Vatican City: But the Pope was in the Holy Land…

Vatican City, Italy

Even though we’re not Catholic, we had to experience the Vatican. We were hopeful for one of those mass audiences with the Pope…but alas, he had left for Jerusalem a few days before.

Nonetheless, we visited his home, his country, his fortress–the Vatican. It’s only 106 acres, but it has it’s own post office, currency, army (the Swiss Guard), radio station and freight train station. And it counts as another country on TravelPod!

The Vatican at 7 a.m.
The Vatican at 7 a.m.

We got there early–at 7 a.m. just as St. Peter’s opened for the day. There is a special “Pope door” to the far right–and of course we noticed the Pope balcony above our entrance.

The Pope-Only Door
The Pope-Only Door
Swiss Guard
Swiss Guard

Michelangelo’s Pieta is just to the right of the front doors. It is a smooth, white marble statue of Mary and a dying Jesus, carved when Michelangelo was only 25…and the only piece he signed. It is protected behind glass since some idiot tried to destroy it in 1972. Who tries to destroy a beautiful piece of artwork carved over 500 years ago?! I don’t get it.

 

 

 

Michelangelo's Pieta in the Vatican
Michelangelo’s Pieta in the Vatican

St. Peter’s is massive. Sunlight streams in and seems to turn corners–highlighting the marble Veronica to the left of St. Peter’s altar. St. Peter himself is buried here they say, in the grottos below. Poor St. Peter’s bronze statue likeness has had his toes lovingly rubbed away over the years by adoring pilgrims. And pigeons fly high above in the golden rafters of the church.

Inside the Vatican: St. Peter's
Inside the Vatican: St. Peter’s
St. Peter's canopy / altar
St. Peter’s canopy / altar
On our way up to the Do
On our way up to the Dome

We took yet another climb to the top of a dome. This time 320 steps (after a lift). The view of Rome from the steep dome was stunning. We stopped mid-way down to buy some rosaries and postcards with Vatican stamps from the nuns and to enjoy a standing espresso while we wrote postcards to be mailed from this mini-but-mighty Country.

View of Vatican City from the top of the Dome
View of Vatican City from the top of the Dome
Carol and Bryan On top of the Vatican
Carol and Bryan On top of the Vatican
Bryan mailing postcards in Vatican City
Bryan mailing postcards in Vatican City
Carol and Bryan at the mid-tier cafe/post office with the Vatican Dome behind us
Carol and Bryan at the mid-tier cafe/post office with the Vatican Dome behind us

Next, we made our way over to the Vatican Museums. Through a pack of people and a dozen rooms filled to the brim with paintings, frescos, tiles…and through a long hall of painted maps and gilded ceilings. Our goal was to get to the Sistine Chapel and spend some time there soaking it in.

Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel ceilin
The Sistine Chapel ceiling

Finally, we entered the Sistine Chapel–the place where the papal conclave is locked until they elect a new pope, the place where black or white smoke signals the vote results to outsiders, the place where Michelangelo lay on his back on scaffolding for over 4 years, painting scenes from the Bible on the ceiling, and returned about 25 years later to paint the Last Judgment on one of the walls. As we were ushered in, everyone started snapping pictures. I took 4 including ones of the ceiling, the Last Judgment and the amazing floor that no one ever looks at (all without a flash) before guards reminded everyone that no photography was allowed. We sat quietly on the edges of the room looking up and admiring the scenes and the colors–and trying to grasp the history in that room…the stories those walls could tell!

Truly a highlight of our trip…Pope or no Pope!

Stairwell in the Vatican
Stairwell in the Vatican museum
Carol and Bryan at the Vatican
Carol and Bryan at the Vatican

We left very early on Wednesday May 13 for the train station and our train to FCO airport. Somehow, Bryan got us on a direct flight to ORD vs a lay-over in JFK…and saved us 4 hours of transit time! So we did some duty-free shopping–chocolate and single malt, and then enjoyed a last croissant, pizza slice, and cappuccino before the 10 hour flight home…5,151 miles.

We watched Marley and Me on the plane ride home and I cried my eyes out…and so did most of the plane.

And then there were those thoughts of the Pantheon–and how very cool it would be to stand in there when it rains and hear the patter on the marble floors. And to see Venice in the snow. And to see the Pope blessing the crowds at Easter. Here’s hoping those coins in Trevi Fountain do their jobs! Ciao Italy…we’ll be back!

