As Marie has described, the last week has been a bit tricky at times, due to a mixture of Eliza’s new favourite sound of piercing shrieking and a seeming inability to sleep longer than 2 hours at a time through the night. The good news is that this is slowly improving; shrieking seems now restricted to around 30 minutes before she falls asleep and we had a 4 hour sleep stretch last night.
In between this though we’ve had some fun in Rome to talk about.
It’s my first time in Rome and I’ve arrived really excited to get into the city and explore it. Our first day here was all planned out for Rome, then almost no sleep happened so we missed all the morning trains, decided we couldn’t get to the Vatican in time to really see it properly and instead opted for a countryside walk. I was more than a little disappointed, even though it was totally the right decision. Our morning bakery treats helped though; sausage and mushroom ‘white’ pizza slice and a crispy pastry filled with a runny egg custard- delicious! The walk was nearby, it was all pretty along the river Tiber, which runs from where we’re staying all the way through the centre of Rome and beyond, and Eliza did a mixture of sleeping and contentedly sitting in the buggy throughout it, so it wasn’t so bad.
The following day, we’d decided that come what may we would make it into Rome. Similar sleep struggles occurred in the night though, and, having missed all the morning trains again, we drove to the outskirts of Rome and take the train in from there (thanks for the tip Pam!). This worked out pretty well, with plenty of Eliza adoration from our fellow passengers on the journey and the train dropping us right by the Vatican, our destination for the day as it was top of my ‘must visit’ list for Rome.
As we left the station we spotted some people on a pilgrimage, with the tell-tale scallop shell hanging from their bag. We decided following them would surely get us to the right place and set off in search of the Vatican Museum (which includes the Sistine Chapel) and St Peter’s Basilica. Naively I had thought Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel was just the section of Adam and God’s hands reaching toward one another and that the whole Vatican was a church with a big dome and this image in it, sat in a pretty square… nope. The Vatican Museum is the second largest museum in Europe, offering 8km of paintings, sculptures, tapestries and artefacts collected by various Popes over the years, just, y’know, for their own personal perusal until one of them some years back thought ‘hey, maybe we should share this collection with the world’. It’s so vast I found it quite overwhelming and was grateful for our decision to book onto a tour (motivated by a wish to skip the ginormous queue to get in). Linda, our tour guide, added a nice bit of humour to the trip and referred to Eliza as her ‘VIP guest’ for the duration. She showed us the Roman statues that Michelangelo used as models for the head and torso of God in his famous Last Judgement (on the wall of the Sistine Chapel- more on this later) and explained the paintings in the Sistine Chapel in advance, which made for a better viewing for me.
She was also pretty flexible when we established the tour didn’t include the Caravaggio painting we wanted to see and directed us back to it at the end, so we had extra time to go back through and have a look at other things that took our interest. I’d be lying if I said I loved the pictures gallery- a series of rooms dedicated to religious art through the ages, though each time I go through one the various stages of development of the painting techniques become a little more firmly lodged in my mind (as per the History of Art education Marie has given me through three handwritten books). Marie enjoyed it though and the Caravaggio did stand out in the way I’ve now come to expect and enjoy with his work. The highlight of this section for me was Raphael’s ‘Transfiguration’, his final painting before his death depicting both the transfiguration of Christ and the Apostles failing to cure a boy possessed by demons. It was set beautifully in a large dark room and I found the facial expressions in the bottom part of the painting quite interesting.
It was also great to play ‘spot the painting/ sculpture’ from the books Marie has written for me. The Vatican Museum seems to hold the largest collection from the art books yet- including a painting with dodgy, exaggerated perspective (in the Sistine Chapel), a sculpture of Caesar that’s painted with bright reds and blues as it would have been at the time (in contrast to the white marble sculptures we imagine) and a Greek sculpture that for the first time depicts anguish, rather than serene perfection.
