and a Half Days in Rome
(or, “How to Get Thrown Out of the Vatican and Still Make Your Ship”)
by Louis Winslow
My wife Carole and I decided to go on a Mediterranean cruise with three other Minnesota couples in the spring of 2002. We had all met through our mutual friendship with Don and Mona Klassen. All of us grew up in small Minnesota towns and we were all around sixty years old. The other couples were Don and Mona Klassen of Lake Elmo, Ron and Pat Mielke from Chanhassen, Ed and Doris Srsen from Hope. Carole and I are from Stillwater The Mielkes and Srsens had never been to Europe. The Klassens and Carole and I had been to Europe a few times, but had never visited Rome or Italy.
Monday, April 29, 2002
We landed in Rome at 8:30 a.m. and quickly passed through customs. We were all very tired from the flight over. After leaving the airport we were transferred by bus to our hotel, the five star Mecenate Palace which was located near the Cathedral di Santa Maria Maggiore in the heart of the old part of Rome. After arriving we registered and went up to our rooms. We had agreed to meet in the lobby in thirty minutes.
So after meeting we left the hotel and strolled down some side streets. We spotted a delicatessen and decided to eat there. The deli was on a side hill and it was interesting sitting at tables that leaned down hill. They had excellent sandwiches and we enjoyed sitting outside basking in the warm Italian sun. After eating I decided to return to the hotel to take a nap. I had only slept a few minutes on the plane and when I walked it didn’t even feel like my feet were touching the ground. Even though the others hadn’t slept on the plane they decided to take a self guided tour with Don trying to orient everyone with a city map that he had picked up.
When Carole returned to our room at 3:30, I learned that they had visited the Spanish Stairs and gone to the Trivi Fountain. Tradition has it that if you throw a coin over your shoulder into this fountain that you are assured of returning to Rome. This fountain is also the one featured in the movies “Three Coins in a Fountain” and “Dolce Vita”. Because of the large crowd around the fountain they weren’t able to get close enough to make the toss.
They had agreed to meet in the lobby at 5:00 so that we could go to supper. I tried to talk with Carole but she wanted to sleep so I left our room and wandered around the streets near the hotel. I decided to take a tour of the Cathedral. This is a beautiful church whose oldest section was built around 400 AD at the site of a miraculous June snowfall. It is also part of the Vatican. When I returned to the hotel at 5:00 the others were waiting in the lobby so we left to go eat. The restaurant didn’t open until 7:00 so we strolled along the streets to the Piazza Vittoria. There was a park there with the ruins of a Roman building so we wandered around in the park until it was time to eat. We returned to the Vecchia Conco restaurant where we had an excellent meal. Doris ordered pizza which was Italianized; it had cold cheese and fresh vegetables for the topping. Don ordered both a red and a white wine to accompany the meal. By the time dinner was over almost everyone was nodding off so we returned to the hotel.
Tuesday, April 30, 2002
We got up this morning and enjoyed an excellent continental breakfast at the terrace restaurant in our hotel. After breakfast we took a half-day bus tour of Rome. We went by the Piazza Venezia which is a massive 18th century white marble building with statuary decorating its front and roof. This building is also the burial site of the Italian Unknown Soldier from WWI. We could see the posted guards by the tomb, which is located at the top of the entrance stairs. Just across the street from this building are the ruins of the Roman Senate. We also drove by a church with a truth hole, which was the mouth of a saint. If you were a liar and put your hand in the saint’s mouth you would be bitten. Our guide Emanuella said that she put her hand in the saint’s mouth every day before coming to work.
After leaving the church we drove to the Coliseum. We got off the bus and waited while Emanuella went to purchase our entry tickets. After she returned with our tickets we went in and came out at ground level. The original flooring had been wood covered with sand but of course this was gone. We could see the small rooms that had been under the flooring where the lions, tigers, bears and other animals were housed and where the gladiators waited before their performances. On one end of the coliseum they had put in a wood floor and covered it with sand just like it was in Roman times. It was awe inspiring to stand on the floor imaging that you were a gladiator staring up at the yelling crowd who were awaiting your performance.
Emanuella told us that gladiators were professionals and expensive so only a small percentage of contests ended in a death. The 55,000 people assembled paid no entry fee and were seated according to their status with influential and powerful people sitting ringside and commoners looking down from on high. Emannuella said that no Christians were killed in the Coliseum (verifying what Don’s friend Gene Barrato had told him) and that performances of gladiators vs. gladiators and gladiators vs. animals were staged strictly for the entertainment and pleasure of the crowd.
