Monday, May 28, 2012

Washington D.C. is a perfect city to be on Memorial Day when you want to honor the veterans who fought for our country.  A few days before the holiday weekend, members of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Regiment, also known as The Old Guard, perform the "flags-in" annual ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, where one flag is planted in front of each grave marker - a ritual that has been performed for the past 40 years. 

Whether it's Memorial Day, Veterans Day, or any day, Arlington Cemetery is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike.  The history of the land is very interesting and dates back to George Washington.  The land and the Arlington House mansion that remains atop the hill today once belonged to George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington and step-grandson of George Washington.  The name "Arlington" was selected because it was the name of the Custis family ancestral estate in the Virginia tidewater area.  Upon George Custis' death, ownership of the home transferred to his only child, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, who in June 1831 had married her childhood friend and Alexandria native, Robert E. Lee.  It was in this house in 1961 that Lee made the difficult decision to resign his commission with the U.S. Army when his home state, Virginia, decided to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy.  The desk Lee used to pen his resignation letter remains in Arlington House.

During the Civil War, the land was immediately seized by the Union Army.  Later, ownership was declared by the government due to unpaid property taxes, and the estate was sold to a tax commissioner for government use.  In 1864, as the dead from the Civil War was rapidly growing, a need arose for additional burial plots.  On the grounds of the Arlington House estate, Arlington National Cemetery was established.  After a 12-year legal battle, George Washington Custis Lee, son of Robert E. and Mary, received a favorable U.S. Supreme Court ruling that returned the property to the Custis Lee family because it was confiscated without due process.  At this point, the property was uninhabitable, so the Lee family finally received compensation for their loss when they sold the property to the U.S. Congress for $150,000.  The Arlington House has been restored and is available for tours.

Just down the hill from the mansion is the popular grave site of the Kennedy Family: John F. Kennedy with the Eternal Flame behind him, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and two of their children - Patrick, who died early in his infancy and a stillborn girl.  Located nearby are the graves of his two brothers - Senators Robert F. Kennedy and Edward (Ted) Kennedy.  As part of the Kennedy memorial, several quotes from his famous Inaugural Address are etched in a long stretch of granite. 

Another popular area within the cemetery is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  Guarded 24 hours a day by a member of The Old Guard, this tomb contains the remains of an unidentified soldier from World War I.  Directly in front of the white marble sarcophagus are three marble slabs for the unknown soldiers of World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam.  Many tourists spend time at the Tomb of the Unknown because from October-March there is a changing of the guard ritual every hour on the hour, and from April-September it is every half hour.

Members of The Old Guard are volunteers and have passed a very rigorous process that includes memorizing and reciting, verbatim, seven pages of Arlington Cemetery history, physical height and proportion restrictions, lengthy interviews, a two week trial, and a training period culminating in a Tomb Guard Identification Badge test.  Training, weapon and uniform cleaning, and continued studies of cemetery facts are ongoing activities during their service in The Old Guard.  On Memorial Day weekend, it is not uncommon to also see a wreath laying ceremony with a bugler playing taps.

Memorial Day in D.C. also means that it is the annual pilgrimage to our Nation's capitol of Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders, called "Rolling Thunder" - hands down the loudest weekend of the year!
Many of the riders are Veterans of the more recent wars - Vietnam and the first Gulf War and the two theaters of the War on Terror - so the Vietnam Memorial is a popular destination for these men and their families.  The memorial began with controversy when, in 1981, a design contest was held and won by a 21-year old Asian-American student whose concept was to create an opening or a wound in the earth made of polished black gabbro stone to symbolize the great losses of the war.  Many opponents of the design believed that instead of a wound, it looked more like a black mark or a scar on our history.  These negative opinions, coincidentally,  mirrored the polarized sentiments towards the war - then and now.  As a compromise, a bronze statue of three infantry soldiers was added to the memorial grounds.  My visit to the Vietnam Memorial this year was very sad because I encountered a Veteran of the war, dressed in his motorcycle gear, right as he found his friends' and fellow soldiers' names on the wall and started sobbing, slowly dropping to one knee, protected by a circle of his family and friends.  It was a very touching experience.

