Rome, Part IV: Holy extortion, Batman…Is it time for lunch?

Read from the beginning: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part II] [Rome, Part III]

Day 5: So we set out early today, and walk the familiar streets across the Forum, over the river and through the…Not Throngs! We arrive at the Vatican before 9am and are greeted by an early morning glow in St. Peter’s Square. It’s so much more peaceful here without the hordes, where you can actually see the square. But it’s a strategic decision, because one cannot get to the Vatican Museum (and Sistine Chapel) directly from the Basilica, so it was a choice to either start here or there and then stand in line for the other.

The cathedral is spectacular: it’s an opulent display of the Church’s wealth and stature, and the artwork is stunning even to this heathen’s eyes (involuntarily hoping I won’t burst into flames in the center of the room; that would be both messy and embarrassing, and my companion would not be amused. Or maybe he would 😉).

There’s an admission fee to get in to see the Basilica’s Duomo, which feels inherently wrong to me. A devotee to what is essentially the best-funded religious organisation on the planet makes a pilgrimage to the Holy See and still has to pay to see all of it. Fact: you can pay 2€ less if you “walk” (it’s 500 steep, narrow, windy marble steps; you save 100 steps per € or so if you ride the elevator part-way up). Another fact: it was designed by Michelangelo, who had a hand in a lot of the artwork here, the Pietà and the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for starters.

I’m a visitor, and not remotely Catholic, so I don’t exactly mind the fee, but there are a thousand other churches in Rome, some equally beautiful, that one can just wander into without a queue or the purchase of an E ticket. That said, the view from the top is stunning: you can see the entire city on this crisp, clear morning.

Next stop: the Vatican Museum. It’s barely 10:30 when we arrive, and the line is already around the corner. So the choice becomes whether to wait the 2+ hours in the queue or pay one of the hustlers on the street for a “skip the line” pass and walk in. We cave to temptation and are shuffled, first to the ticket office, then to the front of the line (to get to the other line to enter the museum). It all seems like a grand scheme to extort € from tourists, but this being our last full day, we don’t want to spend it waiting. Until we get inside and realise we’re packed into the halls, surrounded by tour groups from a multitude of lands, each guide sporting a pom-pom on a stick and shepherding their lot through the galleries. Oh, the imagery.

It is, as they say, what it is: we flow with the crowd through the different halls (Raphael’s Philosophy mural, School of Athens, blows my mind: Aristotle and Plato and a cameo by Raphael himself in vibrant hues – incredibly preserved since the 14th Century!), from here through the tapestry-lined hallways and to the Sistine Chapel. As we wander, it strikes me as ironic that the Church has plastered and painted fig leaves on many of the works.

I had expected a chapel, not a grand ballroom filled wall-to-wall with bodies, necks craned to take in the masterpieces that surround. It’s here I learn that Michelangelo poked a little fun at the Church in painting The Creation of Adam. It turns out that he hid a perfect anatomical model of the human brain in plain sight in this painting.

After the Sistine Chapel, the crowds seem to thin. The map room is amazing, as are the little sculptures and artifacts that dot the halls. The stairway itself is a work of art. We exit into the blue-skied Roman day, satisfied that our ransom was (mostly) worth the price.

All that art-gazing makes a tourist hungry. So it’s to another landmark of sorts: the birthplace of fettuccine Alfredo. On an unobtrusive side street sits Alfredo alla Scrofa who claim to have invented the iconic dish. We sit, order, then heed the waiter’s instructions to eat it hot! This is some of the best pasta I’ve ever had…it does not disappoint!

We wend our way back towards the Forum, passing by the Pantheon again (and into, this time). It is only after-the-fact that I learn that one of the statues inside is an early Michelangelo (Christ the Redeemer), sans foule, sans admission fee, at eye-level! This city is incredible.

We’d planned to take in the late afternoon atop Palatine Hill. But it can’t be accessed without a ticket, which for some reason entails waiting in the obscene line for the Colosseum (or paying another ransom); so instead, we take a suggestion from a friend and walk up to the Piazza Caffarelli, and admire the views over the Teatro Marcello and Portico di Ottavia, and towards the 12 other palaces that dot the skyline in that direction…their domes magical in the golden light.

Quick trips have a way of leaving you wanting more. And this Eternal City escape is no different. We walked more than two marathons this week and saw dozens and dozens (if not hundreds) of centuries-old wonders, ate fantastic food and drank local wine. My head hits the pillow this last night, prosecco-filled dreams of Roman gods and cobbled ways.


