Tour Day 7
The ride out of Florence takes us through the Tuscan countryside into Umbria. This is the romantic Italian landscape of the imagination: cypress trees, olive groves, rustic farmhouses. We pass the walled, mountaintop town of Orvieto, beckoning to be explored another time. We leave the highway, and head deeper into the Italian countryside. Our bus driver expertly negotiates hairpin turns on the edge of the mountain as we climb higher toward the Agriturismo Poggio della Volara in Montecchio.
Poggio della Volara is a fine example of the agritourism movement in Italy. Marco greets us when we arrive at the vineyard. He and his wife Gaiva invite visitors to stay in their guest apartments, and sample life on a working vineyard in the Italian countryside. We have come for lunch and a winetasting.
The mountaintop view is spectacular. We are surrounded by fifty acres of grape vines, olive trees, and pastures. A feeling of tranquility descends over the group as we explore the site. Two long tables are set for lunch on the terrace outside the large, rustic farmhouse. Beautiful still-life arrangements of wine jugs, pots, and cacti accent the setting.
Marco’s passion for winemaking comes through as he explains the cultivation of grapes. He educates the group on the process of pressing olives for oil. We learn to carefully read the labels on grocery store olive oils, and not waste money on low end products that have little nutritional value.
We have worked up a thirst, and finally it is time to taste wine. Gaiva has created a most amazing spread of food to complement the wine, laying the feast out on a huge table: four types of pizza, several cheeses, delicious squash fritters, egg salad wrapped in lettuce and served on a giant aloe vera leaf, meats, and grilled bread, all prepared with their superior olive oil. Now this is the best day yet!
We sample a crisp white wine, and a fruity red. The region is known for Orvieto Classico wine, and Marco’s is outstanding. For dessert, we have jam crostata, espresso, and biscotti with a tasty dessert wine. Yum, yum. We purchase several bottles of wine to drink in Rome, but we regret not being able to take any olive oil home in our carry-on bags. We board the bus to resume our trip to Rome with full stomachs. We drink in our last look at Umbria.
“Now this is the best day yet!”
Our first glimpse of Rome is of apartment buildings lining the outskirts of the city, and then of the Tiber River. The Tiber! Where Rome was founded, where the twins Romulus and Remus were abandoned, then found and raised by a she-wolf.
Our bus drops us off near the busy Via del Corso. My traveling companion and I slip on our backpacks, and we walk the rest of the way to the Hotel San Carlo. Like the other hotels on our tour, this one is charming and well maintained. Our room is connected to a small patio that overlooks the Via delle Carrozze, and its many cafes and shops.
Patricia leads us on an evening walk to orient ourselves to the area. The next street over is the fashionable Via dei Condotti, lined with luxury shops Bulgari, Gucci, Armani, Ferragamo, Prada, and others. The window displays are captivating, the clothing, accessories, and jewelry, high style and expensive. Rome is crowded with school groups on spring tours, more little darlings. “Don’t break the chain,” is our mantra as we dodge traffic to cross the street as a group. Our hotel is very near several must-see sites. Spanish Steps, check. Trevi Fountain, check. Piazza Navona, check. Bernini Fountains, check. Pantheon, check.
“Don’t break the chain.”
The Pantheon, a building that is both ancient and recent, pagan and Christian, is a fitting start to our tour of Rome. Built by the Emperor Hadrian as a Roman temple on the site of an even earlier temple of Emperor Augustus, the Pantheon became a Christian church in the 7th century AD that is still in use today. Layer upon layer upon layer is a good way to describe the Pantheon, and indeed, the city of Rome.
This ancient Roman monument is beautifully preserved, the interior grand. We walk on original marble floors. We are surprised to discover that the artist Raphael is buried here, along with other artists, and several kings of Italy. The round building is covered with a half-sphere in precise geometric proportions: the height of the cylinder is equal to the radius of the sphere; the distance from the floor to the top of the dome is exactly equal its diameter. At 142 feet in diameter, it is the largest unsupported dome in the world. The oculus in the center of the dome is open to the sky. The amazing dome of the Pantheon inspired numerous domes around the world, like the Duomo in Florence, Michelangelo’s Dome for St. Peter’s Basilica, and even the dome at the United States Capitol.
Our group gathers by an Egyptian Obelisk set in the Fontana del Pantheon, a massive fountain with dolphins, that graces the Piazza della Rotonda in front of the Pantheon. From here we get a good view of the sixteen massive columns supporting the portico in front of the temple. These too were brought from Egypt. Looted works have art have always been the spoils of war, brought back by conquerors to show their power over the vanquished. Still, the juxtaposition of cultures is striking.
