Adventures, one at a time.

Italy Day 3: Ay, caramba, Spartacus

Today we were slightly smarter about getting around Rome. We used the Moovit app to find the right bus that took us directly to Vatican City. Haha! Take that, flat feet!

The Vatican, apparently, is a very important place for many people. I know this because all those many people decided to show up the morning of our tour. The line of people waiting to enter the Vatican museum stretched and lingered and twisted, on it went, past shops with the Pope on calendars, past shops with the Pope on postcards, past shops with the Pope on keychains.

But we were fortunate because Suzanne had a booked a skip-the-line tour, so we hopped off the bus just in time for our tour to begin. We sauntered into the Vatican museum entrance without a sweat. Easy peasy.

Well -

Then we had to find another line to get our vouchers checked again and meet our tour guide, but this time we were too early, so we milled about in the throngs of Vatican chaos until it was our time to go.

Our tour guide was from South Korea, and she gathered us all together and gave us instructions in English punctuated by a thick Italian accent. First, connect our radios to our earpiece so we could hear her clearly (otherwise she’d have to yell). Next, form into a tight bunch in a courtyard near some you-are-here type maps of the Sistine Chapel. And then, for nearly an hour, listen as our guide speaks of the grand and magnificent art we were about to feast our eyes upon.

She also spoke many times about “Our Lady,” as in, “Soon you will see Our Lady posing with the baby,” and “Soon you can Our Lady feel her embrace by heaven.” I took it that Our Lady was neither the Lady of the Lake nor had anything to do with The Tramp.

Our guide pointed to a picture of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which had a prominent display on the poster next to her. “Look at all these beautiful paintings! But look closely. Here!” She tapped at a picture of a white-bearded man flying away, his angelic hospital gown wide open at the back. “Why,” she asked us intently, “did Michelangelo paint God showing his bum to the Pope? My dears, it is because Michelangelo had an anger at the Pope at this time.”

These were the tidbits we learned, the kind of tidbits that made me think, I would really like to know more about this from a PBS special while my feet are soaking in a cold bath.

  Everywhere, the Pope-il! 

Everywhere, the Pope-il! 

But there we were, so I listened intently. She had to keep her introductory lesson in the courtyard because once in the Sistine Chapel you had to be very quiet. No talking. They even frown upon breathing. (It’s because of the CO2. Science!)

We finally started moving and within five seconds we ran smack into The Crowd. It was a wall of humans, thick and dense with unkind body odor and plenty of CO2. We had to move sideways and angle-ways and bob and twist in unfriendly ways just to keep up with our guide, who held up her standard of a pink umbrella as a beacon for us.

The classical sculptures here were stunningly beautiful, of course, but the one that struck my curiosity more than the others was the Sfera con Sfera or Sphere within a Sphere. It’s in an open Vatican courtyard and is a bronze sphere that looks as if it’s broken apart by another sphere of gears inside. According to our guide, it represents the threat of technology breaking apart the world, just like the little chest explosion baby in “Alien.”

I understand there’s more to it than this, but it’s so interesting that’s it’s right there in a Vatican museum courtyard. I imagine people will offer a different interpretation about how the Catholic Church as come to embrace technology, but it that’s the case, just make a statue of a Glade plug-in with some incense. No, it’s more than that. Technology’s march diffuses power. Just ask Gutenberg.

  I like science. And turtles! 

I like science. And turtles! 

Ah, enough of that. I’ll save it for my dissertation called “Things No One Wants Me To Talk About. Also Statues.”

Still, the crowds in the Vatican buildings proper were dense, packed wall-to-wall, and moving as if pushed by an invisible hand. (This will be my next dissertation: “The Overbearing Misuse of Metaphors Concerning Religion and or Adam Smith.”) Yet I do think if we were alone in some of these corridors it would be too much for just two people. The paintings on the ceilings were incredible, the art along the walls sublime. If only I could swim against the crowd to see everything while fighting my deep seated fear of losing sight of my guide’s pink umbrella.

We marched on and soon found ourselves descending a few tight staircases until, voila!, we entered the Sistine Chapel. Yes, there, right above us, the wonderful intricate art given to us by Michelangelo, the delicate paint, the perspective, the glory . . . of God’s bum.

It was a breathtaking place, this chapel where they elect Popes. You’re not supposed to talk, but that didn’t dissuade people from attempting. Everyone once in a while a booming voice would come over the speakers, “SILENCIO!” And we saw the chapel police (I’m not sure what to call them) bust a few people for taking pictures. “NO PHOTO! SILENCIO!”

I’m very happy our guide took the time earlier to explain the different stories painted on the ceiling. Now we had some perspective and understanding of what it all meant. We pushed our way to the pink umbrella to catch up with our guide, and a few steps away we realized we had been following the wrong pink umbrella for awhile now. This wasn’t our guide! She was missing!

So we did what any well-meaning, children of the Enlightenment do. We slinked out the side door and hoped for the best.

We ended in St. Peter’s Square where the difference between the shade and sun was roughly 4,000 degrees. We knew we had to move pretty quickly to find the bus, so we scuttled down the streets of Vatican City, accosted by quite a few barefoot, tiny beggar people who spoke in strange croaking Italian. We had seen beggars around Rome but no where close to the number we saw here. And they were bold and aggressive. Add shoeless, leathery, tiny, hunched, and voices you should only reserve for a sentence like, “Have you checked the children?” and you have something seriously creepy on every street corner.

