Rome: through the eyes of a pilgrim

Rome. Home of pasta, the Pantheon and the Pope. Here are the Colosseum where gladiators fought for fame, fortune or survival, and the Circus Maximus where Nero used early Christians as human torches for evening festivities. A bundle of contradictions, this ancient historical city is also a modern metropolis where anything you want is at your fingertips. I’ve wanted to visit Rome for some time, and finally, at the outset of my third year living in Belgium, I managed to get there.

Of course I wanted to see The Big Three: the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and Saint Peter’s Basilica.

Collage Big Three

Biggest disappointment: the Colosseum. Huge and, ahem, colossal, but truly in ruins inside. Nevertheless, the gravity of all that happened there made an impact as I wandered through with the crowds. Twelve euros but if you buy a Roma Pass, you can get in free. Most surprising: the Pantheon, which I found completely by accident when looking for a restaurant for dinner.

Grandest: Saint Peter’s. Besides housing Michelangelo’s stunning Pietà (be prepared to be taken aback by this beautiful piece of Mary mourning her dead son), the place is massive, from the soaring ceilings and thirteen foot statues to the seven feet wide ribbon that runs along the ceiling containing the recorded words of Christ to Peter, like “upon this rock” (meaning Peter) “I will build my church, and the powers of hell won’t overcome it.” And the piece de resistance? The tomb of the Saint is under the crypt, below the basilica! (Take a deep breath, and then let it out slowly: WOW.) I was disappointed that you can’t actually see his tomb; but I walked by the spot that is over it (it is well-marked) and for me, it was enough to release some gratitude and admiration for the fisherman turned apostle and friend of the Lord. Free, but not easy; there are a lot of crowds.

The places I desperately wanted to see, however, did not disappoint this pilgrim. I was looking for historical relics of my faith, and I found them. In spades.

San Giovanni in Laterano was the first Christian church building in Rome. Dedicated in 324 and named for John the Baptist, it is the official cathedral of Rome and the home church of the Popes, and it even contains the chair the new pope sits on upon being named. It also has a giant statue of Emperor Constantine, under whom Roman Christians were finally free from persecution, and the towering main doors were salvaged from the Curia, or Imperial Senate. High over the altar are impressive and highly detailed mosaics. And if all that isn’t enough, the church contains two important  and oft-disputed relics: the heads of Saints Peter and Paul.

Constantine and the doors from the imperial senate

Constantine and the doors from the imperial senate

The soaring interior leading to the altar

The soaring interior leading to the altar

Collage San Giov4

The glorious mosaics, housing the relics, and the papal seat

Across the street from San Giovanni in Laterno is the next stop: La scala santa. The Holy Stairs are the very steps Christ climbed in the very early morning, after he was arrested and beaten prior to his crucifixion. It was at the top of these stairs somewhere that Pilate asked our Lord, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Made of stone, they have been covered with wood and contain little glass-covered holes that you can look into and see what are purported to be drops of the Savior’s blood. The stairs were transported from Pontius Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem by Helena, mother of Constantine. If you want to climb them, you can, but only on your knees, and only if you’re prepared to pray on each step. The only cost to do this is paid in knee pain.

Italy Scala Santa (2)   Italy Scala Santa (3)

I didn’t climb them. I considered it, but then I thought about my right meniscus surgery. And so I didn’t. The events of that night and early morning hang like dew in the air of that place though, and they demanded a right response; for me, the response was to pray, and so I did.

Next on the list: San Paolo Fuori le Mura, or Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls. As the name suggests, this church sits outside the ancient city’s walls. Also original to Constantine and the fourth century, it is one hundred percent new since the nineteenth century, after being destroyed by fire. But it is one hundred percent worth seeing for one reason: it contains the supposed remains of the great writer of much of the New Testament, Saint Paul. This visit moved me even more than I had imagined. Paul is arguably Christianity’s most influential human outside of Jesus, and Jesus is also God, so that gave Him quite an advantage. And I’m not sure I need to say “arguably” up there; he may have written as many as fourteen of the twenty-seven books of New Testament, for goodness sake! He ultimately died for his faith, in Rome, probably under Nero, at about the same time Peter did. Paul, because he was a legal citizen of Rome, could not be crucified and so was likely beheaded.

Mosaics, the soaring nave, a statue of Saint Paul

Mosaics, the soaring nave, a statue of Saint Paul

A view over the tomb, the cloister, the interior of the dome

A view over the tomb, the cloister, the interior of the dome

Saint Paul's eternal flame, the chains that held him when he was a prisoner in Rome

Saint Paul’s eternal flame, and the chain that held him when he was a prisoner in Rome

The tomb itself, protected by a grate, welcomes a fairly steady stream of visitors to venerate the saint.

