Monday, November 30, 2009

Roman Holiday - Part Four, The Truth Behind The 39 Steps and More

I promise to finish the story of my 4-day trip to Rome by the end of the year. That's my goal!

Okay, so last time I checked in I had left the Vatican Museums and was making my way to Piazza San Pietro. On my way there I note that the clouds are coming in strong again. They are not storm clouds though. They are huge fluffy clouds. And they seem to be hella low in the sky. What is going on with these Italian clouds? They look like you could just reach out of the sky and grab them. Are we at a higher altitude than in New York? It doesn't feel like the air is thinner. Hmm.

Anyway Piazza San Pietro is beautiful and very crowded. When I arrive there is this really long line and I can't immediately tell to where it is leading. I then realize this is the line to get into St. Peter's Basilica. It's so long! It's stretching around the outer ring of the piazza! There's a moment when I'm entering the Piazza when I can cut most of the line and no one would notice. It's just little old me. Nobody would notice this one extra body in a sea of walking tours. But then maybe God would be angry with me for cutting the line to get into these religious locations? I mean, especially in the face of all the lucky breaks I've been catching at every turn on this trip. I decided to be good and go to the end of the line after taking a walk around the inside of the Piazza. There's an amazing amount to take in all around you. Beautiful fountains and statues abound. There was a huge area in front of the entrance to the Basilica that was set up for what I'm assuming would be a giant outdoor service on Sunday. It was all quite lovely, and I take a moment to appreciate how lucky I am to be able to make this trip and take all of it in.

Then I got on line to get into the Basilica. Aaaaaand I waited. But even though the line was very long it moved along at a pretty brisk pace. Free admission will do that for you. Most people took the time on line to put on layers of clothing since you have to be all respectable-like heading into the Basilica. No bare shoulders or flip flops up in here!

The Basilica is gorgeous. Really a total marvel of architecture and art. I'm not an expert on either of things so I don't really know what to say except everywhere you look is something awe-inspiring and creepy-beautiful in that way that's right in Catholicism's wheelhouse. The Pieta is there too and it's cool, but it's behind glass and lots of people crowd around it and you can't really get a good picture of it without throwing a couple elbows and that just didn't seem like the spirit of the occasion to me. The thing I dug most about the Basilica was the ceiling which was beautiful and seemed to go on forever. On the way to the top your eye caught on all these magnificent statues of angels and saints carved into the columns and other other architectural aspects of the building I can't readily identify. But I wandered around in there for a while. Mostly, people tried to take pictures of everything they saw, running around the place like they were inside the Chocolate Room inside Willy Wonka's Factory. But there was this one area that was reserved specifically for prayer and you couldn't take any pictures or talk while you were there. I enjoyed sitting in the quiet for a moment and saying a prayer for mom. It was a really sweet moment.

Eventually I wandered my way back to the front of the Basilica, took a few more pictures and heading back down to Piazza San Pietro and then headed out of Vatican City. Right outside of the piazza is tons of tourist trappy places to eat. I wasn't super-hungry after the Papal Pizza, but I was needing a gelati fix and everywhere I passed was price gouging my delicious treat. I would wait for the right Gelati Shop to come my way. There were still some very important sites to see on the day's agenda - including the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon and they were not exactly just up the block from Vatican City, but I wanted to take in as much of the city as possible so I skipped the return trip on the subway and travelled on foot back toward Ancient Rome with the Spanish Steps as my next big landmark to visit.

I passed by the Castel Sant'Angelo on my way back to the Tiber River. This place is supposed to be important in the Dan Brown book Angels and Demons or The Celestine Prophecy or whatever it is he writes. I've never read his books. Gosh what's the name of the really popular book he wrote... i know I can think of it.,, Davinci Code! That's it! Go me. Anyway this castle plays some part in one of those books, and it was lovely to look at from the outside, I just wasn't in the mood to see more art at that point. I wanted to walk outside! What was interesting about walking by the castle was the guy I bumped into. He was French and lost, so of course he asks me for directions cause I totally looked like I knew where I was going right? Totally a man on a mission.

Anyway he comes up to me all:

Frenchie (thick accent): Scussi, blah-blah-blah-French-Words-I-Don't-Know.
Me: (in appropriated Italian accent) Parla inglese?
Frenchie: (in perfect English) You speak English
Me: (in total New Yorker drawl) Yeah.

