(April 5, 2014)
This was the one day we *had* to wake up early, and we deliberately planned it for the first day of the trip, figuring that jet lag would have us all messed up anyway so lets just get it out of the way.
Sure enough, it was very hard to wake up at 6am, have brekkies, and then walk 25 mins or so to meet our guide from Walks of Italy (walksofitaly.com) to do our tour. Guido was prompt, and handed out earpieces and audio radios (not really, but I don’t know what else to call them — live audio guides?). This gave us about a 50-foot range from him while still being able to hear him clearly. Which, as it turns out, was necessary for those of us who wanted to take pictures. :-)
They had advertised being able to get into the Chapel and Museum before anyone else, but this was not true. We were, however, one of the first groups in, and being small (7 people, all Americans), were more maneuverable while being given a great deal of knowledge. The walls of Vatican City are something like 500 years old, and they are in really great shape. The entrance to the museum was surprisingly modern, complete with x-ray machines and metal detectors for bags and people. Guido got our tickets (included in the tour price) and off we went . . . through a very narrow series of hallways and stairs, completely at odds with the modern entrance. As was explained, we were now in the Apostolic Residence itself, in corridors built around where the people who lived there walked and worked. Kind of a servant’s corridors made for tourists.
We basically made a beeline for the Sistine Chapel so we could have as much time in there as possible. Apparently the security guards have the mandate to keep the flow of traffic moving, so when it gets crowded, they will literally tell people to move along — even if that means your visit is literally just walking through, no stopping. Which would be a HUGE waste, because the Chapel is truly a marvel. Absolutely no pictures allowed, btw, not even a selfie. Turns out that when the Chapel was restored a couple of decades ago, part of the deal was that the restoration company gained copyright to ALL of the images in the chapel. (Corynne, are you paying attention to that?) So the Church owns the building, but not the images.
Everyone’s seen the image of Adam being brought to life by the hand of God, yes? It’s literally the centerpiece of the ceiling. Personally, I think it’s not the best image Michelangelo created. No, that honor goes to his Prophet Jonah, which sits to one side of the chapel, anchoring that wall, if you will. It’s so very 3d that I truly wondered whether it was painted on plaster sculpted from the wall; but no, it’s just very very well done.
Another favorite was the creation of Eve:
And all of the sibyls were amazing.
(these pics are from online, because of the copyright restriction)
All told, we were probably in there close to an hour and it was pretty uncrowded. Eventually, however, the guards told us to move along. Let me tell you, we went through the Chapel again on our way out a few hours later, after the ‘regular’ hours had begun, and it was VERY crowded. This tour is the BEST idea, and at four hours, just the right length or time.
The Vatican is also amazing. We walked down corridors lined with painted wooden wardrobes that were 100s of years old and had originally held the books in the Library. (The Library is, as Dan Brown accurately wrote, only accessible to scholars and by permission and lies behind a formidable bullet-proof glass wall. Not to mention the essential airlessness of the place as they work to conserve fragile paper 1000s of years old.) Now the wardrobes hold stuff that rotates into various cases to be displayed. The things we saw may not be seen by you if you visit, which is moderately fascinating.
Highlights: There is a room full of tapestries designed by Raphael. In a lovely moment of connections, we saw the cartoons of those tapestries in an unforgettable visit to the British Museum on our first trip together (April 2007).
There are a couple of rooms we walked by that contained nothing but sculptures of animals — most of them just exquisitely portrayed. The museum has a huge collection of ‘modern’ works of art by a huge variety of artists. It’s a bit confusing, except that the single theme — Jesus, Mary, and/or Holy Spirit — holds it all together. Dali, Matisse, modern artists I don’t even recognize. It was a brilliant collection of how ‘modern’ artists see the major icons of this religion.* (We lost J. here for a bit when he discovered the Matisse pieces.) There are rooms dedicated to saints and the paintings and such found in each one are incredible. Most of all, remember that the exhibits can rotate, so multiple visits over the years would give you more things to see.
