It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s raining. No matter what way you cut it, it’s no fun being a tourist in the rain, especially when you realise just a few steps into your day that your boots are riddled with holes letting in icy cold water!
The situation was slightly improved by coffee and pastries at another great little bar just a few soggy steps from our front door but the warmth was short lived as we squelched our way back to the bus top tour route to use up the last of the time on our tickets before they expired. We sat inside with the rest of the passengers and alighted at the stop closest to The Mouth of Truth. After yesterday’s debacle, I decided I wasn’t going to give up and let Mum miss out. The gatekeeper was all smiles today but he found none reflected back on our faces! At the risk of sounding like a negative Nelly, I’m going to say that it was very disappointing. Not the Mouth itself but the rushed experience of it – once you reach the front of the queue, the world’s worst photographer commandeers your camera and proceeds to take ONE photo of you posed along side of it. No time for actually looking or interacting – just posing. I insisted he take three – none of which you’ll see here because they are so bloody awful! The only form of protest left to us was to not give them a donation before exiting through the adjoining church.
We waded to the next stop and waited an eon for the next bus. It’s fair to say that the only things damper than our jeans at this point were our spirits! Today, I am no longer a fan of the bus top tour and would not recommend it purely as a means of transport. Having said that, there’s not a great deal of public transport connecting the major sights in Rome and with the sudden disappearance of all Rome’s taxis and the lack of wherewithal to walk, we were at the mercy of the elusive tour bus! When it eventually turned up, we had just enough time left to get to our final major destination… The Vatican.
If we had another day up our sleeves, we would have cut our losses and headed home to wait out the weather. As it was, the curtain of torrential rain outside the bus door was almost enough to make us just write it off anyway but we sucked it up and pushed on. It’s not like it was a quick dash from door to door either – no, it was a good 15 minute walk from the bus stop, around the outer wall of Vatican City to the entrance of the Vatican Museum. The only mercy was that there was no queue for tickets as we’d been assured there would be by the host of unscrupulous hawkers along the route. Judging by the field of permanent barriers though, I think we were lucky in that regard.
That’s not to say we had the place to ourselves though. We entered looking like two drowned rats to find the the place absolutely teeming with people. We tried our best not to be swept along by the constant tide of tour groups but the undertow was too strong so we had little choice but to go with the flow. It was probably just as well or we would have been in there for days, weeks, months, even years taking in the intricate details of what must be the world’s most ostentatious and obscenely over the top collection of art and finery. If I thought the ceilings and frescoes at the Palace of Versailles was over the top, I hadn’t seen anything yet!!!
Hall after hall, gallery after gallery, castrated statue after castrated statue (seriously, all boy bits removed!), the stream of people seemed to flow almost with a sense of urgency to the most celebrated ceiling and fresco of all – that of the Sistine Chapel. The last time I was in Rome, I didn’t make it this far so I was as eager as anyone to lay eyes on Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam – perhaps the most iconic image from art history…ever!!! In light of that, I was shocked to enter the small chapel and find it so completely different to how I’d imagined it. More than that, I was shocked that I had to find it at all! I had imagined it was an imposing, solitary image on a vast white ceiling as opposed to the reality of it being merely one of many panels and not even the most dominant amongst them. After a game of ‘Where’s Wally/Adam?’, Mum spotted him with her shiny new eye and pointed it out to me. It was a thrill to see but I have to admit that it’s left me bewildered as to how and why that one panel has so transcended it’s surroundings, especially the far more grandiose The Last Judgement fresco covering the entire altar wall, to become one of the most reproduced and pastiched images in our collective history.
Despite the many signs forbidding photography, The Creation of Adam must be the most photographed piece in the entire Vatican. In the age of the iPhone and in a chapel packed like a tin of sardines, the guards tasked with enforcing the ban don’t stand a chance. I’d understand if it was no flash photography to prevent damage to the delicate work but it’s not. If it was a matter of respect, then surely the same rule would apply throughout the Vatican and it’s other Chapels but it doesn’t so I can only conclude it just about wanting to sell the image at any of the many kiosks throughout the Vatican rather than give it away for free. That being the case, I snapped away with everyone else with impunity!
