Monday, March 23, 2015

Day Three - Rome

Monday, March 23

Much too early of a start today, 5:45 the alarm went off, that's practically get up for work time.  I slept like a log, right through to the alarm.  It's that sleep of the somewhat jetlagged, still not unwound from home sleep.

Same breakfast at yesterday and we were there right when the breakfast room opened for fear of being late for the group's departure at 7:45.  One thing they have instilled in us is not being late.  Even the stragglers from yesterday were up early.

The group headed out and for the nearby Metro stop.  I'd thought it'd be nothing short of a circus trying to get 29 people to buy Metro tickets, but both today for the Metro and yesterday for the bus, the guides already had a big stack for us.  And today they gave us an additional one to get back to where we started once we broke from the group.  Great planning on their part.

We took the Metro to Ottaviano stop, nearest to the Vatican.  We walked about 10 minutes to Piazza San Marco and jumped right into the line to get into St. Peter's Basilica.  At that point the line was from the right most side of the basilica clockwise to the bottom middle of the piazza.  It took about 1/2 hour to reach the security check, as we were all cut off by large school groups from France who were going in to be confirmed in the basilica.  I can imagine that must have been an honor, but didn't appreciate a few hundred kids plowing by us and slowing down the line.  In any event, we got in about 9:30 and had an hour to wander on our own, as the guides aren't allowed to take tours in.

It has been interesting to see DS's reaction to the art she's seeing and the Pieta today was no exception.  I was enthralled by what she saw in it that I hadn't before.  It is interesting to hear a schooled viewpoint.  Right near the Pieta is the new tomb for Pope John Paul (now Saint).  Since I was last here in 2007 they've moved him from the crypt to out in the basilica, more befitting of a modern day saint, I suppose.  Because of the aforementioned confirmation services, we weren't allowed up near the altar or the baldachino but I think we got enough of a flavor from where we were.  It was more striking for me being there on this my third trip to Rome, as we were just in London and visited Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral, both of which are dwarfed by this.

Walking back toward the group's meeting spot, we were approached by one of the dozens of people hawking tours of the Vatican Museums.  When DS scowled at them, one yelled to the other "they're Germans".  Now we try to be a LOT of things, but German isn't one of them.  DS yelled back "German? What the hell?" and they said "YES, GERMAN!" apparently not picking up on the accent.  Interesting encounter in any event.

While waiting for the group to rally, we hit a gelato stand (yes, it was only 10:30, but this is vacation and breakfast was almost 4 hours earlier, and we had a 3 hour tour to go before lunch).  Our guide recommended The Old Bridge which was sort of across from the Vatican walls on the way to the Vatican Museums from Piazza San Marco.  Well, we weren't disappointed.  I had caramel, ricotta and pistachio and chocolate, with a big scoop of panna on top.  So damn good, very creamy and rich.

The group moved on to meet our guide Antonella, half Italian, half British, at the Vatican Museum entrance.  Let me tell you the line for single entry to the museum was easily 1/2 mile long.  It snaked back to well before where we met our group.  The special group entrance wasn't nearly as long but still about 20 minutes to get in.  The guides had provided us with earpieces and remote radios that we could listen to them on from a large distance, and as much as I ridicule them when I see them, they helped greatly in mob scene like this.  As one who loathes thick crowds, this was a ridiculously painful experience, but there's just no way around it.  Practically the entire experience was chest to back, shoulder to shoulder with thongs of people.  While the Borghese smartly limited its crowds to just 360 at a time, the Vatican seems to care little about crowd control, forgetting that the empty Greek and Etruscan galleries yield to the most poplar Sistine Chapel, which is where just about everyone who entered was heading anyway.  Whatever else the saw along the way was just a bonus.

