temple lists all the Khmer kings even before Angkorian times.

Bridge to Banyon

The many faces of Banyon Temple
The many faces of Banyon Temple

Banyon TempleClose Up of the Banyon Faces

Monkey at Angkor Wat

Ta Phrom was what I had always envisioned the ruins to be; run down, crumbling, perhaps the home of the lost idol :)
Ta Prohm was what I had always envisioned the ruins to be; run down, crumbling, perhaps the home of the lost idol 🙂 Or plenty of tourists

Details at Ta Prohm

Crumbling Ruins of Ta Prohm
While the archaeologist in me was sadden to see how the ruins have been abandoned and not taken care of, it was absolutely fascinating to see how the jungle is taking over these ruins. It was a surreal place to see nature overtake the ruins of a civilization.

Sculptural Details at Ta Prohm

Endless Arches at Ta Prohm

Sculptural Reliefs at Angkor Wat

The entrance to Ta Prohm and the last site we saw of the spectacular ruins of Angkor Wat
The entrance to Ta Prohm and the last sight we saw of the spectacular ruins of Angkor Wat

 

Have you ever been to Angkor Wat?  What was your favorite spot?

 

 

 

 

The Hagia Sophia, Istanbul’s History Expressed in One Building

Visiting the Hagia Sophia was so incredibly high on my list of things to see of things to see in Istanbul that as soon as I arrived it was the first thing we went to see and has obviously made it on to my top reasons to visit Istanbul.  The building was something that had always fascinated me because of its rich history and the buildings survival throughout different periods of history, rulers and religions.  It is a building that, while cliche, completely encompasses the mix of east and west you expect to find in Istanbul.  The Hagia Sophia is a building that is Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Turkish and has so much history and architecture.

Hagia Sophia from the Outside

The first Hagia Sophia was built in 360AD and was named after Holy Wisdom.  The church took on true importance during the reign of Justinian I when he decided to redesign the church to be larger and more awe inspiring than the previous incarnations of the church.  The church was built out of materials from all over the Byzantine Empire including purple porphyry marble from Egypt, hellenistic columns from Ephesus and black stone from the Bosphorus and it was completed in under six years.  The church is considered to have changed the history of architecture and it was the largest cathedral until the Seville Cathedral was built in 1520.

The Hagia Sophia has a somewhat understated entrance but then it opens up into the opulent central nave
The Hagia Sophia has a somewhat understated entrance but then it opens up into the opulent central nave
The domes of Hagia Sophia are one of the architectural achievements of the Byzantine age
The domes of Hagia Sophia are one of the architectural achievements of the Byzantine age

The Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia was the gem of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the mosaics are considered some of the best examples we have from that period.
The Hagia Sophia was the gem of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the mosaics are considered some of the best examples we have from that period.  This mosaic is found as you exit the Hagia Sophia, you have to make sure you look back to see them and they depict the Virgin Mary and Child flanked by Justinian I and Constantine I
This mosaic shows Emperor Constantine IX and his wife Empress Zoe with Jesus in the center
This mosaic shows Emperor Constantine IX and his wife Empress Zoe with Jesus in the center

The Hagia Sophia was the focal point of the Eastern Orthodox Church until the Ottomans conquered Istanbul in 1453 by Sultan Mehmed II.  Sultan Mehmed then, instead of razing it to the ground (which was kind of him), converted the church into a mosque.  The christian elements of the church were removed or plastered over, in terms of the mosaics, and replaced with Islamic features.  While it was quite nice of him to leave the building standing he was not so kind to the citizens who had taken refuge in the church with them either being enslaved, raped or murdered.

Islamic Medallions

 

The Mosque was known as the Aya Sofya and the chandeliers and medallions are features of the Islamic architecture
The Mosque was known as the Aya Sofya and the chandeliers and medallions are features of the Islamic architecture

Side View of the Hagia Sophia

In 1935 the Republic of Turkey converted the mosque into the museum that it is today.  The carpets were removed and the mosaics and frescoes were uncovered.  Today there is a small area for Christian and Muslim worship but the building itself is no longer a religious building.  Today the Hagia Sophia is considered the best example of Byzantine architecture and honestly it is one of the most inspiring buildings I have ever seen.  The mix of Christian and Muslim elements and the history behind this building is what makes the Hagia Sophia such a unique site to visit.  There are so few buildings in this world that capture the way certain places have changed throughout time and the Hagia Sophia is one of them.  You can literally trace the history of Istanbul in this building, from its humble Roman beginnings, to the center of the Eastern Orthodox Church, to the Ottoman Empire and the Muslim faith, and then to modern day Turkey.

Hagia Sophia Detail

The Hagia Sophia has been an integral part of Istanbul's history and still dominates the skyline today
The Hagia Sophia has been an integral part of Istanbul’s history and still dominates the skyline today

A Glimpse of Villa d’Este

A little while back we wrote an article about Hadrian’s Villa in the town of Tivoli.  It is an absolutely amazing site for people to visit especially if you love ruins and architecture but did you know Hadrian’s Villa inspired a Renaissance villa called Villa d’Este?

