Day 44 – Via Cavour, the Vatican, Piazza Navona, Vatican Museum
We’re wandering back and forth outside the Cavour metro station. We have a firm idea about the direction we don’t want to go in and that’s towards the Colosseum. The Monti district is up the hill, in the opposite direction. Apparently, it’s the new hip spot; a good place for thrift shops and local trattorias. We head east. Nope. We spot ruins at the end of the street. We head west. Nope, that’s a suspicious looking road. We stand, paralyzed, gazing at the map like we’re expecting our fortune to be told. Finally, we head in a direction, any direction, and hope for the best. Sometimes, it’s best to give up on maps and just get moving.
I’m thrilled to find a thrift shop. I always like to buy something from secondhand stores when travelling. I get a lot of pleasure using it back home and thinking about the city I was in at the time. Unfortunately, there's no joy to be had at Humana Vintage. There’s a lot of ugly, scratchy polyester dresses from the 70s with elasticated waists. Up the road from the shop, there’s yet another charming piazza loomed over by the hulking Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Plus pesky scaffolding. Scaffolding, scaffolding everywhere.
We see a couple on a blue and white scooter across the road from the Basilica. She’s hooked her shopping bag underneath the handles and he’s wobbling off and away from the sidewalk. They've got big grins on their faces. Rob and I look at each other. I can’t get away from visions of Audrey Hepburn perched like an elegant bird on the back of Gregory Peck’s Vespa in Roman Holiday. But I also can’t get away from visions of Roman drivers beeping, broken legs, and patchy travel insurance.
To decide whether we're being careless or carefree, we go across the road to Café Fantini. Rob orders “dos” tuna and green tomato sandwiches. The bar guys try not to laugh too hard but fail miserably. Let’s be honest, we were sold on the scooters from the start. It takes thirty minutes before we're on one with a pocket wi-fi for navigation, thanks to Cooltra Roma. Rob is serious. He's asked lots of questions about road rules. I'm on the back taking pictures and having so much fun that I don't realise until much later that my helmet wasn't clipped on. Whoops.
It's fun being part of the moped mafia. We whiz around Rome, judder over cobbles, drive through aqueducts, and past classical structures and grand Baroque buildings. The drivers are forgiving and surprisingly patient. I am sold on the scooter as the way to see Rome. Walking, the sites are too spread out and the streets a confusing and intimidating jumble. Driving, it's spaghetti junction and lots of time spent in traffic. On a scooter, you’re small enough to never worry about parking, nimble enough to get in front of the traffic, and fast enough to enjoy the experience of the air on your face while you criss-cross the various bridges over the Tiber River. Ticking off the sites you want to see are easy, especially with Google Maps. You get to feel like a local.
We end up outside the Pyramid metro station. Yes, there actually is a pyramid. We park up to take stock of where we are. I take my helmet off and shake my helmet hair away. There's a water spout and I take the plunge and fill up my water bottle. When in Rome... We plug in the directions to the Vatican but the internet drops in and out along the way. We end up in the near vicinity and rolling through a gated cobbled street. A Vatican guard silently steps in front of our scooter and silently looks past us. Rob says, "We can't go in?" He shakes his head once to the left, once to the right. Scooter Guy, there's no way you're getting in here, he says without a word.
That's okay. There's a park only a few metres away anyway and St Peter’s is less than a minute to our left.We're there as the sun sets. There’s a two hour line for the Basilica. We uhm and ah about standing in it when there's the option of scootering around Rome. It’s actually a pretty tough call. While we’re making up our mind, I buy Vatican stamps inside a shipping container and post my postcards from the Vatican. Rob can’t understand the appeal of madly posting things from inside the Vatican. I try to explain – “It’s the world’s smallestsovereign state! The postal stamp is from inside the Vatican! Not Rome!” Nope. Not a good enough explanation. I make him take many photos of me and the shipping container postal office parked in the corner of St Peter’s.
We kind of fall into the line for the Basilica without making any firm decision to do so. A father and son walk past us. He tells his son, “These lines look worse than they actually are.” That actually comforts me. It’s a good mantra for tourists in general, I think. However, I want to add a necessary caveat namely, “….unless you’re in line for the Colosseum.”
The dad was right. It doesn’t feel like we spent an hour and a bit in line. We had the internet, and the failing light was beautiful, imbuing everyone in the square with their own little amber haloes. People watching makes the minutes fly past. Inside the Basilica, Michelangelo’s Pieta is quietly emotional and starkly beautiful, even behind glass. There’s a crowd in front of it and rightly so. It's a moving work of quiet and resigned grief. There's no drama; only deep feeling. A mass starts. The altar boys, bishops and cardinals proceed to the altar. There's sung Latin in the air. We stand, transfixed.
