I am composing this on one of those really fast "bullet trains" you have likely read about. We are on our way from Rome to Lecce where the St. Nicholas Pilgrimage formally begins this evening. If you look at a map of Italy (click here for google map), you'll see Lecce nearly at the bottom of the country on the Adriatic Ocean. It is quite a hike from Rome. Over the next two and a half weeks we will be making our way North, ending in Bari where the actual Feast Day of St. Nicholas will be celebrated.
Since we were coming to Italy we decided to add four days to the beginning of the trip and spend the time in Rome, "the Eternal City." Two of our group had been here before but that was decades ago and they commented on how much things had changed - the density of the crowds, for one thing.
On Saturday, the day of our arrival, we mostly just wandered about our funky neighborhood taking in the sights. Everywhere one goes here is ancient, I mean really ancient; history abounds. One church we visited claims to be the oldest church in Christendom. Not the oldest building but a congregation that claims its origins go back to a house church in the early 300's. Our hotel is a converted convent and dates from the early 1800's.
On Sunday we went to the plaza in front of St. Peter's to attend the Angelus. This is the public mass and blessing that the pope gives. We got there two hours ahead of time. The wait passed quickly as Sharon Rowe read to us interesting information about St. Peter's - its history and statuary. St. Peter's is built, so the guidebooks say, on the spot where St. Peter was crucified and is buried. The crowd swelled to a size that "guesstimated" to be at least 60,000. People were both incredibly enthusiastic and reverent. The pope is clearly loved and revered.
After this we went in search of the McDonalds that caused such a stir when it was opened last year. It is not the only McDonalds in Rome, just, in the opinion of some church officials and observers, sacrilegiously close to St. Peter's. I had vowed to eat there and offered to buy lunch for my traveling companions. I had no takers.
Instead we went to a nearby sidewalk cafe where we had one of our most interesting experiences so far on this trip. When we sat down we were given menus. When the woman, whom we took owned the place, came to take our orders, she let us know that not only did they not have almost anything actually printed on the menu but also she told us what to order - rather, what she would bring us - and either assured us or commanded us to enjoy it. Pam Rowe said it was restaurant service under bombardment. It was a hoot. The food was fabulous.
We liked this experience so much that the next day, after our tour of the Vatican Museum, the Cistine Chapel and St. Peter's, we decided to go back there again. Same experience.
I am so grateful to and for Pam Rowe. She put together an itinerary for our time in Rome that included prepaid guided tours of both the Vatican tour I mentioned and one the next day of the Coliseum. Both of these tours lasted for hours. Our guides were enthusiastic, energetic and knowledgeable.
I'm grateful to have been able to see such ancient and and beautiful pieces of art in all its forms. Michelangelo, responsible for much of it, was clearly a genius. Our guide explained to us what to pay attention to in the Cistine Chapel. She had to do this before we even went inside the museum. Once inside the crowd was as dense as I have ever experienced. Anyone with a smidgen of claustrophobia couldn't have made it. And, once inside the Cistine Chapel there could be no talking. The Chapel itself was smaller than I anticipated. I did manage to find a space along one of the walls to sit while I took in the famous ceiling. We are used to seeing individual, and isolated, pieces of this art and not all of it all at once. In spite of the density of the crowd, like the proverbial packed in together like sardines, it was a moving experience. The woman sitting next to me was texting the entire time.
If the Cistine Chapel is small, St. Peter's is humongous. It is as long as two football fields. They were getting ready to have a funeral mass that afternoon for some important person, so it was not possible to get too close to the chancel. The Pieta is here. It is the only piece of art of any kind that Michelangelo signed.
Afterwards we went back to the same restaurant only to be given menus and then told what we would have and enjoy. I asked to take the owner's picture. She seemed pleased. Like the day before, we spend the rest of the afternoon walking to famous plazas and fountains.
The next day we took a long expertly guided tour of the Coliseum. Because we were on a prepaid guided tour, we got to go into areas that many other tourists were not allowed. The Coliseum was built in 80 A.D. It took only eight years to build using, of course, slave labor. Our guide told us that not nearly as many gladiators died as the impression is given through the various movies we've seen over the years. This tour lasted the better part of a day.
We were in Rome at the beginning of what is called "high season" and our last day was Italy's "Fourth of July." Perhaps this explains the crowd density.
Street vendors are everywhere pushing items at you to purchase. The vendors are aggressive and insistent. The most ubiquitous item offered for sale and used by tourists were selfie sticks. I wonder what that says about us?
Another item we saw for sale in souvenir shops were calendars with "glamor shots" for every month. The pictures were of "good looking" priests in their collars and vestments. One of our group referred to them as "hunky monks."
By the way, the phrase "when in Rome, do as the Romans do was first attested to in Medieval Latin and the original was, "If you should be in Rome, live in the Roman manner; if you should be elsewhere, live as they do there." The way we know the proverb is attributed to St. Ambrose and its original meaning was: Respect the beliefs, customs and practices of the local culture.