Sunday, January 10, 2010

New Years- Italian Style

Happy New Year! Buon Anno!
Welcome to 2010! Benvenuti al 2010!
For New Years we decided to head south to bring in the new year in a more romantic locale. How about Venice? Perfect.
So, we had an early morning flight from Frankfurt on December 31st to Milan, Italy. In Milan, we jumped on a train and took the 3 hour train ride along the southern Alps to Venice. We weren't the only ones to have this idea, as the train to Venice was packed, but luckily I had booked us a room for two nights in Venice and then one night in Milan.
As we got off of the train in Venice and made our way to the boat to head to our hotel, Shea and I quickly noticed that many people were walking around in waders...weird fashion statement we thought, but hey their Italians, they know fashion, right? We made our way to our bed and breakfast, which was only a two minute walk from the famous Piazza San Marco. As we checked in, excited about the concert in the Piazza that night and being in such a wonderful location, our hotel owner told us we timed our trip perfectly for the flood that was coming in that night at 11:00 with high tide.
Oh man, time for Shea and I to jump on the Italian-wader-fashion bandwagon!
So, we headed out into the city and did a bit of sightseeing around Piazza San Marco. We found out that the concert was still to take place, so we went to invest in a few items...1) some bottles of wine 2) two sets of waders.
Problem was that waders were running at a premium, as every tourist in town was in the market for them, so we went with the heavy grade trash bag glued into a plastic sandal waterproofing-system instead.
We were impressed with the city. Even though it was cold and rainy (and ready to flood) the city had a certain romantic charm that was unlike anywhere else we had been. The canals, gondolas, beautiful churches, gelatto, and wine create a wonderfully romantic environment to bring in 2010.
After some sightseeing, we headed back to the hotel room to dry out before heading back out at 10:30 to celebrate with everyone.
At 10:30, we headed over to Piazza San Marco and found a place to put on our waders. We then ventured out to the one of the higher points in the Piazza and danced our wet way into the new year with several thousand of our new closest friends.
The next morning after properly drying out our shoes (the heavy weight trashbag waterproofing-system finally gave out to the floodwaters and dancing near the end) we enjoyed some breakfast and waited for the tide to roll out about 11:30am. Once it did we were high and dry for the rest of the day. We toured the inside of St. Marco's, visited Doge's Palace, Gallerie del Accademia, St. Maria Del Salute, and Campo St. Stefano. We loved just slowly wandering through the sidewalks and taking in the canals and beautiful scenery. We had a nice long meal that night that included several courses and acted as a nice end to the first day of the new year.
The next morning we woke up and packed our bags to head to Milan. We were treated to a nice tour of the city via our boat ride through the Grande Canal to the train station to catch our 12:50 train to Milan.
In Milan, we checked into the hotel and then headed back downtown to the famous Duomo Cathedral. Our timing couldn't have been better as we arrived just as the sun was going down, and we were able to take in the beautiful cathedral in the darkening blue twilight. The stained glass windows shown brightly and gave the cathedral life (see photo above). We walked inside and noticed it was 5:28, and that 5:30 Mass was about to get underway. We acted liked we belonged and took some seats in the pews to take in mass in the 4th largest cathedral in the world. After Mass, we walked through some of the famous shopping areas adjacent to the Cathedral. We found a restaurant to eat in and had some good pizza and pasta.
On, Sunday we checked out and deposited our bags at the train station, where we would pick up our bus to the airport. We headed back to the center of the city and toured through the Duomo in the light. We then headed over and toured the Castello Sforzesco (Castle Sforzeco) and happened upon a winter festival, complete with bunny hills for skiing. We left the castle and walked down the main shopping street to the famous La Scala Opera house and Galleria Emanuele II. Unfortunately, the museum housing Leonardo's "the Last Supper" was closed the entire month of January, so we were unable to see it, but we were able to head over to the mecca of shopping in the Via Montenapoleone fashion district. Shea window shopped through all the major fashion designers of the world, and I felt happy to not have to keep up with these Jones's. We found a local market and before heading back to the train station, we enjoyed a Cannoli and our last few minutes of Italy. All in all, it made for a wonderfully memorable New Year's celebration...flooding and all.