Epilogue: Homeward, revelations, intentions, Rome-ance…

The tip of Corsica as we leave…

I sit, stuffed into a window seat, on a chatty day flight home through Philadelphia. I’m already cringing at the loud, sharp, nasal ‘Merkin accents that abound, and think about the New Year’s Eve conversation about goals and intentions.

There’s the writing: publish the damn thing already. And the travelling: whale sharks and mantas and lemurs (and of course the elephants), far-flung forests and daunting peaks are all calling. And the living: it’s time to figure out where I fit, and on what continent. Big shifts happen about every 7 years, so it’s time…and so we’ll see.

A friend asked me if Rome was Rome-antic. I ponder this, having spent the week here with a human who sits firmly in my heart. Sure, there are long-stemmed roses on offer and cobbled-street strolls and prosecco toasts and the effect of the city’s magical light. The word romance comes from (the Old French romanz which comes from) the Latin romanicus, which, of course, means Roman. But Rome is a city built of passion and hubris. The heart leading the head (and body) into battle for Empirical supremacy, its buildings erected in fervent tribute to the Pagan gods and Roman leaders who were exulted as gods, said edifices desecrated and re-dedicated to those that served the hearts (and bellies) of the people over the millennia. Art is love, and this city is swathed in it. We see tributes to Jupiter and Juno, Minerva, Neptune and Venus, dotting the Piazzi and adorning the bridges over the Tiber. The river itself is named for the god Tibernius, credited with finding Romulus and Remus, whose story is where myth borrows magic and becomes history. We see temples to Roman gods turned into Christian places of worship, layering historical fact and folklore upon architectural wonders. Myths and legends, these stories weave their way from the heart to the head and to the hands and bodies of Romans who carved chronicles of their gods and Emperors and war heroes in marble throughout the city, preserving them eternally in the fountains and structures across Rome.

So, yes.

The Eternal City only stays as such if it is held in the heart. The heart only stays true if you choose it over the head and the body.


Read from the beginning: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part II] [Rome, Part III]

When in Rome, Part II: An audience with the Pope’s audience, world’s best tiramisu and Fawlty Towers – Rome edition

Read more: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part III]

Day 3: We wake up on the early side of New Year’s Day with a plan to see The Vatican. It turns out that we’ll miss the New Year’s Mass (which is fine by me, actually, since I’ve been a practicing heathen since I can remember), but we set out in that direction anyway, making a b-line towards Vatican City, which is technically its own country. It turns out they don’t stamp passports here, but we decide that would be a fantastic business opportunity should the winds change. I learnt some factoids this day: Vatican City is the smallest country on the planet, and its capital (essentially, St. Peter’s Basilica) is built upon an ancient Roman (read: Pagan) burial ground which contains St. Peter’s tomb and catacombs. VC even has a surrounding wall sporting grand archways and a passageway to secrete the Pope away (in the private sense) from any danger.*

On the way, we pass through the Piazza Navona and wonder at its magnificent fountains, the most impressive depicting the 4 Rivers (Nile, Ganges, Danube and Rio de la Plata, representing the 4 continents throughout which papal authority has spread) and boasting an Egyptian obelisk at its center. There is another fountain for Neptune, and yet another depicting il Moro, the Moor. Wandering the winding streets, with their ornate doorways, balconies and narrow cobbled alleyways, then bumping into weird and wonderful sights, away from the hordes of tourists, is what I’m liking best here thus far.

So it turns out that half the population of Rome, plus perhaps half the Catholics in Italy, also thought it was a good idea to try to see The Pope today. If the previous night’s throngs weren’t enough, they were all now out in broad daylight. The good news is that while maneuvering through the crowd to ask a guard what all the people were waiting for, we find out that The Pope is slated to do his New Year’s message of peace in just 20 minutes. Somehow, we then maneuver ourselves to the security line (it pays to have a co-wanderer that is a head taller than the crowd!) and into St. Peter’s square in time to see the Papal Rug unfurled and il Papa take his place at the window. While I’m not religious, nor do I understand Italian, I understand the word pace and think that this Pope is trying to guide the Church (albeit kicking and screaming) towards the 21st Century.

Audience with the Pope (erm, an audience with his audience anyway), check! Next stop: Pranzo. Reminded of the food hawkers in Jemaa el Fna, each restaurant here has a maître d’ out in the street, trying to woo customers. One is successful (l’Isola della Pizza) and we’re treated to some of the best roasted vegetables I’ve ever had, a very decent pizza al forno, and an outdoor table for quality people-watching. Nearly every restaurant or café here has outdoor seating and propane heaters to make a meal on a brisk afternoon both charming and much more comfortable.