Fortunately the remaining war memorials in D.C. are not quite as emotional as what I observed at the Vietnam War Memorial.  The newest addition to the National Mall is the World War II memorial, dedicated in 2004.   Situated directly in between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, at the end of the reflecting pool, the design of the memorial is a large fountain flanked by two semi-circles of columns - one for each state, the Commonwealth of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Also in between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, south of the reflecting pool, is the Korean War Memorial.  In my opinion, this is my least favorite and the creepiest war memorial in the U.S, if not the world.  The 19 stainless steel statues of men on patrol, with their hollowed out eyes, just look haunted - especially at night.  And on the granite reflection wall, the sandblasted photographic faces appear as if they are ghosts of the fallen.

Finally, one of Washington D.C.'s best vantage points for capturing a fantastic photo of the National Mall is at the Iwo Jima/Marine Corps War Memorial across the river in Arlington.  From this spot, one can get the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and U.S. Capitol at a diagonal in the camera frame.  Then, just turn 90 degrees and get a photo of the giant bronze rendering of the iconic "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by Joe Rosenthal, taken on February 23, 1945, that depicts five U.S. Marine and one U.S. Navy corpsmen planting the U.S. Flag on the top of Mount Suribachi for a second time.  There's an interesting story behind the first and the second flags, and I would suggest a quick Google search if you want to learn more

I wanted to finish this entry with another quote from JFK's Inaugural Address to sum up my pride in and my appreciation for those who have patriotically sacrificed their lives for our country - whether they were killed while fighting, wounded, or simply had their personal lives and those of their families disrupted by war:

"Let every nation know - whether it wishes us well or ill - that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

Posted on Monday, May 28, 2012 by Julie


Sunday, May 27, 2012

After a couple of months off from reading, what I call, "real" books - replacing them with my "sit-com," read in one night books - I spent this month reading three different military-based narratives: the first on WWII and the other two on the current war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Wild Blue by Stephen Ambrose

First, to complement my research into my maternal grandfather's participation in WWII, I read one of Steven Ambrose's books, The Wild Blue, about the 455th Bombardment Group of the 15th Air Force who flew B-24 Liberators from Italy on missions to bomb strategic targets in Germany, Austria, Italy, and Romania.  I've read and enjoyed books by Ambrose before, and have watched and loved the HBO mini series "Band of Brothers" based on his book.

This book devotes the majority of its content to following the experience of George McGovern, future Senator and Democratic Presidential Candidate against Richard Nixon in 1972.  McGovern was in his early 20s when he joined the Army Air Force (AAF) and trained to become a heavy bomber pilot.  It describes the intense training and selection process the young men, some still teenagers, endured through 1943 before being assigned to a bombardment group and aircrew and before being sent to the European Theater of Operations.  Ambrose definitely has a talent for storytelling, and his research and interviews seemed thorough enough to capture a close portrayal of the experience and events, though veteran airmen from WWII have expressed disappointment in the author's output.  I enjoyed the book but found it somewhat difficult to track all of the people, as he jumped from one bombardment group to another, one squadron to another, then returned to McGovern.  I learned a lot about what life was like on the airbases around Foggia, Italy in 1944-45, and the book inspired new tracks for my research into my grandfather's own experience as pilot in the 456th Bombardment Group.  I was most impressed by the descriptions of the maturity demonstrated by the men of the AAF as they endured countless losses of friends and comrades, as the Air Force suffered a higher rate of death than troops on the ground during the two years they were flying from Italy, due to their tight formations and initially heavy anti-aircraft defenses. 

The Heart and the Fist by Eric Greitens 

The second book I read was a new book called The Heart and the Fist - The education of a Humanitarian, the making of a Navy SEAL by Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL and founder of The Mission Continues, a nonprofit organized to assist veterans in building a life outside of the military through challenges that make use of and build their leadership skills while performing services to the community.

I found this book while killing time in the Seattle airport during my record breaking month of travel in April.  I didn't purchase it then because I preferred to buy the electronic version when I returned home.  This book is a three part memoir that chronicles Greiten's foundational experiences in college - including amateur boxing, a summer in communist China, and humanitarian aid trips - and his trials in being accepted and working as an elite operative for the Navy's SEAL program.  Serving as a SEAL was the time when he was able to finally blend his belief that helping others takes more than words but requires action, which he was now trained to provide.  The book was interesting, but often I found myself thinking that Greiten's was trying to fill space, especially in the background stories, rather consolidating his experiences into a meaningful, concise narrative to generate a greater impact.  The book read more like an amateur blog than a memoir, with stories stretched out to seemingly meet a page minimum, and I was a little disappointed.  

