Our trip to Italy was arranged as a packaged tour. It was not our first choice for a way to travel, to be sure, but the more we read about Italy while planning the trip, the more we realized that we might not be able to cram in everything we wanted to do without some professional cramming assistance. That's how I've come to view the packaged tour industry. They are professional crammers. They arranged a brilliant schedule that allows us to do everything we want to do while abroad at the very minimal expense of sleep of any kind.
We were up bright and early for our day in Rome, home of The Colosseum, The Vatican (yes, yes, I know The Vatican isn't technically in Rome, but shush, we'll get to that), and most importantly, our first opportunity to sample genuine Italian pizza.
But before all that, we had to endure "Hotel Breakfast".
A seemingly small disappointment about the whole package tour concept is the enduring and very real concept of Ugly Americans–people who travel abroad for insight into different cultures and complain loudly, bitterly, and frequently about the fact that the different cultures are... different.
Package tour operators must deal with these sorts of people on a wholesale basis and have worked to minimize their toxic impact. To that end, they will arrange rooms in hotels that are somewhat American in feel. The hotels that cater to tourists, as opposed to locals. I didn't travel to Italy to be confronted with "America East". I would have been happy to adopt local customs while traveling. Including the local custom of not eating much for breakfast.
|Alitalia understands this. Breakfast on our plane trip over was an understated, classy affair.|
|The coffee was also understated.|
|Kerri loved it.|
But it appears that I am in a minority in that opinion, so the hotels we stayed at have worked hard to introduce their own concept of American Breakfast. We wandered into the beautiful rooftop dining room and were offered a bewildering assortment of pastries, cheeses, meats, and jellies.
|I did not take pictures of the hotel food. You're welcome. This is the view from the breakfast room.|
|So is this.|
|Yup. Same here. It was a lovely view of the city at sunrise.|
Kerri is what we might politely call a slavering coffee junkie and coffee in Italy has to be tasted to be believed. Their normal coffee, espresso, is a thick, aggressive liquid so black and dense that light cannot escape its gravitational pull. The entire area for several feet around it is bathed in a dim, wavy field of bent light and altered dimensionality. For safety reasons, it is served in thimble-sized cups. Drinking an entire mug of it would leave a person sweating, paranoid, and wide awake for several weeks.
The hotels recognize this and serve a version of coffee called Caffe Americano which it is best not to mention in front of Kerri. Ever.
I am not complaining about the breakfast they served at the hotel. I'm suggesting that they simply stop trying to emulate what they think tourists will like and allow (force) tourists to experience some local culture. Even if the coffee kills them.
After breakfast, we boarded the bus to head over to The Vatican for a tour of The Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica. The Vatican is, in fact, not technically part of Rome. It is not technically part of anywhere. It is its own walled independent city state, conveniently located inside the boundaries of Rome. Sort of like if you swallowed a tiny, baby mouse and it set up residency in your upper intestines and ruled with impunity for many, many years from deep within your gut. Although now that I think of it, that is probably not the most accurate analogy. Maybe if you swallowed a very small Pope it would be a more accurate description, but it would probably be harder on your digestive tract.
For the tour, each of us was given a radio to wear so we could have a running commentary from the local guide pumped directly into our ears. It also adds a certain intimacy and charm to the tour when you can hear the guide breathing heavily directly into your brain as you ascend a flight of stairs.
|Our local guide, Amelia. The tour guides each had their own little flags so their groups wouldn't wander off, get lost and add to Rome's growing problem of roving, feral tourists.|
The Vatican does not allow tour groups to use their own radios, rather each group is issued a lot of Holy Radios™ that, presumably, are more pious and sanctimonious than our own secular radios.
|Holy Radio™ on the left. Unholy Radio™ on the right.|
|Tori models the fashionable and sacred Holy Headphones™.|
We had both radios dangling preposterously from our necks as we traipsed up the sidewalk toward the Vatican Museum. Our tour group arrived early and were among the first groups admitted into the museum for the day.
|Security at The Vatican is quaintly rustic, harkening back to a simpler time. They use the same folksy equipment they've been scanning bodies with since 1302.|
Once through security, our local guide, Amelia, brought us immediately to the most popular room in the entire museum. With over 5 miles of corridors lined with priceless art from antiquity, she was a seasoned professional and understood the will of the masses.
|The Holy Toilet™.|
|Hygienized automatically at every use. Now THAT'S service, my friends.|
Even though Amelia sort of front-loaded our tour with The Holy Toilets™and everything that came after could only be a disappointing afterthought, we continued along our tour of The Vatican.
