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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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…
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
We arrived in Rome in the morning of April 27, and spent a few hours in the airport waiting for our delayed flight to Venice. It had been a long cold night on the plane and we were in a dream-like state–despite the sudden delight in having access to fantastic and cheap cappuccinos in the airport (we’d each had 3 within the first 2 hours on the ground in Italy). We were fighting nodding off in our cozy and lovely stretched-leather chairs in the airport. I remember staring at Bryan’s watch face willing my eyes to focus, while trying to listen to the announcements in Italian. “Are we delayed? Are we boarding?”
The flight finally made it to Venice around 4 p.m. and we figured out the water bus easily. For 13 Euro each (including luggage), we’d get transported to San Marco Square. We followed a small stream of people out into the misty, windy Venetian afternoon and boarded a floating waiting room. About 10 minutes later, a boat pulled alongside, threw down a metal bridge between the boat and our waiting room. The trick was in getting the luggage across the divide, along with yourself, in the wind, quickly, because people were waiting; and both the boat and the waiting room were tossing in the waves…in different directions. I gave up on any grace, but made it over with everything in tact.
Little did we know, we’d spend another 2 hours getting from the airport to the San Marco stop. The canals were choppy, so the windows were closed to prevent splashing waves from reaching us. We were so drowsy–staring out those foggy windows. We tried to make out where we were, what we were passing and yet it was like a dream. I remember seeing an island of graves, hearing and feeling the boat-bus wash against the stops and the captain throw down the ramp, smelling the fresh sea air, and a prevailing smell of mint, watching a massive tour ship cross our path, and feeling the sea’s spray on my face when we opened the window for a clear view.
Finally, it’s as if we awoke from one dream and stepped out into a another dream–an ornate little miniature world come to life. We were in San Marco. There was the Basilica di San Marco. It reminded me of that old-timey carousel from Opryland. There was the Piazza San Marco and the long buildings with porticoes. There were the pigeons, the pillars, the tourists.
I’d read in a guidebook that Venice defies description, and so it does. It was drizzling and we followed a small map. Trying to find our way, and yet in awe by the canals, the gondolas, the gelato stands…
Our Hotel al Gazzettino was off a small canal, in a narrow alley. We’d splurged on a room with 2 tiny balconies over a canal–and wow what a room! Gold and blue bedspread, drapes and matching fabric wallpaper, white ornate furniture, a tiny TV that we never got to work (but who needs it in Venice!) and a bathroom as big as the room itself. We threw open the windows and stood out on the balcony watching the gondolas beneath.
It would rain almost the whole time we were in Venice, but the rain seemed to suit the place. With 117 Islands, 150 canals and 410 bridges–water is everywhere. Water stood at the entrance to beautiful old San Marco, easing into the delicate mosaic floor. Elevated sidewalks were set-up to keep the tourists’ feet dry. The wet streets and the sound of the rain hitting the water was becoming to Venice.
There are no cars in Venice–just boats. Boats for everything–police, mail, ambulance, buses, taxis, delivery, laundry… The Grand Canal has been described as the “finest street in the world” with a parade of old buildings now in elegant decay. Hundreds of gracious, ornate old buildings tilted this way and that line the banks…the water at their front doors. Boats are parked, tied up like Old West horses in front of the buildings. There is a smell of mildew and the sea, of old wood and coffee. Laundry hangs, pigeons wait, and Venetians tend to their potted gardens on tiny balconies and roof tops.
Our days were filled by wandering, watching, eating. We found a number of little restaurants–some with just 5 tables–serving homemade tortellini, lasagna, caprese salads, and delicious red wines. Cin! Cin! And there was the coffee, and the gelato. Grocery stores served fresh sandwiches and tasty paprika chips. We found a place selling wine for 3 euro–siphoned out of a giant cask and put into your plastic water bottle. We would sit on the banks of the Grand Canal, or in the coffee shop, watching the world go by. One day we shopped along the double-sided aisles of the Rialto Bridge…buying leather journals in a shop so small that the workshop above had to be accessed with a cedar ladder straight up.
San Marco was a highlight. No pictures allowed. The place is filled to the brim with treasures (from 1075, all ships returning from abroad had, by law, to bring back a precious gift to adorn “the House of St. Mark”): There are hundreds of relics of bones and bits in fancy glass jars, jewel encrusted walls, tiny-pieced golden mosaics on the walls and ceiling, and a loggia where 4 horses keep watch over the piazza before them. The ancient basilica’s floor is incredible with thousands of tiny mosaic tiles and so warped it could be described as hilly. I’m surprised that all the mosaics stay put in the floods and warping. There was so much to look at, it was stunning. That old basilica sits there day in and day out watching the crowds go by, feeling the water seeping into its foundation and holding tight to its treasures plundered and received 800 years ago. It is, by far, one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen. I bought rosaries there–old marbled glass to remind me of the colors of the floor and walls.
We took a gondola ride during a clear hour one afternoon. The light in the canals was spectacular–diffused and rose gold. It’s about 90 euro for an hour ride around the area–and worth every single penny. Our gondolier, Ricardo, took us out into the Grand Canal for a pass under the Rialto Bridge. He showed us how the water’s high tide breeched the first floors of many buildings and described how many of the owners were abandoning the first floors of their homes–no longer using the canal-side doors. I imagined rooms with extravagant fabric wallpapers and gilded crown mouldings–standing lonely and empty now except for a few heavy pieces of furniture sacrificed to the flood waters.
On one of our last nights, we stood there listening to the violins and violas play the old songs in the Piazza. There was the tinkling of champagne glasses and delicate cups. We could see the rooms above with their red velvet damask wallpaper, dripping chandeliers and fancy dressed customers. Yet, the water still stood at the threshold of San Marco’s, lapping against those gold mosaics. “It’s like the Titanic,” Bryan said. Grand and sinking into legend.
Chicago O’Hare moments before a big trip is simply delicious. People watching almost at it’s finest. And the excitement of the journey right upon you. And this amazing sense of peace in knowing that I’m packed (for better or for worse), I have the boarding pass, and both me and the plane are at the gate. We’re going!
Preparing had come down to the wire. The flight was at 5 p.m. and as of 10 a.m. that morning–I still was not packed. I couldn’t decide what to take.
Issue #1–How to look stylish enough for Italy and be comfortable in what promised to be weather ranging from rainy 50-60s to sunny 70-80s? I settled on comfortable shoes (Finn Comfort flat brown suede clogs, brown Dansko clogs and black suede dressy janes), a cotton jersey dress and a few trendy cotton jersey tops with tanks, a lavender sweater, lightweight cream fleece, a white scarf, rain slicker, and jeans. Done.
And then there was Issue #2–Camera gear. The Nikon D80, filters, 50mm lens, Lensbaby + accessories, the Holga, the point and shoot Olymus, the Video Camera…and about 48 GB of memory cards and 5 hours of video tape. It all went in the bag.
We called a cab and waited outside. Belle stood in the door staring at us–the worry wrinkles on the top of her head seemed more pronounced. She looked sad and I worried. Seventeen nights apart from my dear old Dalmatian lady. On the way back, the airplane showed Marley and Me. Had I seen that movie on the way over, I might have turned right around for home upon landing in Italy.
Reminder–exit rows on international flights are COLD. It was -80F outside and about 32 inside. Yow. Sleepless, cold night.