Accidently religious in Roma

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May 22nd 2010
Published: May 25th 2010
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We woke early in preparation for our 7.30am train to Rome. The first train to Foligno (the next stop past Spello) was short, lasting only 15 minutes. After a brief stopover at Foligno, we caught a second train to Rome, arriving at 9.30am. We walked to the same hotel we stayed in three weeks before, dropped off our bags and headed out on a second orientation tour, this time in warm sunlight. We caught the underground to the Spanish Steps, walked to the Fontana di Trevi and then revisited the Pantheon, Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II and the Colosseo before jumping on the underground back to the hotel. Walking in Rome is different in the heat of the sun, and we were glad to catch the city in different weather.

We lunched on pizza and red wine at Hostaria De’ Pastini Pizzeria near the Pantheon. Three weeks before, we had wandered alone under the Pantheon’s impressive dome in the early morning. This time we shuffled under the same impressive dome, shoulder to shoulder with swarms of tourists in the middle of the day. Three weeks before, rain drizzled through the dome’s opening, landing gently in the middle of the floor before us. This time beams of sunlight shone through the dome’s opening, illuminating sections of wall inside the cathedral. This architectural masterpiece has impacted me more than any other building in our Italian travels. I love Rome!

I prepared a report a few years ago on the training needs of Tasmania’s tourism industry. During my consultations with operators across the State, there was a continual call for the industry to be regulated (i.e. for tourism operators to be licensed). At the time I thought this to be slightly draconian, and I still do now. It’s not so much the operators who are at fault - it’s the tourists themselves. And if the Italian tourism industry was regulated, we wouldn’t have experienced the woefully bad Roman gladiators wandering around the Colosseum in black socks and brown sandals, inviting tourists to have photos with them. In a way, they were probably the most authentic tourism operators of them all (apart, of course, from their plastic swords and mobile phones).

The day had been long, so we showered and kicked back at the hotel in the late afternoon to relax before our farewell dinner. We headed out for a fantastic farewell dinner with our travel partners, sad in the fact that we may never meet these people again, people who had shared such a special time in a country we loved so much. I ordered the osso bucco (beef marrow bone), which was fantastic. We finished the night with limoncello, a staple after dinner liqueur to share with travels friends.

We woke early in preparation for a 7am bus trip to St Peter’s Basilica to escape the tourist queues. We arrived at 7.30am with two other fellow travellers to a smallish queue and decided to join it. I’m sure I’d read that the Basilica opened at 7am, but I must have been mistaken. The queue began to grow and everyone was carrying a red slip of paper, which we didn’t have. I asked an American priest behind us, and he said not to worry - it was free entry and we should be OK. An American family a little further back came up to us and offered us three extra red slips of paper that they had been accidently given. We thanked them, and now needed one more red slip of paper (which we eventually picked up as we passed through the security gates). The writing was in Italian, so we couldn’t make it out, but we assumed it was a mass (it was a Sunday morning). We hadn’t planned on attending a mass, but we thought it would be a great thing to do. At 9am they eventually opened the doors, and everyone at the front started running in. We made our way in to the Basilica and noticed everyone running to the inner aisle seats, so we decided to nab one in the middle of the church. The American family that had shared their spare red slips of paper sat in front of us, and said how amazing it was to be able to attend a Papal Mass - they had been planning their Italian trip around this Pentecostal Mass for 12 months.

Sure enough, at 10am the Pope entered the building and started walking down the aisle, passing within two metres of our aisle seat. He looked directly at Ren and blessed her as he walked past. We couldn’t believe our luck, and nor could we believe the generosity of the American family who had shared their three spare invitations so freely. We also couldn’t believe the armed security guards that had to ask two priests in the congregation (just a few seats away from ours) to stop using their mobile phones just before the mass started. I couldn’t estimate the number of people in the church, but it felt like 5,000. When the mass ended we headed outside and the Piazza was completely packed with people who had watched the mass on giant television screens - probably because they didn’t have a red slip of paper!