First, we traipsed out into a huge, gorgeous courtyard. for a view of the dome of St. Peter's Basilica.
|Nice work, Michelangelo!|
|Someone was so inspired by the view that he could not hold down his excitement. Or his hotel breakfast.|
|The courtyard houses the Holy Smoker™a beautiful golden orb where, I assume, The Pope makes his famous Holy Ribs™ for special guests.|
We were also taken to a wall of displays in the courtyard because we were on our way to The Sistine Chapel where you are expected to be silent. Guides answer all your questions outside, before you go in, which is convenient and easy for them because you tend to have no questions before you see it.
|If only there was something to look at when walking down these long, boring halls.|
|At least this girl brought something to read.|
|Amelia guide points out the naughty bits on a statue and tells us that if we look upon them, we will be slated for eternal perdition.|
Our tour group was given some sort of excellent, private tour of the original Bramante Staircase, not normally open to the public. It was an amazing spiral staircase that was actually a long ramp. It was originally used for mule carts to haul supplies to the upper floors of the Vatican.
|The staircase was beautiful.|
|The view down was a bit dizzying.|
|The guard who let our group in then closed and locked the huge iron door behind us. This was not alarming at all. Nope. Not one bit.|
|This is the universally understood pictograph for, "No Breakdancing on the Bramante Staircase".|
|Another view down the center of the staircase.|
|If you can pull your eyes away from the majestic splendor of the staircase itself, you can look out the windows and catch a glimpse of The Pope's personal Holy Playground™.|
After much screaming and hollering, the guard eventually released us from the locked staircase and we were herded ever onward toward The Sistine Chapel. I was getting giddy with excitement.
Along the way, the crowded, majestic corridors are covered with amazing paintings, rendered to make them look like dimensional plaster reliefs.
|There are a LOT of people here.|
|This is a painting, not a dimensional relief.|
|Yup. This, too. Totally flat. Cool, isn't it?|
|Just as your neck starts to cramp up, the ceiling changes and you are forced to admire even MORE stunning beauty.|
|Kerri wants me to paint our dining room ceiling like this now.|
You are not allowed to take pictures inside The Sistine Chapel, but I will do my best to describe it to you with a vivid word picture:
I mean, wow. It was crowded. Imagine a rectangular room, a bit smaller than you were expecting, with high, I mean really high, ceilings covered with some of the most spectacular art known to mankind. Now share that space with hundreds and hundreds of other people, all shuffling along slowly, their necks craned back to impossible angles in order to view the paintings high above you.
Now imagine, as you shuffle along with the crowd, your jaw slack as you gape in stunned awe at the beauty of the paintings, a voice booms out through the whisperings and shuffling of feet. A voice that seems to come from every point in the room at once. A deep, resonant voice filled with apocalyptic overtones:
"SILENZIO!! SHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!! SILENCE!!"
They are very serious about the silence here. Serious enough that they are willing to break it every few minutes with a judgement-day style demand that booms through the space. Somehow, that booming voice from above only seemed to enhance the experience for me. All too soon, our brief time in the chapel was over. The Vatican receives over 25,000 visitors each day. EACH DAY!! They operate on volume so you are herded through rather quickly to make room for the other 24,999 people that want to be in there.
|Like any great museum, you exit through the gift shop.|
|And find yourself with an impressive view of the side of St. Peter's Basilica.|
|Where Vatican maintenance workers refill their water bottles with holy water, a job perk that is probably not afforded to maintenance workers anywhere else.|
|Kind of like Disney World. But holier.|
|This is off season. We were told that in the summer, it's REALLY crowded here.|
|I had a slight Grappa flashback at one point, but I recovered quickly|
Once inside the Basilica, every single visitor is probably struck with the exact same thought. "Wow! This place is huge. They could do a killer business selling Holy Smokes™ Papal Ribs here!"
