I woke up early this morning, eager to escape the unrelenting gloom of Florence. We were at the train station in time for the 9:40 train -- which was thirty minutes late! While we were waiting for our train, an older man heard us speaking English and approached us. He and his companion turned out to be fellow Arizonans, and we chatted while we waited for the train to arrive.
Massimo, our bed and breakfast host, was kind enough to wait for us to arrive so that he could personally give us the key to our room and make sure that we had everything we needed. When he discovered that we had reserved tickets for Wednesday's papal audience through Santa Susanna instead of going directly to the Vatican, he offered to save us the trip to Santa Susanna and get the tickets for us. When we returned to our room after lunch, the tickets were waiting on our dresser.
At a little after two, we decided to visit the Vatican Museums. We were able to make it through the massive collection in about three hours, including forty-five minutes in the Sistine Chapel. Initially, Dan was disappointed by the chapel -- he thought it would be bigger. Understandable, since the "spark of life" panel that everyone is so familiar with is actually just one of nine center panels in an immense space. Ultimately, Michelangelo's The Last Judgment was the most impressive work to Dan.
We walked back to our room for our afternoon nap. Dan tried to get the TV to work for half an hour before giving up in irritation. I was actually glad not to have to listen to the constant drone of CNN or BBC News for a change.
Around eight o'clock, we went back to Via Bargo Pio to find a restaurant Dan had read about called Tre Pupazzi. The best part of the meal was the dessert -- panna cotta with a drizzle of caramel.
Dan's knees were really hurting him today, so we took it relatively easy. We had tickets to the papal audience at 10:30, so we started toward St. Peter's Square around 10 a.m. After a frantic search for the right line -- we found it with just moments to spare -- we were directed into a large auditorium to the left of the basilica. I'd say it accommodated a thousand people, and almost every seat was filled.
The pope read a devotion about Saint Catherine of Sienna in Italian. I was able to understand about every third word, but I got the gist of it. After the reading, what Dan and I have come to think of as the "pep rally" began. The audience was presented to Pope Benedict XVI by language groupings. Some of the named groups sang or chanted to the pope when they were mentioned by the priest. When all the groups in a given language were presented, the pope then read a brief statement in that language. At the end, he sang the Lord's Prayer in Latin and the rest of us tried to sing along. In Dan's words: "That must be a heck of ego boost for the pope. He probably leaves the stage thinking, 'I rocked it today!'"
I was surprised by how much the event moved me. Seeing so many devoted Catholics gathered to honor the human leader of their church was honestly overwhelming.
We toured St. Peter's Basilica afterwards. The immensity of that holy place is dazzling. At the front there is a beautiful stained-glass window featuring a dove, and to the right of the entrance Michelangelo's Pieta awaits in a curtained area. Dan was most impressed by the bronze altar -- seven stories tall -- that sits near the front of the church.
At dinner, we finally tried the restaurant Massimo had suggested: a German place called Ristorante Franz! The Hungarian goulash was quite tasty.
Italian students were protesting an increase in tuition fees by taking over the Colosseum in Rome and that famous tower in Pisa.
Luckily, we were headed for Ostia Antica, a Roman colony that spent a few centuries abandoned and buried in mud, resulting in an incredibly well-preserved Roman city. Even the mosaic floors of the public baths are still intact.
We were having a great time until the rainclouds showed up. we were forced to retreat to the cafeteria, where we had an uninspiring meal and waited for the rain to pass. When it didn't, we decided to explore the museum instead: yet another collection of statues. By this time, even I was museumed-out.
When the rain stopped, we made tracks for the train station, just missing one by about thirty seconds. Because of the rain, we sat inside the station, where a girl and her three male companions were flirting and playing -- until the play got a little rough for the girl. Dan was watching when one of the boys hit the girl hard on her butt. She started crying -- whether from pain or fear, I don't know. Dan was instantly sizing the young men up, his chivalrous nature coming to the fore. To him, that girl was someone's daughter and needed protecting. Luckily, the girl made up with the boys, and when the train came, the one who had smacked her got on the train with us.
Dan was determined to eat lunch in a restaurant called Trattoria da Lucia, located in the Trastavere neighborhood. We set out in the general direction of Trastavere, walking at a relaxed pace. Upon perusing the map, we discovered we were close to the Pantheon and so detoured to tour it. Dan was suitably impressed by the engineering feat of creating the second-century dome.
