EASTER SUNDAY,April 12-Florence,Italy
We were up early to pack our bags and put them in the hall by 7A.M. After a quick shower, we met the Meads and the Lynch’s in the hotel dining room for breakfast, before our 8 A.M. departure. We took a last walk to the Arno River sensing that it would be a long time before we walked this way again. It was cloudy ,cool and in the 40’s on this Easter morning in Florence.
We were heading through rural Umbria to the historic mountaintop village of Asissi, home of St Francis. As we passed the beautiful shore of Lake Trebbiano, Lucio explained the significance of this sight in Roman History.
The massive bulk of a 50,000 man Roman Legion had been deployed in the wide valley just behind us. Hannibal and his Carthaginian invaders sat undiscovered at the head of the narrow defile along the lake that we now traversed. The Romans, thinking perhaps to catch the Carthaginians unawares, started their march in the predawn hours into the narrow defile. As they marched into the rising sun they could see only the swirling lake and mountain mists above them.They marched confidently and unknowingly into the grinding maw of a killing machine waiting on the slopes above them. Unable to maneuver in the narrow valley and outmatched by superior cavalry, the Roman legion was ground to pieces against the Carthaginian phalanx. Broken swords and bodies littered the scenic landscape for years afterwards.A few of the local village are named “pile of bones” or “bloody fields” to memorialize the slaughter. In a mind blink I had traveled across the centuries and now sat looking at a beautiful lake scape where so much death had once occurred. Italy can do that to you, an unexpected and startling mind -blink into antiquity, underneath the Umbrian sun
Hannibal roamed Italy for another 18 years before returning to Carthage.Then, the avenging Romans destroyed Carthage so completely that not a single stone was left standing on top of another.The vengeful Romans even sowed the ground with salt so that nothing would ever grow in the area again. Two mighty armies and peoples had pounded upon the granite slate of history with waxen mallets,their impressions all too soon faded and worn by the fibrous and scouring sands of time.
We soon approached the hilltop village of Asissi in time for the High Easter Mass in the lower Cathedral at 10:30 A.M. We and hundreds of others listened to the Mass in Italian and sat respectfully in this historic old church. Curiously, scores of tourists still filed down the side aisles headed for the tomb of St.Francis on the lower level, economics I suppose.
After Mass and communion, we met “ Marcella” our guide.She began a brief explanation of the significance of the church and the history of St. Francis. The cold,wind and rain soon defeated her. Most of us set off in different directions to explore this medieval town. Mary & I walked up the nearby stairs and viewed the scaffolding with which they were repairing the upper church of St.Francis, damaged a few months before in an earthquake.Four men had been killed by falling rubble of the fresco ceiling.
We wandered up the curved and winding alleys of the upper town admiring the substantial brown, fieldstone structures with red-tile roofs. A few souvenir shops claimed our attention before we sought shelter in the well ordered security of the Hotel Windsor/Savoy, a 4 star and comfortable hillside retreat. Most of the tour had done likewise. We sat for a time thawing out and awaiting the luncheon that the hotel was putting on for us. In a bright and high- windowed room, over looking the valley below,we were served Pasta, vegetables(for me) ,cream puffs, white wine, mineral water and cafe’latte. It was very good and the festive mood returned to us .
After lunch, we walked around for a brief time admiring the valley scape and the well ordered Town of St.Francis of Asissi.
We boarded our bus and continued on through the hills near Perugia, stopping at the small mountain town of TORGIANO, noted for its vineyards and wine making . At the”Osteria de Museo”, we sampled red, white and rose’ wines of the region.
Tiring with the day, we climbed aboard our motorized chariot and drove the final 100 miles along the Po river valley to the Eternal City, Roma There are flocks of sheep, vineyards and villas on every hilltop along the way to Roma.We were expectant and chatty with anticipation at arriving in so fabled a city.
The traffic into the city was light by Roman standards and by 6:15 P.M. we had arrived at the Visconti Palace, near the Castle San Angelo and the Vatican. We checked into our room, unpacked and settled in.