Patricia leads us to dinner at Restaurant L’Angoletto for a delicious Roman dinner of Gnocchi al Gorgonzola, Eggplant Parmigiana, and Tiramisu. Wine flows. My traveling companion and I are still full from lunch, but we soldier on through each course.
The warm evening lends itself to a leisurely stroll back to the hotel. We visit the dramatically lit fountains at the Piazza Navona. We are mesmerized by Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers. Nearby, the Trevi Fountain is a bit less crowded now; its grand scale and theatricality pure magic at night. Everywhere, people are walking, moving, the city is alive, 21st century Romans living amidst ancient, classical, and Baroque splendor. A perfect evening in Rome.
“City of a million moonlit places, City of a million warm embraces.”
Tour Day 8
Today we explore Christian Rome: Vatican City, seat of the Catholic Church, the unsurpassed collection of art at the Vatican Museums, and the largest church in the world, St. Peter’s Basilica.
We anticipate an enormous day, so it is nice to have free time in the morning to get ourselves together, do a little laundry in the shower, and take care of business.
Patricia meets us late morning. We process to the subway station as a group. The presence of machine-gun toting Polizia is strong here. Patricia distributes subway tickets, and instructs us in the use of the underground transportation system. The Rome Metro system works very much like other subways we have ridden in Washington, D.C. or New York City. A few stops later, we exit at the Vatican. We must fortify ourselves before we go further, so street food it is. We sample delicious pizza by the slice from Habemus Pizza, then ice cream from Old Bridge Gelateria around the corner. Yum, yum.
If we thought we had seen big crowds before on this trip, they were nothing compared to those at the Vatican, where over five million visit each year. We meet our local guide outside the entrance to the Vatican Museums. The crowd is vast, noisy, aggressive. No way would my traveling companion and I attempt to negotiate this without a trusted guide. And she teaches us how to cope: she waves her arms over us and says, “Put your head in a zen bubble!” I love that concept; I vow to apply that concept to other situations in life.
“Put your head in a zen bubble!”
We enter the building without waiting in line. We cannot take in all fifty-four galleries of the Vatican Museums. We cannot take in the entire history of Western Art, or the 20,000 pieces on display. But several great works must be noted. First, three ancient masterpieces of sculpture: the Apollo Belvedere, the Belvedere Torso, and the Laocoon. The Greek sculpture of Laocoon and his sons writhing in agony was discovered in Rome during Michelangelo’s time. The well-defined musculature of the Belvedere Torso we shall see again in Michelangelo’s figures in the Sistine Chapel. And the pose of the Apollo Belvedere reminds us of David. So these Greek marbles inspired the Renaissance master, and are a fitting way to begin our art tour.
Paintings by Raphael are not to be missed, especially The Transfiguration, The Annunciation, and The Adoration of the Magi. And one of the greatest paintings of the Renaissance, The School of Athens. Here, Raphael looks out at us from the bottom corner. In this painting of philosophers, Raphael placed Da Vinci’s face on Plato, the architect Bramante’s face on Euclid’s body, and Michelangelo’s face on Heracleitus, right in the center of the work. This painting, and the Greek sculptures, are my traveling companion’s favorite works.
To me, the Gallery of Maps is the most jaw-dropping, unforgettable masterwork at the Vatican Museums, because I like maps. The gallery is 400 feet long, and consists of forty topographical map paintings by the artist Danti. These frescoes depict the entire Italian peninsula and prominent cities in 1580. The vaulted ceiling is heavily decorated with gold relief scrollwork and decorative panels. As we walk down the long hall, we are encompassed by the world’s largest pictorial map study.
Ornate ceilings and floors abound in the Vatican Museums. The Rotunda Room is especially beautiful, with a dome based on the Pantheon, and intricate mosaics underfoot. Our local guide expresses concern that six million visitors a year are walking upon the ancient mosaic floors, removed from Roman villas and other historical structures. We agree that these floors should be conserved and protected.
See more Mosaics
We take a short break on the terrace to collect our thoughts before entering the madhouse that is the Sistine Chapel. We pass the giant bronze pinecone, the Fontana della Pigna, that once decorated a fountain in ancient Rome. Our local guide takes a few moments to explain the artwork that we are about to see, because there is no talking in the Sistine Chapel. In theory.
