Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Thursday, September 22, 2011

My Italian Tour: The Eternal City and More

Last September 1-15, 2011 my wife (Angela) and I joined with a group of 46 other tourists from all over the world in what is known as the “Splendors of Italy Tour.” It brought us to over a dozen renowned cities and fantastic places in grand Italia. It is amazing that the country, being so rich in culture, history and significance continue to inspire pilgrims who visit it. Trafalgar Tour offered us a variety of optional tours, most of which we took.

Angela has lots of wonderful photos in her Face book (angieverg@aol.com) and I am preparing some reflections on my blog site, www.travelinasian.blogspot.com. While I have been to many places in Europe and Asia, I find Italy to be most fascinating and awe-inspiring.

Our first stop was Rome, the “eternal city,” with its famous St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican and some museums. Even roaming around Rome itself, if you can feel the Spirit, and, if you can see past the pickpockets, the anxious fellow tourists getting lost in the sea of humanity and the constant roaring of the scooters in narrow streets of cobbled stones, you can see God. Of course, for a pilgrim, not a tourist, God is written even in the graffiti of tenement walls. The frescos of Michelangelo was certainly beyond compare.

After Rome, we ogled the frescos (from ‘fresh’ paint), walked along the gardens of Tivoli.  The day was hot but when evening came, after a rowdy dinner, just before I dropped three coins in the fountain and made my wished, it rained---and the $3 Euro umbrella suddenly jumped at $5 Euros. The rest of the days were a staccato of fantastic places: Bay of Naples, Castellamare, Bay of Capri, Positano. In  the cruise along Lake Como, we were told to watch out for George Clooney and I swore it was my childhood crush, Sophia Loren (she must be a century old by now), whom I saw tending to her lakeside gardens. Of course, no one, including my wife would believe my imagination.

A visit to Assisi, where my favorite St. Francis and St. Claire, come from was a dream come true. I have always admired “brother Sun and sister Moon” but we did not have much time to explore Umbria where they played among the birds and the bees. Of course you know that the twin-patron saints of Italy were St. Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena; I reckoned Claire would be content being the saint of the poor and Francis the saint of the animals, including myself.

The ruins of Pompeii are a poignant symbol that the “city of man will always die but the city of God will never die” as another Italian saint, Augustine (thanks to his mother, Monica and the bishop of Milan, Ambrose for his conversion), would agree in his book, the “Civitas Dei.” Pompeii, a prosperous and cosmopolitan city in the 1st century was the center of many pagan and bacchanalian feasts. Many of the filthy rich had their Roman holiday villas there, feasting on licentiousness and decadence. The city was completely destroyed and buried by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., ironically a day after Vulcanalia, the festival of the Roman god of fire. Walking among the city ruins (rediscovered in 1749), it was eerie to be told that Mt. Vesuvius is still an active volcano.

Touring by bus can be ennui unless you learn to travel as a family. Our Tour Director, Dominic Harris, was a funny guy. His background as son of an Anglican vicar (he also married the daughter of a Scotland vicar), made him and me kindred spirits. At the bus, I prayed a “9-11 Prayer,” told some jokes and made adaptation of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” into “He Did it Pompei”  and “New York, New York” into “Venice, Venice.” I was wondering if stand up comedy or a murderer of ballads would be my lot if I retire from the ministry.

Yes, Venice was a romantic city and still is. It is interesting to note that all the gondolas are now legally restricted to black color. It became a fashion statement and social status in the past, when the rich would have their gondolas in loud colors and bedecked them with gold and even diamond ornaments to set their gondolas different from those of the plebian’s. Venetian government wants them to be blind to socio-economic boasting, without poking their eyes. The visit to San Marco Church (in honor of St. Mark’s the evangelist) was intriguing. Venice is a city built atop a million logs dropped in the lagoon of the Adriatic Sea and it is amazing that it still stands today. “If I can float up here, I can float anywhere; it’s up to you, Venice, Venice,” I would sing. Marco Polo’s adventures speak of his Venetian lifestyle.

Verona was my idyllic place because it is the scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the mother of all romantic tragedies. I can still hear Lawrence Olivier intoning the prologue “Two households both alike in dignity…” It has a huge arena not only for Shakespeare’s plays but hey, maybe Lady Gaga’s concerts as well. In Pisa, the Tower is still leaning and I wonder when it will finally fall.

We made an incursion into Lugano, border of Italy and Switzerland, for a peek of Gucci and other temptations. Of course, most of the touristic ladies bought their leather, later, in Florence. Firenze is the capital city of Tuscany and my interest was more on its art and architecture. As a priest, I used my privilege to enter the Florence Cathedral for free, and access to some of the holy places where the lay were not allowed. Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance and been called the Athens of the Middle Ages.  The cathedral is undergoing reconstruction but I could still see the iconic statue of David and haunting fresco of Adam and Eve being driven out of paradise, another Michelangelo creation. The statues of Dante Alighieri, Machiavelli, Savonarola and Leonardo Da Vinci speak of the greatness of the Florentines.

The supreme highlight of the trip for me, was, ironically, the descent to the Roman catacombs. I will have a separate reflection about it but suffice it to say that the catacombs were an important signpost to Christian martyrdom (Latin martyrium for “witness”) and the power of God to convert the hearts. Ireneus and Achilleus, two praetorian guards in-charge of cutting off the heads of Christians, became converted and had their own heads cut off as well. An underground basilica was commissioned by Pope Gregory in honor of their martyrdom in the site where those they executed were buried. Talk about poetic justice.

I departed Italy not only with fond memories but a personal desire to study more of its past and its relevance to our contemporary world. Arrivederci Roma. Ad majorem Dei Gloriam.