It feels like it’s been so long since I left off recapping our vacation, but I suppose it hasn’t really been. It was just a rather long weekend — we had family visiting for a few days, then I wasn’t feeling so hot for Saturday and Sunday, and today it was a busy day back at the office. But let’s pick up where we left off, shall we?
Day three in Italy was our day to visit Vatican City: St. Peter’s Basilica, The Sistine Chapel, and all of the good Catholic stuff. CW and I both have very Catholic families (although neither of us practices now), so visiting Vatican City was definitely important to us. We had booked the tickets in advance thanks to the advice of our travel agent, who told us about the hours-long line to get in. Booking ahead would enable us to skip the line.
What neither of us had really realized was that what we were buying was not only a chance to skip the ticket line, but also a three-hour group tour. I don’t think either of us would have thought we needed to do the whole three-hour-tour thing, but it worked out well, so we were glad we did.
First things first: getting to Vatican City turned out to be a giant pain in the butt. For one thing, we had decided to use our Red Tourist Bus to get us there. (Recall the Red Tourist Bus adventure from the previous day, if you will, and you will see the potential flaws in this plan.) We and a tour booked at 10:45, and were hoping to just hop on the first bus of the day at 9:00, assuming we would get good seats and avoid the heat. Well. I will refrain from recapping the whole thing, but the bus was about 25 minutes late to pick us up and the entire time we waited we had to keep repeatedly fending off Guys Selling Stuff who were desperately trying to sell us tickets for the other tourist bus companies — the green bus, the yellow bus, the blue bus (“No, thanks. We already have tickets for the Stupid @$#! Red Bus!”).
Well, fine. The Stupid @$#! Red Bus finally arrived and we got on and made it to our stop in Vatican City with plenty of time to meet our tour guide on time, so long as we could find the tour office without any issues. The only problem? Just try walking down the danged street in Vatican City without getting accosted by dozens upon dozens of Guys Selling Stuff trying to sell you skip-the-line tickets and tours. They are the most aggressive salespeople I have ever seen in my entire life. In your face, stepping in front of you, following you, trying every major European language to try to talk you into buying these skip-the-line tickets. Walking through the gantlet of these people is a serious blood sport.
We just ignored them and/or said “no” in every language we knew while trying to make our way to the tour office. I got so good at the stone-faced, thousand-yard stare that I nearly missed the one woman who was actually trying to direct us to the tour office (“I’m trying to HELP YOU, You’re walking toward the BATHROOM!” “Oh.”).
WHEW. We hadn’t even started the tour and we were already frenzied and exhausted just getting to the meeting point.
Once we got there, though, everything went smoothly. Our awesome tour guide, Maria, had a microphone/transmitter that she used to talk to us through our ear buds, so we could hear her narrative the entire time. All we had to do was follower her flag through the museum, chapel, and basilica.
It should be easy, but following Maria’s flag through the incredibly crowded streets and sidewalks of Vatican City was hard enough. Then we had to file into the museum, go through a metal detector, and cram our way up a long set of stairs into the exhibit rooms. And that’s when we nearly lost her.
Going up the stairs, we were pressed into a crowd of people, shoulder to shoulder, surrounded by the faces of hundreds of strangers. In among them was one familiar face. “Hey, it’s Kelly W_____,” said my husband in a perfectly calm voice to our old friend who just happened to be passing us on the stairs at that exact moment. WHAAAAAT?! Sure enough, it was Kelly and his wife Heather — old friends of ours who used to work with us until they moved to upstate New York for new jobs about a year ago.
I MEAN. Of all the most insanely crowded and chaotic places in the world to run into a friend. It was unbelievable. CW and I had been offline the entire trip, not connecting to any type of social media, so we had missed all of our friends’ posts about their trip to Italy. Needless to say, we had no idea they would be in the Vatican at the same time as us. We had a quick hug-and-hello reunion, just long enough to plan to message each other on FB later that day, and then CW and I had to take off running after our tour guide, who had during this time made it to the top of the stairs and around the corner. We barely had time to register our astonishment before getting pulled back in to the tour experience.
One of the prettiest places in the Vatican Museum was the Pinecone Courtyard. Guess why it’s called that — just guess.
We sat in the shade on some steps out here while Maria told us all about the background of Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. She was so knowledgeable about art history that she really made the story come to life. Michelangelo had, at that time, been a sculptor, not a painter. Choosing him as the artist for the chapel ceiling was actually not an award or a compliment, but an effort by a jealous rival to ruin Michelangelo’s career. He was reluctant to do it, but Pope Julius II was apparently not someone a person could say no to, if you get my drift.
Michelangelo was up there painting on that scaffold (standing, not lying down like you might have heard) and he was in such an awkward position that he couldn’t see the whole panel at once, and only got a good look at what he’d done after each panel was complete and he could get down. When he saw the first two panels, he decided he’d made a huge mess of it and ran away back to Florence, swearing he was done with the project. But no. The Pope sent his guard to Florence to drag the guy back and force him to complete the ceiling, which, of course, he did.
It really is amazing. But more on that later.
The reason we sat outside in the Pinecone Courtyard to hear about the Chapel ceiling is that there is no talking allowed inside the Chapel, so we got a little advance lecture before going through the rest of the museum and then into the Chapel .
The Vatican Muesum is …. a lot. You spend your time either gawking up at ceilings like this one (in some random gallery):
Or checking out the fabulously detailed mosaics on the floor, like this image of Athena:
Meanwhile, you’re surrounded by crowds of people. Your own tour group, other groups, individual wanderers, and just elbows and shoulders and knees everywhere.
