Thursday, November 6, 2008

Italy Recap: Day 2

Raphael's "School of Athens," in one of the  Vatican's "Raphael Rooms" 
(photo care of my friend Katie)

Michelangelo's amazing Pieta in St. Peter's (photo care of my friend Katie)

Tour guide boards outside the Sistine Chapel (photo care of my friend Katie) 

Nero's bathtub, made of porphyry, in the Sistine Chapel (photo care of my friend Katie)

photo of St. Peter's borrowed from Wikipedia member Patrick Landy

One day of recapping down, seven to go. I better start writing these more frequently so that I don't mix up the little details not captured in the pages of my little blue notepad...

It was Saturday, October 11. We woke up around 8:30 in our modest bed and breakfast room to weekend sounds of Rome. Thanks in part to the previous day's nap, we didn't feel quite as jet lagged as we'd expected. The sounds of trucks delivery inventory and couples and families walking from here-to-there were, however, far less imposing than a week day. The city was still waking up. 

Dan showered first, and was therefore first to sample the B&B's breakfast offerings. He found a "spread" of hard-boiled eggs, hard toast, Nutella, grapefruit juice, cereal and warm temperature milk. After he finished eating, he made me a small plate with some sliced hard-boiled eggs and a piece of toast with Nutella. I wasn't stoked about the breakfast, nor did I know if it was the standard, but it did the job. I donned long black pants and a lightweight sweater, as I remember hearing females' knees and shoulders must be covered in the Vatican and other places of worship.

We had plans to take the city bus over to the Vatican, plans that were shot down when we tried to board the bus and were shoed out of the doorway by a transit employee. Not knowing why we couldn't board but not having much time to think or talk about it, we snagged a cab. (We found out later that the buses have very strict rules around having a ticket. We didn't have a bus fare ticket and could have been fined an outrageous amount—something like $50—for not having our ticket if a city official boarded and checked everyone for their tickets. If we didn't have the funds to pay our penalty, the fine would steeply increase.) We knew we were supposed to meet our tour guide at 10. Pointing to the Vatican on the map worked just fine for our Italian cabbie.

We arrived at the meeting spot, a mosaics store directly across from the Vatican, about 20 minutes early. Given my penchant (or addiction?) to caffeine, an espresso was in order. Ahoy! There was a "bar" just a few steps away from our rendezvous location. We saw the man ahead of us order cappuccino—a most excellent idea. 

As we waited for our fix, we looked at knickknacks and collectibles in a floor-to-ceiling curio cabinet of sorts. We were tickled to see a tiny (maybe two inches long by an inch wide and an inch tall) little replication of a Sweetwater 420 six pack. Funny to see an Atlanta microbrew memento in a coffee shop. Two cappuccinos were a 1.80 euros, I believe. And they were tasty. I learned that "Dietar" is the Italian equivalent to Equal or Sweet-N-Low, one of which I usually take in my coffee.

Upon arriving back at the meetup site, we saw several other people waiting for the same company, Through Eternity Tours. Most people were from the US, with a few from the UK. Two guides showed up at 10 on the dot, splitting our large group into two smaller ones. We were assigned to Ian, a spunky 23-year-old from Liverpool with a background in archaeology. He'd come to Rome about two years earlier from further south (maybe Naples) on assignment and fell in love with the city.

Since our tour didn't include skipping the line, we waited about an hour to get into the Museum's gates. Our guide reminded us that it was a Saturday, compacted with the fact that three new saints were being canonized later that day. We didn't mind the wait though, as our group was much smaller and intimate than many of the others we saw—and Dan enjoyed talking with Ian about soccer. 

After being distributed headsets and walkie talkies and hearing a short intro from Ian in the courtyard, we started our tour of the Pinacoteca (a wing entirely dedicated to art). What an amazing experience! We saw panel paintings (some by Rafael, Caravaggio and Michelangelo), amazing tapestries and marble sculptures. Ian told us how one of the marbles in particular, was so rare and expensive that it was only used by "royalty" (including the pope). This stone, porphyry, can no longer be found. If you can call a stone extinct, porphyry would be "extinct."

