Monday, November 23, 2009

Roman Holiday, Part 3 - I Love You, Colosseo!

When last I left off, I had gone to bed after my first day in Rome, eager for my next full day in the city and also a bit nervous about the not-so-good weather forecast I was facing. I was holding out hope that weather forecasters would be as clueless in Europe as they sometimes are in the States. I woke up at 7am and looked out my hotel window to witness a terrific lightning storm. My heart sank a little because I knew the rain was coming, but it was still pretty cool how the lightning was lighting up the clouds. I took a shower and got my things in order for my day. I figured even if it was raining I could still take a trip to the Colosseo, since there are things to see inside where it wouldn't be raining. I also had the Vatican Museums scheduled at noon and it wouldn't matter what the weather was like while I was inside either. I DID have several other outdoor locations on my list for the day, but we'd cross that ponte when we came to it.

In the meantime, as the lightning brought thunder and the thunder brought rain, I spent some time watching CNN International and doing word searches. I love word searches! Crosswords make me feel a bit intellectually insecure, and Sudoku gives me a headache if I'm trying anything more complicated than beginner level, but I always love a good word search. I picked up a book of "Superb Word-Find Puzzles" which featured 123 Word Find Puzzles before I left NYC in case I needed something on the plane or to occupy down time in my room. This was just such a time. There were a lot of fun categories like Long Running TV Shows and Types of Cookies. My favorite was a word find involving important characters from the comic strip For Better Or For Worse which I used to love reading in Newsday when I was a kid. So I did several word searches and that killed an hour or two as it rained outside.

And then, around 9am, something interesting happened. The rain stopped. I went to my window to assess the sky and there was actually a break in the clouds. And there was bright blue sky within that break! I was going to get a window of sunshine just as the Colosseo was opening! Now, if there had been a doubt up until this point that my mom was watching over me during this trip, we can pretty much put that doubt to rest from here until the end of my trip. My good luck up until this point only improves from here on out. I grabbed my stuff and headed outside. My plan at this point was to go to the Colosseo for an hour or so, go get some pastry for breakfast after that at a cafe recommended in my travel guide and then take the metro over to Vatican City.

The clouds continued to dissipate as I got to the Colosseo gates. most of the tour groups don't assemble outside until 10am, so I didn't have to wait at all and went right in. I race up the stairs to get to the first viewing location inside the Colosseo. I walk out into the arena, and to me, it's just beautiful. There was something about the stone having the feel of the just ended rain, and there only being a dozen or so other people walking around, but I just had the best experience staring down at the exposed passageways that exist under the arena floor. I felt very connected to... something. I don't even know what it was. History? That sounds so lame. There were several things I experienced in Rome that I really responded to on a deep level and the Colosseo was probably the strongest of those connections. I took time to walk around and take lots of pictures and admired the views, before going inside the museum sections and reading about the history of the Colosseo and all the statues and artifacts that are housed there. I was like a pig in mud. I was so excited to be there. i went back into the arena and the sky looked better and better. There were still huge clouds in the sky, but they weren't rain clouds. It was gonna be a good weather day after all! The only down side to this was that the rainy weather clothes I had picked out for today were once again gonna be too warm for me. Luckily my backpack was almost completely empty so I quickly shoved my coat in there.

Having enjoyed the Colosseo so much, I knew I was gonna have to get a memento in the gift shop. There were many options, books, models, roman soldier helmets, action figure sets (tempting) but I ultimately settled on a smallish-sized snow globe with the Colosseo inside. I tried to pay for it with my Visa card but apparently I was supposed to tell the credit card company I was planning to go abroad, and failing to do so my CC was put on hold. Perhaps if they had looked at my other charges leading up to the trip, they'd have noticed I kept purchasing Rome-related things? For my trip to ROME? But whatever. Suffice to say visa was not everywhere I wanted to be. Amex would have to get my business this weekend. Sucks for you, Visa! But in the case of the Colosseo snow globe, I actually wound up just paying cash.

I walked around the Colosseo again, getting as high and as low as I could. I wanted to make sure I got to walk around everywhere I could. By this time the tours started to come through and things were getting more crowded, so it was time to say ciao to the Colosseo and get some breakfast. I was sad to go, but I'd seen what there was to be seen and I could walk by it as many times as I went back and forth from my hotel. I decided to grab breakfast at the Bottega Del Caffe which my guide book told me was on Via Cavor not far from the Colosseo. I couldn't find it though. I walked and walked done Via Cavour and it was just not there. Or at least it didn't have a big sign outside that I could see. And I was so hungry!! I passed several other snack bar options but they were not what I was looking for. I wanted a nice cafe with pastries where I could sit outside. Was this so much to ask? I wound up walking all the way to the next metro stop which is called Cavour (for obvious reasons). I figured since I was at the metro I should just go up to Vatican City now and find a place to get food outside the Museums. I'd gone so far uphill that I actually had to walk down a long flight of stairs to get to the tunnel entrance to the metro below. And what was right outside the metro entrance? A lovely cafe with pastries and drinks and outdoor eating area just like I'd wanted! Oh, good fortune smiles again.

