04 March 2016

Italy Trip: Days 1-3

Finally! The Rome trip! For those unaware, my husband and I went to Italy for two weeks over Christmas, three days in Venice and the rest in Rome, my new favorite city. I'll be sharing our adventures in five parts with excerpts from the journal I kept while we were there (and my present commentary), as well as photographs (of course!). I absolutely loved Italy and still feel so lucky to have been able to go. :)


Christopher and I arrived in Rome yesterday morning after an eight hour flight with surprisingly good plane food (for some reason I was especially excited about that bit) [for real, guys. I love airplane food. I'm like a kid in a candy store when the attendants roll out their food carts. "Chicken or pasta?" Yes. Anything and everything, please.]. After landing, we took the FL1 train to our hotel. For much of this journey I was irritable, which I now blame on heat and hunger [story of my life]. Our hotel room is very European (i.e. small), but nice. We recuperated from the flight for a while, then headed out, taking the 60 bus to Santa Susanna, the church which held our free tickets to the Papal Audience for the next day. We took to walking around, ambling along small Italian streets that small Italian cars are still able to navigate. Many streets are done up with Christmas lights and some shops have garland and Christmas trees on display. Musicians play (or in one man's case, bring radios?) in open squares and larger streets. Waiters stand at restaurant doors, inviting people in for warmth and candlelit meals. Young people, mothers with strollers and (my favorite) priests walk along the dark cobblestones. It is all very idyllic. Still, I couldn't really grasp the fact that we were in Italy, finally, after waiting for such a long time.

As if the city knew I still held such reservations, if reservations they could be called, we turned a corner into the square which houses the Trevi Fountain. C was talking as we did so, but I would be hard pressed to remember what he was saying. The Fountain looms over you--I don't know how high--and if you aren't careful, you'll miss the details in the grand size of the piece. A flourish of sea flowers clings to the marble cliff. Each statue of the women has a unique character. The inscription at the top tells when and by whom and to what purpose the piece was constructed (which is all in shorthand, so you kind of have to know what it says already to know what it says). At night, it is lit up by lights throughout the square where people scrabble to get good angles for their pictures and vendors sell souvenirs and (the latest gimmick) selfie sticks. It seems to be a haunt for local teens, as well, who joke and shove each other on each stair level. Maybe it's my virginal Italian eyes or maybe it's that the Fountain was recently restored and cleaned, but it is a beautiful and stunning sight.

Imagine that you are only half as tall as the statues and you may have an idea of how large the Trevi is.

The Pantheon was a smaller, granted no less greater, surprise than the Trevi, at least as far as shock value is concerned. Still. Try not to be impressed by a building that has been standing for that many centuries. We entered about ten minutes before closing, which gave us enough time to see many paintings and sculptures. Maria e Gesu' Bambino was my favorite. Mary stands tall and strong with baby Jesus in her arms. The statue itself looks as smooth as realistic skin. I was pleasantly surprised to find Raphael's tomb beneath, who made many of the pieces there. On his tomb is written: “Here lies Raphael, by whom nature herself feared to be outdone while he lived, and when he died, feared that she herself would die.”

We took a north west path through lights and police motorbikes, headed for the Vatican. Somehow, I was more intent on making it to a particular street that the thought of the Vatican slipped my mind until C said if I looked carefully, I could see St. Peter's from our spot on Lungotevere in Marzio. I spied the cupola, the highest point in the city and started to feel a tingling of the thought “This is happening.”

We crossed Ponte S. Angelo to get to (what else?) Castel S. Angelo. The river is lined with statues of angels, some bearing staffs and ready to fight. The bridge is also a perfect place to watch cars pass on one side of the river and people pass on the other side. Lgt. Vaticano turns into Via della Conciliazione, a straight shot to the Basilica of St. Peter.

Ah, St. Peter's. What can I say that others have not? I Can only repeat the Basilica is beautiful but not only for the architecture. The Basilica is breathtaking, but not only for its size. The Basilica is magnificent but not only for its history. It is all of these things—art, enormity, history—as well as the anticipation I have ahd in waiting to see it and my religious history. Rome sweet Home was one of the first books I read about conversion and its cover had the Basilica of St Peter on it. “All roads lead to Rome” and the road of my life started in a very Protestant family and background Through circumstances of meeting people, being a naturally curious person, wanting to know the truth and having good examples of the faith, I became Catholic. I think it must be quite normal for converts to feel like weary, but immensely pleased pilgrims. For a time, they are on a journey of spiritual discovery and investigation; they must question beliefs they have long held; they must examine themselves. They must do all this in the face of opposition, whether that opposition comes from family, friends, or society. They must deny themselves and follow Christ where He leads them, He the good Shepherd who patiently bears his sheep and brings them truth, grace and mercy.

