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Michael’s Travel Diary

Sunday, 05 Jul 2009

Location: Rome & Vatican City, Italy

MapThe third day in Rome (Friday) we headed to the Vatican in the morning, deciding to explore the museums and St. Peters Basilica. The Vatican City was established as a sovereign state in 1929, the City encompasses the basilica, piazza and museums as you would expect, and technically all catholic churches within Rome, even if they do fall outside of the geographic area known as Vatican City.

The first stop of the day was the Vatican Museums. Despite not being interested in much aside from seeing the works of Raphael in the Sistine Chapel, we spent hours wandering the rooms of the museum. I am not the most appreciative person when it comes to art, so may have been prejudging, but even the most dedicated art collector would find themselves with fatigue wandering the halls of the museum. Having said that, there were some stunning works of art; massive sculptures, the map room containing long hallway walls covered with painted maps, the painting on the vaulted ceilings that looked to be reliefs sculptured onto the roof, but were instead painted to that effect, and of course, the Raphael Rooms, the private apartments of Pope Julius II and with walls covered in works by the great Renaissance artist.

Eventually we followed the steps up to the Sistine Chapel. Despite the requests for silence, there was no way to keep the hundreds of people in the small room from talking excitedly when the looked up and glimpsed one of the most recognisable pieces of art in existence. The ceiling frescoes are a long way up, and Charlotte and I stood there and took it all in for a long time, just trying to remember the feeling of the room, the smell, the excitement some people were feeling, rather than just getting an image of the Creation of Adam which I had see countless times before and will see countless times again. The piece was by far the most looked at piece on the ceiling and walls covered in paintings by Michelangelo. After about 30 minutes we finally made our way to the other side of the short chapel and headed out of the museums.

Leaving the museum, we headed back out into the heat of the Roman summer, sweating even more than normal due to the fact that we had to wear full length pants for the respect of the church. We wandered around to the front of Vatican City, into the entrance of Piazza San Pietro, with the rows of colonnades sitting there like outstretched welcoming arms. The fountains inside the square were amazing, and there was a point either side of the centre where the 4 rows of colonnades would appear as one – quite an architectural masterpiece. After looking through the piazza, we jumped in line and waited our turn to get inside the Basilica.

Thankfully we didn’t have too bad a wait in the sun, and were quickly shuffled in. The whole time in the line we hated on the people around us, wearing shorts and skirts and seemingly getting into the Basilica whilst we sweated away in heavy jeans. Thankfully, there was another check point just before the entry and the underdressed (and more comfortable) were held back. Upon entry we headed straight to the top of the dome of St Peters Basilica. The climb to the dome was pretty straight forward, despite taking the stairs, with a nice walk outside across the Basilica’s roof to get to the Dome itself. Once on the walkway inside the dome, looking down into the rest of St Peter’s and onto the supposed site of St Peter’s tomb, we finally had a sense of just how big this building is. The dome itself is 41.5 m in diameter, and sits well above the ground floor of the church. The lettering around the base of the dome is 2m high, and is the only thing that you can use to get a reference to the sheer enormity of the building and all its components.

From the dome we made the challenging climb through the narrow stairway up to the lantern of the dome. The views over the city were incredible, looking back over the immaculate gardens of the Vatican, as well as looking down through Piazza San Pietro to the Castel St Angelo, and further afield to the area known as Ancient Rome. What made the view even more incredible was the looming dark clouds in the distance, and with the smallest amount of imagination (or faith if you prefer) once could picture the bolts of lightening from the approaching summer storm acting as the fingers of God prodding down from heaven.

Descending back down the dome and into the basilica, the first thing that I noticed was the streaking beams of light coming through the windows sitting below the dome and piercing the stale atmosphere of the centuries old church. Again, it didn’t take much to imagine the heavenly connotations of the beam of light, though that may be more due to the influence of Hollywood than religious reckoning. The church was massive – words cannot convey the size, or splendor. And because the building is so huge, everything within it must be huge as well. The cherubs supporting the basins of holy water for people to bless themselves upon entry to the basilica are 6ft tall, yet still appear as small as children. Art work is seen on every wall, pillar and chapel and even in the walkways. A work from Michelangelo, now protected by glass welcomes the visitor, but the two most sought after works are the bronze statue of St Peter, with the right foot polished smooth from all the faithful visitors, and Bernini’s 26 m high bronze spiraling baldacchino on the spot of St Peter’s supposed tomb. The structure was cast out of 927 tonnes of metal liberated from the roof of the Pantheon in 1633.

Having taken in the sights of the basilica, we then headed down into the grottos where all of the former popes have been buried. Most of the tombs were a pretty stock standard affair, but a number of them were decorated in a rather grandiose fashion. All in all it was a pretty boring affair down there in the grottos.

At the end of the Vatican wanderings, we headed straight back to the hotel to get out of the heavy and oppressive clothing we were wearing. Later in the evening we headed out to grab a couple drinks at Piazza Barberini and then decided to tour the sights of Rome at night. We passed through the Trevi Fountain, still swarming with people, perhaps even more than during the day; certainly more young locals. We also wandered past the Pantheon, and then across to the Castel St Angelo and back down past St Peter’s Basilica on the way back to the hotel for the night.

Yesterday, the 4th of July and our last day in Rome, we headed out to some of the local markets for breakfast. At first we made our way through the Campo de’ Fiori, with their fruit and veg markets, walking past butchers cutting through massive salami sausages, and vendors shopping whatever other wares they have, from flowers, to tacky souvenirs, and all in between. After a feed, we wandered further south, through the Jewish ghetto, an area of narrow winding alleys, littered with small piazza’s, often with small fountains as the centre piece. After emerging through the ghetto, we headed back to the Pantheon for the third time, finally catching it while its doors were open!

Inside the Pantheon, the light came streaming through the hole in the dome, same as per the light streaming into St Peter’s the day before. Included within the Pantheon are the tombs of the first two kings of Italy, along with the tomb of Raphael. That rounded out the trip to Rome, and we headed back to the hotel to pickup our bags and then head to the train station. We jumped on a train north bound along the coast to the port town of Civitavecchia. Once there we took a short wander along the coast from the train station to the ferry port, getting the last of the late afternoon Sun. Once at the ferry terminal we eventually overcame a booking issue that had us wondering if we’d ever get aboard the ferry.

Finally, we made it on deck and headed to our room for the evening. It was only a 7 hour ferry ride, but between the hours of 10 pm and 5 am, it made sense to have a bed. After dropping off our bags, we headed to the top deck to see the coast of Italy disappear into the night, and wonder how far away we could get from the coast before it would be too difficult to swim back. After leaving the fresh night air of the top deck, we made for the restaurant to grab a late dinner, and following a quick wander around the boat, in which Charlotte got completely lost at one point, we called it a night. By the time we woke up, we were pulling into Sardinia!