Its possible Maia and I saved the best for last. However, I would be very circumspect before declaring anything “the best” in China.  It has been a trip of wonders.  I am ever so pleased with our decision to travel here and I am excited to introduce our first Imprint group to this storied land.  But I digress.  The subject is Huashan, one of Taoism’s sacred mountains.  One can easily see why this place would be considered sacred.  Just its inaccessibility would make it both rare (think rarified air) and the perfect place for ascetics to escape the profane world far below.

Mt Hua (literal translation of Huashan) is actually a cluster of 5 peaks, accessed by two cable cars or stupendous stair-stepped walking paths.  Soaring to 6500+ feet, the mountain is known as "The most precipitous mountain under heaven."  As a sacred mountain to the Taoists, it was also a retreat specializing in martial arts training.  For us, the appeal was spectacular views, steep ascents and descents, and dramatic rock formations.  I’ve already established the principle that the harder it is to get to a sight, the more one appreciates it. That applies here.  Suffice it to say it took the entire morning to get the 90 kilometers to Huashan.  Then we got stung by a stiff entrance price.

But it was all worth it.  Thanks to modern technology, and a handy assist from the redoubtable Austrians, the Chinese have built a cable car, sporting breathtaking views, to whisk visitors up to the lower reaches of Huashan.  The awesomely scenic ride saves countless thousands of steps.  It is dizzying and daunting to look down upon them and know this was the only way up for centuries.

Even after riding the cable up a couple thousand feet, the climb that remains is significantly rigorous. The trail is steep, narrow, vertiginous, and occasionally down right treacherous.  Steps cut into the rock often resemble a ladder more than a staircase.  Iron chains stretching between iron posts add a small sense of security, but one can still see the precipitous drop on one and sometime both sides of the trail.

We trudged up with the chattering Chinese, stopping often for photographing the various and impressive vistas and to catch our breaths. The way up is punctuated with huge rocks to climb, tiny shrines and pavilions, snack huts, and viewing platforms. After a good 45 minutes of up and down (but mostly up) clamoring, one arrives at the real climb.

The ascent gets serious on a razor’s edge of a ridge that goes straight up into the clouds.  Tourists and pilgrims alike trudge up up up onto the sacred mountain, leaving civilization and sometimes clouds below.  We had a relatively clear day.  The perma-haze that seems to be ubiquitous was present, but glimpses of blue sky and occasional sun breaks made for a cheery hiking afternoon.

We summoned up our mental and muscular resources and managed to conquer the steep steps to achieve the lower reaches of the summit. But upon learning we still had hours of climbing to go to reach the second cable car, we opted to turn around and go back the way we’d come.  It was a magnificent day, and more than fitting for Maia’s last day in China.  We had a brief rest in our comfy Xian hotel and then dinner in our favorite restaurant.


After a leisurely second day in Datong, we caught our second night train. We had enjoyed the relative comfort of our hotel until the early afternoon, then retreated to the most remarkable coffee house I’ve ever seen.

Called Maan’s, it is a warehouse-sized building, with 4-5 stories, all beautifully appointed with comfortable stuffed chairs and couches, and thousands of chandeliers.  Featuring espresso drinks, waffles (yeah really), and toast (hot toasted sandwiches), it was a unique experience.  Any time someone enters the entire staff shouts a greeting (we supposed) in unison.  It was certainly a nice place to while away some time and catch up some writing.