The Only Thing Worth Dying For by Eric Blehm

Fortunately, while buying The Heart and the Fist, I stumbled upon my next book by clicking on the "customers also bought" section of the iBooks page on my iPad.  Two degrees/clicks away, I found The Only Thing Worth Dying For by Eric Blehm.  This book compiles countless interviews of the men who were there and their families back home to tell the story of the triumphs of and the tragedy befallen on the men of Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 574, a group of eleven Army Green Berets who were the first Special Forces team to enter Southern Afghanistan after September 11th, 2001 to link up with a, then, Pashtun leader, Hamid Karsai, as he sought to gain control from the Taliban.  When I was reading the description of the book, I recognized the name of the commander of ODA 574, Captain Jason Amerine, as a friend of my good friend, which made the book even more compelling to me.

As a 30-year old Captain in the Army's 5th Special Forces Group, Captain Amerine was selected to take his team to Afghanistan to lead an unconventional war (UW) effort deeper behind enemy lines than any other ODA in country.  His small team and a small number of Afghan guerrillas, with the help of coordinated U.S. airpower, achieved a victory against all odds, repelling a counter attack by the Taliban as they attempted to retake Tarin Kowt soon after the townspeople revolted.  The team enjoyed several successes throughout the month of November, especially considering the challenges ODA-574 faced in training, leading, and directing a growing group of guerrilla fighters that inspired the phrase "F***ed up like an Afghan convoy."  But on the morning of December 5th, 2001 just outside of Kandahar, after winning a firefight the previous day and within 24 hours of a rumored surrender by the Taliban, the members of ODA-574, their CIA companions, a party from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces headquarters in Uzbekistan, and a growing number of Afghan rebels were victims of a friendly fire incident.  Blehm's description of the actions of the surviving men, the walking wounded, especially the composure displayed by Captain Amerine as he ensured communications were sent requesting a medevac, accounted for all of his wounded men, recovered the two men that he lost that day, and performed several other selfless acts that day.  I was in tears reading that whole chapter from the explosion of the bomb to the helicopter evacuation.  And to think about what silly things I was doing when I was 30-years old, it's hard for me not to feel inadequate in comparison.  In contrast to the tears I shed while reading, I felt pride for the Air Force team stationed in Pakistan who risked their lives to fly helicopters from Pakistan 2+ hours during the first daylight mission of the war, and I felt anger for General Mathis and his decision to not authorize the medevac support, even though Camp Rhino was located much closer - a 40-50 minute flight away. 

Other fantastic books I've read on experiences from the modern War on Terror are:

- Generation Kill by Evan Wright, an embedded reporter from Rolling Stone who rode with the Marines' 1st Reconnaissance Battalion during the Iraq invasion in March 2003.  His story was later made into a mini-series for HBO. 

- One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer by Nathaniel Fick.  I actually read this book before I read Generation Kill, not knowing Fick was the officer in command of 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion during the 2003 Iraq invasion, featured in Generation Kill.

Posted on Sunday, May 27, 2012 by Julie

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

This weekend was the annual Joint Service Open House Air Show at Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, D.C.  This event is free for the general public and attracts many historical airplanes, obtains popular aerial entertainment acts like the Blue Angels, and offers a large display of airplanes and helicopters currently being used by the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force - hence the "joint service" part of the title.

My objective for the day was to find the B-24 Liberator from WWII display.  I had a particular interest in this plane because my grandfather flew it on dangerous missions out of Foggia, Italy to Ploiesti, Romania with the objective of destroying German oil and war equipment supply production targets in 1944.  The B-24 was also used in the Pacific Theater of Operations during the war, and a popular book called Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, describes the particular experience of a bombardier on that aspect of the war.

When I found the B-24, we stood in line to gain admission, and donated $5 to the Commemorative Air Force B-29/B-24 Squadron to also get access to the cockpit.  The interior was a lot smaller than I had expected, and headroom was a challenge at times with several "near misses."  Overall, it was a special experience, for me, to step back in time and try to envision my grandfather seated in that cockpit on an 8-hour mission in tight formation with 15 other bombers.

The CAF also offers B-24 flight experiences, but I will have to miss it this year due to a scheduling conflict.  Crossing my fingers that the other touring B-24 comes to town again this fall for a 2nd chance to go up.

Another interesting plane we spotted, parked very close to the B-24, was the 1960s NASA Super Guppy.  This oddly shaped plane was originally developed in 1962 as an equipment and spacecraft component transport plane for the Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab space programs.    

