St. Peter's Dome and
We're tired of shoveling snow and aren't going anyplace this winter. So this is a good time to do some planning. Here are a few tips for your trip to our favorite - Italy. If you're
on the Grand Tour (and have a month or more) you can take in all of Italy's Big Three: Rome, Florence, Venice. Or you can pick and choose to match your inclinations (and your budget and time constraints).
Rome is an enormous, sprawling place. It is, however, built on a human scale. There are no skyscrapers and none of the claustrophobic sense of New York. You
can always see the sky and, from the right vantage points, the horizon. Since the street layout is haphazard at best and maddeningly chaotic at its worst, a good map is essential. Try something called "Streetwise" (www.amazon.com)
They are laminated, fit in your pocket or purse easily. One side highlights historic sites, the other side art. They are inexpensive and available for Florence, Venice and most major cities in the world. They will prove invaluable.
Rome, despite its size, is a walking city. There are lots of tourist friendly signs and, with the map, you won't get lost. Likewise, Florence and Venice (both tiny by comparison) are easy to get around
in on foot.
Public transportation in Rome is pretty good. You won't need a car. Besides, driving in Rome is much, much worse than New York or Boston and there's no place to park.
Walk. Walk a lot. You'll learn more about the city and you'll be too tired to try and do and see everything there is to do and see.
The sheer immensity and variety of Rome has
overwhelmed tourists for centuries. One of the most famous (and useful) Italian phrases is "La dolce far niente" - the sweetness of doing nothing. The Italians seem to some to spend an inordinate amount of time in coffee shops and bars (which are
frequently the same place) doing, well, nothing. This might be their greatest contribution to civilization. You're in Italy - exhale. It'll do you good. Please do not think of the trip as a contest to see how many sites you can check off.
If you do, you'll be dazed and confused when you're there; exhausted and unsatisfied when you return.
Of course, one does actually want to see some things.
Many of the very best of those things can be found in the Vatican Museums. The long lines (very long, very slow) can to some degree be shortened if you go to the Vatican's website at www.vatican.va
You can purchase advance tickets to the Museums and Gardens. The Vatican Gardens are especially beautiful. Groups are usually no more than 10 or 12 people and on a sunny day ... well, it is the Pope's backyard.
Two of the most stunning works of art in the Western world are the Sistine Chapel and the Pieta. Access to the Pieta is easy. Just get in line to go into St. Peter's Basilica and it's on the right side just after you enter
the main doors. Unfortunately, after the statue was attacked by a madman some decades ago, it's behind glass. There's always a crowd, so patience is required to edge up close for the best view.
As for the Sistine and Michaelangelo's masterwork, viewing this may be a bit of a disappointment. First of all, the line is dreadfully long and tedious. Once inside the chapel itself one might expect a tone of, if not exactly reverence
then at least silence. Instead there's always a low (or not so low) buzz from the visitors, interrupted by period announcements to be silent. Photography of any kind is prohibited and the guards are not shy about putting their hands over your lens
should you lean back and try to take a picture of the ceiling. Photographing the ceiling seems frankly silly given its size and position. Just accept the fact that some things can't be transmuted into another form. But despite the long lines,
the crowd or the guards, being in the presence of one of the greatest achievments in human history ... well, it's worth it.
While your camera won't be of any use, a small pair of binoculars will
provide an opportunity to see details(including the charcoal outlines of all the figures) that you otherwise will miss from the floor.
The ceiling tells a unified story of the creation of man
and much of the Old Testament history including a litany of the prophets and ancestors of Christ. That's a lot of territory, so it pays to study up a bit before you see it. Better yet, hire a guide.
Tickets for the Papal Audience (every Wednesday) can be arranged by visiting www.vatican.va
Tickets are free but unless you're a dignitary, diplomat
or celebrating at least your 50th wedding anniversary, you're just thrown in with the masses and since seating is unreserved, you need to arrive at least 2 hours before things get started for a reasonably good seat. Even then you may find yourself behind
a group of flag waving pilgrims who block your view.
Or you could go to Piazza S. Pietro for the noon Sunday appearance of the Pope. No tickets required. Smaller crowds. The
view is unobstructed but the Pope is about a mile away when he appears at his apartment window. He waves, gives a brief sermon and benediction.
A word about St. Peter's in particular and
visiting churches generally:
Rome is not Disneyland for Catholics. While many churches contain great art treasures, they are not museums. All of the churches are sacred places of worship.
Visitors are expected to act and dress accordingly. Women with shorts and/or sleeveless shirts will not be admitted.
Since you wouldn't want to spend all the time in the Vatican (although
you could) here's a few other highlights:
Certainly the greenest neighborhood in Rome is found at the top of the Via Veneto, in and around the Borghese Gardens. It's
perfect for strolling. You get a great view of the city from the Pincio. It's best in the evening when all of Rome goes for a stroll.
The Spanish Steps is
the place for people watching. This area is one of the best (and most expensive) shopping districts in the world. Perfect if you're in the market for a $2,000 pair of shoes or a designer gown. If you're not a Saudi prince or a Russian oligarch,
it has world class window shopping for free.
While you're in the neighborhood, have lunch at our favorite place, La Rampa (www.allarampa.it ).
It's the quintessential Roman place. The menu is extensive. The ravioli is especially delicious. Cindy lives for the tiramisu. Bring cash. They don't take credit cards.
A note about restaurants in Italy:
Food is taken very seriously. Service is an honored profession. Waiters (largely men) do not call you "you guys".
They do not act as if they are auditioning to be your "friend". They are not between jobs. This is what they do. Their father was a waiter. There uncle was a waiter. Treat them accordingly and you will have the rare satisfaction
of seeing work turned into high art. Tips are usually inclulded (servicio incluso) in the check (il conto).
you will not find in Italian eateries: ice water and butter (butter, sometimes in the North). Don't ask for them. It would be easier on everyone if you just wore a sign that said, "I'm an American tourist."
No Italian drinks cappucino after noon. If it's no longer breakfast time and you need coffe - it's espresso.
Anyway, who wants
to be up all night? Italians are not much for late night entertainment. Usually it's just diner, go home, go to bed. So, pass on the coffe and finish the meal with a digestivo. Vin Santo or limoncello. Either
one will do nicely.
Skip desert. Go for a walk after diner and find a gelateria or a bibete cart.