Rome (Day Two)

Day Two was Vatican Day. I’m not going to mince words: I did not enjoy the Vatican. Yes, it’s beautiful. And it’s full of impressive artifacts. And the necropolis tour we took was really incredible. But a mood descended on me when I entered the place – both times, because we broke the day into two pieces and made a Vatican-Colosseum-Vatican sandwich – that left me completely unable to think rationally or enjoy myself. I am completely helpless to explain it – as helpless as I was to overthrow the mood at the time. But the whole time we were inside, I felt as if I had a tremendous weight pressing down on me. And each time we left, the weight would move away. Perhaps it was the weight of my own heresy? Make of it what you will.

Now with that preamble, I give you the staircase that greeted us inside. This is actually the exit of the Vatican. Given how many visitors the place has each year, this place has receiving them down to a science. You absolutely must make a reservation in advance. This allows you to bypass the long line and go straight in to collect your ticket. We made a 9am reservation, and I don’t think getting there any later would have been wise. If you want to spend any amount of time sitting in the Sistine Chapel, you should get that 9am appointment and beeline in there as we did. The Vatican is like Ikea in that there is a prescribed direction in which you must experience the place. Attempting to deviate from it will result in getting profoundly lost and perhaps not receiving your cinnamon bun at the end (I wish the Vatican had ended with a bun!).

Once you set out on the tour, you begin on a little terrace where you can see St Peter’s dome off in the distance.

Prepare yourself now for gratuitous shots of painted walls and ceilings. I have never seen such decoration in my life. The entire place is adorned with gifts and other celebrations of the place. Yen tried his best to capture it all, but it’s just impossible when there’s so much.

Among the “artifacts” are a few from early Rome itself. This, of course, is Hector and Achilles. Poor Hector!

I’m not sure what this is a model of. Yen?

This is looking back up at the staircase from below.

Yen could tell I was a rotten mood. If you know me at all, you know it’s impossible for me to hide how I feel (huge, huge character flaw). He wisely decided to remove me from the place and take me to the Colosseum. See how much happier I look already?

This is a sketch of the awning that once covered the entire structure. Sailors would have used riggings to pull the cover out and protect the crowd from the harsh summer sun.

Walking around this monster, you think, “Wow, it looks just like a stadium today.” And of course they’re all modeled on this ur-stadium. But it is a little incredible how entirely unchanged these structures are after 2,000 years. I guess the Romans got it right the first time.

They’ve reconstructed a bit of floor so you can see what it would have looked like during a “performance.” Underneath, of course, are all of the little trap doors for sending tigers and other obstacles up to the top.

This is the view when you turn from the top of the Colosseum and look back at the Forum. “Hey,” a senator could have thought. “I can see my office from here!”

Here I am, being scale again!

Yen announced after this trip that I should really consider some Italian sunglasses instead of my tried-and-true Raybans. I have since procured some, thank you very much. But nothing’s parting me from my Athleta jacket, no matter how American it makes me look.

What’s not pictured in this part is we hopped back on the subway and made our way back to the Vatican. We stopped off for terrific sandwiches on the way (I wanted to eat at Habemus Pizza, but Yen declined). We arrived back just in time (which involved begging several Swiss guards for directions)  for our tour of the Vatican Necropolis. You’re not allowed any photos inside, and only 250 people area permitted to take the tour each day. If you go to Rome, you must take this tour, particularly if you’re going to Ostia Antica the next day. It shows a beautifully preserved necropolis, and you’ll understand that tradition in a way you can’t otherwise above ground. Essentially, the Romans built small cities outside their city walls for their dead. Each family would make a little “house” and decorate it just as if someone was going to live there and enjoy it: mosaics, paintings, sconces. Except the sconces are for holding urns instead of knick-knacks. Families would head out to the necropolis and bring a picnic lunch, and dine with their loved ones, enjoying a beautiful day and remembering the people who were missing. I simply love this idea. I have always felt that cemeteries should all be on the order of Mt Auburn, places the “living” want to go to spend the day. It reminds me of the Vietnamese tradition of making loved ones’ favorite dishes on their “anniversary” (you stop celebrating their birthday when they die and change over to remembering the day they died). I hope that when I’m gone, you’ll all all dine on lasagna and big slices of yellow cake with chocolate frosting. Raise your glass of pinot noir high to me!

Now we have emerged from the ground (yes, we saw Peter’s bones – that’s pretty freaky, if you ask me), and we’re inside the dome. If you were to draw a line down from the… crap! What’s the word? Spot where the priest stands while he does his priestly things inside the dome, straight down into the ground, it would pass through a 2,000 year old alter, and then down to Peter’s grave.

This is Pieta. So beautiful.

Ah! Here’s one of those helpful Swiss guards who helped us earlier. Love yer chocolate, dude!

And we escaped! Off we went, toward the Tiber.

This is the little raised path that the Pope could use to flee to his citadel if, say, an army of zombies was headed toward the Vatican. That’s planning ahead!

And here I am on a bridge over the Tiber. Two guys were playing Pink Floyd over at one end and doing an incredibly great job of it. Everyone else on the bridge is trying to sell you a scarf or a wind-up horse or some strange ball of goo that they throw onto the ground so you can enjoy seeing it squish. I’m not explaining it well, but they were for sale everywhere and quite a few sucker parents bough them to silence children.

Here I am on the bridge. There’s the pope-fortress behind me.

And then?  Dinner! Some pasta, some carpaccio. Yen had a Fanta, which amused our waiter. I’m getting hungry just looking at this. I haven’t mentioned much about the food, have I?

Breakfasts were at the hotels. There was always a lot of fresh breads (Yen chose filled croissants each time, but I played the field), cheeses, meats, and a little fruit. And of course cappuccino. You’re not supposed to have milk in your coffee after noon. It’s something to do with mixing milk with coffee, which after noon is meant to aid in your digestion, not help you wake up. I don’t understand it, but I played by it. Lunch was generally a sandwich: focaccia, a cured meat of some sort, and toppings like cheese and olive tapenade. Dinner? What an affair! Most people around us started with an appetizer, and so did we on the days when we skipped lunch. Then you order a first course, which is typically pasta or soup. Then a second is your main dish, where a piece of meat is usually the start of the show. And dessert – just a little something sweet. Wine… Oy. Yen actually seemed to lose weight as the week progressed – the belt had to be tightened a whole notch at the end. I am pleased to report that I came home at the same weight I left. But I frankly don’t know how that happened. It wasn’t for lack of trying, I’ll tell you that.