The Basilica was built on a scale designed to impress and they succeeded. Pictures really can't do the size and splendor of the interior justice, but darn it, I'm going to try.
|This is probably a saint or a pope, I honestly can't remember. It is huge and amazing.|
|It's SO BIG in here. The structure in the middle of the picture is the gigantic bronze altar that is dwarfed by the incredibly high ceilings.|
|A bronze statue that believers line up at in order to touch his toes. I'm not sure why, but it seems to make everyone happy. Except the cleaning guy who has to clean all the smudgy fingerprints off the toes every night.|
|Another giant marble statue. Look at the motion in the flowing fabric of her skirts. It's stunning.|
|These giant paintings throughout the Basilica aren't actually paintings at all. they're mosaics, made from hundreds of thousands of tint pieces of colored class.|
Too soon, our time in St. Peter's Basilica had come to an end and we were herded (a verb I will be using a lot over the course of our trip) out into the courtyard where we finally saw our first Swiss Guards.
|The Swiss Guard's colorful outfits and zany antics have entertained visitors to The Vatican for many, many years. Throw a coin at them and they'll dance a merry jig for your amusement.|
|I tried to show some scale here. See the super tiny line of people at the bottom of the picture. This place is huge.|
|Oh yeah. I was totally kidding about throwing coins at the Swiss Guard. This lady tried it and they frog-marched her off to Judgement Day. Seriously - don't throw stuff at them. They're all very angry about the outfits they have to wear.|
We were given an hour and a half for lunch and to purchase all the Holy Souvenirs™ we could carry. Rather than remaining in The Vatican, we crossed the border and found a nice little sidewalk cafe pizzaria, nestled in amongst 6 other nice little sidewalk cafe pizzarias.
|This is the border between Rome and Vatican City. This is me hilariously straddling the line.|
|Our first actual Italian meal was delicious. From this cafe, we had a view of 6 other almost identical cafes. Really.|
After lunch, it was time to head to The Colosseum!
|Don't worry! We took a bus. A WHITE, REGULAR BUS!|
|Street art is celebrated in this city with such a rich artistic history. Here is an installation piece called, "A Bunch Of Crap Crammed In A Hole"|
The Colosseum is an incredibly impressive building. It was used for a wide variety of sporting and entertainment events in Roman times. Now it serves primarily as a place to purchase souvenirs and to wait in long lines.
It was here that we were first introduced to The Selfie Stick Guys. They are majestic, roaming herds of men who wander everywhere in Italy trying to sell selfie sticks to tourists. Their plaintive, mournful song serves as a musical backdrop to every tourist attraction in Italy, "Hullo? Selfie Stick? Hullo? Hullo? Very good. 5 Year Warranty. Selfie Stick? Hullo? Hullo?"
It's beautiful to see these majestic creatures adapting so easily to the rapidly changing world around them.
|The Colosseum. Obviously.|
|Alex was awe-struck with its beauty.|
|It was built with bricks and then covered with a facade of smooth rock.|
|The long, winding corridors provide endless opportunities for tourists seeking a chance to stand in line. You can do it here.|
|Once inside, you find that you can climb on the walls, OR write on the walls, but not both. Please, be respectful of their wishes.|
Soon, our time waiting in line was over. The children whined and cried, but we assured them that we would have many more opportunities to wait in lines. We did a quick circuit of the incredible Colosseum.
|This was all built in 8 years. Petty impressive, huh? Took me almost that long to build our garden shed.|
|The original floor is gone, but they have recreated part of it so you can see what it used to look like. The stone tunnels below were where gladiators and, presumably hot dog vendors, would walk during performances.|
|This knucklehead needs to visit The Selfie Stick Guys!|
|Alex discovered the original Roman Toiletariums and naturally had to pose for a picture.|
|The Colosseum, as with most of Rome, is under construction. This poor guy is tasked with the onerous job of making sure the entire building is level.|
Once the tour of the Colosseum was over, we opted to ditch our group and make our way back toward the hotel on our own, stopping at several scenic points along the way. Armed with a comically inadequate map of Rome, we headed off into the city, fending off Selfie Stick guys with our bare hands.
|We passed The Roman Forum, a remarkably well preserved ruin of the center of the original Roman city.|
|This lady visited The Selfie Stick Guys and, as a result was able to pose in a dramatic fashion in front of the Roman Forum.|
|We were headed toward this incredibly huge and beautiful building, a memorial to King Victor Emmanual II, the first king of unified Italy.|
|It is really a spectacular building.|
|It is also a Tomb of the Unknown Solider and the rules are strictly enforced.|
|Hey. Get up, you scofflaws!|
|These guys spend their entire day wandering around the steps, blowing their whistles and gesturing wildly at people who sit on the steps.|
With our ears ringing from the shrill whistles of the constabulary, we headed along our way, our next stop was to be the Church of St. Ignatzio, which, of the 400+ churches in Rome, has a unique feature.
