Back To The Future

Back to the future. When we lived in ‘Tosa, we had Time Warner internet and cable. I wasn’t overly impressed with their customer service so when we moved here, we went with Time Warner Internet but switched to Direct TV for our video. About the same time we got fed up with signal degradation during storms, AT&T Uverse service rolled out and we’ve been satisfied customers ever since.
Recently, we realized that we only watch local news, PBS and stream stuff from Amazon Prime and Hulu. No need for the AT&T channels, lets look at options. My two previous posts talked about my experiments with Over The Air Digital  TV, a Tablo DVR and Roku at each TV to manage the data streaming. I’m happy to report it  works great and called to cancel my TV package. AT&T: “we can do that, but we’ll have to charge you more for Internet. A lot more. And, there will be a data limit”.

Since I’m well aware that Spectrum can provide Internet service at 100MB (vs 18MB that AT&T gives me) with no data limit. And, the price is actually a few bucks cheaper than I’m currently paying for AT&T Internet (before the increase they told me I’d face by dropping TV).

I was happy with Time Warner’s  internet service before and I know Charter/Spectrum (who bought Time Warner) has put a bunch of enhancements into their system. I have no reason to  believe that I won’t be happy with Spectrum Internet service when it gets installed and I will be cancelling my entire AT&T packcage as soon as the Spectrum installer leaves.

The AT&T service rep told me I’d be back. Somehow, I doubt it.

Cutting the Cable (part 2)

So, you may be wondering, what does it take to “cut the cable” and transition to Over The Air Digital TV? Here are some suggestions:

Your starting point is to understand what DTV stations are available in your area. There are many resources available for this. I chose to take advantage of the FCC database:
Note that this isn’t a perfect science. The map says I’ll get a lot of channels with great signal strength. Click on a channel in the list and the map tool will put that channel’s broadcast tower location on the map with a line from your location to the tower. Look along that line to see if there are any big hills in the way. I’m cautiously optimistic that a good antenna will allow me to pull in some of those channels although I’m not expecting the signal strength advertised.

While you’re reviewing the channels that you might get based on the map, note whether stations near you are broadcast on UHF, VHF or both frequency ranges. In general, VHF signals can travel longer distances and get “past” things like hills and valleys. UHF signals can get through smaller openings (e.g. windows) so often penetrate buildings better. Most Digital TV antennas are “dual band” and can receive both VHF and UHF signals. This means, by definition, that compromises were made at design time to accommodate both. If you plan on an outside antenna and aren’t too concerned about size, select one that includes elements for receiving both UHF and VHF signals on separate parts of the antenna. If you’re buying an inside antenna, consider one that’s rated for longer distance, has a built in signal amplifier, etc. They’re slightly more expensive but they’re a one time cost. Consider buying your antenna from a source which accepts returns so you can “trade up” if the first one you buy doesn’t work for you. The first antenna I’m going to try is an indoor antenna: the Winegard FlatWave Amped FL5500A. (I do not get any benefit if you click the link or buy from Amazon). I’ll let you know if/how it works for me.

The next choice you need to make is whether you will be connecting the antenna directly to your TV or if you want to put the signal into some sort of recording/distribution system. Since I want to be able to record shows, I had to find a Digital Video Recorder (DVR) that was capable of recording OTA programming. I chose the Tablo 4-tuner DVR so we can record multiple shows from different channels at the same time. This DVR can “distribute” live or recorded shows to multiple TVs which is also important to me. In order to save recorded shows, the DVR needs USB storage. Hopefully we’ll never run out of room with a 4TB Seagate drive I use these for off-site backups of our home storage server (all my pictures, music and documents). They perform well and I’ve never had any problems with them.

The final step is getting the signal from the DVR to the TVs. Some newer TVs may be capable of communicating with the Tablo DVR directly. Game systems like the Xbox One are also capable of communicating with the Tablo. Since we have three different TVs I would like usage to be consistent across them. That means adding some sort of receiver at each of them. I settled on Roku devices which will also add the ability to watch Netflix and Hulu to our oldest TV and may fix the issues that one of our TVs has with the Hulu library. There are several different models of Roku devices. Although they’re more expensive, I wanted to use the wired network within our house for better performance. I picked the Roku Premier+ 4K/UHD model. This is a case where last year’s model is actually a better fit for me than the current year’s products so I actually save a bit.

