Today was Vatican Day – a day dedicated to monuments of the religion of my youth and then a walk in the Trastavere neighborhood.
Even though I’m not a practicing Catholic anymore, I’ve heard that these monuments are imperial and magnificent displays of honoring the religion, and hopefully, God. I’d read enough online about visiting Vatican city to know that there’d be massive lines wherever I would turn: St. Peter’s Basilica – Bam! Huge line. Vatican Museum – Bam! Huge line. Last night, I found a web site that sold tickets to the Museum, home of the Sistine Chapel, and paid a hefty premium to order them in advance (4 Euros on top of the 15 Euro entrance fee).
I also read that one needs to show up very early (7a.m.) at St. Peter’s Basilica to avoid the lines there, no worries that there’s a mass going on at the same time. I also knew that Wednesday was Papal blessing day and when I woke up this morning at 6:30 to get to the Basilica early, I figured that I could avoid that massive crowd and just visit the Basilica for about an hour before my 9 a.m. Museum time.
It was a cold morning in Rome and I walked quickly from the nearest metro stop to St. Peter’s Square. On the way I saw priests and nuns and thought, cool, those people work at THE HQ. Soon enough, I saw one of the massive lines, but it was outside the Square, not the cathedral. Hmmm, I thought and walked to the front to check things out. I asked a guard, what’s going on? Everyone was lining up for the Papal mass and blessing. Oh. How do I get into the Basilica? THat’s a problem, he replied, Basilica is closed until 1:30 p.m. Right. I better visit that in the afternoon. That is a good idea, he confirmed.
Well, I was there, so I checked out the papal mass scene. I walked around to the other columned gate of the Square and saw another smaller line of people all holding blue cards. They rushed in when the guard opened the gate. An older, portly man came up to me and with broken English and hand gestures asked why I wasn’t going in. No card, I said and gestured. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a blue card and gave it to me. Grazie Mille, I said and went through the gate and followed the other blue card holders. The Pope holds his blessing outside in good weather and there were several thousand chairs in front of the Basilica for blue card holders. I found a chair about 100 feet from the Pope’s chair (throne?) at the front.
I figured I could sit here, see the beginning if it started at nine and then head to the museum. A nice plan until I asked a guard when it began. 10:30 to 12:30. Oh. I’d have to forgo the mass for the museum. At that moment, I realized that I am really not a Catholic anymore because I got up and left to make my museum reservation. As I walked out, I’m not sure how many Catholics there were in that crowd anyway. I saw people running past others to get “good” seats and there was only greed and desire in their eyes, nothing religious about it.
The line to the Vatican Museum was MASSIVE and stretched several blocks. There were people sitting and reading as they waited. I gripped my printout, walked past everyone to the front and entered the very relaxing and uncrowded foyer. Well, I thought, that was 4 Euros very well spent. I took my time walking towards the Sistine Chapel past all the beautiful and classical works of religious art. As I got closer to the Chapel I was very surprised to see modern art – even three paintings by Salvador Dali. Of course, religious art and the Vatican’s collection of it did not stop before the 1920s.
The Sistine Chapel is not too big, about the size of a natatorium and with a ceiling that seems as high as it is long. Every visitor is very hushed and taking subversive pictures as photography is not “officially” allowed but there were a lot of cameras out for a quick snap. Up above, in the center, where God touches Adam in the creation, the depiction is holy and sacred and very interesting. Why just finger to finger? Why just a slight touch? Why not a full embrace or a being filled with light and set down on Earth. Adam seems wanting and scared, the image of God shows withholding and reaching. This is not the God I believe in, the one depicted there. The One I believe in is all encompassing and fulfilling, not just a hesitant touch to a longing finger.
