Our second day in Rome started the way the first had ended: with the sound of excited teenagers making a lot more noise than was strictly necessary to accomplish the task of leaving their rooms, walking down 2 flights of steps, and leaving. Still, it did get us out of bed and downstairs for the complimentary breakfast of your typical continental hotel: bread and croissants, slices of cheese and meat, fruit and of course coffee.
There must be some legal explanation as to why the coffee in Italy tends to be so consistently good, because humans aren’t consistently good at anything unless they absolutely, positively have to be. The fact I’ve never had a bad cup there means that there must be a law sending you to jail if you accidentally run the press for too long, or the threat of social ostracism or something. Some sort of evil fate must await those who fail the java standard. I’m tempted to brew a bad cup there to see what happens. I have the feeling that within 2 minutes I’d have a swat team smash through my windows wearing Armani hazmat suits and dispose of my poor attempt in a gold-plated styrofoam cooler while giving me an IV drip of Lavazza espresso.
Fortunately we finished breakfast without incident as the coffee was good and we quickly got our stuff and hit the town for our day in the Vatican. As we felt tourist trap withdrawal symptoms we decided to carve a route right through the heart of the ripoff restaurants and hit as many sights as possible on the way. One of the first things we hit was the Pantheon, which I have to say is my favorite thing in the whole city. It’s an incredibly well-preserved example of Ancient Roman engineering and the best word I can think to describe it is magnificent. Not only is it staggeringly beautiful it is also an incredible scientific and architectural feat. When you think of the roman forum, the coliseum, the Parthenon in Athens, and so many Egyptian temples they are all restored ruins. You only get an idea what Karnak looked like because they’ve spent tens of millions restoring it. The pantheon, other than a few touch-ups, is as sound as the day it was built. If you look it up in an encyclopedia the word repair doesn’t even come up!
Built in about 125ad, the pantheon is a massively influential building in design, technique, and materials. The dome is constructed of concrete and gets thinner as it gets to the top to reduce weight, something that wasn’t replicated for almost 2000 years after its construction. The dome rests on a structure that is strong and stable enough to have lasted almost 2000 years and isn’t even showing its age. The inside gives you an incredible sense of space, something you don’t get in architecture until the gothic cathedrals so many centuries later and shows how far ahead of their time the Romans truly were.
After suitable amounts of gawking it was on through Piazza Navona where we ducked in a shop where everything has been made my monks. I’ve had chartreuse which is a liquor made by monks in the mountains of France. They make it out of 130-something herbs and boy does it taste like it. It has a flavor like someone blended lots of vegetables, dehydrated them to intensify their flavors, and then added 180 proof moonshine. When you drink some it feels like it will either kill you stone dead or cure what ails you. Or it may do both in reverse order.
This previous experience of monk-produced goods wasn’t the best primer for going into a shop where you have an enormous variety of mostly food and drink that have at least been within shouting distance of a monastery, but in we went anyway and we weren’t massively impressed. Rightly or wrongly it seemed as if all they’d done was bought bottles of cheap wine and liquor, soaked the labels off, and added their own. And the stuff that didn’t look like that tended to be extremely unappealing. I’m all for monk-made stuff: they brought us modern beer brewing techniques and liquor distillation which is all good by me as I sit here with a glass of Greenore Irish single grain whiskey. Loathsome liquors like Benedictine and Chartreuse are not representative, nor were the items in this store, so we left.
As we wended our way northwest of Piazza Novona the tourist businesses thinned out in favor of more residential places until we got to the Ponte Sant’Angelo: a footbridge across the Tiber which is to Rome what the Charles Bridge is to Prague although not nearly as busy. On the other side is Castel Sant’Angelo, another ancient Roman building originally built as a mausoleum that has lasted mostly because it was transformed into a fortification in later centuries. To the left the road leads straight to Vatican City and Piazza San Pietro via the wide Via della Conciliazione.
The Vatican is is clearly built to impress, and it does. My first impression was of many different styles of building having been plonked down without any real idea to make them work together. Ahead of you is St. Peter’s basilica which is one style, and it has an Egyptian obelisk in front of it placed on a clashing, very non-Egyptian plinth. Spanning to the left and right are large curved open structures in yet another style, the effect of which is to envelop you in architectural confusion. It’s impressive but to me not beautiful. Yet another indication we picked the right time or year to visit Rome was that we only queued for about 5-10 minutes to get into the basilica.
There are several ways we could have gone at this point: we could head to the basilica directly, go down to the crypt which will then lead you into the basilica, go up the cupola at the top of the basilica for the city views, or be radical and go straight to the Vatican museum to see the Sistine chapel. We chose the crypt first. It was an immaculate example of massive amounts of top-quality white marble all in the same place, but to be honest I found it a bit boring. I mean, it’s a place to entomb dead people, it’s not going to be rocking. Progress was a bit slow while everyone read plaques about popes you never heard of (and never will again), but eventually we climbed the steps into the center of the basilica. I have to say it was worth being bored for 20 minutes or so while we shuffled our way through crypt because when you pop out right in the middle the sight really makes an impression.
No bones about it, the basilica is an impressive piece of monumental architecture. It was designed and built to show the power and grandeur of the church and it certainly does that in spades. I was a bit disappointed because I was hoping it would show the beauty as well, and it just doesn’t. Cathedrals like St. Paul’s in London and St. John the Divine in New York are impressive and beautiful and they do it just with their shape, not the decoration whereas the structure of St. Peter’s basilica just seems like something to hang mountainsides of marble and mines-full of gold leaf on. Still, it’s definitely worth a visit.
