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Travel Feature

Vatican City In A Day

One of the coolest things that a tourist can do is to see an entire foreign country…All of it…From one end of the other. St Peter's Square Vatican_CityThis is activity that can literally take a lifetime in some cases, and for most of us, that’s just too damn long. 

So how to choose?

Size matters. It has to be small, real small. So the best place is to start in Rome. The record books state that the City of Rome is home to three countries: Italy, of which it is the capital, The State of Vatican City, and the embassy of The Sovereign Military Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta.

The Knights of Malta’s embassy at Via dei Condotti 68, has official extraterritoriality, which means that it’s the territory, not of Italy, but of the Knights, who don’t have a country back home like Belize or Monaco and thus, the small palace and its courtyard are the whole shebang. They don’t let tourists in, but there’s nothing to actually see except a couple of trees and boring office space.

That’s why the Vatican is a must. It’s an official country, and at 0.2 square miles -- much of which is dedicated to one of the best museums in the world -- is doable. And thanks to the internet, now more than ever.

It used to be that getting a ticket to the garden tour, where you get to hike all the way to the helicopter pad on the western end of the country and back, was impossible. You had to send a fax to some monsignor somewhere, and wait a few weeks, and if the pope decided to take a jog or something, it could be canceled. Then you’d be stuck.

But today, it’s different.  Go to the website (see below), apply, then pay the 35€ when they reply, and when the time comes, go. It’s worth the trouble.

The first thing you notice when you get off at the Ottaviano metro station is that the reason the Vatican still exists is that it’s surrounded by a very high and thick wall. Across the street are literally hundreds of souvenir shops, at least on the side close to St. Peter’s Basilica, and these sell religious articles and Pope stuff; it’s best to ignore these for now.

But look for the huge line and find where it begins. You don’t need to wait because you’ve already got a ticket. You enter the museum entrance and go through customs, which resembles airport security. You will then notices the first of many official souvenir shops, which dot the museum. After presenting you’re ticket to the people at the guided tour they give you a little radio receiver. That way the guide doesn’t have to yell and disturb the priests who hang out in the gardens to shirk their hard spiritual labors.

What’s there is almost unexpected. Aside from the formal gardens, there’s areas of lush subtropical splendor palm trees and banana bushes with parrots screeching from here and there. There’s Pope Pius IV’s pleasure dome, which dates from the early 16th century, which is a sight to behold, a small temple to the Madonna and John Paul II’s jubilee bell from ten years ago.

The priests and Swiss guards don’t like tourists mucking up their private park, and after about two hours of hiking, we are sent back to the grounds of the museum and relieved of our radios. The tour covers about 75% of the country, and the rest is the museum and office buildings. While the offices are of no real interest to anybody who doesn’t have business there, the museums are.

The Popes didn’t live in the Vatican until 1870. That’s because they controlled all of central Italy until then, and would only use it as glorified panic room when the Romans would revolt, or the Saracens, Germans, or French would invade or something like that. Since these things would happen far more frequently than one might assume, what is now the museum was a rather large palace.

This palace now contains literally centuries of plunder and collections, Rome being almost 3000 years old and all, every time someone found a sculpture, his holiness would get first dibs on it, and if he was generous would actually pay for it.

The amount of ancient Roman sculpture on display is mind boggling  there are tens of thousands of busts of anyone and everyone between emperors and slaves, some of which are rather famous, such as Laocoön and his Sons by Agesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus, and the iconic image of Emperor Augustus.

But the Sistine Chapel beckons, and while the art is spectacular, the place is as crowded as a subway car during rush hour, the conservators keep the room dark, so it’s difficult to take it in.

Then once you’re finished with that, there’s the long trek back to the exit, and on the way, there’s dozens of official souvenir stands selling Michaelangelo reproductions and Pope stuff.  There’s also a pizzaria, which isn’t bad.

Then you have to leave the country, return to Italy, and follow the walls to St. Peter’s Basilica, which is a trip in itself. There’s the huge works of art, and at least three dead popes in glass cases (John XXIII, Clement XI, and Pius X) and a souvenir shops in the treasury area and near the statue of Constantine. The huge church is in fact built over a graveyard, and you can see that too, but aside from the graves of the two John Pauls, it’s difficult to find any of the more interesting ones.

