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By Shannon O'Brien | FREELANCER
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Bella Italia
By Shannon O'Brien

Two weeks in Italy sounds like a long time, yet it wasn't enough to see all the country has to offer.

The trip was inspired by the fact that my brother is stationed at the U.S. Air Force base in Aviano, which is located in the northeastern part of the country. What better time to travel to a foreign country than when a family member is living there and willing to let you stay at his apartment? I made this point to my mom, who doesn't like to travel, and she agreed to go with me. It didn't hurt that she'd get to spend time with her son, too.

After arriving in Aviano, one of our first excursions was to Venice. The two locations are only an hour apart; we took the train and paid 10 euros for a round trip. When we exited the train station at Venice, we found ourselves surrounded by people, water and vendors; it is an exquisite tourist destination.

We wanted to go to St. Mark's Square first. As we passed through narrow walkways, my brother pointed to signs above our heads on the buildings that told us which direction to go to get to the square. He said the signs were a simple way to keep from getting lost if you knew to look for them.

St. Mark's Square was awash in people and pigeons. It was a challenge for us not to bump into other tourists as we entered the square because we were so occupied with gawking at the incredible cathedral. Words seem inadequate in their ability to describe the magnificence of St. Mark's Basilica.

The art critic John Ruskin captured the scene most poetically when he wrote "... for beyond those troops of ordered arches there rises a vision out of the Earth, and all the great square seems to have opened from it in a kind of awe, that we may see it far away; - a multitude of pillars and white domes, clustered into a long low pyramid of colored light; a treasure-heap, it seems, partly of gold, and partly of opal and mother-of-pearl, hollowed beneath into five great vaulted porches, ceiled with fair mosaic, and beset with sculpture of alabaster, clear as amber and delicate as ivory ..."

We joined the line of people waiting to enter the basilica. It's free to enter the church, but certain portions of the building are roped off and require a small payment to access. We gazed at the gilded mosaics in the ceiling, slack-jawed in awe. As we moved through the basilica, we decided to pay a couple of extra euros to see the Pala d'Oro (the Golden Pall), a stunning panel of gold with images that tell the story of St. Mark; it is embedded with hundreds of gems and is as beautiful as everything else in the cathedral.

After leaving the basilica, we decided it was time to eat lunch. The food in Venice is moderately priced. On our second trip to the city, we decided to treat ourselves to gelato sundaes at an outdoor café. The desserts were delicious and visually delightful, but I had to look at our bill twice when the waiter left it on our table. Three sundaes came to 39 euros, which, according to an online currency calculator, is the equivalent of $50.43.

I was also surprised that we had to pay to use the toilet. The fee for water closets ranged from 60-80 euro cents. At the train stations, we dropped our change into a machine outside of the water closet and the doors slid open, allowing us to enter the bathrooms. In other places, a person was responsible for collecting money from visitors wanting access to the water closet. Fortunately, my brother knew about the cost to use water closets and he always brought change when we traveled.

During the second week of our visit, we took a six-hour train ride to Rome. The chaos at the train station was the first hint of the fast pace of the city. After checking in at Hotel Morgana, a nice hotel near the train station, we took the subway to the Colosseum. I've been on many subways in my life and I tend to assume everyone else has, too. However, talking to my mother afterward, I learned this Roman subway was her first subterranean experience and she was rather overwhelmed by it. Throngs of people pushed past us as they left or entered the subway, and the train we boarded for the Colosseum was as tightly packed as an unopened package of No. 2 pencils.

It was a great relief when we finally exited the tight quarters of the train, and we were caught by surprise when we walked out of the subway and immediately saw the Colosseum across the street. Being so close to such a famous and ancient landmark felt surreal. As we were making our way around the structure, a young, American woman approached us and asked if we wanted to take a tour. The cost was 20 euros. We hesitated, but she did a great job of selling the tour, particularly when she mentioned we would get to bypass the extremely long line to get in.

Paolo was our tour guide. He walked us through the structure, regaling us with stories about the games and brutal acts that took place in the Colosseum. He told us gravediggers and actors weren't allowed to go to the games, and that actors were considered the lowest of the low at that time.

After our tour of the Colosseum was finished, Paolo offered us a free tour of the Roman Forum with one of the other tour guides. That's how we met Jill, who ended up being our tour guide for the next day's trip to Vatican City, too.

The subway ride from the hotel to Vatican City was considerably longer than the one to the Colosseum. We met Jill near the subway exit and walked to the Vatican with others who were part of our tour group. This tour was much more expensive than the one of the Colosseum. We each paid 45 euros, but it was worth it to have someone explaining details we may have missed on our own.

The Vatican houses a wealth of artwork. It would take hours upon hours - perhaps days - to make it through the museums if you wanted to linger over all the art found there. Jill pointed out the highlights of the art collection, which included Raphael's "Transfiguration." The piece was sublime, and it took effort to pull myself away from it.

Statues, mosaic floors, paintings and tapestries greeted our every glance as we slowly made our way toward the Sistine Chapel. Mom held onto my arm as we followed the stairs that led to the chapel. The enormous room was crowded with people gazing at the famed ceiling and walls of the church. We maneuvered our way through the crowd until we got to the middle of the basilica, and then we looked up at the ceiling; it was wondrous.

I have seen pictures and reproductions of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but to stand in the building and look upon this renowned artwork with my own eyes was a remarkable moment. Unfortunately, though, tourists aren't allowed to take pictures in the Sistine Chapel, so I bought a magnet of the Creation of Adam as a reminder of my visit.

We left Rome after two days, and there were so many sites we didn't see. However, my brother will be there for one more year, so maybe another visit is in order.

Story published Friday, September 3, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 5 )

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