Friday, July 4, 2014

Post-Cruise: Rome & the Vatican.

Pictures are HERE.

The three-hour train ride to Rome was painless. Easy. I used a cheap web special on the ship to scope out the location of our Rome hotel, so that I’d seem to have half an idea where to send the cabbie when we got there. The hotel was located about three miles from the train station in the general direction of the airport. Turns out to have been an unexpectedly good location for a hotel, right near the Piazza Navona (the hotel was the Suite Art Navona). Unbeknownst to me, the Piazza Navona is one of the primary public spaces of the city, the onetime location of the big public market in town. Now it’s an open square with three big fountains and surrounded by restaurants. It’s a perfect place for people-watching, and it’s easy to find and easy to find our hotel from there.

This is especially helpful, as there seem to be no straight roads anywhere in Rome. Everything twists and turns, changing names constantly, just as in most of the other medieval places we’ve visited this trip.

I’ve long thought that one of New York’s great charms for the visitor is the density of known, famous, or semi-famous places as you walk the streets. You needn’t go but a block or two before you’re guaranteed to see something you know, or know of. Rome is like that, except the famous things are all incredibly ancient. We rounded a corner near the hotel and found ourselves looking at the Pantheon—a 2,000 year-old quasi-church set in the middle of the city. You come upon it with little warning since, again, there are few straight streets that give you a vista as you approach (this is unlike the Colosseum, which can be seen from a ways off because of its size and a fortuitous few side streets that open up a vista of it). Wikipedia calls the Pantheon the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world, and its age makes the accomplishment so much the greater. And while not everything looks truly ancient—most everything you see is either a more recent version of what was originally there, or it’s been substantially renovated—this place just reeks of age. All the stones are discolored and many have cracks of age, and it’s all just so pre-technology. The floors, the steps, the ceilings; everything looks not just like it’s intended to look old, but like it’s REALLY OLD. We saw it twice and were kind of stunned both times. (Most amazing, after the dome, were the two original bronze doors which must weigh many tons each and stand 20 feet tall. The Wikipedia article, again, says they are original, and they must have been a marvel at the time. Hell, they’re a marvel now. Those and the 20 huge columns, each of which, we are told, is a single piece of stone.)

 After our first visit seeing the Colosseum and roaming the Forum, this second visit was slated for the Vatican and just general roaming. This turned out to be exactly the right strategy. We arrived Monday around 13:30 at the train station, and were at the hotel by 14:30. They let us in early, and we dropped off our (ludicrously-overstuffed and oversize) bags and hit the streets. We strolled thru the Piazza Navona and then grabbed some pizza. Every restaurant in town apparently has the same menu: pizza, pasta, meat and cheese plates, Caprese salads. Which is fine by me. The pizza is wonderful, and slightly different from pizza elsewhere. I’m not even quite sure how. It’s just not as *substantial* as what I’m used to. Thin crust—but not too thin; it bubbles up along the doughy edges—just a little sauce, not too many toppings. More of a snack than a meal, though we used it as both.

After our snack, we made our way towards where we thought the Spanish Steps were, and instead found ourselves at an open square where a huge rock and roll concert stage was being set up for later that evening. (We did not recognize any of the names.) From there we did manage to find the Spanish Steps. Both it and the Trevi Fountain were under construction. Well, the Steps are getting a refurbished fountain on the street in front of them; the steps themselves are open and unmolested. But the Fountain, which we saw the next day, is empty and surrounded by a huge plexiglass cage.

From the Spanish Steps, we made our way back to the river and strolled along until we were over near the Vatican, and then plunged back into the city for a little more shopping and sightseeing. No earth-shattering purchases—Susan found a few little jewelry things—but it’s a fun way to see the city. I didn’t buy much, though I managed to have their fabulous cherry ice cream at least once every day (both in Rome and elsewhere on the cruise). There were also fresh cherries everywhere, which were delicious. In fact, the extra-sweet cherries I got in Dubrovnik were the best I have ever had anywhere.

This wandering took us a good four hours, and we finished back on a little side street adjacent to the Piazza Navona where we found a little outdoor cafe and had dinner there. This amounted to the best meal we had all trip. It was a plate of local meats and cheeses with a huge glob of fresh buffalo mozzarella in the middle. We ordered, quite unnecessarily, a mushroom and mozzarella and gorgonzola pizza as well, which was spec-freakin’-tacular. We liked the meat & cheese platter so much that we came back the next day for another. That was the day.