The area around the entrance to the basilica has a dozen or so official tchotchke places, so it qualifies as a tourist trap. It is essential. 



New Orleans Jazz Park A Must

Sometime back in the early ‘90s, some congress critter got it into his head that the Department of the Interior should promote music.
A few years earlier, in 1987, Congress passed one of those symbolic resolutions, somewhat akin to “National Turnip Day,” dThe centerpiece of the site is Perseverance Hall No. 4eclaring “Jazz is hereby designated as a rare and valuable national American treasure to which we should devote our attention, support, and resources to make sure it is preserved, understood and promulgated.”  This was harmless enough in itself, but how exactly does it go from there to one of the more misbegotten parks in the National Park System?

Well, in 1993, Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) -- the guy who would eventually wind up in jail for having all that cash in his freezer -- introduced H.R.3408, a classic piece of pork designating something in New Orleans to be a National Park celebrating the history of Jazz. It had no boundaries, no land, no nothing. Just funding for some rangers based in the offices of Jean Lafitte National Park trying to promote what the city of New Orleans was doing very nicely on it’s own.

Today, it has a few very modest venues around the French quarter and is getting some more, but that’s why not why it’s essential. The reason it’s essential is that the Jazz National Historic Park, and its sibling Jean Lafitte, cover the entire French Quarter of New Orleans.

So get this: The two Hustler Clubs on Bourbon Street, of which I’ve only seen the outside, are inside a National Park, so’s the rest of Bourbon Street, and if there ever was a tourist trap, it’s Bourbon street.

The French Quarter, unlike, say Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, is a source of pride for New Orleanians, and while the place is as touristy as Hell, the locals not only admit to frequenting the place, they can outnumber the tourists on occasion, and the area of Bourbon St. between Canal and St. Phillip, is Disneyland for Drunks.

The drinks are extremely expensive, although you can take them outside and go to another bar for a refill, paying $16 for a shot is a little much. But if you do it right, you can manage to hear some pretty good music, which is what the National Park is all about. While it’s not always Marti Gras, they try to keep up the pretense.

One block south of Bourbon is Royal, which is full of art galleries and restaurants, all three levels of government, Federal, State, and Local, have strict laws regarding the preservation of buildings, and as the Quarter was one of the few areas that were totally unscathed by Katrina, and unlike the Ninth ward, the powers that be want this area to continue to thrive, and it does.

Most people in the Quarter don’t know that they’re simultaneously in two National Parks. Tour Guides Association of Greater New Orleans, Inc., who’s membership doesn’t appreciate the Federal Government taking over their jobs, has an agreement limiting the NPS to one fifteen minute tour a day. With tourism the areas largest industry, that makes sense

The architecture is beautiful, the people are mostly friendly, and while everything is damn expensive, but you just HAVE to see it.

Philadelphia's Independence Hall Spotlighted

In the spring of 1799, the city of Philadelphia, PA, was bureaucrat heaven. The State, Local and Federal governments were sharing the same space, and the their constituentIndependence hall by ferdinand richardt parts were lodged in every nook and cranny of downtown Philly. Politicians from every conceivable level were walking the streets and 18th-century lobbyists were waiting behind every corner waiting to pounce.

But then, almost suddenly, the city was abandoned. First the Pennsylvania government decided they needed more space and they moved to Lancaster in the middle of the summer. Then, in 1800, the Feds moved to Washington, and Philadelphia was left with only its local pols, and a pressing need with some other industry to fuel its economy.

That the city did, but the few blocks around Chestnut Street continued to hold the remains of what was at one time the center of the American universe.

It was here at the old State House, on the first floor, that the Second Continental Congress, decided to declare themselves a thing called the United States of America in 1776. Then 10 years later, the same Congress, now located in New York, endorsed the creation of a heretofore-illegal convention to replace the ramshackle constitution that had been in effect since 1781 and suggested holding it in the empty lower floor of the Pennsylvania State House.

