Sunday, November 28, 2010

Zürich, Switzerland

Zürich's Christmas atmosphere is simply captivating with snow-capped Alps framing Lake Zürich and a plethora of holiday lights and Christmas trees in every square!

Zürcher Christkindlimarkt, located at RailCity, is Europe's biggest indoor market with more than 160 wooden market stalls tempt shoppers with colorful handcrafted trinkets, delicious St. Nicholas pastries, gourmet chocolates, butter cookies and mulled Glühwein wine. A 50' Christmas tree steals the show adorned with an array of 5000 sparkling Swarovski Christmas ornaments.

Located behind RailCity, the Live On Ice skating rink is set up against the backdrop of the Swiss National Museum. Hundreds of Christmas trees, a fondue tent, mulled wine and a cosy panoramic lounge keep the Christmas spirit alive.

Next, stroll over to Werdmühleplatz to take in the Singing Christmas Tree concert. Children from local schools stand on a tiered stage, arranged and decorated to look like a Christmas tree, and sing Christmas carols and other popular songs. A small Christmas market is also in the square.

Bahnhofstrasse is Zürich's main downtown street and one of the world's most expensive and exclusive shopping avenues. This year, new Christmas lighting known as “Lucy”, gives a special brilliance to the world-famous Bahnhofstrasse. Thousands of LEDs create moving clouds of light and gentle showers of luminescence.

The twin towers of the Grossmünster are regarded as perhaps the most recognized landmark in Zurich.The two towers were first erected between 1487 and 1492. Originally, they had high wooden steeples, which were destroyed by fire in 1781, following which the present neo-Gothic tops were added.

Across the Limmat River stands St. Peter Church. The steeple's clock face has a diameter of 8.7 meters,  was built in 1534 and is the largest church clock face in Europe.

A short walk from St. Peter is the Fraumünster abbey, founded in 853 by Louis the German for his daughter Hildegard. He endowed the Benedictine convent with the lands of Zürich, Uri, and the Albis forest, and granted the convent immunity, placing it under his direct authority.

Don't miss the beautiful guild houses all throughout the Old Town. There are fourteen historical Zünfte (guilds) under the system established in 1336 with the "guild revolution" of Rudolf Brun. They are the 13 guilds that predated 1336, plus the Gesellschaft zur Constaffel, originally consisting of the city's nobles. Perhaps most beautiful, especially decorated in twinkling Christmas lights, is the Hotel Savoy, formerly two guilds, tanners and shoemakers, united in 1877.

Of course, no trip to Zürich would be complete without dining on fondue. Restaurant Le Dézaley, famous for their array of fondues (cheese, chinoise, and bourguignonne). The moto Le vin se boit au Dézaley "pure le matin, a midi sans eau, le soir comme le bon Dieu l'a fait. (The wine in Dézaley drinks himself, purely in the morning, at noon with no water in the evening God has made him such) adorns the walls of the restaurant.

We dined on both the famous family secret recipe cheese fondue and the chinoise fondue. The chinoise is a Court Bouillon. Veal, beef, and chicken are dipped to cook in the broth and then dipped into an array of dipping sauces. At meal's end, the much flavored broth is served with or without sherry wine.

The history of fondue is centuries old. In the Alps, the herdsmen were cut off from much of the environment. The staple foods, which could be easily produced there, were bread and cheese and thus came about the fondue.

In Switzerland, the cheese fondue holds status of a National Court and many customs and habits have grown up around it. Thus, it is as common custom a participant who loses his piece of bread, buys a round of white wine, brandy, or the like, or gets up to sing a song.

To view all our pictures of  Zürich, visit

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Colosseum and Roman Forum - Rome, Italy

The Colosseum, originally known as the Flavian Amphitheater, was started between 70 and 72 AD under the Emperor Vespasian and completed around 80 AD under Titus. The name "Amphitheatrum Flavium" derives from both Vespasian's and Titus's family name (Flavius, from the gens Flavia).