After a brief foray into the Campo di Fiori, we found our way back across the river and into the Trastavere. The atmosphere immediately changed from touristy to residential. We stumbled across Santa Maria in Trastavere, an ancient and beautiful church. The frescoes were pre-Renaissance, and the outside courtyard was decorated with cemetery carvings from early Christian burials.
Dan led us through several twisting streets to Trattoria Lucia, a restaurant that opened just after WWII. I would have to say we had our best meal of the whole trip there. I had spaghetti cacio e pepe, Dan had a beef and baby onion stew, and we shared a portion of pecorino romano, a sheep's milk cheese. For dessert, we shared the panna cotta with mixed berries.
After examining the map, we decided to try to locate some of the landmarks that seemed to be nearby -- probably because the steep hill made them look that way. After climbing the hill, we were faced with three even steeper flights of stairs, causing Dan to renew his claim that I was trying to kill him.
At the top, we found the Fontana Acqua Paola and magnificent views of Rome. A military vehicle was there, too -- a reminder that protests were continuing. When one of the soldiers began patrolling with his machine gun slung over his shoulder, we moved along.
Our goal was to find several other monuments; unfortunately, I led us astray, mistakenly believing that we could walk through the large park southwest of the Vatican and still find the various statues. However, the park is pretty much self-contained; we walked ninety minutes before we stumbled across another gate -- one that would let us escape the park.
Completely off the tourist map, we wandered blindly until I finally spotted St. Peter's dome -- down a hill and at least three miles away! At least we had a sense of which direction we needed to go. We started down the hill. Dan's knees were really killing him by then. Finally, I spotted a tobacco store -- the only place to buy bus tickets -- and a bus stop. I bought two bus tickets and we waited for the bus, which promised to take us to a street we recognized as being near our room. In fact, it took us to within a block of our room, thereby rescuing Dan's knees and probably my neck.
For dinner, we had what was arguably the worst meal of the trip in another nearby restaurant. The "pizzas" were really just tortillas made to look like pizzas and the wine was watered down to weak grape juice. At least it was cheap.
As we climbed the ramps and stairs of Castel Sant'Angelo, Dan was once more convinced of my elaborate plot to cause his death in Italy. He says I didn't properly warn him, but he could see how tall the building was and he knew the goal was the top. He'd even read Rick Steves' description of the uphill hike, so his unhappiness, on this occasion, was not my fault. In any case, the view was beautiful at the top. Unfortunately, there's not any other valid reason to tour this museum.
While he was in the bathroom, I found a lovely teenaged girl and her mother and chatted with them for a few minutes. By the time Dan found me, the girl and I were discussing Christopher Moore, a favorite author of hers and of mine. Dan marveled at my ability to not only locate Americans but also start a conversation about books in less than five minutes.
We went to the Piazza Navona next, where a small band was playing and people were busily preparing for a holiday carnival. We found the art we were looking for at the far end of the public space and selected two lovely watercolor prints.
We started our last, very long day with a final carb-laden breakfast. I could hardly eat -- I hate flying, and my stomach was already in full revolt. Massimo had arrange for us to have a driver pick us up at 8:30. He provided our last Italian thrill, clearly believing that all road markings and signs were only suggestions.
We waited inside the terminal for the better part of an hour, at which point they began bussing us to the plane. We had two seats together next to a window, with an aisle between us and our nearest neighbor. They were cramped, but workable. Unfortunately, the entertainment system was not functioning. Ten hours of flight, the woman behind us complaining bitterly for nearly half of it, and a plane full of more than three hundred restless souls -- it was unpleasant.
Finally, we landed safely in Charlotte. After standing in line for an hour to get through customs, we made it to our connecting flight with almost an hour to spare. We sat down in a restaurant and shared a barbecued pork sandwich. The flight from Rome had bruised my tailbone, so Dan dug out a pain pill for me.
I'm not sure what set off my panic about the next flight -- an earlier discussion of wind sheers, the medication, the old guy behind me loudly complaining that the engine didn't sound right -- but I was frightened from the time my butt hit the seat until we were safely on the ground in Phoenix. I think I nearly gave Dan a heart attack from worrying about me. I kept imagining the side of the plane was going to open up and suck me out into the sky. Dan said I was safe; I had my seat belt on the whole time. "Besides," he said, "if that happened, maybe the old man would have been sucked out," thereby greatly improving the balance of the flight.
We're home, we're safe, and we have a new appreciation for our country. Next year, I'm thinking a driving trip might be the better choice...