Wednesday: Visiting the Pope and his museum

We had plans to visit the Vatican and the Vatican Museum during our trip, but we hadn’t figured out which day we’d be doing that before we arrived. After hearing that the Pope would be making an appearance on Wednesday morning, we decided that’d be the best day to make our way toward the Vatican, which we did.

For those of you who don’t know, the Vatican is actually it’s own country. But you wouldn’t necessarily know it were you to visit unknowingly. There are no border crossings, but there were security checks when we visited, and I’m sure it had to do with the Pope’s planned appearance.

You’d also find these guards, dressed in colorful uniforms, standing around the Vatican. Along with these poofy shirts, they wore what looked like striped MC Hammer pants. Not terribly intimidating, but I’m sure they know what they’re doing.

The Pope would be making his appearance in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, so that’s where we headed. St. Peter’s Basilica is a giant church (with the largest interior of any church in the world), said to have been built on the remains of  Peter himself. St. Peter’s Basilica is surrounded by these massive columns, circling what’s known as St. Peter’s Square, and it has a giant fountain in the middle. At the top of all these columns that circle the square sit statues of each and every Pope who has ever served in the Catholic Church. It’s a rather incredible place, actually, and it was filled with people the morning we arrived, all lining up to get their view of the Pope when he appeared.

About 45 minutes after we arrived, out came the Pope. In his Pope mobile. He waved and smiled at the crowds as his driver pulled in and out of people, doing circles around the square. A large screen in the far corner of the square displayed the scene with close-up views of the Pope, for those who couldn’t manage to get close enough to him themselves for the crowds.

We cut our visit at the Pope’s appearance short, not waiting around to hear him address the crowds, as we had an appointment for a tour of the Vatican Museum that we had to make. I felt bad leaving and missing out on what he had to say. The Pope’s not one you usually have the opportunity to hear from first-hand, but we had a tour reservation to make, and we were not going to miss it.

We met up with our tour guide just outside the front entrance to the Vatican Museum. He was holding an umbrella in the air to identify himself. His name was Jimmy, and he is a red-headed Irish guy who studied art. He knew his stuff, and he had a particular affinity for Michelangelo, which made him a perfect fit for this tour of the Vatican Museum, home to most of his works.

Walter had told us that if we ever had the opportunity, we must take a tour of the Vatican Museum. He was right. The place was amazing. It was simply incredible all of the art they have there. But the entire place is just breathtaking. Each domed room has these amazing painted ceilings, and room after room has an amazing display of original artwork that you’ve grown up seeing copies and pictures of.

I recognized one statue, the Belvedere Torso, from Justin & Jane’s home here in Oxford. I had never seen it before visiting their home for the first time, but they have a full-size replica in their front entryway, and apparently it’s quite famous. Michelangelo’s own work was influenced by it, we were told. At one point, the Pope asked him to go about the work of replacing the arms, legs and head that had been lost over the years, but he refused. He said it was just right the way it was, and he wasn’t about to mess with it.

One of the things I found particularly interesting on the tour was this…

It’s a giant bathtub. From Emperor Nero. Jimmy told us Nero was insane, with an ego that might remain unmatched to this day. He thought of himself as God, and he ruled as such. He had a good amount of his own family killed, and when things got so bad that he was going to be assassinated himself, he decided to commit suicide. Only he didn’t know how. So he ordered one of his servants to commit suicide in front of him, before following his lead.

So, anyways, Nero had this bathtub constructed for himself out of an incredibly rare stone called Egyptian Marble.This marble is the rarest in the world, and it’s worth a ridiculous amount of money. Apparently it only exists in a handful of places in the world. Here, in the Vatican Museum, is where you can find the largest amount of it.

One of the only other spots this Egyptian Marble exists is back home, actually, in the Pacific Northwest. It’s sitting on the desk of one of the world’s wealthiest men: Bill Gates. He bought some, a while back, for $250,000. Probably just because he could, Jimmy told us. You know how much of this Egyptian Marble that $250k bought him? Enough for a paperweight…

We saw a number of other incredible painted ceilings along the way, and statues. This statue, the Laocoon, is another rather famous piece of artwork I wasn’t familiar with before our visit. Apparently it was created by several Greek slaves. Not famous at all, but just incredible artists. Jimmy pointed out the level of detail given to this sculpture, and how well they knew each and every muscle and how it would’ve reacted to each movement. Apparently this statue, too, was one Michelangelo admired.