The sun was still with us and we were in Rome, so we set out with the Meads for a walk to Navona Square across the Tiber River. We saw Bernini’s famous “four rivers” fountain and the many swirls of tourists that gather here nightly. In a mood for walking, we set out down the narrow lanes in search of the fabled “Spanish Steps.” Our navigation was less than perfect and we ended up atop the capitol steps near the Vittorio Emmanuel Monument.There, a passing tourist kindly informed us that we were not on the Scala Espagna.Hey what did we know? If he hadn’t stopped, these would have been the Spanish steps to us. We walked on in the night admiring the lighted splendor of the Vittorio Emmanuel Monument, through the Piazza Venezia and along the busy Via Corso to the upscale Via Condotti and finally to the most famous gathering point in Rome, The Spanish Steps , named after the former residence of the Spanish Ambassador. Keats and other Literary figures had once lived and written here.
The two grand series of steps surround a wonderful floral garden .At the top of the very long steps stands the outline of the Villa Medici with its twin Byzantine towers. At the very bottom of the steps is a small fountain from which the hearty drink for luck (ugh).We walked to the top of the stairs and admired the dome of St.Peter’s far in the distance. The storied and very expensive Hotel Hassler stands at the top of the stairs awaiting the well heeled. We surveyed, for a time, the swarm of people walking and sitting along the length of the stairs and decided it was time to head back.
The Hotel was a lot closer than we thought. We sought Cena(dinner) at a place nearby that Lucio had recommended .It was one of the few restaurants open on Easter Night. It was properly titled as “La Vigna dei Papi” or the Vineyard of the Pope, but to us, it became the “Pope’s Deli.” We had a wonderful minestrone zuppa, insalata, vegetables with desert, mineral water and several flagons of a tasty red wine, all for a modest sum. We laughed heartily about the two sets of Spanish steps and enjoyed the camaraderie and the enjoyment of being in the Eternal City.The heavens opened while we were inside and we felt grateful to the elements for holding off until we were undercover. Lucio sat at another table quietly enjoying his own thoughts.We stopped by and chatted with him for a while before heading back to the Visconti Palace and a night of well deserved rest.We read for a while and soon surrendered to the sandman, tired and happy that we were here.
Monday, April 13-Rome,Italy
We were up by 7A.M..It was cloudy, cool and 50 degrees. We showered and then met the Meads and Lynches for breakfast at 8A.M. By now I was feeling like an ad for Iowa pork from eating all of this rich food.
At 9A.M. we were joined by “Nora”, our guide, for a short ride to that most famous of all Roman landmarks,The Coliseum.It stands in ruined relief against the cerulean blue sky, four tiers of arches in an open circle. Made of brown brick and originally faced with white marble, it now stands as a crumbling reminder to the glory that was Rome. It was constructed from 72-80 A.D. by the Flavian Emperors over the ruins of Nero’s “golden house.” It has 80 separate entrances, each numbered above by a Roman numeral.Seating was assigned according to rank and station.The upper seats (the end zones of antiquity) were for the plebeian rabble. Interestingly, the stadium had a canvas awning that could be erected over the entire structure by a team of 400 sailors using nautical ropes and pulleys. The original arena floor was wooden. It is on this surface that gladiators fought each other or wild beasts. No Christians were ever fed to the lions here despite the movies and myths. Hydraulic engineers could also flood the first level and stage mock sea battles for the entertainment of the nobility.
And now here it stood, a heap of interesting rubble stripped by scavengers for centuries of all its former beauty. As we wandered around and tried to imagine the cheering throngs that once sat here, I could hear in my mind’s ear the savage cries and the roar of the crowd. Much like our own football and baseball stadia, the fans scurried to their seats cursing the traffic and hoping not to miss the thrill of the first contact and the approving roar of the mob. They, like we, surveyed the crowds and looked for familiar faces to wave and ask after. It was a family outing in ancient Rome.The language had evolved to English for us, but the thirst for blood and the animal frenzy of the crowd remain with us even today.
Next to the Coliseum stands the mighty Arch of the Christian Emperor, Constantine. Built in the 3rd Century A.D. it looks much like the Arc D’Triomphe in Paris.Perhaps Napoleon brought this idea home to France with him when he looted the rest of Italy’s treasures.