We enter the Sistine Chapel. The space is packed shoulder to shoulder with people. To see the ceiling, we must crane our necks all the way back. Truly, it looks like the photos we have seen, but with people everywhere, bumping into us. Michelangelo’s colors are brilliant. We are surprised at the size of The Last Judgement on the back wall, and its intensity. We try to contemplate the frescoes in the chapel, but a voice comes over the crackly loudspeaker every few minutes, repeating “Silenzio, silenzio. No photo, no video,” sounding like the Wizard of Oz. The noise level in the room goes down a few notches, but people cannot not talk, and the volume eventually rises. We have thirty minutes to spend in the chapel, and feel relieved when the time is up. It is not the spiritual or artistic experience we imagined. We would have been happier with half the time in the space, if there was half the crowd and half the noise level. We wonder why the visitor experience to the Sistine Chapel isn’t managed differently by museum officials.
“Silenzio, silenzio. No photo, no video.”
A little shell-shocked, our group enters St. Peter’s Basilica. We stand inside the doorway in awe, trying to take in the magnificent interior of the world’s largest church. A crowd is gathered in front of a side chapel. We cannot get close to Michelangelo’s Pieta. The sublime sculpture is covered by a clear protective wall. The lighting casts a yellowish glow over the white Carrara marble. But we can clearly see Mary’s sorrow as she holds the limp body of her son. The circle of Michelangelo is complete. We have seen his work in Florence, and now in Rome, all the way up to the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica that he designed.
We begin to focus on details in the church: numerous carved putti, the baroque splendor of Bernini’s Baldachin–the sculpted bronze canopy over the high altar, the way light pours down in rays from the dome above. Near the immense mosaic reproduction of Raphael’s Transfiguration stands a large wooden box for offerings. All through Italy, I have been carrying a holy card from my father’s funeral. This seems like a fitting place to to remember my father. I slip the card into the slot for offerings, and say a silent prayer. I purchase a rosary with large beads from the nuns who operate a religious souvenir shop adjacent to the Basilica for my 97-year old mother.
Before we leave Vatican City, we observe the changing of the Swiss Guards. My, my, we think, they only hire male models for the job. Patricia has obtained tickets from the Guards for Palm Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Square. My traveling companion and I jump at the offer, though no one else in our group is able to go, as the event will happen after our tour is officially over. Patricia surprises us with a souvenir, and it is one that we will always treasure: a Popener! Yes, it is a bottle opener with a picture of Papa Francesco, officially sanctioned, and somewhat rare. May all our beers be blessed.
Our tour group splits off in different directions for the evening. We follow Patricia for the easy walk back to the hotel. On the Via della Conciliazione, we turn around for the long view of St. Peter’s Basilica, and try to picture the square full of 200,000 people.
We walk out of Vatican City, past souvenir stands set up along the Tiber River, and stop to view the imposing Castel Sant’Angelo. This round castle served as a mausoleum, a fortress, and is now a museum.
We pass the most beautiful bridge in Rome, the Ponte Sant’Angelo, the Bridge of Angels. This ancient Roman bridge was later topped with ten statues of angels by created by Bernini, each holding an object or instrument relating to the death of Christ, such as a whip, a crown of thorns, a lance. The bridge glows in the waning evening light.
We cross the Tiber. Patricia leads us to the Ara Pacis, the Altar of Peace. This ancient Roman Sculpture was dedicated in 9 BC to honor Pax, the goddess of Peace. Sculpted of marble, the large altar is enclosed by an open structure. The sculptures that cover the sides consist of carved figures and decorative floral scrolls. We are amazed to learn that this whole structure was found near the river, buried under thirteen feet of silt.
My traveling companion and I have compiled a list of restaurants to try in Rome. But instead of searching for those, we discover a tiny restaurant around the corner from our hotel, Cantina Belsiana. The wine menu is written on a chalkboard, and the clientele looks like a mix of locals and tourists. We sip house wine, and eat delicious salad and eggplant. Later, we sit on the patio off our hotel room. We drink the wine we brought from Marco’s vineyard in Umbria, and eat chocolate and nuts to end the intense day.
Tour Day 9
It is hard to believe, but we have come to the last full day of our tour. Today we explore ancient Rome. We travel as a group on the Metro, and head toward the Capitoline Hill area of Rome, where the major ancient sites are located. We meet our local guide outside our first stop, the Basilica of San Clemente. Before we go inside, we have time for a cappuccino and yummy pastry from the nearby café. We admire the street market of fresh foods and flowers. We are startled to look down the street through a tangle of poles and wires, and see the Colosseum.
