Monday, June 24, 2013

Vatican Museum and St Peter's Basilica - Rome Italy - Italy and France trip Day 4

Today we're spending most of our time at the smallest country in the world, the Vatican, population 770.

Here's all the places we went so you can follow along below.

Last night didn’t go exactly as planned. T still didn’t go to sleep for a while, and I was just about finished with my Angels & Demons book. I finished it and turned the lights out at 4:50am. Tomorrow morning is going to come quick.

Theresa shook me awake after the alarm went off at noon. We’re never going to be awake early enough for breakfast here. We got ready, had some fruit, then left for the Vatican. We had researched taking a bus, but T seems to be getting sick from them, so instead I convinced her to walk it. The walk wasn’t bad at all. Maybe a mile or so, and it was overcast, so we didn’t even get that hot. We walked along the river and crossed at a bridge to see the long road leading up to the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica.

Along the river were fun art and book stands.

We could have done a bicycle tour?!?

Our reservation was for 2:30pm for the museum, so we stopped at a total tourist trap for lunch. I wasn't impressed with their offerings, but they had what Theresa was feeling like, so that’s where we ate. I got hot dogs (2 links with no buns) and a small plate of fries for 10 Euro. Theresa got a plate of cold pasta salad for 12 Euro then two tiny pieces of salmon with no sides for 15 Euro. Add a 1 Euro table fee and our quick lunch stop was 38 Euro! She's an expensive date!

After lunch, we continued around the walls of the Vatican to the entrance. It was really busy and crowded with lots of people selling things on the sidewalk. Yes, it’s illegal here so everyone has their items on a small bed sheet. If they see a policeman coming, they grab the corners and start walking the other way. It was interesting to see a policeman walk by because one vendor starts wrapping everything up, and the rest follow. But as soon as the policeman passes, right behind their backs, sometime just 20 feet away, they are setting up shop again.

The other thing people were hawking was guided tours of the Vatican. We got stuck at a crosswalk and heard someone’s entire spiel about super long lines, needing to buy tickets too, secret entrances, and more. We already made reservations online and get to use the same line as them, so we weren’t too interested.

Arriving at the museum entrance, there were two lines open. One for people waiting for regular tickets (which was really long and stretched a few hundred yards), the other for group reservations. There was a third line that was closed off for individuals who made reservations online, but we were able to go in the group reservation line and save quite a bit of time. Actually there wasn’t anyone checking to make sure you were with a group or had online reservations, and anyone could have just walked in that shorter line with a tour group.

We got through security and picked up our online tickets without any problems. I jumped in the line to get an audio guide (7 Euro here), and we continued into the first courtyard. There wasn’t much written about the courtyard and the audio guide didn’t say anything, so we spent a few minutes orienting ourselves to the map, then continued.

The first hall we saw had a bunch of marble busts. I don’t remember anything particularly remarkable about them. One thing we did notice though was that it was really starting to feel crowded.

The windows were open and we had a good view into the city.

This was a giant bath carved from a single piece of stone that was used by Emperor Nero. The floor also had an interesting mosaic.

Surrounding the room were statues of various gods and heroes.

Including my favorite, Heracles.

We continued through an Egyptian section, seeing various sarcophagus and temple decorations.

Some interesting statues here.

In the back of this next room is a copy of the greek discus thrower.

At this point, we were really feeling like cattle. Everyone is just shuffling along and no one can really stop to look at anything because they’d cause a traffic jam behind them. Think the section of Adventureland at Disneyland but much much worse. T likened it to being at Disney World on New Years Eve. This part of the museum was not enjoyable. Even worse was when the entire hall funneled down into two small doors that people had to squeeze through.

The map room.

Like everyone else, we came to a halt while we waited to get inside the Sistene chapel.

Looking out the window towards the basilica dome.

After 15 minutes or so, we were at the bottom of the staircase and ready to enter the chapel, both dressed appropriately of course. No short shorts or bare shoulders here. Photos and video are specifically forbidden inside here, so I didn’t take any. They actually had guards walking up and down the chapel, winding in and out of people trying to stop them. Of course they didn’t catch everyone. I remember seeing a guy with his ipad at waist level just pointing it up and all around, while the glow of the screen on his shirt totally gave away what he was doing. None of these photos inside the chapel are mine.

