07/26/2010 - 07/26/2010 86 °F
This morning we woke up early to be able to spend a full day at the Vatican. After another fabulous corn flake breakfast, we hit the road and picked up a Roma pass which entitles us to public transportation for 3 days and 2 sights as well as discounts to the other sights after our first two for only 25 euros (32ish dollars). It was one of the best deals of our trip since sights average 10 to 15 euros apiece and the city is quite sprawled out making the subway a necessity anyways. Although the Vatican didn’t count as one of the sights we could use the Roma Pass for, we needed to use the subway since we are on the far eastern side of the city and Vatican City is on the extreme western side. Just a block from our hotel is Termini Station, and I finally figured out why our hotel played up their proximity to it. When searching for a hotel, ours had bragged about being one block from Termini. However, whatever part of Termini Station that I arrived from the airport in was both run down and small and I felt as if I had been scammed. However, I now know that the station is in fact the hub of the metro lines as well as the train lines and basically contains an entire mall. We quickly learned that Rome’s subway is absolutely packed and many of the passengers got off at the stop for the Vatican. We followed the stream of people to the entrance to the Vatican Museum. On the way, we quickly realized that we were not the only ones with the bright idea of coming to the Vatican today. The line way absurdly long and stretched around a few corners of the Vatican walls. It looked as if it would take at least a few hours. At that point, we heard a girl walking by selling tours where we could skip the line and have a three hour guided tour of the museum for just 15 euros more than the admission fee. Although I had been avoiding such tours throughout the trip, this seemed worth it because the line was so long and there was so much to see inside the Vatican. After waiting around a bit for our tour group to form, we skipped the line and headed straight into the Vatican museum.
Our tour guide, Elaine, was from Toronto and first took us to a courtyard where she described the Sistine Chapel. Since you must be silent inside, there are posters in this courtyard where she could talk about the different elements with the help of some visuals. Interestingly, we learned that Michelangelo was a bit of a loner and had a big ego and when they needed someone to paint the chapel, Raphael suggested Michelangelo since he was a sculptor and expected him to fail which might keep his ego in check. When Michelangelo took the job, he hired a bunch of artists as his apprentices and had them paint the chapel. What he was really doing was taking notes on their techniques which he was completely unfamiliar with until one day, he thought that he had learned enough and he locked them out of the chapel when they went to lunch and never let another soul inside until he was done. Also, there is a clear progression from one side to the other as Michelangelo both mastered the technique and improved on it. He then tore down their work and completed the entire ceiling on his own for four years. Our tour guide did have an interesting critique of the work, however. He had not been able to use live models for his paintings and instead used the various Greek sculptures and paintings for his own masterpiece. However, Greek art rarely depicted women, so the women painted in the Sistine chapel look very manly. Also, the painting on the wall had originally depicted all of the figures in the nude until one pope thought it inappropriate for the church and had another artist come in to paint robes on the figures. We also learned that because so many candles had been burned in the chapel over the years that the paintings in the chapel had become dark and barely visible. The Vatican went looking for someone to pay for the restoration until a Japanese TV company offered, but only if they could have the rights to the images for a few decades. The Vatican agreed and because of this, no pictures are allowed in the chapel. Even though we learned about the chapel first, it was the last stop on our tour, so we first when through the rest of the museum.
The tour ended up working out great. We were given headphones so that our tour guide could talk into a microphone and we could all hear her even if we were in a crowded room. We learned about countless stories behind the various pieces that were really interesting and that we would have otherwise walked right by without giving much thought. One such painting was the school of Athens. Most people would probably recognize it if they saw it. It is by Raphael where he painted the faces of many of his contemporaries on the bodies of famous scholars from ancient Athens. We were told that he was not planning to include Michelangelo in the painting, but that one night he snuck into the Sistine Chapel and saw what a great job Michelangelo was doing and decided he had been wrong and included him in the picture. We also learned that Raphael often paints himself in his paintings and that you can tell which person is him because he is always looking out at the audience. Another interesting thing was learning about how you can tell the subject of the painting by the symbols he carries. Hercules carries a wooden club, while most saints hold symbols related to their martyrdom, with the exception of St. Peter who is always seen with two keys, one to heaven and one to the church. When St. Peter was condemned to death on the cross, he requested to be hung upside down so that he would not die the way Jesus had died. After his death, followers stole his body from the Romans so that he could be buried. Since they were in a hurry, they cut him at his ankles to get him down. For centuries St. Peters was said to be built on his remains and in excavations as recently as the 80’s, a body was found cut at the ankles and with carbon dating confirming that the body was from St. Peter’s time. The architecture inside the Vatican museums was exceptional, but even more impressive was that every inch of the walls and ceiling was covered in art. One interesting room was the map room in which maps are painted on the walls depicting the entire known world. However, the orientation of the maps seemed suspect until our guide told us that they were all oriented as if you were looking at them from Rome because Rome was “the center of the universe.” Another amazing thing was that we were even allowed to walk on the original mosaic floors which were both beautiful and intricate. Even after everything we had seen, nothing could compare to the Sistine Chapel at the end of our tour. It was truly an impressive sight that you would have to see to believe. The colors were vivid, the paintings were highly detailed and the sheer size of this massive “canvas” was astounding. It was also kind of funny to watch everyone trying to take pictures of the ceiling before being yelled at by one of the security guards.
