Tuesday, December 9, 2014


Chiesa Nuova
Church 1/2 block from our apartment

We flew from Cantania, Sicily, to Rome and met Bill's brother John at the airport around 16:00.  He flew in from Houston, Texas, so he had the much longer flight and was jet-lagged with the 7-hour time zone change.  We had arranged transport from the airport to the apartment we had rented through Halldis.  I had never heard of Halldis until my brother and sister-in-law used this company for their stay in Rome last summer.  We rented an apartment in the same building in which they had stayed; they had a 1-bedroom apartment and we had rented a 2-bedroom apartment.

Link:  The apartment we rented

As always, click on any image for larger view.

Entrance to our apt bldg

Via Cellini
Does this look like a street to you?
More like an alley to us.
Our apartment was 1/2 down this alley

Halldis also handled the transport from the airport.  Using the train and bus would have cost about half as much but the personal driver and car was really nice and convenient, and the cost was far less than a car and driver from the marina to the airport in Cantania.  Let's begin this mini-vacation in the most comfortable manner possible.

Apt was up 3 flights of stairs

The apartment was fine for our needs.  Beds were comfortable; plenty of hot water; air conditioning (which strangely we did need because the weather was surprisingly warm for this time of year); microwave; small fridge; 4- burner cook-top (no oven); and a television.  It was clean and the location was perfect.

Looking down into apartment living
room from entry door.
One SERIOUS deadbolt on
apt door == 4 bolts.

The apartment was a short distance from the Vatican, on a narrow 'street' (that we would call an alley) which intersected Corso Vittorio Emanuele II near the beautiful Piazza della Chiesa Nuova.  

The deadbolts also moved
these bars into door frame
and floor.  A very serious
door locking mechanism.

One day we walked into this church and were blown away by the interior.  It is gorgeous. Wish we had known the history of this church while we were there as we would have appreciated it even more.  I looked it up later.

There were dozens of tiny restaurants located on the narrow streets (alleyways) that meandered throughout the old area.  We enjoyed several of these restaurants for dinners. How can one not love the food in Italy!  

Our first glimpse of St. Peter's down Via Conciliation

Our first organized tour started at 07:45 the following morning at the "privileged entrance" to the Vatican museum.  I had purchased 3 'Small Group' tours from The Roman Guy   Each tour would last 3 hours.  During my research of what to see in Rome, The Roman Guy was mentioned over and over again as being one of the best tour companies with well-trained and knowledgeable guides. 

Entrance into Vatican
Our 3-person group would be a test for these guides because Bill's brother John is a Roman Catholic priest and knows a lot about Rome and its history as well as the church history.  John was last in Rome about 40 years ago.  It would be interesting to see how things have changed since his last visit.  Our group for this Vatican tour consisted of only 7 people plus the guide, and started just over 1 hour before the entrance opened to the public.  So we beat the crowds.  Later, when we saw how many people were lined up for entrance 3 hours later, our confidence that we had made the right decision to book this tour was strongly reinforced.  

Elaborate marble table in Vatican
Museum. Some of these types of
marble no longer exist.

Honestly, doing one of these "privileged entrance" tours is the only way to see the Vatican. Sure it costs a lot more -- but that cost is worth it.  When we were leaving, the queue to get in stretched about 4 blocks long.  Why spend limited vacation time standing in long lines.

Ornate hallway ceiling in Vatican

The entrance where we entered the museum did not exist 40 years ago when John was last here.  In fact, that entire building did not exist.  Nor did they have metal detectors and screen visitors back then.  The second thing John noticed is how much cleaner everything in the Vatican is now as compared to 4 decades past.  The artifacts and treasures have recently undergone cleaning by laser.  Everything looks much brighter now and details are much clearer. 

John, our guide and Bill.  Do not remember the
significance of the large bell.
I think everyone already knows that the interior of the Sistine Chapel recently was cleaned and that everyone was surprised to see how vibrant the colors painted by Michelangelo turned out to be once the 500 years of candle wax and soot were removed.  When John was last here only a tiny area of one wall had been cleaned to show the bright colors.  Today, they have left only a tiny area uncleaned to show how dark the entire chapel had become from the candle wax and soot.  The rest of the Sistine Chapel is very bright and colorful.  

Standing beside one of many columns made
from porphyry -- the rarest of all types of marble

If you visit, be sure to look at the floor.  Everyone is so busy looking at the famous ceiling and walls that most folks neglect to look down at the floor.  You are walking on artwork.  That marble floor is gorgeous and the craftsmanship is most impressive.  

