Tuesday, January 13, 2009

When in Rome...Part 1 (Vatican, Pantheon)

Well, here I am – finally writing about my fabulous Rome trip (a few weeks to late ha!) and I hope you enjoy it! For the next few days I will post a lot of long blogs...there is so so much to write about, as we were busy every day, but for the sake of your eyes, I will just write my favorite things and next time we talk, I will fill you in on the other details.

I left Brussels on the 28th, and was very very sick. I had become rather ill in the past few days in Belgium – fever, cough, runny nose, etc – and had missed out on Amsterdam and Cologne, Germany so that I could stay at the house and rest up. By the 27th I didn’t feel any better, and experienced my first sick plane ride – which I liked not one bit! Arriving in Rome, the Vatican, lasagna and the Colleseum were the last things on my mind; all I wanted to do was sleep. And that is what I did. I slept, woke up, ate amazing room service (sad, my first meal in Italy was room service) and then slept some more! I slept about 20 hours the first whole day in Rome – pathetic! But, it did something right because by Monday morning I was feeling better and headed out to the Vatican in the early morning.
We (Tom and I) had found a tour company and decided to try them out for their Vatican tour! Turned out to be a good choice, and after waiting in the line to enter the museum for a mere hour, we were in! Our tour was only a half day, and we were on a mission – see the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica – and of course, gaze at some of the millions of dollars of art in the meantime! Entering the walled city, you feel like you are entering a new little world - and really you are! Inside the Walls of the Holy See (The Vatican) you will find thier own radio stations, TV stations, money, stamps as well as probably the most art within one 'state'. With all of this talk of expensive art, I almost forget to mention our less-than-expensive tour hearing system. Each tour guide wears a little microphone so he doesn’t have to shout, and people in the tour wear a little receiver device with headphones. Normally headphones PLUG into these devices but ours were pretty archaic and had a plastic tube that fit into the device and the sound funneled through the plastic tube into our earphones – much like two tin cans and a string…rather silly but it worked I guess.

Walking through the endless galleries in the Vatican Museums, we saw some of the first maps of Italian geography, tapestries that used to hang on castle walls that took over 20 years to weave and ceiling art that impressed me and I hadn’t even seen the Sistine Chapel! Once we arrived at the Sistine Chapel, I was prepared to be amazed, and of course I was! Before entering, our guide explained all of the art that we would see in the Chapel and for the 20 or 30 minutes we stood gazing up it was hard to imagine it had all been painted by regular people! Michelangelo’s ceiling was magnificent. Like Niagara Falls, Grand Canyon or Mona Lisa (which I will see before I leave this continent) pictures cannot do it justice. You just stand in awe and even from the many feet you are away from the ceiling, you can see the details and appreciate the amount and time of work that went into it. Turns out Michelangelo didn’t paint the ceiling on his back, as many people assume – he actually painted it standing up with his neck cranked back – talk about a neck ache! The chapel is where the cardinals hold the Papal ceremony when electing a new pope. The ceiling that Michelangelo painted wasn’t supposed to be what it is today. Originally, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the 12 apostles, but Michelangelo, daringly, told him he thought that was too boring, and as a result, the Pope gave Michelangelo full power to decide what to paint – which is how we have the masterpiece we have today – the nine episodes of the early chapters of Genesis along with paintings of prophets and the people of Israel. In all there are 30 paintings – which create an astounding ceiling! Something untalked about in the Sistine Chapel is the fresco on the wall (amazingly not the ceiling) which Michelangelo also painted! It depicts God damning sinners and calling others to heaven. It takes up the whole wall on the end of the Chapel and I think is equally as memorable as the ceiling – it is called The Last Judgement.

