October 27th, 2014
So, the Vatican.
You know how everyone comes back from their trip to Rome, and goes on and on about how great the Vatican was? I wasn’t one of those people. I must have no appreciation for the truly beautiful things in life. Or maybe everyone else dislikes it, too, but is too ashamed to admit it? (She asks in a hopeful voice.) Because it is a bit shameful, make no mistake. Almost everyone I have told has looked at me with shock and a teensy bit of disfavor. “But…” they stammer, “Did you see the Basilica? What about the Piazza? Did you actually go into the museum, because there are lots of cool objects. What about the Sistine Chapel? Surely you loved the Sistine Chapel? WHO DOESN’T LIKE THE SISTINE CHAPEL?!”
I completely understand their disbelief. The very few times I have heard someone say anything negative about the Vatican, I scoff, too— until I remember that I didn’t care for it, either. I would much rather have been plopped down in some more crumbling, dirty ruins for the day than walk around the lovely, opulent, gilded Vatican again. I know, I know: there’s no accounting for taste.
We ended up walking from our apartment to the Vatican, so on the way we made a quick pit-stop by Castel Sant’Angelo. The only other time I had seen or heard about Castel Sant’Angelo was from Angels and Demons (Go on, judge me. I didn’t like the Vatican AND I’ve read Dan Brown. I am disappointed in me, too. I swear I have other good qualities.) I had assumed it was built by some pope since it used to be a papal fortress, but in fact, it was built by the emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century as a tomb for himself and his family. It was later absorbed into the Aurelian Walls and converted into a fortress, and only after that did it fall into papal hands. Now it is a museum with people peddling souvenirs outside along the bridge. At night time, it is beautiful when it’s all lit up.
After our detour, we walked into Vatican City, crossing country lines without even realizing it, which is a little disappointing. Wouldn’t it be nice to get a picture in front of a “Welcome to Vatican City” sign? We didn’t really know where we were going, but since St. Peter’s Basilica dominates the skyline, we just headed in that direction until we eventually came upon St. Peter’s Square. They were preparing for some event, so there were chairs and barriers all over the place, and it was hard to get good pictures.
We saw a larger-than-life line snaking around the piazza and quickly joined it before it got any longer. It turns out that this was the wrong thing to do, but we only realized it after standing in line for an hour. We had wanted to go to the Vatican museum first thing, but this was the line for the Basilica. We had already invested too must time in the line to turn back, so we stuck it out to the end. Once we entered the Basilica, we saw all sorts of tombs of previous popes, lots of paintings, and gold galore.
My favorite part of the entire basilica was seeing Michelangelo’s La Pietà. Mary is shown cradling Jesus’s body in her arms, and her compassion, grief, and goodness shine through her face. It is truly remarkable that all of the hope, sadness, and human-ness of this scene can possibly be conveyed through stone. The statue had only a few admirers, which was a shame. Most visitors, us included, were wide-eyed, mouth hanging a little open, their eyes flitting from one treasure to the next. I adopted this pose for at least 60 seconds. It is truly a hard place to take in.
After the Basilica, we wanted a quick meal before going to stand in another interminable line. I did a quick TripAdvisor search and came across a place called E.G.G., which serves hot, fresh pasta in takeaway boxes for something like 6€. Not a bad deal, especially considering it is a few blocks from tourist-heavy St. Peter’s.
We chowed down on our pasta, and then joined the much less serene line for the Vatican Museums. It stretched for blocks, and men hawked purses, pins, statues, scarves, keychains, and the like along the entire line. Even more annoying were the people walking up and down the block, claiming to be able to sell you tickets to bypass the line. Maybe some of these people had pre-purchased tickets and were now scalping them at inflated prices, but they certainly weren’t doing it honestly. The level of deception some of them sunk to was unbelievable! We saw several men claiming to work for the Vatican, and they had printed name tags and badges complete with seals to make it look extra-official. The misspelled and grammatically incorrect English ruined the effect. We saw several Americans take them up on this too-good-to-be-true offer since they were, after all, employed by the Vatican and must be trustworthy. The take-away of this story is that it pays to buy your tickets in advance from the official website. We waited in this loud, cranky line for hours, and then once we entered, we were overwhelmed all over again. We probably weren’t in the best mindset to wade through thousands of people to see art we had little interest in. So the second take-away is to only go if you genuinely have things you want to see and not just because you are supposed to have things you want to see.
You would think I took a lot of photos of important things— larger-than-life statues, important works of art, exquisitely sewn tapestries, beautifully-wrought ancient Egyptian jewelry. You would be wrong. I have a small but impressive sampling of ceilings, and a large but mainly blurry collection of tubs. My tub collection is rivaled only by my pictures of statues featuring strangers’ heads.
I wish I could show you photos of the Sistine Chapel, but photography isn’t permitted inside the chapel. Neither is loud talking, out of respect for such a sacred place, although you wouldn’t have known it. It sounded as if we were all gathered together at a fair instead of a church. The employees of the Vatican resorted to using a microphone to try to quiet the rowdy crowd down. Each time, they sounded increasingly angry until they were eventually shouting, which unfortunately accomplished nothing besides adding to the racket. After spending hours in line and then even more hours fighting the crowds once inside, we really didn’t have the patience to try to appreciate artwork in a hot, packed room filled with people yelling. We ended up leaving sooner than I’d like to admit and found the nearest exit.
While trying to escape the Vatican, we stumbled upon a quiet little courtyard, and we ended up sitting there for a while to de-stress.
The next day was the exact opposite of the Vatican in every way and was exactly what we needed after all of the lines, stress, and people. We went to Ostia Antica, the practically deserted ruins of Rome’s harbor city. It will be the subject of my next post, so check back soon!
This is my third post about our trip to Rome. If you’d like to see the others, click here.