Trying to take a photo? So is everyone else.
So we made our way through the crowds of the museum, trying to stick to Maria’s flag and follow along with her narrative (super informative and interesting!) until we got to the Chapel.
Inside the Sistine Chapel, there is no photography (sorry!), no talking, and no bare shoulders or knees. (The teenagers in their short-shorts and tank tops who had to wrap paper sheets around themselves — well, is it wrong of me to have laughed at them? Silently? In my mind? I did.) The time we spent inside the Chapel was punctuated by periodic calls from the guards: Avanti, avanti! Silencio! NO FOTO!
We got to kind of drift away from the tour group and spend our own time in there, silently gawking up at the ceiling, until it was time to meet up with the group again just outside. It was peaceful (mostly*) and beautiful.
*Okay, so there are rules in there, right? No photography, no talking, and no bare shoulders/knees. Respect the rules. I don’t care if you’re one of the faithful or not. So it was seriously a miracle when I did not reach down and snatch the iPhone right out of this surly kid’s hand when he hunkered down in front of me, giggling, to hide from the guards and lifted his phone up to take a photo of the ceiling. That phone was right under my NOSE, you guys. I wanted to stick my hand over the lens SO BADLY.
TEENAGERS FOR THE LOVE OF DOG.
The last phase of our Vatican tour was a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica, which is absolutely enormous and even more grandiose than I can possibly explain.
Inside, Michelangelo’s Pieta is behind glass, and it is the most exquisite piece of sculpture I have ever seen. Putting a photo of it here is preposterous, but here you go.
Maria’s explanation of this piece was another great thing to learn on the tour: Looking closely at the sculpture, you can see that Mary is depicted as being very young — far too young to be the age she would have been when Jesus was crucified. Jesus is also just a bit too small in stature, relative to Mary. These apparent “mistakes” are not actual mistakes, though, because what Michelangelo was trying to depict was not in fact Mary holding Jesus’ body at the time of his death, but rather Mary’s vision of Jesus’ sacrifice, which she saw when he was still an infant. So the young Mary of the statue is the mother of the infant Jesus, and the dead Jesus in her arms is only, at this point, a dream of the future.
(Our tour guide was so great — three-hour tour was totally worth it.)
Once we were done with the Vatican City tour, we just barely caught the Red Tourist Bus on its way back to Rome proper. On the way, we made plans. Serious plans. Gelato plans.
I had been talking and talking about all of this gelato I was going to eat in Italy, and somehow we had gotten to day three without me having had any yet. This had to change. So we bussed it back to our neighborhood and found a place for lunch (pizza! with anchovies! and a glass of prosecco!) and then made it a point to get some gelato. Pistachio and cappuccino were my first two flavors to try, and it was amazing. Pistachio turned into a real favorite of the trip. Loved it.
In the meanwhile, I had finally connected my phone to the data network so I could message back and forth with our friends Kelly and Heather. It was Saturday and they were leaving Italy on Monday morning; CW and I were spending all of Sunday in Florence. If the four of us were going to meet up on purpose, it had to be tonight. We would make it happen.
The four of us met up at the Altare della Patria (I figured it’s pretty easy to spot, as a meeting place) and walked around a bit looking for dinner. Our aimless walking took us to the Pantheon:
Oh, hi. Here we are at the Pantheon. (!!!)
We found a good restaurant in the neighborhood and I ate my first order of gnocchi in Rome. It was amazing. I figured if I was going to come back home fat on account of vacation food, I wasn’t going to regret things like the delicious pizza and prosecco I’d had for lunch, the gelato afterward, or this awesome plate of little pasta-dumpling-happiness.
It was so nice to sit and talk with H&K after not having seen them for almost a year– especially since it was such an incredible chance happening that led to us be able to have the night together! We, of course, had to get our waitress to take a photo to mark the occasion.
Can you see the glow? We were having a pretty good time.
After dinner, we wandered around a bit more through the Pantheon neighborhood when we stumbled upon the most beautiful gelateria ever. It was basically a sparkling orb of frozen goodness just beckoning us in. There was a long manifesto on the wall (Italians love manifestos, right?) about the quality of their ingredients and something about natural flavors, yada yada.
Had I already had gelato once today? Yes. Was I about to have it twice? YES. I did and it was lovely. (I had caramel and hazelnut this time; wished I’d gotten pistachio again.)
Stepping out of the shop with our gelato in hand, we wandered in the direction of some music we heard, which turned out to be coming from the front of the Pantheon. It was a string quartet playing for the crowd that had gathered there in the piazza.
This was one of those times when I had to stop and wonder at the magic of the day: happening upon our friends in the middle of a chaotic crowd, accidentally walking to the Pantheon, and now finding a string quartet playing there under the night sky just after our dinner. How do these things even happen? I didn’t know, but I didn’t want to let the little miracles of the day go unnoticed.
After a while, a very non-threatening police officer who looked like he must have been WELL over retirement age came and shut down the music by pointing delicately at his watch (despite the crowd’s boos and calls for “la ultima”), so we had move on.
A nightcap was calling. We stopped into a beer bar (birreria?) and there was some miscommunication about the sizes of beers people were ordering. My husband did say “piccolo,” but I don’t think he knew it would be this piccolo. Heh.
Day three in Rome had been so full, it would be silly to complain about a small serving of beer. Just order un’altra.
There are more photos from the day on flickr. And if you need to catch up on any of the previous daily posts, you can check out Italy’s day one and two, and follow these links for Greece, days one, two, three, four, and five.