Travel vignette from Norman J. Olson

From Miami to Michelangelo

by:  Norman J. Olson

on Thursday, April 20, 2017, Mary noticed a cruise that she was interested in had come down to a very cheap price that we could afford…  so, we booked the cruise and flew the next day to Fort Meyers, Florida (flights to Fort Lauderdale and Miami were full)…  we rented a car in Fort Meyers and drove to Miami (there are often no drop fees in Florida, so a one way rental was like $35, cheaper than the bus!)

anyway, the drive across Alligator Alley was uneventful, the Everglades are lovely from the road, but we did not see any alligators or giant snakes…  when we got to the Miami airport, to turn in the car, I had forgotten to fill the gas tank, so the rental cost an extra $20, but driving in Miami makes me nervous and even so, $55 was pretty cheap anyway so, in travel, often things screw up and we are used to that….

speaking of screw ups, I had booked a hotel in Fort Lauderdale by mistake and only learned when we called from the Miami airport for a shuttle pick up…  fortunately, the online agency and the hotel agreed to cancel the booking and we found another hotel in Miami that was only a few dollars more…  it would have been more expensive to get from Fort Lauderdale to the Miami Cruise port… the hotel was in a very industrial area of Miami near the airport…  the desk clerk directed us to the only restaurant for miles around which was a Wendy’s…  well, of course, we walked the wrong way and so after a good long walk and not seeing any Wendy’s or any other places to eat, we backtracked to the hotel and then I saw the sign for the Wendy’s in the opposite direction…  so I walked there, only to find that the Wendy’s was closed for remodeling…  well, it was an interesting walk, past industrial lots with wild growth of tropical plants and a barbed wire surrounded luxury hotel…  in the dusty Miami afternoon…  so we actually ordered in some food from a Cuban restaurant that had left a flier at the hotel…  the food was amazing and so we had a better dinner and got some exercise too, thanks to not having good information….

I often say, that the hardest thing about travel is getting good information about logistics…  so, the next morning, we took an Uber ($16) to the port to get on our cruise ship…  the driver spoke almost no English…  I think he said he was from Argentina…

the ship was huge and beautiful and the cruise was 16 days from Miami to Civitavecchia (the port for Rome, Italy)…  this was a cruise line we had never used before, and we headed to the buffet to find that the food was even better than expected…  so, we had lunch and then watched as we sailed out of Miami, watching the towers along the coast become hazy and slip below the horizon as a lovely cool breeze came up and we headed out onto the Atlantic…

the crossing took six days…  these huge ships have lots of activities going on for passengers who want to participate, including all kinds of games, trivia contests, etc…  I found a quiet spot on the promenade deck, toward the front of the ship, which was protected from the wind where I could sit and draw and read five floors about the waves crashing and splashing against the sides of the ship…  I reread a wonderful book in preparation for Rome called Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling and got one drawing finished each day…  Mary spent most of the days sitting with me on deck, reading but she also enjoyed the lectures about ports of call and other topics which were available for passengers of an intellectual bent…  we lost an hour each day, so, it seemed like our mornings were very short but the afternoons were lovely with a cool breeze and the waves crashing just below us on the sides of the ship…  we saw a few flying fish but otherwise, no sea life at all although others claimed to have seen whales on one occasion…  every morning I would walk two miles and then spend the rest of the day reading, making art and eating…  some of my favorite things to do…  the ocean was pretty calm except for two days toward the end when the swell picked up and I had to take an extra seasickness pill…  but actually, the big waves crashing on the ship were very cool to see and hear from our sheltered spot on deck 5…  the place where we were sitting was next to the designated smoking area, so we had a lot of nice conversations with the smokers and they seemed to enjoy seeing the drawings as they progressed…

our first port was on Sunday, April 30, the city of Santa Cruz on Tenerife in the Canary Islands…  it was good to be on land for a while and we walked around the city enjoying the market which had a fish market with lots of shrimp and shellfish as well as large ocean fish looking very sad and dead…  then we had a walk up the hill to a lovely park that looks out over the city…  it was Sunday so many of the shops were closed but the market and the park were full of people…  there were tents in the market selling sweet almonds that Mary liked and it was a warm sunny day with children playing and people enjoying the park…  then after another nice sea day, we passed Gibraltar in the early morning and landed at Malaga in Spain…  Malaga which we  have visited before, is famous as the birthplace of Picasso… and home of a Picasso museum…  I did not feel like looking at Picasso paintings, so we walked around the town looking at the many shoppers and the smart shops and looking at the weird old unfinished cathedral where we had some tapas at a sidewalk café on the cathedral square…  then we walked back to the port and found a little tram to take us back to the ship…

