Thursday, June 9, 2011


The Vatican

Our morning began early and bright with absolutely beautiful weather, a welcome lucky sign of the fate of our day at the Vatican. After packing our bags with leftovers from last night's meal of cold fresh salami, prosciutto and cheese, we began our first official Roman journey. Fortunately, our accommodations are located in a perfect location near Piazza Navona, and we made our way down the hectic, frenzied causeway that is Corso Vittorio Emmanuele. Dodging impatient Vespas and attempting to avoid being mesmerized by the circus of traffic, we crossed the glittering Tiber, admiring the rotund profile of Castel Sant'Angelo, and wondered where exactly the Pope's secret passage might run beneath the cobblestones.
It is a vain endeavor to keep your heart from momentarily ceasing to beat as you first lay your eyes on St. Peter's Basilica, framed by the Via della Conciliazione. The power and depth that emanate from the place even at a distance is simply palpable. We soaked in the majesty of St. Peter's square while sharing our picnic meal, often joined by uninvited hungry pigeons. Upon finishing our meal and absorbing the square a bit more, we crossed its expanse and passed beneath the arches of Rome's city wall. Hugging the massive stone barrier which marks Vatican City, we soon found ourselves faced with a massive line of people which snaked along the wall as far as could be seen. Thankfully, we soon determined that these unfortunate souls had neglected to reserve their tickets in advance. We passed each of the hundreds of sweaty tourists feeling both pity and a sense of great relief. Best €4 ever spent.
We ducked into the modern marbled entry hall, endured security for the first time that day, then picked up our tickets, and waited with the mob of fellow visitors to have those tickets checked and to ride the escalator to the top floor.

The Vatican Museum is not the Louvre, though at times it can be equally as confusing. That said, it is a truly astounding collection. With a vast display of ancient Greek sculpture, sizable rooms filled with ancient Babylonian and Egyptian artifacts, an underappreciated Etruscan/Iron Age exhibit, as well as animal marble sculpture, tapestries, and classical paintings. I cannot even begin to describe the process of the three hours we spent there, though it did involve becoming dehydrated, becoming desperately lost in an attempt to find a drinking fountain and restroom, walking the wrong way for nearly fifteen minutes before being forced to return the way we came. While suffering the heat with long pants (due to the dress code inside St. Peter's) we braved the constant jostling of other visistors and literal crush of tour groups. At long last, (oh how long that last was), we stepped into the dim high chamber, the Sistine Chapel. The crowds fade as one stares skyward, mouth open, at the sheer awesomeness of this room. Every wall, surface, niche and curve of this room brims with the touch of the great master. The room hums with the voices of a hundred occupants, their conversations and photography hardly discouraged by the attempts of security to both quiet the mass and keep their cameras off.
After tearing ourselves from the masterful grasp of Michelangelo, we made our long return trip through the Vatican Museum and along the wall, back to St. Peter's square. Following a short break, we endured our final line for security and ascended the steps to the basilica.

For three years, words have escaped me as I have made vain attempts to describe the pure majesty of St. Peter's Basilica. 'Awesome' is an overused word in our society today. But truly, returning to the true meaning of the word, the Basilica fills you with nothing but all-encompassing awe. As you step through the heavy wooden doors and into the rush of cool air, as your foot strikes the marble floor for the first time and your eyes focus on the monolithic expanse before you, you realize that you are in a place of utmost holiness. The seven foot glittering gold band recites Jesus' words to Peter while sheer marble faces plunge one hundred feet to the floor. Above, shafts of sunlight pierce the calm air, illuminating both the ring of windows at the base of the main dome and the angels who perch atop Bernini's bronze altarpiece, which seems to soar nearly as high as the ceiling itself. Monolithic marble depictions of biblical figures stand in niches beside 10 feet wide mosaics. Gold glimmers upon arches and veins of marble seem to give power and strength to the walls which they form. And shining like a beacon of spirituality the world over, the golden beams of gilded bronze frame the glowing stained glass figure of a dove, a symbol of hope at the center of the blazing sunburst. This is St. Peter's basilica. The largest church in Christendom, the truest demonstration of human capability, fueled by the hand of God.

The view from the top of St. Peter's basilica is nearly as striking as its interior. Though the climb to the top, conquering hundreds of steps along the way, is nearly hellish, the panoramic view of the eternal city lets one gain a firm grasp on its richness. Sprawling before you are numerous sights which are not only beloved by the world, but immersed in centuries of history.

We returned the way we had come, exhausted beyond measure but full to the brim of awe and wonder. After a short rest, we made the short walk to the Pantheon. The seagulls and swallows swarmed the sky above the square, while pigeons remained earthbound in hope of forgotten morsels. We were fortunate enough to enjoy a candle lit dinner at the back of the square, facing the converted pagan temple, contemplating on the Latin words inscribed in its stone face. Soon the umbrellas came up and waiters scrambled to keep their customers dry as our perfect weather of the day was traded for slight rain. This change did not bother us as we picked up our second gelato on the way back home. Pistachio gelato was interesting.

It is incredible what one can experience in a single day. And this is the first of 30.

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