Vatican City Flag
Vatican City Flag
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Rome, if you want to

Rome, Italy

Tickets to Rome from Florence were €84, again purchased from a machine in the train station. Our 2 hour train trip to Rome began on May 7 at 12:30 p.m. Tuscany again passed by at 90 mph, rows of brown, plowed fields and criss-crossed stripes of vines like lines of crosses over the fields. And those tall, proud cyprus trees. Yellow fields, cute little orange and yellow farmhouses with red tile roofs…it was typical Tuscany as always dreamed. I could almost smell the garlic and lemons cooking…

Bryan waiting in the Florence station for the train to Rome
Bryan waiting in the Florence station for the train to Rome
Carol on the train Florence to Rome
Carol on the train Florence to Rome

We were staying at Mecente Palace conveniently located near the train station and both red and blue metro stops. This hotel had a rooftop bar overlooking to the west, the Basilica de Santa Maria Maggiore and an awesome sunset.

View from Hotel Mecenate rooftop
View from Hotel Mecenate rooftop
Our room at Mecenate Hotel overlooking apartment buildings
Our room at Mecenate Hotel overlooking apartment buildings

Rome was far busier than Florence and light years from Venice. We bought 7-day train passes for €16 each to ease some of the long distance walking that we expected here.

Of course, we spent our days seeing the sites. We stumbled onto some sites–the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain. Others, we had to hunt for–the Roman Forum, Piazza Navona.

The Colosseum
The Colosseum

One of the first sites we visited was the Colosseum. It is spectacular to walk up and out of the subway into the shadow of the colossal Colosseum. Built in AD 72-80 to hold 50,000 people, it was abandoned 500 years later–becoming a fortress in the middle ages and a source of stone for other Roman buildings. Today, it sits there–in a roundabout practically–traffic racing around it and the subway running under it. The place is huge. But all that really remains is the bones of it. Only three-quarters of the outside structure still stands, with Doric columns on the bottom, Ionic in the middle and the fancy Corinthian up top. Inside, the seats are long gone and columns lay scattered here and there. The wooden floor is gone, revealing a plush green grass floor and a labriynth of stones marking what used to be underground passageways and chambers to hold prisoners, slaves and animals. The place spooked me. It’s hard to understand the sheer volume of people and animals who died here in cruel shows. During it’s opening 100 days and nights alone of “games”, thousands of gladiators battled to the death and over 5,000 animals were slaughtered.

The Colosseum floor
The Colosseum floor
Carol and Bryan at the Colosseum
Carol and Bryan at the Colosseum
The Roman Forum
The Roman Forum

Our next stop was Palatine and the Roman Forum. We roamed the area in the hot afternoon sun for some time before finding the forum…the streets of ancient Rome where Caesar once strolled and was assassinated. We were tired and sunburned by the time we got back on our colorful subway line and headed home.

The Spanish Steps
The Spanish Steps

 

The Spanish Steps were not quite what I expected. The fountain is at the bottom and there is a grand series of steps to the top–where there is a French church and a fabulous view. People sat there in the sun–watching, waiting, wooing…we saw it all. A teenage boy feeding a teenage girl strawberries just after he put a spray of Cool-whip-from-a-can on them. A flirty woman with a drawer full of make-up on who had stripped down to her camisole (and rolled it up), leggings and bare feet to catch some rays (or guys?) and who photographed herself repeatedly and slowly added layers as the sun went down–including over-the-knee, 5-inch stiletto heeled boots. A man walking among all the people, looking at the girls. A woman with a white sweater set, turquoise scarf and matching turquoise leather bag and notebook–sitting there gazing at the domes of Rome. A guy with a guitar singing loudly and badly. An old Asian couple picking apart the petals of a rose as a friend photographed them. Another elderly couple popping a bottle of champagne and pouring it into paper cups as they sat there under their matching khaki hats. Austrians and young girls with heart-shaped sunglasses filled water bottles at the fountain. Old men sitting on the fountain side in trenchcoats talking in Italian at a brisk, yet quiet clip. And all the while, there was this smell of roasting chestnuts coming from street vendors. It was a fascinating place to sit, enjoy the sun and the site, and people watch.

Trevi Fountain
Trevi Fountain
Carol and Bryan at Trevi Fountain
Carol and Bryan at Trevi Fountain

We heard Trevi Fountain long before we found it. I never expected to see it attached to a massive building. It is the size of half a football field. Toss a coin in over your shoulder, and they say you’ll come back to Rome. We each tossed in 2 coins :) We’d return to Trevi often–usually early in the morning or late in the evening with a gelato to avoid the crowds.

