Saturday, August 25, 2007

nuns make me nervous

If I could go back in time, one of my main destinations would be the heyday of the ancient Roman empire. In Rome, or course. (The other main destination would be New York in the Roaring 20s, but that's for another blog).

Sarah drives me to Gatwick at 4:30 in the morning. What a pal. She has a mini Daihatsu van that may even be shorter than my Metropolitan. I've crammed all the gear I'm taking with me into my rucksack, and weighing in around 35 pounds, it's heavier than I want it to be. The main culprits, other than all the electronics, is a small pile of guidebooks; but they will slowly diminish as I leave each country and leave them behind. As soon as the plane takes off I doze off. I wanted to look out the window to watch Europe passing by, but since I got up about approximately one hour after falling asleep this morning, the urge to catch a nap wins out. Leaving a typically drizzly England behind, I land in a toasty and sunny Rome. Everyone is smoking, which is quite possibly raising the temperature a few degrees.

I'm staying at one of the many convents that rent out rooms to travelers. They can frequently be a good budget option (although not all the time), as long as you don't care about luxury, plan on staying out all night (curfews always apply), or require an English-speaking staff. The nun at the desk, in full traditional habit, babbles away at me in Italian, despite the evident non capisco happening on my part, but gets me checked in, and educated on on the house rules. Smiles, pointing at signs, and hand gestures can get you a long way when you don't share a common language. A miniscule elevator takes me to the third floor. Initially dazzled by the highly polished floors, I have trouble finding my room; it's actually off a landing on the way to the roof terrace. Like the elevator, it's miniscule, but immaculate. I really don't need anything else.

Before I left I timed the elevator. It took a full 35 seconds to rise from the ground to the third floor. It doesn't sound like a long time, but count it out. Now count it out imagining you're stuck in an elevator the size of a bathroom stall, with two nuns, neither of whom are speaking English, and you just screwed up by pushing the third floor button before the first floor button was pushed (evidently, the elevator could only visit floors in order of buttons pushed, not order of ascension). I didn't get what the nun said to me, but I figured out I did something wrong. Oops.

Rome feels old. It in the layers of dirt, ruins laying about in plain view continuing their slow ruination, ankle-bruising cobblestones, dinky shops, sun-baked bleached-outness, narrow streets that change names at every turn, barely a right angle to be found anywhere, and a languid pace to life. Unless you're a tourist. When I finally hit the Roman streets, I find them teeming with tourists. Never before have I seen so many people looking hot, looking lost, looking at maps, and looking in books to tell them what to go look at next. I was warned that locals throughout the Mediterranean basically take the month of August off , but didn't quite realize the extent to which is actually happens. Almost none of the shops are open, but every major site, and sight, has a sweaty crowd.

As to be expected, many of the sites in Rome have to do either with the Roman Empire (the Colosseum), God (the Vatican), or the two butting heads (the Mamertine Prison where Peter was chained, featuring an upside-down cross). I spend three days taking in a little taste of everything.

The first church I hit is the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica, technically part of the Vatican, if I have my facts straight. I took about ten photos during my entire two and half days in London, and inside the Basilica I finally start snapping away like a maniac. The place is awash in marble and stone, which I'm going to discover is a common denominator in Rome's many churches. Anyone shopping for a new kitchen counter is advised to use Rome's holy houses as showrooms, because the most spectacular array of naturally occurring crazy designs is on display, made even more crazy by the builders who incorporated them all together.

All the Vatican churches in Rome are staffed by the fashion police, strictly forbidding bare shoulders and shorts (clam-diggers are acceptable). And if you're a guy, don't think that you can swing your girlfriend's shawl over your muscle-T, because they aren't having any of that cross-dressing hanky-panky because we all know where that leads (not actually witnessed by me, but so funny I had to tell it here). Bags are also sent through an x-ray machine at St. Peter's, and a posted sign forbids carrying knives. I have a swiss army knife in my bag, and I think I'm about to kiss it goodbye, but my bag pops out and no one is yelling at me in Italian. I grab my bag and scuttle into the crowd before the guard clues in to start doing his job. Obviously he wasn't one of the Swiss Guards, or else I'd probably be in the dungeon now. They wear the ultimate stripey pants! But the walkie-talkie doesn't really go with the rest of the outfit.

St. Peter's Basilica is also bedecked with marble, and tourists gaping upwards at the hugely high dome. It is a massive building, famously being able to contain entire other churches, and I have to admit being impressed by its construction. And check it out - it has a painting of the holy cow! Moo!

And oh yeah, the Pieta is here, behind bullet-proof glass ever since some looney (not Michelangelo) decided to take a chisel to it. It's a lot smaller than I thought it would be - the figures are close to life-sized. For some reason I was thinking something closer to the Lincoln Memorial, but not by a long shot.