We climbed up about half way on the steps and looked down on the arena. Our guide told us that the Coliseum had a retractable roof that was maintained by a gang of sailors. We also learned that it took 100,000 slaves eight years to build. We all wondered if some of our ancestors had helped.
We got back on the bus and drove by an old, almost completely intact, round Roman temple. In this old section of Rome you can see medieval buildings that had been built over the skeletons of Roman buildings. During the middle ages the Coliseum was a convenient source of marble for use in buildings. Rome (to my surprise) was a walled city and out of the original 12.5 miles, 7.5 are still intact. Ancient Rome was also much bigger than I thought, having 1.5 million inhabitants.
We also received a little Italian government history from our guide. First was the Roman period which was divided into the monarchy, republic, and empire periods, followed by the papacy, and finally the modern period when Garibaldi united the small Italian kingdoms into one state in 1870. The Vatican was established in 1929 and has been a separate country since then using Swiss army guards for security.
Our next site was Saint Peter’s Basilica. While we were waiting to get in we saw the Pope’s private chambers and our guide pointed out the window where he appears each morning around 10:30. Saint Peter’s is the largest Christian church in the world. When we got inside we saw the Pieta, which is near the entrance. Because it was attacked about twenty years ago, it has a glass shield in front of it. It’s the only piece of sculpture that Michelangelo signed. He sculpted it when he was only twenty-three years old.
On the floor of Saint Peter’s are markings for other churches in the world to show their size relative to the Basilica. Don and I had just seen the Basilica of Santiago in January and he insisted that it was the biggest church in the world. However, he conceded that Saint Peter’s might be bigger when we stared up at the dome and saw people going around its walkway who appeared very small. Don said, “They must have hired a bunch of midgets to walk around underneath the dome.” The altar was covered by a huge bronze canopy. The bronze had been removed from the Pantheon and taken to Saint Peter’s for constructing the altar.
After leaving the Basilica we were taken back to our hotel. In the afternoon we decided to visit the Sistine Chapel and Vatican museums. Don, Mona, Ron, and Pat decided to go on their own, and Ed, Doris, Carole, and I went on a formal tour. Our guide’s name was Chris and he was quite informative. Before going into the chapel and museums, Chris took us to one of the easels set up in the courtyard and explained what we would see, describing the paintings on the ceiling and walls. We finally got to the chapel’s entrance after going down many hallways with gilded ceilings and richly painted and decorated walls. Chris said that we had to be quiet in the chapel.
When we got in I got a crick in my neck trying to stare up at the ceiling. There were many tour groups inside when we were there and the noise level would slowly build until a museum worker would hush the crowd. On the west wall was Michelangelo’s Last Judgment and we all decided that his outlook was very pessimistic. There is no Heaven in the painting and numerous saints are depicted imploring Christ to recognize them. The common people are shown being sent to Hell. One lengthwise wall of the chapel has paintings depicting the Old Testament and the other has paintings depicting the New Testament. One interesting painting on the New Testament wall shows Peter handing a gold key and a silver key to the Pope. The gold one represents religion and the silver one represents civilian authority.
When we arrived back at our hotel, Mona, Don, Ron, and Pat were waiting in the lobby. They had taken the Metro to the Vatican museum area but had missed getting in by ten minutes. The admissions shut down at 2:30 p.m., which is quite early. We decided to go to the Pantheon in the evening. We walked over to the central bus station and purchased tickets at a tobacco shop. Don and Ron had learned that you couldn’t purchase your ticket for the bus or Metro on the bus or train but had to buy them at a tobacco shop.
Don bought all our tickets, which cost 77 cents each, and told us to get on bus 64. We found bus 64 right away and climbed on. As we got closer to downtown the bus became quite crowded. The women were sitting or standing in the front and the men were sitting in the back. The bus only had a few seats and most of the passengers had to stand. From looking at his map, Don told us when we should get off. When we reached our stop we got up and quickly shouldered our way to the exit doors. We all gathered together on the sidewalk and Mona said, “Pat didn’t make it off.”