The tomb itself, protected by a grate, welcomes a fairly steady stream of visitors to venerate the saint.

Final stop on this day’s pilgrimage: San Pietro in Vincoli, or Saint Peter’s in Chains. This is an unremarkable church except for two important items. The first item, you might’ve guessed, are Saint Peter’s chains, from when he was held prisoner. The second is Michelangelo’s masterwork, Moses.

Moses was intended to be a giant tomb piece for Pope Julius II, but Michelangelo kept getting pulled away from it to work on other things. He loved this particular work and you can really tell he did when you see it. Moses sits in the middle, holding the stone commandments, and he is depicted as he might have looked after just seeing the Israelites with their golden calf. His tensed leg, preparing him to rise, his arm reaching across his body, and his flowing beard all suggest motion. He is flanked by Rachel and Leah, the wives of Jacob. The visit to the church is free but do take a euro to put into the slot so the lights come on and you can see it fully. (Hey, we all gotta make a living!)

The whole piece, Moses, the Madonna detail

The whole piece, Moses, the Madonna detail

Detail on the chains' case, the chains, painting of Peter and the angel who released him from the chains

Detail on the chains’ case, the chains themselves, and a painting of Peter and the angel who released him from the chains

Peter’s chains themselves are protected by a case made just for them. One of the details on the case makes reference to the death of the saint: an upside down cross. Unlike Paul, Peter was not a Roman citizen, and Christian tradition tells us that when it was apparent he was going to be crucified, he insisted that he be crucified upside down because he said he was unworthy to die like the Lord! (There is a very dark and moving painting of this in the Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.) The chains are supposedly two sets: one, the set that held him when in Mamertine Prison in Rome; the others, those which held him in Jerusalem. The latter would be the very set from which the angel released him, a story recorded in Acts chapter 12.

Seeing Peter’s chains was very moving for me, as was seeing Paul’s tomb and the Holy Stairs. I know it’s hard for some to believe the relics are actually real, and I understand that there is the distinct possibility that many of them are not what they are claimed to be. Nevertheless, the possibility that they actually are real affects me, and my introspective nature takes over; I think about the person associated with the item and what they mean to my life today, and hopefully these thoughts translate into actions and make me a better person.

There were too many places in Rome that I wanted to see; I didn’t have time or they turned out to be not worth the visit. For example, Mamertine prison, where Paul was almost certainly held, and where some believe Peter also was kept before his death. But I read in a guide that I like a lot, Rome by Rick Steves, the prison isn’t worth seeing anymore; it’s owned by a tour bus company and the artefacts were not preserved. Too bad; Paul did a lot of writing there. But perhaps it’s best; too much introspection isn’t good for one’s mood!

All the churches had extravagant nativity scene. My favorite was the one at San Pietro in Vincoli because it was simple and colorful. Maybe you’ll like it, too.

San Pietro in vinculo (11)

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More than London

When Jolly Old England pops into your mind, I’m guessing the images that accompany it are like these:

St Pancras, named after an actual SAINT, not after the internal organ, the pancrEas.

St Pancras, named after an actual SAINT, not after the internal organ, the pancrEas.

House of Parliament and Big Ben

House of Parliament and Big Ben

London's Tower Bridge

London’s Tower Bridge

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

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The Proverbial Changing of the Proverbial Guard

The Proverbial Changing of the Proverbial Guard

London! The NYC of the UK, it’s a hot spot for theatre, fashion, music and the arts in general. And every time I cross the Channel, the Motherland (almost all my ancestors were English, Scot or Irish, except for my maternal great grand-mother or grand-father, who was, I think, a full Cherokee in the mountains of North Carolina) blesses me to another treat for the senses.

This time, however, it took me quite by surprise.

One of the many lakes in the Lake District

One of the many lakes in the Lake District

England’s Lake District. I think it may be one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

Centuries-old stone fences run through farm lands

Centuries-old stone fences run through farm lands

Lake District GB 546 A   Lake District GB 524 A    Lake District GB 005  Lake District GB 413 A

Lake District GB 358

I really don’t know why this area surprised me.  My ancestors settled in Western NC because the Smoky Mountains reminded them of home. “My” Blue Ridge mountains harken back to the Lake District’s magnificent hills, valleys, and lakes,with their own smoky fog clinging to them.

