Okay - I've been walking back and forth between Rome and the Vatican for a few days now, and since we spent the majority of today in this tiny nation, I'll give an account of all our interactions there. I'll also give you the parts from Rome that happened today, too.
They have a post office set up in a trailer in the middle of St. Peter's Square, which is quite convenient for those who want to get Vatican stamps or postcards, or who want to post their cards in the Vatican post box. When we walked through the square on Saturday night, it was already closed. But when we went to the Pentecost service on Sunday morning, they were open for business at least by 10:30. I couldn't believe it - I mean, NOBODY has a post office open on Sundays in any of the countries I've been to on this trip, so I was quite shocked to see that the most Christian country on earth had a post office open on Sunday, and during the morning service at that. I bought some stamps, and when I got my change, I had scored a shiny 50¢ Vatican coin! These
things sell for 6€, or 12 times their face value, in all the souvenir shops around town. Unfortunately, it's the only Vatican coin I've been able to acquire, and I'm pretty sure it's the only one in circulation (at least to the general public). They sell full sets, but they're the shiny uncirculated coins, for upwards of 95€, so that ain't happening.
Normally when we walk through St. Peter's Square towards wherever we're going, we get the normal moneymakers (see yesterday's post) that you see everywhere else in Rome, but we also get the ones trying to sell tickets to the Vatican Museums, especially those who either want to sell you those "skip the line" tickets or who are trying to sell guided tours. It was so satisfying to see their disappointed faces this morning when we said that we already had "skip the line" tickets. What a glorious find and investment back at the end of March! When we found the line this morning, it was unbelievable. But when we told the "ushers" around the end of the line that we already had tickets, they showed us the "fast lane," and I truly felt sorry for the people
who had to wait in line. The line for the Uffizi in Florence this past Saturday was one thing; but this made that look like a cake walk. I bet they waited at least
2 hours, probably closer to 3, in that line. We just walked on through. Our tickets were for a 10 AM entrance time, but we got there about 9:35 and were waved on through. No questions.
They do have metal detectors and x-ray machines in operation, so that took a couple of minutes. But after that, we walked up to the main floor and found ourselves in the museum area. Our first sights were in the garden in the center of the museums, the Cortile della Pigna. There's a golden futuristic ball in the center, which seems remarkably out of place, but everybody gets a picture of it. After that, we had to choose whether we wanted to see the Sistine Chapel first, or the other museums. I figured we should go ahead and go to the main attraction, and so did everyone else in the country.
I didn't realize we would have to go through basically the entire country before getting to the
Sistine Chapel. You have to go through a few small rooms before you open up onto a really long corridor of different rooms, all in a row. The smaller rooms all contain statues, mostly of ancient heroes and gods, and there's even a room full of only animal statues. You get to a room reminding me of the Pantheon (from yesterday), at which point you turn 90 degrees and start down the long corridor. My favorite room was probably the map room - the ceiling had some awesome designs on it, but along the walls were painted all sorts of maps of mostly the regions and towns of Italy during the late Renaissance and early Modern periods. Some were more accurate than others.
At the end of this corridor, you get teased - you think you can go straight into the Sistine Chapel, but just before you get there, a rope blocks you from going there. You have to turn left and go through a lot of overblown rooms that have not much really good to look at, except maybe the ceilings. Then you get to the Raphael rooms, and things change. Apparently, Raphael was "discovered" by one of
the Popes who subsequently hired him to be THE artist for the Vatican. So there are several rooms in a row that are painted entirely by him - not a bit of the wall or ceiling space is wasted. This was the highlight of the pre-Sistine part of the Vatican Museums. After this, you go through some old rooms that don't have much to offer, then you have to walk through some rooms dedicated to Modern Art, at which point EVERYONE just wants to get to the Sistine Chapel. You go up some stairs, and then... you're there!
You have to be quiet (though large groups don't follow that direction too well), and photography is not allowed inside the Sistine Chapel. I saw some people surreptitiously trying to get ceiling shots, so I did the same. It's not a good quality photograph - maybe God wants it that way. Several times, the guards standing above everyone would yell out "No photos!" They also apparently have the right to make you delete any pictures you take in there. On a brighter side, while we were in there, a priest came in and led a prayer. But most of us stood
around staring, trying to crane our necks for a good look at the ceiling. One side of the wall has images of Jesus (wearing red and blue), and the opposite wall has images from Moses' life (he's wearing yellow and green). And the curtains along the lower portions of the wall are all painted on, but they look like real curtains. I really can't describe it all. It's an experience, and the room was packed the entire time we were there - as many people were entering as leaving, but we managed to get right under the "creation of man" in the very center of the ceiling. We were probably there about 10 or 15 minutes, just taking it all in.