Jimmy told us that, from a very young age, Michelangelo knew he wanted to be an incredible artist. One of the best the world had ever known. And so he set out to be just that from a very young age. He knew that, in order to accurately portray the human body, he would have to have a very intimate knowledge of it’s inner-workings, which found him cutting into cadavers at the age of just 14 years. Apparently it paid off, as Michelangelo’s work is world-renowned to this day.

Obviously one of Michelangelo’s works that you cannot miss if you ever go to Rome is the Sistine Chapel, and it was breathtaking. It’s hard to put into words just how massive this painting is. It took Michelangelo three years to complete his painting of the 12,000 square foot ceiling. And by the time he was done from it, he was nearly blind, Jimmy told us. Working so closely to this massive painting for so long, with paint regularly dripping directly into his eyes, it took quite the toll on him physically.

Needless to say, he was happy to be done with it by the time he finished. But he was also a bit resentful of the process, after being hounded by the Pope to hurry up and finish it so everyone could enjoy it, but him in particular (this Pope was aging and in poor health, and he wanted to make sure he got to see the final product). Michelangelo later painted himself into the Final Judgement, another painting that was commissioned later on and that hangs on the far wall. In the painting, one of the characters is seen hanging onto another man’s skin. That man is Michelangelo, thus portraying himself as literally skinned alive by this process the church had put him through, and for all the years he devoted to these paintings.

Jimmy filled us in on all the ins and outs of the Sistine Chapel before we entered, because, as he explained to us, you’re not allowed to talk or take photos while you’re in the chapel. I was surprised to find so many people when we entered, though. They’d talk in whispers, but if you get enough people in a room, even whispers can become quite loud. And it was distracting, I thought, while taking in the massive painting.

Every once in a while, two security guards standing at the front of the room would let out a loud, “Shhhhh…”, but it’d only do any good for a few minutes, and then the whispers would grow loudly again.

These security guards would also clap their hands and say, “No pictures!” whenever they spotted anyone trying to take a photo. I even saw one of the guards approach a woman after seeing her take a photo. He asked her to scroll through her photos and delete those he found. I was not about to try my luck at snapping a photo, but I would’ve liked to have had one to share.

I was surprised when I found out why people aren’t allowed to take photos of the Sistine Chapel. It’s certainly not what I expected to hear. Apparently Fuji Film Corporation financed a cleaning of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling back in the 1990’s. As part of the deal, they were given copyright of the Sistine Chapel, and they decided they didn’t want anyone taking photos of it. Crazy, right? I’m sure the Vatican hasn’t gotten any flack for that one.

After showing us all the ins and outs of the Vatican Museum, Jimmy told us “goodbye” and sent us off to St. Peter’s Basilica, where he told us we had to see the Pieta: Michelangelo’s famous depiction of Mary holding Jesus’ lifeless body.

Jimmy had warned us that the Pieta would be behind glass, and it was. But apparently it hasn’t been this way for long. The reason it is now protected is because a man from Australia came here, to St. Peter’s Basilica, and, in broad daylight, began attacking this statue with a hammer. Apparently he did a good amount of damage to the statue before the crowd finally pulled him off of it. Jimmy told us the man was lucky to escape alive, as the crowd was about ready to tear him limb from limb. I certainly wouldn’t want to mess with an angry mob of Italians, and destroying their prized artwork seems like a good way to do so.

Jimmy told us a bit about the Pieta, before sending us off to see it for ourselves. He said to pay particular attention to the size of Mary and of Jesus. He said you’ll notice, if you’re looking, that Mary is actually quite a bit larger than Jesus, and that was intentional. He told us Michelangelo was depicting here Jesus as Mary’s child, but fully grown, and after his crucifixion. Apparently, what Michelangelo was wanting to communicate with this statue is the realization Mary would have had after receiving the news that she would give birth to the Messiah, and all of the pain and grief that she would experience as a result, as a mother. That she would one day see her child experience a horrific death, as the Savior of the world. That is what Michelangelo set out to show with this statue, Jimmy told us, and I thought it was beautiful.

