Vatican City Issues Special Stamps After Papal Resignation

Call me old fashioned, but when I’m on the road there’s something special about writing a postcard, sticking on some local stamps and sending it to loved ones back home. Receiving mail from overseas is almost as much fun.

I especially like rare stamps from smaller or less frequently traveled countries. Sadly I couldn’t send any postcards from Somaliland because they don’t have a mail service. I was also disappointed that on my recent trip to Iraq we never stopped at a post office.

Luckily you don’t have to go so far to find strange and soon-to-be collectable stamps. The surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has forced Vatican City to issue a special set of stamps.

They are emblazoned with an angel holding the Arms of the Apostolic Camera and the words “Sede Vacante MMXIII” (“Vacant See 2013”). They come in four different denominations of 70 and 85 euro cents, 2 euros, and 2.50 euros.

Stamps for the vacant see are designed shortly after a new Pope takes office and are kept until he dies, to be used for the brief period before the next Pope is elected.

Stamp Magazine reports that since the Vatican started issuing stamps, the Vacant See issues have only been used for a total of 20 days. I suspect this means that franked (used) Vacant See stamps will later become pretty valuable owing to their rarity. So if you’re in Italy, head on over to that little country inside Rome and send out some postcards. Your friends and family will thank you for it a few years from now.

[Photo courtesy Vatican Philatelic and Numismatic Office]

The Price Of Wine Is Too Damn High

If you were given a blind taste test, could you tell the difference between a $10 bottle of wine and a $20 bottle or even a $50 bottle? Last year, I listened to a Freakonomics podcast, in which Steve Levitt set out to determine if his friends and colleagues could tell the difference between good wine and swill and the results of the experiment confirmed what I’ve always suspected about many wine snobs: they’re full of crap.

Leavitt held a dinner party and invited fellow wine enthusiasts to taste a variety of wines without letting them see the labels. But he threw them a curveball by telling them that inexpensive wines were $50 bottles, and, predictably, everyone in the group scored the bogus $50 wines higher than the authentically pricey ones, which Leavitt introduced as cheap or mid-price range.

In the podcast, the authors also cite Robin Goldstein, who published a study detailing research from 6,000 blind wine tests that concluded that when people don’t know the price of the wine, they do not derive any additional enjoyment from expensive wines compared to cheaper ones. So while many people need to know they’re drinking an expensive wine to enjoy it, I’m the opposite – I really enjoy a wine if I get a good deal on it.I’m not claiming that all wines are created equal, but my point here is that you shouldn’t have to spend a lot of money for decent wine. I spent three months in Europe this year, mostly in the Mediterranean, and now that I’m back in the U.S., it’s depressing how wine is valued as a treat or a luxury item in most restaurants Stateside. Even a glass of crap or mediocre wine in most restaurants is going to set you back at least $5. But in Spain, Italy, Greece and in many other parts of the world, you can drink basic table wine for next to nothing.

In Praise of Cheap Wine

In Palma de Mallorca, I had a very nice glass of Spanish wine, with a generous pour, at the Bar Major (see right) in an indoor market for all of 1€. At the Osteria Da Anguilinu, a very nice little restaurant in Lecce, Italy, a quarter liter of the house wine also costs, you guessed it, 1€ (See video below). In the south of France, you can walk into a supermarket and fill your own jug with table wine for, again, 1€. And on the Greek island of Samos, we bought some delicious bottles of sweet local wine from a vintner named Manolis, right off the back of his truck for 4€ and were later told that we got ripped off. (See video below)

In Italy and Greece, even if you’re eating on a beach or in another place with a great view, you can still usually order an inexpensive carafe of table wine. And to be clear, when I refer to cheap wine here, I’m talking about drinkable stuff, not the jug wine you see alcoholics throwing back in bus terminals and alleyways.

But here in the good old U.S.A., glasses and bottles of wine cost a pretty penny. Even at Noodles & Company, a fast food joint, a glass of mediocre wine will cost you nearly $6 with tax. Why?

I think the primary reason is that wine isn’t the deeply ingrained part of our culture that it is in European countries, where babies practically guzzle the stuff from their bottles. Here, wine is still associated with the Grey Poupon country club set, but on the other side of the pond, everyone drinks it, no matter whether they clean sewers or run a multinational company.

U.S. business owners also tend to price their food reasonably to try to entice customers while hoping to make a larger profit margin off the drinks. When customers peruse a restaurant’s menu, either in person or online, they tend to formulate an opinion on how pricey it is based on the food prices, even though the drinks can cost nearly as much.

