Saturday, January 01, 2011

Exquisite Europe * Last Look at Roma, Italy (December 2010)

Today, we return back to Roma, our landing point in Italy.  During the bus ride back to Rome, Italian music was playing on the bus to help build the atmosphere.  This included famous songs like That's Amore, O Solo Mio, Santa Lucia, Buona Sera, Arrivederci Roma, and some songs by Andrea Bocelli.  There is also a cute song that I like which gives you last song syndrome titled, Grazi, Prego, Scusi by Dean Martin.

We arrived in Rome to the Vatican area, in front of the Piazza just opposite the Vatican walls.  We headed down to the street opposite to find a place to eat.  This street was very busy and it seemed like we were in the main city center.  We found a pizzeria on the side street, which did serve quite a number of choices.  At this time, we were already allergic of the word pizzeria, LOL.  Anyway, we checked out the menu and found out it had a good selection and the restaurant was big enough for our group of 19.  The only clincher was that it wasn't open yet and we had to wait about 25 minutes, which was not too bad.  We all headed out to the main street and walked around.  The street was extremely busy compared to what we have been used to in the last few days.  After all, this is Rome, the center of Italy and we were in the heart of the city, near the Vatican.  There was a nearby subway and also streets filled with small stalls selling clothes and clothing accessories and a lot of specialty items, probably made in China, haha.

We then headed back to the restaurant and was promptly seated.  We ordered pizza, pasta and this time Florentine prime rib steak instead of the T-bone version.  It was of course, as good as the T-bone steak.  Good choice, for an impromptu selection of restaurant.  The waiter was also quite friendly and funny.  I remember my dad used to say Italians are "crazy funny" and indeed, we do see a pattern, especially with the waiters.  Some seem to be aloof when you first meet them, but when you get to know them better, they become close friends fast.

The rest of the group went to visit the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel and we just went around the Piazza to look around the fair, as we have a similar tour scheduled for the next day.

Before dinner, we stopped by the Spanish Steps, but this time, from the top, where the Trinita de Monti Church lies.  And this time, it was the evening, so we got a different view of the Spanish Steps.  The Piazza di Spagna and the Via de Condotti St down below were simply full of people, compared to the day we arrived in Rome, we didn't have this crowd to contend with.  It was nice to see the church all lighted up.

We then headed to Farewell dinner with our Trafalgar tour group.  It was a nice way to end the tour, where everyone gets to sit and have dinner again one last time.  The meal was pretty much predictable by now, bruschetta plate, pasta amatriciana (pasta with tomato sauce and bacon), a veal plate for main, and tiramisu for dessert.  And of course, red and white wine and bottled still water.  And a meal without the opera singers isn't going to be complete, hahaha.  We had a lady opera singer this time, and an accordion player.  We also had a chance to greet my niece, who's birthday was coming up in a few hours.  Live karaoke music also played and one of our tour group members stood up to sing, while the waitress and opera singer danced with some of our younger boys including my nephew.

Back at the hotel, it was time to say goodbye to our newfound friends.  After 8 days of being together practically 12-14 hours a day, it was difficult to part ways.  We had a good bunch of people in our group and we were very lucky.  There were a lot of young people, which made us all enjoy the trip, contrary to our fear of being in a tour group that only had senior folks.  No offense to them, but it's more enjoyable when you have folks of the same age group as you to enjoy the same things during the trip.  We also intentionally chose to go on a group that was international versus a locally organized group from the Philippines.  We wanted to expand our network and learn more of other cultures.  After all, that's what traveling is all about.

The next day, we were going on a private family tour.  Our day started at the Colosseum, this time we had the opportunity to go inside the Colosseum and for a moment there, experience what the Romans experienced in the golden days.  Of course, a lot of the seats were ruined already but you can get a glimpse of the span of the colosseum and imagine what goes on in the center area where the gladiators used to fight and where the VIP used to sit.  Outside the Colosseum, we had another glimpse of the Forum but didn't have time to go in.  Besides, we had a good full view from above.