the next day was Cartagena, Spain…   there are Roman ruins in Cartagena including an excavated bathhouse and a Roman theater…  you could see the crumbling stone tiers of the theater in curves up the hill, the old tan stones looking warm in the sun and you could feel the thousands of years of wear and weather that these stone seats had seen since Roman times…  the next stop was an overnight at Barcelona…  we bought passes for two days on the hop on hop off,  sightseeing bus so we had a lovely tour up the mountainside and all around the town including the famous soccer stadium which had Messi’s photo prominently displayed…  we spent time in the shopping district where we saw a building designed by famous son Antoni Gaudi as well as his famous cathedral…  we walked around the cathedral and went into the crypt, which is a large chapel where a mass was underway and where we could see Gaudi’s tomb…  it seems to me that Gaudi’s distinct organic style while groundbreaking and novel has not had a great influence on the contemporary architecture that I see in cities I visit… but the cathedral is impressive and it is interesting to see twentieth/twenty first century builders trying to put the kind of care into a building that was required by the technological limitations of the pre industrial ages…

after Barcelona, we stopped for a day at Villifranche sur Mer which is near Nice, France…  Villifranche is a tiny town built on a steep hillside going up from the sea…  it was a rainy day and we were only there for a few hours…  it took a long time for the tenders to get the people ashore because the ocean was wavy and the tenders were bouncing around…  so we just walked up the hill a bit and along the waterfront…  we stopped in a lovely café and Mary had a coffee while a thunderstorm passed over with torrential rain, thunder and lightning…  it was lovely sitting in the little café looking out over the harbor through the rain and to see the huge ship at anchor at the entrance to the bay…

the next day we stopped at Livorno, Italy…  it was a warm sunny day, Sunday, and a street market was going on for about a mile across the center of the town…  we walked around enjoying the local people and looking at the wares on offer…  we stopped as usual, at sidewalk cafes and enjoyed the warm day and the cool breeze off the ocean…

then we arrived at Civitavecchia… we got off the ship on a free shuttle bus that took us to the town and then found a two euro bus to the train station where we each got six euro tickets to Rome’s San Pietro station…  the countryside of rolling hills and farms was very green and pretty…  I had found a hotel for $59 per night a short walk from Saint Peter’s Basilica… and since according to the map it was only one mile from the station, I decided we could walk even with our three small, carryon size suitcases…  well, it was a hot walk as we got there right during the sunny part of the afternoon…  but we made it with only about two blocks worth of wrong turns and the hotel was in a perfect location near the Castle Saint Angelo on the Via Vitelleschi… that evening, we walked around and tried one of the local sidewalk cafes…  the food in Rome was terrific…  everything seemed to be made of fresh ingredients and was delicately seasoned to perfection…  we had two Caprese salads with the best tomatoes I think I have ever tasted along with delicious mozzarella and basil with a touch of rich olive oil and husky balsamic vinegar… I, who never drink, even ordered a glass of Chianti with my meals and thoroughly enjoyed the heavy tartness contrasted with the delicious food…

in Miami once I was sure we would get on the ship, I had bought tickets for the Vatican Museums on line…  there is a huge line, several blocks long every day to get into the Vatican Museums but if you buy a ticket online for $16 and pay an extra $4, you get a set time to enter and do not have to wait in line…  we had been to the Vatican Museums and the Sistene Chapel in 1972 and at that time, you could just walk in and wonder around the museums with no lines…  anyway, the modern world is a bit more crowded…

the first part of the Vatican Museum is their vast collection of Roman Statuary…  I was very excited to see two of my favorite ancient works, the Belvedere torso and the Laocoon… the torso is still as magnificent as I remembered and somehow, in the mob scene in this museum, we missed the Laocoon…  I did not realize until we were out and this part of the museums was so crowded, we could not have gotten back in I thought, so we went on to the things I wanted to see most anyway, the frescos of Raphael in the Papal apartments, especially The School of Athens which has always been one of my favorite works by this amazing painter…  and the Sistine Chapel…