The crowds leaning on the railings, watching the mass, are suddenly moved along by security guards. I’m not sure why. We're shepherded down some stairs. Suddenly and without announcement, tombs of dead popes and royalty surround us. We've accidentally found ourselves in the papal tombs including St Peter's tomb. It is sombre and creepy.
Once outside basilica, I fill up my water bottle from the water spout just outside. Vatican water! There’s another Vatican post shop; this time it's the official one and not the shipping container satellite stashed in the corner of St Peter's square. I hurry inside. Rob surprisingly joins in the fun. I scribble more rambles on a fancy portrait of Pope Benedict.
We jump on our scooter after a few terrifying moments when it refuses to start. Rob figures out that it’s the fuel cut-off. I silently thank the Lord that we don’t have to go through the experience of finding a mechanic at night in Rome. We head for the Piazza Navona which is only a few minutes ride away. To get there, we get to circle round St Peter’s on the scooter, rush through a tunnel, and cross a particularly grand bridge. I feel like I'm in a movie.
Piazza Navona is buzzing. We ignore the temptation of white linen restaurants with prime piazza people watching views and plunge into the back streets. We end up at Navona Notte. It has cheesy frescoes on the walls and dark wood panelling. The two chefs wander from the front of the restaurant to the kitchen out the back. They're burly Italian men in plain white t-shirts and white chef pants, with natty yellow scarfs tied jauntily round their neck. A large group of older Americans walk in. They coo and declare the place "charming". We stump the waiter. He can’t figure out what order we want the food brought out in. Between us, we've ordered snacks, a pasta course, an apertif, and an hors d'oeuvre. We tell him we want everything out at the same time. He winces a little.
My artichokes are swimming like little fish in olive oil and herbs. I eat it and it's like butter inside. My focaccia is like a pizza with a thinner crust that, when cooled, makes a satisfying crack. It's topped with olive oil and rosemary, yet it takes like heaven. The fact that I'm eating two artichokes and some bread for dinner doesn't escape me.
I enjoy watching Rob's reaction to the riches that lie inside the Vatican museum once we're there. "They have so much stuff, they just put it on the floor!" he exclaims. The Catholics sure looted and hoarded some great art. I can't help but think of the Islamic and Muslim countries we've travelled. Did they even get a chance to amass even a tenth of what's in the Vatican? Did they even get a look in? Or were they just perpetually caught on the back foot? Inside the Vatican, there's art from every great period and every country you can name. It's a history of the reach of religion through every age in history.
Inside the various Raphael rooms, I give Rob a sketchy low down of my favourite Renaissance artist. Poor Raphael. Such a straight edge artist compared to the tortured genius of the man literally working down the hall from him. He poured what he had into the various rooms he's given but once each bit of the Sistine Chapel is unveiled and until the entire whole is finished, it's game over. Michelangelo is the only winner. I geek out and ramble and ramble and ramble.
The Sistine Chapel is a stunner. It's a wonder. The more you stand inside, the more awe-inspiring it becomes. People are craning their necks with their mouths open, hands over their mouths, fists pressed against their lips, eyes bulging out. You stand there and you just know you're witnessing genius. Utter, complete, never-to-be-seen again genius. Rob declares he can go home now. The Sistine Chapel should be on every bucket list.
They're trying out different lighting schemes for the chapel. I find out later that it's part of the new Sistine Chapel mood lighting, courtesy of 7000 LED lights. On one setting, the frescoes sharper, they pop out in startling 3D and the colours are lent this gorgeous, pearly sheen. I am mesmerised by the peppermint and pastel pink drapes of the Persian Sibyl's gown. I've never stared at a knee for so long.
The security guards inside the Chapel are drunk on power. When they're not shushing everyone or calling for silence, they're shouting NO PHOTOS across the floor. I'm sitting next to an unfortunate guy who gets caught out with his camera. He's made an example of. The guard makes him delete picture after picture until there's none of the Sistine Chapel left. I clutch my phone with my illegal photo close to me. I took it unwittingly, not knowing I wasn't allowed. Days after, when I'm scrolling through the illegal Sistine Chapel photos on instagram, I laugh out loud at one guy's comment - On the 5th day, you can see god's butt.
Our night time scooter ride across town is cold but enjoyable. I wear Rob's scarf. He drives with his leather gloves on. I could get used to this life. Buzzing around Rome on a scooter, parking up at beautiful piazzas, and ending the night surrounded by some of the most beautiful art in the history of the Western world. There's just so much joy to have as a tourist in Rome.