Friday, August 30, 2013

The Vatican Museum and St. Peter's

Our second full day in Rome we had set aside for seeing Vatican City: the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica.

We took a city bus to the Vatican and got a quick glimpse of the Palace of Justice
and Castel Sant'Angelo on the way there.

Our museum pass in Paris may not have been worth much for skipping the ginormous security lines at Versailles, but for the Vatican Museum our Rick Steves advice paid off big time. I had made reservations and bought tickets in advance online, so we got to skip the huge ticket line to get in that stretched for blocks and blocks.

The museum was filled with specimens from the Egyptians to Romans to modern Europe: sculpture, painting,objets d'art, elaborately decorated rooms and ceilings, you name it.

One room was filled with sculptures of only animals. I thought my kids would have gotten a kick out of that. 
 "When I was a young warthog....."

The highlight of the museum (and probably the whole day) was the Sistine Chapel. We spend probably 40 minutes there, jammed in with wall-to-wall people (and security guards-- occasionally blowing their whistles to say "Silenzio!" or stop picture-takers). It really is magnificent- a masterpiece on all levels.

The museum ended with a collection of religious paintings. My favorites were some of the more modern pieces, including a rare Pieta by van Gogh and a Marc Chagall.

By the time we finished the Vatican Museum it was time for lunch. I knew of a "close by" pizza place I had read about on an app that was supposed to be open in August. Yep, it was time for another one of Karen's wild goose chases. I led Megan around the walls of Vatican City, down a long random street in blistering August heat and through a residential neighborhood down a narrow back alley of stairs.
Finally between several hard-copy maps of Rome, the "City Maps2Go" app on my phone (which could be used offline) and google maps (which I couldn't use for directions without using super-pricy data on my phone but I could use to pinpoint where I was on the map) we managed to find our way through a mostly-shut-down (typical for Rome in August) neighborhood to Pizzarium for our lunch.
They had a thicker-crust pizza than is typical for Rome --- and way more toppings. One of the highlights was the pizza with kale, pinenuts and canteloupe.
By this time we were tired from our much-longer-than-expected trek to find a not-so-easy-to-find place. So we took a cab back to St. Peter's Square and waited in the long line to see St. Peter's Basilica.
 The line went fairly quickly and before long we were past the imposing Swiss guard

and even more imposing security line

and were face to face with Michelangelo's dome
and Bernini's baldacchino --a giant bronze pavilion covering the altar that attempts to diminish the disparity between the enormous size of the building and the tiny human people celebrating mass within it.

We saw (at least what could be) the bones and burial place of St. Peter (the dates of the body line up but they don't really have any clear way to determine if it was St. Peter. People from 100 A.D. believed that it was....) 

We basked in the enormity of the largest (or second-largest if you count the Basilica of our Lady Peace in Africa) church in the Christian world.

We even accidentally managed to capture a few crepuscular rays of light in a really bad picture of me. (Thanks, Wikipedia, for making me sound smarter than I am.)
We ended our visit with Michelangelo's Pieta, now encased behind bullet-proof glass after a crazy came in and starting hacking at it several years ago.

All of this grandeur worked up an appetite for some culinary grandeur-- and a nap-- so we headed back to our hotel via the Gelateria San Crispino. 

After enjoying some amazing Caramel Meringue Gelato (I thought of you, Jared and Camryn) we collapsed in our hotel room for a much needed rest. After a sufficient nap and rehydration we headed back out to our favorite nightspot, the Piazza Navona where we got some delicious cheese and Italian charcuterie for dinner at Cul de Sac.
We finished the day with yet another gelato-- this time at Giolitti's: the same place where they stopped for gelato in the film Roman Holiday. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Ancient Rome

Thursday in Rome was our day to see the ancient Roman ruins. We started out by walking towards the Colosseum from our hotel, stopping at some of the ruins on the way. First stop, Trajan's Column and the adjacent ruins.

Then on to the Colosseum itself. After pondering the long-lasting popularity of spectator sports and the insatiable human desire for rubber-necking, witnessing action and getting swept up in violence, we decided we need a philosophical and physical break for lunch. We encountered the usual phenomenon of tourist attractions surrounded by horrendously overpriced restaurants with so-so food, but eventually settled for a place with that most essential of all items: chairs. (I know, our standards are going way up....).

Then we went to the ruins at Palatine Hill- the ancient equivalent of Bel Air, where Rome's elite lived in posh luxury.

After Palatine Hill, we went to the Roman Forum. Megan is standing under the arch that the Romans forced the Jews to build after Jerusalem was conquered, to celebrate the Roman victory.

After our ancient extravaganza, we followed a familiar theme of our trip: Ditchings the well-worn tourist path so Karen could take Megan on a wild goose chase in search of delicious food she read about in some guide, blog or app. One of the upsides to visiting Rome in August is that it is relatively quiet. A lot of the locals have left for the beach so it is comparatively mellow and you are much less likely to get run over by a Vespa. The downside (aside from the obvious heat) is that TONS of stores and restaurants are closed. We experienced the same phenomenon in Paris: we would go searching for a restaurant only to find out when we got there (after roaming up and down streets searching for the right address) that it was closed for the month of August.

In this case we wandered around the charming streets of the Monti district in Rome.
We eventually found whate we were looking for: Gelataria Fatamorgana. I think it roughly means "mirage," but luckily in this case, we actually found it and--even better-- it was open. They had lots of artsy, interesting flavors that would even compete with Salt and Straw in Portland: Basil, Nuts and Honey, Ricotta with Citrus or Baklava anyone?
We headed back to our hotel and then to the Campo de Fiori for dinner and a little bit of night strolling around Rome. Unfortunately, I forgot that it was Ferragosto- the national holiday in Italy that celebrates the assumption of the Virgin Mary. (How silly of me!) The restaurant we were headed for (which I had checked specifically to make sure it was open in August) was closed that day for the national holiday. Grrr. We were hungry so we ended up going to an Americanized but yummy touristy place in the lovely Campo de Fiori and people-watching.
They had huge salads which, after several days of gorging on pasta, sounded perfect. The first hint that that they catered to Americans when their water cups (WAY larger than usual). The dead giveaway came when the waitress checked back halfway through the meal to ask us how everything was. Huh? A waiter in Europe who checks back with you instead of hurling your food at you and then forcing you to chase them to get the bill or tackle them to request more water (which never comes)? Unheard of!
Aside from the obvious signs, do local-geared Italian restaurants have large signs advertising "Massive Salads" in English. I think not. No matter. Massive salads were exactly what we wanted and needed and Americanized can be a good thing sometimes, especially if you are thirsty.
After dinner we headed to the Piazza Navona, which ended up being our absolute favorite Roman hangout. There is a large piazza with beautiful fountains backed by a church. It hosts a bustling night scene including street musicians, dozens of artists selling their wares, caricature sketchers and portrait sketchers who will draw you on the spot, and, of course, lots of happy tourists like us, milling around and enjoying the scene.

There was a group playing gypsy music-- complete with a zither, clarinet, fiddle and bass-- that was fantastic. We could have spent (and did spend) hours just browsing all of the artwork for sale and watching the artists sketching portraits of people. Some of them were really good. It was like magic: watching lines on a paper turn into a picture of a human being. We finally tore ourselves away from the beautiful floodlit fountains and church to head back to our hotel.