Thursday, January 28, 2010

Italy Day 3: Sistine Chapel and Assisi

This is a repost of my 2007 trip to Italy with my mom, brother, sister and Aunt.

We were warned on Day 3 that we'd be getting up early and bolting from the hotel to avoid lines at the Vatican Museum that can get up to around two miles long! After setting our bags outside for the porter to take to the bus (thank you, Insight!), I very much enjoyed what was to be my last Nutella-ful breakfast in Italy.

When we got to the Vatican Museum, the line was only a block or so long, so we waited while Vincenzo taught us about the history of Vatican City. He also warned us to be vigilant in line: Unethical tourists and tour groups would either try to join us or push past us. On the way in, one group did try to cut, and Vincenzo got into an Italian argument with their guide and a member of the Swiss Guard ... a real Italian argument, shouting over each other within inches of each other's faces, then clearing it up with no warning.

And then, once we were almost to the front of the line (about an hour after we got in it), a couple snuck under a rope and stood within our group! I looked at Katherine and asked her if they were in our group (I'm so bad with faces), and she said no. We looked at each other for a minute, wondering what would happen. No one else noticed ... would they just get in? Should we tattle?

But we didn't have time to decide. As we stepped up, a Swiss Guard pulled them smoothly aside, and let them know that their antics bought them a ticket to the back of the line ... two miles back. HA! It was so great!!!

So we basically bolted through a couple halls of the Vatican Museum. A sculpture gallery, where we witnessed the result of the Great Castration ... the overzealous pope who thought the male statues were too lifelike, had their genitals removed and covered discretely with fig leaves. Legend has it that there's a room somewhere in the museum filled with marble penises.

Then we went through the hall of tapestries (ever seen a woven eviscaration? I have!), and the hall of maps (pretty cool), and finally ... the Sistine Chapel. It's funny ... down several flights of extremely narrow stairs, almost like the basement of an old school. Then you step into this enormous room, and realize several things all at once:

This is where Conclave is held. This is where they choose the new Pope, where hundreds of cardinals gather and are locked in tight until they make a decision.

This is also when you make a sub realization that it's not that large a room, and pretty stuffy. And that it can take weeks to choose a pope. And that cardinals were a hell of a lot of layers.

There are paintings everywhere, on every surface. I mean, yeah, that's the idea, but still ... it's hard to picture until you're there.

If you're me, you realize that the ceiling is not as big as you think it is. It's magnificant, particularly the "Creation of Man" panel, (or whatever it's called, you know ... the fingertips), but somehow just not as big.

Then you realize in all the hoopla of the chapel's ceiling, no one ever told you how awe-inspiring the Last Judgement painting on the entrance wall would be. Truly, this was my favorite part of the chapel. It's magnificent. Grand in scale, absolutely perfect in expressive detail, and beautifully brilliant colors. Look it up.

They pulled us away after 20 minutes or so, and we made one of many, many, many bathroom stops. Here's time for another side note about things I learned while vacationing with my family: My Aunt Sugar is a bathroom freak. She had to locate and use just about every restroom in the country. We spent more time waiting in line for the bathroom than at some of the sights. Katherine is about the same way ... I called it the Bathroom Tour of Italy.

After the Vatican Museum, we had a five hour drive to Assisi, punctuated by our first stop at an Autogrill.

Oh, Lord, the Autogrills. They're basically rest stops, with cafes in them. Stuffed with delicious food. Honestly, you pony up to a counter and choose from pizza, panini, fresh (tasting) sandwiches, and pastries. Then you pick up your single-serving bottle of wine and a hazelnut chocolate bar ... and swear to miss your flight back to the US, where the only rest stop cuisine is Taco Bell.

We stopped just outside of Assisi at St. Mary of the Angels church, which is actually St. Francis of Assisi's church ... where he lived and died. There's a golden statue of Mary at the top, with a crown of stars and (you can't really see it) her feet on the ground. The idea is she connects the heavens and the Earth. In other words, she's the conduit to salvation.

