Monday, 27 April 2015

Italy - A Visit to Vatican City

Day three in Rome dawned bright and sunny, again.  We were getting lucky with this beautiful weather on the last day of March.  In like a lion, well we weren’t here in the beginning of March so I don’t know about that, but out like a lamb would be the case for us in Italy. 

Every morning we were in Rome Eric would quietly sneak out of the hotel room early in the morning while the rest of us still slept to capture some beautiful pictures of the city as the sun came up.  

Such a photographer he has become, needing to catch just the perfect light for his photos,

and I am so very thankful.  This particular morning he was drawn back to the Roman Forum which we had visited the day before.   

The sleepy morning sunlight hit the ruins and brought them to light in a different way than we had seen the day before. 

I love the contrast that he sometimes captures with his camera.  Not just the color contrast, but also the mix of old with new, such as the photo above.  These ancient ruins, some 2000 years old, mixed with big bright yellow balloons.  Oh the things these columns have seen over the many, many years.

Today we would be heading to Vatican City, the smallest internationally recognized independent state with a population around 840 and ruled by I think we all know the answer to this one – the Pope.  Within the walls of Vatican City are some of the world’s most famous cultural sites and that is exactly why we were going there, to visit the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica.

St. Peter's Basilica as seen from a bridge over the Tiber River.
As we approached the walls and great columns that would lead us into St. Peter’s Square, we couldn’t help but notice the colorful guards outside the gates.  

Because Vatican City is an independent state, it is guarded by Swiss Guards who are young Catholic men with Swiss citizenship who have completed training with the Swiss military.  Their dress is obviously what catches your attention, very renaissance in appearance, and it makes you wonder if this is all for show.  It’s not.  Remember, many years ago now there was an assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II right here in St. Peter’s Square.  Although they try to ignore the hundreds of visitors who can't resist taking their pictures each day as if they are merely decorations, these guards know how to fight if they need to. 

Standing in front of St. Peter's Basilica looking back over St. Peter's Square.
St. Peter’s Square – as with so much in Rome, it’s just so very impressive.  We’ve visited a lot of plazas since we moved to Europe, but never one like this.  It is huge – simply gigantic.  Ringed with massive Tuscan colonnades four columns deep, it’s intended to give you the feeling of being embraced by “the maternal arms of Mother Church.”  It certainly does, despite its grand size.  

Imposing looking statues tower overhead in every direction you turn,

from high above the colonnades, 

and decorating the top of the great Basilica.  

I’ve seen photos of the Pope standing on the balcony high up on the front of St. Peter’s Basilica addressing the people.  Now I've seen it in person and it's tiny in comparison to the grandeur that surrounds you in St. Peter's Square.  There is a simple small stage set up on the stairs leading to the Basilica, and rows and rows of empty chairs in a cordoned off area.  Tomorrow morning, as he does every Wednesday when he is in residence here in Vatican City, the Pope will be addressing a huge crowd in this Square, bestowing the Papal Blessing or Apostolic Blessing on those who have made the pilgrimage here.  It’s tempting to come back tomorrow to see the Pope. 

Our first stop would be St. Peter’s Basilica and as we had anticipated, the line to get in is long, so long that you probably wouldn’t believe me unless you’ve seen it yourself.   Below, you can see the long line of people spreading out before us - this is only half the line of people waiting to get into St. Peter's, and the photo was taken after we had been standing in line for several minutes. 

The curvature of the great colonnades that outline St. Peter’s Square lends itself perfectly to maintaining an orderliness to this crazy long line.  

Patiently we waited.  It took exactly an hour for us to reach the front of the line and that hour went by fast despite what you may think.  The weather was gorgeous, as were the surroundings.  There is just so much to look at in this great Square.  And what great people watching.  You can image the diversity that Vatican City draws.    

I can’t say there is one most impressive feature of St. Peter’s Basilica because it’s impressive in its entirety, being one of the two largest churches in the world.  Its nave is the length of two football fields and can hold 60,000 standing worshipers.   

Its marble floor is impressive.  

Its walls are impressive.   It’s ceiling and many domes, the largest of which was designed by Michelangelo, are impressive. 

It’s artwork is impressive, containing many sculptures by well-known artists, maybe the most famous being Michelangelo’s Pieta, which depicts the body of Jesus laying on his mother Mary’s lap following his crucifixion.  This great sculpture has stood behind bulletproof glass since 1972 when it was attacked by a mentally disturbed person wielding a hammer.  

And then there is St. Peter’s baldachin, the bronze canopy that stands over the high altar in the picture below.  Directly below this grand structure is said to be the tomb of St. Peter himself, one of the Apostles of Jesus Christ.  Wow!

After visiting St. Peter’s Basilica, we found our way to the entrance of the Vatican Museums where the immense collection of art the Popes have assembled over the centuries is on display.  Many of the rooms inside this busy Museum are pieces of artwork themselves, the last room you visit being by far the most famous, the Sistine Chapel.  We’ll get to that in a moment.  But before I go any further, I need to explain that we only have this one photo below to share with you of the Museum, a piece of a beautiful mosaic floor.   

