Rome wasn’t built in a day…

IMG_5439Rome wasn’t built in one day… and you can’t see it in one day either. We spent a day walking across the city to Borghese Gardens, a huge city park full of families, people strolling, ice cream vendors and crazy bikes. We rented a bike like contraption for two. It was heavy to pedal, then would suddenly speed up and was hard to brake. We almost wiped out but at least we didn’t run over too many pedestrians…. And we had a lovely picnic in the park. 

IMG_5434From there, we walked to the famous Spanish Steps. Lots of people sitting on the steps, rose vendors and a cascading fountain. In my mind’s eye I saw Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday. There are certainly enough scooters around, thousands of them. And tiny Fiats. And all sorts of other little cars. Bill Bryson in Neither Here Nor There gives the best description when he says “You come around any corner in Rome and it looks like you just missed a parking competition for blind people.” That’s exactly how it looks! Cars stick out, parked on crosswalks, cars with literally not one inch between bumpers. We are happy to use public transit here although traffic in Rome is not as bad as I had expected. It’s busy but at least cars stop when you start to cross the road. So far. Many side streets are solidly lined with scooters, almost as many as you see bicycles in Amsterdam. IMG_5485

There’s an astonishing amount of garbage on the streets. Cardboard, bags, bottles all piled up around lamp posts and overflowing garbage containers. Homeless people sleep in doorways steps away from streets lined with Gucci and Prada shops. Street vendors and operators of little shops and restaurants are mostly from Bangladesh. I was shocked to even see homeless people on the streets of Vatican City. IMG_5414

If Kees hadn’t stayed with Dutch people who run a B&B in Umbria, while hiking the Via Francigena, we would have never found out about a Dutch church in Vatican City! We couldn’t believe it. But it turns out that there were some historic connections here. Willibrord, a Dutch priest from the mid 600’s, who was exiled to Ireland, tried to convert the Frisian people from the Northern Netherlands to Christianity. Eventually he was made a Saint. Frisian Christians lived at the Vatican and built their church here, close to the burial place of Saint Peter.

IMG_5451When In Rome… do as the Romans do and so we decided to attend a church service, albeit in Dutch, a unique experience. After the service, we walked outside onto St. Peter Square and listened to Pope Francis deliver his regular Sunday message to the masses. 

When we took the Metro to Vatican City earlier that morning, the platform was absolutely packed. Rows and rows of people lined up. When the train arrived, it was already jam-packed but we all got pushed in until you could not have fit a sheet of paper between people. It was crazy. At Vatican City everyone got out and streamed upstairs to the streets. A huge line-up formed for those wanting to go inside St. Peter’s Basilica for Sunday morning mass. We went to the quiet Dutch church instead and enjoyed listening to a Dutch sermon and psalms. 

IMG_5468Once the Pope started his address, St. Peter Square was packed with a sea of people. I guessed there were thousands, but when I researched the capacity of the square, I found out that the church itself holds 60,000 people and the square can hold 300,000. It wasn’t filled to capacity but it was impressive none the less.

We walked back across one of the bridge over the River Tiber, to piazza Navona with its ornate fountains and palace. We followed narrow alleys, past the Pantheon, to the Trevi Fountain, our favourite although it was packed with people. Obviously everyone in Rome – locals and visitors alike – enjoyed the warm sunshine and strolled along the streets, sipping coffee and enjoying gelato. IMG_5531

The most bizarre experience came when we were practically back at our hotel near the train station. A little car stopped, the window lowered and the driver hollered at me, waving a map. I cautiously approached. A nice, older gentleman asked if we could tell him how to get to the train station. We told him and even gave him our map. Then he reached down and produced a gift. “Here,” he said, “for you because you helped me.” Turned out he was with Ferrari F1 racing team and this was the VIP gift bag for the Grand Prix with some very nice and valuable gifts, including a Max Verstappen watch worth over a thousand euros…. As our son said, “Most people get mugged, you guys get gifts on the streets of Rome.”