Of course you know that St. Francis was the son of a rich man, who had a vision and decided that the true path to God didn't lie in wealth, but in humility and common living. He wanted to bring the message of Christianity to everyone, not just the super-rich. Hence the brown robes, rope belt, and lack of personal posessions. His original church on the site was a small, simple one. He slept in a cell (saw it!) that was about four feet high, five feet deep and wide, and had just branches for his head.

Now there's an opulent church on the site, with beautiful works of art, lapis luzi and gold ceilings ... just about everything he'd hate. But it was built for a Pope, not for Francis. The decendents of the miracle roses are still in the garden (seems one night St. Francis woke up aroused from a dream, and threw himself in the thorny rosebushes for punishment. But at the moment he landed, the thorns fell off the roses, and to this day remain thornless), and the gift shops sells hundreds of rosaries. And rose soaps. But interesting fact: this is where ROSaries come from. St. Francis and his gang wanted to make praying easy, so they created a beaded circlet to help peasants keep track of their prayers. They made these prayer beads out of the roses that grew nearby ... rosaries!

I first noticed the ceilings here. Beautiful blue ceilings, painted with gold stars, trimmed in red or orange or yellow. Fantastic. I'd love to have an outdoor room sometime with a ceiling like this.

Then we drove on to Assisi ... on and up, I should say! It's a hill town, and they don't joke! But it's an amazing town to visit, because it's truly medival. You enter through a rode paved under what looks like a drawbridge gate. The streets are one-lane only, and the stone walls almost completely block out the sun. Our hotel window opened completely onto a market street, and when Katherine and I peeked out to watch people shop, a German tourist took our picture.

The standout part of St. Francis' Basilica to me was his tomb. It's completely silent down there, lit by candles in offering. He's buried in the center, where a stone, uh, tomb, rises from the floor. His four closest friends are buried in the four corners of the room, and there are small chapels on every side, for prayer and reflection. Actually, the tomb was hidden for centuries, in fear of bandits (relics equal power).

OK, the art on the walls was incredible too. Also, the fact that during Nazi occupation, the entire town hid its Jewish population in the lower chapel, then a sort of basement. Nazis tromped all over the upper chapel none the wiser, but peeved that none of the Jews were home. When it was safe, they gave the Jews fake documents and sent them out into the countryside. Our guide told us that one of the Nazi captians caught onto the scheme, but didn't say anything (which was a lesson to us, he said, during a time of widespread hate in the world, that you can't make blanket judgements. Good people are good people, he said, and bad people are bad people, and it's important to judge that way, and not by nationality, religion or political affiliation).

After that, we walked around a bit, until Katherine, Anthony and Mom decided they wanted to go back to the hotel and rest (again, I don't get it!). I wanted to walk on and find the Temple of Minerva, a first century BC temple converted into a Catholic church. Sugar came with me, and we walked (and walked, and walked) through town. We found it, and I thought it'd be a good time to turn around and get a shower before dinner, but then I'd see something in the distance and want to check it out. So on and so forth, we ended up running back to the hotel with just enough time for a quick rinse.

Which we needed, because I was hot an exhausted. Rome and Assisi were hot, muggy cities. Rome was crowded and overwhelming, we'd spent half the day stuffed into a bus, and I'd spent the other half trekking up and down hills looking for (extremely cool, surprise-around-every-corner) ancient ruins. I was droopy, cranky, sore, tired, hungry, thirsty ... exhausted.

When I stepped into the tub, I checked out the taps, C and F, and cranked on F to let the hot water warm up ... but it didn't. Whew, that was a refreshing ice-cold shower, but what could you expect from a first-century town!

Dinner was fine, a great local pasta dish with sausage, veal (I'm not a fan, but Italians don't have room to raise full-grown cows, so they eat a lot of veal), and the strangest dessert ... ice cream in a plastic cup! We had a great laugh about that one ... coming halfway across the world to eat an elementary school lunch barbeque dessert! But the wine was great. GREAT!

After that, sleep. Blissful sleep! And the knowledge that the next day, we'd be in Venice.

No comments:

Post a Comment