Trastevere and the Vatican Museums

Tuesday morning Glen went off to the conference while I got to sleep-in, though it wasn’t for long. Up for breakfast on the terrace again, getting some work done and then planning what I was going to get done for the day. I hit the streets by 10am.

The Cats of Rome


Even though I’ve been inside it before, I wanted to get another look inside the Pantheon. I find it such an odd mix, the ancient dome and temple exterior, the marbled Catholic church decoration and altar, along with the tombs of Italy’s two kings and this throng of people looking at the hole in the roof and taking perspective photos.

In all the hustle and bustle there was an Italian man, probably in his fifties, standing to attention in front of the tomb of one of the Italian kings, Umberto I, and his queen, Margherita. Dressed impeccably in a blue suit, he took this moment of quiet to pay his respects to a king long dead.

Then, when he’d given his dues, he walked over to the guard on duty, saluted him, shook his hand, wrote his name on the ledger, saluted the guard again and walked out of the Pantheon and up the street. I know, because I followed him for a bit and was tempted to ask what he was doing and how often he came to complete this ritual. There was something beautiful and sombre about it all.

I’ve since learned that the soldiers (there is one for each of the tombs, the other being for Vittorio Emanuelle II) are the Honor Guard to the Royal Tombs of the Pantheon. For 136 years, the Honor Guard have stood beside the tomb to honour the kings who did much to unify the country. I wonder if the man in blue had been one of them.

After the Pantheon I headed south to see the four temple ruins and their stray cats who have found sanctuary there. It’s a cat haven that invites people in to help care for the city’s many, many cats, but it wasn’t open when I arrived, with me being too early. The temples themselves were impressive and just sitting next to a busy intersection in Roma.

From here I walked through the Campo de’ Fiori where I bought a substandard peach (I’ve had a few really good ones on this trip so this one was disappointing), and then onto the river, crossing the Ponte Sisto and into Trastevere.

Tramping through Trastevere

I’d read a short itinerary of things to explore in Trastevere, an area across the Tiber with cobblestone streets, narrow arrows and a bit of a hip and rough feel. It was a beautiful day and wandering through these winding and shaded streets was a treat.

First main stop was the Basilica di Santa Maria. I took a seat inside this church which is heavily decorated in gold Cavillini mosaics. The light is subdued so it exudes this warm, earthy feel. Definitely worth a visit, and one of the few churches I’ve been in on this trip. Even better was that there were hardly any tourists, perhaps ten or so, the rest of the small group being locals come to pray.

Too early for lunch, I took the hike up some steps to the Gianicolo, the eighth hill of Rome. I walked along the Passeggiata del Gianicolo to get an excellent view across the city of Rome. The area is also filled with sculptures of heads, presumably of important people during the Risorgimento, as the hill also sports a giant Garibaldi sculpture.

After a look over the city, I then took a different path down the hill. I’d hoped I would be able to cut into the gardens below but they were gated. Instead, I walked through an area that I would have been terrified to walk through at night, and was a little uneasy about during the middle of the day.

The path was a dirt track, cutting through undergrowth littered with bottles, shoes, other bits of rubbish and a couple of spots where homeless people had slept. I could hear the people above so if anyone did leap out and attack me, they’d hopefully hear me. I only felt marginally better when I saw someone coming the other way. Of course, I survived with no problems what so ever and came out back at the top of the stairs for my climb down.

I tried to find a palazzo next, which I think I saw but didn’t go in. There was another villa nearby and the botanic gardens but I was done with much of the sightseeing and keen to try a recommended restaurant nearby.

I walked past John Cabot University which had soldiers posted out the front, something that is common for most, if not all, universities and government buildings in Rome. Are universities really such a target that they need armoured guards and gates and constant checks? The same happens at the Sorbonne in Paris. As if university isn’t (sometimes) stressful enough.

The main restaurant strip in Trastevere was beginning to come alive, though there was definitely a distinction between the more ‘authentic’ places that opened at 1pm, and the others for tourists which opened earlier. The place I wanted to try – Pianostrada Laboratorio di Cucina – was one of the authentic that didn’t open until 1pm. It was only just after 12 and I didn’t feel like hanging around.

Instead I wandered the streets, guided by TripAdvisor reviews (which is a surefire way of making yourself doubt every decision and come out feeling even more anxious about buying lunch), until I finally settled on a place that looked good enough and was serving.

I ate a fairly simple but decent pollo alla romana with some green beans, downed a bottle of water, and then continued on my way out of Trastevere and to Isola Tiberina.

Isola Tiberina

This little island in the middle of the Tiber is connected with two bridges and is so small you can walk across it in about five minutes. There are some restaurants, a church, probably a few places to visit but otherwise there’s not much. It nevertheless intrigued me enough, this island in the middle of the river, for me to stop on. A man was also sunbathing on one end of it.

I think I was again mistaken for being Jewish, a semi-regular occurrence wherever we are in the world. This time by a waitress outside a restaurant who at first tried to encourage me in but when I declined she said, ‘There is no kosher on this side of the bridge.’

I couldn’t tell whether she was being insulting, i.e. ‘we don’t serve your guide here, piss off’, or helpful. I later learned that the Jewish area is in the vicinity so perhaps she was being helpful, if presumptuous.

I had a quick look at some more ruins that were nearby, a great example of ancient Roman architecture at the bottom, with Middle Age architecture in the middle and modern on the top. Pretty cool.

My travels then took me up through the city, walking the busy Via del Corso, and back to the hotel. I think I fell asleep on the bed.

A(nother) Sinner in the Vatican

As part of the conference, the committee organised an after-hours tour of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. I met Glen at the entrance at 7pm and we joined a couple of hundred other medical professionals on a tour through the Vatican’s junkyard (as a lecturer once described it to me).

We were in a group of about 20 people, our guide taking us through a selection of the rooms, some of which I remember from my visit here about 16 years ago. We went through the room of maps, which looks even more brightly decorated and stunning than I remember. Then there were tapestries and statues and various other bits of art (including all the male statues which had their penises chipped off) that the Vatican had collected over its 2000 year history.

The Raphael rooms were an interesting stop along the tour, the way Raphael had included figures such as Leonardo da Vinci (not the only homosexual in the Vatican, I’m sure), Dante Alighieri, Michelangelo and even Raphael himself in the paintings. Nice to see these more humanist elements sneaking their way into supposedly sacred works. The room then got hot with all the people in there and we were glad to get out.

The Sistine Chapel still puts me in awe. I remember the first time I saw it, on a school trip, and it had recently been cleaned. The room shone. And I couldn’t believe that the other kids on the trip would rather sit down than look up at this amazing work of art. Then we weren’t allowed to take photos, but tonight, we were.

And of course we gazed on the Day of Judgement on the wall and heard about the skinned saint holding his skin (which had the face of Michelangelo on it), and the rest of the interpretation of the painting. We looked at it and above our heads for a while, relishing the sight, before moving on and setting a cracking pace through a few more rooms until we were back at the entrance/exit.

A quick bite to eat near the hotel and then we collapsed into bed at about 11pm, surprisingly one of our latest nights on this trip.

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