After that, it's all a bit anticlimactic. Another long hall that you really don't spend much time looking at - the exhibits aren't really that special, since you can see most of these little artifacts in most any other museum that has antiquities. We hit up the pizzeria on the way out (since we had been in there for almost 3 hours) before hanging a left into the Pinacoteca, where they had lots of Renaissance masters' paintings. I
loved the Raphael works, especially his "Transfiguration." They had some da Vinci and Caravaggio, but they weren't nearly as impressive.
Our afternoon consisted of a visit to the Piazza del Popolo on the other side of the River Tevere. That was breathtaking. There's an obelisk stolen right out of Egypt in the middle, with a big arch on one side and a couple of identical-looking buildings framing the major street on the opposite side from the arch. If there hadn't been some ugly advertisements masking the restoration work at the base of the obelisk, it would've been truly inspiring. Alas. We walked along some fancy shopping street on the way to the Spanish Steps - reputed to be Europe's widest and tallest staircase. That would've been a great picture, too, if the ENTIRE church at the top of the stairs hadn't been covered in scaffolding. The story of my trip, it seems.
It was getting hot, so we started walking back to the hotel. On the way, we stopped by the Augustus Mausoleum, which is surrounded by big fences, so you can't go in. There's a cool fascist building next to it, but again, you can't go in
there. So we battled the sun on the way back to the Vatican to see how the line for St. Peter's Basilica would be. It's free to get in and separate from the museums that we had seen in the morning. The line was still massive, so we came back to the hotel for a break - for bathroom and for our feet. We also read that the lines get shorter in the late afternoon, so around 3:45, we walked back to the square to find the line significantly reduced! Thirty minutes later, we were going through the x-ray and metal detectors to go inside.
All I can say is that the Basilica has no bad angles. Everywhere you look, you are inspired. Michelangelo's "Pietà" is right there on the right when you walk in the main door. And there's a crowd around it, but they tend to move quickly since everything in there is photo-worthy. The ceiling, the cupolas, the sculptures, the inscriptions, even the floor. And I don't know if this happens all day, but we were in there when the sun was really just starting to descend from its high point, so these beams of light
were coming in from the western windows in the upper levels, shining all the way down to the floor in the center of the basilica. I couldn't take any pictures of that area without getting those rays of light in them. Phenomenal. They started a mass at 5 PM, which made the whole place resound with music, giving it an even more unearthly feel - all for the better. There were LOTS of tourists to contend with, but even then, there was rarely a moment when I felt like I couldn't move around or see what I wanted (I mean, you really do want to see everything in there). We left feeling a little better about life.
On our way back to the hotel, we found this great little pizza baker, and both of us got a slice of pizza as well as another little baked good - not sweet, but similar to pizzas though different. For instance, I got a little something with pizza crust that had cheese and potato bits on top of it. It was SOOO good! And I got a Fanta lemon flavored, and it may be the best lemonade I've ever had (certainly the
best I've had while in Europe). When we were completely satisfied, Eno said she wanted to go back to our favorite bridge - the one in front of Castel Sant'Angelo, and enjoy the last few rays of the sun. She's heading back to London in the morning, and they don't get much sun there. So we did that. It was nice just to sit and watch people walking by. We were there for probably 50 minutes. Some random guy walking by on the other side of the bridge stopped and took our picture - we were even looking at him, so it involved absolutely no subtlety. Whatever, man. Then some German college kids asked if I would take their picture in front of the Castel, so I obliged.
We walked back to the hotel as the sun was setting behind St. Peter's. She's packed her stuff and is ready to go, so I guess I'm ready to spend my final 2 days in Europe. My final 48 hours on the continent, along again. I'm not so sad about being alone, but after 9 days with the same travel companion, Italy won't be the same. I don't even know what
I'm going to do, since I've seen most everything. I might do a fascist walking tour of southern Rome, or I may just hang out in the Vatican. I do intend to get some good food once or twice more. Rome is my oyster.
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