Once Upon a Time: Prague Castle

I’m not going to lie – of all the major touristic attractions that I had known about, heard about and made plans to visit, the thought of going to Prague Castle made me unexplainably excited. I’d heard so many things about Prague being such a beautiful city, and the thought of a castle on a hill that overlooked the city inspired foolish, romantic notions of fairytale settings and wonder and magic. Of course, realistically I know it was just going to be a castle, but I let part of myself get swept up by the fantasy daydream.

***

The following morning both Tomas and Matej had to leave for work, so they left me to my own devices to explore the city, with nothing but a key so I could come and go as I please. And a fair bit of advice, of course, as to which buses to catch to get where, and what things I might like to see. “If it’s your first time in Prague, I assume you want to go to the castle,” Tomas had said as he’d told me all this before he’d headed out the door. He’d been right. So I set out on the bright and sunny morning to catch a tram that would take me across the river and up the hill to the castle. As we got closer, it became harder to see the castle, as we drove through areas of greenery and it became a lot harder to look up from inside the tram windows. The line map on the top of the tram car had a little picture of a castle next to the stop that you were supposed to get off at to visit it, but… it was sort of in between two stops. I wasn’t sure which one to pick. My Lonely Planet guide was no help. There were no obvious English speakers that I could ask, and no one seemed friendly enough to approach. Oh well – in the end I just followed a bunch of other tourists who seemed to be on some kind of tour.

When I got off the tram, my surroundings were slightly off-putting. It was like a ghost town – other than the group that had gotten off with me and were wandering slowly away, there was not a soul in sight. But I was left standing in the hot and heavy sun, in a cobblestone area that looked like a set from a Shrek movie (except it was obviously real, not an animation), making me feel like I was in a deserted theme park more than anything. Was I already inside the castle complex? Was this just some random town, or village? I was so confused, but in the distance down one main road, I could see the spires of the castle emerging above the closer rooftops. I set my course towards them, and made it just in time to see the final procession of the changing of the guards, not unlike the display I had seen in the Old Town of Stockholm in Sweden. As they marched off down in the direction I had came from, I turned to the main gate of the castle grounds. It was topped with intricate golden metal framework and statues of men that appeared to be in various stages of combat. The picture was, of course, completed by the tourists doing typical tourist things such as taking photos with the stern, solemn looking guards at their posts at the castle grounds entry. I chuckled and took a few photos of the gate itself before wandering into the grounds.

The guards walking away after the ceremonial changing.

The guards walking away after the ceremonial changing.

The gate that served as the entry into Prague Castle grounds.

The gate that served as the entry into Prague Castle grounds.

As I began wandering through the courtyards, I realised that the castle itself was not one huge ancient building, the the greater limits of an area that included a few large churches and palaces. I wandered through the first courtyards looking for my way into these said palaces – I could see the spires pointing up into the sky above the buildings immediately in front of me, but it was like a maze to get through everything.

The spires of the chruch taunting me - just out of sight... sort of.

The spires of the chruch taunting me – just out of sight… sort of.

How anyone actually gets a good picture of this thing is beyond me.

How anyone actually gets a good picture of this thing is beyond me.

When I finally made it to the churches, there were some guide ropes set up, as though there was some kind of line to get inside, but there was no one lining up so I simply walked on through and into the building. I had just entered into the halls of the St Vitus Cathedral, and was gazing upon the St Wenceslas Chapel. The echoing chamber was full of people, but the chapel itself was beautifully lit up by the sunlight pouring in through the windows. However, while it was gorgeous, it was just another church, so I headed back outside after taking a quick look around.

The front view of St Vitus Cathedral.

The front view of St Vitus Cathedral.

Inside the St Wenceslas Chapel.

Inside the St Wenceslas Chapel.

I doubled back the way I came until I came to a ticket office – wait, tickets? Yep, while wandering the castles courtyards and gardens were free, apparently you needed tickets to enter into each of the main attractions… including the St Vitus Cathedral. I wasn’t about to pay to visit it again, and they had weird ticket packages and bundles that had different validity dates for certain things, and it all just seemed too confusing. I had managed to sneak into the first church undetected, so I figured I would move ahead and see if there was any way around the entry fee to see some of the others. I never ended up even finding the Vladislav Hall in the Old Royal Palace, but I did come across the Basilica of St George. However, it was a much smaller building than the first cathedral, with one entrance where someone was collecting tickets. I pressed ahead, figuring I could return later with a ticket if I so desired.

Courtyard in front of the Basilica of St George.

Courtyard in front of the Basilica of St George.