We had to rush to go to the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel.  The Basilica of St. Peter's close off at 1pm, and because it was Dec 31st, there is a fear that they may close it off earlier to prepare the place for the New Year's Eve mass by the pope.  By joining a tour like this, we get the priority pass to get in.  And if you go on your own, you'd have to queue up.  At that point, there were like thousands of people queuing up to get in.  And with the rate it's going, not everyone can get in.  And so I'm imagining if you go on independent travel, then this is what you have to contend with.   We finally got into the Vatican Museum.  Our first stop was the Pigna Courtyard, where we can see a modern-looking gold sphere that looked like some electronic symbols.  The globe actually turns when you spin it.  On the other side of the courtyard also lies a giant pinecone, 4 meters high brought over from somewhere near the Pantheon.  The artwork was a little odd for what I expected on the Vatican museums, but then again, that was just the courtyard.  The guide gave us an explanation of the Sistine Chapel since they are not allowed to talk inside.  So we headed through several corridors to get to the Sistine Chapel.  At the corridors, the first section, the artwork inside the museum, especially the ceiling walls, were really beautiful.  One of the ceilings was just painted but it looked like it was 3-dimensional.  Imagine they already had 3D in the olden times.  We passed through several hallways, filled with people all going one direction to the Sistine Chapel, inch by inch.  We then got into a section called the Gallery of maps, with maps of the world painted on the walls.  On the ceiling, you can see a collage of different paintings all throughout the gallery, pretty much like the giant jigsaw puzzle I have at home.  At the end, just before we get into the Sistine Chapel, we also see a dome which looked 3-dimensional but is only painted flat.  There are still so many areas of the Vatican Museum that can be seen, but we did not have time.

As we are led into the Sistine Chapel, silence filled the room, or rather you can hear awes and guards trying to shoo people to quiet down.  Finally, an announcement was also made to remind people to respect the sanctity of the chapel and that photos are not allowed.  Despite this, you can still hear people's excitement and some people trying to hide behind other people to capture a photo.  The chapel was smaller than I expected, but the entire room was painted.  There are also quite a number of painters involved here.  The best artwork was the ceiling depicting the stories of the Bible and the Last Judgement painting at one wall of the chapel, both done by Michelangelo.  Imagine Michelangelo painting this ceiling lying on his back.  The detail was awesome.  It made me want to study the details of these paintings more.  And I did later buy a book on the Vatican from the airport so that I can read up more on this.  Simply amazing, I would say.  And again, it brings all our conceptual knowledge about the Vatican to life.

We then headed to St. Peter's Basilica once again, but this time, the church was filled with chairs, ready for the New Year's Eve mass.  We were only allowed to pass by the side hallways this time.  And because we've been inside once, we quickly went to the front of the church, passing by the crowd of people and to our surprise, we were allowed to go to the back of the main altar, which was closed off during our first visit.  Again, nothing is wasted in our trip, and we were now able to see a different part of the Basilica.  I saw a glimpse of the adoration chapel with the Blessed Sacrament which was closed off, but you can see if from a small window on the side of the church.  The Basilica was so huge, that we barely had time to go around the back of the altar.  When I thought I would have reached the back, I will still on the right side of the church.  So I just moved quickly forward and finally got to the middle, just behind the papal altar, where we were so close to the nave of the cathedral and the cathedral altar.  Then on the left side, was an extension where the Sacristy and the Treasury lies.  Didn't have time to go in and look though.  It took me about 30-40 minutes to go around, and I was already rushing.  That simply shows you how huge the Basilica was.  Again, mind-boggling.

As we exited the basilica, we also see chairs set up at the Piazza San Pietro.  We walked down the Piazza and headed down to the obelisk in the middle.  Just below that was a circle where when you stand, you will see the first and second layer of the columns around the piazza lined up together or rather you will just see the 1st layer of the columns, ones nearer to you.  Whereas if you move a few steps outside the circle, you will see the second layer of the columns not aligned to the first layer.  Interesting architecture by Bernini!  On the right of the Piazza facing the Basilica are the pope's apartments.  His Sunday blessings are done from there instead of from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, which he only uses on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday.  Our tour guide pointed out a window with the light on, three windows from the right, this is where the pope works.  And he's probably getting ready for the New Year's Eve mass later that day.

Our last stop was the Vatican shops, our final chance to get some Vatican souvenirs.  Our tour guide showed us the fragrant rosaries, and also we were able to get our Papal Blessing certificates there.  We also found some time to have lunch at the Piazza.  The hotdog sandwich and gelato from the mobile deli parked in the piazza were delicious.  And we sat by the ledges outside the store building overlooking the St. Peter's Basilica.  What a great way to gave lunch!

And just before we waved goodbye to the Vatican, we were able to sneak in a visit to the Vatican post office, a mobile post office in the middle of the square.  Got myself a first day cover, and my niece was able to  buy some stamps and postcard and dropped it off at the yellow Vatican poste mailbox outside the mobile office.

We then headed back to Piazza Navona.  From there, we walked to the Pantheon and went inside.  We see the top dome, known as the dome to the heavens, meaning the hole in the center of the dome was actually open, so when it rains, part of the Pantheon actually gets wet.  Holes on the floor allow the water to drain out.  This is also one of the inspirations used to build other buildings worldwide with the popular design of the Corinthian Columns on the main facade of the building.  Outside, we saw some people kneeling down and facing the external wall to pray.  Not sure where they are from, but it was interesting to see this ritual.  I guess it has to do with directions.