My friends are quite lucky to live in such a magnificent place. Can’t wait to return.

Lake District GB 475 A

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The Estate of the Chateau de Seneffe

This weekend I discovered a little-known gem: the gardens of the Chateau de Seneffe in Hainaut, Belgium. Only dating to the Eighteenth Century, the grounds are lovely and the chateau appears to be in good shape. We didn’t go in, my friend and I, but we certainly enjoyed the lovely summer weather, not too hot nor too humid. Summer is the time when smart people like the Belgium weather. At least most of the time.

The Eighteenth Century Castle of the Domaine of Seneffe

The Eighteenth Century Castle of the Domaine of Seneffe

The grounds are spectacular, with everything from an aviary to modern sculptures to a wide variety of flowers.

Collage2 It’s a relaxing place to walk, with long and picturesque paths. Pretty views greet the walker from every angle. There’s the couple hundred year old castle as well as anachronistic sculptures by Mauro Staccioli from 2014. It’s a very interesting place.

Collage1

There’s an aviary with parakeets and other exotic birds, once a status symbol of the rich, and an orangerie, as well as an old ice house; it stored ice for the residents of the estate to use, a luxury only attainable by the most wealthy.

The Ice House for the Chateau

The Ice House for the Chateau

The flowers and trees are lovely and varied. Currants, Rose of Sharon, and the surprisingly fragrant milkweed delight the senses.

Collage 3

Only a half hour from Mons and not a lot more from Brussels, the park is open until eight p.m. for walking, but you have to go earlier if you want to visit the castle or the brasserie. Lots of grass means it’s cooler on the grounds than in the nearby towns, and in air-conditioning deficient Belgium, that’s a welcome benefit.

The English version of the website is not available, but the French language one is here. Take a few hours and take a walk. It will be good for the body and the soul.

 

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Eight Years

The End i

El adiós a La Roja (Goodbye to La Roja) ii

El fracaso deportivo de La Roja en Brasil (The Sporting Failure of La Roja…) iii

La Roja abdica en Brasil (La Roja Abdicates in Brazil)iv

La Roja de verdad echa a España del Brasil (The Real “La Roja) Throws Spain out of Brazil)v

Such were the headlines in Spanish news over the past week. Just in case you don’t know, “La Roja” is what Spain calls her national soccer team. Disappointing and disillusioning headlines indeed.

Now, I don’t know a lot about soccer. I know I love to watch it, especially when La Roja or Real Madrid are playing. Those are my teams. Yes, yes, I know; I’m American. So what? Americans suck at soccer. And I don’t like American football at all. I got hooked on Spanish soccer four years ago when I was dating an Englishman who was into the World Cup. I started watching with him, and lo and behold, I really liked it a lot. So much so that we were heartily cheering for two different teams at the 2010 World Cup final – he for Netherlands and I for Spain. Spain won, in spite of Netherlands’ questionable tactics and deliberate fouls, and I danced joyfully through the house. He huffed and said with superiority, “You’re NOT Spanish.” We broke up shortly thereafter.

So I’ve enjoyed this lovely ride along with La Roja as they have reigned as kings of the football field. Their players come from great teams all over, including Manchester United, Napoli, and Chelsea, but the roster was always heavy with starters from Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Champions of Europe, Champions of the World, virtually unbeatable for six years, they were a joy to watch, like magic. In the midst of a national crisis that has left one in four Spaniards under 30 out of work, this team was like money in the bank or a safe place to lay your head when all else was crashing around you. When they played, you knew they would win, or on the rare occasion that they didn’t, they would play well and mesh as a team.

So what happened? Heck, if I knew, I’d write a book and get rich! I suppose it’s very complicated, but I think there are two factors that played important roles in this debacle. First, the starters are too old, and like Xabi Alonso, defensive midfielder, regretfully said, not hungry enough. The team’s long-time Manager Vicente Del Bosque was reluctant to start the new young guys, and so had 33 year old Iker Casillas (my personal, very handsome favorite) as goalkeeper, and filled the field with other great, but older players, most notably, Iniesta, 30, Xabi Alonso 32, Xavi, 34, and 2010’s World Cup star, David Villa, 32. All of those players, along with a good bit of the rest of the team, have already won a World Cup (2010) and maybe didn’t want a second one as bad as the younger guys wanted their first. Unfortunately, most of the younger guys didn’t start.