Unfortunately, no photos are allowed within the Sistine Chapel.  Not even photos without a flash.  The reason has nothing to do with possibly damaging the paints or dimming the colors.  The reason no photos are allowed is that a company in Japan now owns the rights to all photography or videography until the year 2030.  Bummer!  Would have loved to take a few of our own photos in this famous place.

The Lemon Garden

Exiting the Sistine Chapel we walked down some famous steps which are built to create the illusion of the steps/stairs being longer and steeper.  When foreign dignitaries arrive to visit the Pope, they walk up these stairs to an area where they then greet the Pope.  I forgot the name of those 'famous' steps/stairs.

Balcony for addressing people in Lemon Garden

From there we exited outside to the interior of the Vatican.  Off to the right side at the ground level was a lovely lemon tree garden or square.   The building on one side had a balcony where the Pope addresses people within the Vatican.  (At least, that is what I understood the guide to say but maybe it is for someone else to address people within the Vatican -- not the public.)

Pope Benedict XVI resides in the building on left of tower.
His quarters are on top floor.

Past this lemon tree garden is the antennae for the Vatican Radio and Television.  And just to the left of that antennae stands a tower building in which retired Pope Benedict XVI (Pope Emeritus) now resides.

Tower in center is where Pope Gregory XIII came up with
the Gregorian calendar.
To our left stood a tower where Pope Gregory XIII secluded himself in 1582 to work out what is called the Gregorian calendar.  He calculated the change(s) required to the previously used Julian calendar which had been devised by Julius Caesar.  He calculated that a correction of 0.002% in the time period of a year was required to bring the date for the celebration of Easter to the time of the year in which the First Council of Nicaea had agreed upon in 325.  The Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar rather than a lunar calendar.  A regular Gregorian year consists of 365 days; and in a leap year, an intercalary or leap day is added and designated as February 29, thus making that year 366 days.  Normally a leap year occurs every 4 years, but the Gregorian calendar omits 3 leap days every 400 years. When John was here previously he had visited the rooms where Pope Gregory XIII had secluded himself to do this work.  John said the floor of one room had beautiful markings that designated where Pope Gregory had measured his astrological observations used to devise the new calendar.  Unfortunately, those rooms are not open to the public anymore. 
Getting closer to St. Peter's Basilica approaching from inside Vatican.
Can you see the people on the observation platform?
And directly in front of us in the near distance stood St. Peter's Basilica.  We had seen the dome earlier as we walked from the apartment to the entrance to the Vatican.  Now we were seeing the dome from another side.  Near the top of the dome is an observation deck level where we could barely discern people walking around.  They looked like tiny ants way up there.  We could have taken an elevator up to a certain point and then walked up about 230 steps to the observation deck.  Or we could have walked up about 560 steps up to the observation deck.  Bill said no.  Not doing it.  The view from up there is supposed to be spectacular.  But the day was gray and cloudy, on the brink of rain; and Bill saw no reason to hoof it up there.  Okay, fine by me.  Everyone knows how I feel about inclines and steps.

Pine Cone sculpture
Papal Carriage, extremely ornately gilded
The tour turned left into a large courtyard where the first thing we noticed was a pine cone sculpture.  Link:  Story of the Pine Cone Sculpture  The guide had planned to take us via a shortcut through that courtyard but there was some renovation construction blocking that shortcut.  So we turned 
John and Bill checking out enormous wheels
on Papal Carriage.
around and went back through the Sistine Chapel once again.  And this time the crowds had begun to arrive.  There were many more people in the chapel than when our small group had visited earlier in the morning.  John was surprised at how crowded it was but others had warned me how extremely crowded it gets in there these days and I was surprised that it was not even more crowded.  Others had told me that the crowds were shoulder-to-shoulder and forced to shuffle along together during the 'high season' for tourists.  We were here during 'off season' and the crowds were not nearly as thick.  According to Vatican statistics, there are average of 25,000 visitors daily today.  That is a huge number of people to walk those narrow hallways and stairways down into and out of the Sistine Chapel daily.  I am glad we were there at this slower time of year.  Also, tourists beware.  Because it does get so very crowded in there, this is a popular place for pickpockets to work.  Be very careful of your bags and pockets.

Inside St. Peter's Basilica

Back through most of the museum and back around a different way and then down some stone steps and eventually we ended up at the front entrance level of St. Peter's Basilica.  

Interior St. Peter's Basilica

One of 2 large sarcophagi made of priceless porphyry marble.

St. Peter's is the largest church in the world.  There are so many details and items of interest inside this church that there is no way I could mention even 1% of those in this blog. A few of the major items of interest were 2 sarcophagi made entirely of the red/purple marble, called porphyry, that is the most expensive marble on earth.  We saw a lot of porphyry in the Vatican museum and inside St. Peter's.  The stuff is supposedly priceless as it no longer exists in the earth to be quarried.  