there was a long line through a long ornate renaissance hallway to get to the Raphael frescos but once in the room, the frescos are easily seen above the heads of the crowd, so even if the room was full of people, one could still see the paintings…  and the crowds moving through stayed to the side of the room so if you went to the middle, you could stand and look to your hearts content…  which we did… I love love love  the absolute virtuosity of the painting…  that this young man (he died at age 37) could accomplish so much in his short life just amazes me…  anyway, The School of Athens and the other Raphael frescos did not disappoint…  then moving on, we got in a narrower line that went down and up stairs and through a series of narrow hallways crowded with people moving forward in a packed mob…  until we walked into a wide open space and there was Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling towering over our heads…  the chapel is large but was full of people…  here again, the guides kept the people who wanted to stop in the middle while those who wanted to keep moving stayed near the walls…  so I could stand and look until my feet finally gave out…  there are some benches on the side and we managed to get to one of those, so could stay a bit longer looking lovingly at every inch as we could see it from the floor…  this artwork was painted over four years, mostly by Michelangelo’s own  hand as he stood on a cantilevered scaffold of his own design, reaching over his head to paint…  he was a young man in his early thirties but still, I can only imagine the pain in arms shoulder back and legs of day after day of that pose…  and how he kept everything so it would look just so from sixty five feet away is amazing…

the whole thing was cleaned a few years ago and with all the varnish and candle wax of five hundred years removed, the bright colors of the draperies and the delicate chiaroscuro of the nude figures absolutely glow in a riot of purples, pale greens and orange…  it is an amazing, beautiful and now, colorful work of art, complex and full of surprises (like the weird figure of Boaz near the beginning of the work for example) and well deserving of its fame…  it seemed large enough and rich enough to reward the pilgrimage of all of us crowded on the floor with our heads craned back…  whatever country, culture or belief system we might have come from…  in spite of the crowds and the misery of the trek through the crowds to get to the Sistine Chapel, I encourage you to spend a day there and make an effort to see it…  to those of us who make art, this is the bar and it has been set very high indeed by the surly, suspicious and difficult young man with the broken nose and the obnoxious family who lived and worked with and in spite of the Pope in Rome all those years ago…

we then went into the picture gallery where there was no crowd and which contains three wonderful masterpieces of painting by Raphael, as well as Caravaggio’s amazing Entombment and as an added bonus Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished painting of St. Jerome…  wonderful paintings that I have loved all my life…

the next day we went and saw the famous Coliseum and the ruins of the forum of Ancient Rome which was a short subway ride from our hotel… then we walked up the hill behind the Coliseum to the church of San Pietro in Vincoli to see Michelangelo’s statue of Moses…  here, there was no crowd and no entrance fee…  you just walk into the church and the statue is right there…  words fail me in describing these works of Michelangelo…  I just love to look at these things, the finely carved details of flesh and folded draperies…  how lucky I am to get to see these things…  the next day, the subways were on strike, but we took the local bus to see the Pantheon, the only major building that is still more or less intact from Roman times…  the inside of this building with sumptuous marble decoration and the famous dome leaves me only imaging the grandeur of the ancient city when Rome was the capital of the Mediterranean world…  it must truly have been glorious…  also, as a student of High Renaissance art, the Pantheon is special to me because it contains the tomb of Raphael…  this is truly a momento mori…  in spite of his amazing life and his astonishing talent to make beautiful paintings, Raphael ended up a handful of bones and dust in a marble box in a magnificent Roman building repurposed as a Catholic church with a dust covered, butt ugly statue over his crypt… surrounded by people taking pictures with their smart phones and sending texts…

the next morning, we were on an Alitalia 777 flying over the Atlantic at 38000 feet on our way from FCO to JFK…  we got a flight from New York to MSP and after about 20 hours of travel time made it home Friday evening at about 11pm…  I noticed this morning that our bleeding hearts and apple trees are in full bloom and it is green and glorious May in Minnesota…  what a trip…