Vatican-header

When in Rome…🇮🇹

We flew to Rome on Air Emirates via Dubai and Milan. It was a tiring journey because the Dubai stop was at 3am and we hadn’t had much sleep. As a serial shopper I now know that shopping in the middle of the night is actually not that much fun and the effort was quickly abandoned in favour of the comfy chairs in the Diner’s Club lounge. But what was really painful was finally falling asleep between Dubai and Milan and being woken to stand around like zombies in the airport before a final reboarding for Rome. All in all, it was a 24-hour journey to save a couple thousand Rondz! What were we thinking…?

Carol and Roy have a beautiful home on a gorgeous estate in Olgiata which is on the outskirts of Rome. It was wonderful to see Trevor again and (what a cliché) but how he had grown!  We met Magdi, their kind driver and Pasquale, their cute doggo who looks a bit like Taffy with short legs. 😊

What we love about Carol is that as predicted, she already had extensive plans for us and we were shooed into the shower, after which Magdi drove us into Rome to meet Roy for dinner. At 7pm it was still very light, so our first stop was “h club>doney” (hg2) which is a fabulous place to relax and have a cocktail. Carol brought us up to speed on their lives in Italy (SO envious!) and we smiled, deeply satisfied to be with good friends, glass of bubbles in hand, tasty snacks aplenty! Aperitivi devoured, we took a stroll towards the Spanish Steps which was swarming with people. There were tourists taking pictures; a gentleman reading the newspaper; joggers doing step-training and elderly ladies winding through the people carrying their groceries. Carol remarked that it wasn’t as busy as usual. I just loved the cobbled streets and resplendent architecture.

The Spanish Steps take their name from the Piazza di Spagna located below, which houses the Spanish embassy. The Steps were built in 1725 and they are still the widest steps in Europe. There are 135 of them.

(Update: What Carol and Geoff are doing in the photograph has been banned since 2019. Sitting or eating on the steps is no longer permitted and fines of 250-400 Euros can be enforced 😳 This is in order to protect its cultural heritage and in line with museum/art gallery protocol.)

Roy had booked dinner at “Enoteca e Taverna Capranica” and it had a cosy atmosphere and a bountiful wine selection. Despite our earlier aperitivo, we began with antipasto (bufala mozzarella, carpaccio with mushroom and garlic, bruschetta with tomato and melanzane). We were in food heaven. No wonder everyone we know who has been to Italy always says to us “I’m surprised you two haven’t been to Italy, given how much you love food.”🍝

Geoff had saltimbocca for main and I chose the spaghetti carbonara. Completely delicious and made even better with the excellent red wine that Roy selected. Knowing we were pushing ourselves over the edge, we still wolfed down some tiramisu (when in Rome and all that…) We also were spoilt with a delicious cherry liqueur, unlike anything I’ve tasted before.

I fell asleep in the back seat of Roy’s car and we both slept like dogs until 9am the following morning!) Carol made a delicious brekkie of fruit salad and yoghurt and coffee with biscotti.

Carol dropped us at the station and we caught the train to S. Pietro Stagione, followed by the No. 64 bus to Piazza Navona. 

While getting our bearings and fishing out our map, we stepped into the building behind us which turned out to be an exquisite old church called Sant’ Andrea della Valle. Drawn by the gorgeous frescoes on the ceilings we found that it was built in 1650. There are windows in the domed ceiling that allow for natural light. Too beautiful!

It was so lovely to be wandering the streets of Rome. Similar to Paris, the roads radiate in all directions so it’s not easy to just cut across and think you will end up in the next block. Then again there is nothing quite like simply meandering along with the cobbled path and seeing where it leads you. In this way, we stumbled onto the piazza that is home to Pantheon. Such a lovely spot, with people gathered around the fountain sun-tanning.

The Pantheon was built by the Emperor Hadrian between 119-128 AD. However it had been built before that by the Roman architect Marcus Agrippa in 29 BC after which it burnt to the ground, was rebuilt and burnt to the ground again🥺. The current building still bears Agrippa’s name on the façade and is made entirely from stone. Entry is between the 16 columns that were transported from Egypt weighing 60 tons each! The most compelling thing is the big 8m wide hole in the roof known as the oculus or “The Eye of the Pantheon”. On the 21 April (the founding date of Rome), the midday sunlight shines through the oculus directly onto the front door of the Pantheon. There is not much to see inside, but the space houses the tomb of famous artist Raphael and those of some Kings and special poets.