The Colosseum had been completed up to the third story by the time of Vespasian's death in 79. The top level was finished and the building inaugurated by his son, Titus, in 80. Dio Cassius recounts that over 9,000 wild animals were killed during the inaugural games of the amphitheatre. The building was remodelled further under Vespasian's younger son, the newly designated Emperor Domitian, who constructed the hypogeum, a series of underground tunnels used to house animals and slaves.

Capable of seating 50,000 spectators, the Colosseum was used for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles such as mock sea battles, animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on Classical mythology.

The arena itself was 83 meters by 48 meters (272 ft by 157 ft / 280 by 163 Roman feet). It comprised a wooden floor covered by sand (the Latin word for sand is harena or arena), covering an elaborate underground structure called the hypogeum (literally meaning "underground"). Little now remains of the original arena floor, but the hypogeum is still clearly visible. It consisted of a two-level subterranean network of tunnels and cages beneath the arena where gladiators and animals were held before contests began. Eighty vertical shafts provided instant access to the arena for caged animals and scenery pieces concealed underneath; larger hinged platforms, called hegmata, provided access for elephants and the like. Separate tunnels were provided for the Emperor and the Vestal Virgins to permit them to enter and exit the Colosseum without needing to pass through the crowds.

The Palatine Hill, the centermost of the Seven Hills of Rome and one of the most ancient parts of the city overlooks the Foro Romano on one side and Circus Maximus on the other. The Palatine was once the home of emperors and aristocrats. The ruins range from the simple house in which Augustus was thought to have lived, to the Domus Flavia and Domus Augustana, which were wings of a luxurious palace built by Domitian.

According to Roman mythology, the Palatine Hill was the location of the cave, known as the Lupercal, where Romulus and Remus were found by the she-wolf that kept them alive. According to this legend, the shepherd Faustulus found the infants, and with his wife Acca Larentia raised the children. When they were older, the boys killed their great-uncle (who seized the throne from their father), and they both decided to build a new city of their own on the banks of the River Tiber. Suddenly, they had a violent argument with each other and in the end Romulus killed his twin brother Remus. This is how "Rome" got its name - from Romulus.

The Foro Romano was the ceremonial center of ancient Rome; a market with emperors renovating old buildings and erecting new temples and monuments.

Many of the Forum's temples date to the periods of the Kingdom and the Republic, although most were destroyed and rebuilt several times. The ruins within the Forum clearly show how urban spaces were used during the Roman age. My favorites in the Forum include the following major monuments, buildings, and ancient ruins:

One of the most fully intact buildings is the Curia Julia, or Senate House, a stark brick building. The relief panels knows as the Plutei of Trajan, commissioned by either Trajan or Hadrian to decorate the Rostra, can be seen inside.

My personal favorite is the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, begun in 141 by the Emperor Antoninus Pius and was initially dedicated to his deceased and deified wife, Faustina the Elder. When Antoninus Pius was deified after his death in 161, the temple was re-dedicated jointly to Antoninus and Faustina at the instigation of his successor, Marcus Aurelius. It's strong foundation, columns, and rigid lattice ceiling kept it so well preserved that numerous attempts to pull the abandoned temple down were unsuccessful. The marks of steel cables pulling upon the columns scar those columns to this day.

The circular Temple of Vesta was one of ancient Rome's most sacred shrines and was dedicated to the goddess of fire. The flame, kept alive by the six Vestal Virgins, symbolized the perpetuity of the state and its extinction prophesied doom for the city. The Vestal Virgins were selected when they were between six and ten years old and served for thirty years. They were buried alive if they lost their virginity and whipped by the high priest if the sacred flame died out.

The white marble Arch of Septimius Severus at the northeast end of the Forum is a triumphal arch dedicated in AD 203 to commemorate the Parthian victories of Emperor Septimius Severus and his two sons, Caracalla and Geta, in the two campaigns against Parthia (modern day Iran and Iraq) of 194/195 and 197-199.