Side view of St Vitus Cathedral, complete with scaffolding.

Side view of St Vitus Cathedral, complete with scaffolding.

There were a lot of beautiful courtyards and minor buildings throughout the castle grounds, and when I reached the edge wall there was a view that stretched into the horizon, the view from the castle of the old kingdom below. However, in the end I found the whole of Prague Castle to be an underwhelming disappointment. Yes, it holds the Guinness World Record as the largest ancient castle in the world, and it is the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic. Yes, the Bohemian Crown Jewels are there, but they’re kept in a secret, hidden room, and I didn’t catch a glimpse of them. In the end it was just another set of churches to look inside, and unlike most of the churches I’d seen in my travels, like the ones in Cologne, Rome and Zürich, you had to pay to get inside all of these. After swearing that I had seen enough churches to last me this journey, it was a little more than I was prepared to do. So I followed the stepped walkway that led to Prague Castles exit, and crossed the Vltava River and headed back to Old Town Prague.

View from the castle grounds over Prague.

View from the castle grounds over Prague.

Even the exterior of some of the random building around the castle grounds were particularly beautiful and enchanting.

Even the exterior of some of the random building around the castle grounds were particularly beautiful and enchanting.

Steps leading down to the exit of the castle tour.

Steps leading down to the exit of the castle tour.

Truth be told, even though the castle ended up being a bit of a let down for me, I still took immense pleasure in wandering the streets and enjoying the ancient and natural beauty that resonated throughout Prague. The castle was a nice aesthetic touch, visible across the river in the distance, but there was no need to actually visit it to get that fairytale feeling.

***

The next day was something a little bit different. Tomas was a landscape architect, and when I arrived on Tuesday he had told me that on Thursday they were going to get a visit from the mayor of Prague. The apartment complex in which they live had had a garden that was ugly and dying, not good for anything, so Tomas had taken it upon himself to put in hours and hours of hard work to restore the garden, complete with spaces for children in the complex to play, for people to plant gardens and vegetables, and a general sitting area for anything from an outdoor feast or picnic to catching up with a neighbour over a cigarette. Somehow, their garden had been entered into a competition, and unsurprisingly, had won. “There’s going to be a TV crew and everything,” Tomas had told me about the mayors visit. “They’re probably going to interview me too.” I could tell he was excited about the whole thing, but a little nervous about being on TV. Matej had been busy preparing food the day before, and that morning there were a bunch of official looking people, camera crews, TV hosts, as well as all the neighbours out in the garden. I watched on by the table of food, not really understanding any of what was being said, but feeling a little special to catch an inside glimpse into what was probably a special event for a lot of them, but what was for me as authentic an experience as I might get in everyday life in Prague.

Or maybe that’s selling my time in the city short. It was an interesting and non-touristic experience, but I also spent a lot of my time in Prague just hanging out with Matej and Tomas, eating local food at their local favourite places, walking around the beautiful city, or hanging out at night and watching movies, with them introducing me to some strange Czech ones as well as sharing their favourite Hollywood films – Death Becomes Her was a hit all around. I just only just now started to feel fully recovered after my excessive Pride binging in Southern Europe, and I realised it had been roughly two weeks since I had done any kind of crazy partying – extremely uncharacteristic of me – but I was rather enjoying the break, and it had given me the time to fully regain my strength.

I did spend one afternoon with Tomas and his friend Ondra having a stroll through a lush green garden area. I was amazed at the luck I had been having with the weather, and the daylight had been coming long and strong for weeks now. Beer was free flowing in most parts of Prague – you could could get it in plastic cups to go from many places, much like the set up for Pride in Paris, and so the three of us got our big cups of beer and took them outside to enjoy them on the grass. Ondra was a little quirky, but still a nice guy. He only spoke in English half the time, the other half in Czech, which made him a little mysterious to me, but I think Tomas explained it as that his English just wasn’t that good. Or he just didn’t like speaking English, whatever. But the three of us managed to have some funny conversations, with Tomas a relaying translator, having a couple of deep and meaningful discussions as well as laughing at the random and silly things we observed in the park around us. Tomas also took me over to a nearby church at the park. It was open, and free to all, but photography was prohibited. Inside, there was a case that contained some ancient relics, including bones and artefacts that belonged to saints from centuries past. It was a cool little thing to glimpse, and the church was virtually empty – a sign that I had definitely diverted from the tourist path and off the beaten track.

The smaller church Tomas took me to that afternoon.

The smaller church Tomas took me to that afternoon.

The view of the church from our comfy spot on the grass.

The view of the church from our comfy spot on the grass.