Also, we don’t consume the same volume of wine that Europeans do, so there is no volume discount. According to the Wine Institute, Americans drink just 9.4 liters of wine per capita annually, compared to 45.7 liters in France, 42.1 in Italy and 27 liters in Greece. Interestingly enough, those party animals in the Vatican top the chart with a whopping 54 liters consumed per person per year.

The same volume discount concept applies to beer in beer-drinking countries. In most parts of Germany, you can buy a half-liter mug of great beer for about €3-4, because bars assume you’ll be drinking several of them. So if we want cheaper wine and beer, we apparently need to drink much more of both.

Perhaps we need a political candidate to draw attention to this problem in the same way Jimmy McMillan did with his The Rent is Too Damn High Party candidacies for governor and senator in New York State. I don’t see a The Wine Is Too Damn Expensive party candidate getting into the White House anytime soon, but it can’t hurt.

Of course, there are other items that are very cheap here and ridiculously expensive in Europe, like car rentals and the price of gas, for example. Given the choice between cheap alcohol and cheap gas, I would be hard pressed to pick between the two. How about you?

(First image by Roger Salz on Flickr, second image and videos by Dave Seminara)

Photo of the day – St. Peter’s and a puddle

When taking travel photos, we spend a lot of time looking for the right background. Whether it’s capturing a candid portrait or framing the perfect landscape, it’s not always easy to convey a beautiful scene in a photograph. Flickr user John Overmeyer used a humble puddle of rain to elevate this night shot of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Of course, flawless composition, lighting, and luck didn’t hurt, but it all comes together for a beautifully romantic shot that makes the puddle look like a grand river.

Show off your perfect travel shots by adding them to the Gadling Flickr pool. We may choose yours for a future Photo of the Day.

Book review: Quiet Corners of Rome

Travel guidebooks conceive of the world as a series of obvious, important monuments. This is particularly true of a brash and magnificent city like Rome. Your typical traveler could be forgiven for simplifying this complex historic capital down to a giant marble stadium, a series of famous steps and giant chapel mural. But writer David Downie reminds us there’s a lot more to Rome than its monuments. In fact, Downie argues, Rome is a city best savored through its secret places: the sensual and contemplative spaces unknown to the average visitor.

In his new book, Quiet Corners of Rome, Downie (a Gadling contributor) treats us to an insider’s tour of over 60 of Rome’s hidden spaces based on years of exploration. What he reveals is a city that is not about grand monuments, but instead the spaces in between: quiet courtyards punctuated by burbling fountains and the fresh scent of pine, the distant vibration of church bells in a shady courtyard and ancient stone plazas bedecked with intricate architectural details. Each sight is accompanied by a serene photo taken by photographer Alison Harris. It’s less a tourist guide than a dictionary of intimate discoveries and pleasant surprises – a sprawling, overwhelming city made personable, particular and specific.

Looking for a guide to Rome’s greatest and grandest sights? This is not that book. What Quiet Corners of Rome accomplishes however, is something altogether more authentic. It’s a highly personal, approachable and enjoyable way experience one of our favorite places as it was meant to be experienced: by cherishing every hidden nook and secret city view.

Rome – 3 days in Italy

With the bustle of a large European metropolis and the detritus of a monumental past, Rome delights with a frenetic pace and antiquities lurking innocuously around each bend in the road. Here, history has been built on top of history for thousands of years. Seeing bankers in candy red Alfa Romeos zipping by millenia old ruins frames the endurance of this old city. Each sediment in time is visible and speaks to the ancient tale of decaying empire and modern function. The past is everywhere. You may be taking a stroll to sample some Trippa for a late lunch and accidentally stumble upon the Pantheon. There is a certain beauty to this unplanned chaos, and the overlapping of ages is historical mayhem at its most charming.

Rome is estimated to have been settled over ten thousand years ago. It has been a destination for a very long time. It is said that all roads once lead to this settlement on the Tiber. Thankfully, getting to Rome is inexpensive care of European budget air lines. Easyjet flies to Rome from several European cities such as Paris, London, Berlin, and Amsterdam for under $200 round-trip. Three days is plenty of time to see the highlights of Rome, but budget more time to truly understand this storied destination.


Day 1 – Roam the streets of Old Rome

One of the most amazing qualities of Rome is the integration of the ancient city into the modern metropolis. Most ancient sites beautifully disturb the modern order of things. On an old square, a McDonald’s faces the Pantheon in a worthy example of the strange compromises the present has made with the past. Due to this integration of the historical and the proximity of many Roman landmarks to each other, Rome is a great city for wanderers.

Start at the Colosseum, and take in the crumbling feat of ancient engineering. The queue at the Colosseum can be rather daunting, but booking tickets in advance or purchasing a Roma pass bypasses the line. Here is a great online resource for line skippers. Around the Colosseum, also seek out the Arch of Constantine. It is hard to miss.