There’s one more decision that we can’t make until the pieces arrive and I get them set up. The Tablo DVR has a “channel guide” feature. It allows you to select live programming or schedule recordings from a built-in programming guide. The box includes a free 24 hour rolling window of programming information. If you want to record something further in the future, you need to find the programming information somewhere else and program the record start/stop date and times OR buy a subscription to a 2 week rolling window of programming information. You get a 30 day free trial of the 2 week window and I’m pretty sure I’m going to choose the one-time payment for a lifetime subscription.

You may be asking, why go to all the fuss? Remember I said cable TV is expensive. We have one of the most basic packages available and it costs about $65/month to put it on our 3 TVs (in HD, with whole house DVR). The components I’ve described in this blog aren’t cheap, but they’ll be paid for in about 11 months with the savings from not paying the cable man for TV. If we don’t buy a permanent channel guide subscription, payback drops to about 9.5 months.

Cutting the Cable (part 1)

Like many of you, I’ve been a bit frustrated with the fact that our “cable” bill keeps going up. I’m not going to name my provider since I’ve been generally happy with their service over the years, but now that the kids are gone, the cost of putting the few shows that my wife and I watch on the screen seems outlandish.

Last weekend we were visiting relatives in another city and my Mother-in-law asked me some questions about cutting her cable and switching to Over The Air (OTA) High Definition (HD) TV. I looked at her bill and realized she was paying for all kinds of stuff that she didn’t need. I told her I’d research where her broadcast towers are and make an antenna recommendation.

As we talked about it, I told her that I’ve often thought about it, but really like the “whole house DVR” feature (we have 3 TVs, one in the loft, one in the living room and one in the rec room and periodically play stuff on all of them). Another complicating factor is geography. We live at the edge of the terminal glacier, with hills on 3 sides which block line of sight to the broadcast towers.

However, while I was researching antennas, I discovered that there is a “whole house DVR” setup for cable cutters. An hour worth of research later, the UPS guy will be delivering some “Christmas in June” to our house tomorrow. If it works, my next post will be about the system and my experience putting it together.

As they say on TV, “Stay tuned!”

And, we’re at it again!

The choir of St. Anthony on the Lake Parish, Pewaukee WI USA is off on another adventure. You may recall our previous singing tour of Italy in 2012. After much preparation, our director Laurie Polkus and accompanist Ann Basten-Ruane have decided that they’re willing to be seen in public with us again, this time a little farther east!

We’ll be visiting Prague, Vienna and Salzburg for our concerts, interspersed with tours. We are so lucky to once again have Elisabeth as our guide! When we’re done working, we have a final day of playing in the “Lake Country” in the middle of the Bavarian Alps, high above Garmisch-Partenkirchen where we’ll tour Neuschwanstein and celebrate a successful concert tour with a gala dinner at the Riessersee Hotel Resort before heading to Munich.

The tour itself ends in Munich and a few couples have decided to stay on extra days to explore the area – after all, it will be Oktoberfest!

As I mentioned to my traveling companions, I am quite capable of pretending that I like to sing in order to hang with this fun bunch, drink a little wine and make some (hopefully) fantastic photos!

Better Ways to Text

You’ve got a smartphone. Your data plan may include unlimited texting. In my house, that’s a GoodThing(tm) because I’d be broke if I had to pay for my kids’ texts. To wit, from our most recent bill, I sent 153 SMS messages. My wife sent 57, my daughter sent 184 and my son sent 3,046! I think his thumb is stuck to his phone’s screen.