After leaving the Chapel, we walked the same route that the cardinals walk before they are locked in the Chapel to elect a new pope! From there we headed to the all-important St. Peter’s Basilica – the biggest church in the world and the most important to the Catholics! It is built upon the tomb of the original Saint Peter and over the years the cathedral upon it became more and more elaborate and grand. Michelangelo had a hand in decorating this place as well – he decorated the dome, which is much simpler than his ceiling but sheds massive amounts of light onto the famous altar that stands above the original location of St. Peter’s tomb. This tomb, created by Bernini actually used bronze that was originally in the Pantheon. Another bronze attribute of the church is the famous bronze door – which is the original door that was used on the first St. Peter’s Basilica. It is the only part that remains from the original church and when the cathedral was rebuilt in the 15th century to be grander, they decided to keep this door, which shows reliefs of Jesus, Mary, Peter and Paul.
Outside the Basilica is the massive St. Peter’s Square – where you can see the Pope deliver a service every Wednesday. Since Tom and I already saw the Pope when he visited New York, we decided to skip this and instead just checked out the huge Square on our quick tour. With fountains from Bernini and Maderno flanking the square (which is really actually a circle) and massive columns, I learned that it was named St. Peter’s Square after Vatican City was recognized as an independent state in 1929. From the Square, you can see the Swiss Guard - the people who protect the Vatican. They started serving the Vatican in 1509 and still are the only people allowed to. They wear these silly silly outfits designed by Michelangelo (I know - this guy designs ceilings, domes and now clothes right?) Our tour guide joked that maybe if Michelangelo was living today he would be a famous fashion designer haha. I think not - the outfits, a mix of red, blue, orange and yellow were pretty heinous. They look pretty funny - but they clothe some pretty tough guys! You have to be a single male, Swiss, Catholic and had basic Swiss Military training. They even get to carry swords!

After an amazing whirl through history, we decided some real Italian food was in order. Jumping on the bus we got off at Piazza Venezia (Venice Square). From here we wandered around, hoping to stumble into a great restaurant. In the process we fell upon a great coffee shop – two caffé macchiatos please! I read in my book that this translates to ‘stained coffee’ meaning that it is an espresso with a small amount of frothy milk – not something you really learn at Starbucks! In fact, we drank from these amazing cafés the whole time in Italy and never once did Starbucks cross my mind – I am sure they are outlawed here – and for good reason! Our tasty coffee was great and only cost 1.30 euros! After our caffeine was happened upon the Pantheon – which I still think might be one of my favorite places in Rome.

This building is the best-preserved building from the original Roman Empire and has been in constant use since it was built in 125 AD. When it was built it was meant as a shrine to all the planetary gods (pan means planet and theon means gods – get it – pantheon) and was the first Roman temple Christianized in 609 AD. The dome of the building houses a 27 foot opening that lets the sun (and rain) fall through. Even through two thousand years of weather, the original floors and marble remain (the lovely bronze was used in Bernini’s canopy in St. Peter’s Basilica remember??). Being perfectly circular, the height and diameter of the interior are both 129.9 feet, making it a gigantic sight!

After being amazed and happy we stumbled into the Pantheon, we continued on our quest to find food! Before heading anywhere though, I decided I should get some cough syrup, so I wouldn’t die! In Europe, if you want any medicine, you go to a pharmacy and explain your symptoms and they give you something. You don’t really even need a prescription! When I walked in the lady heard my cough and immediately grabbed some cough syrup – hooray! And it didn’t even taste disgusting – on the road to recovery.
Between the narrow cobblestone roads, speedy Vespas, cafés with crowded outdoor seating and a million gelato spots, we found a restaurant on a quiet and calm street, which I later learned was named Antica Taverna. When I came to Italy I was expecting good home-cooking, but this place blew me out of the water! With a proscuitto and REAL parmesean cheese appetizer, to my mind-blowing lasagna, followed by our beef gulash accompanied with wine (chianti mmmmmm) and caffés I was in heaven! All for only 40 euros too! We couldn’t believe it – and I deemed it my favorite restaurant in Rome, although it was only my first!

After our action-packed day, we decided to head back to the Sheraton Roma. I was super thankful for having been able to sleep the whole day prior (thankfully Tom had jetlag) and wanted to make sure I didn’t cheat myself out of any sleep to ensure I got better. Heading back to the hotel, I was pretty happy, knowing the first day (well, really second, I know I know) was a great start to a fabulous vacation!

Sorry this was so long – so much to share! More to come!


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