Also during the tour, we toured the sculpture museum, much of which consists of busts. (I took a photo of one that looked like Screech from Saved by the Bell that would have been funny to include here.) We also visited the Raphael rooms (painted partially by Raphael himself, partially by his students, who didn't do as great of a job). 

The Sistine Chapel was a sight to behold. It's beyond incredible that Michelangelo did the frescos on the ceiling when he was a young man AND had no interest in painting. Ian gave us a run down of the chapel and its art before we went in, using a large map in the courtyard, created specifically for guides. This way, he could allow us to tour on our own and not be subject the strict noise guidelines. (The story goes that he tried repeatedly to get out of the pope's assignment, to no avail. I am impressed he even had the audacity to push off the project.) To think about painting—laying or standing low on scaffolding when you really don't have a grasp of what you're painting due to the scale—is mind boggling. No photography is allowed in the Sistine Chapel. 

We paused for a few photo ops before moving on to St. Peter's Basilica. Ian let us know that our tour would be ending officially before we headed inside, though he did say he would be available for questions if we had any. We entered. What a site to behold. The scale, magnitude and beauty of the worship place are difficult to absorb. Brumante, Michelangelo and Raphael, all astonishing artists and architects in their own rights, battled over how to handle the building's construction. As I write this, I wish I had my photos all over again. St. Peter's throne with its alabaster shrine above, with light beaming through. Michelangelo's breathtaking Pieta. The altar with its baldacchino (a giant structure that resembles a pavilion). The saying goes that the Statue of Liberty could fit comfortably under the basilica's dome. To think that something like this was constructed between the early 15th century and the early 16th century is unfathomable. I enjoyed the Sistine Chapel but felt this to be the most holy of our experiences at the Vatican Museum. 

Ian joked early on that it's been said that if you stand in front of each work of art in the Vatican for just 60 seconds, you'll be there for 12 years. We were glad to have him take us through the highlights but still leave us some time to explore on our own. While we recognized a few pieces, such as Raphael's "School of Athens," we wouldn't have known what was noteworthy overall. 

I would definitely recommend, if not insist, you do a guided tour if you visit the Vatican. 

Beat but feeling enlightened, we made our way to a gelato stand (I insisted) before catching a bus to head home. By this time, we knew we had to buy our bus fare tickets at tobacco shops. These fare tickets were valid for 70 minutes (I think), effective immediately upon purchase.  We walked around for a bit, pausing to take some photos, trying to find our correct bus. We eventually found one that worked, only to find that Roman buses can be packed like sardine cans. An old, homeless, Italian gypsy lady also made our bus commute interesting; she seemed to have all her earthly possessions (a duffle bag and two large plastic bags) aboard the bus and became VERY agitated if anyone got to close to her or her stuff. When we began talking about how we weren't seeing much familiar along the drive, we were pleased to find two fluent English speakers standing right in front of us. They suggested we jump off near the Vittorio Emanuele, which we did. After that experience, we weren't sure we wanted to ride the public buses again.

We spent a few minutes freshening up before catching a cab to our dinner destination—Ristorante 34. The place came on recommendation from Ian, our tour guide from earlier in the day. Before I write out what we enjoyed, I must say this was probably one of the best meals we had during our entire visit. Not to mention the waitstaff was very friendly and the atmosphere was great. We dined on a delicious caprese salad, the house specialty ravioli ("Ravioli 34" included herbs, pine nuts and ricotta), grilled lamb with arugula and tomatoes and some house tiramisu. I tasted some lemoncello, and we both enjoyed a half liter of house chianti. Mmmm. Yum. This place is almost a must if you visit Rome. (Thank you for the recommendation, Ian.)

Since we were right down from the Spanish Steps, we navigated our way over to them. We were surprised to see the lowest steps littered with beer cans and wine bottles but delighted to see the amount of nightlife activity. (We heard later that Roman law recently outlawed food on the steps but didn't seem to mind the bottles). After walking many, many flights of stairs, we enjoyed fabulous views of the city's lights. Hearing someone liken Rome to "Italy's Manhattan" upon our return made a lot of sense.

A taxi brought us back "home" for the night. Another night in paradise, as far as I was concerned. We prepared mentally for our next day's activities: tours of the Roman Forum and the Colosseum as well as finding our train tickets and enjoying more amazing food and wine.

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