Brother Guy Consolmagno -- a staff astronomer and the curator of meteorites at the Vatican Observatory -- travels about 100,000 miles each year, splitting his time between Tucson, Ariz., and Rome. The planetary scientist also gives 40 to 50 talks annually at universities, schools and parishes around the world.
"Virtually all the cost of my travel is covered by the people inviting me to talk," says Brother Guy, 59. "And whenever possible I stay in local Jesuit communities, at one of our schools or parishes, which also certainly cuts down the cost of travel! Because I am a brother, people sometimes mistakenly call me a monk, but that is not technically correct. A monk takes a vow to stay within a monastery, but Jesuits live 'in the world.' Indeed our founder, St. Ignatius, once said that our vocation is to travel. Certainly, I do!"
Q. For those making a trip to the Vatican, what would you advise them to visit?
A. Well, everyone knows to see St. Peter's and the Vatican Museum. But most people, when they go to the museum, rush ahead to see the Sistine Chapel and miss out on some wonderful artwork on the way. In particular, I recommend that when you first get into the museum, where the signs all point to the left, turn right instead. This gets you to the coffee shop and the Pinacoteca, the small but wonderful collection of paintings. I find the series of musical angels by Melozzo da Forli are particularly charming. But the best part is a series of eight astronomical paintings by Donato Creti, made in the early 1700s, which show the planets as seen through a telescope. They include the first color depiction of the Great Red Spot on Jupiter! Another wonderful sight, which requires advanced reservations, is to explore the Scavi, the excavations underneath St. Peter's. You can get information about how to make these reservations at the Vatican website (http://www.vatican.va/).
Q. What are some of the interesting places at the Vatican that aren't open to the public that you wish you could share with the rest of us?
A. Most people don't realize that the Vatican is a real city, albeit very small. It has a grocery store and a department store, for which you need Vatican ID to access, because the goods for sale there are tax-free! Much of the rest of the Vatican is just a series of offices, but they are located in buildings that are hundreds of years old and usually decorated with beautiful paintings and frescoes.
The Vatican Library, Vatican Archives and the Tower of the Winds are sometimes open to the public. These are also remarkable places to visit. Most of the library has been digitally scanned, so you have a remarkable 17th-century room with beautiful old tables on which you see modern computers where you can inspect digital images of the oldest documents and pick out the precise page of the document you are looking for. This saves a lot of wear and tear on the valuable ancient documents in their collection.
The Tower of the Winds dates from the era when the Gregorian Calendar was being promulgated. It has a Meridian line that measures where a spot of sunlight coming through a hole on the south wall hits the floor. From the location of this spot you can work out the precise latitude and longitude of the tower and the dates of the beginnings of the seasons. These rooms in the tower were the location of the Vatican Observatory back in the 1890s. In the 1930s we moved out to the pope's summer home outside Castel Gandolfo, which is where I live and work. Alas, those grounds are not open to the public.
Q. What was it like being in Antarctica for six weeks?
A. It is as close as I will ever come to visiting another planet. The most remarkable thing was how clean the air was. Anyone who's gone to some remote region -- say the Rocky Mountains or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan -- has an idea of what I mean to breathe air that is not full of dust and smoke. But Antarctica is like that only much, much moreso. I spent about a third of my book "Brother Astronomer" describing my time in Antarctica. It was remarkable.
Q. What was more nerve wrecking: Meeting the pope for the first time or sparring with Stephen Colbert when you promoted one of your books?
A. Oh, Colbert. The visit with the pope was private and he put me at ease immediately. Colbert treated me pretty nicely, too, but that was in front of about a million people watching his show!
Q. I understand you served in Kenya with the Peace Corps. What are some of your memories of that time?
A. That was 30 years ago and I know that Kenya has changed a lot since then. What I remember most was how wonderful the people were and how much the countryside reminded me of a Tolkien painting -- odd volcanic mountains and glorious, but very strange, vistas. One of the things I didn't like about "The Lion King" was that the mountains those artists drew were not Africa, they were Southern California. It looks completely different from that.
Q. Did you love your first trip as a child?
A. When I was five years old, the youngest of the three of us, my mother took me out of kindergarten to go with her from Detroit back to visit her family in upstate New York. We took a sleeper train from Detroit and then from Plattsburgh we crossed into Canada and flew back from Montreal to Windsor. The plane was a four-engine prop plane, a DC-7. This was 1957. It was an unforgettable trip and I have had the travel bug -- and a love of sleeper trains -- ever since.
Q. What are your five favorite cities?
A. I am quite partial to the United Kingdom, so I would have to start with London, Liverpool and Glasgow. Tokyo is fascinating and continually surprising. I lived many years in Boston and I still love to visit there because it's full of history, great museums and great food -- and you can walk to nearly all of it. But lately my heart has been stolen by New York. As a Jesuit, I get to stay in parishes built to serve immigrants of the 19th century that are now in neighborhoods that are just wonderful to wander around. And, yes, I know that's six cities.
Q. When you go away, what are some of your must-have items?
A. One trick I have never heard anyone else describe is that for long overnight flights, I put myself to sleep by listening to favorite audio books. Because I know the book well, it doesn't keep me awake. And when I realize that I have skipped a few chapters, it relaxes me by letting me realize I really have gotten some sleep. My personal favorites for these are the recorded version of the "Narnia" books, which I know by heart.
(Jae-Ha Kim is a New York Times bestselling author and travel writer. You can respond to this column by visiting her website at http://www.jaehakim.com. She welcomes your questions and comments.)