Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Adventures In Italy: Rome

I've taken the liberty of suspending our regularly scheduled posts until we finish chatting about Italy...mostly because I can, but also cause I'm itching to share it all with you.  I've spent the last few days pouring over the many pictures I took while we were over there...it appears I was in full blown paparazzi mode- ten snaps per photo opportunity, minimum.  Since every square inch of the country is basically a photo opportunity...well...you do the math.  I realized there's just no way to cram everything into one readable post.  So!  We're breaking it up by city, folks.  First up: Rome.

We stayed a stone's throw away from Termini Train Station in the simple but lovely Hotel Diocleziano.  For those of you planning a trip to Rome, I'd recommend it whole heartedly...the staff is phenomenal (especially our buddy Doreen at the front desk), the breakfast is great, the mini-bar is free and the air conditioning is pumping.

Our first full day started with a private tour of the Vatican museums, which I booked through the one and only Driver Guide Service.  Their Trip Advisor reviews seemed too good to be true but turned out to be on point (and then some).  Our guide Lorenzo was spectacularly knowledgeable and eager to share the interesting "secrets" lurking behind every corner.

Watching history come to life through the halls of the Vatican was unlike anything I've ever experienced.  It's one thing to learn about some of the greatest minds our world has ever known- DaVinci, Michaelangelo, Raphael, and so on and so forth- but it's another to walk where they walked and view their masterpieces first hand (though Lorenzo was quick to tell us that DaVinci in particular basically used the Vatican as a luxury apartment while the reigning Pope waited for him to produce a masterpiece...after a few years he said "no thanks" and got the heck out of there).  

Since the sheer volume of statues on display was overwhelming, we relied on Lorenzo to showcase the most significant pieces in the collection (like Diskobolus of Myron pictured below).  One of the most interesting things we learned was the fact that the Romans started out as a barbaric nation with no real culture of their own.  When they conquered the Greeks they adopted, and in some ways immortalized, the ways of the Greek civilization.  Virtually every statue there was copied from an ancient Greek bronze piece that was long since destroyed.    

If I had to pick a favorite part of the Vatican tour I think I'd go with The Gallery of Maps, a giant room covered in painted topographical maps of Italy.  Lorenzo explained that the maps are particularly amazing because they were created from a bird's eye perspective during a time when such a view was impossible for humans to actually achieve.  Back in the day the Pope used this space as a war room.

Across the ceiling of the map gallery you'll find breathtaking artwork depicting miracles.  The placement of each of these miracles on the ceiling corresponds with the location of where they took place on the map.  Pictures just don't do this space justice...it extends all the way across and down as far as your eye can see.  To say it was a spectacular sight is an understatement.  

Another intriguing portion of the tour was our visit to the public portion of the Papal Apartments, primarily- of course- because of the artistic mastery on display, but also because of the insights we got into the paintings themselves.  It seems Raphael took a few liberties in his depictions of biblical events and used the his own likeness and the likeness of other notable figures (Alexander the Great, DaVinci, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc.) in the paintings.  The thought of this legendary man weaving the faces of those he respected onto noble characters (and in an even more amusing gesture, the faces of those he didn't respect onto evil ones) made me chuckle and somehow humanized him a little bit which made the experience that much more memorable.

Before we left the area, we took a stroll through St. Peter's Basilica (which left me completely speechless).  There's really no way to display or even explain the scale of the building but I will say this: it is 453 feet tall.  Just let that sink in for a second.

You could easily spend years in Vatican City and never see all there is to see but it was awe inspiring to get even a taste of the history there.  After cooling down back at the hotel (since the Vatican is as hot and stuffy as it is gorgeous), we headed out to Ristorante Ad Hoc for what turned out to be an evening of culinary magic.  We ordered the land tasting menu and I can say with confidence that the meal was tied with The Catbird Seat for the best I've ever had in my life.  I ate until I physically couldn't take another bite (which was admittedly uncomfortable but you know...when in Rome).  

We spent the entire next day with Luca, another one of Driver Guide Service's resident experts and an instant new found friend.  To share the details of this one day alone would take up an ungodly amount of space and time, so here's the cliff notes.

We walked from The Roman Forum (the center of public life way back when)...   

...to The Piazza Del Campidoglio (the citadel of the earliest Romans).  Side note: I just love this picture of my brother and Dad.

Secondary side note: I think I developed an affinity for pigeons while we were over there.  They're crazy dirty- I know- but you've gotta admit they're cute.

We toured the inside of the magnificent Coliseum...

...and even saw a glimpse into the underground portion of the stage, where the animals and gladiators were lifted up from.

Luca told us that, despite popular belief, no Christians were actually martyred in the Coliseum...the cross that stands there today is actually the starting point of one of the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday.  Even so, the powerful symbol of the cross in a place once renowned for atrocities made for a moving, near emotional experience.

The Circus Maximus ("Ben-Hur's" 'ol stomping grounds), on the other hand, did see a good deal of Christian martyrs- the details of which truly made my skin crawl.  You can say what you want about religious persecution in our country today (and there's probably plenty of points we'll agree on) but this stop sure did put some things into perspective.  

Another highlight of our Rome Tour was on top of Aventine Hill at the headquarters of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.  Luca gave us a brief history of Malta, originally a monastic community and one of the very few orders created in the Middle Ages that is still active today, and explained that it is- in and of itself-a nation (capable of issuing it's own passports, postal stamps, etc).  He then brought us to a large green door where, through the keyhole, you could see Malta, the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, and just slightly beyond- three countries (Malta, Vatican City and Italy) through one keyhole.  Amazing, right?

We visited the Trevi Fountain (one of the most famous fountains in the world) and...

...each threw in a coin (Luca taught us the correct form- right hand over left shoulder) to- according to a legend I'm tempted to believe- ensure our return to Rome.  

Additionally, we visited The Antique Walls of Cinta, The Pantheon (which was absurdly neat), Navona Square, The Spanish Steps and took a tour of The Catacombs.  When I tell you we could be here all day talking about this I mean it- we could be here all day!  Instead, I will leave you with this:

...perhaps the most delicious piece of heaven I've ever tasted.  I don't even know the name of the restaurant it came from (Luca brought us there during our tour) but if you told me I dreamed it up it might actually make more sense.  In total contrast to the grandeur of our other meals and experiences, it just goes to show you that sometimes the simplest things done well are still the best.  Can't wait to fill you in on Florence tomorrow!  


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