Vatican - For the longest line

Trip Start May 16, 2006
Trip End Jun 13, 2006

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Flag of Vatican City  ,
Sunday, June 18, 2006

After arriving early in Roma Termini, we rolled out of bed much too soon - 6 hrs - and off of the train to start our last day in Italy. The goal for the day: to see the Vatican: St. Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and as much of the museums as we could fit in before we collapsed from exhaustion. First step was to find breakfast. Despite our growing familiarity with the Termini area, we still haven't found a place to eat breakfast better than the Moka Cafe in the train station. We found a place offering to make an "American Breakfast" of an omelette, toast, and juice for 12€, but that was it. So it was the usual pastry and cappuccino. I still don't know why Sarah insists that one can't live on that.

After breakfast, we grabbed the metro to right outside the Vatican. Time for the decision: start with the museums or the Basilica? We'd gotten a tip that whichever you chose first thing in the morning, you could get right into, then you'd have to wait in a horrendous line for the other. SO TRUE. Some of the best Italy advice we've gotten. Take heed. Do the Vatican on two different days - and show up before eight to stand in line. You will save hours of your life and a lot of standing in the heat.

We rather arbitrarily picked the Basilica and practically walked right in. It was free for the main areas, and I didn't feel like paying to climb to the Cupola. It was probably the most impressive church I've ever seen, beating out the Duomo in Milan, but it felt like it was trying so very hard to attain that level of impressive. With the Duomo, it came more naturally. There was an enormous number of marble statues of saints and inlay work on the floor. Every bit was covered with some sort of carving or decoration or statue. We saw the extremely dorky looking Swiss guards (what possessed someone to keep them in Disneyland outfits?) and several nuns. One group was evidently on their own trip and it was cute watching them pose, giggling, with the statue of St. Peter and get their pictures taken.

When we paused over some of the (extremely ornate) metal grills in the floor, we could hear chanting wafting up from underneath. It was evident that this space had been very holy to a huge number of people for centuries. Not being Catholic, though, the adoration of the figure of the Pope not only escapes me, it makes me feel a little queasy to see the Popes I know have called for the murder of thousands glorified on a big marble plaque. I took a picture of that plaque, and that's all I can think of when I see it.

The most disappointing thing about the Basilica was how far back the guard ropes were from Michelangelo's Pieta. It was a gorgeous statue, but you had to stand at least twenty or thirty feet away. Since it's not, well, David, that wasn't close enough to see the details.

After the Basilica, we went to start standing in line for the museums and the Sistine Chapel. It was 9:45. At first, it wasn't too bad. A group of Spanish students in front of us had brought along their megaphones (who packs megaphones?), and were leading a group in songs and hopping and generally being goofy. About 10:45, Sarah and I started the game of inching forward in the press of people. The way we play, you have to manage to step into an empty space without jostling the people already standing there, there is no shoving, and you get points off for a dirty look. The whole point is to get as many rows forward as you can without anybody noticing. About 11:45, the game had lost its appeal when at least two thirds of the crush of people had started playing, and their rules included pushing and shoving and knocking people over. The mass of people was about ten deep along the sidewalk and stretched for at least a third of a mile. Finally at 12:15ish, we walked through the door.

Our sole "purpose" was to find the Sistine Chapel, then we had planned on separating and seeing our own things. Well, the Sistine Chapel is extremely hard to find. Not that there aren't signs for it, there are plenty of signs. Dozens of signs, pointing in every which direction, taking you through most of the rest of the museums, up stairs, down stairs, over outdoor walkways and through tunnels. Before we started, I had taken a detour to see several rooms of the Egyptian Museum, and I'm glad I did. It was about the only open museum that the ridiculously long path didn't go through, and thus we ended up missing it. But the seven or eight rooms I saw were some of my favorite in the whole Vatican. There was the story of the creation of a lake in hieroglyphs on a scarab smaller than my hand. There were marble sphinxes, a mummy, and all sorts of curious tools and religious statues. The draftman-like perfection of the hieroglyps was startling. I guess I'd expected tiny pictures would be crooked or irregular, since they were carved in marble. Nope. Those Egyptians were sticklers for perfectly straight lines and depths, no matter how tiny the script.

Throughout the whole museum, the farther we got into the depths of the place, the more it struck home that the Vatican was a treasure horde. There were even dragons over the doors. I'm sure those were meant to symbolize something else, but the wealth accumulated became too much to take in. Rooms were positively crammed with marble statues or huge tapestries or ancient maps, to the point where you just couldn't absorb any more. I didn't take a single picture the entire time, mostly for that reason. I couldn't pick items that stood out, when there were so many, many similar items around them. Also, reminiscent of the plaque of the Popes, it was also obvious that all of this wealth did not just gravitate naturally and with no coercion toward the twisty corridors.

(Movies in the album are short clips of the ornate ceiling in the Basilica and in the Map Room of the Museums.)

After all of that, the Sistine Chapel was underwhelming. I'm not really a fan of Michelangelo's paintings. His sculptures are much more human. I'm glad I saw it once, but if I were to go back (first thing in the morning, of course), I would head straight for the Egyptian Rooms, check to see if the Etruscan rooms were open yet, and maybe reserve a slot for the Vatican Excavations.

The Vatican was a fascinating and kind of scary place. I couldn't forget the history enough to take it on its current merit, and all of the labyrinthine paths and locked cabinets, not to mention a huge display of seals that have been used in the Secret Archives suggest that maybe they don't want you to. I understand that conquerors have always amassed wealth and artifacts - but most of them aren't remembered as "holy" for their actions. Brilliant and powerful, yes. Closer to heaven, not so much.

We dazedly made our way to the station to collect our bags and the hotel to check in. Having five hours of restless sleep be the best you've gotten in four days makes it hard to function. After a short nap, we went out in Rome for our last exploration. We trekked over to Barberini Square to use an internet facility there (Best we found in Italy. Seriously. Cheapish and plentiful.), bought some magnets, and had a random passerby elbow me in the face. It was so bizarre and almost planned, I immediately assumed he was a thief of some sort. He had actually swerved several feet from where he had been going to manage it. But after I yelped, stopped dead in the center of the crosswalk to hold my cheek in pain (keeping a grip on my bag at the same time), and whirled around to glare at him, he started apologizing profusely. In Italian, so I had no idea what he was saying, other than the idea that maybe making girls cry was not on his list of activities for the day. That is one of the most extreme cases of "distracted by cellphone" I have personally encountered.

We ate dinner on a restaurant at the side of the square opposite from the internet point, and racked up the largest bill we've managed yet. But it was the last night, so it was easy to justify. I tried a marinara pizza (no cheese, just sauce), a lemon torte, some of the house wine, and a bit of lemon liquor. Sarah got a lemon-creme pasta with shrimp in a bowl made of cheese (we were fascinated by that). This was the only time we have left a bit of beverage at the table. After all of that food, a liter of water, and the bottle of wine, we just could not quite finish off the second liter of water. It has become something of an obsession with us never to leave a beverage behind, but, alas. It was not to be.

We struck off to see if the Trevi Fountain had fewer people at midnight than it does in the middle of the afternoon, stopping into several shops and stalls along the way to finish up our souvenir shopping. The answer? Nope. The Fountain had just as many people. We threw more coins in, just to be safe, then quit the crowd. I figured we may have used up our last coin toss on all the detours to Rome throughout the month. Wasn't quite sure how literal "returning to Rome" was. I am a stickler for accuracy, even (especially?) in superstitions.

Back to the hotel for a two hour nap, before we had to catch the 3:45 am bus to the airport.

Arrivederci, Roma! We will miss you.
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