He goes on to tell me he's lost and can't figure out where we are on the map. This is one of the few times where I actually DO know where we are because we were halfway between the Ponte Sant'Angelo and the Ponte Umberto. He was very pleased to get some course correction. Then he asked me how things were in America, if people were happy and if the economy was good. I wasn't entirely sure how to answer that question. I mean, "no" wouldn't have been an entirely off the mark response, but it seemed a little too general at the same time. We walked together to the next bridge (at which point he wound up at the embassy where he was to rendezvous with his wife, and I continued along the river until I got to Ponte Cavour which I thought was a fair crossing point to be close to the Spanish Steps. It was interesting talking to someone for more than a few sentences who was not a food service person. It had almost been a whole day since I really had a conversation with anybody who was not bringing me pizza, or wine or gelati.

So I thought once I got over Ponte Cavour it would be smooth sailing and I'd fine the Spanish Steps. Wrong! While trying to head North East, I totally overshot The Steps and walked way out of my way to Piazza Del Popolo. This was not a disappointment, because Piazza Del Popolo was totally cool. It was a giant open space with the requisite obelisk and fountain at the center, but there was also some kind of sports fitness expo going on in the Piazza that day. So there was a lot of hustle and bustle. In the NE corner of the Piazza you can start going up these stairs and find yourself on what turns into the Viale Gabriela D'Annunzio. And you can climb for awhile and see a great view of Rome. It wasn't the Spanish Steps I was looking for, but it was beautiful. I came back down again though, and walked back on the Via Del Baubino. After consulting my map many times, I believed if I walked south on this road long enough I would hit the Spanish Steps, which I should say that by this point I started to mentally refer to them as the 39 Steps. It's a Hitchcock thing. I took a few more exasperating wrong turns and could not believe how a giant staircase carved into the side of a big hill can be so hard to locate. But then I made one right turn and there it was! It was such a crowded area! Just like Trevi Fountain the night before! I can't tell you happy I was to make it to the 39 steps after so many walking detours all throughout Rome. The one thing I wanted to before I began my ascent up the 39 Steps was a nice big strawberry gelati. Yum yum yum! But as I looked around, I swear I could not find one gelati stand around me. Even at rip-off prices! I become convinced that I need the gelati to walk up the 39 Steps. This is how I always envisioned it! Sitting high up on the steps looking out toward the setting sun while eating ice cream!

So I walk down the street thinking I'll have to come across a snack bar eventually. But there's nothing. I'm walking down what I believe to be Via Dei Condotti, and it was all these high end clothing stores. No gelati whatsoever! I kept going further and further away. My panic and desperation grew. It had taken me so long to get to the 39 steps and now I was willfully removing myself from their vicinity. I kept casting nervous glances over my shoulder as if I would turn around and find it was no longer in view. Lost to me forever! Finally -FINALLY! - I found a snack bar with gelati. I walked for almost 10 minutes away from the steps though, I'm not joking. I got myself a heaping serving of strawberry gelati and hurried back in the direction of the steps. I was hurrying because I was afraid I would eat it before I got back to the steps, and the whole point of my gelati quest was to have it while I was ascending the steps! So finally I make it back there and start climbing. I mean, it's not like it's thousands of steps that stretch into the sky, but it's still a really cool location. Some people seem to like to hang out on the steps of the post office at 34th St and 8th Ave in NYC and of course the Gossip Girls like to sit on the steps of the Met, but this is much better than those places. I climb about 2/3's of the way up and sit myself down on some unoccupied step and enjoy the view and people watch. It dawns on me that I haven't seen a lot of people fighting or complaining while I've been in Rome. People seem to be either very chill, or happy or lovey dovey. The gypsies of course are all dramatically shameful, but outside of them, things are a lot less stressful than in NYC. What's there secret? Is it all the gelati that gets consumed? Perhaps that is the secret lesson of the 39 Steps. Eat your gelati, enjoy the view and don't freak out so much. Having gained newfound perspective on my life, I finish off my cone, complete my ascent to the top of the Steps. Another dream fulfilled!

Atop the Spanish Steps there is a church called the Trinita dei Monti. Oh, I loved this church! It's kinda small and unassuming and it's another one where they expressly tell you that you cannot take pictures inside. It's a shame though, because here I found my favorite painting from the whole trip. It's Domenico Corvi's painting of the Archangel St. Michael. I can't find a reproduction of it anywhere. If you find it. please let me know. I could stare at it forever. I'm not really sure why. [Note: I just looked online again and I found one image of it, but it's got a copyright logo over it! boo! I must track this person down and get an unmarked version of this image. It's really my favorite.] So I bask in the glory of the painting for a while. Sit in the pews and say another prayer, and then exit the church and go back to the 39 Steps.

I am very pleased that, despite my lack of navigational prowess I was able to find my way to the 39 Steps. It was a very fulfilling experience and it filled me with confidence that before the day was through, I'd be able to find that other very elusive Italian Icon: The Pantheon!

Coming Soon! - Part Five, The Pantheon, Dinnertime, And the end to Saturday! (Finally!)

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