From the Colosseum, start heading northwest towards Foro Romano, or the Roman Forum – the ancient seat of Roman government. It is a ruined old structure, and its considerate ambitions can be ascertained by the remnants. The Foro Romano is just east of Palatine Hill – one of the seven hills of Rome. The Circus Maximus, or old chariot racing ground, is just on the other side of the hill.

Continue northwest along Fori Imperiali road and slowly make your way to the heart of Rome. You will pass Foro Traiano, Piazza Campidoglio, and several other breathtaking landmarks. Eventually, if you stay the course, you will arrive at the doorstep of the Pantheon. The Pantheon is such a feat of engineering that it is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. During the renaissance, master architects such as Brunelleschi studied the Pantheon’s construction to reverse engineer advancements in the architectural field. This was 1300 years after the Pantheon’s construction. To call the Pantheon a marvel would be an insult. It stands as a testament to conquering impossibility.

Next the Pantheon, duck into Tazza D’Oro for some caffeine rejuvenation. Tazza is accused of making the best cappuccino in Rome. The place is busy and confusing. Follow someone who looks like they know the lay of the land.

Head north and east to the Trevi fountain, where well wishers toss away an estimated 3000 Euros per day. It is said that if you toss a coin into the Trevi fountain, then you will be guaranteed a return trip to Rome. North of the Trevi fountain is the Spanish Steps – the longest and widest staircase in Europe. Climb from the Piazza di Spagna to the top and cherish the view out over Rome.

For dinner, find a busy restaurant and order a lot of food. Rome is a mecca for food and has multitudes of delicious options. It is difficult to find a bad meal in Rome, so be adventurous. Hostaria Antica Roma on Appian Way is highly recommended.

Day 2 – Vatican City and Sistine Glory

Vatican City is a sovereign city state ruled by the Pope. With a population of less than a thousand, and only 110 acres in total size, the Vatican is considered the smallest country in the world, edging out the micro-state of Monaco. This center of the Catholic world boasts immaculate gardens, a heavenly basilica, and one of the top museums in the world.

The best way to reach the Vatican is on foot by crossing Ponte Sant’Angelo over the Tiber River. Castel Sant’Angelo is framed gloriously between winged angels on both sides of the bridge. The castle is a great first stop of the day, and houses a museum and Hadrian’s tomb. Castel Sant’Angelo has been a tomb, a castle for the popes, a prison, and also figures prominently int the novel Angels and Demons by Dan Brown.

West of Sant’Angelo is Vatican City. Entering on Via della Conciliazione is probably the most dramatic way to approach the holy place. Once in Vatican City, take in the breathtakingly large Piazza di San Pietro (St. Peter’s square) before entering the basilica. The square boasts an obelisk that was relocated from Egypt almost two-thousand years ago.

The height of the Michelangelo designed dome in St. Peter’s Basilica is so lofty that you could fit the entire statue of liberty within the dome with room to spare. The interior of St. Peter’s is a heavenly place, festooned with gold finery and artistic masterpieces. You can climb to the top of the dome for a stunning view out across Rome, or take to the crypts beneath the marbled interior to check on some papal tombs.

If you happen to be in Rome on a Wednesday, then you can be blessed by the Pope himself. He hands out blessings at 10:30am on Wednesdays. Check with your hotel or guesthouse to arrange tickets for the event. The Swiss guard also hands out tickets on Tuesdays from their post near the bronze door. Be sure to check the Pope’s schedule before getting too excited about being blessed. He is a busy man and routinely leaves his Vatican home.

The Vatican Museum is my favorite museum in the world. From entire rooms filled with the works of masters to hallways covered with brightly painted maps of an uncertain world, this place is an unbelievable experience. Budget plenty of time to take it in. The museum is laid out to move you through several gorgeous rooms and immaculate hallways before climaxing at the Sistine Chapel. The museum is free the last Sunday of each month, and is not open any other Sundays. The rest of the week is fair game.

Finish your day with a stroll down the Tiber river just as dusk blankets Rome.

Day 3 – Trastevere and personal interests

With so many options around Rome, pick something personally interesting to do on your last day. Take a cooking class, check out the art at Galleria Borghese, go to a wine tasting, explore catacombs and crypts, check out Florence (only an hour and a half away by fast train), go to a football game, or perhaps just take to some serious shopping.

On your third night in Rome, spend some time in Trastevere. Trastevere is a cool neighborhood on the west bank of the Tiber filled with locals, expats, artists, and college students. It is a great place to sample authentic Roman food, explore, and get inexpensive lodging. The area feels less like a museum than ancient Rome and is a great place to get in touch with the city’s less touristy side.

All photography by Justin Delaney