In which the Vatican doesn’t quite have the intended effect on our family

Our first Italian train was from Milan to Rome, on the excellent Freciarossa. Clean, modern and fast, we made the trip in just under four hours. A friendly taxi driver took us to our Air BnB, this time centrally located just next to the Pantheon.

Eric and I left the kids at the flat and walked about the streets, which are charming everywhere you go. Narrow cobblestoned pathways with small shops and restaurants around every corner. Every few streets they would open up into a plaza with a statue or obelisk of some sort. We figured the kids could use a little more time alone, so we stopped in for a few glasses at the wine bar across the way. Alex, the host at the wine bar was affable and knowledgeable about different types of Italian wines and brought us a few to try. He then told us about a wine called “Amarone,” and said that it was one of the richest and tastiest red wines they had, but only to be had at the end of the evening else one’s palate would be spoiled. After a couple glasses of other reds, we had a small taste and thought it was delicious, so asked for a glass. Alex hesitated a bit and said, “A glass? You are sure?” Yes, we’ll split one, we replied. The glass came and was shared, and it was entirely delicious. What was not delicious was our check which came to near 70 Euros. We went back the next day and learned that a glass of Amarone cost 30 Euro! We’ve seen bottles for sale elsewhere that are around 300 euro, so it’s just a very expensive wine overall. Well, at least it was tasty and honestly, had I known the cost I never would have ordered it, but can now say I’ve had $300 wine!

Early morning light in Rome, omnipresent smokers

The next day was planned by the boy. I’ve found that the kids do well with travel planning but need a real map and book to do so, which were kindly lent to us by our friend Rob. The plan was to walk south to see the old city wall, and then follow it westward to the Vatican to see St. Peter’s cathedral and the Sistine chapel. We committed to not using our phones to navigate, only maps and street signs. We quickly learned that the signs in Rome may leave out some critical turns, and we got a bit lost! We started just asking people ways to known landmarks. Our first stop was the Campo de Fiori, a former flower field now the site of a bustling market. We arrived with anticipation, perhaps we would pick up some fruit and cheese for a snack, and found the plaza entirely deserted. The boy asked a local vendor, “Scuza, where is the market?”and we learned that on Tuesdays, the market is closed. Ah. We found the church of Santa Maria and popped i to enjoy the detailed stone flooring and gilt ceiling work.

Onwards south we went, through narrow winding lanes that climbed upwards.  Worried we were getting lost and the path to the Vatican the boy had planned was unreasonably long, we stopped at a corner to catch our breath and consult the map. We had just decided to descend when two friendly walkers came upon us and asked if we needed help. They told us that our initial plan was actually a lovely walk, and if we made it up to the top we could see the firing of the noon cannon. So we continued on, Eric yelling at the girl periodically to stay out of the way of oncoming traffic, and found ourselves at the plaza Garibaldi overlooking all of Rome. Eric and I had a cappuccino whille awaiting the cannon fire. Once my eardrums stopped echoing after the blast, we went down the other side of the hill, found a simple lunch place and then headed to the Vatican. 

When the kids take pictures, they manage to make sure you have the most unflattering expressions

The museums of the Vatican are massive, and contain room upon room of antiquities Greek and Roman. Every room is decorated with opulent gilding on the doors, the ceilings with elaborate paintings, and the overall effect is rather overwhelming. I think I’m supposed to be awed, but mostly it makes me think of the extravagance and wealth of the Catholic church, and how it seems hypocritical given that there’s something about rich men and camels and needles in the Bible, but what do I know. By far our favorite was “The map room,” a long hall with frescoed maps on either side.

The Sistine chapel is truly beautiful – no pictures allowed inside. We’ve all seen the closeup shot of Adam and God, but I didn’t know that the entire rest of the chapel is decorated with frescoes as well. Michelangelo did a series of them telling the story of Creation, each more detailed than the last. One wall is a bright fresco of the Last Judgement, demons and hell in grotesque details that was truly shocking for the time. His painting was, in a way, a rebuke of the church’s control and an expression of artistic freedom- he had been hired to paint pictures of Popes and saints, and instead used his art to depict something quite different, to tell the story of God instead of painting hagiographies of Popes past. 
Our feet were quite tired by the end of this, and my phone pedometer told me we’d walked eight miles already. One last stop at St. Peter’s Cathedral, the largest church in the world. It was time for vespers and the choral singing lent a hallowed air to the cathedral, though again, it’s hard for me not to feel a sense of overdoneness with all of the grand churches. The reverent purpose of the church is also lost on the girl, who exited Vatican city and came up with this sacrilegious joke: “What’s Jesus’ least favorite letter? A T!” We shushed her and told her not to say it too loudly, at least until we were out of hearing range of the Pope.

