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, so I’d have more to sip on), 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).
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 2015 Paris attacks. 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.
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.
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.
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 movies, but to be right there is something else entirely.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 (something about practicing?). This was one of the few pleasant drivers we had.