The Pietà
Another major item of interest is the Pietà , the white Carrara marble sculpture by Michelangelo Buonarroti which was completed in 1498-99.  This famous work of art depicts the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion.  It is spectacular.  It also is now protected by barriers of clear bulletproof acrylic glass to keep visitors well away from the sculpture.  It is no longer possible to walk around to see it from all sides, which is unfortunate as that is the main design of any be viewed from all sides and angles.  This sculpture sustained minor damage as it was moved several times over the centuries; however, the most substantial damage occurred on May 21, 1972 on Pentecost Sunday when a mentally disturbed geologist named Laszlo Toth walked into the chapel and attacked the sculpture with a geologist's hammer while shouting "I am Jesus Christ; I have risen from the dead!"  With 15 blows he knocked off Mary's arm at the elbow, knocked off a chunk of her nose, and chipped one of her eyelids.  Onlookers took as souvenirs many of the pieces of marble that flew off.  Later, after an appeal from the Vatican, some of the pieces were returned; but many were not, including Mary's nose.  Her nose had to be reconstructed from a block cut out of her back.  After the attack, the work was painstakingly restored and returned to its place in St. Peter's, just to the right of the entrance, between the Holy door and the altar of Saint Sebastian.  It is now protected by those bulletproof acrylic glass panels.

Body of Pope John XXIII

Obviously, one of the major items of interest for visitors is the body of Pope John XXIII, who was recently declared a saint.  Supposedly his corpse has not corrupted but I remain unconvinced of that claim.  Link:  Pope John 23 corpse on view  To me, his corpse looks like he could be in Madame Tuddauds Wax Museum.  I'm sure the faithful feel differently about that.

"Gravestone" for a pope.  Fancy, huh?

Papal apartments encompass the last 3 windows on right of
the beige brick building overlooking St. Peter's Square

Changing of the guard

As I said, there are so many things inside St. Peter's Basilica that there is no way to mention but a tiny portion on this blog.  One could spend days inside there and not see it all.  

Outside we watched the changing of the guard in their ultra-colorful uniforms (costumes) of the Swiss Guard.  

A few statues of the saints on top of structure on both sides
of St. Peter's Square.  Recently cleaned & now white again.

The statues atop the columns and pillars around St. Peter's Square had also recently been cleaned, as had all the exterior Travertine marble.  This was a major change from when John last visited here.  He said it was very dirty and darkened from air pollution; now it is white and bright.  

4,000 year old Egyptian obelisk

The famous 4,000 year old Egyptian obelisk dominates the square.

The street angling off toward right is the avenue of Conciliation. (not sure of spelling)

And people were still queued up for blocks waiting to gain entrance into the Vatican.  So glad we sprang the bucks for this tour and got inside early.

John and Bill standing in St. Peter's Square.
All those people are standing in line waiting for entry.
After we exited St. Peter's Square John headed to an office to arrange a surprise blessing for someone while Bill and I headed off in search of a police station so we could report his lost wallet.  The first hour we were in Rome Bill managed to lose his wallet.  It was not stolen, it fell from his jacket pocket.  We re-traced our steps to no avail.  Someone had found it and kept it.  He lost about 500 Euro but the big problem was the loss of his VA card, insurance card, drivers license and a few credit cards.  We immediately called and canceled the credit cards.  Now that we are in Houston he is getting replacements for all the other needed items.  No one to blame except himself.  Great way to start a vacation, huh?  Several local people told us to report it to the police because often whoever finds a wallet will keep the cash but also turn in the wallet to authorities so there *might* be a remote possibility of getting the insurance cards and drivers license back.  We are not holding our breath on that.

St. Peter's Basilica as seen from St. Peter's Square.
All those chairs are now left in place for when important
people come to hear the Pope speak.
After the police station we met up with John in a bar to relax over sandwiches and drinks. It would rain the rest of the afternoon, stopping just in time for us to walk the alleyways near the apartment to find a lovely restaurant for dinner.  This turned out to be our favorite restaurant during this trip and we returned several times.  Twin brothers were server and bartender and joked a lot with us.  Check out our review for Ristorante Il Fico  It was a lot of fun and the food was delicious.  By far the best pasta we ate in Rome.

Beat after a full day of touring, walking,
climbing stairs to apartment

The next day we had scheduled the 3-hour Driving Tour of Rome.  On that tour we learned something interesting about Julius Caesar; but that is for the next blog posting.

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