Wandering down an narrow alley we suddenly burst into the bright sun-washed Piazza di Trevi. It was packed with people admiring the 20m wide and 25m tall fountain. Built in 1762 after 30 lengthy years of craftmanship, the fountain has beautiful baroque sculptures representing Oceanus and the Tritans. Of course you have to toss a coin (right hand over left shoulder) into the fountain in order to ensure that you return to Rome! (These coins bring in 1.5 million Euros a year that is given to a Catholic charity that in turn helps the poor💰).

 

We found a great little pizza shop selling slices (al taglio) with simple but remarkable toppings. We ate our slices (melanzane on one; and bufala, tomato and arugula on the other) while people-watching in the piazza. Then we went in search of the gelateria that Carol had recommended! Quite sensational (two gustis each 🍦).

Next we wandered off to Piazza Navona which is a larger square with 3 fountains and lots of artists, buskers and mime performers. We wandered around taking pictures of this public gathering space that hails from the 1stcentury AD, where Romans originally held their gladiatorial circuses. We purchased a small but simple painting of a kitty cat 😻.

Late afternoon and we were becoming weary of walking around. We headed through Campo de Fiori, which houses a fragrant flower market. Geoff could not resist one of the sandwiches from a deli.

 

We took the No. 64 bus (jam packed) to S. Pietro and caught a train back to Carol, who was waiting for us in the station as our train pulled in! We had a delightful afternoon sharing our adventures du jour and assisting Trevor with the painting of easter eggs. Next we helped Carol to prepare dinner as Roy’s colleague Gavin was coming around. We made a tomato and basil topping for bruschetta and tasty Osso Bucco with risotto Milanese. Of course there was plenty of fresh and salty parmigiana!

Well rested and ready for our next tourist destination, Carol rounded us up early and dropped us at the station on the way to taking Trevor to school. Once again we took the train to S.Pietro and then our local No. 64 bus to the Vatican. Already there were so many people who had congregated. It was a Wednesday and Pope Benedict XVI delivers his weekly public address, so St Peter’s Square was already packed all along the Colonnade with its 284 columns. As luck would have it, it started to rain and suddenly hundreds of colourful umbrellas shot into the air, creating a colourful canopy.

We stepped in line to get into the Vatican museum. We were pleased to see how efficiently it moved and kept ourselves amused admiring the exotic uniforms of the Swiss Guards. Once we’d passed through security we were free to wander through the halls of the museum, marvelling at the amazing sculptures, frescoes and paintings en route to the revered Sistine chapel.

The Vatican City is a state within Rome and is not only home to the Pope and the headquarters of the Catholic Church, but it is a treasure trove of incredible art and architecture. The biggest attraction is Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine chapel. Built between 1477 and 1480, the frescoes were commissioned by Pope Julius II. The scenes on the ceiling depict the Book of Genesis, including The Creation of Adam. Michelangelo began work in 1508 and completed his frescoes in 1511 (a substantially number of years to spend on top of scaffolding!)

(Photography was forbidden, so below, on the right is a picture from Julia Volk, pexels.com)

The detail and scope of what you see is quite breath-taking and it was such a privilege to finally see all the famous, half-familiar scenes in real life.

All ‘museumed-out’ we found a little place on the piazza where we ordered slices of Pizza Romano. Deliciously crispy crust and a filling of broccoli and salsiccia. It was cool to sit on the steps and gaze upon the to-ing and fro-ing in the Piazza San Pietro. The plaza houses the Borgo (Papal enclave) and the Basilica (St Peter’s Cathedral). More centrally located in the piazza is an obelisk (it took 900 men and 140 horses to erect!) On top of the balustrades there are around 140 statues that represent Catholic saints. Finally we headed home on the train.

Carol and Roy surprised us with an exciting opportunity for the following evening. Through a colleague, Roy had arranged for us to be invited to the unveiling of the recently restored Room of Mysteries in the Vatican City Borgia apartments. We would be hosted by the Cardinal, but to us – we were excited to be “visiting the Pope”. 😂

 

We caught an early ride with Roy into Rome when he left for work. (We joined in listening to his Italian lesson – “non é possible” was our key take-out). Gosh, the traffic was insane. He dropped us centrally and we headed back to the now familiar Vatican and Piazza San Pietro. The day was dedicated to seeing Saint Peter’s Basilica. Getting up early at Carol’s behest meant we missed the queues entirely and once we were inside the church we could enjoy the silence without any touristy crowds.