All I could think about is that it looked like a parrot fish, or when the nose was open, a decapitated parrot fish!  Am I right, or what?  Now that I look at the photo again, I can maybe see a bottlenose dolphin.  Seriously, who thought of this design?
Parrot Fish
Going back to WWII aircraft, my other favorites on site, besides the B-24, were the P-21 Mustang and the C-47, a military version of the civilian D-3 that was used to transport paratroopers to Normandy on D-Day in its modified C-53 form, to drop supplies on the entrenched troops in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, and to defy a Soviet blockade in 1948 in order to provide needed food to the people trapped in Berlin (the Berlin Airlift), plus many other operations in the Pacific.

P-21 Mustang

C-47 Skytrain
Another display favorite was a Darth Vader EA-6B Prowler with its wings folded up as if it was parked on a carrier.  Of course, this was an air show after all, so the day was not limited to the static displays on the ground.  We were able to watch several trick planes take to the skies, as well as some other small aircraft, like the T-6 Texan and the F4U Corsair, and two aircraft with hovering capabilities - the AV-8B Harrier and the MV-22 Osprey.

EA-6B tail art
Harrier showing off for the crowd
Osprey - is it a helicopter or is it a plane?  Who knows!
Unfortunately we were unable to stay for the star attraction - the crowd pleasing Blue Angels and their famous precision aerobatics maneuvers.  But I did get a nice photo of the bright blue and yellow F/A-18 Hornets waiting on the ground!  Overall, what a fun day of activities - and it was free!  I love free things to do in D.C.  I think this air show is definitely going on my calendar next year!

Posted on Sunday, May 20, 2012 by Julie


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

My April trip to Italy was a combination of something new and some unfinished business.  The new aspect was traveling farther south in the “boot country” than in previous visits to explore everything the Amalfi Coast had to offer – staying in both Sorrento and Positano.  The unfinished business resided in Rome because, being completely unaware of the Catholic calendar the last time I was in the city, I mistakenly planned on touring the Vatican on one of the worst days of the year – Palm Sunday!  I remember waking up early that morning to grab the metro and wondering why the metro was so busy on a Sunday morning, then why everyone was getting off at my stop.  I realized my mistake once I saw all of the vendors selling palm crosses.  On a positive note, I did see the Pope (John Paul II) deliver the holiday mass, but recognized that someday in the future I was going to have to return to Rome – not that I’m complaining.

To get to Sorrento, it took a little train coordination, but nothing too challenging.  When we arrived at Roma Fiumicino airport, we followed the signs to the train station and proceeded to purchase two ticket to Naples (Napoli Centrale) via Roma Termini.  You can purchase these in advance as well on the Trenitalia website, but we were not sure our flight would be on time and did not want to commit to a specific ticket time.  So, instead, I chose to pretend like I knew how to speak italian and purchased at the ticket counter - "Due biglietti per Napoli Centrale per Roma Termini, per favore!"
Changing trains in Rome was a snap, and we got to enjoy a little downtime and fantastic panoramic views of the countryside from our seats for an hour and a half.  At Naples, we had to switch to the local train, Circumvesuviana, and the ticket was very cheap - just a few euros.  Finally arriving in Sorrento, we fortunately only had a short walk to our hotel in the central part of town.  That night, I had the most amazing pizza topped with olive oil, garlic, basil, and some of the sweetest tomatoes - my Italian genes were very happy!  You really can’t go wrong with food in Italy, or the fact the people of the Amalfi Coast are obsessed with lemons!

Port of Sorrento
Sorrento is a great base for exploring two popular area attractions:  the island of Capri and the excavation of the ancient city of Pompeii, frozen in time so many years ago.  Ferries leave the port of Sorrento for Capri about twice every hour, but check the most current schedule.  The day we left, unfortunately, was not ideal for sea travel.  Somehow we survived without getting terribly sick, but I can’t say the same for a large percentage of the ship!  The entry port, or Marina Grande, is not the place to spend your time while on the island, as it is full of bad restaurants and cheesy gift shops.  Instead, purchase tickets and travel up the hill on the convenient funicular (funicolare in Italian) to the island’s main point of interest.  There really is no suggested way to explore the small streets in the town atop the island, just start walking. 