God has been with me on the journey of my life and on this journey to Rome, the seat of Peter, the stones where martyrs' blood has been spilt, the place where saints are buried, the city where walls, floors, ceilings and streets are covered in priceless art depicting scenes of the faith, the balconies where popes have greeted the people, the land where I expect to come away from changed, my home.


Morning came a little too quickly. We wanted to be sure to get to the Basilica in good time to get decent seats for the Papal Audience. The buses were incredibly packed when we got on (60 by the hotel, 64 at Nazionale-Quirinale) and I worried a little when one bus seemed to break down [!!!]. It turned out alright, though. Finally, we got off the bus and queued up with others to go through a very easy security line. Even though we had visited only twelve hours ago, I was still surprised at the scale of the place. We did luck out in finding two seats in the sixth or so row. I could hear people speaking in French, Italian and Spanish as we waited for the Audience to begin. What a testament to the universality of the Catholic church to have so many different people gathered in one place.

Suddenly, the murmur of many voices broke into cheers as Pope Francis entered the square. He greeted thousands with a large grin and waves. It is surreal to see buildings you've only seen in photographs and it is likewise surreal to see people you've only seen in photographs. He stopped every so often to kiss babies and reach out to people. Many of us who were not close to the perimeters stood on chairs to get a better view of the Holy Father. Finally, he made his way up to the platform in front of the Basilica. Bishops from around the world took turns reading from the Gospel, in which Jesus says He is the way. The Gospel was spoken in multiple languages and then Pope Francis gave his address. He reminded us that the Jubilee for the Year of Mercy had begun and the Holy Door had been opened (this door is only opened for Jubilee years). Ur focus must be on the mercy of God, which Christ welcomes us to receive in love and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He also said that mercy and grace come from God's love and our hearts, not from work we can do on our own. This statement elicited applause from the crowd. Following, the bishops extended prayers to Pope Francis, as well as happy birthday wishes (he would turn 79 on the 17th). Finally, they told us we could have our objects blessed at the closing benediction. He also blessed those in attendance, their families, and sick loved ones. At the end of the audience, one group sang Happy Birthday and a line of people met the Pope.

We followed the stream of people out of the square and turned onto Via di Porta Angelica to purchase religious items. A sizable shop had many things on display: rosaries, probably a hundred different kinds; key chains; mugs; sweatshirts; statues; decade bracelets; medals and more. I was tempted to purchase a statue of St. Therese of St. Christopher, but worried about something happening to it on the travel home. I picked up a box with Pope Benedict XVI on it which had a delicate looking blue rosary inside. While I liked it, I didn't think Benedict was involved so inherently. I asked the girl if the shop had more Benedict items (there were several Francis and JPII items) and they found a center piece I could attach to a rosary [but as I don't make rosaries, I nixed that option] and a key chain with Benedict on one side and the four Papal Basilicas on the other. I was more pleased when the girl found one with St. Christopher on the other side [score!]. I scooped the key chain up as well as a rose-scented rosary to be blessed at the Sunday Angelus.

We couldn't dawdle all day, though. We crossed a bridge into a thanklessly shaded road [it was nice and sunny in St. Peter's Square] and stopped first at Largo di Torre Argentina, where Caesar was murdered. The ruins are beautiful and almost haunting. It is amazing that such old sites have been preserved and stood through so much history. Of course, C had to insert a joke about posting a picture and saying, “Here is where I shanked Caesar.” Oof. A nearby fountain gave us some good water. The water from such fountains is known to be good and it is certainly much better than our hotel's, which is none too enjoyable.

After a good look into the past, we met a priest friend, Fr. M, outside of Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio, a church in the square where the Trevi Fountain is. We followed him down the street to a cafe. Along the way he pointed out the apartments where he and other studying priests live in Rome. We sat in a narrow cafe with espressos and hot chocolate and talked about his assignment. It sounds like a lot of work because they have eighteen hours of classes per week. It all sounds very interesting, so I hope it goes well for him.