My smartphone, a Samsung Galaxy S3, has a pretty large screen. Not the largest you can get, but easy enough on my eyes and fingers. I also have a Google Nexus 10 tablet (made for Google by Samsung) with an external keyboard. I’ve been using Gmail and Google Calendar for years. I honestly don’t know what I’d do if I could no longer have the instantly updated view no matter where I look (phone, tablet, desktop, laptop, library, hotel kiosk, wherever). Because of this integration, and frankly, because I’m lazy – I don’t want to pull my phone out to deal with  a SMS text message if I’m working with my tablet – I’ve been looking for a SMS text app for my tablet that can use my smartphone’s number.

This week, I found Mighty Text. Its available in the Google Play store. No, I don’t get a commission if you click the links, I’m providing them because I think you’ll like this app. Anyway, install it on your phone and create an account. By default, it will link to your phone’s Google account, which is probably Then, install it on your tablet and link it to the same account. If you want, install a browser add-in to your desktop or laptop and link it to the same account for seamless integration across the platforms.

The app claims “instant notification” to your tablet or desktop when your phone receives a SMS text message. I don’t know about instant, but I can tell you that the incoming message popup is visible on my tablet BEFORE I hear the notificaiton sound associated with the incoming message on my phone. Incoming and outgoing messages are visible on all linked platforms.

So, have you been looking for an app like this? If so, try MightyText and let me know what you think. Do you know of other apps that can do this? Please share, especially if you look at MightyText and think you’ve got something better!

Note that I’ve updated my Smartphone Apps list to include the MightyText and GoSMS Pro applications.


Smartphone Apps

OK, you got a new “smart” phone for Christmas and you want to know what to do with it. Chances are your phone came pre-loaded with some applications (apps). A long time ago there was a deadpan line “there’s an app for that”. They were right. Pretty much whatever you want to do with your new smartphone, someone (or many someones) has made an app to help you accomplish your task. You can try using the apps that came on your phone. They may be good apps. Or maybe they’re crappy apps that someone paid your phone manufacturer or cellular service provider (wait, do any of them really provide “service”?) to put on your phone for you. There’s good news – some of them really are useful. There’s bad news – you can’t get rid of the ones you don’t like without voiding the warranty on your phone.

So, how do you know if there’s a better app to do something than the one you’re currently trying to use? Ask your friends. Just remember a few things:

  • We all have different tastes and preferences so your friends favorites may not be yours
  • Most of us have different phones, with different operating systems, or different versions of the same operating system, or different manufacturer and service provider modificaitons.
  • Possibly the most important thing to remember is that nothing is free. Nothing is even cheap. The people who write apps have your best interests at heart. No they don’t. They want to give you something just useful enough that you want to use it and give them something of value. That may be money in they case of apps you have to pay for. That may be access to all the email addresses, phone numbers, names and birthdays in your contact list. That may be your location. That may be your texting habits. Whatever. When you turned on your cell phone, you gave up your rights to anything and started giving away everything.
  • If you don’t like what I said in the previous bullet, drop your smartphone in the toilet right now and don’t ever use it again.

OK, that said, here is a list of apps that I find incredibly useful in my daily life. If you find others that you think I should know about, please drop me a line and I’ll try them out. If I like them, I’ll add them to the list. Finally, if you find this information useful, please share it with others. Thank you.

My list:

Kindle reader
Lose It
Arcus (best short term local forecasts)
RadarScope (best weather radar app)
The Weather Channel
Weather Underground
Flash Alerts