We decided to hoof the 500 or so steps up to the top of the cupola and this was the only real line we stood in the whole time we were in the Vatican. The first 200 or so steps get you to the bottom of the dome where you can look down into the basilica where you were 20 or so minutes ago. The whole wall around is lined with nearly identical mosaics of a boy’s face, which is a bit weird. His eyes are wide and his mouth open as if in surprise and dismay, a look unfortunately common with boys in the catholic church. I’m not sure if he’s unhappy about what was about to happen, what just happened, or what was about to happen again.
As you go up to the cupola from the dome level the staircases get narrower and twistier, and at one point you have to bend your whole body to the right as the walls actually curve. It creates an optical illusion that is really disconcerting as you feel like you’re toppling over but it doesn’t last long, and then you finally get to a stone spiral staircase which takes you to the cupola and great views of the city. Rome is not a vertical town, it’s definitely got the urban sprawl thing going. The view is worth the effort, but I wouldn’t bother if it’s raining. The walk down served to emphasize just how many stairs we did on the way up; if we’d gone down any more I would expect to have reached Indonesia.
By this time it was mid-afternoon. We’d walked miles, explored tombs, and climbed to the highest point in the city and back down again. In other words, lunchtime! Vatican city restaurants are not famed for their value for money, but they are at least decent. We just picked one that was close to our route to the Vatican museum and plonked ourselves down. When it comes to money my view is that when you are on vacation you just have to stop caring how much everything costs, within reason of course. A trip is an investment of sorts. You’ve already put in airfare, hotels, transportation, guidebooks, tickets to sites, etc, etc all to spend a few days in a certain place. Spending an hour trying to save 10 euros is an incredible waste of your investment, you could have spent that hour making your trip worthwhile. If you’ve got a good guidebook and it recommends a cheap place that’s not far off your route then by all means go for it, just don’t spend loads of time scurrying around looking for a place where the carbonara is 1 euro less than the other identical places on the street places because your time is money. The place we picked was just fine, and compared to London just about everywhere is cheaper anyway. I have to say it was a welcome break and we recharged ourselves with pasta and beer.
The Vatican museum is part church, part Louvre. It’s incredibly holy and holy-shit at the same time. There’s corridors chock-full of frescoes, rooms full of paintings and sculpture, and closets full of knick-knacks from little bits of carved ivory to brass scientific instruments all interspersed with chapels seeming at random of which the Sistine chapel is one. They’ve done an amazing restoration job on Michelangelo’s masterpiece. I didn’t realize that before he did that he had never painted anything and that he got the job because his detractors hoped he’d discredit himself. Instead, he created one of the world’s greatest artworks. I’m surprised he didn’t paint himself giving them the finger.
I remember when I saw the Mona Lisa. It was a complete, utter disappointment because you couldn’t get near it and it was covered by tinted glass to protect it from flash photography. Add to that it’s pretty small; you’d need to stand directly in front of it to really see it and you can’t because: a) it’s roped off, and b) there are hoards of people raptly gazing at it for hours on end. I was expecting something similar with the Sistine chapel and I was completely right, except that since it’s on the ceiling it doesn’t matter how many thick-headed rubber-necking nitwits are in there with you, you have a perfectly unobstructed view that’s worth any wait to see. They could fill the room with raving madmen and it wouldn’t detract from the experience. What does, however, are all the Vatican security going “shhhhhhh!” every time anyone opens their mouth. Yes, it’s a place of worship, but they’re charging money to see it so in my view if I want to say “man that’s amazing!” I should be entitled to without disapproving Italian rent-a-cops frowning at me. Still a great thing to see.
After the chapel we quickly got tired of looking at cases of assorted blessed doo-dads and we wanted a bit of a break before heading out for my birthday dinner, so we escaped the Vatican and traipsed back through the windy streets back to our hotel and crashed out for a bit. Dinner we had at Casa Bleve, an enoteca near the Pantheon that is wine shop out front and restaurant in back, and is good in both roles. The service was impeccable with the Italian menu perfectly translated by the English-fluent staff. The food was very modern but still Italian in nature in that it let the food speak for itself. We started with a mixed anti-pasti platter for 2 which was partly different meats wrapped around different cheeses, and the rest was a selection of specialties like beef carpaccio (raw beef, really tasty) and other things I can’t remember except they were tasty. After that I had roast quail with potatoes and vegetables and it was scrumptious. The quail was crispy, juicy, and just the right gaminess. Claire had lamb that was about as rare as I’ve ever seen it, it wasn’t as good as the quail but still tasty. For dessert I had a mixed platter that had a little bit of everything like mousse, ice cream, a bit of tarte, with some nice tangy fruit reduction to go with it. They brought us a glass of champagne to start, we had a bottle of wine with dinner, and the brought a dessert wine with the sweet stuff that was to me almost better than the dessert itself. The service was attentive but not overdone and with a slight sense of humor. It was a memorable meal on a memorable day. If you want to splash out on a nice meal Casa Bleve was a good place to do it.
After this we strolled (more like rolled) past the moon-lit Pantheon and through the ancient cobbled streets back to our hotel where the teens were of course still wide awake.