What better place to celebrate Christmas than the place it began, right? So, after some discussions with some German friends who went to Israel last summer, we decided to make our own trip to the holy land during Christmas week 2009. It took several weeks to research flights, hotels, and tours, but we were able to put together a whirlwind trip that would allow us to see a number of sites in a 5-day trip.
We flew into Tel Aviv, Israel on Tuesday, December 22nd. We decided that Jerusalem would be our main point of interest and the hub from where we would embark on all our trips, so we took a shared taxi to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Jerusalem is only about an hour by car from Tel Aviv, but in reality you are driving 2000 years into the past, leaving a vibrant modern city in Tel Aviv with skyscrapers and modern conveniences and arriving in a city divided along religious and cultural lines that has been disputed and fought over for thousands of years. Jerusalem sits on the dividing line between Jewish controlled Israel and the Palestinian territory, and the city is divided accordingly with western Jerusalem occupied by Jews and eastern Jerusalem occupied by Palestinians. The old walled city of Jerusalem is divided into fourths with the sections known as the Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian quarters - each of which tending to house holy sites important to the differing religions.
So, we arrived at our hotel, which was located in eastern Jerusalem and were greeted by the owner of the hotel with delicious pea soup and tea with fresh mint leaves. A nice warm welcoming. We arrived around 9 at night and were a bit hungry still, so he ordered us a pizza, while we settled in and then we came back downstairs to eat and meet some of the fellow hotel guests. There were people from all over staying there and we chatted with some graduate students from the US who were currently studying in Egypt. After eating most of our pizza we headed back up to our room and headed to bed, because we had an early tour the next morning.
On Wednesday, December 23rd, we meet our tour at 7:00am outside Jaffa Gate, which is one of only 7 entrances to the old city of Jerusalem. From there we loaded onto a shuttle bus that would drive us to sites in the northern territories of Israel in "the Galilee". Along the 2-hour bus ride to Nazareth we watched the landscape change drastically, from the baron moon-like-scape of the Judean Mountains and Dead Sea, to sparse grasslands, and finally lush valleys and prairie near the Sea of Galilee and River Jordan.
Our first stop was Nazareth, which was the home of Mary and Joseph before the birth of Jesus. There we toured the Basilica of the Annunciation, which is a modern Catholic church built over the remains of a Byzantine church and a Crusader church. The church incorporates the cave in which the Virgin Mary received the news of Jesus from the angel Gabriel. The cave that is enshrined inside the basilica was identified no later than the 4th century as the place of the Annunciation, and has been a destination for Christian pilgrims ever since. The basilica centers on the cave of the Annunciation and is topped with a 55-meter dome that is shaped like the Madonna lily.
After touring the basilica our next stop was the town of Cana on the outskirt of Nazareth. Cana is known as the location of the first miracle performed by Jesus when he turned water into wine at a wedding. There we toured the Catholic Wedding Church of Cana, which is a tribute to that event. Shea and I, never ones to miss an opportunity, renewed our wedding vows in this small quaint chapel.
From there we drove through the town of Tiberias with amazing views of the Sea of Galilee and the surrounding hills and grasslands, stopping in Tabgha, which is the traditional site of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Located here is the modern Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, but with its mosaic floor depicting two fish and basket of bread, which dates back to Byzantine times. It's a great place to stop and think about how much you are blessed.
From Tabgha, we drove along the Sea of Galilee to the Kfar Nahum ("Capernaum") and the House of Peter. Capernaum was a settlement on the shore of the Sea of Galilee that was the home of the apostles Peter, Andrew, James, and John. According to Luke, Jesus taught in the synagogue in Capernaum and the remains of a synagogue from that period has been found and excavated. Additionally, the ruins of the ancient city of Capernaum have been uncovered and a church to St. Peter has been constructed over a small area of the ruins. Shea and I toured the church, walked around the ruins, and through the synagogue. From there we went down to the beach at Capernaum and dipped our hands in.