Our next day was another big touring day, this time with a later start. We walked down to the Colosseum, excited to see the grand spectacle. One advantage of travelling in the off season is that there are no lines to get into any of the main tourist sites in Italy, as opposed to summer where you could end up waiting three to four hours just to get a ticket. We really had wanted to do the extra tour where you could see the upper level and the basement, but when I went to purchase, the ticket seller said, “All English tours are sold out for today. There is a Spanish tour at 1 and two Italian tours in the afternoon.” Eric and I looked at each other, shrugged, turning the corners of our mouths downward in a “what the hell” expression, and signed up for the Spanish tour. Between the two of us, I figured we’d have enough Spanish to figure it out. The kids were free for both entry and the tour, so it wasn’t a big loss on that end. 
We entered at first to the grand arena, thinking of the brutality that occurred there, imagining tens of thousands of Romans cheering and jeering a bloodbath below. 

It was time for our tour and we hurried off. Our tour guide was an animated young man, and more often than not we were grateful for the hand gestures to help us understand what he was saying. I mean, I can get myself through a train station and even a hospital in Spanish, but understanding a tour about the construction of Ancient Rome is another thing. The Hypogeum, or basement, was really interesting – the old stones and a reconstructed wooden contraption to show how animals and props were brought out onto the stage from below, a water gutter as well for drainage. Fun fact: before the basement was constructed, the floor of the Colosseum was solid enough that they would fill it with water for aquatic competitions! Boats would be floated in and grand maritime battles were staged, all in the space of the arena. Much of the Colosseum was made out of valuable marble and travertine, all of which were stripped away for use in other buildings when the arena fell into disuse, leaving only the stone foundations. 

 Our tour guide kept talking about huevos… huevos this huevos that. Eric and I wondered what it was about eggs that was so important to ancient Romans. Perhaps it was a slang word for something that we weren’t quite getting, I mean there were a lot of male gladiators. Near the end of the tour, I realized he was saying “juegos”! Aha! Games!! Given this, I think we probably got about 40-50% of the tour, though I’m not sure if I understood him correctly when he talked about the ancient audience taking pictures and tweeting about the fights. Every now and then I’d stop to translate for the kids, sure that it was something like a game of Telephone,, where little of the original information reaches the final recipient.
Our last day in Rome was one of wandering and souvenir shopping, more meandering the small streets.  Campo de Fiori was operational, and we picked up fresh tomatoes, cheese, pesto and some bread for lunch. 

 We found our way past the Trevi fountain again, then onto the Spanish steps and an easy stroll back home, not before stopping at the magical, magical place that is the Lindt store. Bins and bins of chocolate truffles in whatever flavor your heart may desire.  My heart desired almost all of them, except for cherry because that is revolting.

In the morning, we had one last stop at the Pantheon, the boy’s favorite place to visit, before heading out to Venice. Imagine, a building that is 2,000 years old, still standing and in use as a worship site as per its initial intention. 


