17 December - Sunshine and Rain

We woke up before our alarm, maybe around 06:30.  We slowly got ready, drinking a lot of water.  We grabbed a quick breakfast, just as the staff were finishing setting up all the food.  We were up so early because we had a very early tour of Vatican City today.  We’d asked the night before regarding the best way to get there, and how long it would take, and it required us leaving the hotel around 07:30.  After we ate our food and drank our drinks, the hotel called in a taxi and we headed downstairs.  The ride to the Vatican was easy, as it was a Saturday morning and seemingly nobody was out and about.  The cost was just over 10 Euros, and we avoided having to take the Metro (which seemingly every book, website, and person had recommended against because of pickpockets). 

We got dropped off just across from the entrance to the Vatican Museums.  We met our guide (we never fully grasped it, but it was not Francesca, that was her name only if we didn’t enjoy the tour) and the other group of people, 3 folks from Austin.  Everyone was early, so we just went in right at 08:00.  We started with a description of the Sistine Chapel, at a spot with some benches where we could all sit whilst our guide explained everything.  She wanted to explain things here, as there was no talking allowed inside the Sistine Chapel itself.  She also gave us an idea of the order in which we’d walk through things, and then we were off on our way.  We walked outside and saw a pine cone sculpture, and even better some blue sky.  There were just a few clouds, and St Peter’s was right there to our south.

We walked back inside at an area where there was a long hallway of sculptures, but we turned the other direction and went by an area with sweeping views out to the East and Southeast.  We could see the Altare della Patria, Colosseum, and more in the distance.  Then we visited a small outdoor courtyard with quince trees, and there we saw the sculpture ‘Laoco├Ân and his Sons’ by Baccio Bandinelli.  We’d seen this as well at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence a few days prior, but apparently that was a copy, and this was the original.  

It was discovered in the 1500s and put in the Vatican Museum, but was likely built around the year 0, give or take a couple decades, by sculptors from Greece.  Our guide told us how there was a dispute over what the missing right arm looked like, and how there was disagreement over what shape/angle the restored arm should take.  Michelangelo disagreed with the “victors” of this competition, and was proven correct over 400 years later when the arm was found elsewhere in Rome and determined to be the original arm.

Our guide took us back indoors, to an area that was roped off for most of the guests.  She referred to this portion of the museum as the “red light district” since it had sculptures of animals and of naked women (not together).  There was also a sculpture made out of red marble, and apparently the Romans took nearly every good chunk of red marble out of Egypt around 2000 years ago, to the point it's very difficult to find any red marble sculptures in Egypt itself.  The “red light district” took on a different connotation as we were leaving the roped off area, as Justin saw that the guard (who was making sure only approved groups entered the roped-off area) was watching porn on his phone.  We didn’t have that on our bingo card.

We saw another old dome, similar to the design of the Pantheon, but quite a bit smaller, with glass over the top, but also with a giant red marble “catchment tank” that looked like an enormous bird bath.  We headed down the stairs, past a bunch more sculptures, and eventually found our way into the Hall of Maps.  This long hallway had an incredibly ornate roof, and tons of maps on either side of the hallway.  The maps, all of Italy, were arranged from north to south (or south to north, depending on which way you were walking) with the west coast areas on one side of the hallway and the east coast areas on the other side.  Through some of the windows we could see the big garden area that actually consists of the majority of the Vatican’s overall size.  We had seen that tours of the gardens are possible, but very hard to come by, and we didn’t really try given our limited time in town.

After the hall of maps we went through another hallway, this time with a bunch of old tapestries.  Eventually we ended up in the Raphael Rooms, a group of rooms painted by Raphael during the Renaissance.  Our guide explained the paintings to us, and we couldn’t possibly remember everything she told us, but we did take note of a couple people in the paintings, one of which is a painting of Michelangelo, and another which is a self-portrait of Raphael himself (he's in the black).  The floors in one of the rooms had stars of David here and there, and our guide indicated it had something to do with tying the Old Testament to the New Testament.  Finally we got to the Borgia Apartments, and our last stop was at the Sistine Chapel.  

We were told that we couldn’t take pictures in there because of copyright issues, but after looking that up after the fact, it appears that’s just a story that guides have been telling guests for a long time after that might have even arguably been correct.  But long story short, no photos were allowed inside.  We sat in there and looked around for 10-15 minutes, then headed out.  On the way out, we walked past the Swiss Guard (no pictures allowed of them, either), and our guide stopped to ask why there were a bunch of tables and chairs being set up in the hallway we were walking through.  Apparently it was the Pope’s Birthday, and there was going to be an event later in the day.  We told Clarita we made sure to book the tour today since it was the Pope’s birthday.

We walked out briefly into St Peter’s Square, and then went into St Peter’s Basilica.  Not surprisingly, it was huge, but it was even larger than we knew or expected.  Inside, our guide showed us Michelangelo’s sculpture of Mary and Jesus, which he did when he was quite young, and it is one of his only works that he signed.  As we approached the front of the church, the choir was singing Christmas tunes, and light was shining in from the side, and our guide started to get a bit choked up.  This was the end of the tour, and she told us we could stay inside as long as we wanted, but that once we left we couldn’t come back inside - a sort of opposite Hotel California.

Everyone dispersed in different directions, as Dewey took Clarita towards the confessionals, and we explored the inside of St Peter’s.  We saw a Filipino wedding just as it ended.  We went downstairs, where many of the former popes and other famous members of the church are buried, but we didn’t see anything for St Peter, although we weren’t entirely sure what we should’ve been looking for.