After our tour, we headed out to St. Peter’s square for some pictures and then grabbed a quick lunch.
In the afternoon, we noticed that the line to get to the top of the basilica had died down considerably, so we got in line for the privilege to climb 551 steps to the peak. Near the top of the dome, the hallways got pretty tight and curved sideways with the dome. From the top, the 360 degree view of Rome was impressive. Once we made it back down, we finally toured the basilica itself which certainly lived up to its reputation. We tried to fit in the nearby Castel Sant Angelo before the end of the day, but weren’t able to get in. The park area around it was nice, however, and we enjoyed it for a while as we planned the rest of our night. For dinner, I found a place in my guidebook near the Vatican called Sicilianboca which Frommer’s billed as the best Sicilian restaurant in Rome. It’s funny how Italian restaurants have so many courses offered. First there’s the appetizers, then the soups, then the antipasti, then the first course (usually pasta), then the second course (some kind of meat), then the salad and finally desert. The place we went to was relatively inexpensive, so we went all out with the courses. For an antipasti, I had a tomato salad which ended up literally just being tomatoes, but it was fantastic, especially since I’ve been deprived of fruit and vegetables on this trip. The food was good and filling and we had the house wine which was also good. For desert, we had hollowed out fruit that was filled with gelato of the flavor of the fruit. There was also a walnut and chestnut that were surprisingly good. It was a cool idea and tasted delicious. We ended up making friends with the entire wait staff who told us about tipping in Italy (it’s already included), having pasta last, and a variety of other cultural nuances. It seemed like they were just as fascinated by our culture as we were with theirs. After dinner, they told us about the new wine store they opened next door and the free tastings, so we went over and grabbed a bottle of a Sicilian white wine. On the way home, we planned to hop on the metro, and stop and Trevi fountain to drink some of our wine before going home (you can drink anywhere you want around here—it’s kind of weird to see at first). Kristine remembered loving it on her first trip to Italy. You’re supposed to toss a coin over your shoulder into the fountain and make a wish.
Anyways, we got to the metro and saw that it was closed. It was about 5 minutes after 12, so we assumed that it closed at 12 which seemed ridiculously early for such a large city. Since we had just spent a small fortune on dinner and wine, we decided against calling a cab and instead started the walk across the entire city of Rome. It turned out to be quite an adventure. In Rome, about 10% of the streets have street signs. In addition, there are so many small alleys and side streets that even the giant map I bought didn’t have all of the streets included. There are no simple blocks or intersections of two streets. Instead, very few streets last more than couple blocks before becoming something else. Some streets are actually piazzas, which have multiple streets going into a central square. When you come to these, it’s difficult to know which street to take out because there are never any street signs. Even worse, there are monuments everywhere, most of which are on their own roundabout and have several streets converging into them and leaving you clueless as to where to go after them. This all culminates to make Rome a navigational nightmare, and in walking from one extreme end to the other, I got us lost a fair share. On the way, Kristine got scammed by a Pakistani guy who came rushing up to us and handed her flowers. He said they were free so she took them and shook my hand and asked where we were from and told us he was from Pakistan. Then, he started asking me for some small change. I gave him a euro and he wasn’t satisfied and wanted more. I had had enough and told him thank you and we left. We checked our pockets and made sure we weren’t pick pocketed or anything like that. Of all the ways to get scammed, it certainly could have been much worse. Kristine started getting paranoid and ended up throwing out the flowers because she thought they were poisoned which was nuts but hilarious. We did eventually make it to Trevi Fountain, and it was so late by that time that we were able to enjoy our wine among only a handful of people there. It truly is a beautiful fountain and is even more impressive at night. One thing we did notice on our trek was that there is a policeman at every major monument at night watching for vandals. It was sad that that’s what they had to do, but at least they were able to keep Rome’s monuments pristine, if not the rest of the city. Upon finally reaching Hotel Aquarium, we were exhausted and passed out almost immediately. However, at this point I had run out of clean boxers and still had not been able to make it to a laundromat since we are on the go from 8am until at least 12pm every night. Instead, I washed my boxers in the sink and set them out to dry. It’s not long until morning, so I hope that they have time to dry.