As we entered, we hugged the left wall and as luck would have it, someone got up from a bench just as we got there. There was only enough room for Theresa though, so she sat while I prepared our Rick Steves’ audio guide. After 5-10 minutes or so, one of the groups beside T stood up and I had a place to sit. We listened to the full thirty minute guide to the room and learned lots of interesting things, like Michelangelo didn’t really want to work on the chapel, but was finally convinced by the pope. Other artists did the lower section of the walls before Michelangelo started. It took him 3 years on a 6 story structure to paint the ceiling, and he wasn’t lying on his back, he was standing up. He painted on wet plaster, so the paints would be affixed inside the plaster and not just on top. If he worked a section and didn’t like it, his assistants would scrape it off and he’d start again. 

The ceiling tells of the creation of man and leads up to the flood.  From the left to the right, we see in panel 1, Separating the light from the darkness, Creation of Sun Moon Stars, Separation of Land and Water, and the Creation of Adam.

The creation of Adam is the centerpiece of the ceiling.

Continuing across the ceiling is the Creation of Eve, Temptation and Expulsion from the Garden, Sacrifice of Noah, The Great Flood, Drunkenness of Noah. Kind of a strange way to end the ceiling with Noah being drunk.

The huge image behind the altar was also painted by Michelangelo, but it was done 30 years later when he was in his 60s. I can’t imagine someone from the 1500s in their 60s climbing a 6 story wooden structure and taking on a project like this. Also we learned that in order to paint this massive wall, they destroyed the symmetry of the original chapel. Before, there were windows on all four walls of the chapel. You can see them on the wall opposite the altar in a photo above. You can see the windows, though they’ve been covered. On the altar side though, they’re completely bricked up and plastered over, to create the huge smooth surface for this masterpiece.

We heard all sort of interesting points about the giant painting. Christ is at the top at the last judgement. Those on his right are ascending to heaven. At the bottom, the dead in Christ are rising up, though some angels are having to wrestle with underground monsters to get their bodies. Also included are various saints, who bear marks on their body from how they were killed. On Christ’s left though is much more drama. These are the people being cast into Hell. Christ has his right arm raised in a threatening way, and the people are cowering in fear. Demons are dragging people down to a fiery pit, and Chiron (from greek mythology) is ferrying people to Hades.

After listening to the Rick Steves’ guide, we then listened to the Vatican audio guide. Since we’ve got a nice comfortable seat, we might as well, right? In all, we probably spent about an hour or so inside the Sistene chapel, and it was very enjoyable. On the way out, we saw a couple people who were caught taking pictures inside. They actually have a section roped off just for them, where they go stand beside one of the guards who then leads them outside. I’ve heard they take your phone/camera and delete the photos from it and you’re done with the tour. They seem to take this pretty seriously. The only person I did see get away with it even after they were caught was an older Asian man who the guard saw taking photos, but the tour guide saw as well. She caught up with the guy before the guard could and told him to put it away. I guess the guided tour groups might get a little more leeway, but not much.

Here's what the chapel looks like from the outside.

The rest of the exhibits after the chapel were just a blur. They weren’t crowded at all, but having seen the chapel, we weren’t interested in much more. There was a giant tribal headdress.

So you've got to pose in front of it.

Exiting the museum there was a cool staircase, which looks awesome from the top.

And even better from the bottom.

Even though it was a zoo, it was a fun time at the museum. We've got to get over to St Peter's Basilica pretty quick before it closes. We spent a lot more time here than we were planning inside the Sistine chapel.

My friend Amanda from work spent a semester in Rome said the best gelato ever can be found here at the Old Bridge Gelateria. Unfortunately, we're late for St Peters and there's a line here (so it must be good). We'll have to pass on it this time.

In the square, we were greeted by a ton of chairs, and the whole center is blocked off. Guess I won't be able to make my way to the obelisk at the center and find the 2nd clue leading to the path of Illumination from the Dan Brown book Angels & Demons.

Our first stop of course was "security". The line wasn’t too bad, only 10 minutes or so, but of course there were still people who felt they needed to cut the line and walk right up in front of everyone. No problems getting through security because they were looking more at people instead of the xray screens.

Posing in front of the largest church in the world.

A giant sea of chairs.