Our night train dropped us off at 6AM in a quiet, sleeping Pingyao. Pingyao, Shanxi is China’s best preserved ancient walled town.  Lonely Planet calls it a wander through ancient China. We found a taxi driver who took us to a small café.  It was closed and dark.  But he let us in and called the owner, who showed up in about 10 minutes and proceeded to cheerfully provide us hot coffee and hot breakfast.  Then she offered to keep our bags while we explored the town.  Where else in the world would something like that happen?  Pretty cool.  As we were ready for some sightseeing we departed for nearby Zhangbi.  Zhangbi Underground Castle, as the guidebooks and tourist brochures call it, is really an underground fort.  It is a 1400 year old network of defense tunnels, not unlike Cu Chi in Vietnam.  The tunnel network stretches for over 10 kilometers and is the oldest and longest such fortification in China.  It was built during the Sui dynasty for defense against Tang invaders.  Today only about 5000 feet of tunnels are reinforced and accessible to visitors.  But one descends as deep as 80-85 feet underground to view storage rooms, guardhouses, bedrooms, ambush niches, escape routes, and air holes.  Its pretty interesting.  After surveying the underground network, you emerge at the far end of the tiny village of Zhangbi Cun.  The stroll back through the now deserted village is almost as interesting with tiny temples, stages, and tile-roofed houses.  We had hired a guide -  I think we could have managed the tunnels but I know I would have gotten confused trying to navigate the village.

We returned to Pingyao for lunch with our breakfast patron. Then we went exploring the town. The perfectly walled inner city is a warren of tiny lanes, traditional shop fronts, courtyards, and towers.  It really is charming.  Pagoda-like towers mark the main gates into the fortified center.  Needless to say, it attracts Chinese tourists in hoards.

We were here on a Saturday and the streets were teeming with visitors. It was fun to spend a couple hours wandering the main streets examining all the wares on display.  Maia bought a wallet and purse.  Later in the day we succumbed to the sidewalk touts offering massage.  We opted for the foot soak and massage.  It felt good after our many days of walking, but it was none too gentle and I had to beg for gentleness more than once (eliciting giggles but not much pressure abatement).

The Chinese seem to love big, flashy automated machines that produce treats or foodstuffs that were surely hand-made for centuries. Pingyao boasted several of these.  The mechanisms are kind of fun to watch.  The Chinese also go in for a lot of kitsch.  The big favorite on this Pingyao Saturday seemed to be little yellow birds (I thought they might be Peeps at first), mounted on springy wires with clips that attached to one’s hair.  The effect (with imagination) is a tiny animated little bird nesting in your hair.  We saw lots of them being purchased.  The Chinese also seem to like a lot of noise.  Restaurants blast music or television soundtracks with loudspeakers out front.  People hawk their products with bull horns or other amplified voice projection.  The fascinating part of this is the fact that they all try to overshout one another.  On a given block one might encounter 10 or a dozen competing hawkers blended with 3-4 different versions of amplified music projected out to the street.  It is nothing short of cacophonous. With the automated food machines, silly hats and baby yellow head birds being sold, hawkers selling everything else (loudly), and touts calling for massages, lunch, or drinks, there is a decidedly Disneyesque quality to the otherwise, truly authentic feel of Pingyao.  I’m not sure I would feel compelled to visit here again, but it was fun for a few hours and I’m glad we included it this time around.


After our day of exploring Pingyao and nearby Zhangbi Underground Fortress we hopped a bullet train to Xian, home of the Terra Cotta Warriors. We were tired and gritty (night train, no shower) by the time we arrived at 8PM.  But we instantly liked Xian.  Our hotel was right in the heart of the action, Bell Tower Square.  The Bell Tower itself is quite magnificent, as is the Drum Tower, and they light them both up impressively at night.  The entire area has been redesigned with tasteful deference to the replaced, traditional buildings.  Modern storefronts of KFC, Starbucks, and McDonalds jockey with Chinese chains, flashy clothing stores, and big department stores.  The alley-like lanes between the modern boulevards still retain their aged character.  We checked in, showered, and headed out for late dinner.  We realized we had arrived on Saturday night and the youthful energy was palpable.  We found a memorable “hole in the wall” restaurant, full of locals.  One single dog-eared English menu with outdated items and prices – otherwise, nothing but Xianese.  But the food was plentiful, excellent, and cheap.  The trifecta!

We tried to make an early start of it the following morning, but a groaning breakfast buffet roped us in for a leisurely start. But we eventually headed out for the famed Terra Cotta Warriors (TCW).  Certainly one of China’s top 3-4 sights, both Maia and I were looking forward to this visit.