***

I’d enjoyed my very brief time in Prague, and once again it was a little upsetting to have to leave behind people who I had just met, yet had grown so close to in such a short amount of time. “Don’t worry,” I had assured them as I had packed my stuff up on my final night. “I’m breezing through Europe so quickly this time, it just means that I’ll definitely have to come back one time to do it all probably.” They seemed to like that, although they were such nice guys that I’m sure they’d find plenty of new and fun Couchsurfers to fill my place when I left. But I was glad that once again I had taken the opportunity to Couchsurf and meet some amazing people and see some pretty cool and interesting things.

But for now, my time in Prague was at an end. I headed back to the train station on Friday morning, and when I saw the crowds I felt a moment of panic, having not reserved a ticket in advance. But there was just enough room on the train, luckily. I couldn’t really blame everyone for wanting to go where I was headed, because as I boarded the train I was overwhelmed with anticipation and excitement. I’d tried my best to see as much as I could during my time in Europe, and while you would think that that wouldn’t involve visiting a city for the second time, there was just something about the allure I felt that I hadn’t quite managed to shake: I was heading back to Berlin.

Losing My Religion

Day Two of Selma’s itinerary started off with another sight that was deemed one of Rome’s “must see” attractions: The Vatican City. The further along I got on this itinerary, the more I realised that there are just so many things to see in Rome, and that I would have probably wasted a whole heap of time had I not had the good fortune of Selma’s advice. Still, the Vatican was something I was almost in two minds about. “The Vatican? Won’t you, like, burst into flames or something when you step inside?”, my best friend Jesse had said during a Skype conversation while I was getting ready to head out. I just laughed and shrugged. I hadn’t let my homosexuality or my distaste for organised religion stop me from entering any of the other churches throughout Europe so far, so why should I treat the Vatican any differently. By that reasoning St Peter’s Basilica was – to me, at least – just another church.

The Vatican is located slightly north-west of central Rome, and Valerio’s place was in the south-east, so it took even longer to get there than it had taken to get into the centre yesterday. Selma’s instructions had advised I wake up early to visit the Vatican, presumably to avoid the queues, but unless it is absolutely essential, I have discovered I am just not a morning person. Especially not for the Pope. So the sun was high and bright as I stepped out of the metro system and into the streets, where I immediately could find my way to the Vatican by simply following the flocks of people. There were lots of people holding signs advertising guided tours, hollering at passers-by with things like “You going to the museum? Vatican Museum is not this way, you want want guided tour, aye?” Every now and then I would see people stop and talk to them, and I wondered if any of them realised how ripped off they were probably going to get. “Long lines for the museum, but not with guided tour!” Maybe I was wrong though – I never bothered to investigate them further. I dodged the assumed tourists traps as I blended into the throng of the crowd.

The centre of the Vatican City.

The centre of the Vatican City.

There were lines to get into the main church – there was absolutely no way around that. Entry to St Peter’s Basilica is free, so there wasn’t really any reason not to go in, once you realised the lines moved at quite a constant and steady pace. I couldn’t have been in line for more than 20 minutes before I was through the security check and on my way in. Some of the other tourists around me, however, were not so lucky. Like many holy sights that I had visited in places like Bangkok and Angkor Wat, respectful attire was compulsory for entry into the largest Catholic church in the world, and I had done my research. As I approached the front of the line, I pulled out the pair of jeans that I had stuffed into my backpack and pulled them on over my short, immodest shorts. I’d been sure to wear a t-shirt with decent length sleeves, so once I had covered up I was given the green light by security. The women behind me in their sandals, summer dresses and light gauze shawls weren’t so lucky.

The first thing I noticed when I was finally within the compound was, lo and behold, another line. It was a line to climb the steps to the basilica’s atrium, a dome that supposedly offered views of the Vatican and the surrounding area. I stood in line for a short while before I realised a sign that read “Exact fare only” (it cost €5 to walk the stairs or €7 to take the lift). I checked my wallet – all I had was a €50 note. I deliberated in the line for a little while, but in the end I decided that it wouldn’t be worth the wait to be turned down for not having the correct change, and even if that didn’t matter, I wasn’t sure the view itself would be worth even more waiting. So instead I slipped out of the line and entered into the main chamber of the church.

The Michelangelo Dome inside St Peter's Basilica.

The Michelangelo Dome inside St Peter’s Basilica.

One of the many statues inside St Peter's Basilica. Unfortunately, I am unable to recall it's name.

One of the many statues inside St Peter’s Basilica. Unfortunately, I am unable to recall it’s name.