After a quick look-over by the guys in front making sure we weren’t wearing shorts, short skirts or bared shoulders, we were at the entrance. We fired up the Rick Steves audio guide, pulled out our headphones and the splitter and walked inside.

These bronze doors are huge!

The Pieta. This statue has always impressed me. The pose, the detail, everything just wows me. I had just seen a copy at Forest Lawn 8 days ago, but this one combined with the setting just overwhelms you.

This place is massive! The largest church in the entire world. They even have lines on the floor showing other large churches and where they’d measure up in relation to St. Peters.

We marveled at the statues lining the long hallway leading up to the altar. We admired the 7 story altar piece designed by Michelangelo and listened how he even designed the basilica.
The last time we were here, I remember being able to walk all the way up to the altar piece. Today though, we are stopped behind the statue of St Peter, and can’t even touch his toe. We’re also blocked from the North section.

Like the bronze gilding the altar piece? The Pantheon ceiling was previously covered with bronze, but in the 1600s, Pope Urban VIII took it and used it for the altar piece.

Here's a 360 view of the main altar area.

After being an accomplished sculptor and painter, Michelangelo even became an architect. Wow! He only had a few requests when asked to re-design the dome in 1547. First that he wasn’t paid, second that he’d get a bunch of laborers to do the work so he could see most of it finished in his lifetime, and third that the church would keep his original design. His design was a greek cross, with four equal arms leading from the center. The very center would be the burial place of St. Peter and to the left of it would be where St. Peter was crucified. Four equal sections such that if you drew a perfect circle around the church, it would touch all four sides. But after his death, the church decided they wanted a more traditional cross and doubled the nave side, effectively doubling the capacity of the church to 60,000 standing members.

Here's a 360 view of the nave.

We took a few pictures near the entrance and then were told they were closing.

Can't forget the baby in these photos.

Just as we exited, they shut the main entrance gate.

Outside we saw the Swiss Guards, who’s uniforms were also designed by Michelangelo (not his best work).

We passed in front of the Castle of the Angels, featured in Angels & Demons, but more famous for being the burial site of the roman emperor Hadrian. We didn't get to go inside
Here we saw a policeman who was actually chasing after some of the sidewalk vendors. There was one vendor who was in the middle of a transaction with a customer who was really lagging behind. The customer had received his item but was fumbling with his money. The vendor was torn between waiting for the money and booking it with the rest of the vendors from the policeman. Eventually he chose the later. We couldn’t see if anyone got caught.

Another over mile long walk back to the hotel where we hung out until 8:30pm then went out to dinner.

We asked the front desk if there was a place close that served lasagna. We’re still looking for that perfect lasagna we had when we were here 6 years ago. They recommended a place a little off the beaten path near the Pantheon, and called ahead to the restaurant to make sure they were serving it tonight. We arrived and when we placed our order, the waiter asked if we had come from the Hotel Nazionale. We said yes, and he flipped his pad to a new page and wrote something else down. I wonder if they give commissions to places who recommend them.

Theresa ordered bruschetta and lasagna, while I got a balsamic filet and potatoes. The bruschetta had tomatoes that were too green, but I tried a few bites anyway. I guess I don’t mind tomatoes so much anymore. They did bring out balsamic with the bruschetta, which made the bread basket they brought so much better. When I was asked how I liked my steak, I said “Rare”. The waiter replied “Red?” Sure, red sounds good to me. And when it did come, it was exactly how I like it. Barely brown on the outside, and red almost the entire way though. Theresa didn’t enjoy the lasagna though. It was entirely too cheesy and tomatoey for her liking. She ended up scraping off half the good stuff and just eating the pasta with the barest amount of sauce. Dinner was pretty good tonight for me though.

On the way back, we swung by the Pantheon. It’s great being so close to all these cool sites.

We got a few nighttime shots of it, plus a couple of us together.

The Gelatari is on the way home, so you know we’re going to stop.

The guys here have really got their craft down. Once they scoop gelato or whipped cream, they sling the scoop back into the ice cream. Here he's tossing the whipped cream scoop into the bowl from a few feet away.

Getting my tasty cone.

Theresa didn’t get anything, and I just got a small chocolate and caramel.

Back up at the hotel we chilled for a while and got to bed by 1am. Here's the view looking out our window to the square in front of Parliament.

We’re really going to try hard to get up early tomorrow to see the Coliseum and a few other places. Let's see what happens.

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