Just as we exited from the downstairs area, the entrance to the dome climb was immediately adjacent, so that worked out well for us.  A good chunk of the climbing could be avoided by taking an elevator, and it cost only 1-2 Euros more per person, so we decided to do that.  We had to wait about 15 minutes for the ticket office to let us all in, and we weren’t sure of the reason - maybe it was to ensure less crowded stairwells.  Whilst waiting in line we saw Dewey and Clarita exiting, and we told them we’d see them sometime around dinner.

Once inside the dome climb area, it was interesting walking through curved hallways and stairwells.  We also felt in pretty good shape, seeing (and hearing) people stopping on the stairs to let us by.  For the life of us, we don’t understand the people who talk - loudly - with their group about how tired and out of breath they are.  They need to conserve their breathing, and use it for climbing, not talking.  Up at the top we took in the blue sky, our first day of blue sky in forever.  Besides the impeccable view of St Peter's Square, we could again see the Colosseum and some of the other portions of Ancient Rome, across the river and to the southeast.  

We went back down and found the restaurant that was supposed to have snacks and drinks with a view, but it was closed, we’re assuming because it’s only seasonal.  There was a gift shop that was open, and it was run by a group of nuns.  We considered getting something for Clarita, but we weren’t sure what (if anything) she might want.  We took the elevator down the rest of the way, and ended up in St Peter’s again.  We very briefly looked around one last time, then headed out into St Peter’s Square, by the obelisk.  There were Egyptian obelisks everywhere in Rome, as apparently the Romans were quite smitten with the Egyptian empire and borrowed portions of it, literally as well as figuratively.

We walked further east, out of the Vatican and back into Rome, and ended up at Castello San Angelo.  This place was very eclectic, and kind of a maze, but we realized this made sense given its background.  Over the past 2000 years it was used for a variety of purposes.  Originally it was built around 134 AD, and served as the mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian.  But around 400 AD the building was converted to a military fortress, and it was damaged when Rome was sacked in 410.  Almost 1000 years later the building went through another major reconstruction, serving as a papal fortress and residence, connected to the Vatican by an underground tunnel.  The papal state also used a portion of the building as a prison at certain times.  Finally, the castle is now a museum, and the rooms explained a lot about its history and showed how certain parts had been used and reused over the centuries for the wide variety of purposes.

The views of both Rome and the Vatican were excellent, and there was a cafe with several tables having incredible views towards St Peter’s.  We would’ve had some snacks and drinks there, but every table was taken.  We did take the opportunity to make dinner reservations, however, at a place just a short walk from our hotel.  After taking in some more views from the top of the Castle, we descended (getting a little lost on the way down - the paths were intended to be confusing, in case of enemy forces raiding the castle), and we walked across the river, over Ponte Sant'Angelo, back onto the east bank.

We walked over to a couple of the Argentine restaurants that we thought/hoped might be open tomorrow, but they either weren’t going to be open or wouldn’t be showing the match, so we decided we’d just find a pub of some sort.  We were sufficiently starving by now, and found a place for some drinks and snacks, ending up at Emporio Sant’ Eustachio.  Justin got something with a flight of rums and some small nibbles, Crystal got a prosecco, and they brought out chips and peanuts for the table.  We chilled outside for a bit, and tried to write down the day’s events before we forgot everything.

We wanted a more substantial snack, more than they had where we were, so we walked over to Pane e Salame, a hole in the wall we’d read out, which had stellar reviews.  We ordered a “medium” meat and cheese plate, plus a bottle of house wine.  When the platter came out, it had to be placed diagonally on our table such that it would fit.  Whilst enjoying our meats and cheeses and wine, we got a note from the dogsitter in San Diego.  He said we’d received a package that he had to sign for, from the Hungarian consulate.  We both got immediately nervous and excited.  

The dogsitter sent us some screenshots, and we tried to make heads or tails of them, and Crystal eventually read enough to say “I didn’t get it.”  There were no tears, anger, or anything else, just a very bummed out table.  She worked so hard on her application and her language skills, so this was a gut punch, especially because there didn’t appear to be any rationale for the denial.  It’s one of those flashbulb memories where we can remember pretty much everything from our meal there, but not in a great way.

We made our way back to the hotel, Crystal eventually shared the news with her family, and we chilled in the room for an hour or two, kind of in a fog.  Then we met Dewey and Clarita and took a short walk over to dinner at Crispi 19.  It was a fancier place than we’d expected, a bit like Alle Corone in Venice.  We were a little out of place, but not uncomfortably so.  We drowned our sorrows with a very good wine, “I Quattro Mori Rosso” by Castel de Paolis, a red blend of shiraz, cabernet, merlot, and petit verdot.  Justin and Dewey both ordered the same thing, ravioli followed by veal.  Crystal ordered a quail egg and foie gras, followed by branzino.  Clarita ordered spaghetti and clams.

Crystal and Dewey both agreed that Crystal’s branzino was unlike any fish they’d ever tasted before, in a good way.  It was incredibly light, almost like a foam, but it wasn’t a foam.  Neither of them had any idea how they’d prepared the fish to make it taste like that with a texture like that.  For dessert they served us some chocolate balls with limoncello inside, and they were incredible.  We also had some sort of chocolate shaped like a blackberry.  We got a round of limoncello on the house.  Everything was top notch; we just wish it was more of a celebratory dinner than a sorrow-drowning dinner.  We got back to the hotel around 22:30 and called it a night.

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