A friend who lived here has given me recommendations for some of his favourites: food, gelato and tiramisu. It is the latter that we then go in search of (one benefit of traipsing across Rome and back by foot is that the exquisite food is somehow earned!). Another queue, but this one much shorter. Pompi is a chain of bakeries that touts itself as the best tiramisu in Rome. We concur, as we meander and devour our treats, we wander through the charming Piazza di Spagna, towards the Spanish Steps (still not visible) and through the Piazza Colonna, with its impressive monument to Marcus Aurelius, a column built in the 1st century, in a storybook style depicting the battles of the Macromannic Wars, not dissimilar to Trajan’s own colonna just down the street.


We’ve been wandering for hours and the sun begins to set, casting the buildings and statues around the piazza in a golden glow, setting fire to Victoria (Nike), as she rides the Quadriga atop the Altare della Patria.

We’d logged 20km this day, so we arrived back at the B&B both weary and starving. Thus, we were determined to find dinner close to home. What luck that we’re staying quite near a little square, somewhat removed from the din of the Forum and Colosseum, and we find a sweet-looking place nearby that looks bustling. Little did we know that Basil Fawlty had a long-lost twin who ended up in Rome and opened a pizzeria/restaurant 3 blocks from the Colosseum. The meal was decent (not the best nor the worst gnocchi I’d ever had), as was the wine. But it was the service to which I’d give 5 stars for its comedic value. It was like the Flying Karamazov Brothers met an Indian-Italian comedy troupe and decided to partner with Fawlty to open a restaurant. It went something like this:

Waiter 1: *leads us to a table

Waitress 1 (to Waiter 1), carrying food: Is this table 25?

Waiter 1: Sì.

Waitress 1: *goes to put the food down on our table, but realises we’ve just been seated and whirls away

Waiter 1: *vanishes, flustered.

Waiter 2: *arrives with menus and demands our order

C: un momento per favore. Una piccola caraffa di vino et l’acqua spumante

Waiter 2: Okay (English). *vanishes

Waiter 3: *arrives at the next table with a tray of food, offers it to us, then the next table over, realises it’s not for any of us and vanishes.

Waiter 1: *takes our order

Waitress 1: *brings one glass of wine

C (in English now): we ordered a small carafe of wine, please

Waitress: we only have it by the glass. *disappears

Waiter 2: *arrives with a bottle of water marked “still”

C (to any waiter who will listen): we ordered sparkling water. *we give the “still” water to the table next to ours, who open it to find it is, in fact, sparkling. They give it back.

Waitress: *appears as Waiter disappears, brings one glass of wine, which she then gives to the woman at the next table

Waiters 2, 3 and 4: *haphazardly shuttle food back and forth between the large table sitting next to us and other tables around the restaurant.

Other patrons: *confused and amused, watching the show

Waiter 1: *looks at our one glass of wine, then up at us. (At this point, I can’t help but envision Manuel the waiter)

C (straight-faced and I don’t know how at this point): can we have another glass of wine?

Waiter 7: *brings another glass of wine and a massive salad in a bowl with no serving utensils. We still have no forks or knives.

It continues somewhat like this until we have our meal. Placemats and silverware have also materialised. The large party next to us has finished and gets up to pay; one brave soul returns a moment later to look for a waiter who will give them their table number (this is apparently the only way to call up the bill on the electronic system). The waiters and waitress discuss table numbers amidst much pointing and looking over their shoulders. We finish and go to pay, only to find a small queue and a frenzied cashier trying to sort out which table got which food and which bill goes to whom. We do not know our table number. The cashier is going through every open bill with the couple in front of us. C and I exchange a look that confirms that we agree we’ve just eaten at Fawltius Torris. We track down one of the wait staff to determine our table number just in case.

C and I laugh as we walk off dinner, taking in the huge Christmas tree in front of the Typewriter, the structure looming as regally as it did when it was built: the center of most everything nearby, its spotlights illuminating the marble steps and statues that guard the tomb of the unknown soldier.

I fall asleep this first day of the New Year grateful for the experience of travel, grateful for the health and job and friendship and an acquired sense of adventure and wanderlust that make even small trips like this one possible. I giggle a little to myself as I replay the cartoon dinner we’ve just had.

Tomorrow we go back to The Vatican and try to get in.

Read more: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part III]


*This article had me rolling (ROFL and my eyes) when I read it upon my return.