Jimmy told us that, if we looked close enough, we could find Michelangelo’s signature on the Pieta. It was carved into a strap that goes across Mary’s gown and over one of her shoulders. Sure enough, if we looked close enough, we were able to see it. Jimmy told us that this was actually the only statue Michelangelo ever signed. He was in his early 20’s when he completed the piece, and he was told he was not allowed to sign it (because he was too young and hadn’t established himself as an artist).

Well, Michelangelo was deadset on getting his name on this piece, after overhearing several people comment on it, and wonder who’s work it was. He wanted to make sure no one else got the credit for his work, and so, sneaking in one evening, after everyone had left, he carved his name into the sculpture. Apparently he felt pretty bad about it afterward, because that was the last sculpture he ever signed.

St. Peter’s Basilica itself was beautiful. Just massive, with incredibly ornate architecture and paintings. It was breathtaking, really. With all the stone, the massive interior of the church building stayed quite cool, and so it was also a pretty refreshing place to be. It was a welcome break from the hot air outside.

After seeing the inside of St. Beter’s Basilica, Tim, Monty and I climbed to the top of the church. Well, we took an elevator halfway up and then climbed what seemed to be an endless number of stairs to get to the top. The stairways were very tight, and circled on top of each other, stretching up and up and up. But, once we arrived at the top, and we were able to look out over the Roman skyline, it was worth it. It really was an amazing view.

Looking down at St. Peter’s Square from this height, where we had gathered with the crowd earlier that day to see the Pope, the people looked like tiny little ants scurrying around. And the statues on the top of the Basilica, looking out toward the Square, which stood as giants before, now seemed so small. It really was an amazing view, taking in the city from this height.

Thursday: Getting outside of the city center

We didn’t have anything scheduled for Thursday, so we took it as an opportunity to wander around the city, and to see parts we hadn’t seen yet. After seeing a handful of famous tourist spots that every visitor is supposed to see, such as the Spanish Steps (below), we made it outside of the city, which may have been my favorite part of Rome…

I loved getting outside of the Roman city center. The city center in Rome actually feels quite modern. Full of lots of scooters flying around the city, and lots of Smart Cars. Lots of restaurants. Like any big city, today, I guess. But this part of Rome, outside of the city center, it was different.

We took a bus that led us beyond the hustle and bustle of the city, into a smaller, more intimate neighborhood that felt more like Italy as I’ve always imagined it. Wooden shutters on the windows. Vines on the sides of buildings. Laundry hanging from clothes lines between buildings. Cobblestone alleys. It was beautiful, and it felt like Italy.

We found a nice little place for lunch outside, on another sunny day. Tents lined the building, and there was plenty of room for our rather large group at several of the tables underneath.

We were shocked when we saw their menu. Rome is not a cheap place to eat. Not in the least. But this place was surprisingly reasonable. We found four-course lunch specials for the same price we were paying for a single entree in the city center. Needless to say, we were all pretty happy about this spot.

“We need to come back here for dinner!” someone said as we perused the menu.

And the food was amazing, too. So good. If you like Italian food, you would’ve loved this place. Several of us ordered the Lasagna, which made you want to cry a bit after biting into it. It was that good. Several others ordered the roast chicken, which was also really, really good. I ordered the spaghetti, just to try something traditional. It was right up there with the best spaghetti I’ve ever eaten. And a couple other people ordered  the house pasta, which was a creamy, corkscrew pasta that came with peas. Jen’s not a fan of peas, but even she loved it.

For dessert, Lacy and I ordered a slice of berry pie, while Brock and Jen ordered a caramel dish. It turned out the caramel dish was actually flan, and it also turned out that those who ordered the caramel dish aren’t fans of flan. Which meant I ate three desserts. After my own first three courses. And I did so with a smile on my face.

We were pleasantly full of some rich, tasty Italian food at this point, and we wandered the neighboring alleyways next, taking in all the sights of this beautiful little piece of Rome on a sunny afternoon.

It was an incredible spot, and it really actually felt like we were in Italy, more so than being in the Roman city center. I loved it.

It seemed like the locals in this part of town were proud to be off the beaten path. So was I.

There was one tourist attraction along the way, though. A person dressed up like an Egyptian statue, who would only move when coins were dropped in their donation jar. I challenged the statue to a staring contest; I did not win.