I got myself a delicious chocolate croissant and plopped down at a table for a little bit. The croissant was the only thing I bought during my entire time in Rome whose price wasn't an even euro or end with a .50 cent piece. I almost wasn't sure if they had other change in the money system until i got a 20 cent coin as change. But once I got my fill of the cafe experience, it was into the metro and off to Vatican City. I very much liked the metro system in Rome, though I used it only one a day and walked the rest of the time. There are only 2 lines and they crisscross each other like an X across the city so it's almost impossible to get confused as to where you're heading. I went from the B Line to the A Line and then got out at the Ottaviano stop to walk a few blocks to the Vatican Museums. (Note: There are plans to make a C line through Ancient Rome but during the construction they have encountered new previously unknown ancient stuff and have had to halt development until they can figure out what it is that's down there!).

The streets were getting super crowded as I got up to the outer walls of the Vatican. The day got even warmer and sunnier as I made my way closer (oh look! A gypsy with NO ARMS! He is summarily ignored by everyone else.) and I was thinking I might have to ditch my sweater, but that would leave me in only my t-shirt and I felt like I had to be more presentable at the Big V. The line to get into the Vatican for people with no pre-purchased tickets was ENORMOUS. I couldn't believe how far it stretched by late morning when i got there. Luckily, I had bought my ticket online earlier in the week. Why more people don't do this, I don't know. Maybe they aren't aware it's an option? Please, if you go to Vatican City, do yourselves a favor and buy your admission ticket online beforehand. I must have saved myself two hours of waiting by circumventing the non-ticket holders line and going right in with the tour groups and ticket holders.

After you get inside there's this giant spirally staircase or escalators that take you up to the museums. I was the only one to walk up the spiral path. Seriously EVERYONE else took the escalators. Their loss. That spiral walkway was cool. Once you get up top, you can rent one of those little individual radios for a walking tour. I recommend doing that. It's a good way of figuring out what your favorite pieces are but you don't have to join an actual tour with a bunch of people you don't know with a guide who may or may not know what the hell they're talking about. Plus it really isn't that expensive and the information it provides is both thorough and interesting. Vatican Museums were... just OKAY for me. It seems blasphemous to say that, not just because it's the Vatican, but because the artistic riches within it's walls are just astounding. It's an embarrassment of riches, one might say. And that's part of the problem. It's a little embarrassing. The Catholic Rebelliousness kicks in , and my brain starts wondering if all this is right. It's not just amazing religious artifacts and masterpieces that they hold, but tons of Greek sculpture, Egyptian art and artifacts, and much much much more from civilizations throughout the world. I spent hours looking it over and could've spent days more - and that's just the stuff they happen to have on display. That doesn't even scratch the surface of all that's stored deep inside that compound. But does much of it really BELONG there? The audio guide made it seem like the Popes throughout the centuries just had these things "brought back" to the Vatican once they were discovered. What I can't help but say to myself in my head is, "you mean they just took it." Who knows if these artifacts would have survived in their original locations in different countries, but it's hard to escape the fact that Popes really hoarded this stuff. It's just a little weird to me. But the beauty cannot be denied and it's easy to get swept up in it. There's a real mummy in the Egyptian rooms that's all sorts of awesome. It's easy to miss the Egyptian wing as you press on toward The Sistine Chapel, but it's worth a diversion. One word of note: don't completely exit the Egyptian section anywhere other than from where you initially got in, one exist leaves you almost back at the starting point, and they won't let you back in, and you'll want to kick yourself for having to walk through some of those early rooms for a second time, especially if it's really really crowded while you're there (which it most likely will be).

My time in the Raphael rooms, made me realize I'm not really a huge fresco fan, either. The eyes in the paintings scare me and the faces always seem to express anger or confusion. They are not my thing. For that reason, the Sistine Chapel was a little anti-climactic for me. It's one of those things that I'm glad I can say I saw with my own two eyes, but it was not even in the top 5 works of art I saw throughout my trip that I responded to most viscerally. In fact, the art hanging in the Pinacoteca was really the highlight for me during my time in the Vatican Museums. Works like Rafael's Transfiguration and Caravaggio's Deposition just got me from head down to my heart, to my stomach and to my balls. They had power that just jumped off the wall and almost body slam you. I loved that wing of the museum.

After I was done touring around the museums, I decided to get some lunch, since I was starving and had not had a substantive meal. The Vatican Museums had a very lovely cafeteria where I got probably the best slice of pizza I'd have my whole trip - no kidding. It was topped with sausage and artichoke and it was fantastic. I was not expecting such a treat from the cafeteria, especially at a reasonable price. Had they promoted it as "The Holy Pizza of God" I would not have been able to argue much against the marketing.

Exiting the Museums, you encounter another steep spiral walkway, but going down was much more harrowing than going up. There are signs of caution all over the place. I already have a weird fascination with throwing myself down the stairs (I don't have a death wish, or an injury wish, tumbling down Jack and Jill style honestly just seems faster and more effortless than walking) and the odd pull of the spiral was very hard to resist, but I made it all the way down without making a spectacle of myself. Bidding the Museums adieu, I stepped back out into the sun, stripped off the sweater for the rest of the now almost-too-hot afternoon weather and went off to explore the rest of Vatican City!

Next Time - Part 4: A trip through St. Peter's Basilica! Walking Forever! The Spanish Steps! The Pantheon! And much more gelato!

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