There are gorgeous viewpoints to be found, delicious restaurants to try, and expensive designer shops to peruse, especially near the fancier hotels.  On any other day, when the seas are less rough, another popular activity on Capri is a boat trip to the Blue Grotto.  The day we were there, there was nothing that could convince me to get back on a boat, especially a small one, unless that boat was the one back to Sorrento. 

Preserved fresco wall decor
Pompeii is also very convenient to Sorrento, just a 30 minute northern bound train ride on the Circumvesuviana line that we took from Naples.  Buried in 79 A.D. by ash from Mount Vesuvius as deep as 20 feet, it was rediscovered in 1749 and has taken several excavations to unearth and restore only a large fraction of the original town.  Lack of air and moisture preserved a lot of the essence of what life was like in the Roman era, including frescoes, political campaign paintings, mosaics, architectural features, and city layouts.  Today, you can tour long streets of shops and homes, ruins of the small and large amphitheater, the large bathing complex, and many more features of this once large and prosperous port city.  As a tourist, you have the option of purchasing an audio guide, but we chose to join a group tour led by a guide in order to be able to ask as many questions as we wanted.  The cost of the group tour was just 10 euros, so not much more than the audio guide.

Pompeii road with walls of shops and homes

Roman political campaign painting
To get to our next destination, we were going to take the thrilling, winding coastal road from Sorrento to Positano on the blue SITA bus, but Europe being what it is - a little trickster up to no good - a mudslide halted all bus service between the two towns.  We had no other alternative than to hire a car for 70 euros, a drive that took us past this alleged “mudslide” that was simply a pile of rocks no bigger than a couple shot puts!  Honestly, I was not too upset by our forced mode of transportation switch because when we reached Positano, we realized that it would have been quite the challenge to find our hotel along the long, one-way twisting and steep road down into town.
View from our hotel balcony
While in Positano, we spent a lot of time just relaxing and enjoying the picturesque town, including  drinks on the beautiful balcony of the luxurious Le Sirenuse Hotel, also one of the settings for the classic 1990s “rom-com” film, “Only You,” starring Robert Downey Jr. and Marissa Tomei. 

We also took a ferry over to the town of Amalfi, a beautiful boat trip in itself, then grabbed a bus up the mountain to the small town of Ravello, home of some of the most breathtaking views on the Amalfi Coast.  Check out both Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone (pronounced cheem-bro-nay) and their gardens – both well worth the entrance fees.  While in Ravello, we also ate at a well-known local restaurant, Cumpa Cosimo.  Back in Amalfi, we were able to tour the large church and grab our daily gelato before having to board the last ferry back to Positano.
Villa Rufolo

Villa Rufolo

Villa Cimbrone

Amalfi Church
Rather than dealing with the “mudslide” again, we decided to hop back on the ferry and catch a train back up to Rome from Salerno.  Once in Rome, after years of successfully avoiding gypsies and pickpocketers, I fell victim to my first Italian scam artist – our taxi driver.  We already knew that 25 euros was absolutely ridiculous for the distance we needed to travel to get to our hotel.  But we were tired of lugging our bags around, so we sucked it up.  When I paid the driver, I did the classic American “fold the bills in half” move.  Lesson learned, I should have counted it out because ten seconds later, he turned around and said “Venti cinque,” to which I said, “Si, venti cinque!”  I had handed him two blue bills, a twenty and a five, and he showed me two blue bills, two fives!   Sucker that I was, I gave him fifteen more euros to settle, only to realize 5 minutes later how I was conned.  OK, Italy!  You got me!  But watch out, “fool me once….”

Spanish Steps

To kill some time before we were joined by another person later that day, my friend and I opted to take a free walking tour to get a feel of the city.  If you've read my other travel posts on Europe, you shouldn't be surprised that I sought out a free walking tour.  I just love them as an orientation tool!  This time, we selected the New Rome Free Tour, led by a Selma Hayek look-a-like, that took us on a path that started at the bottom of the Spanish Steps and covered: the Immaculate Conception Column; house of Gian Lorenzo Bernini; Saint Andrew Church and its two Bernini angel statues; column of Marcus Aurelius; the Prime Minister's house; Pantheon; Saint Ignatius Church and its faux dome - a 21m diameter painting of a dome by Andrea Pozzo, a tromp 'loeil or trick of the eye; and concluded at the famous Trevi Fountain.  That night, we ate at a local restaurant suggested by the manager of our accomodation, Tratoria Pizzeria Gioia Mia on Via degli Avignonesi near the Trevi Fountain.