After a quick lunch and brimming with confidence at our mastery of the Roman bus system, we marched off to our next tour: the Colosseum. This one was going to take two buses, but when you buy and validate a bus ticket you have a good hour to use that same ticket and transfer to another line. We caught the first bus near the Tiber river, and it took us to one of the busiest intersections in Rome and there we waited for the next bus. And we waited. And waited. The Moovit app kept informing me of when our next bus was supposed to arrive. At first it was four minutes, then six, then 10, then 18. All the while the time to the start of the tour kept dwindling.

In a panic, I announced, “We’re walking!” This, of course, I knew to be a foolish plan because just the walk alone would get us there nearly 20 minutes late. And soaking in sweat. Again.

Suzanne pointed at a nearby cab, but I would have none of it because I HAD AN APP FOR THAT. Yes, the locals used the MyTaxi app, and I was determined to do the same. So there I was, standing in the middle of a crosswalk, about to be a late lunch for a speeding bus’ windshield, poking at my phone like a caffeinated chimp.

So yes, we took the cab. Suzanne was very persuasive, especially from the cab’s backseat.

The cab driver drove the way anyone should expect: haphazardly, randomly, and utterly frenetically. That’s called defensive driving in Rome.

He got to the tour right on time, lined up dutifully, and made a few obligatory, fleeting friendships with other Americans in line.

Around us, here and there, appearing and vanishing into the humid air were Sellers of Things, particularly hats, bottles of water, cheap paper umbrellas, and tiny trinkets of the Colosseum that,  obviously, were very valuable because they clinked like glass when you knocked them together. The street seller was very fond of showing us this, over and over and over again.

Suddenly this particular street guy grabbed all his inventory and ran. I mean he became Usain Bolt of street hawking. And right after him, running with all their might, were a handful of other sellers, all clutching plastic bags full of Stuff to their chests. They were all in a panicky flight away from all the tourists, and it didn’t take long to see why. The Italian police were in a full sprint after them, and these were definitely not out-of-shape mall cops. One of the police had already scored about 10 straw hats dropped by one of the street vendors.

It was the kind of Italian chase you see in movies, except it was missing Fiats.

Our Colosseum tour guide was Alexandria, a one time archeologist who stopped that trade because of her bad knees. She kept us hopping along during our three-hour tour and, besides teaching us all about gladiators and how the TV show Spartacus is not necessarily factual (I had my doubts after the blood and gore fest, known as episode one, aired), she was an extremely adept judge of how we all enjoyed standing in the shade, so she targeted her lectures appropriately.

The Colosseum, of course, is magnificent, and this puny blog won’t go into what others have spent tomes writing about. We climbed up and climbed down and climbed up a little more, basking both in the sun and in the ingenious way the ancient Romans basically invented the modern sports arena. Here’s a bit o’ fact I liked: the emperor never gave the infamous thumbs down or thumbs up. Instead he’d jut his thumb outward sideways to show displeasure. This was supposed to look like a knife cutting a throat. If the emperor wanted to show mercy, he’d open his hand face down. This was supposed symbolize the act of dropping a weapon.

See? The more you know!

This three-hour tour ended with a fantastic view of the Roman Forum and several other temples and ancient structures. Along the way we lost most of our tour group. Too many stairs and too much climbing. They said this quite a bit - as in every two minutes.

Since we had yet to go by the Spanish Steps or the Trevi Fountain, we hopped on a bus headed for both landmarks. The crowds were dense, packed shoulder to shoulder, and everyone everywhere seemed to take their perfectly posed selfies in front of a background of other people taking perfectly posed selfies. Behind them, within squinting distance, you could see the Trevi Fountain.

  The Spanish Steps: no squalling, shouting, or singing allowed. 

The Spanish Steps: no squalling, shouting, or singing allowed. 

The Spanish Steps were different because there were so many of them. Here people were more lounging, hanging out with their cameras, and, generally, eating gelato.

We didn’t have the time (or perhaps courage or maybe heart) to take the Metro and transfer to a bus to make our dinner reservation back in Trastevere, so we broke down an got a cab. I’ll attribute this decision mainly to my practiced talent of adamantly walking in the wrong direction (well, it’s the right direction if we’re intent on getting lost). That and my feet were numb from all the cobblestones.

We made it in time for dinner. The reservation system worked like this: “We have a reservation.” “Oh, you do? Fine. Take a seat.” There was a very suspicious lack of paperwork involved.

We were almost accosted by a women selling jewelry while a floppy-headed baby swaddled to her back slept soundly. It was close because she was making her rounds, going table by table. Our waiter, though, would have none of this jewelry-selling business and, with dramatic flourishes of his arms and a few sentences of some intensity, drove her away. I need to remember how to do that the next time Boy Scouts are selling popcorn. The blog title for that day: “How I Got Punched and Beaten by Angry Boy Scouts.”

Next: Two-way driving down a one-way street.

Italy Day 4: All roads lead where?

Italy Day 2: Veni, Vidi, Bikey