Finally, we went to St. Peter’s Basilica. Which is, mostly, huge. Oh, and filled with Bernini’s. (She said offhandedly.) BERNINI’s plural. Which is enough grand and glorious art to fill your soul for years, but came at the end of so much beauty that we were nearly stuffed to overflowing. I can’t imagine anyone looking at his works and saying ‘meh’, and I don’t think I can say anything about him that you don’t already know. Bernini’s sculptures make Michelangelo look bad, maybe that captures it. All I know is that I wish there were chairs in the Basilica (other than the pews), so I could have taken a (beautiful) rest and opened my soul further.
(*J. and I both had a moment of ‘really, does *everything* in this tour have to be about religion?’ and then realized that yes, the whole of the Museum was about religion, in one way or another. So we laughed at ourselves, and then again later when comparing notes.)
We left the Basilica and sent a postcard to Connor from the Vatican post office. :-) Family duties done, we went looking for lunch. I’d heard of a pizza place up over the hill, and it was about a 30 minute walk to get there . . . only to discover that it was more of a ‘joint’ than a sit-down place. Not at all what we were looking for, or needed, (Our feet were hurting, plainly said.) So we walked back over the hill, and ate just outside the Museum entrance, thereby breaking every rule we follow when traveling.
Fortunately, our meal at Caffe Vatican was quite good, mostly because we did NOT accept the waiter’s advice to order from their ‘main’ menu, which offered steak and potatoes, baked salmon, and spaghetti with meatballs. Clearly designed for tourists. Instead we went with sparkling water and a margherita pizza. Perfectly good and easy. The feet hadn’t quite recovered, so we took a taxi (conveniently from just across the street) and went home for a nap.
Three hours later we were quite recovered, so we walked out into the neighborhood and over to San Lorenzo-Lucia Square for a cup of tea, a glass of wine, and lots of water at Vitta. We’d had enough sun for the day, so we were happy to sit inside and watch the locals drink their espressos from tiny cups, maybe with a bit of pastry or gelato, talking nonstop, and then leave. It’s a very fast culture in many ways, and watching the afternoon ‘tea’ is a great way to see it in motion.
Around 7:30 we walked over towards the Tiber again, and with a bit of help from Google maps (yay technology!) made our way to the GLORIOUS restaurant known as Il Convivo Troilani. We were a bit dismayed to be the first to arrive, but others soon came, so we weren’t too far off norm. Eric was our waiter and he knew a lot of English, so it was great to have the various aspects of the dishes explained to us, and we could be a bit more adventurous in our ordering. I was able to do the thing I love most (other than eat, of course) — I ordered, and then asked the sommelier to pair each course with a glass of wine he thought would go best. This ALWAYS leads me to gorgeous and wonderful wine pairings, and is much more interesting that just trying to choose a bottle to go with every course. He was delighted, actually, and talked to me a lot (in broken English) about what I was drinking and the ‘notes’ I would find. Truly wonderful. (And yes, I wrote to them the next day and asked for the list so I can try to find them at home.) We were served two amuse bouches while enjoying a glass of ‘local’ white wine. (Didn’t get the name of it, unfortunately, it may be a very small pressing with no label.) J. had the artichoke ‘Il Convivo’ — deep fried heart with some leaves forming a flower (no breading); meat ravioli; and sole with mashed Jerusalem artichoke and melon. I had deep fried anchovies, fish ravioli, and ‘All the Pigeon’ — two dishes served one after the other. The first was a slice of pigeon carpaccio from the breast (I think), and a bite of pigeon liver pate. The second plate was made up of roasted breast and thigh, in a berry sauce.
Il Convivo Troilani reminded me a great deal of Le Taillevant in Paris, and Le Bernadin in New York. The service was exquisite, attentive, and unobtrusive. The food was perfection, with every ingredient designed to bring out the maximum and best aspects of the food itself. J’s sole, for example — the melon was unexpected, but its honey-like sweetness was a delightful addition to the dish, bringing out the earthy sourness of the artichoke and linking it beautifully to the sole. Meals like this are why we love to eat (and why we need to exercise!) — beautifully prepared and utterly delicious.
We had a lovely walk home, and fell into bed; a soul-satisfying day on many levels.