Forgive me if I sound a tad cynical but as we left the Sistine Chapel and continued through the endless corridors of obscene wealth and opulence, I found myself feeling increasingly angry at the absolute hypocrisy of it all. Putting spiritual beliefs aside for the moment, it strikes me as utterly perverse for an organisation that claims to be the champion for the worlds most needy to be hoarding this much loot. If they’re waiting for a rainy day, they should look out their gilt (or is that guilt?) windows – it’s pouring … and I do mean metaphorically in terms of all those millions of people living in abject poverty around the globe. While ordinary Catholics are told by their leaders to sacrifice and suffer and that to do so is virtuous, I doubt that anyone at the top of the tree has gone without for a very long time. I know that I’m being overly simplistic and overlooking a great deal of good work that is being done but I’m sure if the Vatican was to have a garage sale to clear out a few of their dust collectors, they could do a lot more to practice what they preach.
Anyway, off my soapbox and back out into the rain. Mum and I started to paddle back around to St Peter’s Basilica, stopping midway to seek refuge in nearby restaurant for an unremarkable lunch. Further along our path however, my spirits really soared at the sight of a row of religious souvenir shops. I do love my religious kitsch – especially if it glows in the dark! Even as a child, I loved visiting the little shop after mass and lost many a nights sleep in fear of my best friends glow in the dark Mary statue (which I bought a replica of on my last trip to the Vatican!). Today I was quite restrained, preferring to photograph than purchase.
The rain was still beating down as we entered the forecourt of St Peters Basilica. Our hearts sank at the sight of the queue of umbrellas to enter the church. Mum was ready to throw in the towel so I’m afraid I had to go Holiday Bootcamp on her and insist that we join it just to see how fast it was moving. I honestly didn’t mind for myself, I’d been in there before but I just knew that Mum would regret it if she passed up this opportunity. She begrudgingly agreed and thankfully, the queue was very quick. We passed security but I wasn’t able to pass the souvenir shop without getting another glow in the dark statue for my collection!
We entered the Basilica through the front doors which seemed to loom ever larger the closer we got to them. The interior is just as expansive. We wandered around gawping at the scale of it all but before we could reach the altar, we found ourselves being swept back into the wings by officious men with barriers on wheels. It soon became apparent that they were clearing the way for a procession of men in pink dresses (and they still say ‘no’ to gay marriage!). Mum s
urmised that they must be visiting cardinals from around the world in town ahead of the conclave to decide the new Pope. They took their time strolling up one side then down the other and back around again. Behind them was a procession of diminishing religious ranks which eventually included some women and even some lay people who looked very proud of themselves. The barriers closed behind them and it was clear that whatever was going on, it was closed to the public and we weren’t going to get to see the altar or anything beyond it… or were we???
At this point I deferred to Mum saying I’d seen enough so was happy to go whenever she was. As we contemplated our next move, we noticed the barriers had sprung a small but steady leak of people. At first we thought they were other VIPs but then we noticed they were just regular-joes like us! We moved closer to realise that they were letting people in for mass. The second Mum indicated she’d like to go, I suddenly re-found my religion and pushed to the front to make sure she got in. She did, we both did but only just. We passed the enormous altar and pulled up a pew at the back just as the mass commenced.
You may have gleaned that the Catholicism I was born and raised in has somewhat lapsed over the years. None the less, I was happy to spend this hour in quiet contemplation especially knowing how much it meant to my Mum and out of respect to my Dad who I wished could’ve been here in my place. Besides, going to a mass at the Vatican is surely one of those ultimate experiences like going to a hockey game in Canada or seeing a boys choir in Vienna – neither of which I’ve actually done but you get the point. The mass was all in Italian, even so, it was very easy to follow after years of learning it by rote. The one part of the mass I do like, is the ‘peace be with you’ part where you shake the hands of those around you and wish them peace. I should probably stop splaying my fingers and saying ‘nanoo nanoo’ but old habits die hard.