We were not disappointed.  A couple of efficient bus rides delivered us to the site about an hour east of the city. The now expected extravaganza of Chinese sight entrances welcomed us upon our arrival.  Fountains, statues, conference halls, a theater, the obligatory grandiose entrance gate and countless food stalls represented the gauntlet we were required to navigate to get to the sight.  We were again reminded of how lucky we are to have come in late winter as we walked right up to the scores of ticket takers and turnstiles to walk right in, bypassing hundreds of yards of empty, zig-zagging control lanes.

The facility that the Chinese have built to house, preserve, and display the sight nearly outshines the resource itself. Pit One, the largest of the 3 excavated areas is covered by an aircraft hangar sized roof.  I marveled at the engineering and at the protection provided.  Compared to many developing world destinations, where the “draw” sights are in danger of being loved to death, the Chinese represent a beacon of hope.  I guess it is necessary because the visitor numbers are clearly staggering, here and everywhere in China.

I assume most of you know the story of the TCW, since they were discovered in our lifetimes and made big news even at home. Like the Pharoahs of Egypt, the emperors of China wanted protection and company in the afterlife.  So guarding the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, is this astounding army of life-sized terra cotta soldiers.  There are chariots, horses, generals, foot soldiers, archers, pike-men, and swordsmen, etc.

Estimates go north of 8000 suspected figures in the complex (many “pits” are yet to be excavated).  Dating back almost 1700 years, they were discovered by local farmers digging a well in 1974.  Pit One is impressive primarily for its tremendous scale.

The “hanger” is huge and the rows upon rows of reassembled soldiers is frankly awesome. Pit Two shows what the pits looked like before archeologists did their magic.  Still roofed, this pit displays only a few broken figures.  However, in nicely maintained and illuminated cases, they have displayed 5 figures one can observe up close.  The detail is remarkable and it is while examining these figures one can really appreciate the well-known fact that no two faces are alike.  Wow.  Almost hard to believe.  Pit Three is the smallest and allows closer inspection of a handful of figures and four horses still in their trenches.

Also on site is a very nice museum which houses 2 bronze chariots and a variety of weapons unearthed in a nearby tomb. Another building houses a 360-degree theater that gives a brief overview of the site's history.  There are several important tombs in the area too, but Maia and I were bushed.  So after a quick lunch we grabbed a bus back to town for some afternoon shopping and down time.  We returned to our favorite local restaurant for dinner and called it a day.


Like our day at Cangyan Shan, our sight-seeing around the northern Chinese city of Datong was very rewarding. We had our first night train from Shijiazhuang to Datong, arriving at 6:45 AM.  The train was about as comfortable as a couchette in Europe, and Chinese trains run spot on to schedule.  We were happy to find our room ready, even at 7:00 AM, in our lovely Datong hotel.  Having made arrangements with our taxi driver to return for us, we indulged in a spectacular buffet breakfast and had rejuvenating hot showers before heading out for the area’s highlights.

Our pleasant, though non-English speaking, driver sped us south to Heng Shan mountain, and the Hanging Monastery. WOW!  No other word for it – wow!  I don’t recall how I learned about this place but it is truly spectacular.  Aptly named, this ancient Buddhist monastery defies gravity, clinging to a steep cliff, half supported by precarious-looking bamboo poles of varying lengths.

The valley itself is rather stunning, the narrow end blocked by a huge dam.  The setting is made even more impressive by spectacular ice falls and a frozen stream below the monastery.  In true Chinese style, very loud (but pleasing) music blares from visitor center loudspeakers.  In this case, it added to the unique ambiance.

A long and steep climb was rewarded with panoramic views up and down the valley and the Indiana Jones-like exploration of the monastery itself. Low railings and the knowledge of what is missing under your feet made it a rather nerve wracking exploration.  But what an experience!  A definite highlight.  We will have to include this in the next Imprint China tour.

