Lessons of ancient places

Published 8:59 pm Tuesday, December 1, 2009

According to the map, we are somewhere above Ireland. The flight from Paris will take an hour and a half longer on the return flight because of the 120-mph headwinds. That should give me plenty of time to condense the second week of our trip into a page and a half.

After three action-packed days in Paris we spent the first day on board our ship at sea, on the way to Malta. Everyone could use the break, and it gave us a chance to explore and learn about the massive ship on which we were cruising, the Norwegian Gem.

I am always amazed at the efficiency with which a cruise ship operates. There are more people on board than live in Donalsonville. Fifteen-thousand meals are prepared each day. They recycle most of their waste and incinerate the rest. Twelve restaurants, two pools, four hot tubs, a basketball court and to top it off, a rock climbing wall. Amazingly, there are places on the ship where you feel like the only person on board.

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Malta was our first stop. I honestly didn’t know much about it other than it was where Roosevelt and Churchill had met near the end of World War II and where former President George H. Bush Sr. and former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachav met to discuss the end of the Cold War.

It was the first of many days that exceeded my expectations. The harbor is beautiful with homes and buildings hundreds of years old built into the cliffs. The ancient City of Mdina was a real treat where we visited the cathedral built by the Knights of Malta long before America was discovered.

Pompeii and Sorrento followed the next day. Like many of you, I have been reading about Pompeii for most of my life. It was a city frozen instantly in time in A.D. 79 when nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the city under lava and mud.

Excavations were begun in the middle of the 18th century and today you can see much of the city as it was laid out over 2,000 years ago. It was the engineering feats that amazed me more than the ruins. The streets were laid out efficiently with curbs to channel the water away when it rained. They had lead pipes that fed water into the public places and more expensive homes. Frescos painted on the walls thousands of years ago survive to this day. You could identify the shops because of the channels in the doors that allowed the doors to slide opening and closing the place for business.

Sorrento is a beautiful small resort town built in the side of the mountains with a small harbor. Our bus hugged the small road even as it moved just feet from sheer drops of hundreds of feet into the water. We ate at a small farm, which was harvesting olives for the oil and made mozzarella cheese while we were there.

Rome is another city that was flourishing thousands of years ago. Indeed, it was the center of the universe during the time of the Roman Empire. You could stay for weeks or months in Rome and not see everything, but we did visit all of those on my wish list.

While Mary Lou had visited the Sistine Chapel on Easter many years ago, this was my first trip. Although not celebrated in Rome, it was special for us to be at the Vatican on Thanksgiving Day. The Chapel was brilliant in its color having undergone a 15-year restoration a few years back. Michelangelo told the story of Christians in a manner that is a spectacular today as it was when he finished it more than 500 years ago.

The basilica or church of St. Peter is the largest church in the world. Knowing that going in did not prepare me for the massive interior or its breathtaking decorations. The colors over the pulpit used only by the Pope had just been changed to purple for Advent. Thirty-thousand people can attend a service at one time. More than a half million have attended services in the outdoor square in front of the church.

The coliseum was another site that loomed larger than I expected. It was more complete that I imagined. Even as the traffic circled just feet away, I imagined what it must have been like with 50,000 people inside this stadium at the height of the Roman Empire.

Florence was a city of beauty and culture that lead Europe out of the Dark Ages.

Each church, statue or painting seemed more special that the one before it. We visited the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo and Machiavelli in magnificent churches built before Columbus sailed for America.

The leaning tower of Pisa was in fact leaning. A lot. It is a bell tower constructed adjacent to the Cathedral and Baptistery in Pisa. I could have looked at it for hours contemplating not only its beauty, but wondering how it could have stood these hundreds of years at such an angle.

Cannes, Monaco and Monte Carlo all were beautiful. They were also a demonstration of wealth and excess in today’s world. We saw a private yacht in the harbor that had a staff of 65. Homes of the very rich and famous dotted the landscape. There seemed to be as many Ferraris on the road as any other brand of automobile.

It was the cleanest place I have ever been. They must have even more people policing the grounds than Disney World.

We had lunch in the medieval city of Eze, which was built on top of a rock and is known as the Eagle’s Nest. People still live in the homes and work in the shops built in the 1400s.

We have been welcomed everywhere we have been. People seemed genuinely interested in us as Americans. A smile, a gesture or crude attempt at the local language got us everything we wanted.

We can learn a lot from history and from travel. The public buildings of a thousand years ago tell a story to us today. The ways in which people of other nations get along with different cultures, religions and languages are also a lesson to us.

Americans are not the center of the universe, but are rather just part of a world different and yet alike in many ways. I wonder what people a thousand years from now will think of us as they visit what we have left behind.