The Pantheon
The Pantheon
Inside the Pantheon - open to rain or snow, all these years
Inside the Pantheon – open to rain or snow, all these years

 

 

The Pantheon was quite a discovery one day. We were sort of lost and stumbled into a piazza in front of this huge old hulk of a building. Inside its massive bronze doors, it was quiet and cool…and open to the elements from its only source of light–a giant circular opening (the oculus) at the top of the dome. Any rain drains out via 22 small teardrop shaped holes in the old marble floor. Amazing in there. It was built around 100 A.D. and to this day, the dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. One day, I’d like to spend a rainy morning in that ancient space.

Glass baubles drape an alley
Glass baubles drape an alley

More discoveries: We found a place with blown-glass ornaments in lovely blues, greens and reds, strung like Christmas lights across the alley. The city was full of tiny cars, and the lawnmower sounds of Vespas. All the motorbikes would rush to the front of the traffic line at stoplights. At night, some people would sit with a single chair and a single parakeet on a stand…and a spotlight. Never understood what was going on there–but the birds always seemed to be waiting to go home…staring at their people. Rooms are “cameras” or “stanzas”, floors are “pianos”. It’s so musical! The bells ring the hour AND the quarter hour… for example 3 o’clock is DING-DING-DING. But 3:30 is DING-DING-DING-DONG-DONG. You can imagine that 11:45 pm is a bit tiresome. “Prego” when you sit down or are ready to order.

Tiny cars
Tiny cars
Roma license plate
Roma license plate

Some favorites: La Fiaschetta, Papa’s Caffe and Wine Bar and L’Enotec Antica–the last being an atmospheric wine bar with delicious meals and a non-stop bowl of pistachios. The colors of navy blue and mauve purple together and mustard yellow with plum and red trims. And one of my all time favorite meals at Osteria Al Valle–a place with only 9 tables and the best meal ever–rucola salad with tomato, mozzarella, olive oil, salt and pepper…followed by cheesy gnocchi, a bottle of tasty Chianti, and tiramisu and cappuccino for dessert. Sheer heaven.

Bryan
Bryan at a favorite bar
Outside a favorite bar...
Meanwhile, outside a favorite bar…
Roman evenings on the rooftop
Roman evenings on the rooftop
Italy flag
Italy flag
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Finding Florence

Florence, Italy

I wasn’t sure I was ready to leave Venice. But, we’d bought the train tickets (€77 for 2) from a machine in the train station a few days earlier and we would have to leave eventually…and rain was coming again to Venice.

So on a gray Sunday morning, we hauled our suitcases down to the Grand Canal and boarded a water bus to the train station. We’d packed a lunch from a grocery store (sandwiches and chips) and two wine-filled water bottles. The train was punctual and at 12:43 p.m., Venice was “finito.”

It was 2 hours and 40 minutes to Florence. Over the Tuscan landscape filled with green fields, villas, and the tall skinny cyprus trees. We listened to our iPods, seated across from each other and watched Tuscan fly by sipping our wine and smiling. We were caught up in the daydreams of Venice and of our “next” trip to Italy where we’d like to drive this Tuscan land. There were also lots of tunnels and sudden ear-pops between Bologna and Firenze, which seemed to heighten our anticipation and get us out of the melancholiness.

The Duomo - Florence, Italy
The Duomo – Florence, Italy

Florence was teeming with cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses, bikes…it was crazy after the Venice quiet. We maneuvered carefully to our hotel, over cobblestone streets and dodging traffic. Our Hotel Perseo is on the same street as the Duomo…and only a few blocks away. Our 5th floor is their 4° piano–and our room 407 looked west to the sunset and the bells of Santa Maria Maggiore. Breakfast and “happy hours” were served in a persimmon orange room on the lobby floor 3. The owners were kind enough to make reservations for us at both the Accademia and the Uffizi.

View from our Room: the Bells of Santa Maria Maggiore...I never could figure out the timing for the ringing.
View from our Room: the Bells of Santa Maria Maggiore…I never could figure out the timing for the ringing.
View from our room at Hotel Perseo
View from our room at Hotel Perseo
Our room at Hotel Perseo
Our room at Hotel Perseo

We spent our days in Florence eating, drinking, shopping, and seeing the art.

