Monday, September 15, 2014

Italia: Vaticano, Roma

St. Peter's Square
Yup, it's been a while since we finished that much relaxing trip despite the mother-load of a whooping cough that I managed to get shackled to at the end! More of that later. Suffice it to say that the cough was the reason for being quiet this long even when I wanted to write about it before it all vanished from memory. You know fresh memories are one of a kind.

So as you know the four of us set out to see the fabled land of Italia in the midst of last July. The fact that we enjoyed it so much tells me that it is better to take such trips when the stars align somewhat. Trips may not happen at all if we wait for full alignment. No company stocks went down even though we both had much pressing issues at work. Might as well enjoy. After being royally swindled by a mobile plan vendor right at the airport, it was a relief to be met with relatives who had reached the hotel the previous day. Suddenly it felt like we were home. Vodafone is what worked the best for cellphone usage based on the many users we had in our 10 strong family group. We stayed at Orange Hotel in Rome almost right across the street from St. Peters's Basilica. The girl at the front desk was a gem and the free umbrellas offered in anticipation of flash rains that happen in the midst of sweltering heat, cinched the deal for me. I'd stay there again in a heartbeat. Rooms though small were very clean and updated. But we can see such hotels anywhere, what about the history that waits to be admired there? As Roald Dahl would say, just plain marvelous!  Truth be told the initial impression on landing in Rome was not that great. Nothing to write home about with the airport and the drive to the hotel. But once we started the tour all bets were off. Just plain a.m.a.z.i.n.g.

See the maroon flag down the 2nd window, top right?
That white spec in the window? Yup, you have seen the Pope!
I know every single stone in these places have been photographed, video taped and written about all over the net but still can't help talking about it. Take St.Peter's Basilica for example. No matter how many times you have seen the images, nothing compares to actually standing in the middle of that vast square, built with the full splendor of Rome. To top it off we managed to get the smallest glimpse of the  Pope (a personal favorite of mine) when he appeared as a small white spec at the top window of the Basilica. Then when you enter the Basilica and encounter every pixel of the church adorned with some image or structure of infinite value, you realize that you stand not in a simple church but in the sanctum sanctorum of what wealth and power brought to the Catholic Church in its prime. Admission to the Basilica is free but not the Vatican Museum which includes the.... wait for it.... Sistine Chapel! You can even attend one of the many masses being held in the morning if you care to wake up early and beat the crowds like me and H did. The museums are managed very similar to the museums in the National mall. There is such similarity between the US politics and the Roman Republic that it is hard to miss!

Inside St. Peter's Basilica
Michelangelo (pronounced mikkelangelo by the Italians) and his art looms large all over Italy. I had read Irving Stone's Agony and Ecstacy, yet nothing prepares you for the absolute perfection of 'The Pieta' displayed inside the Basilica. Michelangelo did a few more Pieta's in his life and each reflects the age at which he sculpted it. The Pieta that we all know was done when he was young and so both Mother Mary and Jesus are youthful and perfect in every feature. That alone is enough to immortalize this artist. But then you haven't even seen the David and the lively frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.
The Pieta

It is said that Michelangelo loved to sculpt more than he liked to paint, but his most lucrative commissions all were for paintings. This is why he ended up painting people as if they were sculptures. Stone's book talk about how he visited cemeteries at night and dug up tombs to study the human body and paid to get dead bodies for the same purpose. This iconoclast deserves every praise that he is getting. He was also the final architect of St.Peter's Basilica in his old age. The end result of what we see now especially the dome was his vision. He was fortunate to live long enough to leave such grand foot prints on history. Another name that came up while visiting Vatican was that of Bernini. You will know why when you see the pure magnificence of St.Peters Square. Really a 'semicircular' marvel where one can meet to see the Pope if he is free and in Rome to make his little Sunday window appearances at noon.

Roman Forum
Moving onto other other Roman structures, the Pantheon is first among equals. Built during first century AD, this well preserved majestic building holds the tombs of Raphael and Victor Emmanuel, the ruler who unified all of Italy. I never thought I'd care to give another look at the Colosseum, that most splattered of all Roman images. Call me wrong because this is another awe inspiring structure of architectural ingenuity and shows what cheap labor (through slavery), power and wealth accumulated from numerous wars, and absence of direct invaders can do. The National Mall, er... I mean the Roman Forum for example is full of monumental structures, all built to venerate one victor or another. The writings proclaiming various triumphs still visible on their remaining facades. I was intrigued by the remnants of the Temple Of Vesta. The order of white clad virgins that were revered in Rome. The only man who could enter those closed walls was the Pontifex Maximus. Gives you a leeway into how Old Rome influenced the very foundations of the Catholic Church. Pope is also called the Roman Pontiff and the order of nuns follow a theme similar to that of the vestal virgins.

Being steeped in history does not mean we forgot to eat. Enter Gelatos! Gelatarias are sprinkled into the soul of Italy's famous cities and the kids thanked them wholeheartedly for that. Euro being almost time and half of a dollar, we randomized meals between cheap and somewhat upscale places. The most memorable of all roman meals was at a little roadside pasta shop on one of Rome's cobbled alleys. Homemade pasta at its best and cheapest. Each of us got to order a pasta of our preferred flavor and it was all polished off in a jiffy!

Top it off with Gelato from a gelataria on the way and you are all set for a night of peaceful sleep. I am not forgetting the outrageously priced €7,00 (~$12) gelato per person. Wish we had looked up the reviews before settling down to the shocking sitting fee for the tiny bowls of gelato we each had. Rain was a nuisance but having encountered blistering heat the first day, they were a welcome relief and made the day much more manageable. The walking can be almost handled by  10 year olds and above as we witnessed. My girl and boy were patience personified with all the walks and tours we went through. I am sure occasional injections of gelato had something to do with it:-) I'll stop here for now and will come back later with our Florence leg. I leave you with the bust of Raphael found next to his tomb in the Pantheon.

Note: Most photos are courtsey Hcousin with a good eye for pics and a real camera she lugged around which got us super trip pictures. Some are from H's S3 and my good old iphone4 which seems to be finally giving up the ghost. Hello iphone6?