NIV Bible
Audubon (one or more of these excellent references goes on sale every holiday):
– Insects and Spiders
– Trees
– Birds
– Butterflies
– Mammals
– Mushrooms
OpenTable (restaurant reservations)
Gas Buddy (find the cheapest gas station nearby)
EveryTrail (find hiking places nearby)
Mobile Observatory
Google Sky Map
Google Earth
Mixology (drink recipes)
Meal Spinner (food recipies)
IMdb (movie/show/celebrity information)
Waze (better than google maps/navigation due to real time updates and alerts)
Google Maps
Google Navigation
Google+ – why? Guy Kawasaki explains it best!
Facebook – not everyone uses Google+ yet 🙂
Foursquare – some great “check in” and “mayor” special deals
Feedly (track/read blogs)
CaringBridge – Keep in touch with someone experiencing a significant illness
Twitter – What’s going on in 140 characters or less
GoSMS Pro – a “better mousetrap” than most default SMS texting applications
Mighty Text – lets you send SMS text messages from your tablet or PC using your phone
PlayerPro (best music player, period, don’t waste your time on any others)
Pianist HD
Pitch Pipe
Hi-Q MP3 recorder
Mobile Metronome
Tone Room Deluxe (find your favorite ring tones, alarm sounds, etc)
Play Store (Google)
Entertainment card
UPS Mobile (for alerts of all your shipments/deliveries 🙂
Pixlr Express
Photoshop Express
Color Touch
PS Touch
The Hill
Milwaukee JS
On Milwaukee
NPR News
Go Comics
(I don’t play many games but have a few loaded)
Words With Friends
Logic Square
Roller Ball
Big Win Slots
Big Win Blackjack
Pinball Deluxe
Solitare Deluxe
Angry Birds (a bunch of variations)

Carly Rae Who? A Train bound for nowhere…

BSA #2013Jambo is about to start. With millions of dollars of private support, the Scouts have built a 4th high adventure base in West Virginia and it’s about to open with a grand ribbon cutting ceremony – BSA National Jamboree 2013. Hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours have gone into preparing the Bechtel Family Summit Reserve. Thousands of volunteer staff members are putting on the finishing touches. Monday morning, approximately 40,000 Scouts, Scouters and a few visitors will turn this old coal mining mountain into a city.

Jamboree organizers have done a great job providing something for nearly everyone and they’ve planned a few concerts, one with a huge fireworks show, to spice up the fun. You may have heard that Carly Rae Jepson, and Train were contracted as the headliners. These two musical acts are on the pop charts and popular with many. Unfortunately, neither of them understand the first point of the Scout Law; A Scout is Trustworthy.

Ms. Jepson says she “prays that her decision to” breach her performance contract will “help shock the organization to rethink its ban on admitting openly gay Scouts and leaders.” Its too bad she wasn’t smart enough or business savvy enough to think about that before she signed the contract. Instead, she found herself in the interesting position of needing to decide whether she’ll garner better publicity by keeping her word and honoring her contract or by breaching her contract to granstand for a cause we’ve never heard her champion before. Either way, its all about her and that’s not what Scouting is all about. I’m glad she won’t be entertaining.

Train, in my opinion, is an even worse offender. Not only did they announce they were breaching their contract, they staged a blackmail campaign targeting the BSA stating “we’ll come after all if they make the right decision” about the gay membership issue. Sorry. I don’t want you regardless of the decision. You’re a terrorist blackmailer and you breached a contract. No room for you at a Scout jamboree.

We don’t know who the BSA has found to replace these acts – they’ve been pretty tight lipped about that, presumably to minimize the opportunity for a related media circus – but I’m sure they’ll be fun! And, we’ll know soon because Jamboree starts the day after tomorrow!

The BSA take on all this? “We appreciate everyone’s right to express an opinion and remain focused on delivering a great jamboree program for our scouts.” I’m glad they’re remaining focused. I hope they sue the pants off these two performance acts for their contract breaches…after they host a fantastic jamboree experience.

Italy, Ancient Rome

After touring the St. Peter in Chains basilica, and a comfort stop at the nearby gelato shop, our tour group walked to “Ancient Rome”. Our local guide, Nicoletta, did a good job helping us negotiate the local crowds which included a 5k/10k run as part of a health festival. It seems on many weekends, the main street running through this area, “Via dei Fori Imperiali” is closed to traffic for a family friendly party. This weekend, in addition to the race, there were many areas set up to demonstrate various kinds of exercise. Our primary guide Elisabeth had previously instructed us in the two principle rules for drivers and pedestrians in Italy, namely:

  • Red lights and stop signs are optional, and,
  • The white stripes for intersections and cross walks are merely suggestions

Here in Rome we began to understand the third rule:

  • There are no rules for parking, park where you can

This rule makes life more interesting for tour bus drivers, and helps tourists get more exercise walking where the bus drivers can’t get to. Our walking tour went past the Colosseum, famous for its gladiator fights,

the triumphal Arch of Constantine, which was the latest in a series of such arches built to celebrate various military conquests, and also used as the finish line for the 1960 Olympic games,

and the Roman Forum, which was the center of Roman politics for centuries,

In this photo looking over some of the excavated ruins of the Forum, Debbie frames “Santi Luca e Martina“. In a city with over 1000 Roman Catholic churches, it is hard to look anywhere without seeing one which piques interest. Perhaps on a return visit we’ll tour more of them…

As we walked, Nicoletta explained some of the history of each area. Note the pink attention-getting “flag” for us to look for if we get separated. I wonder what tour guides are going to do when there are no more telescoping radio antennas in the world?

After the introductory walking tour of Ancient Rome, most of our group (remember, some were at the Canonization) walked back to the bus and headed to St. Peter’s square for the weekly Papal blessing. Since we had a Papal audience scheduled for later in the week, Teresa and I decided to sign up for a guided tour of the Colosseum. This photo shows the line for self-guided admissions:

There are dozens of people trying to sell guided tours with the promise of “no waiting in line for tickets”. Well, they are telling the truth. You don’t have to wait in line for tickets, they take care of that for you. Not the whole truth though, as you still wait for the tour to fill. The good news is you can sit or walk around as long as you stay near enough to join when the tour is ready, then you skip to the head of the ticket line and enter the Colosseum. There were 80 arched entrances to the original structure, and tickets (made of stone) were free for Roman citizens. Each entrance was numbered, as were the staircases inside. 76 of the entrances were used by common citizens, the northern entrance was reserved for the emperor and the east, south and west entrances were reserved for elite citizens. This photo is of entrance 52 (“LII”).

The pillars above all have interesting “spots”. There’s a story behind them. I learned that the construction methods used in the Colosseum included putting bronze pegs into holes in the stone so the stacked blocks didn’t shift. During the “dark ages”, many of the blocks were chisled at the joints to remove the valuable pegs to be melted down and used to make other metal tools and weapons. You can see the damage better in this picture:

There’s a definite benefit to taking the guided tour, the guides are well versed in the history of the Colosseum and paint a very colorful picture of life in the day, describing gladiator training and competitions, the tenor of the games, etc. There are a few vantage points such as the one below which show just how huge the space is.

There’s a section of “floor” on this end which has been rebuilt so you can walk out into the gaming area for the perspective of the gladiator. The original floor was wooden, and covered with sand. The brick and stone work provided many interesting patterns to attract my lens:

A small section of marble “bleachers” has been rebuilt to show how the five decks of seating would have looked. In its prime, the Colosseum seated 50,000 Romans. The marble from the Colosseum has mostly been “repurposed” in various churches, castles and mansions.

The 240 stone supports on the outside of the Colosseum, near the top, supported long wooden poles which extended through the 240 holes in the stone, one directly above each support. Ropes were used to support a large canvas “web” from the poles above the entire Colosseum to provide shade for the spectators.

From the upper deck on the south side of the Colosseum, there’s a nice view of the Arch of Constantine from above:

And, looking north, you can see where the emperor’s box has been replaced by an altar and cross for Catholic services. In fact, Pope Benedict celebrates the stations of the cross here on Good Friday.

After the Colosseum, our tour continued at the Forum…but we had a long walk back to the hotel so we skipped that. Maybe next time. As we walked past the Forum, we saw quite a few people dressed up as gladiators and soldiers hoping to get paid for a picture. Sorry to disappoint all of you…you weren’t very convincing in your costumes.

There were a few other buskers working the street who had much better costumes. This one didn’t appear to ever move.

And this one changed poses every time someone put a coin in his can.

We stopped for a snack of apples and almonds in a small park near the current main Roman government building

And across the street from the apartment and office used by Mussolini

And across the square were the nearly twin domes of Santa Maria di Loreto and Santissimo Nome di Maria al ForoTraiano.