After Capernaum, we drove alongside the Sea of Galilee to the River Jordan. There we stopped at Yardenit, which is the site of the baptism of Jesus by St. John the Baptist. There were groups there from all over the world that were dressed in white robes and being baptized. It was remarkable to watch. Shea and I both sprinkled the water on our heads and then renewed our baptismal rights. I celebrated with a beer. Nothing better than a baptism and a cold beer.
We loaded back onto the bus and headed back to Jerusalem. We arrived back close to 6:00pm, and Shea and I strolled into west Jerusalem and found an outdoor restaurant on the main walking strip. We people watched and enjoyed some kosher kebab and our eighth helping of hummus...oh, and another beer.
After dinner we walked into Old Jerusalem and toured the ancient streets lined with merchants and vendors. We got lost for a bit in the maze of alleyways and finally made our way out through Damascus Gate. We walked back to our hotel and crashed after a full day.
On Thursday, Christmas Eve, we slept in a bit in preparations for a full day in front of us. We had a nice breakfast of pancakes, sesame cakes, eggs, hummus, olives, tuna, and cheeses and then headed to Jaffa Gate outside Old Jerusalem to meet our walking tour of Old Jerusalem. Our tour guide, Noam, was amazing. She had an incredible knowledge of history and religions, and led our group on a 5-hour walking tour of Old Jerusalem. She first took us to Mt. Zion through the Zion Gate and there we visited the room of the Last Supper. We spent some time there and then we went down to the Western "Wailing" wall. We then got in line to go up and visit the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, as the Muslims only allow non-Muslims up to the level of the Dome of the Rock and Mosque for 1 hour per day. She took our group up to visit one of the holiest spots for the Muslim religion and then explained why the Dome of the Rock has so much significance for both Jews and Muslims. First, the Dome of the Rock sits on the spot where the holiest of all Jewish synagogues once stood...the Temple Mount that housed the "Holiest of Holies". That is why they pray at the Western Wall, as it is the closest they can now get to that spot that once stood. As for Muslims, the Dome of the Rock houses the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven. From here we had a beautiful view of Old Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. After our hour there, she led us out to an area of the Western Wall that is hidden and she gave us a history lesson on the wall's significance.
From there, she took us on a tour of the Via Dolorosa, which is the path Jesus carried his cross to the Hill of Golgothe, pointing out the stations of the cross as we went. Shea put her hand in an imprint supposedly left by Jesus as he caught his balance. The Via Dolorosa ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. She took us inside and up the stairs to the top of the hill of Golgothe (or Calvary) to the place where Jesus was crucified. From there we were shown were Jesus was buried and the stone of the anointing where Joseph of Arimathea prepared his body for burial. The tour took us back to Jaffa Gate and Shea and I had lots of things to go back and inspect closer on Christmas Day, but for now we had to catch a bus to Bethlehem!
When Shea and I decided to go to Israel for Christmas, we knew we wanted to be in Bethlehem for Christmas Eve. We had done some research and were put into a lottery to receive tickets to Midnight Mass at St. Catherine's Church in Bethlehem. We were fortunate enough to receive tickets and had picked them up just before our tour of Jerusalem started. We took a public bus to Bethlehem, which is in Palestine and populated by Arab Christians. The bus dropped us off about a 10 minutes walk from the center of town and the church. The city had a carnival type atmosphere with live music and lights, and thousands of thousands of people celebrating.
We had met another couple from the US on the bus ride over and the four of us went to grab some dinner before heading back to stand in the mass of people waiting to get into the church. As we were standing outside, we also happened to bump into the American students we had meet at our hotel two nights before. So, we now had a small group of us and we chatted and made friends as we waited for the church to open and the security screenings to begin. We stood in line from about 8:30 until 11:15, when we finally made it inside the church. It was standing room only, and the church was packed. Television crews broadcast the Mass around the world as the Bishop said mass in Latin, and delivered his homily in at least 8 different languages. We left Mass after it ended at about 1:45 and caught a taxi back to the Palestinian/Israeli checkpoint. From there, we took our bus back into the city and made it home to our hotel room about 2:45 in the morning.