I have to admit that my musings in the morning before my arrival at the Vatican had been a little bit off – I had seen a lot of churches so far, but this place was impressive. I wandered around the hollow space aimlessly for some time, just staring at the walls and the ceilings and the masterpiece artworks that adorned them. It was almost similar to the interior of the Hermitage in St Petersburg, with gold plating and lavish trimmings, but as I admired all the beauty, I couldn’t help but think that it was all so over the top, and question whether or not it was necessary for a church to be so intricately decorated. Although these places were built in a completely different time period, almost a completely different world, and I suppose institutions such as the Catholic church would have had enough power that they could have commissioned anything to happen, not just a masterpiece by Michelangelo. Which isn’t really any more of a comforting thought. I had been able to admire almost all the other churches I’d visited during my travels simply as holy places of worship, where people found solace in their faith, even if I did not. But there was something else, something more than the interior design within St Peter’s Basilica that made me a little uncomfortable, somehow reminding me of all the things that I really did have against religious institutions such as this one. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but all my previous attempts at finding some kind of enlightenment came to naught as of that day, and I fell back into a phase of religious disillusion.

The statue of St Peter with his worn worn down foot.

The statue of St Peter with his worn worn down foot.

The main alter in the church, featuring the Apse Cathedra (the chair of St Peter) and the Apse Gloria (the stained glass window).

The main alter in the church, featuring the Apse Cathedra (the chair of St Peter) and the Apse Gloria (the stained glass window).

Personal reflection aside, the basilica is still rather wondrous to behold. A highlight is the statue of St Peter, whose toes on this right foot have been worn down to a smooth nub after centuries of pilgrims touching and kissing his foot while they pray to the saint. As I was taking a photo of the main alter in the church, I was tapped on the shoulder. I turned around to see a couple, a man a woman, extending their camera out to me and pointing at the alter. Figuring that they wanted me to take a picture for them, but also guessing that they didn’t speak English or Italian, I just smiled and nodded. I took the camera and snapped a few shots before handing it back to them, and then motioning for them to take a few for me in return. “спасибо,” (or phonetically ‘spasiba’) the man mumbled to me in a deep voice as we parted ways. I got momentarily excited, and went to say “You’re welcome”, until I realised that ‘thank you’ was pretty much the extent of all the Russian that I knew. After I had finished looking around and taking a few pictures, I exited St Peter’s Basilica through the underground crypts, where former Popes are laid to rest. It was a solemn route in which photography was not allowed, so after I left I snapped a few last pictures out the front in St Peter’s Square.

Having my photo taken with the main alter by the surly Russian couple. Also annoyingly photo-bombed.

Having my photo taken with the main alter by the surly Russian couple. Also annoyingly photo-bombed.

This rebel worshipper decided to touch the other foot instead of the traditional one. St Peter's left foot still have distinguishable toes.

This rebel worshipper decided to touch the other foot instead of the traditional one. St Peter’s left foot still have distinguishable toes.

Outside St Peter's Basilica.

Outside St Peter’s Basilica.

Outside the church in St Peter's Square.

Outside the church in St Peter’s Square.

***

The next stop of the day was the other major feature of the Vatican – the Vatican Museums. Now I’m not a huge art buff, but I’m no snub either, so I wanted to take my time and at least see some of the highlights – according to Lonely Planet you would need a couple of hours for that alone. I followed the crowds exiting the basilica and found my way to the museums. I instantly knew that I had made the right decision in forgoing the expensive tourist trap guided tours of the Vatican Museums – what appeared to be a long waiting line to get in was actually just a steady stream of people moving into the building. I never actually stood still once while I was ‘waiting’, and I was in and away in no time.

The collection of artworks in the Vatican is quite remarkable though. Every room is crammed with as many works of art as possible, from the most minuscule and seemingly insignificant to the most amazing of masterpieces. There were sculptures, statues, paintings, portraits, walls and ceilings decorated with the most extravagance: it just went on and on. I won’t even attempt to describe or explain everything I saw, but I did take a few photos of some of my favourite pieces.

The Vatican statue of Neptune.

The Vatican statue of Neptune.

The famous statue titled "Laocoön and His Sons", which depicts them being strangled by a snake.

The famous statue titled “Laocoön and His Sons”, which depicts them being strangled by a snake.

A collection of various sculptures on display.

A collection of various sculptures on display.

The Belvedere Torso.

The Belvedere Torso.

One of the roof paintings in the halls of the Vatican. Unfortunately they're not so easily marked, thus not easily identifiable.