My brain still hurts when I try to think about why the Romans might have thought there was a need for this many churches so close together. The current population of Rome is about 2.7 million…with over 1000 Roman Catholic churches, that leaves about 2700 citizens, on average, per church. Of course it appears that many more tourists than citizens use the churches.

On our 4 mile walk back to the hotel – did I mention the temperature was in the low 80s with high humidity? – we enjoyed many wonderful sights including a wedding party coming down the lengthy stairs from Santa Maria in Arecoelli which is kind of hidden behind the government building

Our walk took us past the “Commune di Roma/Ufficio Risanamento Borgate”, which in the Roman spirit of reuse has become a lovely historical facade for a row of apartments

When we passed San Nicola in Carcere, a fine example of a church that looks somewhat plain on the outside hiding a glorious inside,

we finally arrived at the Tiber river. A short walk along the river brought us to “Ponte Fabricio”, a walking bridge across the Tiber. This is the only original bridge left intact in Rome, connecting the city to the “Isola Tiberina” since antiquity.

On this bridge we first experienced the famous “locks of love” which couples lock to the bridges to signify the bonds of their relationship. Those who were confident were said to throw the keys into the river and those who hedged their bets kept a spare key 🙂

The word “Isola” gives us two words, “Island” and “Isolation”. This island houses a prison and a hospital, both of which needed to be isolated from the general population of Rome by the bridge. The island was feared as an evil place until a basilica dedicated to San Bartolomeo all’Isola was built.

A second bridge, “Ponte Cestio”, allowed us to cross to the other side of the Tiber river and continue the walk toward our hotel. In the picture below, you can see the Romans are trying hard to control the periodic flooding of the Tiber with high walls.

Along the way, we saw tourist boats and more locks, which you can see are left in some creative places!

With the heat and humidity, we were glad for the shade of the trees lining the river

Soon we came to the “Ponte Sisto”, one of the oldest bridges capable of supporting motorized traffic. Originally built in the 4th century AD, it was partially destroyed in 772 and rebuilt in its current form by Pope Sixtus IV between 1473 and 1479.

These engineering marvels are poignant contrasts to our throwaway society where it seems we have to rebuild our roads every 2-3 years and our bridges every 30 years or so. Across the street from the west end of this bridge is the ancient Acqua Paola fountain, no longer active since the destruction of the Aqua Traiana aqueduct – originally built in the 1st century AD – which provided its water.

Some of the lamp posts were quite decorative

but few of them can compare with the natural beauty all around

As we got near to the hotel, we got a nasty surprise!

The road we were following dead-ended here at this entrance to the children’s hospital and the adjacent medical college. The “roads” we saw on the map were service roads within the compound and we were not allowed through the gate to use them as the shortest path to our hotel. Oh well, back down the hill we go, and through the tunnel to the other side of this ridge. Then we’ll have enough time for a 20 minute nap and a quick shower before heading out to the St. Peter’s Basilica to sing for mass.

Since this entry is getting rather long, I’ll finish Sunday in the next segment. I hope you’re enjoying reading them as much as I am enjoying writing them. As always, feel free to ask questions and/or leave comments, and to share the links with others who may be interested.

Italy, Touring Rome – St Peter in Chains

Today we will experience a lot of Rome.

We start the day with our “usual breakfast” but today we don’t have to have our suitcases packed and ready to load on the bus. We did some laundry last night, and hung it out on our balcony to dry overnight. Good thing we don’t need to wear it this morning because it was very damp outside last night! The weather forecast is for a sunny day with a light breeze…they’ll be ready when we get back.

Our first stop is the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains. its not a very impressive building on the outside. But looks can be deceiving! My first clue should probably have been the artwork on the ceiling of the “porch” outside the front door…simple yet very elegant.

I was just reminded that several members of our group went to the Vatican to witness the Cannonization of seven Blesseds so these photos may be new news to some of them.

Stepping inside, it got fancier fast 🙂 This beautiful fresco in the center of the ceiling above the nave depicts the Miracle of the Chains

The left side of the basilica, walking from the entrance toward the sanctuary, had several side altars which had been converted to tombs over the years. There seemed to be a preoccupation with reminders (the grim reaper, skeletons) of the temporary nature of our human state.