First things first–we climbed the 463 steep steps of stone and some spirals to the top of the Duomo. It’s a double-shelled dome and in some places it was hard to even walk straight up. But from up there you can see red roofs for miles…. Beautiful views. And to get closer to the frescoes on the inside of the dome was incredible. Bryan could even reach the frescoes. From below, the frescoed drawings seemed small–but up close, Bryan’s hand was about the same size as a toe of a man tumbling into the jaws of Hell’s devil. Huge.

Looking up into the Duomo dome - those windows are about 12 feet in diameter...it's big.
Looking up into the Duomo dome – those windows are about 12 feet in diameter…it’s big.
Inside the Duomo--Jesus receives the worthy
Inside the Duomo–Jesus receives the worthy
The Duomo--Hell's devil dines
The Duomo–Hell’s devil dines…A priest in the pulpit would have had to look at this because of the fresco’s position in the dome.
Close enough to touch the fresco's toes
Close enough to touch the fresco’s toes
The view from the Duomo's top
The view from the Duomo’s top
Carol and Bryan at the top of Duomo
Carol and Bryan at the top of Duomo
The last of the 463 steps to the top of the Duomo...you can see the double-layers of the dome
The last of the 463 steps to the top of the Duomo…you can see the double-layers of the dome
Gimpy.
Gimpy.

We found the Chiesa di S.Lorenzo leather market–where we fed a sad, gimpy pigeon (and a few hundred of his friends), and bought €5 cashmere scarves and postcards. I ended up buying a leather bag too–shoulder bag with both short and long straps–in the softest cappuccino-colored leather. :) Later, we found Antica Sosta–a quiet place for wine that served bruschetta with some mighty-fine, sweet, olive oil for apertivi hour. Cin! Cin! During our 4 nights in Florence, twice we ate at an old restaurant–tucked into the back streets of old Florence, near Dante’s home. Bottle of wine, and pasta until we nearly popped. Excellent atmosphere.

One day started with a visit to Accademia to see David. How do you describe a statue 17 feet tall that was so finely carved by a 29-year-old Michelangelo more than 500 years ago? David stands today in a beautifully-lit, domed room in Accademia, but he was outside in a piazza for almost 400 years. No photographs are allowed of the actual David–making the postcards a must-buy. We took binoculars to look closely at his smooth face–one side innocent boyish calm, the other side tense and angry. An “understudy” David stands outside where the original used to stand.

David. The outside "understudy"
David. The outside “understudy”

Another day began with a trip to the Uffizi. A favorite of mine was the gilded icon panels–fantastic colors of layered-on gold leaf atop reds and yellows. And that tell-tale cracking from the egg coatings. There were a number of works telling the story of the Annunciation–where Mary is told she will give birth to the son of god. In one, by Simone Martini, she holds a forgotten book in her left hand and shrinks away from the angel in her chair. We also saw The Birth of Venus and Primavera by Botticelli…both in low light rooms to save the colors. There was a map room in the Uffizi–cool and dark with harlequin, argyle-diamond windows of green, yellow, rose, and clear glass, and 11 globes as the only furnishings. There was almost too much too see. It is beautiful and each piece deserves an hour to fully absorb the colors, the faces, the gestures, the meaning–and to appreciate its age!

We spent time in the old art shops too–seemingly as ancient as the pieces hanging in the museums. Zecchi was my favorite–old, small, dusty–and a handsome, colorful array of egg tempera pigment powders in jars behind the counter. Old books with colorful pages for artist renderings, fat paintbrushes, palette knives of wood…I spent over an hour in there looking at all the stuff and watching artists come and go. I also enjoyed the Il Papiro store–featuring the handmade traditional marbled paper and the new experiments with gouache watercolor-like papers. I also got fascinated with the inks with names like Turkish Blue and Violetta…Tiny bottles with ornate little labels and tops sealed with matching wax. They even wrapped the inks in matching tissue paper, and placed a sticker on everything. With that tiny bag of carefully wrapped purchases, I felt quite special walking around Florence!

Florence Street lamps
Florence Street lamps

We also had laundry to do in Florence. One day we found a “Wash and Dry” and spent €3.50 a load to wash and €3.50 to dry jeans, socks, and undies. After only 4 days, our time was up.

Just as we were getting into Florence’s groove, it was time to go to Rome.

Florence paper
Florence paper
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