One of the roof paintings in the halls of the Vatican. Unfortunately they’re not so easily marked, thus not easily identifiable.

The statue of Hermanubis, a god who was a combination of Hermes in Greek mythology and Anubis in Egyptian mythology.

The statue of Hermanubis, a god who was a combination of Hermes in Greek mythology and Anubis in Egyptian mythology.

A mummy in the Egyptian wing on the museum.

A mummy in the Egyptian wing on the museum.

The sarcophagus of St Helen.

The sarcophagus of St Helen.

Another ceiling painting in the Vatican.

Another ceiling painting in the Vatican.

I followed the signs and directions for the most brief tour of the museums, which as expected still took a couple of hours. But no matter how you go about it, the final stop on any tour of the Vatican Museums inevitably has to be the Sistine Chapel. Photographs are forbidden in the main chamber, and rightly so. I’ve previously expressed similar sentiments that being unable to take a photo of a place, such as inside the temples of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, make the place a little more special and sacred, and you really have to be there to see it. Of course, you can see the highlights of the chapel with a quick Google search, but there is so much more to the room than Genesis. The chapel itself would have been quite a chilling and moving sight to behold, if it weren’t for the fact that the rule of silence was so heavily policed. Don’t get me wrong, I think that requiring to be silent in places like the Sistine Chapel is totally acceptable – it’s still a holy place and I’m sure there’d be dozens of Catholics around the place casting prayers up to Heaven as they gaze around in awe. But the effect of that silence, and indeed the point of requiring it, seems a little defeated by the “ATTENTION! SILENCE PLEASE! NO PHOTOGRAPHY!” boomed out over a very loud speaker system in 6 different languages every thirty seconds. It’s a little hard to be impressed while standing in the midst of a famous work of art when you feel like you’re being ordered around like a herd of cattle.

One of the halls leading up to the Sistine Chapel.

One of the halls leading up to the Sistine Chapel.

The famous Spiral Staircase that leads to the exit of the Vatican Museum.

The famous Spiral Staircase that leads to the exit of the Vatican Museum.

Although, it’s disappointing to admit that more than half the tourists in the room were behaving like cattle. I left the museum after that, and the Vatican as a whole, feeling not exactly underwhelmed by what I had experienced, and not necessarily disappointed. I just felt a little confused. Like, was there something I wasn’t getting? I appreciated these places as world renowned and works of art, but I just felt like I was missing something that made it all really seem that worth it. Maybe it was the disillusionment I felt in St Peter’s Basilica, or maybe I was just suffering from museum fatigue, or was just tired of an itinerary that was starting to feel like a season of  “Europe’s Next Top Cathedral”. I was glad that I had seen what I had seen, but I decided after my visit to the Vatican that I was going to terminate the rigid itinerary that Selma had provided me with. There were still a couple of major sights I legitimately wanted to see, but I think my trip to the Vatican marked the day that I had officially grown tired of museums, churches, and every other typical tourist attraction.

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

After a decent nights sleep at Valerio’s house, I woke up feeling remarkably refreshed and ready to take on Rome. I had been told by almost everyone who had visited Rome that the city was enormous, and that if you didn’t have a plan of attack you could easily waste all your valuable sightseeing time trying to find your way around the maze of combined modern and ancient history. Lucky for me, I had met Selma in Barcelona, who had seemed more excited than I was at the fact that I was going to Rome. We had exchanged contact details, and at some point during my stay in Madrid she had sent me a huge message that had included a list of all the famous sights, monuments and neighbourhoods, as well as a detailed itinerary of how to make the most of all these things and visit as many as possible in the three days that I had to explore Rome. I felt a mix of overwhelming gratitude and guilt – I hoped she had already had this itinerary written down and had just forwarded it on to me, because what I got had been so much more than I had expected when I’d asked for “a few tips”. Nevertheless, she had saved me a great deal of planning when it came to all that touristic stuff that I’d never really been any good at.

As convenient as getting to Valerio’s house from the airport had been, getting from Valerio’s house to central Rome was somewhat more of a challenge. I had to get a bus to the closest metro station, and then from there catch the metro into the heart of the city. The whole trip should have only taken me half an hour if the public transport ran on time, but I was about to learn very quickly that literally nothing in Italy runs on time. So it took a little longer. Given the size of the city, I was also surprised that Rome only had two metro lines that ran diagonally across the city and intersected only once or twice in the middle. Cities like Moscow, Berlin, Paris, Madrid and even Barcelona all had upwards of around fifteen metro lines, so it was puzzling as to why Rome was so far behind. Valerio would later tell me that the city was working on a third line. It’s completion was scheduled for approximately somewhere in the next several years – Rome wasn’t built in a day, I guess?