They all had, either on the face of the altar, or on the floor below, an engraved explanation of who was buried there, why they were important, etc. I’m sure it is all perfectly understandable if you know Italian and Latin:

St. Peter in Chains is a “minor basilica” (there’s an explanation on Wikipedia) and also a “titular church”. These are churches in Rome which are assigned to one of the current Cardinal Priests as their home church in Rome. It sounds like in many cases, the assignment is in name only and the Cardinal may or may not bother to visit when in Rome. The current Cardinal Priest of St. Peter in Chains is His Eminence Donald William Wuerl, Cardinal of Washington DC.

The basilica is primarily famous for two things, the first being the relics said to be the chains used to hold St. Peter captive in Jerusalem. While it has been proven that these cannot possibly be those actual chains, they still make a good picture in their reliquary under the main altar:

The second, and probably more famous, feature is Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, which is part of the tomb of Pope Julius II. This tomb was my first introduction to the concept of “pay as you go lighting”. Put a euro in the slot and the tomb is lit for a few minutes. Take your photos now!

Moses is quite impressive

The ceiling above the sanctuary is a beautiful collection of frescoes

Looking back from the altar, another view of the Miracle of the Chains

With significant frescoes, I was surprised that we were allowed to take photos, even flash photos for those who thought the little flash on their camera would make a difference in this huge space, and light votive candles.

The tombs on the right side of the basilica seemed dedicated to displaying paintings rather than statues or the coffins of the entombed

After praying for our friends and relatives, it was time to move on. Adjacent to the basilica was an engineering college. I’m not sure if the locked gates are to keep students in or out…

Our tour guide Elisabeth took this opportunity to explain that it would be quite a while until the next restroom break, and the owners of the sidewalk cafe were quite willing to let us use theirs for free, especially if a few of us were to purchase something from them.

I noticed that not many of our pilgrims were capable of passing up gelato. So of course some of us used the restrooms and most of us bought a yummy treat!

This seems like a good time to take a break from the blog as well. I’ve decided to post this segment separately for a few reasons, including:

  • You’ll get it sooner than if you have to wait for me to finish the entire day’s story
  • The entry is already getting long
  • I’m tired 🙂

So, until the next segment, when we meet Ancient Rome, Arrivederci!

Italy, On Toward Rome

On the fourth day of our journey (hey, that sounds like it should be a song) we enjoyed our “usual” breakfast, scrambled eggs (that weren’t ever cooked quite enough), ring bologna or bacon (which most of us avoided because it was quite undercooked), and various fruits, juices, rolls, sweets, coffee, etc.

No vacation is complete without at least one picture of the hotel room, right?

While our itinerary says “head to Rome”, before doing so we crossed the Arno river for a brief stop at the Piazzale Michelangelo, a beautiful park overlooking Florence. Although it was quite hazy, we had a great view of the city with its tile roofs, steeples and domes.

While Teresa and I bid farewell to Florence,

Bonita decided that “David” needed a little extra support:

Deb Oswald, I did mention there’s another David here for you, didn’t I?

Ann, Diane and Jean try to pretend the bright morning sun isn’t blinding them

Back on the bus, there were a few scenic points I tried to capture through the window. Alas, they all looked like pictures taken through a bus window…

After a drive (or maybe it was a nap) through the beautiful Tuscan countryside, we arrived at our hotel in Rome where we were delighted to see posters advertising our concert! As we explored Rome over the next few days, we saw quite a few of them.

When we checked in, it seemed that Hotel Michelangelo didn’t want anyone to walk away with their room key in their pocket.