This wasn’t your typical art museum with huge cavernous rooms.  The Vatican Museum feels more like a maze that you are trying to find your way out of with the last clue being the Sistine Chapel.  It's a hodge podge of different rooms of different sizes with some courtyards thrown in here and there.   And it was very, very busy.  It was hard to take pictures.  As we got deeper and deeper into the Museum following the arrows pointing the way, we found ourselves in a rapidly growing river of people, a swiftly moving river I might add.  You see, everyone had the same destination in mind and this was the only route through the Museum that would get you there – the Sistine Chapel. 

By the time we reached my favorite room in the Museum, the Gallery of Maps which is a very long and narrow room (120 meters longs - that's longer than the length of a football field) and where the walls are covered in beautifully hand-painted blue and green topographical maps showing the regions of Italy (painted in the early 1580s by Danti), the current of moving people was so thick and strong it was hard to stop.  Eric and I each had a good grasp on one of the girls so as not to get separated.  Sadly, it was almost impossible to take a photo.  We literally had to go with the flow and soon we were on a narrow staircase heading down, at the bottom of which we stepped through a small doorway and found ourselves gazing out over the room that is the Sistine ChapelThe large rectangular room is decorated from floor to ceiling with paintings of biblical scenes, almost as if it’s a huge picture book of the Bible.  While there is an altar at the front, it was almost lost to me amongst everything that was going on in this room.  The paintings are amazing and overwhelming at the same time.  The ceiling, painted by Michelangelo some 500 years ago, is a series of pictures from the Book of Genesis.  Behind the altar, the entire wall it taken up by Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment which depicts the second coming of Christ, the fate of people being decided by the hand of God.  And the crowd – the entire floor was covered with people gazing in all directions.  It was loud despite repeated attempts by the guards in the room to maintain the quiet that is expected of visitors to chapels and churches.  “Quiet please.  No photos.  No videos.”  When I think of the Sistine Chapel now, I hear the voice of the guard that repeated this phrase over and over and over again.   

Despite all the distractions, it’s a magnificent place.  As I stood trying to shut out the noise and commotion around me, I thought of the cardinals meeting here in the Sistine Chapel to choose the next Pope, the color of the smoke rising from this very room indicating to the world that is watching outside that a new Pope has been chosen.   I know that without all the guards, tourists (like me) standing shoulder to shoulder and constantly shuffling in and out, and the noise, this would feel like a completely different place, and where better to hold the papal election. 

As we left the Museum and Vatican City, I couldn't help but to keep glancing back over my shoulder at St. Peter's Basilica.  

We headed across a bridge adorned in statues (the Romans know how to make fancy bridges too) with the imposing structure of Castel Sant'Angelo looming over us in the background.  The clouds moving across the sky above this gigantic structure made it seem as if the Castel was moving, like a massive ship that was bearing down on us.   Castel Sant'Angelo is now a museum but has served many different purposes over Rome's long history.  It was originally commissioned by the Emperor Hadrian some 2000 years ago as a mausoleum for him and his family, but it's also served as a military and papal fortress, residence and prison.  We did not go inside but if we ever return to Rome, this incredible structure will probably be on the agenda.

Next stop - the gelato shop.  What?  No pictures?  No, we have no pictures of this gelato experience.  Maybe by the third day in a row  of enjoying the yummy treat, taking pictures of it was getting kind of old.  Or maybe it's because this gelato experience didn’t start off so good.  The girls wanted cones, so even though it was against my better judgment as a mom, we let them get one.  When in Rome, right?  (Ha, ha, ha - I cannot tell you how many times we said that while actually being in Rome and we all giggled every time.)  Need I say what happened the moment we stepped out the door.  Back into the gelato shop we went with a now empty cone to buy another, but when the lady behind the counter saw the empty cone and the tears streaming down one little girl’s face, she quickly grabbed it from Eric, piled it even higher with strawberry gelato and swooshed us out the door, refusing to take our money.  We would experience kindness like this over and over while visiting this beautiful country.  

Dinner on our little terrace at the hotel on our last evening in Rome - I have to share this with you because it was one of my favorite.  A quick stop at the little grocery store down the street and we emerged with the most delicious and simple meal:  handmade ravioli topped with fresh pesto (that I could have just eaten straight out of the little container with a spoon - oh wait, I did!), a wonderfully fresh salad mixed with soft, creamy cheese and a simple dressing of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, bread with prosciutto, olives and wine.  Mmmmmm - so easy and so amazingly good!

After dinner, we took one more walk around Rome.  We headed up the street from our hotel towards the bell tower we had been looking at from a distance for the past three days but never actually passed.  I can't remember which church this was, but it was just as stunning as the rest of the churches in Rome (and there are a lot).  The inside was closed up for the night, but the girls had fun running around in the plaza outside the church.  And Eric had fun photographing them too.  

In the end, Rome was even more extraordinary than I had expected it to be, and I had high expectations before visiting here.  Everything from the remains of the Roman Empire dating back 2000 years ago to the modern day architecture is just so over the top impressive it's hard to put into words.  And with this beautiful golden city set in the Mediterranean landscape as the backdrop - well, I hope the pictures and my descriptions have done it justice.  If given the chance, we would visit again in a heartbeat because there is so much we didn't get a chance to see during our three day visit.   Rome - hopefully we will meet again.


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