After wandering through these cobblestone alleyways for a couple hours, we crossed back over the river that cuts through Rome, and we returned to the city center, to snap a few more photos of  some spots on our last night there.

One of the spots we walked to was the Trevy Fountain, another beautiful piece of architecture, and a very popular tourist spot. Back to the crowds we went. . .but it really was an amazing sight.

This was another spot where those selling anything they could get their hands on flocked to. More of those little squashy balls being thrown on the ground. More camera tripods. And a bunch of guys selling knock off purses.

At one point, we saw a group of these guys running down an alley with their arms full of purses. There must’ve been close to 10 of them, and they kept looking back over their shoulder as they ran. We had no idea what was going on, but it looked like they had just run through the crowd and stolen each and every purse they could get their hands on. Turns out, these guys must’ve not been allowed to sell these purses where they were putting up shop (in the alley), as we came across this several times.

They had these purses set up in several rows along the ground, and one of the men would be on watch for any police walking through. As soon as a police officer was spotted, these men had their purses on their arms and they were running. It was quite funny to watch, actually, and we began joking that we should just shout “Police!” as we walked by.

Along with the street vendors were several performers. One guy was painting incredible pictures with a row of spray paint cans. He was crunched low to the ground, leaning on one knee, and he was covered in paint. He worked fast, grabbing this can for a quick spray, returning it, and grabbing another for another quick spray.

After 10 minutes or so of using spray paint cans in more ways than I could have ever imagined, he’d hold up an amazing picture of a waterfall set against a forest. Or the Coliseum set against a massive skyline.

It was really impressive. Brock ended up buying a piece for 10 Euros. I was more entertained just by watching him work.

Friday: Our final day in Rome

We were scheduled to fly out of Rome late Friday afternoon, which meant we had most of the day to take in any last-minute sights we hadn’t seen so far.

We visited one last church, called “St. Mary of the Angels and Martyrs,” which was set in another circular square with a fountain in the middle. The church itself had a pretty inconsequential exterior, but the setting was impressive.

Inside, the church was just massive. It really is hard to put into words how tall some of these churches are inside. It’s amazing. And their walls are covered by these large, incredibly detailed paintings. I loved it.

I was taken aback by one of the paintings in particular. And I spent a number of minutes taking it in, with my neck cranked looking up at it, because of how large it was.

It was a painting of Peter, and he was hanging upside down. A crowd had their hands on him, and he was being fixed to a cross. And I remembered what I had heard long ago about Peter’s crucifixion experience. About how, after being condemned to death by crucifixion, he refused, and he literally begged not to be crucified. But, the interesting thing about this is that it’s probably not why you’d expect.

Peter wasn’t against being crucified, per se. He knew he was dying a martyr’s death for his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, and he wasn’t about to try and argue his way out of it. But he was against his own death by crucifixion in the traditional sense, because that’s the death Jesus died. And he didn’t see himself fit to suffer in the same way as his Lord. He didn’t think he deserved to be punished in this way, because it would have been too honorable a death for him. Instead, Peter made the rather odd request to be crucified upside-down, and his request was granted.

I’ve always been stunned by that story. And that’s what I thought about as I stared up at this large painting hanging there in the church that afternoon. About Peter’s humble death on the cross, and how, even in his final moments, this man was completely in awe of the death Jesus had died before him. I could just picture him, being confronted with this death sentence, and replying, “No, no, no. You cannot crucify me like that. That’s the way my Lord was crucified!”

After seeing everything on our list, we realized we still had a few hours to kill before it was time to leave for the airport. We were all hungry, and so we decided to find a place for lunch. At this point, though, after eating pizza and pasta all week, no one was too excited about finding yet another Italian spot. I know, I know, it sounds really bad, and this is the point I’d be shaking my head at myself if I were in your seat reading this, but we all wanted a bit of a break from the Italian food. We all wanted something different.

So, while walking back toward our hotel, we spotted a Hard Rock Cafe, and we were all sold on the idea of some good old fashioned American food. Which is funny because, on our first night there in Rome, Brock and I had been cracking jokes about how lame the Hard Rock Cafe is as we walked past it. But, at this point, we had no shame. After eating pizza and pasta and bread all week, we gladly ordered burgers and pulled pork sandwiches as our last meal in Rome before our flight back to London, and before continuing on to Paris. Don’t judge me…