The second factor has to be the fault of Jose Mourinho, the former coach of Real Madrid.  Two years ago, before Mourinho left Real Madrid to coach Chelsea, he benched Casillas, the captain and goalkeeper of the club. Whether he was trying to make a statement about “who’s boss” or not is irrelevant for the moment; what is important is La Roja’s starting goalkeeper was on the bench for his own club, first for just a couple of games. Then he broke his hand, so was out for a time, and when he came back, he didn’t start. Neither did he start for the new coach, Italian Carlos Ancelotti. So for two seasons “San Iker,” (Saint Iker) as the press used to call him, arguably the best goalkeeper in the sport, sat on the bench. It is fairly obvious, isn’t it? To stay on top of your game, in terms of any sport, you have to play. Iker didn’t have a chance to perform up to his usual standard. How could he have after losing two seasons of regular play?

These two factors created a perfect storm for La Roja, and they led to a crushing and humiliating 5-1 victory for Netherlands in the first game for Spain – a vindication for my Dutch friends, of course – and then the 2-0 loss to Chile, and it is all over. Yes, Spain plays once more, but they are, nonetheless, out of the competition for the title of the Champions of the World.

So is it the end of an era? Reluctantly I concede that it is. Will Spain come back? Without doubt. One of my friends, the fan of a rival national team, said it will take decades, but I think that’s just gloating glee talking. It will take a few years, perhaps six until they are truly a winning team again. But for now we fans are thinking about the next eight years. Eight years of discovering more young and gifted athletes, eight years of honing their skills, eight years of of bringing all these youthful Spanish players together for the national team games, and eight years of retiring the older players and coaches. We will miss our beloved players (Casillas et.al.) and these glory days, but 2022 is coming. Inevitably.

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A Musical Spring in Belgium

A couple of nights ago, I was invited by a nice new friend, whom I like, to a concert — classical music, which I also like, so I accepted. Only later did I find out that the concert would be in a private castle and that we would likely meet the old Belgian aristocracy who live in the house.

Well, how about that?

So I dressed up, evening clothes and my sky-high heels. I met my friend for dinner at a nearby restaurant, La Maison du Cocher. I was very impressed with the service; the gentleman who waited on us was, I think, one of the owners, or at least he acted like it, which of course is a good sign. And the food was good. A side note: if you are a vegetarian or vegan, you won’t find a lot of (read: any) restaurants outside of Brussels with anything besides a vegetarian salad on the menu, and some places, like this lovely restaurant, will have nothing. But if you’re lucky, and the restaurant is good, as this one is, they’ll make a nice vegetarian meal for you. But don’t try for vegan — they won’t know what to do with that at all.

But I digress.

After dinner, we headed to the Chateau Morval, which isn’t actually a castle, but rather what we would call in the US, a “mansion.” It’s an 18th century residence that was built to replace the former family residence. No telling how many rooms, but it is enormous. There were folding chairs set up in rows in one of the rooms, with a big grand Steinway at one end. The room was grand, too, with high ceilings and old rugs, and hundred year old (or more?) paintings on the walls of family ancestors. As we found our seats, we passed a pair of chairs that had sheets of paper on them reading “Ct et Ctesse d’Oultremont.” The owners of the castle.

Nice.

The Count of Oultremont

The Count of Oultremont

The concert, the opening of the series called Printemps Musical de Silly (that’s the town, “Silly,” not the, um, silly town. Or maybe it is silly; I don’t really know it. In any event, this first in the concert series was, as we say in the southern US, a humdinger! The pianist was terrific, a young Belgian named Jean Capelle. The baritone, another young Belgian, was the exceptional and prize-winning Sebastien Parotte. The soprano, again young and again Belgian, was world-class Julie Mossay.

Soprano Julie Mossay

Soprano Julie Mossay

So other than being Belgian, what did these three have in common? They are young! Because the Printemps series is intended as a showcase for young talent. But their youth is a ruse to draw you in, and make you suspect nothing. In fact they are ridiculously talented, far beyond their years, and not just in music. The two vocalists are gifted actors who have clearly done a lot of stage work. They sang an hour and a half of comedic duets and solos, complete with body language that made the French lyrics inconsequential for my friend, who is just beginning to learn the language. And of course, they sang wonderfully.

Sorry the photo is grainy; iPhone pics inside.

Sorry the photo is grainy; iPhone pics, you know.

Afterwards there was a lovely reception where we did, indeed, meet the Count’s family. His sons, both older men themselves, were charming and friendly, and my friend and I were the only Americans there, so we drew some attention, in a good way.There was champagne, orange juice, chocolate, hors d’oeuvres. We met some interesting people other than the aristocracy, too. It was an altogether lovely evening.

