Italy, October 23

Sunday, October 23rd

We started the day with a walk to the Vatican, which was just a few blocks from our apartment.  Along the way, we stopped at a café for a typical Italian breakfast of coffee and croissant.  It was like I’d never eaten a croissant before this.  They were that good – fresh, warm, buttery and perfectly flaky.  It’s hard to describe just how incredible this simple pastry was.  It’s also surprising how long we lasted on this humble breakfast.  One croissant and a tiny cup of espresso (I’d order espresso doble after this), and we were set all day.  We came back with a taste for this Italian-style breakfast and became even greater coffee snobs than we were before (which isn’t easy in Seattle).

Tomassino waiting for his coffee and croissant

Tomassino waiting for his coffee and croissant. All he needs is a scarf and a man-bun, and he’d fit right in. Wouldn’t Tommy look delightfully ridiculous wearing a scarf?

We walked into the Vatican through a mob-like security line.  We learned that there is airport-level security at all the important sites in Italy, especially the major religious buildings and historic sites.  Some of this happened after 9/11, but most of the increased security is because of the recent Paris bombings.  There is an armed military presence everywhere, but it doesn’t feel intrusive.  Between the Polizia, the Carabinieri and the military I felt safe, not burdened.  Still, there’s men with machine guns all over the place, and you better not think about taking pictures of them.

The central pediment and statues on top of St. Peter's Basilica

The central pediment and statues on top of St. Peter’s Basilica. The tympanum features the Crown and Keys symbol of the Roman Catholic Papacy. Also, I figured out a way to casually use the words “pediment” and “tympanum” in the caption.

We didn’t know that there was an Angelus scheduled for that morning (check out here and here for what was said).  We couldn’t understand why there were so many people gathered in St. Peter’s Square until we heard Pope Francis start talking.  My wife wants me to point out that she knew there was an Angelus scheduled and that I was just ignorant.

Travel is not for everyone, and this was not the only small child I saw in the Vatican who'd had enough.

Travel is not for everyone, and this was not the only small child I saw in St. Peter’s Square who’d had enough.

At one point during the blessing, the Holy Father asked for a moment of silence.  And you know what?  It was freakin’ silent for that moment.  The only single person I could hear talking (out of hundreds of thousands) was a volunteer coordinator.  We heard the Pope speak but didn’t actually see him from our location.  We were going to go to Mass at St. Peter’s basilica, but that didn’t work out due to time constraints.  We had some other things scheduled but would be back to St. Peter’s on another day.  This first view inside the walls of the Vatican was an impressive and inspiring preview.

A small part of the line to get into St. Peter's Basilica

A small part of the line to get into St. Peter’s Basilica. Waiting in massive lines would be an on-going theme during this trip, but we got to meet interesting people.

Our scheduled tour this day was for the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum.  All of it was incredible.  Coming from such a young country, it’s enlightening and humbling to be around so many ancient structures.  You see a lot of these places on TV and in the movies, but to be right there is something else entirely.

You already know that the underground area was used to stage gladiators and animals, but did you know that it is two stories tall, had working elevators, and could be used to flood the Colosseum to recreate naval battles?

Did you know that the Colosseum is actually a double amphitheater?  The term Colosseum doesn’t refer to the structure’s size or shape; it means that it stood next to a colossus.  There used to be a giant statue of Nero in front of the building, and that’s where the name Colosseum comes from.  Being such a large and famous Colosseum, the term came down from the ages and morphed into what we call coliseums today.  But originally it just meant a building near a colossus.

It's hard to find an angle on the Colosseum without a ton of people in the frame.

It’s hard to find an angle on the Colosseum without a ton of people in the frame.

Palatine Hill is right across the street from the Colosseum.  This is said to be the first hill of the city of Rome, the location where the empire started.  The apocryphal story of Romulus and Remus is well-told, and Romulus’ hill is Palatine Hill.  Regardless of the authenticity of that tale, the Hill is pretty much the center of Rome and the site where the emperors built their palaces.

At the entrance to Palatine Hill, you'll find what used to be the servants' quarters for those who maintained the palaces.

At the entrance to Palatine Hill, you’ll find what used to be the servants’ quarters for those who maintained the palaces. I believe one of these is for the guy who kept the WiFi up and running for Augustus.

Most of the ancient sites we visited in Italy had some amount of modern art installed on the property.  In Pompeii, modern trappings were everywhere.  On Palatine Hill, modern intrusions (my opinion) into antiquity were limited, but somewhat baffling.

Modern art installed in the emperor's old walking track. Or, how I can't go anywhere without being reminded of my station in life.

Modern art installed in the emperor’s old walking track. Or, how I can’t go anywhere without being reminded of my station in life.

That image above is no joke.  Well, maybe it’s a joke, but not one perpetrated with Photoshop.  That sign is really there, and it’s call art, loser.  Our tour guide explained to us that Italians have always been concerned with their digestion (this is also not a joke).  The walking track above was for the emperor to get some exercise after meals.

This is someone’s old courtyard. It would have been a water feature, as evidenced by the blue flowers that are maintained there now.

I’m not sure if it was because of the time of year we were there or not, but the days in Italy were very short, and the sun set quickly.  On this particular day, however, the cloud cover extended twilight by quite a bit.  We transitioned from Palatine Hill down into the Forum in this extended twilight.

View from the Forum. This isn't so much of the Forum as from standing inside it.

View from the Forum. This isn’t so much of the Forum as from standing inside it.

I wonder how many of our great buildings will be around 2000 years from now.  I’m guessing not many, or at least not as many as from this epic era in Western Civilization.

The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina

The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina

The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina was probably by favorite structure in the Forum.  Although much smaller than the great basilicas we’d visit on this trip, it is still a very imposing edifice.  Notice the green door up there, which is huge by the way.  This was originally a pagan temple that was later retrofitted into a Christian church.  Not all of the building elements have survived to this day, and there is about a 10 foot gap between the steps and that door.  For some reason, this added to the other-worldly nature of the place for me.

The remaining three (they're huge) columns of the Temple of Castor in the Roman Forum

The remaining three (they’re huge) columns of the Temple of Castor in the Roman Forum

We walked around the city that night, looking for a place to eat, when we stumbled upon a smallish church (the name of which unfortunately escapes me) where Mass was about to start.  Since it was Sunday, and we hadn’t been to Mass yet, we took advantage of the opportunity.  This was our first Italian Mass.

Tommy got a little rambunctious during the service, so he and I had to wait outside.

Tommy got a little rambunctious during the service, so he and I had to wait outside.

After that, it was dinner and another taxi ride.  I asked the driver if he knew how to get to the “Piazza di San Pietro,” and he laughed at me and said “Si.”  That would be like asking a NYC taxi driver if he knows how to get to Times Square.  This was one of the few pleasant drivers we had.

Next:  October 24th (Rome – Major Basilicas)

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