From the Arch of Constantine, we walked along the narrow “Via Sacra” over the same cobblestones trod upon by the Romans. It was here that the victorious Roman Generals marched in triumph to the Forum, to receives accolades from the Roman Senate. Strange animals and war treasures set the crowd agog with delight. The dazed and weary prisoners of war marched, shackled and weary, into a life of slavery. The victorious general, driven in an ornate and ceremonial chariot ,nodded approvingly at the tumultuous cheers from the Roman people. Behind him, in the chariot, stood a slave with a laurel wreath of gold , held over the general’s head, whispering in his ear an admonition, the phrase “Sic transit gloria.” Fame is fleeting.
The Forum itself was entered through the smaller Arch of Titus, built to commemorate the subjugation of Judea in 70 A.D. A Menorah is carved in bass relief on the arch to signify the Roman triumph over Judaism. Today, all that is left of the magnificent debating place of the Romans is a pile of rubble and a grassy meadow,perhaps they too had once heard the whisper ”Sic Transit Gloria.” Still, standing there beneath the quiet blue sky of a Roman afternoon, one could imagine the triumphs and intrigues of a powerful empire that must have played out here daily. If you listen on a quiet evening, the locals claim, you can here them talking still.
As we left the forum and walked back over the Via Sacra, we passed by the grassy and treed remains of the Palatine hill where Rome was founded, in the 8th century B.C,. by the fabled twins Romulus and Remus.
The ruins of the Palace of the Flavian Emperors stands forlornly on the hill overlooking an empty oval of grass that had once been the Circus Maximus. Scenes of the chariot races from the movie “ Ben Hur” stir the mind and imagination. Much of the glory that was Rome had faded into the dustbin of historical footnote. From the Palatine and Capitol Hills, our bus took us for a brief ride across the Tiber to the living and breathing heart of Rome, Vatican City.
We stopped first at a religious store for rosaries, icons and all such necessary souvenirs. The store offered various packages of reliquary that could be sent over to the Vatican to be blessed and delivered later to your hotel room. It reminded me somewhat irreverently of the duty free stores along the U.S.Borders. I though Martin Luther had straightened this stuff out a few hundred years ago.
Next, we marched across the street to stand in what is perhaps one of the three most noted squares in the world, that of St.Peter’s. Hundreds of times I have seen this square on television, as a Papal address was given or more dramatically, when a new pope is elected. I could see the circular roof line of the statues of the Saints and martyrs. I could look above to the Papal balcony, now draped in flowers for the Easter address in 48 languages. My mind’s ear heard the cheer of the teeming throngs who often packed the square to hear the Papal address “il Papa” they chanted. We made our way past the fountains and chairs, with thousands of others, to the very center of world wide Catholicism, the Church of St.Peter.
Words are poor descriptors for the tiled mosaic friezes, bronze castings of various popes and shrines to many of the saints and holy family. The chair of St.Peter , the enormous four bronze columns surrounding the pulpit of St.Peter and the bronze, gold and marble masterpiece that is the central altar.
Beneath us in a tomb lies the remains of the fisherman, Peter. Mass was being said at the main altar and priests from many nations were giving confession in a dozen languages. Nuns and priests from the far flung regions of the world wide church walked respectfully and purposefully amidst the sprawl of tourists from as many countries.
We stood in awe of that masterpiece of Michelangelo’s , “The Pieta.”
The sorrowful mother holding in her arms the body of the crucified Jesus. You could feel the hurt in her eyes and sense the forlorn helplessness of a mother whose child had been taken from her. Even were it not religious, this carved block of marble would inspire awe and appreciation.
Like our visits to all great museums, we began to glaze over after a time. We rejoined our group for the short bus ride back to the hotel.
A tour of the catacombs and the Appian Way was scheduled for the afternoon, but Mary & I decided we had toured enough for the day. We walked from the hotel, across the Tiber, up the Via Corso and across the Via Condotti to the Spanish Steps. It was sunny and warm out and the area was a throng of people.We sat by the fountain and watched the ebb and flow of the tourists as they took pictures, drank from the fountain(ugh) and milled about, not realizing that the principle activity was to sit and watch the others.
From the Spanish steps and the nearby Piazza Espagna, we wandered across the narrow back streets to the Via Della Mercede, where we stopped at a small cafe for panini and mineral water. Curiously, the small and tasteful cafe was called the “Broadway Bar.”
