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MIT student blogger Sam M. '07

We open in Venice by Sam M. '07

We next play Firenze, then on to Pisa (lots of laughs in Pisa), our next jump in Roma... and then back to Germany.

DID YOU KNOW? Benito Mussolini ordered that the Leaning Tower of Pisa be straightened. Engineers decided that the best solution would be to pour concrete into its base. The tower actually ended up leaning even further and now must be stabilized with cables.

For those of you just tuning in, there is a reason that my blog consists mostly of me standing in front of European landmarks. You can go back and read that whole entry, or if you just want the gist of it, it’s because MIT is awesome.

And because of the MISTI program, also awesome.

Hokay, so I took 550 pictures over five days in Italy. This is mostly thanks to Ling’s brilliant idea of “Bring a flash drive to Italy, then we can go to internet cafes and transfer pictures from your camera!” You go girl. Now, Berlin got three entries with only 218 pictures. So, if you go through and do the math, you’ll realize that I’m way too lazy to write 7 entries about Italy and I’m just going to condense it all into one super-dense, super-hot neutron star of an entry.

Hey, also, I’m kind of dumb and uploaded the original 2560×1920 pixel versions of these pictures instead of the 512×384 ones that I usually use. So don’t look at the rest of the entry if you’re on a dialup, or your computer will probably implode. I’ll have everything back to normal size on Monday night.

Before we even got our baggage out of baggage check, I glanced in a vending machine and saw a mysterious brown-colored Fanta with an 80 cent price tag. Remembering it from Bryan’s spring break entry. Well, when in Rome…

Bryan described the taste as “a strange combination of yuck yuck and gross,” and I don’t know that I can really improve on that. I only offer my condolences to him for paying four euros for this mysterious, horrible beverage-like substance.

Venice

As an engineer, Venice just doesn’t make much sense to me. Who thought it would be a good idea to build a city on hundreds of low-lying interconnected islands in the Adriatic? But, then again, as an MIT student, bad ideas are not exactly foreign to me. And global warming and soil erosion were also probably not such great concerns to people who still thought the Earth was flat.

I guess with my turkey carcass => oil UROP, I’m actually working to save Venice, especially from stuff like this…

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…in St. Mark’s Square, the lowest point of Venice. According to a poster we saw nearby, the normally-pigeon-filled square floods over 300 days out of the year. I hypothesized that they just spray pigeon pheremones all throughout the square to keep the flocks of dirty birds–and tourists–coming there every afternoon. Maybe they spray tourist pheremones too. I would.

The picture above was taken during high tide from the roof of the lovely, mosaiced St. Mark’s Basilica, which is totally worth the 3 �Ǩ stair-taking fee. As we sat on the roof for about an hour, a sound crew set up for a concert taking place in the square that night. To test the system, they repeatedly played the introduction to a live version of the Eagles’ Hotel California over it. It was one of the most serene, yet also one of the strangest moments of our trip to Italy.

As a tourist, Venice is probably gonna kill you. I don’t know what all we spent all our money on, but it just seemed to flow pretty freely as we walked slowly around this illogical, surreal, wet city. Even staying 30 minutes outside of the city in a campsite (with outdoor showers!), I spent as much in one day in Venice as I did the following two days in Florence and Rome.

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We took a lovely gondola ride. I would recommend to anybody going to Venice in the near future not to take a Gondola ride. It’s nice and everything, and certainly charming to go through all the little canals and alleys, and we took lots of pictures and now we can say that we’ve been in a gondola. Okay, great. But it’s not worth 20 �Ǩ per person, which is basically the best rate you’re going to get unless you took 15.655: Power and Negotiation in MIT’s world-renowned Sloan School of Management. Yes, everybody has this conception of a romantic moonlight Gondola ride with one quiet gondolier and another guy sitting in the front singing bel canto arias while accompanying himself on lute or accordion. But our gondolier, though very personable and outgoing, was singing “She Bangs” for most of the trip.

Seriously.

So, after a Friday in Venice, we woke up and got on the first available train to

Florence

I brought two t-shirts for my five day trip to Italy. One of them has a picture of my second cousin’s dog on it and the other one cost 2 euro and says BUNDESTRAINER on it. While in Venice, I bought a Lukas Podolski jersey. I really couldn’t help it. I’m really easily influenced by other people, and when Kendall bought a Ballack jersey and Ling bought a Schweinsteiger jersey, I had to have one too. I didn’t know anything about Lukas Podolski when I bought it except that I really liked that “Lu Lu Lu Lukas Podolski!” cheer. The point of the story is that it ended up being a bit awkward for me displaying this German football pride so prominently in Italy one month after the world cup. A few Italian people jokingly told me to take off the jersey, but none of them refused to take my picture.