“You are the rock upon which I will build my church” said Jesus to Simon (and then he changed Simon’s name to Peter because it means “rock”) Matthew 18:12

The largest church (and tallest dome or “Cupola”) on Earth was built (with various changes under different Popes and architects, including Raphael and Michelangelo) between the years of 1506 and 1626. At 22 000 sqm, it can hold around 60 000 people. It is believed to be positioned over the burial place of St Peter. He died a martyr in 64 AD (crucified upside down by Emperor Nero 😱) and is considered to be the first Pope.

We entered into a space 150ft high. The intricate and iconic La Pietà, sculptured by Michaelangelo out of a featureless block of marble, was commissioned in 1497. It is dwarfed by the context of the huge space, but the work is delicate and detailed and really highlights his ability to envision something amazing from a rigid piece of stone. In 1972, a lunatic attacked the sculpture with a hammer, yelling “I am Jesus Christ”. He severed the arm of the Madonna and caused severe damage which required difficult restoration work. Of course, now it sits behind bullet-proof glass.😥

91 popes are buried in the Basilica. Because it’s becoming impossible to house them all above the ground, they are now being laid to rest in the Papal crypt below the ground. We took a stroll through the cool and hallowed area.

The statue of St Peter is purported to hail from the 13th century. Tradition has it that if you rub his right foot, you will be blessed 😇. It’s starting to wear away, so I wondered how long this will be allowed!

All the sculptures and statues are beautifully ornate. The paintings are apparently not paintings at all, but mosaics. All colourful and dramatic. I found the honour board (above right) listing all the popes from St Peter up until John Paul II (recently departed in 2005) quite fascinating.

Deeper into the church there are grottos and side altars where a bishop or priest was conducting a small private service. It sounded like it was being delivered in Latin. There is also a striking baroque-style, bronze canopy, created by Bernini that is directly above St Peter’s Tomb. (See above, centre pic.)

After all this gazing about in awe, we needed a change of scene and headed towards a shopping area in Via Cola di Rienzo. We bought some pasta for Lorna and a T-shirt for Jimmy and some other gifts. Geoff bought some smart leather shoes (suitable for a private audience with the Pope). We headed home, showered and got dressed up!

Borrowing Carol’s car, we parked at the station. We took the train into Rome and when we got off our connecting bus, it began to pour! We ended up buying an umbrella as we had to walk right around the Vatican Museum to reach the entrance. We stopped off for a warming cappuccino while we dried off and warmed up again.

The function was quite a large affair with plenty of people. It was so special to be inside the Vatican without any crowds. The ceilings, the hallways and the galleries were lit up, unlike during the day so it was quite spectacular and we realised how lucky we were to be part of this select group. We “listened” to the Italian explanation of how the restorations took place. (Basically repairing the plaster and stucco, cleaning the surfaces of the frescoes – painstakingly delicate and a huge responsibility!) The slides being shared looked interesting and it was frustrating not to be able to fully understand. There was some singing and music and thereafter we were ushered in small groups to the inner sanctum of the Borgia Apartments. This is a suite of 6 rooms adapted for personal use by Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503).  The Room of Mysteries (below upper right) contains Pinturicchio’s colourful frescoes representing the biblical scenes of The Annunciation (below bottom right), The Nativity, The Adoration of the Magi and The Resurrection. Everything was so bright and magnificent.

(Update: this room has since been opened to tourists in 2019).

Carol had booked us in to “Osteria Pucci” for dinner. We enjoyed a delicious antipasto and osso bucco before taking a taxi back to the car, heading home and falling into bed thoroughly exhausted.

The following day there was a transport strike meaning limited buses and no metro! This meant that we ended up doing a lot more walking around Rome than we anticipated. We managed to get to the Vatican and then we took a cab to Palazzo Venetia which is arguably the central hub of Rome. Here the neo-classic Altare dell Patria (Altar of the Fatherland) dominates. It was built in honour of Victor Emmanuel II, the first King of the unified Italy 1861, although he is buried in the Pantheon. It was nice to be in a different area of Rome and we wandered through the ruins of the Roman Forum en route to the Colosseum.

The Roman Forum is a rectangular area surrounded by the ruins of several important ancient government buildings at the centre of the city. Filled with grandiose temples, bustling marketplaces and imposing civic buildings, the Forum was the beating heart of ancient Rome and hails back to 500 BC. This is where Julius Ceasar met his end in 44 BC, where the Vestal Virgins were kept, and where the heads of defeated political enemies were displayed. (Cicero was among those who met this cold-blooded fate; his head and hands were turned into a public spectacle here by his adversary Mark Antony in 43 BC.)