In which we find that we quite like Milan

Eric had a trip to Bologna lined up to visit colleagues there, initially planning on a five day trip as he had to teach on December 2nd. Of course, this being Romania, it was announced a few weeks before that classes would be cancelled on that day as the previous day was a holiday for Romanian National Day. We looked for cheap flights to Italy to leave the week prior and found that we could fly one way into Milan for €30 per person. Done.
Milan is not thought of as a big tourist destination, lacking the old world charm of Rome and the tourist draw of the Venetian canals. Even the tour books say bluntly “Milan is not a city that rewards casual strolling. Take the metro.”It’s known as more of a business and fashion capital, but is becoming more popular. We landed in the afternoon into Bergamo airport, one hour away by comfortable shuttle bus. Looking up directions to our Air BnB, I anticipated a bit of a walk from the center of town. This is where paying attention to the scale of a map is important. We ended up needing a subway ride to the end of the line, then a walk through a somewhat desolate area. A somewhat derelict building lay ahead, and I found myself hoping that it wouldn’t be our place. As we walked up a dog began to bark menacingly at us behind the gate, and a small handwritten “bnb” sign on dirty paper taped to the black iron. My heart sank, wondering what we would find inside. Thankfully, the dog was actually quite friendly and the space itself was large and clean and even had a piano, though it was rather far from the city center. 
We found our way to a nearby restaurant at 7:15 and walked in, finding the space bright and cheerful. “Do you have reservations?” No, we didn’t, so she gave us a concerned look and said that she had a free table until 8:45. An hour and a half for dinner seemed preposterous to us, but now seeing how the Italians eat super leisurely, I can understand her concern. The boy, excited to see gnocchi on the menu ordered those. In a few minutes a hot basket of fried dough pieces arrived! Delicious, but not the gnocchi we had been thinking of! Turns out, of course, gnocchi here can just mean “little pieces” or dumplings, not the potato gnocchi we think of. We munched away on the happy surprise. The girl had the first of many caprese salads whe would eat on this trip.  We noticed all the other Italians finishing their meals with a bright yellow liquid. “What is that?” We asked our waitress. “Limoncello! I bring you some as a gift.” Tasty stuff, and like the liquid version of lemonheads candy as was described to me later. We finished our meals with this whenever possible and I highly recommend you do the same if offered the chance.
 I had worried that we would find Italians to be unfriendly based on what I had read, and I can say that this is categorically not the case. Of course, I have a different standard for immediate friendliness based on my time in Romania, but again, if you smile, say a few words in Italian, and aren’t generally rude, I’ve found that Italians are generally kind and playful and most importantly, sweet to my children. 
The following day was our big tourist one. We started off by a visit to “The Last Supper.” I wasn’t expecting much to tell you the truth. I mean, we’ve all seen pictures of this work of art so much we can recognize it anywhere. But much like seeing “Starry Night” in person, it is a different experience to be there. The painting occupies an entire wall of the chapel, and was painted over a long period of time so that da Vinci was able to perfect the details. Unfortunately, this meant that it was not done as a fresco and thus has degraded quite a bit. Frescoes are painted onto wet plaster and have great longevity, appearing brilliant centuries afterwards, but paint on a surface fades and wears away. You can still see the expressions on the faces, ranging from anger to sadness to disbelief, at the moment Christ tells his followers that one of them has betrayed him.  I did get a giggle out of the fact that the doorway right below Jesus had been enlarged at some point, and the workers failed to notice that they sliced away his feet in the process. I can only imagine the conversation between the priest and the contractors after that happened. “Salvatore, what have you done with the feet of our Lord?!” “Father, you said you wished for a taller door, I have given you a taller door, who needs feet anyway, he is going to ascend to heaven soon.” After which Salvatore quietly disappears. 

There’s a well known science museum in Milan, and as it is steps away from there, we stopped in. They had a long display of da Vinci’s machines brought to life from drawings, and we spent a lot of time to see if we could figure out how they worked, just amazed by the ingenuity and brilliance of da Vinci. They also have incredible exhibitions on everything from Electricity to Steel, World’s fairs to Reusable Energy. We simply did not have enough time here!

Afterwards we headed out for a bicycle tour I had arranged before we arrived. I love bicycle tours, as you get to see so much of a city and spend time with a local resident as well. My favorite sight was the “forest apartment” buildings: 

Trees on every level chosen by arborists, maintained by the buildings. In the fall they have turned lovely shades of red and orange and are striking against the skyline. Unsurprisingly, this is a plum piece of real estate and inhabited by the Milano elite. Then a roll through the fall-orange central park and the main palace in which some bizarre silent crowd gathering was happening. A woman with a headset guided a large group all wearing headphones to move from one side to the other, raise hands, lower them, put on vests… It remains a mystery to us and to our guide, who was of no help in solving it.

We ended at the Duomo, a striking baroque cathedral which is large, ornate, and made of such delicate pink marble that some part of it is always in disrepair and scaffolding is ever present. Each of the hundreds of statues on the spires must be replaced every fifty years or so, ensuring that generations of sculptors should be employed for years to come. The sun had dropped by this time as had the temperature, and we were all chilled before we got back to the bike depot and off our bikes, into a warm place for dinner and then the train trek home. 

Milan is definitely worth a visit of at least a few days! I would have liked more time at the museum and som etime to shop, as the merchandise was enticing. Next time, perhaps?