When I finally reached central Rome, my first stop was Piazza del Popolo, a large public square with a huge obelisk towering over the tourists crossing the plaza. From there I following Selma’s directions and climbed the stairs up to Pincio Hill. The top of the hill was a beautiful and quite peaceful garden, a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the lower streets of Rome that I had been in so far. It was also a spot that afforded excellent panoramic views of Rome, so I stopped to take a couple of photos before wandering through the greenery. I followed the edge of Pincio Hill until I rather unwittingly walked down the next attraction, Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti: the Spanish Steps. It wasn’t until I reached the bottom and arrived at Piazza di Spagna, thought to be the most famous square in Rome, that I turned around and took in my surroundings. The square is a common rest stop for tourists wandering the city, so it was quite crowded, and at the top of the steps sat the French church Chiesa della Trinità dei Monti.

The obelisk in Piazza del Popolo.

The obelisk in Piazza del Popolo.

The view of Piazza del Popolo from the top of Pincio Hill.

The view of Piazza del Popolo from the top of Pincio Hill.

View of Rome from the top of Pincio Hill.

View of Rome from the top of Pincio Hill.

The garden on top of Pincio Hill.

The garden on top of Pincio Hill.

At the foot of the Spanish Steps I came across my first Roman fountain, the Barcaccia, sculpted in 1627 in the style of a sinking boat. Valerio had told me that the water in all of the fountains around Rome was safe to drink. I hadn’t understood at the time, but I would soon learn that similar fountains were scattered all around the city, and thirsty tourists and locals alike could be seen stealing a sip from the flowing water, or filling up their water bottles. The water all comes from clean underground springs and is completely safe to drink as it pours out of the fountain. It was a cute little feature of the city, and particularly convenient given how hot it was that day, and all the walking I still had left to do. From Piazza di Spagna I walked down Via dei Condotti, the posh shopping strip of Rome that was lined with expensive designer and luxury brands. It was an amusing juxtaposition, to see such expensive and modern designer brands in the shop fronts that were situated in some of the oldest streets in the world. Though the entire city of Rome was full of such contrasts – modern stores that were built a few months ago stood side by side in the street with structures that had been standing in place for over 3000 years. For someone who comes from a country as young as Australia, it was a strange concept to fathom.

The Spanish Steps and the church at the top, as seen from Piazza di Spagna.

The Spanish Steps and the church at the top, as seen from Piazza di Spagna.

The Barcaccia fountain at Piazza di Spagna.

The Barcaccia fountain at Piazza di Spagna.

At the end of that street came the Trevi Fountain, one of the more well-known and more highly anticipated sights of Rome. The crowds around the fountain were unbelievable – it was almost impossible to get a photo without someone else being the photo. I actually saw a couple of fights break out between groups who were trying to take photos while other groups were getting in the way. It was actually quite frightening, and at that point I decided I wasn’t going to stay in any areas heavily populated by tourists for any longer than necessary. It was at that point that I broke away from Selma’s itinerary, although not entirely intentionally. I thought I was following her directions to another plaza, but after a while I emerged into a clearing to behold the Pantheon, another instantly recognisable sight. The 2000-year-old temple is now a church, and one of the best preserved monuments in Rome. It was beautiful, both inside and out, and the dome in the roof that is considered to be the ancient Romans greatest architectural achievement allowed a cylinder of sunlight to pour in from the sky. It was a little eerie, but also gave a rather holy feel to the aesthetic of the huge old room. I wandered around the inner chambers and admired some of the artworks and decorations before taking leave back out into the midday sun.

Trevi Fountain.

Trevi Fountain.

In front of (or as close as I could get to) Trevi Fountain.

In front of (or as close as I could get to) Trevi Fountain.

The Pantheon.

The Pantheon.

Alter inside the Pantheon.

Alter inside the Pantheon.

Sunlight pouring through the dome in the roof of the Pantheon.

Sunlight pouring through the dome in the roof of the Pantheon.

A few short streets later and I found myself at Piazza Navona, a long plaza that is home to several fountains, the most famous of which is Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, the Fountain of Four Rivers. The plaza was full on tourists, but it also seemed to be a popular place for buskers, street performers, artists drawing both realistic sketches and caricatures, and peddlers selling all kinds of souvenirs and trinkets. It reminded me a lot of some of the heavily touristic areas in Paris, and I stayed for long enough to observe some of the interesting things going on, and take a few photos of course, before heading off and moving on.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers, the centrepoint of Piazza Navona.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers, the centrepoint of Piazza Navona.