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What you don’t see above is that we are facing a couple, hidden from view over the side of the bridge, who are having a romantic panini lunch while overlooking the dark, clear, Arno as a steady stream of tourists jump over a bridge onto this ledge and have their pictures taken. I could definitely see myself having my honeymoon in Florence and sitting on this little ledge while tourist after tourist jumps down in front of me.

Speaking of honeymoons, being a tourist in Italy involves a lot of waiting in line. Our first marathon of line-waiting occurred at the Uffizi Gallery in Italy. We had the choice of going the Uffizi to see the Birth of Venus or to a different gallery to see Michelangelo’s David. Since both required two-hour waits in line, we only had time for one. We finally picked the Uffizi because there was a fake statue of David like 100 feet away.

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There is also a “green David” replica made out of bronze that we were going to see, but there was a thunderstorm and we decided that going to the top of a hill to see a 17-foot bronze statue during a thunderstorm was a bad idea.

Anyway, to pass the time in line, we played children’s games like MASH (I ended up living in a mansion in Arizona married to Lukas Podolski, but my job was a pooper-scooper) and I Spy. No offense to Ling and Kendall, they are both brilliant MIT students and awesome people, but they are really bad at I Spy. After my first turn, Ling spied with her little eye “something white,” which ended up being the reflection of the sun on a particular metal handle of a piece of luggage or something. Kendall went next with “I spy something… funny-colored,” which sort of goes against the concept of the game. I went next and stumped them both for quite a while with “something gray.” It was a wet day, so they figured out that it was made of water, but neither of them could guess that what I was spying was rain clouds.

But the Uffizi was great, if a little dimly-lit, and I recommend it to anybody going to Florence. I would recommend even more passionately making a reservation so you don’t have to play I Spy for two hours. The main hallway has hundreds upon hundreds of sculptures and paintings that you could never have enough time to look at in two weeks. The actual Birth of Venus was hypnotic, Leonardo’s Annunciation was far more vivid than photographs of it suggest, and they also happened to have one of my all-time favorite paintings, Parmigianino’s Madonna with the Long Neck. I don’t know much about art, but that painting rocks.

They also had an engineering exhibit about Leonardo Da Vinci’s anatomical, mathematical, and engineering innovations, which was just about the perfect thing for three MIT students on vacation at an art museum. He used phi, my favorite irrational number, in his famous Vitruvian Man! And the discussion of how Leonardo wanted to make this gigantic horse sculpture, so he designed the world’s largest bronze-casting facility, all the way down to the materials used in the oven and the shape of the cooling channels, sparked fond memories of the best parts of 10.302: Heat and Mass Transfer.

So go to Florence and spend at least two days there–that way you can see the real David, the interior of the Duomo, and all the other stuff that we no doubt missed.

Also, do not eat at the restaurant right across from the Uffizi, no matter how hungry you are. That was seriously the most putridly bad plate of gnocchi I have ever eaten.

Pisa

We didn’t do much in Pisa. We left Florence at 7 AM, got to Pisa at 8 AM, saw the tower (“I think it’s this way… no, this way… wait, we can see it above all the other buildings.”), stood in front of it for half an hour taking pictures, bought some souvenirs, found out that getting into any of the other attractions cost money, ate a ham panini (so salty and delicious!) and hopped on the 11 AM train to Rome.

In the process, I took this obligatory picture of Ling.

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There’s another picture that I took and uploaded, but good taste prohibits me from posting it. Sorry, country of Italy. It was Ling’s idea.

Rome

First of all, I want to advertise the Roma Inn hostel. It costs 20 �Ǩ, it’s 15 minutes from the train station, 2 minutes from a subway stop, and 10 minutes from the Colosseum. They let you keep your stuff there after you check out. They have parties with free food and drinks every night, in addition to giving you free breakfast. Okay, so there’s no shower curtains and the bathrooms are not exactly clean, and the garbage men will wake you up in the morning if you don’t have earplugs, and the hotel manager sleeps on the floor right outside your bedroom. But I think it’s the best-valued hostel that we stayed at in the course of our 10 trips around Europe. You rock, Roma Inn.

I love Rome. I love Rome and I want to go back. According to Sam’s Mom, my grandfather, who’s from a little town in the mountains outside Rome, thought that the city smelled bad. Well, I thought it was actually a lot like New York, except it smelled better and everything is between one hundred and two thousand years old.

Our first stop was the Colosseum. Half a bottle of sunscreen, 12 euros, and an hour later, we were inside. I would say that I was more impressed by the outside than the inside–it’s really just a shell, with most of the inside destroyed, and a lot of the more interesting-looking hallways have been fenced off. But the 12 euros also gets you entrance to the Palatine Hill, a lovely but less-visited area of the city with no shortage of crumbling ruins. We stayed there until the ruins closed at sunset, lounging on them in the fading August light in a rare moment of isolation and contemplating how majestic the city must have seemed two thousand years ago, all while Ling took artistic pictures using the sepia setting on my camera.