The next day we had an appointment for the Vatican museums at 10:30. The plan was to tour those and take a few minutes for St. Peter’s Basilica. Getting the tickets in advance was brilliant, as the lines stretched for blocks and moved very slowly. We were able to bypass the whole thing, and join much shorter (but still substantial) lines inside. 

The museum was extremely crowded, and the organization vis-a-vis shuttling thousands of people thru the facility every day seemed spotty. There was a lot of signage, but not everything made easy sense. We rented audioguides (my first one did not want to work), and the presentations were very nicely produced. 

But after a while the collection just overwhelms. You don't realize going in--I didn't, anyway--just *how much* stuff they've laid their hands on. I was never the guy toward whom these collections were aimed, and my antipathy towards the church made me awfully skeptical about whether it was even a good idea to tour the place. But it seems stupid to go to one of Europe’s great cities and avoid this singular thing out of pique. So I told Susan I would try to be good and keep my snark at bay as much as possible. 

But it was hard. On the one hand, their collection of paintings and tapestries and sculptures and jewelry etc., etc. is unquestionably beautiful and it represents much of humanity’s last 800+ years. And it’s our history and it’s being very well looked-after. And I should hardly complain to pay an actual museum, say, for the privilege of looking at their collection, nor begrudge them charging a fee to look after these things. But on the other hand, I cannot for the life of me connect this vast, unfathomable wealth—it’s obscene, really; no other word seems to capture it—to ANYTHING connected to the Jesus story. To see this collection is to glimpse the very human men behind the curtain, to grasp the reality behind the facade. Pay no mind to what they say, the saying goes, but pay attention to what they do. The Jesus myth may have talked about the nobility of poverty and about a righteous life of privation dedicated to helping others, but that has NOTHING to do with what’s going on here. This is about power and privilege (and, yes, beauty). These guys were / are interested in exactly what rich, privileged men are seemingly always interested in: riding the backs of others to a position of comfort and ease and power. The invention of Jesus gives a convenient mascot for controlling the great unwashed from whom one may squeeze a few kopeks (which, when added up in their millions, amounts to great wealth indeed), but apart from some of the refreshing public pronouncements from the current Poobah, this place could not be further from that myth-story.

I tried to keep to the admiration side of my split personality for the duration of my visit. But it’s hard, for example, to suppress the Tourettes-like ejaculation when one hears the audio guide talk about this pope adding on this or that vast wing and having the barrel vault covered in gold leaf or having a 368-meter mosaic floor (that's four football fields' in length, if you're counting) built with scenes honoring his own reign (or, in one case, a vast mosaic floor pillaged from someone else’s palace and carried thousands of miles and re-installed here), or another pope amassing these several-thousand mind-boggling statues “at considerable expense.” The quick insertion of “IN COMPLETE DISREGARD OF THE TEACHINGS OF THE JESUS STORY” kept coming out almost involuntarily, and indeed would have made much of the history of the collections in the Versailles-sized museums align more properly with reality. (We met a fantastic Australian couple on the ship who went to see these museums on the ship day, and she said she just got angrier and angrier as she made her way through. What could have been done with this wealth is almost incalculable.)

Quite apart from that, I cannot but laugh with jaw agape as the commentary talks about “the mythology of the Greeks” and then does not see what followed immediately afterward in Rome as mythology. THAT was just made-up shit, but then suddenly the same kind of nonsense was TRUE and has remained so forever.

Anyway. I survived, and I can say that I saw the place. St. Peter’s was noteworthy for being immense—it’s something like 50% bigger in interior volume than the next-biggest, if I recall correctly. But I find I’m much more strongly drawn to the gothic architecture of my favorite Parisian stone buildings. St. Peter's is huge and stunningly-decorated and in brilliant shape, and it doubtless has an aura for the faithful. But it's a less-interesting building to me than Notre Dame or St. Eustache or St. Sulpice (or certainly than the Sagrada Familia).

We went back to the hotel for a short nap, and then spent the last five or six hours again roaming the streets. At this point we’re both quite homesick, but it’s so difficult to pull yourself away from all the activity on the streets and prepare to leave. Much more so than Venice, I think I could come back to Rome again and again and still barely scratch the surface of it. It’s not nearly so singular as Venice, and it’s just a much bigger place. The age of it gives it a charm and a mystery that would take a while to get to the bottom of.

But it will have to wait for another visit.

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