We all turned around and headed in the direction of the departing bus. Mona said that the last time she saw Pat, that Pat was standing at the exit doors with her arms spread wide, looking at her with beseeching owl eyes. Luckily Pat managed to escape the bus at the next stop. After meeting up with Pat, we went in search of the Pantheon and after going down a few narrow streets we managed to find it. We entered the temple and Don pointed out the hole in the center of its dome. Gene Barrato (who else?) had told Don that the floor is crowned and that rain water was used to keep it clean. The painter Raphael, Michelangelo’s rival, is buried here at the base of the inside wall. The temple was converted to a church and was used for worship for a number of years. It’s interesting to me how the church embraced the architectural and decorating styles of the Romans.
After leaving the Pantheon we went to a gift shop and bought some small wooden puppets for the grandkids. While in the shop, Don and Mona got a restaurant recommendation. It was a short distance from the shop and we sat at outside tables even though it had grown quite cool. The tables were set up in the street and were butted up to the outside wall of the restaurant. While we were eating a number of cars drove down the street and as they passed by they came within inches of the tables.
I would like to make a comment about vehicle traffic in Rome. There are only small cars and many motor scooters which zip around the city at high speed. There aren’t many traffic lights and when crossing the street you have to challenge both cars and scooters to cross. At first we were hesitant to do this and relied on the herd defense. We would patiently wait until other people were crossing the street and then stay in the middle of the pack while crossing. However, once we realized that oncoming traffic would stop for us we became emboldened and crossed the streets with impunity. After having our dinner we returned to the Piazza Navona where we bought gelateria ice cream at a small shop along one side of the square. After strolling around in the Piazza for a while we caught the 64 bus and returned to our hotel.
The next morning we again had breakfast at the terrace restaurant in the hotel. The bus didn’t leave until 10:00 for our cruise ship so we still had some time in Rome to look around. I wanted to buy another backpack since I had forgotten mine and left it at the restaurant near the Pantheon. May 1st is a holiday in Italy so none of the shops were open near the Piazza Vittoria. Carole and I returned to the area next to the cathedral and bought a couple of more wooden Pinocchio puppets for our grandkids since the ones we had purchased the night before had been in the backpack.
After making our purchase we decided to revisit the cathedral. When we got inside we met Don and Mona who had come back to take another tour of the church. Don said that the church was really quite impressive. We decided to go to the souvenir shop and when we went in a couple of gals were getting it ready to open. One gal was taking things out of cupboards for display and the other was mopping the floor.
The gal mopping the floor was grumbling and you could tell she was upset, probably because they were opening late and this was a holiday and she was working. She looked like she had just arrived from the Sturgis bike rally. She was whippet thin and was decked out all in black and wearing cowboy boots with their tips encased in metal. She had garishly dyed red hair that so many European women seem to favor.
After looking around in the shop, Don and Mona said we should visit the museum, which was located under a side nave of the church adjacent to the shop. Ms. Sturgis was also helping to open the museum and arrived just ahead of us. There was another woman behind the display/ticket counter and while Don was buying his and Mona’s tickets from Ms. Sturgis, I bought ours from the other lady.
For four Euros I received a single ticket. The cost of the tickets was confusing since it appeared that the price of a ticket could be two or four Euros. Don had given Ms. Sturgis a ten Euro note and was expecting to receive two tickets and six Euros in change, but Ms. Sturgis only gave him two Euros. Don said in a raised voice “I thought the tickets were only two Euros.” At this, Ms. Sturgis erupted and threw both the tickets and Don’s money across the counter at Don and told him “Get out of the Church.”
She then led Don and Mona up the stairs waving her arms about and berating Don all the way up. At one point she called Don a stupid American. We got our money back and followed them up the steps.
Don and Mona tried to leave the museum by going around in back of it but they were blocked off from leaving that way. They had to return to the souvenir shop where Ms. Sturgis was standing in the entrance. When Don and Mona went by her she continued her tirade against Don. We left the church and because of this experience we were partly amused and partly traumatized.
Don said, “Now I can tell everyone back home that I was thrown out of the Vatican.” Carole said that Ms. Sturgis definitely had an attitude and we all agreed that she was probably angry because she had to work on a holiday. We went to the delicatessen near our hotel and ordered something to drink and continued to talk over the experience. After calming down we went back to our hotel and boarded the bus, which was taking us to the Crown Odyssey, our Mediterranean cruise ship. We all bid Roma goodbye and agreed that it had been an exciting and interesting city and said that we would like to visit it again.
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