We gather around our local guide as we prepare to enter the church. She asks us to think of Rome as a city built in layers. This is evident at the Basilica of San Clemente, which is a 12th century church, built on top of a 4th century church, built on top of a 1st century temple, built on top of even older Roman structures. We enter in silence. A group of monks is praying and singing near the altar. Their haunting chants fill the cavernous space. We see that this is more than an ancient relic, it is a living place for worship and contemplation. The Byzantine church is exquisite, with gold mosaics behind the altar, and an ornate ceiling. We are not permitted to take photographs here.
We walk across the beautiful mosaic tile floor, and learn how the investigation of a loose tile led to the discovery of the church underneath. We go down under the current church, down lower, and even lower. We walk on floors that ancient Romans walked on. Our local guide helps us to understand time gone by, and how fire, flood, and decay had buried the old city. The new city rises on top of that, and time moves on. Before we leave, I light a candle in the sanctuary.
Now we come to the very center of Rome: the iconic Colosseum. The clear blue-sky day makes for a perfect photo opportunity. Even partially damaged and scavenged for building materials, the giant amphitheater is impressive from the outside, with three tiers of columns rising as high as a twelve-story building. Equally impressive are the long lines waiting to enter the site. Here is another instance where we are happy to be part of a tour group—we enter the structure without waiting in line.
Our local tour guide helps us to fill in the missing pieces of the Colosseum, to imagine the sounds and the scents of 80,000 spectators crammed into the space, of the animal hunts, sea battles, or dramatic performances that took place there. And of course, the gladiators, armed in combat to entertain Roman audiences. We look in silence upon the space where they fought and died. And yet, we admire the engineering of the Colosseum, the awe-inspiring symbol of the power and strength of Imperial Rome.
Even more impressive, although more in ruins, is the Roman Forum. Here we find the center of Roman life, and the center of ancient Roman government. The sprawling remnants of a once vibrant culture remain: shrines, temples, government offices. We are amazed to learn the area was buried with sediment from the Tiber, and from erosion of the surrounding hills, and is still being excavated. The new city rises layer by layer, atop the old. We shiver to think that right before us, Marc Anthony gave a funeral oration for Caesar’s death, and that Caesar’s body was publicly burned here. The long view of history is on display. Centuries pass, yet some things endure; such was the might of the Roman Empire.
See more Ancient Ruins
Ancient Rome tour over, my traveling companion and I break away from the group in search of lunch. We walk through the Campidoglio, Michelangelo’s grand plaza in front of the Capitoline Museums. We cross in front of the 20th century Victor Emmanuel Monument, and enter the Jewish Ghetto. The streets are lined with pleasant cafes and shops, filled with tourists and locals alike. We have a delicious lunch of spaghetti with clams, fried artichokes, and glasses of Prosecco at Il Giardino Romano. A man plays an accordion on the sidewalk. It is hard for us to imagine the history of the area, of Jews being rounded up by Nazis during World War II. Another layer of the city of Rome.
After lunch, we walk to the Museo di Roma, an art museum located in the gorgeous Palazzo Braschi. We view a major show of works by the artist Artemisia Gentileschi, a rare female Renaissance painter, and one of great talent. We are grateful that our next-door neighbor in Cleveland, a frequent traveler to Italy, has recommended the show.
We negotiate the busy streets and crowds of shoppers as we near our hotel. We pass the Basilica of Sant’Agostino, and I stop in my tracks. We have been searching for a souvenir for our son, and here is a church dedicated to St. Augustine, his namesake. The church is not open, but at the religious gift store across the street, we purchase a small wooden icon of the saint.
Allora, it is evening, and we meet for our last dinner together with the tour group. We take the metro to Ristorante Target, near the Termini Station. We are seated all together at one long table. Wine flows. We toast. Someone from the group makes a gracious and eloquent speech, summarizing the experience, and thanking Patricia for being the ultimate tour guide. We enjoy a lovely meal of fish, pear salad, and gelato.
Out on the sidewalk, we hug and start our goodbyes—some people are leaving early in the morning. Most of us follow Patricia back to the hotel. We discuss our plans for further travel, or for going home. We exchange contact information. More hugs and goodbyes at the hotel. The tour is coming to the end. I am surprised to feel sad that our time together is already over. In the end, we find that our tour group was fairly well matched, and compatible.
Tour Day 10
The tour is officially over after breakfast the next morning, but people have already scattered.
My traveling companion and I have booked three more nights at the Hotel San Carlo, and plan to see more of Rome. We wave goodbye to a van full of our tour mates leaving for the airport as we set off for Vatican City, and Palm Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Square. We are on our own in Rome!