After the HM, we made brief stop in the town of Yingxian to see the world’s oldest and tallest wooden pagoda. The Muta tower is over 200 feet high and impressive, though forlorn and weather beaten.  But it was a perfect place for lunch and we had a pleasant encounter with engaging locals and a filling and inexpensive lunch.

Our final stop of the day was the most famous of Datong’s area sights – the Yungang Grottoes. These 5th-century caves have been carved by Buddhist monks, turning a cliff side into a collection of cave-temples.  Numbering 252 caves, and boasting 51,000 statues, it is an impressive collection.  Many are closed for restoration, many more are weather-worn and damaged, but one cannot help but be impressed with the shear grandeur and scale of the place.

Like many “big ticket” sights in China, the entrance infrastructure nearly rivals the resource in terms of grandeur and panache. A huge new visitor center gives way to a massive decorated courtyard, huge statuary, elaborate entrance gates, lines of obelisks, bridges, and even a huge temple complex on stilts in the middle of a frozen artificial lake.  Only after conquering all that does one arrive at the caves themselves.

And the caves are still the star. Huge carved and sometimes brightly painted Buddhas, intricately carved internal pagodas, and Bodhisattvas beg for photos.  Some of the best and most colorful ancient frescoes in China are within.  Many walls are covered with dove-cote like niches, each containing a tiny stone or clay Buddha statue.  Elegant depictions of angels, animals, and birds grace the walls.

It was a fun scavenger hunt peaking in the many caverns to discover their hidden riches.  After a couple hours of exploring and photographing, we braved the ubiquitous gauntlet of souvenir vendors to reach the exit. But not without tarrying just long enough to try some Chinese sweets.  In this case the giant “bubble” waffles cones we’d been seeing quite often.  The perfect sweet ending to a power-packed sightseeing day.

Cangyan Shan

I’ve noticed something in my lifetime of travels. Often, the sights we find most impressive are often not the most famous.  My theory: it has something to do with expectations.  High expectations for famous things (The Great Wall) and lesser or low expectations for less famous sights.  Please don’t misunderstand.  I loved the GW, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven.  But those paled in comparison to the things Maia and I saw once we left Beijing.

We were actually advised to skip Cangyan Shan, a hard to reach destination that attracted hordes of Chinese tourists. I guess our travel karma was still strong – and traveling at the tail end of winter in the north probably didn’t hurt.  At any rate, we found CS almost too ourselves after a 2+ hour bullet train ride from Beijing to Shijiazhuang, a 30 minute taxi ride to an out-of-town bus depot, an hour’s bus ride, and a 55 minute hired car ride up into the surrounding Hebei mountains.  I think enduring an ordeal to reach a sight also adds to it's ultimate enjoyment.  The ordeal didn't end at the parking lot as we still had a rigorous climb up hundreds of stone steps.  But the reward was . . . you get the idea.

The combo of low expectations and demanding travel logistics made the CS payout particularly sweet.  And sweet it was!  CS is an ancient palace, built like a bridge across a steep gorge.  It was featured in the Hollywood epic, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon".  Our first view was from far below as we climbed the many stone steps.  The palace came gradually into view far above.

After many, many more steps we had passed under the palace where we were treated with a second perspective - from behind, looking out to the great cleft valley below.  A third view was enjoyed from the bridge immediately in front of the palace.  And a final vista from the path that leads away on one side of the gorge rim.  Such a dramatic setting, defying both gravity and our understanding of why the ancients decided to undertake such a demanding building location.  I’m running out of superlatives:  it was stunning, awe-inspiring, breath-taking, and sublime.

Like the best sights, this one proved more interesting and expansive than the one, albeit spectacular, palace. After the obligatory tourist shots from the bridge in front of the palace, we continued up the winding mountain path to find more vistas and more temples.  Every corner seemed to reveal a new highlight.  Snap, snap, snap went our camera shutters.  We ended up climbing much, much higher than CS itself.  Our Great Wall-hardened leg muscles complained a little, but of course it was worth it.  Like the GW, I’ll let the images do the describing.  But it was an amazing day.