The Neptune Fountain in Piazza Navona.

The Neptune Fountain in Piazza Navona.

La Fontana del Moro, the Moor Fountain, in Piazza Navona.

La Fontana del Moro, the Moor Fountain, in Piazza Navona.

There were a few other things on Selma’s itinerary for the first day, but they were more missable things such as places to eat or where to get some good gelato. I would have followed through and investigated, but by that point I was completely exhausted. My body still hadn’t fully recovered from the breakdown in Madrid, so I ended up grabbing some quick take away food before heading back to Valerio’s to rest and recover for the remainder of the afternoon. I know, it seems sacrilegious in a city and country known for some amazing cuisine, but the last thing I felt like doing was sitting down at an overpriced tourist restaurant by myself. However, I did swing by the Termini train station on my way home, so that I could book my tickets out of Rome for a few days time. On my way there I passed a building which I later learned to be Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, the Alter of the Fatherland, the National Monument for Victor Emmanuel II, which had also been on Selma’s itinerary. It’s a controversial monument that was built in honour of the first king of unified Italy, and also holds the home of Italy’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the accompanying eternal flame.

The National Monument for Victor Emmanuel II.

The National Monument for Victor Emmanuel II.

After waiting an hour to be served and book my train tickets (again, this is Italy, so no surprise there), I took the metro and the bus back home to Valerio’s. Considering I was far from my peak physical condition, I felt I had done a decent job of sightseeing for the day. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you certainly can’t see it in one either, so I had a quiet and early night, making sure I got plenty of sleep to continue the exploring tomorrow.

Sacred Sunrise: Angkor Wat

The streets of Siem Reap were almost deserted – it could have been a ghost town if it weren’t for the few other tuk tuks and the occasional motorbike that puttered along on the road beside us. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes as dawn unfolded around the small Cambodian town – as I’ve mentioned before, early mornings and I make strange bedfellows, and I have no clear recollection of the last time I was getting out of bed at dawn. I peered through the thin light around us, and watched as the streets fell away to be replaced by dense woodlands and rainforest. I was on my way to the temples of Angkor Wat, to see what is regarded by many as one of the most beautiful sunrises in the world.

***

Yet my Angkor Wat experience had started the previous afternoon. After crawling off my overnight bus from Sihanoukville, I stumbled into a tuk tuk and asked to be taken to a cheap hostel. After being shown the dingy and humid dorm rooms, I caved in to the sales pitch of the hostel owners and checked into a private room – after the weekend I’d had, a comfortable bed, a private bathroom and a place to wash my underwear proved to be irresistible. Treat yourself, I told myself, and collapsed onto the bed to the catch up on the sleep that I had not managed to acquire during my overnight transit. I’d managed to strike an arrangement with my tuk tuk driver to be my guide through the major temples of Angkor Wat, so he told me he would come back this afternoon to take me up there to see the sunset. Unfortunately, he’d failed to mention that to be allowed inside any of the sacred buildings, you need to have the standard respectful clothing. In other words, attire that covers your shoulders and knees. I should have known better – it’s been the same with all the temples and palaces that I’ve visited throughout South East Asia. But my momentary lapse in judgement allowed me to rock up to the temple that is famous for its view of the sunset, only to be advised I wouldn’t be allowed to climb to the top due to the singlet I was wearing. I kicked myself for not realising this before I set out from the hotel, and then took a few photos of the view that I could see.

The ruin which has a beautiful view of the sunset, which I was not able to enter.

The ruin which has a beautiful view of the sunset, which I was not able to enter.

View of Angkor Wat from the base of the sunset ruins.

View of Angkor Wat from the base of the sunset ruins.

I was about to ask to go back to Siem Reap, but my tuk tuk driver said that I’d still be able to walk across the bridge that crossed the moat that surrounds the main Angkor Wat temple, all the way up to the main gate, so I decided to make the most of the sunset and check it out. The temple is really quite a fascinating structure, and it looked beautiful bathed in the light of the setting sun. I wandered up to see now far I would be allowed in. However, what I didn’t realise is that the temples technically close at five o’clock, and at this point it was almost six. Despite there being lots of people around, there were no guards or staff checking for tickets. As a result, my wandering found me quite deep inside some of the main chambers before I realised that I was well within the areas that required one to be ‘respectfully dressed’. But I’d come this far, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a few photos of the temple when it wasn’t completely flooded with tourists. I took a few photos of the mystical place, made a silent apology through prayer to anyone I may have offended, and quickly scampered out of the temple and back to my tuk tuk.

