If you’re a fan of country music, your mecca is Nashville. You like film stars, new and old? I bet your dream is to stroll the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But for Catholics, many a pilgrimage has concluded at Vatican City, and St.Peter’s Basilica, where marble effigies of Popes and Saints burst, rock-star-like from the walls like a Catholic Hall of Fame. “Smash!” there’s Pope Innocent XI flanked by women representing Faith and Fortitude. “Bam!”, it’s St Veronica holding the cloth that wiped Jesus’ face. “Kapow!” check out Pope Alexander VII with Charity and Truth, and a skeletal bronze “Death”, shrouded in jasper proclaiming “Remember, you will die”. Happy days!!!
There has been a church on this site since the 300s thanks to Emperor Constantine the Great. This enormous renaissance version was built between the 1500 and 1600’s. There is nothing frugal or subdued in St.Peter’s. It’s a colossal structure, advertising the pomp and wealth of the church in its heyday. Apart from the glossy intimacy of “Pieta”, Michelangelo’s beautiful depiction of the perfect Madonna; nothing in this basilica is subtle. And it’s the subtlety of smaller rural churches that appeal more to me. They encourage stillness, reflection and tranquility. And besides, nobody likes a show-off!
The Vatican Museums are just as overwhelming. So much artistry, beauty and wealth packed in a tight labyrinth of rooms. We felt like four stray gazelle with elephant and rhino tourist herds stampeding over us at times in those long tapestried corridors. More intent on reaching their Valhalla – the Sistine Chapel, than actually enjoying the rest of the church’s majestic spoils, they strode on, eyes ahead, oblivious to the fact that two small, worldy children were in their wake.”Must…tick…chapel…off…list”. Our guide (Cam) ushered us through to the areas we knew the girls would love. The Egyptian Rooms and their many statues of Elvis (seriously, look at the faces!), the map corridor, the amazing Raphael Rooms and the Pinacoteca Vaticana, with more Annunciations, and Crucifixions than you could poke a communion wafer at. All roads led to…Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. And yes, it is a marvel, albeit an over-the-top one. But it was a little hard to enjoy it when there are people jostling about and guards yelling constantly at American tourists who were warned on numerous occasions not to take photos, to “please stop taking photos”. We just wanted to get out of there!
We did find two far quieter Catholic experiences, clearly off the regular tourist trail, in Rome. Cam is fascinated by anything underground. Caves, grottos, caverns. So a Catacomb visit was a must. The outskirts of Rome are riddled with underground passageways where early Christians were buried, and one of the least visited, because it’s pretty difficult to get to and only a few people can be taken down at a time, are the Catacombe di Priscilla, also called “The queen of the catacombs” because of all of the saints and martyrs that were originally buried here. We held on for grim life on a speeding, law breaking local bus for 40 minutes, on which the Romans would fervently cross themselves each time they passed a church, which was fairly often. We were sure we too crossed ourselves when we arrived in one sweaty-palmed crumpled piece. No saints remain in Priscilla, as over the years, they were dug up and divied up between churches around the world. Some of the tombs are still in tact however, and the size of the place was unbelievable…13 kilometres of labyrinthine corridors, once housing thousands of bodies. The walls were once all frescoed with designs to show who was buried where, and still in tact are the oldest ever depiction of Mary and baby Jesus and another of the Three Wise Men. To think that pilgrims came from all over the world to track down their favourite saints and pay respect in these dark, dank tunnels. And we were there. It was a pretty special place.
We also visited the somewhat creepy Capuchin Cemetery, where the skulls and skeletons of thousands of monks have been used to create oh-so-tasteful works of art. The Capuchin (they’re monks btw, not frothy coffee drinks) Museum was super interesting, with interactive displays on monk life, on their works and rituals, and on one of Italy’s favourite recent saints, Padre Pio. This trip has lit a monk and nun fascination in Milana, who has wanted to chase down every cute round nun in Italy. She was like a giddy fan meeting her idol when she got to have a photo taken with a real. live. monk. at the museum.
So many sites, so little time. A few more visits were to the Pantheon (big); Piazza Navona (“NO I DON’T WANT A SPLATTY PIG”); Monument to Vittoria Emanuele II (big and wedding cake-ish); Castel Sant’Angelo by night (dark); the Spanish Steps (where the girls created a Roman Holiday moment using Italy’s most expensive gelati as props); and The Church of the Gesu, whose ceiling is so amazing, there’s an enormous mirror on the ground to see it in so you don’t crick your neck!
Dining in Rome was a big disappointment. Ristorante after Osteria after Pizzeria serving up the same few pastas and pizzas. Our “jam it all in the boot” driver did recommend a Roman institution near our place called “Filetto de Baccala”. It looks like a regular restaurant out the front – waitors, menus and all, but the locals in the know sneak up the back directly to the kitchen, where a rough tattooed woman stood angrily over a boiling pan of fat. There’s no menu back there. You only come for one thing. An extra salty slab of Baccala (cod) battered and wrapped in paper. “Uno per favore” I nervously requested. She grunted, fried it, I passed her the cash, and scarpered outta there as quick as I could. It was pretty good too, but not dissimilar to a flake in batter on any Australian beach. But it did live up to that Italian adage “Si mangia bene, e si spende poco” (you eat well and spend little).
On our last day, we lugged our mini backpacks around town while our luggage was kept safe at an excellent service called “Bags Free”, who pick up your cases and hold them until your flight. We had half a bottle of Scotch to get rid of, and we didn’t fancy sculling it at the airport. How fortuitous that we found a random vagrant streetside with a poster “Help a Punk to get Drunk”. At least he was honest! Cam handed over the Johnny Walker Red; the punk shook his hand; and our not-so-good deed of the day was done!
So, arrivederci Roma! You were not our favourite part of Italy by any means, but you’re a part nonetheless.
We were hit by another Culture Shock moment at the airport, waiting in line for our China Eastern flight to next stop, Shanghai. While much of Italy are currently sporting cheap Made in China clothing, a planeload of young Shanghainese tourists were busy pulling shoes, belts and handbags from shopping bags and jamming them into their luggage, tossing the packaging across the airport floor. Prada. Gucci. Ferragamo. It was all high end designer, and all the real deal. If this shocked us, we were in for even more surprises on our Shanghai stopover!