I don’t think I have ever witnessed cult of personality at this level. Because we had nabbed the popular aisle seats, we experienced the crush of a rock concert mosh pit when the Pope left the building, as everyone left their seats and surged towards the aisle to catch a glimpse of their hero as he walked past. I had at least five cameras over my head and ten arms over my shoulder, and I was leaning back into the crowd to stop them crushing forward and pushing us all into the aisle to meet the Pope at a much more intimate level than he would have preferred.

We held back and waited at the front stairs of the Basilica until 1pm, so we were the first people back in after the clean-up (the place was closed for an hour after the mass). I was the first person on the climb to the top of the Basilica, and for three minutes I had amazing views of Rome to myself. It was fantastic! We then wandered back through the Basilica and went down into the crypt where the Popes are buried, and we had to squeeze past a large group of people praying at the tomb of Pope John Paul II. I couldn’t understand this. He was the head of the Catholic Church, but he was still only a man - surely it was only Jesus that devout Christians should pray in front of. But then again, I’m not really in any position to comment, and I am unable to understand why people need religion at all.

We bussed back to the hotel, picked up some sandwiches and beer and lunched in a grassy piazza close to the hotel in the hot Roman sun. I headed out to the laundry, organised our clothes for the last leg of our trip and then headed back for a 6pm meeting with our new group of travellers. We dined together at a nearby restaurant - my gnocchi gorgonzola was sensational. Our new guide was surprised that I added parmesan to a meal that already had cheese, and I realised with a smile that I’ve still got a long way to go to understand the Italian way of food!

This had been a magical day. Travel surprises are fantastic!

…you know you are in Italy when you get good hot chocolate from the drinks trolley on the train! It was an early start from Assisi and after two quick trains we were in Rome again. After travelling for the last three weeks to cities, towns and villages I had never been to before, in a way it was like coming home to Rome and its familiar surrounds. Rome greeted us with brilliant weather this time around.

Our rooms at Hotel Castelfidardo were not ready so the plan was to go for a wander to see the historic centre with blue sky and bright sunshine; but Alvaro was giving Pete and Susie an orientation tour of Rome as it was their first time here, so we tagged along too. This was a replica of the night tour we had done with Alvaro three weeks ago, so it was interesting to do it again in broad daylight. I wasn’t surprised that the highlight of the walk was the Pantheon (again) - the more I spend time in there, the more I love it. Even the fact that it was absolutely packed did not bother me, the magic of this place obviously transcends such aggravations and petty annoyances. Walking for more than an hour in relatively hot weather (I even got slightly burnt) and navigating lunch time crowds made us catch the underground metro back to our hotel from the Colosseum with much urgency. We relaxed for a few hours and had our usual nana nap in preparation for a big night for our Essence of Italy Intrepid Travel trip farewell dinner.

We had dinner around the corner from the hotel, and Alvaro had once again, but this time for the last time, picked an absolutely fantastic restaurant for dinner. The pasta was good; however the osso bucco (bone marrow stew) Andrew had, and the saltimbocca (veal wrapped in ham) I had were exceptional. Our end of the table had a bit too much wine (it’s easy to do when you get one litre bottles placed in front of you) and then the limoncello only made matters worse. We were a giggling mess at the end of the evening when sad goodbyes were said to the particular to Alvaro who had been exceptional in organisation and group leadership, and to Jennie and Mick who had shared a few drinks and even more laughs with us for the last three weeks. We didn’t say goodbye to Pete and Susie, as we had a 7am date with them to visit Basilica di San Pietro and climb its dome.