The Great Wall of China

On day 2 we met our guide even earlier and headed out of Beijing for the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China. It took something like a half hour to get out of the city and another hour passing agricultural fields and small villages to reach the Wall.  Like everything else in China, the support infrastructure for a major sight like the GW is well developed.  After we left the big parking lot for buses we passed lots of shopping and food options on our way to the ticket office.  But all tastefully done and in good shape.  Eschewing the option of climbing up to the Wall (this is one of the mountainous sections), Maia and I bought tickets for the cable car.  A European-style, 8-person cable gondola whisked us up to the Wall.

Our weather karma had held for a second day and we were greeted with crystal clear air and blue skies for our GW experience. It was glorious!  We grabbed a snack at the upper cable car station and headed up onto the wall.  The Mutianyu section has been heavily restored, so the wall is in great condition.  Guard towers dot the expanse at regular intervals and the wall itself snakes along the ridge of the undulating terrain.  Iconic views welcomed us and drew us along as we hiked for a few kilometers in each direction.  We had to vie with Chinese tourists and their selfie sticks for unpopulated views.  But overall, it was not crowded in the least.  Our small group of 9 seemed to be about the only westerners around.  Although we did meet a fellow from Seattle who took our pictures.

After about an hour of wandering and snapping photographs we decided it was time to descend. Options included a second cable car, a toboggan (luge), or walking.  We opted to walk down.  Our feet and legs were pretty sore by the time we got down but it was certainly worth it.

As is so often the case, photos of the GW tell better stories than my words. I’ll let them do the talking.


We started our China adventure in the obvious place: Beijing. I was pleasantly surprised by this sprawling, gigantic metropolis. For starters, it is quite clean for a city, the infrastructure is excellent, and it doesn’t feel like a huge city. That is until one climbs a hill or tall building and get a near-360 view of skyscrapers (only a small exaggeration). There is security absolutely everywhere.

One passes bags through an x-ray machine to enter the subway or any train station, not to mention all the major sights. But the biggest surprise has to be chalked up to luck (or good travel karma?). Our first day here was very windy, which meant no smog. None. Blue skies for the 3 days we were here. Wow. Simply amazing. On our first two days we were able to tag along on Intrepid tours. We started early for our Discovery Beijing tour, meeting our guide William at the Temple of Heaven. This iconic building is as beautiful and impressive as its reputation suggests.

Perfectly round with concentric pagoda layers tapering up to a perfect apex, it is impressively large as well. Being there first thing, we had it largely to ourselves, which must be rare anywhere in China. The blustery cold weather probably helped some too. We were impressed by the detailed decorations and the bright colors used – something one doesn’t pick up in photos and tourist brochures. We learned that this was not a religious temple, but a political one where the emperor came annually to make sacrifices in hopes of a good harvest for the nation. Some of the lesser outbuildings were almost as impressive, had they not been overshadowed by the dominant, much larger ToH.

Next stop was Tianenman Square. We used the metro to wisk across town. It is an impressive system with 9-10 lines, clean and fast trains, orderly modern stations, and inexpensive fares. Tianenman, the largest public square in the world, is very impressive in its scale and communist-era propogandist architecture. We’ve observed that the Chinese love BIG!

The bigger the better. Also: blustery; grandiose; and flashy. But at least they are creative about everything, impressively so. We wandered through Tianenman (not a short sojourn) to the equally impressive entrance gate to the Forbidden City. The FS is the Ming version of propogandist architecture. The scale of this place is equally staggering.

Passing through gate after impressive fortified gate, one burrows down into the concentric layers of the palace complex where the emperor and his extended family and retinue of ministers and retainers resided. To describe it as a palace complex is far to unassuming. This is a fortified and subdivided city. We enjoyed the fresh air and blue sky as we passed from courtyard to courtyard, photographed ceremonial braziers, water vessels, and statues, jostled though mosh pits of Chinese tourists to snap photos of thrones and gilded interiors, and gazed in the windows of the dowager empress’ quarters and the mini-villages of the concubines’ residences. Even with low season crowds it was an enervating experience.