 

Villa d’Este is perhaps most known for its amazing fountains and when Alex and I visited Hadrian’s Villa we also decided to spend the other half of the afternoon exploring the gardens.  You can explore the villa itself but it is really known for its grounds and the fact that it has sweeping views of the Roman countryside.

This is the view you are greeted with as you enter the gardens at Villa d'Este.  This alone should convince you to visit
This is the view you are greeted with as you enter the gardens at Villa d’Este. This alone should convince you to visit
The Roman countryside is really beautiful.  I always suggest to people to spend some time outside the city when they come to visit.  Country life in Italy is really something special.
The Roman countryside is really beautiful. I always suggest to people to spend some time outside the city when they come to visit. Country life in Italy is really something special.
We occasionally take pictures together.  They all look like this and the backgrounds just change.  In this case one of the awesome fountains we found while wandering the gardens.
We occasionally take pictures together. They all look like this and the backgrounds just change. In this case one of the awesome fountains we found while wandering the gardens.

Fountain!

The main terrace of the Villa d'Este has these gorgeous reflecting pools and is a great spot to relax and take it all in.
The main terrace of the Villa d’Este has these gorgeous reflecting pools and is a great spot to relax and take it all in.

Fountain and Reflecting Pools at Vlilla d'Este

The Villa d'Este is a very romantic spot, a perfect place to steal a quick kiss
The Villa d’Este is a very romantic spot, a perfect place to steal a quick kiss

Reflecting Pools

Side Fountains at Villa d'Este

Cardinal Ippolitio II d'Este, who built the Villa, also constructed a miniature version of Rome as a fountain
Cardinal Ippolitio II d’Este, who built the Villa, also constructed a miniature version of Rome as a fountain

Row of 100 Fountains

Tivoli is easily reached from Rome by train and is definitely worth the trek out there, even to just spend the afternoon exploring the grounds of the villa and perhaps having a glass of wine on the terrace. 🙂

 

Have you ever visited Tivoli?  What did you think of the gardens at the Villa d’Este?

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A Photo Journey through Kathmandu’s Durbar Square

A Guest Post by Natasha from The Boho Chica:

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There is something I absolutely love about old towns. Maybe it’s the fascinating tales of history in the crumbling walls of the buildings and occasionally in the eyes of those who still live in them. For me, there is romance in the decadence. So within a few hours of arriving in the city, I found myself in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, map in hand, eventually deciding to put it away and simply wander as I pleased.

 

‘Durbar’, is literally translated as palace and it was not hard to imagine the grandeur of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square in its former days of glory. Within walking distance of Thamel, Kathmandu’s tourist district, the square is a good place to wander about in or sit at one of the terraced viewpoints of the tiered structures and watch how crowds of tourists, guides and locals move through the square throughout the day. The original structures date from the 17th and 18th centuries but many of these were rebuilt after a severe earthquake in 1934. The square was awarded World Heritage Site status by the UN and so attracts a lot of tourists and tour groups.

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Kumari Bahal is a red brick three storey building home to the Kumari, a young girl who becomes the living goddess and presides over religious ceremonies until she reaches puberty, after which she goes back to living as a mortal and a new Kumari is chosen. The Kumari Chowk, a three storey courtyard is strikingly beautiful with its intricately carved wooden balconies and windows. It is forbidden to photograph the Kumari who makes an appearance at her window only on important religious days for the crowds that gather for a glimpse. Only Hindus are allowed beyond the courtyard. As I wandered about in the rather silent courtyard, I noticed this little drawing on one of the walls and wondered  if  the Kumari had drawn this, or perhaps one of her siblings or friends? Was she allowed to have friends? Life must be pretty restrictive for a young child to be treated like a goddess and kept away from modern society.

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To the northeast of the square is the entrance to the Hanuman Dhoka, the royal palace of King Pratap Malla and a compound of temples. The monkey god Hanuman can be seen guarding many importance entrances in traditional structures, hence the name Hanuman Dhoka, ‘dhoka’ meaning entrance.

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The Nasal Chowk is a courtyard which follows the main entrance and consists of the coronation platform in the center. Important buildings here are the private quarters of the kings, the Audience Chamber and the five storey Panch Mukhi Hanuman temple. To the southern end of Nasal Chowk is the nine storey Basantapur Tower, adorned with erotic carvings on its facade and offers fantastic views of the palace, square and the Old Town from the top.

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Apart from the important buildings mentioned in most guides as well as the information booklet that you receive at the entrance while buying your entrance ticket, the lanes and streets around the area in Kathmandu’s Old Town are a treasure trove of beautiful temples, stone and wooden carvings, shrines and sculptures. Sometimes you turn around a corner to find a bright eyed deity looking at you or Hanuman standing guard wrapped in orange. Finding one of these unexpectedly in an alley is like finding your own little piece of Nepali history.

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About Me:

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Natasha Amar is a Dubai based travel blogger happily infected by wanderlust. On her blog The Boho Chica, she shares entertaining stories of things that shock, amaze and inspire her even as she tries to challenge herself and seek deeper cultural experiences on her travels.   You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Google+