The next morning we caught the #40 bus from Stazione Termini and got to the Basilica in 30 minutes, and a queue had already formed. For the first time on this trip, we queued to gain entrance, and queue we did until just before 9am. While standing in line we noticed that most of the people around us had little red tickets, and upon discussing this with the American priest behind us, we learnt that it was for entry into a mass (it was Sunday after all). Another family in the queue overheard our discussion and gave us three extra tickets they had. So very generous. We managed to get one more ticket on the long walk between the queuing point and the Basilica and sat down on an aisle seat in preparation for mass. You could have knocked the four of us down with a feather when we looked at the mass booklets and Susie realised that we were seated waiting for a 10am Papal Pentecost mass! By happy coincidence, the family who gave us their tickets were sitting right in front of us...they had been planning to attend this specific mass for 12 months as a High School graduation present for their son before he started at a seminary. The unexpected turn the day had taken was immense and we were like four little kids who had received a surprise toy. Pope Benedict XVI walked less than two metres from us, holding his arm up in a blessing. The crowd clapped, surged forward and even groaned as he slowly ambled past us. After a moving two hour mass that had parts of it said in multiple languages, we were shepherded out so that they could clean and clear the Basilica of the masses of chairs. However we saw the very very long queue of people already in line waiting to come in and we really did not want to re-queue to climb the dome. So we loitered around, fugitively avoiding the security guard’s gazes, and then quickly snuck in when they re-opened the doors. 😊

After a short lift ride and climbing the remaining 319 steps, we had conquered the very steep Basilica dome climb. There are a series of little windows in the narrow spiral climbing stairwell that we could actually stop at them this time because we were the first ones there and there was no tourist conveyor belt to rush us along. The last time I did this climb I was 14 and I really don’t remember it very well, so I was very very happy to do this again. Once we were at the top and looking out over a SUNNY Rome, I was 100% certain that I love this city very very much! On a related note I think my knee has finally healed itself as I wasn’t sore at all on this climb.

I have always thought that Bernini’s Piazza San Pietro was the most beautiful and perfect piazza; however observed from the dome, I appreciated its design and scale even more. I had never before realised how large the semicircular colonnades were, and how symmetrical the rows of Doric columns within it were. Apparently there are 284 columns and, on top of the colonnades, 140 saints.

We dedicated the rest of the afternoon to looking around the Basilica and the tombs of the popes in the crypt. I had forgotten how big and awe inspiring the Basilica is! The major points of interest for me were the bronze statue of St Peter with its worn toe from the touches of pilgrims over the years (but which is now roped off); Michelangelo’s magnificent mosaic decorated dome which we got to walk around at eye level during the dome climb; the central altar which sits directly above St Peter’s tomb; and Bernini’s imposing bronze canopy...This was a most brilliant day, and one that will be remembered very fondly indeed. 😊

That evening we met the travellers on our next Amalfi Coast and More Intrepid Travel trip. Davide is our new group leader and has a laidback style that I think will suit us quite well. The new group consists of Fiona from Melbourne, Katie and Lisa from Canada, David and Sally from Queensland, and Hilary and Graeme from our other trip. We had a fantastic dinner at La Famiglia and the stand out dish of the night was Andrew’s gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce - so tasty! We said goodbye to Pete and Susie this evening, with plans to meet up in Sorrento in a few days time for a few drinks...

We have both always loved Rome, but this trip has made this place all the more special to us. I think spending extended time here has enabled us to comfortably settle into the place. I absolutely love it when this happens - when you suddenly realise that the tourist glasses through which you can’t help but view places you travel through have come off and you are experiencing the place as it would look and feel to you if you lived here.

We travel to Naples in the Campania region and the Amalfi Coast next…


26th May 2010

Pope John-Paul II
I think I must be in the wrong thread if the sun's out, but nevertheless: I tend to think of myself as a Buddhist Sympathiser most of the time, but I did think that John-Paul II was a pretty special bloke. I can certainly see the attraction of praying at his tomb, even if it isn't according to the rules. PS - I am glad the sun's out, the knee's fixed, and the food's still excellent.
28th May 2010

Re: Pope John-Paul II
KD - as we travel south the sun is not only out but getting much hotter; and the food is getting more excellent :)

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