As for the Sistine Chapel- Wow! I can’t imagine being Michelangelo and spending several years upside down painting an entire church ceiling in such detail. It’s incredible to behold, despite the loudspeaker announcements of ‘sshh, silence’ being a little distracting, alongside the hordes of people being ushered in and through. The ceiling has so much detail, it’s hard to get a full look at everything, but I particularly enjoyed examining the different people on ‘The Last Judgement’ which covers an entire wall behind the altar. It was interesting to see the artist’s own face depicted within the loose skin of St Bartholomew and the image of a Catholic Bishop wrapped in snakes in ‘hell’ at the bottom of the painting, after they had exchanged cross words in real life. It was cool to see the work of an artist who had been given a lot of freedom in his painting, in contrast to the many religious commissions of the time following such rigid rules and codes that I find them quite boring.
We left content, but pretty knackered and a little overstimulated, having witnessed art and decoration on every surface throughout the entire museum. That reminds me, I forgot to mention the maps corridor, a long, beautifully decorated corridor with large maps painted onto the walls, all of Italy’s kingdoms of previous times, some more accurate than others, and a tapestry corridor with beautiful large tapestries, some with tricks of the eye where it seems like the characters are watching you as you walk past or where the orientation of a table seems to change, depending on the angle you view it from.
Overall, I have enjoyed seeing paintings by famous Italian artists that I’ve heard of since childhood but never really known much about- putting a painting to the name rather than a face to the name I guess.
From here, we went on to Saint Peter’s Basilica. It’s huge, grand and a completely over-the-top statement of the wealth of the Catholic Church. We were a bit tired by this point so perhaps didn’t see everything in as much depth as we may have done otherwise, but what mostly sticks in my mind are the huge, extravagant tombs of former popes and the gigantic bronze ‘baldacchino’ in the centre- a 30m high pavilion like structure with four tall bronze pillars in twisted barley sugar shapes and oodles of decoration. There was decoration, gold and extreme richness in every corner of the building and after a brief-ish wander round, we were happy to get back outside, feeling thoroughly over-stimulated by the day.
The funny costumes of the guards provided some light entertainment as we left the square though.
Tired from our day and another tricky night, our next day I’ll affectionately term a ‘rest day’ with nothing much to write about. I think we went for a local walk and all day I’d planned for us to eat at the local restaurant, which turned out to be closed (on a Friday night?!), but that’s about all I can remember about it. We did have some planning for ‘Rome Take 2’ though and went to bed determined to make the morning train the next day.
Success! We made the train and we’re even early enough to have time to pick up porchetta rolls from a stand outside the station for breakfast (porchetta is a savoury, fatty, and moist boneless pork roast which we’d seen in a documentary about Italy before we left). We have consulted our guide book at length and decided to explore Rome for the day, complete with buggy (and accidentally without a sling), loosely following the suggested walk routes through many of the main sites and piazzas.
This begins well, with some adventures finding the lifts in various train and metro stations (yay, the buggy!), bringing us out in Piazza del Popolo for the start of our walk. It’s a great start and I’m immediately taken by its pretty old walls, fountains and large Egyptian carved Obelisk, brought to Rome over 2000 years ago, standing tall in the centre of the piazza. It’s also, at that stage, a manageable, almost relaxed, level of liveliness in the streets (I’d been sceptical at the thought of visiting Rome on a Saturday).
Our first stop is the Basilica of Sainta Maria del Popolo, a relatively small, understated church from the outside, which is home to two beautiful Caravaggio paintings; Crucifixion of St. Peter and Conversion on the Way to Damascus. Both beautifully use light and dark and convey the emotion of the image. Conversion on the Way to Damascus is probably my favourite of his paintings so far, the horse painted beautifully and Saul, in religious ecstasy, laying on the floor beside the horse, having just toppled off.
It’s a good start to the day and we head off to walk along the main shopping streets in search of a drink. With not a café in sight, we buy water from a gellateria and admire the tall, pretty buildings and green side streets.
Our walk leads us to the ‘Spanish Steps’, a tall staircase beside the Spanish Embassy, the ‘sinking boat’ fountain and the tourist masses- our lovely, chilled walk suddenly becomes tourist crowd madness and we hustle through, staying as close together as possible, toward the ‘column of the immaculate conception’. This is a tall column topped with the Virgin Mary, commemorating the acceptance of the ‘immaculate conception’ dogma by the church. Apparently we are all born in sin, as we’re conceived through sex. The church decided that it wasn’t enough that Jesus was immaculately conceived; his mother had to be too.