After this refreshing stop we followed the winding streets and the conveniently posted signs to another Roman tourist favorite, Bernini’s “Trevi Fountain.” Dutifully, we threw coins over our shoulders into the fountain and hoped it meant we would return to Rome again. There were crowds of people surrounding the fountain. Most seemed to be Italian families out for the day on “ Pasquita” or “little Easter” holiday. We stood for a while watching many others, young and old, throw coins into the fountain and take pictures of each other.Everyone seemed festive and happy to be here, perhaps reflective of the legendary sunny Roman temperament.
From the Trevi Fountain, we retraced our path to the Spanish Steps and then up the Via Condotti and across the Tiber to our hotel to take a breather before dinner.
At 7:45 P.M., our group assembled on the bus and drove across Rome to a small,very popular and delightful Tratoria by the name of “Ambasciatta D’Abruzzi.” (Embassy of the region of Abbruzzi)
We crowded all 45 of us into a small back room and were served family style by sweating waiters. We had three different types of pasta with mushrooms ,cheese ,vegetable & penne., a mushroom omelette for me, veal for the others. A nice desert and all washed down with mineral water and liberal quantities of Abruzzi wine . It was another meal to remember.
As we dined, the heavens opened and it poured. We scurried the few blocks to our bus, laughing at the rain and each other.
The bus took us back to the hotel and as we entered it rained like biblical times. We retreated to our rooms to read and relax from a long day. Morpheus joined us amidst the raindrops and we slept like dead crocodiles.
We were up very early this morning, at 5:45 A.M. We met the Meads for breakfast in the hotel dining room at 6:30 A.M. We had an early 7:15 bus to see one of the world’s most renowned masterpieces, The Sistine Chapel.
As early as we got there, the lines had already formed outside of the Vatican Museum.Luckily for us, the museum opens up at 8:00 A.M. for tour groups and not until 8:45 A.M. to the general public.Nora, our guide, had gotten us there as the second group in line. She told us that the normal wait could be up to two hours with a line winding back a mile or so into St.Peter’s square. Nora shepherded us through the entrance way and via the elegantly paneled elevators, to the second floor level of the Vatican Museum. Nora was taking us directly to the Sistine Chapel, bypassing the rest of the museum in order to give us time to better enjoy the chapel unhurriedly.
As we walked the length of the ornately decorated hallways of the Vatican Museum, Nora pointed out the array of wall-sized painted arras completed by Raphael and his students. Then, there were the tiled religious frescoes in bright greens and vivid blues. Trump L’oeil paintings along the ceiling gave us the impression of three dimensional sculptures hovering above us. It was a world of elegance and taste and beauty. Not too far beyond the walls, a child was bitten by a rat in a filthy squalid slum.
Next, we entered the quiet precincts of the Sala Immaculata Conceptione,an intimate little chapel adorned with grand murals honoring the Immaculate Conception of Mary, a primary tenet of church dogma.
Finally, we walked down a few steps into that sanctum sanctorum , il Sistina Chapella. Built by Pope Sixtus IV as a private Chapel, the church was divided into an inner and outer chapel, separated by a 12 foot, ornate, wrought-iron screen.
The 40 foot walls are geometrically separated into four distinct art groupings. The first fifteen feet are painted as purple velvet curtains.The texture of the work leads you, from a distance, to watch the curtains lest they move. Next, along each longitudinal wall is a series of six grand murals some 12 feet high. Three are the works of the master, Botticelli, the others by Perugino and his school, depicting biblical scenes and medieval Italy.
The third level is an evenly spaced depiction of a series of Popes, perhaps a sop to the financiers of the chapel.Lastly, in small triangles and created in a special paint by Michelangelo that is a collage of vivid oranges, blues,reds and peaches,are the prophets of the old testament like Daniel and Ezekiel. The rear wall of the chapel is an entire chapel sized mural that had taken Michelangelo 7 years to complete.It depicts many scenes from the final judgment day.It would take a long time to decipher all of the images present there. It seems Michailangelo wasn’t above a fit of pique ,depicting a troublesome Vatican secretary as a horned devil in hell. It is nice to know that even geniuses are human.
