This week has been a bit of a whirlwind, and this portion of the blog is going to cover only Sunday to Thursday. I promise will write more tomorrow or Monday about the rest of the week. I am also only including a few photos. Our amateur photos of Vatican do not do the the art justice, so please use the links to see professional photos.
We arrived in Rome on Sunday morning after a smooth flight. Monday Sue’s brother David and our sister-in-law Stacey arrived from Chicago. They are celebrating their 25th anniversary with a 10-day trip to Italy. Stacey is supremely organized and so we just waited for them to arrive and for Stacey to let us know what we were doing and when.
Tuesday morning was a four-hour tour of ancient Rome. A driver picked us up at our place and took us to the Coliseum where we met our tour guide. The day was cool (40s F) and quite windy. It made for a rude change from the 80°+F that we were used to in Guadalajara. Sabrina, our tour guide, quickly ushered us into the Coliseum and started filling us in on the history of both the building and of ancient Rome. One of the benefits of using a tour, rather than just entering on our own, is that we had access to the “upper decks” of the building. There is a museum on the third level and with Sabrina’s excellent explanations we learned so much. Some of the things we found out included that the building is the Coliseum, not because it is so large, but because there was a statue of the emperor Nero called The Colossus that predated the building; that the building was partially destroyed in an earthquake during the 13th century; that there is no mortar between the large limestone blocks, they were held in place by brass pins and those brass pins were looted during the middle ages, which accounts for large holes in the those blocks (don’t think too hard about the fact that the entire building doesn’t have anything holding the blocks together); that the original bricks used were triangular as they held the mortar better than rectangular bricks; and finally, that you can tell the nicer areas by the quality of the floors. The upper tiers had brickwork floors, the lower tiers had mosaics while the emperor’s walkways were lined in marble.
After about an hour, we headed to the Forum, which is the original city center for Rome. The buildings along the forum road generally dated from ancient times, many of the buildings are still in very good condition and as Sabrina commented, “The buildings that were converted to churches are the ones that survived.” The rest were looted or, in more modern terms, they were recycled to be used for other buildings. We saw lots of evidence of that in the Vatican (foreshadowing – we go there on Wednesday). The Forum was built in a valley between the hills of Rome, and so one of the first things the Romans did was to design a drainage system to keep the area dry. After the fall of Rome, the area fell into disrepair and slowly over the years ground level rose (due to sediment and fill) to be about 10 meters higher than the original road. The excavations brought the area back down to the original. Once again, Sabrina was very informative and while we were cold, the time passed quickly.
Once we had our fill of the Forum, the driver picked us up and we drove past the remains of the Circus Maximus, and then to the Jewish Ghetto. Sabrina gave us a quick tour of it and then we said good-bye to both her and our driver. We found a nice place for lunch and warmed up and relaxed.
After lunch, I headed back to the AirBnB to do some work, while the others headed to the Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, and Spanish Steps.
Stacey also organized our tour of the Vatican Museum for Wednesday. We started the day by taking the metro four stops and wandered to a little (literally six seats – think of a New York pizza place that has a small railing with a few seats) handmade pasta place that our AirBnB host had recommended, called Pastasciutta. You simply order your pasta and your sauce and they make it up right in front of you. After lunch we had a little while to kill so we wandered near the Vatican and found a coffee shop. Stacey, Sue, and I ordered a drink. I ordered a Viennese, not knowing what it was, and the photo to the right is what I received. Yum!
We met our tour guide, Valencio outside the entrance and he whisked us through the incredibly complicated system to get in. First you show the guards your reservation, then pass security, then get your ticket then head upstairs to the entrance. It is a system that would have made Rube Goldberg proud. The Vatican Museum is simply astounding. The entire layout is set up to lead you through the collection and ends in the Sistine Chapel. The rooms are stocked full of amazing artwork, there are innumerable statues, mosaics, and other objects d’art from ancient Rome including what may or may not be Nero’s bathtub (imagine a cistern about 20 feet in diameter about 5 feet high). Many of the popes, especially during the Renaissance commissioned gorgeous murals that covered entire rooms. Valencio pointed out that during that time there was a focus on the Greek and Roman philosophers many of whom appear in the artwork. We looked at room after room of stunning artwork and even the rooms where Valencio said “there is nothing interesting here” were amazing. The final part of the museum tour is the Sistine Chapel, which simply defies description. The rules for visiting include no photos, no loud talking and the tour guides are not allowed to provide commentary. We spent about 30 minutes quietly contemplating the magnificence of Michelangelo’s work before heading out.
After the Sistine Chapel, we walked over to St. Peter’s Basilica and once again were just amazed by the grandeur of the building and the decorations. We spent about an hour wandering through the basilica with Valencio filling in much of the history. We saw the Pieta by Michelangelo, the massive central alter and soaring bronze canopy that covers the alter, but perhaps most impressive was the Bernini’s sculpture for the tomb of Pope Alexander VII. The way he used the space is amazing. The entire sculpture is over a door to some offices, but he managed create a beautiful and moving piece that has so much symbolism. It is awe inspiring.
After four hours of drinking from the fire hose of history and art, we called it a day and hopped on to the Metro home for dinner and gelato.