On Friday, Christmas Day, we reserved the day for touring Jerusalem on our own. We walked over to the Mount of Olives and toured the Jewish cemetery there, which houses over 150,000 burial sites. Jewish tradition holds that this is the place where God will return to collect his people. Also on the Mount of Olives, we toured the burial site of Mary, the garden of Gethsemane, and the Church of All Nations. We walked back into Old Jerusalem through Lions Gate and then walked the entire Via Dolorosa and the Stations of the Cross. We went back into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and spent some time inspecting what we had only seen on Thursday. We waited in line and touched the top of Calvary, where a Greek Orthodox altar protects the site of the crucifixion. We then waited in line and toured the inside of Jesus's tomb. We watched as a Franciscan Mass processed through the church and touched the stone of anointing. Pretty amazing to say the least.
From there we headed over to the Wailing Wall, as Jews begin their sabbath on Fridays at sundown. Shea and I cleared the security lines and watched as masses of Jewish people celebrated and prayed outside their holy site. Men and women have separate areas of the wall to pray too, so Shea and I wrote down our prayers and headed off in separate directions to cram our prayers into the wall. I grabbed a paper yarmulke and did my best to fit in as I squeezed into a spot between prayers to deliver my prayer. Shea and I met back up and watched the large throngs of people celebrate as the sun went down and pray intensely in Hebrew. It certainly was a sight to behold. From there we went into the market and bought a manger scene that Shea had her eye on...she successfully negotiated the guy down and after years of saying she wanted one, she finally had one to call her own. As an alternative to the usual Christmas ham, Shea and I went crazy and decided we were really in the mood for some sushi. So, we found a nice restaurant in New Jerusalem and enjoyed a nice Christmas meal together...complete with raw fish.
On Saturday, December 26th, we had another 7am tour. This time we were headed south from Jerusalem. Our first stop was the Qumran caves. These caves were the location where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, which altered the study of the Old Testament. They also unearthed ancient communal towns, which demonstrated how tribes survived and practiced religion thousands of years ago. After Qumran, we headed to Masada, which was a fortress built by the Roman emperor Herod on a plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. Herod built the fortress between 37 and 31 BC and furnished it as a refuge for himself, filled with food, water, palaces, barracks, and an armory. We took a cable car to the top and enjoyed the views and amazing Roman architecture...bathhouses included. We took the "snake path" back down which took a sweaty 35 minutes to complete. Nothing better after a sweaty walk then going swimming right? Well, that is exactly what we did next...but this time it was in the Dead Sea. The tour went to a beach located on the Dead Sea, and we were able to go swimming and treat ourselves to a "do-it-yourself" mud treatment. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth (on dry land ) at -420 meters below sea level, and the salt content and chemical make up of the environment make it the world's original health spa. People use the salt and minerals from the sea to create cosmetics and herbal health treatments. Shea and I floated in the super-salty water and felt like little kids trying to figure out our buoyancy. We caked each other in mud and took pictures for you all to see (and make fun of).
We showered off and headed next to see the ancient city of Jericho. Jericho is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world dating back to 9000BC. We were able to see the tree of Zaccharus and the Mount of Temptation there. We then headed back to Jerusalem, where we stopped on top of the Mount of Olives again for a view of Jerusalem at night. The lights of the city were beautiful.
We then went back to our hotel and collected our belongings. We ordered up a shared taxi and took it to Tel Aviv along with our American friends from our hotel.
Shea and I stayed in a hotel just 5 blocks from the Mediterranean Sea, so we checked in, showered off again, and changed clothes and went for a moonlight walk on the beach. We grabbed a quick bite to eat and a beer and then walked around the city until about midnight. We hit the sack for our 5 am wake up call on Sunday to make it for our early morning flight back to Frankfurt.
We had a wonderful trip in Israel and really felt very fortunate to see everything we did. We crammed in as much sightseeing as possible and truly feel blessed to have been there.