All in all, it was a pretty amazing first day in China.  Big bang sights, a good guide, and blue skies.

Charming Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen denizen The town of Chefchaouen is the most charming in Morocco.  In fact, it is one of the most charming destinations on any Imprint tour.  Snugged up against the rugged Rif mountain range in the northeast of the country, the blue-washed village is a place to both explore and relax.  The medina, or old town, is a labyrinth of winding narrow stairs, tiny artisan shops, ornate doors, and picturesque lanes which sweep down a hillside to converge on Plaza Uta el-Hammam.

Kasbah walls

Near the square are the photo-worthy adobe walls of the restored Kasbah (fortress).  Andalusian influences are apparent in the red-tiled roofs, small balconies, and courtyard patios.  Wandering the lanes puts one in mind of the white-washed villages of the Greek Cyclades, except for the universal blue.  It is said the color blue is both cool and soothing – that is the perfect description of Chefchaouen.

Chefchaouen lane

On our recent Morocco tour we had a meandering walking tour, starting at the top of the town where the tiny Ras el-Maa river plunges down a tiny defile and then through the town.  We learned from our guide about the town’s history and some of the local handicrafts on offer. We were told the blue color was believed to repel mosquitoes.  Also, blue is a sacred color for Jews (many of whom arrived in 1492 from Spain).  Perhaps more interesting, the reach of the bluewash is typically just above the door heights.

Chefchaouen buildings

The reason is quite pragmatic:  the job was traditionally done by the town’s women and they tended not to be tall.  The town was founded in the late 15th century as a Berber outpost.  But the Jewish and Muslim exodus from Andalusia (expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella) put its Andalusian stamp on the town.

Colorful spices

We took loads of photos.  Every turn, corner, side street, and shop called out to be recorded.  It was a cold November morning, but the sun came out by midday and most of our group settled into one of the charming sidewalk cafes on the main square for a leisurely lunch.  Many spent the afternoon shopping the many varied souks around the square and among the many alleys of the Medina.

Hotel terrace view

Others relaxed with a Nosnos, the Moroccan version of a cappuccino, in the bright sunshine.  Still others opted to recharge their batteries on the balconies and terraces of our charming hotel (it seems Chefchaouen’s charm affects everything) with its lovely views over the town.  Chefchaouen may not have the notoriety of Fes or Merrakesh, but it was certainly a favorite on this tour.

Chefchaouen steps

Chefchaouen lane

Chefchaouen door

Morocco - Welcome, yes welcome.

Imprint group at Hassan II “Welcome. Yes welcome in Morocco everybody.”  Our charming guide Tariq greeted us with these words several times each day on Imprint’s new tour of Morocco.  The repetition seemed strange at first but we soon got used to it.  First thinking it was a learned, “entertainment” phrase, I eventually realized it was a direct translation of a traditional Moroccan greeting.  More than anything else, this phrase, and its daily repetition, embodied the spirit of the country.  We WERE welcome.  Genuinely, and from the heart - welcome in Morocco.

Muraled walls of Asilah

After a lifetime of travel, one starts to think a new destination will not hold any unique surprises.  But my expectations of Imprint’s new foray into Morocco were way too low.  This is an amazing travel destination.  And perhaps more importantly, it is a country where Americans can experience a democratic, moderate Muslim culture and a safe travel environment.  We are sorely in need of this exact experience in our current age and time.

Chefchaouen denizen

At a time when fear dominates the American psyche, we need to be reminded that a great majority of Muslims are moderate, admire America, and welcome Americans.  Morocco is the perfect place to experience it.  Our guide Tariq was so proud of Morocco’s democratic institutions and moderate views.  He repeatedly pointed out female police, cafes with men and women together, women in western dress, and taught us about educational initiatives targeting outmoded thinking and traditions.  His enthusiasm was infectious and we found ourselves falling in love with his land.