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After they kicked us out, we took a trip down to Trevi fountain, which made my jaw literally dropped at seeing the majesty of Neptune overlooking his tritons and drowning horses. I mean literally. Not like Paula Abdul saying “My stomach was literally in my throat” or something like that. We engaged in the tradition of throwing coins over our shoulders to ensure a return trip to Rome, and took pictures of it in case anybody disputed it later.

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After an overpriced meal at a restaurant recommended to me by my otherwise-infallible colleague J��rgen, we headed home to the Roma Inn, where they were giving out free food anyway. Good times! We awoke from restless dreams at 7 AM the next morning and to head out to the Vatican and get in line before it opened at 8:45.

Okay, ya’ll. There are people who cut in line to get into VATICAN CITY. Seriously, what is wrong with you people? I’m not even religious and I wouldn’t be caught dead doing that. I guess I’m not one to talk, since we passed two and a half hours in line playing chinese poker in front of the Vatican, but at least we weren’t gambling or cheating at it. Plus, the first hand Kendall played was three kings, and what could be more biblical than that?

I took like a googolplex pictures inside the vatican, because every single room just turned out to be more beautiful, vast, and engrossing than the last, even the Egyptian mummy room that I didn’t really understand. There was also an fascinating exhibit on micromosaics, which are used to decorate jewelry boxes or to make painstaking recreations of existing artwork using 1-mm wide stones. Wow.

And then there was the Sistine Chapel. It was… okay. There are signs right before it telling you not to take photos, talk, or sit down. Well, of course nobody really listens to that because you just flew all the way to Rome from Utah or Japan or something and then waited for two hours in line and then you had to walk through three hours of Vatican museum exhibits, and you’ll be damned (maybe literally?) if somebody’s going to tell you not to take pictures of the Sistine Chapel. So the whole thing, which is a little smaller than I had imagined, and with a much higher ceiling, is a little bit ruined by the constant flashing of bulbs and the guards continually yelling “NO FOTOS! NO FOTOS! SHHHHHHH!” But we sat there waiting for Kendall for about 20 minutes, and as I stood there, hunched over, staring at The Last Judgment as hundreds of tourists milled around behind me, I couldn’t be cynical for long.

Finally, we went around the Vatican and saw St. Peter’s Basilica. Let me tell you, it was absolutely, without a doubt, the most beautiful building I have ever seen. My colleague showed me about fifty pictures that he took of it before he left, but absolutely nothing could prepare me for stepping inside and seeing that cold light softly falling through the windows of Michelangelo’s dome, faintly illuminating the dark, breathless majesty within. Michelangelo’s Pieta was equally stunning, and I needed about an hour just to walk around the enormous, overwhelming interior and take everything in. Just amazing.

And after a short trip to the Pantheon and some “sumptuous” gelato/i in some square whose name I forget, we stopped at a grocery store for some provisions and headed off for a completely uneventful trip to the airport.

All in all, Italy was perhaps the most beautiful vacation I have ever taken. I learned something, too–how to shuffle cards. I also learned that Italy really, really, really takes advantage of its tourists, corroborated by this article sent to me by the incomparable Ruth ’07. But then again, if tour groups were carrying on conversations with each other and taking pictures in the Pantheon while I was conducting mass, I would want to get back at them, too.

Be excellent to each other and party on, dudes!

4 responses to “We open in Venice”

  1. Bryan says:

    Dear Sam,

    I’m so sorry you tried the Chinotto Fanta. I do hope you ate tons of gelato to make up for it. I also hope you tried “aqua con gase” instead of the conventional H20.

    Bryan

  2. Dude, best musical _ever_. (referring to your title of course)

    I was Gremio wink

  3. Ruth '07 says:

    And kids, Boston even has its on gondola rides. You can tour the Boston Esplanade with a guy dressed up in a striped shirt and wide brimmed hat, be serenaded by Italian-sounding songs, enjoy an accordion accompaniment, and feast upon a nice picnic… all for about $80, May through September. 10Тƒфs, look into this is you want to impress the other 10Тƒфs with your vast knowledge of obscure Boston city life.

  4. Sam's Mom says:

    Sam,

    I was hoping that’s what you were going to call the Italy blog.

    And, even though I know you know this, for the benefit of anyone who might be following along at home — Sam’s grandfather was actually born in a little town in the mountains of Pennsylvania. It was his father, Sam’s great-grandfather, who was born in a little town in the mountains outside Rome. It is true, though, that Sam’s grandfather did tell me he thought Rome smelled. He hadn’t been there since the late 40s though so I’d imagine it’s changed since then.

    It looks like you’re all having a wonderful summer. Please be careful.