I ended the museum tour at 10 and decided to check out the Papal Mass scene. The crowds were still filing in, but it wasn’t packed. I grabbed my blue ticket and found a seat pretty close, but still sat at the aisle to leave without disturbing people. At about 10:35 there was a buzz in the crowds and the atmosphere felt like a rock concert. People started to stand on chairs and grab cameras. No kidding, some attendees started to wave their country’s flags. I stood up and saw the Pope in the Popemobile, but just on the screens. He was making his way through the aisles. I saw him in real life very quickly – the Popemobile went right by me. Twice! I thought back to the World Youth Day trip I took with my church in 1992. We went to a Papal mass but were about 3 miles from the Pope. And now all it took was a Wednesday trip to the Vatican City and a kind worker for me to be 10 feet from the man. I received the Papal blessing (Thank you!) and left the service and walked out of the Vatican City.
My next stop was the Trastavere district, the working class, cooler neighborhood of Rome. I’d heard it was not so safe and had read stories of people being robbed so I entered it with a bit of hesitation. This was not the case. There were loads of tourists making their way through the neighborhood and upon seeing the first map-toting bunch, I was not afraid. My destination was a pizza restaurant Bethany had told me about, but it was closed.
Instead, I entered into a bookshop/bar looking for an English book. The woman working there was so excited to see me, I felt bad leaving upon discovering that there were only Italian books, so I decided to stay for lunch. She prepared a delightful plate of meats and cheese for me and served up a Belgian beer. My feet thanked me for the break and it was the fuel I needed to keep going. I left the restaurant (Surprisingly called the Little Devil – ironic after my morning’s activities) and walked back out the Trastevere to the Vatican City and St. Peter’s Square. It was a long way. And of course, the was a huge line.
I entered the huge line and found it moved quickly and followed the flow of highway traffic (if there’s space, you take it). I was in the Basilica in less than a 1/2 hour. And it is unbelievable. I looked down towards the alter and had the feeling like when I was at the Grand Canyon – it’s so huge, it seems fake. But it’s not and every few feet there’s more gold inlay or marble statues or Papal tombs. The alter rises up like four tall trees to the sky of the dome. I paused and took a seat and prayed for my Dad’s health and the health of Aunt Carole and Jodie. I also asked God for an easy transition back home and into my new life. I sat there for a long time looking at the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus.
My feet decided they had enough walking today. I summoned all the energy I’d had from the beer and meat/cheese lunch and walked to the metro and then back to the hostel. I washed my feet and crashed for a good long nap. My only roommate came back with the same exhaustion and nap. I felt like I had walked all of Rome.
My former colleague D grew up in Rome, speaks Italian and had a restaurant recommendation for me. I got dressed at about 8, put on some shoes (my feet did not object) and walked towards the Republica and down Via Nazionale to the Restaurant Rinaldi al Quirinale. There were some tourists there, but I was reassured by D’s recommendation. I went downstairs and the host and waiters greeted me warmly and sat me at my own table. I ordered the Amatriciana – homemade pasta with tomato sauce, bacon, and pecorino cheese – and sauteed spinach cooked in chicory spices. There were no glaces of wine on the menu, but when I explained to the waiter that I couldn’t drink a half bottle myself (because of price, not that I actually can’t), he poured me a nice dry red for one. I even splurged on the hot, soft bread placed on the table. I used it to sop up the sauce the noodles hadn’t covered and wiped the plate clean. When the waiter asked, “Fini?” I laughed and said, “yes, obviously.”
The meal was fantastic and exactly what I had wanted for my last night in Rome. I refused desert and coffee – having been on a one gelato, one pastry diet for the past week was making my pants tight. I got up to leave and mentioned to the host that I knew D. Ooooh! They were just here last weekend! Oh how nice. This was Vincenzo and he introduced me to Antonio. They were so kind and nice and poured me a shot of Limoncello – not too strong mentioned Antonio – and called me a cab home. Thankfully I had refused desert because the cab ride to the hostel was 8 Euros.
This day was everything I’d hoped for in my second day in Rome: Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, Trastevere, a beautiful dinner, and you know, the Pope.