We however lucked out.  I'd only visited the Vatican Museums once before on an after-hours tour, with just 15 other people, so I'd been spared this experience but only saw limited parts of the museum, which did not include the Pinacoteca, home to a gorgeous Caravaggio.  Fortunately, Antonella took us in today to see that and the Raphael tapestries, both huge scores in my book (especially since I saw the cartoons for the Raphael tapestries back in London at the V&A in December!)  We skipped a whole lot of other things as we pressed on toward the Sistine Chapel.  It seemed as if we maybe were about to suffer from a bout of crowd control when we arrived to find the entrance to the Chapel closed off.  But DS, eagle eyed as ever, saw them open it briefly and we jumped from the group and through the opening.  Phew, made it in.

Inside the Sistine Chapel was not as packed as I expected and the security did a decent job of routing traffic around but as crowded as it was, it still could not distract from how gorgeous that ceiling is.  The only way to summarize it is that I feel truly blessed to have seen it, again, and come away humbled by his genius.  That he painted it standing, leaning backwards, that he used no guidelines to keep the lines straight, that he ended up blind and unable to bend forward to read from this is all just symbolic of him suffering for his art.  Just incredible.

We were on our own from here on out, so we started to walk back toward the Metro and stopped at a pizza shop for a four cheese pizza and Fanta lemon.  Fortified, we took the Metro two stops to Flaminio, which is right at the Piazza del Popolo.  My plan had been to do a Caravaggio crawl through the historic center, but the best plans are  foiled by erratic opening times of churches and limited time in the city itself.  Santa Maria del Popolo didn't open until 4:00 and we were there about 2:30, so I wasn't wasting 90 minutes there waiting.  We checked out the twin churches there in the piazza and walked down to see the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain, which is drained dry and under scaffolding but we could still walk through the statues and toss our coin into the dry well, ensuring our return to Rome.

From there we walked over toward Piazza Navona, stopping along the way into a bar for our first Negroni of the trip.  That was pretty strong but tasty and I'm sure even though it was 3:30 here, it was after  somewhere in the world, but if not, this is vacation and I've earned this sort of decadence.

We popped into Santa Maria Sopra Minerva to see the early Michelangelo sculpture of Jesus there near the altar.  It still amazes me how you can see such notable art for free just by popping into churches!  Next up was San Luigi dei Francesi, with it's wonderful cycle of Caravaggios, three in a small chapel. I'd seen them before but will never say no to seeing them again, especially in situ.  His realism is just so striking.

Just a block over is Piazza Navona and Tre Scalini, where we stopped for their acclaimed chocolate tartufo ice cream and a strawberry prosecco cocktail.

We walked back down toward Largo Argentina, a ruined section of the city where it's thought that Caesar was assassinated.  For me, it's most notable for its cat sanctuary.  They keep, spay and vaccinate nearly 200 cats who inhabit the ruins.  It's sort of neat to see the cats lolling about in the ruins, but also standing a chance to get adopted if they're so inspired.  I'd been there before and was happy to visit again and make a donation to the cause.

A couple blocks past that is the Vittorio Emmanuel monument to the reunification of Italy.  I'd thought we'd climb to the top of it, but instead we went up to the Campidoglio and looked out over the Forum from there, then walked down to the street level and took in a long view of the Coliseum and Trajan's Market from there.

At that point it was close to dinner.  I'd reserved a table at Armando al Pantheon, a favorite of mine from previous trips.  They were completely prebooked and were turning people away left and right.  This meal did not disappoint.  I started with the bruschetta with black truffle and olive oil, which was just awesome.  My main course was spaghetti carbonara, which was just perfect and very very filling (very cheesy but not in an Alfredo way).  And we both had the semidfreddo for dessert.  With a glass of Montepulciano del Abruzzo, it was excellent, and just as good as I remember.

After one last look at the Pantheon, my favorite place in Rome, we splurged for a cab back to the hotel, as we logged over 21,000 steps on the Fitbit today and both of us were tired and sore.  Both of us were packed pretty quickly and ready to roll out of here tomorrow.  Onward to Volterra.

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