After mass, Mum was so thrilled and filled by the experience that I was relieved that I’d pushed her that little bit beyond her limit earlier. None the less, we were both just about at it now so jumped in a taxi to head back to the Pantheon to conclude the last of our unfinished business in Rome. When we got there, I paid the driver and got out. As I was passing, he opened his door to tell me that he thought I was beautiful. Finally, some of that fabled Italian charm! I told Mum and she said it was the best thing that happened all day! Bearing in mind that she’d just been to mass at the Vatican, I’m starting to wonder how worried my parents are about my prospects!
Now, avid readers will have noticed that there has been no gelato for the last couple of days. Mum and I decided that we were going to play catch-up with a gelateria-crawl. We started at a posh looking one opposite the Pantheon where they give you a little baby cone on top to use as a spoon. We then made a pit-stop for an excellent coffee at Tazza D’oro (as highly and rightfully recommended in our private-Gabby-guide) to melt the first one before returning to Gelateria del Palma to try their mousse type gelatos. We did have a third place picked out but I’m afraid to say, we just couldn’t do it. I warned Mum not to fill up on communion!
We waddled back towards our place like the ducks this weather was designed for. By the time we reached our front door we were so wet and so cold, we could barely stand to stand. We went inside, glad that we’d left the central heating on and finally, finally peeled off the soggiest socks in the world!
We rested a while and as soon as we could feel our extremities again, we put on fresh socks and stepped out and two doors up to our most local restaurant. We were lucky to score their last free table before a queue started to form. We ordered a pizza each and shared a bottle of wine, not that we needed any further sedation tonight. We took our time over it enjoying the very friendly and casual ambience of the place. When we were done, we loved that we were only a few steps away from our apartment. It’s such a shame that just as we’re starting to feel like locals, the time has come to leave.
For tonight at least, we’ll fall asleep to the sound of the pitter patter of rain knowing that we’ve made the most of our Roman Holiday!
Patches McMum: The day started with rain but we persevered around the corner for good coffee and pastry. Then to the Mouth of Truth – the lecherous keeper of the mouth let us in today (I bet he wasn’t going to put his hand in it!) To think the Mouth of Truth was just a drainage cover originally (the Italians are very resourceful).
Then to the Vatican City via the topless bus! The rain continued +++ on what felt like a 10km walk around the Vatican City wall to the entry of the Vatican Musuems including the Sistine Chapel. I’m amazed by the crowds, even on a day like this, streaming in to see this beautiful chapel. The Chapel itself is quite small which I thought it would be. The main fresco of The Creation of Adam was smaller than I expected. It took Michelangelo four years to complete centuries ago but the colours are still so vibrant today… thanks to my cataract operation! They looked dimensional, like they might fall down and hit you on the head! Another interesting feature of the place were the guards repeating and repeating ‘no photo!’ to no avail. As you can see, my naughty daughter was one of the many who didn’t listen! I think it must be the most photographed place in the Vatican!
We then strolled back to St Peters Basilica – VERY large, very opulent but still very graceful and serene. The keepers of the Basilica insisted that we move it, move it, move it back behind barriers that they were pushing us with so that a procession of altar boys, cardinals, priests and people wishing to attend the mass could pass. Tourists weren’t allowed passed the barriers unless they wished to go to mass. I did and we were let through. It was a high mass in Italian and was very beautiful. It sure is something to receive communion in the most famous church in the world. That’s two of the big churches I’ve been to mass in now (the other being Notre Dame in Paris). Thank you my daughters for sending me on these marvellous adventures.
It was still raining +++ umberallas turning inside out and all! We got a taxi to the Pantheon – nice taxi man said Naomi was beautiful. We had another look in the Pantheon then played catch up with gelato by having two in a row to bring us back up to our quota for the trip! We waddled back to our apartment to change our freezing and miserable soggy clothes before having dinner and the popular restaurant next door.