I was so impressed, I bought a season ticket. It goes right up to the end of the school year, and there’s something every weekend. I’m pretty excited. But I’m not sure it will top this night. Here’s a sampling.

Deci Dela

My friend and I, decked out for the evening.

My friend and I, decked out for the evening.

Here’s a link showing information about Printemps Musical and with a photo of the castle.

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What Betsy Saw (Subtitle: Spring comes to Belgium)

This is Betsy.

Betsy on ottoman best

Betsy is a senior dog, probably twelve or thirteen at least; she is likely a Chihuahua-Pekingese mix, known as a Pikachu. She likes a lot of things: cookies, treats, soft food, eating off a fork or spoon, sleeping, sitting in the sun, my cats, barking at cyclists and at other dogs, and sitting on my lap. But what she likes most are walks. Short walks, long walks, walks in the cold, walks in the heat. Betsy loves walks. And her favorite walks are ones like our walk today: 65 degrees Fahrenheit, sun shining, little or no traffic on our country road. And this is what Betsy saw today on her walk.

Horses!

Pretty gate leading to a house up the road

Pretty gate leading to a house up the road

Ivy starting to grow up the corner of a house

Ivy starting to grow up the corner of a house

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Neighbor’s flowers starting to bloom!

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Brave little yellow flower on the side of the road

These little "daisy-like" flowers are everywhere.

These little “daisy-like” flowers are everywhere.

Look closely and you can see the local chateau behind the trees.

Look closely and you can see the local chateau behind the trees.

Blue sky: a rarity in Belgium

Yep, those are flower buds!

Yep, those are flower buds!

Springtime is finally coming to Belgium. Betsy is happy about that. So am I.

2014-03-06 14.54.35

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Bouillon and its Chateau-Fort

I decided to head to Bouillon when I saw a picture of the castle on Facebook. The photo showed the castle at night, and it was stunning. This week offered an opportunity to go, and the castle did not disappoint. From the dungeon’s torture room to the views of the Semois River, it was spectacular.

The Chateau-Fort from the banks of the Semois.

The Chateau-Fort from the banks of the Semois.

The Chateau-Fort sits predictably over the town of Bouillon on the narrowest part of the peninsula created by the Semois River.

The Chateau-Fort sits predictably over the town of Bouillon on the narrowest part of the peninsula created by the Semois River.

The Chateau-Fort of Bouillon probably dates to before the tenth century, but there is no proof of that. We do know for certain that it was in the hands of the House of Ardenne until 1096. The Ardenne Duke, Godefroid, sold it that year to finance his part in the first Crusade. When he departed from the Castle headed for Jerusalem, it was with the hopes that he would return and buy it back.  Unfortunately for him, in spite of having conquered Jerusalem, he died there in 1100. It is said that he was named “Defender of the Holy Sepulchre” because he refused to wear a king’s crown “where Jesus Christ had worn a crown of thorns.” As a Believer, I find that particular statement startling and confusing; Godefroid held a belief in my God, yet he managed to kill thousands of Jews on his way to Jerusalem and thousands of Muslims when he got there. Hard for me to fathom, but that’s another post, and another blog.

In the Salle de Godefroid, a large cross was found under the floor. It is highlighted now by glass blocks.

In the Salle de Godefroid, a large cross was found under the floor. It is highlighted now by glass blocks.

The torture chamber in the dungeon of the castle.

The torture chamber in the dungeon of the castle. The cylinders with spikes on them are a particularly nasty-looking RACK. The hanging weight is how it was tightened.

The prison, in the dungeon, near the torture chamber.

The prison, in the dungeon, near the torture chamber. Look closely at the chains hooked to the wall.

The views from the tower are spectacular. On the one side, the town of Bouillon. On the other, the lovely mountains of the Ardennes region. I visited in late winter, so the trees were not beautiful, but thanks to my maternal great-Aunt Katherine, I learned years ago to appreciate the unique beauty of this season, especially as it allows for views that summer foliage spoils.

The Semois River and the Pont de France.

The Semois River and the Pont de France.

The Semois from another perspective, over the town of Bouillon.

The Semois from another perspective, over the town of Bouillon.

Still another lovely view of the Semois

Still another lovely view of the Semois

And finally, one more.

And finally, one more.

This is a trip I recommend. At just under two hours from Brussels or from Mons, it’s worth the journey. There are several brasseries and a tearoom with quiches and sweets and a rich selection of teas. Go. Take your camera. And your love of history.

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