But in 1801 no one really cared all that much about historic preservation, and the place became a warehouse, then an art school, then Charles Wilson Peale’s Museum, which was meant to be Philly’s answer to P. T. Barnum’s in New York.

Peale’s Museum was thrown out when it was decided the building was too venerable, and it became a more dignified public space before being turned into a shrine in 1876.

Today, while it’s been restored to its 1787 glory, one cannot help but be a bit sad that the top floor, which is where the rangers give their talks, couldn’t have been redone to be a restoration of Peale’s Museum. An ancient freak show would be a perfect antidote to the solemnity of the assembly hall on the ground floor.

While Independence Hall itself, and Congress Hall next door -- which was where the first few Congresses under the constitution me -- are well-done museums, much of which surrounds it is not.

The shrine to the Liberty Bell is downright vulgar, and a number of private museums in the immediate area, most notably the Museum of Liberty, are total rip- offs. The National Constitution Center is hideously expensive, and when I was there, the place was full of advertisements for an exhibit that had already closed.

On the other hand, the visitor’s center has a couple of nice movie theaters and decent exhibits, and the Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson impersonators are relatively entertaining.

One thing they’re currently doing is rebuilding the mansion where the residence was. When I was a kid, the site was a public toilet. I thought then as now that the President living in a toilet was hilarious.

Independence Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and deservedly so.

Independence Hall is the centerpiece of Independence National Historical Park located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Chestnut Street between 5th and 6th Streets. Known primarily as the location where both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were debated and adopted, the building was completed in 1753 as the Pennsylvania State House for the Province of Pennsylvania. It became the principal meeting place of the Second Continental Congress from 1775 to 1783 and was the site of the Constitution Convention in the summer of 1787. The building is part of Independence National Historic Park and is listed as a 

Tourist Traps: The Essentials -- The Statue of Liberty

As far as national icons go, Frédéric Bartholdi’s Liberty Enlightening the World is the ultimate. It is a symbol of what this nation is supposed to stand for, for the nation in general and for New York City in particular. Uncle Sam is as fictional as Santa Claus; Mom is mad at you half the time; apple pie is overrated; and the flag is everywhere. But Lady Liberty is different. The UN has declared her a World Heritage Site.

She’s in one place, and as the genuine article, just has to be experienced in person. However…

There are a number of things that have to be seen properly at a distance, and this is one of them. For one thing, it costs $12/person MINIMUM to get to Liberty Island. For that you get to see the statue’s butt from afar. A few months back they started letting people in for the climb to the top, but in order to do that, you have to make reservations well in advance or get to the ticket office in Castle Clinton (itself a National Monument), by at least eight in the morning. Just going on a whim is a waste of time. Generally, the ferry goes there and to Ellis Island (which IS worth going to), and starting around noon, there’s not enough time to see both. So if you’re in the Battery in the afternoon, or New Jersey’s Liberty State Park, where the other ferry docks, don’t bother getting on.

But as already said, this is a mandatory tourist trap, and visiting New York without seeing the thing head on is something you would regret. So what to do?

There are two options that are totally free of charge:

1) The Staten Island Ferry
2) Governor’s Island

The Staten Island Ferry is a no-brainer. Millions of tourists make the ride every week and never leave the St. George Terminal. The view of the statue is excellent and you get to see it twice. True, the snacks are expensive, but you can get them elsewhere for less.

However, if you’re in town over the weekend, Governor’s Island is a much better option. While only open Friday through Sunday until October 10th (unless you make a reservation for the Wednesday or Thursday tours), you can get the FREE ferry to what was until recently a military base, and walk over to what happens to be a perfect spot to view Lady Liberty, sit down on that convenient park bench and take her in for as long as you want. After that, you can do a tour of the two forts or participate in one of the many artistic endeavors that various groups have planned in order to make Governor’s Island the Great American Hangout.

As to souvenirs, you can get Statue of Liberty tchotchkies just about anywhere, and they’re generally less expensive.

If you don’t live here in New York, then it may actually be worth it to go to the website and see if you can get a “crown ticket.” There’s a better-than-even chance you won’t get it, but that’s the only reason to actually head out to the island.

Next: Independence Hall

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