From here, we escape down the least busy street we can see and stop for a drink and impromptu Greek salad. Prosecco is the cheapest drink on the menu, so it’d be rude not to, while Marie has a refreshing beer and we notice how ‘typically Italian’ some of the men around us look – if you stuck them in a toga they’d be right at home as a statue in the galleries we’ve visited.
Refreshed, we continue to battle the crowds across to the Pantheon, a large structure with Corinthian columns to the front and a perfect dome inside, thought to be the most important building for the later Renaissance period as the domes in Florence and the Vatican were both modeled on it. The columns outside are huge and it sits on a pretty piazza, but we decide we can’t quite face the queue to get a look inside and instead give Eliza a feed and nappy change on the surrounding wall, recovering from our ‘crossed words’ over an earlier ice cream.
So, about that ice cream, what happened was we twice saw a chocolate shop and gellateria with huge queues on the main shopping street. I was tempted both times but put off by the queue, on the second occasion, Marie said ‘go on then’ and put in her order while she waited outside with Eliza. The queue was massive and turned out a double queue- one queue to the till to place your order, then another queue with you ticket to actually get your ice creams. I arrived back from the tightly packed interior to a considerably cross Marie, who had been left in a busy alleyway for half an hour, with Eliza dead set on grabbing all the clothes of the passing throngs of tourists.
By this point Marie is ‘so done’ with the crowds and I’m halfway between being completely done with the crowds and thoroughly excited to be in Rome. We decide to walk up to Capitoline Hill for a view back over the city and assuming it will be a little quieter up there. It kind of is, but the walk there takes us out of the pedestrianised centre and through roads thick with traffic and policemen directing traffic with piercing whistles. The walk takes us to the National Monument of Victor Emmanuel II – a gigantic white monument and fountain dedicated to the first King of a unified Italy – with a great moustache! Then to a choice of several staircases- great with a buggy! We head up and enjoy the views over the Forum (extensive Roman ruins).
We decide to take a road down from here with pretty rocks on the side of it, unsure where it leads, and find ourselves touring the edge of the Forum area, getting a good look inside. A bit lost, we use our map to lead us in the direction of the Trastevere neighbourhood, which is our plan for dinner, and find a nice little bar for a drink and toilet stop on the way.
Marie has fond memories of Trastevere from her trip to Rome as a student for a week’s teaching. She caveats this though with a ‘bear in mind it was 10 years ago and part of my memory is cheap buckets of mojitos, so that may have clouded my view a little’. Turns out to be a beautiful neighbourhood, with lots of little bars and restaurants, a pretty fountain with talented buskers performing to a crowd sat sipping drinks and smoking on the fountain steps and lots of little streets with plants hanging down from balconies.
We take a good wander around in the setting sun, stop for mojitos and ‘buffet’ – a help yourself aperitif of all sorts of meat and bread bite size pieces- and continue on to find a spot for dinner, having decided that if Eliza falls asleep, we’ll dine and if she doesn’t, well, lets just head back as it’s not really worth the effort.
Success, she’s asleep, at least long enough to lure us onto a restaurant terrace. I’m delighted to find Oxtail Stew on the menu (a childhood favourite, I’ve been looking forward to trying the Italian version) and Marie is encouraged to change her choice from lasagne ‘which you can have back home’ says the waitress, to a local specialty of spaghetti in a creamy Pecorino sauce.
Eliza stays asleep for most of dinner, waking up near the end, then falling asleep again while we enjoy a moonlit walk back through the pretty streets, now complete with twinkling lights. We then discover we’re a good distance away from the station and it’s close to final train time, so we have a 40 minute quick march through the less pretty parts of Trastevere (not ugly, just regular non-touristy neighbourhood) and down a long wide road, reaching the train station in good time and thoroughly exhausted from our day.
Rome, I love you, you’re my favourite capital city, I can’t wait to come back for more!