Trevi Fountain
Ceiling of The Gallery of Maps

Friday, we had tickets for the necropolis tour at the Vatican in the early afternoon, so we made our way over to Vatican City in the morning in order to run through the Vatican Museum, finally completing my one goal for this trip to Rome.  If you suffer from any level of agoraphobia, the Vatican Museum is not for you!  The crowds were intense, and it wasn't even the peak of tourist season!  The flow of crowd movement was restricted by small door spaces between rooms, so several times I found myself slowly shuffling from one door log jam to the next.  My favorite room in the Vatican, hands down, was the long hall, aptly named The Gallery of Maps, that had colorful maps painted on the walls and a collage of small paintings covering practically every inch of the ceiling.  Second favorite room, of course, contained Michelangelo's masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel.

Sistine Chapel
After surviving the crowds of tourists, we headed through St. Peter's Square to reach the opposite side of the basilica to, then, go through security and arrive at our meeting point for what I considered the highlight of our time in Rome - the underground tour of the Vatican excavations of an early Christian Roman necropolis (translated: city of the dead!). For only approximately $17.50 US, you can escape the crowds above ground and join a small group tour of around 10-12 people to view the final resting place and bones of St. Peter.  In addition, you will see many excavated mausoleums of wealthy Christian families dating back to the 1st through 3rd centuries that comprise what is called the Scavi, or a necropolis, directly beneath St. Peter's Basilica.  

Necropolis location under St. Peter's Basilica
"Street" of the necropolis
The Roman mausoleums contained within this Pagan cemetery are well preserved, considering their age, because they were completely filled in by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century in order to create a foundation for the apse of his church dedicated to Peter on Vatican Hill, what would later become St. Peter's Basilica.  In fact, you can see the original Constantine altar that forms the base of the current altar in the church above.  It is below this altar that what was thought to be Peter's tomb resides, next to a red walled memorial.  It was discovered in the late 1930s/early 1940s, during the first period of excavations of the necropolis, that the tomb next to the red wall actually contained the bones of two males and one female.  All three skeletons were ruled out as the bones of St. Peter.  In 1942, the bones of a male were found in a box placed within a niche in, what is called, the graffiti wall, due to its many etchings thought to be carved by early pilgrims and to depict symbols that are thought to say "Peter is here."  It wasn't until the 1970s that forensic tests concluded the 19 bones found are those of St. Peter.  The bones, well 18 of them as one was moved to the Pope's chambers, have now been placed back into the graffiti wall, albeit in a clear box (rumored to be created by NASA) so that visitors can safely view them without compromising their structural integrity.  The Scavi tour concluded in the grotto of St. Peter's Basilica, in front of the marble shrine to St. Peter designed to map out the placement of the artifacts of St. Peter's tomb directly behind it.

I loved this tour, not only because it was led by a gorgeous guide from England who was attending his first year of seminary at the Vatican (as my grandma would call him, a future Father "Whatawaste"), but there's something wonderfully surreal and fascinating about walking on the same ground that was the original Vatican Hill of 2000 years ago.

Ready for Sunday Mass
The remainder of our time in Rome was spent touring the famous Roman ruins of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum near Palatine Hill.  Again, we opted for the physical guide over the audio guide at the Colosseum because it was not that much more expensive and provided the added benefit of a shorter ticket line.  The extensive restoration of the Colosseum has created a real historical treasure.  Our guide explained to us all of the technological and engineering feats that went in to building not only the stadium structure and all the marble attached to the building's skeleton but the extensive elevator system underneath the floor of the Colosseum that allowed for the easy delivery of props and animals used in the various events throughout the day.

The Roman Forum is an overwhelming site, just trying to imagine the ruins as the multi-story buildings they once were so many years ago and, on a grander scale, as only a small part of this capital city at the center of the Roman Empire.  You can buy books in souvenir stalls that provide you  current photos with plastic illustrated overlays that give you a visual reference point.  There are two entrances to the site that allow for a logical walking tour from Palatine Hill to the end of the forum ruins. 

Well, as the saying goes, "Rome wasn't built in a day," but as we proved on this trip, it certainly can be toured in just a little over two days!  And now I can officially check my box, having seen all of the major sites the city has to offer - even a Pope blocking my entrance to the Vatican the first time around. 

Posted on Tuesday, May 15, 2012 by Julie

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