And what's Christianity without religious relics. Curiously, the two churches I went to that had heavy hitting relics also had more humble interiors. Perhaps you're meant to be dazzled by holy objects instead of geological forces. Santa Croce in Gerusalemme not only has the finger bone of Doubting Thomas, but boasts two whole thorns from the crown of Christ. And my favorite by far, the chains that held St. Peter in St. Peter-in-Chains. Not only do I like metal objects, but these relics are so big you actually see them, even though they are encased in an opulent box, as are all relics, which I find somewhat contradictory. Shouldn't these objects be allowed to dazzle on their own?

St. Peter-in-Chains also has a statue of Moses by Michelangelo. As the story goes, due to an apparent mistranslation from the Hebrew, Moses has horns on his head instead of rays; I was later told that Michelangelo did this on purpose, but need to research that angle. Intentional horns or not, I think it looks like he's wearing one of those kitty cat ear headbands.

And finally...the Vatican Museum. I initially was going to skip this, but after a couple of days of musing, decided that I shouldn't let a chance to see the Sistine Chapel go by. Who know when I'll be in Rome again. The Sistine Chapel is the final room of the sprawling Vatican Museum, and there's no way to see only the chapel. Admission isn't regulated at all, so you stand in line (for hours), see as much of the ancient Roman, Etruscan, and Egyptian artifacts as you want (probably none, since you feel like crap after standing in line for hours), and then start the long haul through chambers and chambers of painted rooms (some by Raphael - rather nice) before you get to the chapel.

Anyone who has been to San Diego's Comic Con has remarked on how...humid the convention floor can be at its height, full of nerds going gaga over the array of comic candy in front of them. The Sistine Chapel is ten times worse. No photography is allowed, yet everyone is snapping away, and guards are snapping at whomever is stupid enough to do it in front of them. Most of the offenders are never reprimanded, and probably don't know or don't care that they've done something wrong. Whether or not photography should be allowed is up for debate, but the fact that standing in a room with hundreds of people who are hot and cranky from getting the Vatican runaround is a lousy way to examine and appreciate one of the most celebrated paintings of our time is not. As soon as I get in, I want to get out. Seeing the chapel was great. Seeing it in those conditions was awful. Is that a wash? I dunno. I think I got screwed by the Vatican. Pope Benedict, you owe me 13 euro, and I know your coffers can afford it. Clearly it's all about Cash, because anyone who cared about Art wouldn't subject it or those who want to see it to that ordeal. Take a lesson from the Galleria Borghese - admission by reservation only, with a limited number of people allowed inside for a two hour window. No fuss, no muss, no crowds. I really dig the painted ceilings in the Galleria - most, if not all, are depicting Greek myths, and the gods and goddesses are frequently depicted perched on little fluffy clouds, meddling in the ways of humans that only the Greek pantheon can meddle.

Another museum with no crowds, which requires no reservation, and is a mere 4 euro admission, is the Musical Instruments Museum. Of interest to those, obviously, who like musical instruments, a couple objects of note include one of the three pianos made by Bartolomeo Christofori, inventor of the pianoforte, and mandolins fashioned from the carapaces of armadillos. Neato!

Lest it seem like I spent all my time gawking at the excesses of the Catholic Church, I did spend quite a number of hours sweating amongst the ruins of the Roman Empire, and getting lost in the twisty Roman streets. Rome is the first city to have broken my normally reliable sense of direction. I got completely turned around on my first day, and ended up back where I started, when I was trying to go in the opposite direction. The Circus Maximus is a bit of a letdown, being dusty and not a chariot in sight. The Pantheon, swamped as the rest of Rome in tourists, is another nifty example of ingenious engineering, and is as imposing as St. Peter's Basilica. It is a little mind-bending to ponder that you're standing on the exact same ground whereupon Caesar stood, albeit without his timeless coiffure.

Rome isn't as oppressively hot as I expected it to be, but I still end each day feeling like a gummi bear. Even the nuns aren't immune, and I catch one about to tuck into a bowl of gelato upon returning one day.

So, wish I had seen: Cappuchin Crypt. Wish I had missed: Vatican Museum. Rome deserves more time than I gave it, but not in August.

I forgot to mention one of the more thought-provoking items from the Wellcome Collection in the London blog. A tobacco resuscitator used to...revive a victim of drowning by blowing tobacco up their rectum. Who knew?! Now you do, should you ever come across such an unfortunate.


Heidi said...

sorry the vatican was such a let down. rome is always full of tourists, but august must be unbearable. I was there a couple times in November. Good time to go. Weather is decent and you don't have to suffer the throngs of tourists. However, the Vatican museum is always packed - even in the off season. Can't wait to hear about the Cinque Terre

Robert said...

Great updates! Keep them coming. Sounds like you are having a grand time.

Note, the elevator at my SF apartment also take forever, can only remember 1 floor at a time, and will only respond to button presses when the door closes. I feel your pain.