Along the way we were treated to many, many wild Selfie Stick Guys in their natural habitat. We also saw the increasingly less rare "Young Guys Posing As Crippled, Filthy Old Women". This strange breed dresses in rags and tattered clothes, but ALWAYS has a scarf completely covering its face. They lie in poses of supplication along the street, begging. At first glance, they appear to be very unfortunate old women, but don't let the cunning camouflage fool you! A closer inspection will reveal tell-tale features like large, clean youthful hands, and sneakers with whimsical pink skull and cross-bone designs.
|A Scammer in its natural habitat.|
Stepping gingerly over the prostrate bands of Young Guys Posing As Crippled, Filthy Old Women, we continued our search for St. Ignazio's church.
|Tori thought that posing as an angel might give her some insight into where the church was. Nice try.|
Possibly as a result of Tori's angelic impression, we did eventually find St. Ignazio's church and were rewarded with this interesting view.
|It is also home to one of the most stunning sculpture we saw on the entire trip. All the draperies around this are carved from marble.|
|The rest of the ceiling of St. Ignazio's could give the Sistine Chapel a run for its money.|
|Alex was, once again, amazed and impressed.|
|The Pantheon also contains the Tomb of Raphael, one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.|
|The dome inside The Pantheon is a marvel of ancient architecture; almost perfectly spherical. The Oculous, an open hole in the center of the ceiling, provides the only light inside.|
|Alex is awe-struck.|
|You are once again reminded that this is a church and you are expected to behave accordingly.|
|No going to the beach.|
|No Napping in The Pantheon.|
We headed back outside and, having walked about 25,000 miles already, began making our way back toward the hotel.
|Our way was briefly blocked by this real, authentic Roman gladiator using his real, authentic iphone and wearing his real, authentic Roman Gladiator Under Armour t-shirt.|
We also took this opportunity to try gelato for the first time. When we told people that we were taking this trip, our conversation went exactly like this:
Us: We are going to Italy.
Anybody We Spoke To: OH MY GOD! YOU HAVE TO GET GELATO!
Who are we to not do what our friends say to do?
We will be revisiting gelato many times on this trip.
It started to get dark and we hustled along Rome's winding streets, pausing only briefly to snap a few pictures of historical landmarks of cultural importance.
Or something like that. I was still thinking about Club CicacicaBOOM.
We did eventually find our way back to the hotel and stayed long enough to get directions to a great local restaurant where we had our first actual non-pizza meal.
And by non-pizza, I mean that it wasn't ONLY pizza. Because, of course we had pizza.
|Roman Pizza number 2. As tasty as pizza number 1. Real Buffalo Mozzarella. Yum.|
Restaurants in Italy run a bit differently than they do in the U.S. and this meal was our learning curve. Italians make eating out an event. You go to a restaurant and expect to spend an entire evening there. There is typically a cover charge of a few Euros to cover the cost of using the table and the bread, oil, and vinegar they place out for you.
Meals are multi-course affairs with antipasti, wine, first courses (usually pasta), wine, and second courses (usually meat), wine, and some other courses and wine thrown in. Then dessert and coffee and more wine.
We were slightly confused as to the proper way to do things and while the waitress's English was far superior to my paltry Italian, a huge language gap yawned between us. We ordered off the menu in a willy-nilly fashion, choosing first courses for appetizers and second courses for first courses. The waitress suppressed her obvious agony at how the dumb Americans were trampling on her traditions and tried valiantly to accommodate our desires.
It was a fantastic meal and we lingered and enjoyed ourselves for some time. We were even given some tableside entertainment when one of The Selfie Stick Guys, now magically transformed for the evening into A Handful of Cheap Plastic Roses Guy showed up at the large plate glass window behind my head. He gestured passionately and earnestly to Kerri, entreating her to leave the restaurant and purchase some of his wares.
He continued to entreat her and waggle his roses for a very long time, much to our amusement. Eventually a waitress saw him and waved him away. He lowered his body slowly beneath the frame of the window until only his roses were visible through the window. These he continued to bounce and dance enticingly like some sort of floral puppet show with a very weak plot.
He must have eventually tired of it and left as he wasn't there when we did finally leave the restaurant.
We dragged ourselves, exhausted, full, and happy, back to the hotel for a well-deserved sleep.
Tomorrow we go to Assisi to see St. Frankie.