From here, our tour guide showed us a hidden gem, which was the Piazza San Ignacio and the St. Ignatius Church.  Inside this church, you find a ceiling as beautiful as the Sistine Chapel ceiling and here a much bigger church.  There, the patron saint of kids also stands, and the kids went to pay their respects.  At the Altar, a small group of young kids were singing.  One of the great must-sees in any country with a church is to attend a church concert, whether it was just a practice or the formal event.  Music inside a church just creates that serene moment.  We experienced this in South America as well, in Buenos Aires, when we were just looking for a place to rest and sit, we ended up seeing a concert in that church.  Anyway, I begin to wonder if St. Ignatius is my patron saint, as I bump into him a couple of times during my travels.  Well, the first was when I went to school in San Francisco, a Jesuit school.  The St. Ignatius churched played a significant role in my Catholic life.  And I remember visiting several St. Ignatius churches along my travels.  I don't remember exactly where now.  And then now, in Rome.

With some free time, we went to see Piazza Venezia, the wonderful white structure with a rotonda in the middle.  This is the Piazza in the most central area of Rome.  We've passed through this a couple of times but never got a decent picture as our bus wasn't allowed to stop.  We later found out that the New Year's fireworks were held here.  We saw that on TV as we were already too tired to be outdoors as the year ended.

We all met up at Piazza Navona, where the Christmas market is still open.  We found some last minute souvenirs and got to see each of the carnival games in the fair, e.g. rifle shooting, toppling of milk cans, etc.  We also got to taste the best hot chocolate from one of the stalls in the piazza.  It's thick and chocolatey but not too sweet.

What a way to end a visit to Italy!  Despite the places being visited were a duplicate of the first visit a few days ago, the tour today was a great way to summarize the key points of Rome, e.g. the Colloseum, Palatine Hill, Roman Forums, Vatican City, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica, Piazza Navona, and Piazza Venezia.

To end the day, we had one last dinner.  And to our surprise, we ended up in the same restaurant as the one we spent our Christmas Eve dinner in, La Tana del Rei.  We booked the New Year's dinner back home and didn't have any idea what it was.  Our Christmas Eve dinner on the other hand was a new option given to us during our first day.  A funny incident, definitely, unforgettable.  But this time, we did not have the pizza party, which was ok, but not really counts as a special celebration meal.  Anyway, the menu was again pretty much predictable, but this time instead of the veal, we had the pork loin.

We had a very interesting experience at the restaurant though, cause the place was filled with tourists, mostly Asian, so the place was a bit noisy.  It was then time for the opera singers to start the show and we heard some shooing.  At first, I thought it was the tour guide of the other group shooing his group, but I later realized that it was the singers doing it.  The group was not exceptionally noisy, so it was strange to see this.  For me, I thought it was rude.  I've never seen performers do that anywhere in the world.  I gave them the benefit of the doubt at the start, but they did this for several times.  It was really unpleasant in the end.  Oh well, I refuse to let this ruin my night.  After all, it was the end of the year.  And in a few hours time, this will all be behind us and we will have a new beginning.

We then headed back to our hotel to check in.  We had to move hotels.  The hotel lobby was packed and we could see people all dressed up like celebrities.  Apparently, they were waiting for their group.  It was probably some New Year's celebration.  We were just too tired, and we had to stand in the lobby with our luggages waiting to be checked in, as the front desk was extremely busy.  After check-in, we managed to take our shower and then start to pack up and get ready for our trip back home the next day.  It didn't feel like New Year's Eve as we were all quite tired.  But we managed to stay up until midnight.  Some of my nieces and nephews were with us in the room.  We greeted each other and after a few minutes, they went to bed.  Hahaha

The trip back home was uneventful, but we all had a hangover.  We were all tired, but we weren't ready to end the trip.  The last week was just magical and Italy is still very fresh in our minds and hearts, and will be for another few weeks or so.

Highlight * Andrea Pozzo's Optical Illusion *Exquisite Europe * Last Look at Roma, Italy (December 2010)

Whilst a lot of people would go see the Sistine Chapel when visiting Rome, fewer travelers venture out to this grand church at the Piazza di San Ignacio near the Pantheon, which features an almost equally beautiful painted ceiling done by Andrea Pozzo, a Jesuit Brother. Here, you'd admire the grand dome not knowing that it is just a painting that makes it look like a real 3-dimensional one (shown in the middle of the photo above). Simply amazing!

I grew up being exposed to the teachings of St. Ignatius of Loyola and to unexpectedly drop in on this particular church celebrating the life of St. Ignatius through the paintings on the frescoes, makes it even more special and meaningful. We were also able to catch a children's choir practicing in one of the side chapels, filling the church with enchanting Christmas melodies.

If you're in Rome, do drop by this church. Although not as widely known, it is a very beautiful church that many travelers also discover along the way, and you don't even have to pay to go in.

Note: This highlight also appears in AFAR Website