Finally, we come to the most prized of artworks, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.Starting in 1508, under the stern direction of Pope Julius II,Michelangelo painted, in four years, a series of ceiling wide panels depicting God’s creation of the universe ,the original sin in the garden of eden,Noah and the flood. In his first two panels Michelangelo noted that his perspective was crowded.The remaining panels are wider spaced and more sweeping in design.His vivid colors command your attention as the symbolism of his depictions follows in timely sequence the story of creation. The grand pyramids of Egypt are similarly encripted. As always, the painters and artists speak to the ages.
We had about thirty minutes of the chapel virtually to ourselves, to sit and quietly contemplate the artwork.This is virtually unheard of when the teeming throngs roil through the museum.Our guide Nora had earned her keep this day.We left the chapel appreciative of the experience and sat for a while in an outdoor alcove, near the Vatican post office and in view of the high relief of the Vatican Dome of St.Peter’s. It was a great photo spot.
The group had the option to stay and visit the many thousands of exhibits, but we were” museumed out.” We elected to take the bus back to the hotel.
From the hotel, we walked with the Meads across the Tiber and wandered the back streets, on our way to the Pantheon. Marie saw a nice leather coat in a small store and bought it The shop owner formerly had a girl friend that lived in Buffalo.He had even visited once,small world.
Almost unexpectedly, we came upon that solid Greco-Roman temple, the Pantheon. First built in 27 B.C. and later restored by Hadrian in 117 A.D., it is one of the oldest buildings in Rome.Fronted by a massive array of doric columns and looking for all the world like an older and dingier version of our Supreme Court Building,it is impressive in its casual antiquity. Inside, the marble floor is in good repair for so old a building. There are more interior Corinthian columns, along the circular walls and supporting the circular and convex dome whose center is open to the elements. A roseate marble glimmered in the filtered light from the polished walls.There are several small shrines to San Guiseppe and other saints. We sat for a time and admired the understated beauty of the Pantheon. Pagan, Christian or other, it is a place designed for quiet contemplation and harmony with the elements of nature.
From the Pantheon we traversed the narrow streets to the Piazza Navona and again admired Bernini’s fountain of the four rivers. We settled upon a colorful Pizzeria ,named oddly enough the “4 Fiume”Pizzeria. There we had verdura zuppe, panne, pizza verdura and aqua minerale.It was very good and the cost was modest.As we exited the restaurant, we noticed nearby the “Tre Scalini” cafe.It is a much reccomended spot for a Roman favorite,”Tartufo.” This wonderful creation is ice cream ,dipped in hot liquid chocolate and cooled, and then covered in whip cream. It is both rich and delicious, well deserving of its reputation.
We walked along the narrow lanes to the Tiber River and past the massive fortification of Castle San Angelo with its wide moat. It had been at various times the tomb of an emperor, a fortification,a prison and is now a museum. It was windy and cool out as we returned to the hotel to pack for our departure tomorrow morning and prepare for dinner.
Tonight was to be the last evening in Italy for about half of our tour group,so a special dinner was planned.They were being replaced by 12 new arrivals who had joined us in Rome two days previously. At 7:15 P.M. our melancholy bus load set out for a Roman experience. We were headed to a very special and much feted restaurant,”Meo Patacca.”
Upon arrival, we descended a flight of masonry stairs into the ancient cellar of a very old restaurant. As we sat in anticipation, the strolling minstrels played the Mandolin,.picollo, and folk guitar in nostalgic Italian folk songs. “Santa Lucia” and “Marie” echoed throughout the cavern walls as efficient waiters served us pasta con mushrooms,insalata, more pasta for me and gelatto washed down with mineral water and liberal quantities of local red and white wine. We ate, we sang, we laughed and we enjoyed the evening immensely. Toasts of “Arrivederci Roma” and “Salute” passed back and forth.It was a wonderful farewell party for those leaving Italy tomorrow.
The bus ride back was raucous and filled with laughter.It spilled over into the hotel lobby in an orgy of final picture taking and fond goodbyes.We had shared most of our waking hours with these people for the last ten days.They were already old friends and we would miss, but not forget them. Mary and I decide to take a 15 minute walk to the Piazza Cavour to clear our heads before retiring. It was pleasant to walk amidst the Roman night and remember all that we had seen and done in one of the most ancient of European capitols.
We retired to our room, finished packing for the morning departure and slept like the dead.