Angkor Wat in the light of the sunset.

Angkor Wat in the light of the sunset.

Inside the main Angkor Wat temples.

Inside the main Angkor Wat temples.

One of the entrances into the main temple.

One of the entrances into the main temple.

***

Flash forward to the next morning, and I am stepping out of the same tuk tuk in the same location, into a throng of people who are all making their way across the moat into Angkor Wat. Like cattle we plodded through the gates and into the inner compound, where there were already hundreds of people claiming their positions and setting up their cameras, keenly anticipating the rising sun. I found my own spot amongst the crowd and readied my camera for the moment the sun broke from behind the horizon and cast the temple into a silhouette. It was clear to see why the sunrise was such a popular event – the reflection in the pool within the grounds was simply stunning, and the temple took on an even greater air of majesty with sun burning brightly in the background. However, I couldn’t help but feel as though the experience was detracted somewhat by the extreme presence of tourism. It felt as though this structure, originally built as a famous and majestic Hindu palace, has been reduced to a holiday snap, a postcard, or simply just another checked box on a list of things to do in South East Asia. While I was still able to admire the view, the sense of mysticism and spirituality that I had while exploring the inner chambers yesterday had been successfully drained by the amount of photo taking going on around me.

Reflection of the sunrise on the Angkor Wat pool.

Reflection of the sunrise on the Angkor Wat pool.

The throng of tourists crowding around the pool in anticipation.

The throng of tourists crowding around the pool in anticipation.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat.

Standing in one of the entrances to the inner chambers.

Standing in one of the entrances to the inner chambers.

Sunrise selfies at Angkor Wat.

Sunrise selfies at Angkor Wat.

***

However, Angkor Wat is only one temple in what is actually a huge collection of relics and ruins scattered throughout a huge area. The entrance into the domain of these temples is about four kilometres from the town of Siem Reap, and once you pass the main temple you reach Angkor Thom, four times the size of Angkor Wat and not so much a temple as it is an ancient enclosed city, full of its own collection of ruined temples, the largest and most impressive of which is Bayon. My tuk tuk driver dropped me off there, and allowed me to explore the smaller ruins spread out within the walls of Angkor Thom. It was here, wandering through the rainforest and getting lost inside the deserted temples, that I really felt the awe and wonder that comes with the history behind these epic structures. While Angkor Wat was originally built as a Hindu palace, Bayon and the rest of Angkor Thom were Buddhist monuments. I still struggle to get my head around the specifics of the history, a tale riddled with kings, conversions and a host of sects within the two religions, even after a later visit to the Angkor National Museum, but for the moment I was happy to just wander through and explore the ancient wonderland.

Bayon temple inside Angkor Thom.

Bayon temple inside Angkor Thom.

Inside one of the smaller ruins.

Inside one of the smaller ruins.

A building colloquially known at the Elephant Temple.

A building colloquially known at the Elephant Temple.

The steep steps of Ta Keo.

The steep steps of Ta Keo.

Part of the temple featured in Tomb Raider.

Part of the temple featured in Tomb Raider.

Myself with the 'Tomb Raider tree'.

Myself with the ‘Tomb Raider tree’.

***

My tuk tuk taxied me between the rest of the temple highlights, including an unfinished temple called Ta Keo, which lacked the detail of some of the other temples but whose steep staircases provided me with my daily exercise, and a dilapidated compound which I believe was called Ta Prohm, which contained several areas that were the location for the filming of Tomb Raider. Many of the temples were in poor condition, with parts of them closed off to the public due to reconstructions that were underway, but they were nevertheless an impressive sight. I was told by my mother that most people allow three days to see the temples. In Bangkok, Brendon had said one day was enough to see the best bits, unless you were truly mad about temples. In the end it wasn’t even midday before I decided to wrap things up at Angkor Wat. Between my afternoon visit, and having been awake since before sunrise, I had grown exhausted, and I also felt like I had seen quite a lot of what the area had to offer. Of course, there were more temples, but as my time in South East Asia was drawing to a close, I decided I had seen enough temples in the past six weeks.

Having said that, the temples of Angkor Wat really are something entirely different and special. It might have been checking off another box on the list of things to do in South East Asia, but it was definitely more than that. It’s an ancient and marvellous wonder, and one of the few things in this part of the world that could unquestionably be classified as a must see.

***

NB: While I tried my best to learn the history of the temples that I visited, it was long and complicated, and I can’t guarantee that everything I’ve said is correct, especially regarding what these temples were used for in previous ancient cultures. For more reliable facts on these things, please continue your research elsewhere