Fes craftsman

As a bonus, we were left largely to our own devices and allowed to shop, observe, explore, and meander without hassle.  However, if we engaged a local they always responded warmly.  A smile was always reciprocated.  A greeting always returned.  And always we heard:  welcome – from everyone.  It would be hard to overstate how pleasant it is to be allowed our “western” space in a developing Islamic country.  Morocco is a paradise for western visitors.  We were welcome – and not just for what money we might spend.  It was the truest kind of hospitality.  “Welcome. Yes welcome in Morocco.”

Visiting Fes madrasa

In the next few weeks I’ll be writing about our travel experiences in Morocco.  But the overriding travel lesson of this wonderful country is that we are not enemies, Muslims don’t hate us, and we share far more that draws us together than that which divides us.  Mark Twain once wrote: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”  That lesson was repeatedly reinforced on Imprint’s journey across Morocco.

Vatican Musings

On a recent trip to St Peters Basilica and the Vatican Museums I was reminded of the good old days when a visit here was a relaxed and slow visit.  These days the numbers of visitors has exploded with new middle class travelers from China, India, and Eastern Europe.  A guided visit through the museum is a crowd gauntlet one must endure to get to the prize of the Sistine Chapel, which is equally crowded.  While Michelangelo's masterpiece rarely disappoints, it is like viewing from a mosh pit.  Even the truly immense St Peters Basilica groans under the weight of tens of thousands of tourists every day.  Now when we take a group through it is more about survival than slow enjoyments.  Many of the fun and unique details are getting lost.  So I've decided to write about a few. Sistine Chapel peaking over St Peters Square

In St Peters Square there are some interesting things to observe.  Just to the right of the immense (and forbidding, I think) facade of the Basilica one can just see the peak of the Sistine Chapel sticking up.  It is here the faithful look to see the smoke that announces the successful election of a new pope.  The colonnades, designed by Bernini, are elliptical in shape. There are two bronze disks, one on each side of the Egyptian obelisk that marks the center of the square.  From each, the respective colonnades line up in perfect perspective, with only the foremost of the four deep columns visible (the other 3 lined up perfectly behind).20160819_122820

perspective from the "Centro del Colonnato" marker

Move off the marker, and the perspective changes and one sees all 4 rows.

from a few feet off the marker - note the columns behind

20160819_122236Lastly, before entering the mighty church, or upon leaving, one can photograph the Swiss Guards in their colorful traditional costumes.  Contrary to popular belief, the outfits were not designed by Michelangelo. But the post of protecting the pope has been granted only to the Swiss since 1527. In that year Rome was attacked and sacked by German (Protestant) soldiers.  The pope had several groups of mercenary bodyguards but only the Swiss maintained their posts and defended the pope's retreat to Castel Sant Angelo.  More than half of the Swiss guards lost their lives in the skirmish. Since then, only the Swiss have been allowed to protect the pope.



Inside the Basilica there is much to see beyond the "usual suspects" of Michelangelo's Pieta', Bernini's Baldacchino, and the floor markers that show where the other great churches of the world would "fit" inside St Peters.  I like the large porphyry marble disk in the floor in the back of the nave that marks the spot where Charlemagne knelt to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the old St Peters on Christmas Day, 800 AD.

20160819_121115The statue of St Peter on a throne is a common sight.  But I'm not sure everyone notices the bronze feet where the pious have stopped for a rub for hundreds of years.  The church offers a dispensation for the act. Both feet are burnished and clearly wearing away.  And they are not the originals - long ago replaced.

20160819_120903Then there is the scale of St Peters.  The dominant impression for first time visitors is how immense it truly is.  Yet Bernini and others used many optical tricks to "shrink the scale" and make it seem smaller than it actually is. Take the statuary in the support piers.  On first glance they appear to be of equal height.  But in reality, those up near the ceiling are a full 50% larger.  If they were the same as the lower statues, they would seem tiny they are so high up.  Though they hoped to make the space feel smaller, nonetheless they intended for visitors to be in awe of the mother church of the universal catholic church. In that they were certainly successful.