Frisian Church, Vatican: https://www.friezenkerk.nl

Rome Tourism: https://www.romeinformation.it/en/

Vatican City: https://biglietteriamusei.vatican.va/musei/tickets/do

We stayed here: http://www.hotelenricaroma.com/?lang=it

We really enjoyed eating here: https://www.thefork.it/ristorante/la-grotta-romana/407303

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Rome-ing Around

IMG_5301All roads lead to Rome… and so does the Via Francigena. We traveled the last bit by train since we did not feel like hiking through suburbs and industrial areas.

We found a quaint ‘hotel’ – the large room is a bit bare, like a hostel but  with a private bathroom. It’s in a historic building that was likely an apartment building until it was converted to hotel rooms. There’s a lush green court yard, a wrought iron gate, even breakfast of coffee and a croissant. And we’re less than a 10 minute walk from Roma Termini, the main train station. Once we arrived by train, we simply walked here and settled in.
With an old fashioned paper map, we find our way around to all the main attractions of Rome. The very first thing we want to see is the Colosseum. It’s late afternoon and the sky is grey. But we walk for a few kilometers and suddenly, there it is – the famous curved walls on which the Vancouver Public Library is based. We walked all the way around it to see it from all angles as well as to the Roman Forum. We try to take the Metro back but the machines are out of change, or the printer doesn’t work, or it just doesn’t feel like helping the hordes of tourists lined up for tickets. In the end, we walk all the way back while the skies burst open. The first rain we’ve had on this trip.

We are constantly aware of pickpockets since we keep getting warned about them. On our one rainy night, we walked huddled under one umbrella, when suddenly I felt a hand in between us. I slapped the hand and a young man jumped away behind us. Somehow he tried to get into Kees’ pocket right in between us. To no avail but it brought home the message again. We leave all valuables in the hotel and carry only a bare minimum. 

IMG_5328The next day is blue sky again and this time the Metro ticket machines work fine. In fact, there was a country wide transportation strike announced. We were told it might be hard to take the Metro. But, instead, we find an almost deserted station and mostly empty trains that rush us to our destination: Vatican City.

There we follow the tall stone wall (boy, Romans liked to build walls in the olden days) and follow it until we find an opening: the entrance to the Vatican Museums. This time we have booked an online tour, directly with the Vatican City people which was much cheaper than via tour operators. We walk through the museum exhibits, which are mostly things collected by popes and the church. 

Through court yards, past statues and fountains, we go through the papal apartments. Impressive halls ornately painted. Michelangelo lived here while he worked on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Ultimately we make it to the Chapel. It’s very different in reality, at least from the way I pictured it. The Chapel itself is a rectangular stone building. From the outside, you’d never guess it was special. We approach via  endless corridors and rooms with paintings, carvings, collections and fabulous, gigantic tapestries from the Middle Ages woven in Belgium.

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The Sistine chapel is a colourful sequence of painted stories. I try to imagine Michelangelo working here on his scaffolding, day after day. He felt that he was a sculpture, not a painter and tried to decline the job. But the pope insisted in hiring him to paint this ceiling. I like how our guide explained how he learned about proportions as he went, changing figures that are too small, too detailed to larger figures in the next scene. It really looks like the very first graphic novel – the stories unfold in wordless pictures. What really floors me is that he put himself in the picture as an empty skin in The Last Judgement. Did he have a sense of humour or was he a morbid thinker?

After the Chapel we walk through the Papal Corridor where the cardinals walk as they go into conclave when a new pope is selected. We hear the story of the white and black smoke – traditionally produced with leaves but now with a moveable, mechanical chimney. Even the Vatican adapts to time.

IMG_5371The hallways eventually connect and we approach St. Peter’s Cathedral. Our guide explains how Peter was one of the first Christians, shortly after the life of Christ. He was killed on the spot which is now the center of the square where an obelisk marks the spot. Once Christianity caught on in Rome, an alter, and then a church was built on the site. St. Peter’s Cathedral is now the largest church in the world. And it is large! Its capacity is 60,000 people! The pillars inside are immense. The marble statues are amazing, especially The Pieta, carved in 1449 by Michelangelo of Florence. IMG_5378

After roaming through the church, we climb down and exit via the grotto where many popes have been buried over the ages. St. Peter’s Cathedral an impressive, special place to visit with an almost palpable history.IMG_5389