Each brass key fob weighed about a pound! We were expected to drop them into a slot at the reception desk whenever we left the hotel and claim them when we returned. Never once did they check our ID to see if we were claiming the right room…

After a quick lunch (yummy pizza) at the sidewalk cafe closest to the hotel entrance, Elisabeth our guide taught about 20 of us how to use the train system. We took the Rome Metro from the “San Pietro” station to the “Piramide” station where we transferred to a regional train known as the “Ostia train”. A few stops later we found ourselves at Ostia Antica, the oldest known Roman sea port. Back in the day, this is where the Tiber River flowed into the “Tyrrhenian” (Mediterranean) Sea. As you can see in this picture, the trains are electric.

And, the train crowds weren’t much different from those seen on any other mass transit system I’ve used, including a wide array of fashion statements.

Over time, the Tiber flooded many times, burying portions of the city and eventually the course of the river changed some and the area which is now dry has been excavated by archeologists. One of the first things we noticed as unique to the area were the “umbrella pine” trees.

Actually called the “Italian Stone Pine” (Pineus pinea), these beautiful trees commonly grow to 34-40 feet but have been known to stretch to 100 feet tall! Some of the very old trees in this area were much taller than 40 feet. Unfortunately they need a more temperate climate than we have in Wisconsin, or I’d try.

The first thing we saw in the site was a cemetery, with both stone coffins

and in-wall (mausoleum-like) crypts

All of the burial spots we saw had been plundered…no skeletons or treasure left. There were signs

and statues

and roads and buildings dating back to the 4th century before Christ.

Historians and archaeologists believe that approximately 2/3 of the ruins have been excavated and that the city may have been founded as early as the 7th century before Christ. It was rather humbling to walk through structures which have stood through a multitude of wars, earthquakes and floods over the last 2500 years and think about our throw-away society where buildings might last 50.

The ruins are quite extensive and we only had time to explore a portion of them. Apparently “community” was the in thing back in the day, as the baths were public, and quite ornate. This mosaic bath floor dates to the 2nd century AD.

The rooftop “patio” overlooking the baths was a great spot for a group photo

The baths weren’t the only thing that was public…this bathroom had seating for 25!

Note the “slots” in the front face of the stone supporting the seats. Hygiene needs were met with a sponge on a stick, manipulated through the slot. The trough running in front of the bench was to collect urine, which was used in the laundry process due to its ammonia content. TMI? Sorry…

Other daily needs were met at the well

And at the bakery where grains were milled by “donkey power” harnessed to wooden poles inserted through the holes in these millstones

Adjacent “rooms” or “buildings” (it’s not clear which based on what remains) contained brick ovens for baking.

Hospitality needs were met at the “House of Diana”, which wasn’t open when we visited.

However the tavern across the street was (open)

And an inviting place for our group to gather

The “ice bucket” on the bar was in great shape, as were the display shelves built into the wall

 and the artwork on the walls

I bet if we go up the stairway across the street

we’ll get a great view of the entrance to the bar

Note the mosaic tiles at the entrance. This was quite common. The rooftop patio was a great overlook of this section of the ruins

Nearby was the market area of the ancient port city, where a mosaic in front of each vendor’s stall described what could be purchased or traded there

Most of the stalls, we couldn’t read the Greek text or understand the meaning of the image(s) in the mosaic. This one was obviously where they went to purchase pet elephants:

After the group picture, we dispersed to explore on our own or in small groups for a while.

I took advantage of this time to check out the flowers,

 spider webs, lizards, statues and shadows

One impressively large building was used, at different points in history, as both a military building and a temple

Although it wasn’t the only temple we saw

Perhaps the most memorable aspect of our side-trip to Ostia Antica was finding an auditorium over 2000 years old!

Even though much of it has been destroyed, it still seats over 4000 people and is still used periodically for concerts. How could we keep from singing?

Our audience was small but appreciative!

After a few moments to revel in the joy of the occasion,

And smell the blossoms,

We marched like good Roman soldiers back to the train station

After an adventure with schedules – the trains run on schedule, “more or less” – we freshened up at the hotel and took over a nearby restaurant for a late dinner and much wine.

You can use these links to learn more about Ostia Antica, or explore the area using Google Maps. And, in case you want to see all of my pictures from this day, I’ve posted them as a slide show on Flickr.

As always, your feedback, comments and questions are welcome!