The Roman Forum was “rediscovered” by an archeologist in 1803. Excavations to clear the area took over 100 years.

The Colosseum was quite a highlight! We decided to join a guided tour so that we could find out all the captivating history about the place.

It is the largest amphitheatre in the world. Oval in shape, it measures 189m long, 156m wide and 50m high. It was built between 72 AD and 80 AD under the Emperor Vespasian, in the heart of Ancient Rome. Made from stone and concrete, this magnificent monument was built with the manpower of tens of thousands of slaves.

It had 80 entrances and could seat approximately 50,000 spectators who would come to watch sporting events and games. These events included gladiatorial combats, wild animal hunts and, believe it or not, ship naval battles! These complementary events were used by the Emperors to gain popularity and support. They were seriously brutal – during certain games around 10,000 wild animals were killed in a single day! The first games ever to be held were in 80 AD, under Emperor Titus (the son of Vespasian), and they ran for 100 days straight. Games continued to be held for centuries to come – gladiatorial games until the fifth century and animal hunts until the 6th century. To protect the spectators from the blistering sun and heat of Ancient Rome, there was the velarium – an awning that could be pulled over the top of the seating area to provide shade. Below the Colosseum were numerous rooms and underground passages. This is where the animals and gladiators were kept, waiting to meet their fate in the arena above. There were also 36 trap doors in the arena for special effects!

Although two-thirds of the Colosseum has been destroyed over time – mostly the result of vandalism, earthquakes and fires – it is today a popular tourist site, attracting thousands of people every year. Exhausted both emotionally and physically, we headed back to Piazza Venetia and then took a cab to the Vatican so that we could fortify ourselves with another slice of the delicious pizza Romano we are crazy about. This boosted our morale for the walk to the station. We had a long wait for a train but eventually got home by 6:30 pm.

On the outskirts of Rome is a walled village called Formello. It has been a settlement since prehistoric times. Roy and Carol took us there for dinner – a charming and atmospheric restaurant called “La Cantina”. The food was delicious! I had pasta orecchiette (ears) with salmon, gorgonzola and mushroom. Geoff chose the liver. Complaining bitterly about being over-stuffed, we managed to make short work of the white chocolate mousse with berries, washed down with a macchiato.

We slept late the next day. It was the weekend, which meant Roy had time to go out with us in the daytime. He managed to find us a couple of bottles of the delicious cherry liqueur that we had enjoyed so much on our first evening in Rome. Back home, Carol prepared Pasta Bianca for lunch and we all watched “The Wedding Crashers”, which we found hilarious. An afternoon siesta and then we got ready for dinner. It was our last evening and Roy and Carol had arranged for us to meet Debbie and Ian for dinner (we met them in Beijing where they joined us for my 40th birthday dinner)

First off we had daiquiris at The Drunken Ship in Campo de’ Fiori and had fun people-watching. Then we went to a popular fish restaurant for dinner. I had Spaghetti Vongole and Geoff had a seafood pasta. Roy also ordered a whole bass baked in a salted crust for everyone to share – quite delicious! Limoncello and cherry liqueurs were a fitting end to a hilarious evening. Back home the festivities continued and we indulged in frangelicos and a shocker of drink from Sardinia called Mirto made from the berries of the myrtle bush. Not to be repeated 🤣

Our last day in Rome and we drove into the city. Roy and Carol introduced us to a charming and warm lady, Luigina Lotti, who owns  “Gelateria Patisseria”. We had tasty coffee and pastries. Carol shared that Luigina had been featured in a book as one of the prominent characters of the Café Bar scene in Rome.

The day turned out to be beautiful and we visited the Villa Borghese Gardens of Rome. This is one of the largest urban parks in Europe, pretty much the Central Park of Rome. The State acquired the gardens from the Borghese family in 1901 and opened them to the public.

What differentiates Villa Borghese from other large parks such as Hyde Park or Central Park is the perfect combination between nature and Roman art. Villa Borghese is home to interesting architectural elements, sculptures, monuments and fountains created at different times by famous artists.

We hired a little golf cart and zipped around covering some of the amazing sights. We also watched Trevor go-carting.

For lunch we went to “St Marco”, which has gorgeous views across Rome. We had yummy pizzas, followed by gelati. Nothing like a Roman style pizza with its trademark crispy crust and large air bubbles that make it light and airy. 

Roy explained that the real birthplace of pizza is Naples in South West Italy, and he would introduce us accordingly on the next stage of our journey …

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