We then headed to the Museo di Scultura Antica Giovanni Barracco, a (free!) museum which houses ancient Roman and Egyptian sculpture, vases and excavations. As I looked at the Roman artifacts, it hit me that these pieces did not have to travel far to be here. They did not come from some far away land. Instead, we had come to the far away land to encounter history and art for ourselves. We finished and ventured out for some dinner. I had carbonara (the best I had in Rome) and C has a tomato basil pasta.

Can't eat in Rome without Papa Benny's favorite soda.

Back at the hotel, I looked into how to get to Termini station that evening. We arrived in plenty of time and I used the hour for gelato and journaling. We boarded our train at around 10.15 and departed twenty minutes later. As it was an overnight train, we were in a sleeper car and shared it with two Italian boys. I can't remember their names, but one was friendly and going to Mestre to attend his girlfriend's graduation. He had spent a year in New York and Fordham studying law. After a while, we fell into quiet as we amused ourselves with writing, reading or music. At around 1 AM I finally fell asleep.


I awoke at 7 AM in a panic because we were meant to get to Venice at 5.20. However, Italian travel is not often without some delay and we arrived at 8.30. We were also given breakfast. Mine included a giant honey croissant and a kiwi apple juice. We got off the train, declined the opportunity to pay money to use the toilet, and exited the station to what has easily been the most beautiful sunrise of my entire life. Venice is gorgeous and I am so happy we decided to come here. Buildings with arched windows, flanked by small alleyways and broken up by grand museums and basilicas are bathed in an early morning pink and golden hue. The air smells slightly sweet and the stone bridges and streets resound pleasantly with the clack of footsteps. I could never describe the scene well enough. We stumbled upon the Rialto market, a visual onslaught of colors and an olfactory overpowering of smells (for the former, mostly of vegetables and fruits; for the latter, mostly of fish. Fish smells great early in the morning. It was probably swimming that morning...). C managed to guide us to our hotel, a cute B+B with an older, traditional décor that I quite like: soft yellow diamond patterned wall paper and dark wood dressers and armoirs. Our bathroom is up a flight of stairs and designed in a nice mix of traditional and contemporary with porcelain and terra cotta.

New best friend?

On our way to San Marco's, we must have passed one hundred shops. Many shops are designed with tourists in mind. They show off a bit of Venetian character, as well. Elaborate glittery masks for carnival, lace tablecloths, knockoff purses in several shades and sizes, glassowrk (a Venetian specialty), beaded jewelry, scarves, gelaterias and pizzerias (neither of which are as agood as their Roman counterparts)... Tourist trap restaurants send out waiters who advertise their “very fresh food.” The closer you are to Rialto bridge, the crazier it is. The bridge is covered in young people, older tourist couples, mothers with strollers, and people with maps and selfie sticks. Shops line the bridge as well.

Just pretend the construction and red poles aren't there.

Emerging onto the Square is another momentous scene. The Basilica itself is enormous and in the Baroque style. Great gilded horses flank the terrace. There are hints at the Evangelist throughout, especially with lions: on the edifice, as statues guarding a twenty foot tall Christmas tree, at the top of a monument. The other three sides of the square are made up of the Correr Museum, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciano and archaeological museum. Beneath these grand levels of historical note are shops and cafes. For Christmas, lights are strung in the walkways. Out on the square, it is a mix of people taking photographs, vendor carts selling scarves and scammers trying to push roses into women's hands. There is a thick layer of pigeon over everything. Pigeons looking for food, pigeons dive bombing, pigeons landing on people's arms [!]. The light was running out, so I ducked into San Marco's while C spoke with his mother on the phone. The church is very pretty and adorned everywhere with lions. The crucifix above the high altar is simple but nice. I also liked the Marian side of the altar. As I left, the sunset cast another beautiful warm rosy glow over the square.

We had dinner at a takeaway pasta place (cacio e pepe for me, bolognese for C), then went to Tre Mercanti, a specialty grocery store which sells 25 flavors of tiramisu. I was pleased to discover that they also had macarons. Satisfied with our traditional tiramisu and passion fruit macaron, we continued our [misty and slightly creepy] night time stroll, ducked into a supermarket to buy some cookies and chips, and returned to our hotel.

That's the first three days of the trip! Stay tuned for days 4-6. :)

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