When we first arrived in Rome Tawny wasn’t feeling well so I lit out to explore the city winding my way down from the Borghese Gardens area to the Spanish Steps and Bernini’s Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of the Ugly Boat) fountain the the Spagna Piazza just below the steps.
Since Tawny had missed the Steps the first night I suggested we visit them after the Vatican since we had to disembark at the Spagna metro stop anyway to get back to our hotel.
We wandered out from the station to the Piazza Spagna into a sea of bottles and broken glass strewn across the cobblestones and hoards of drunken Dutch Feyenoord futbol fans. Dozens upon dozens of them where standing against the wall of the corridor to the piazza Spagna literally pissing a great yellow river that was running down into the piazza and puddling into pools along the uneven cobblestone street. We hugged the Northern wall (which still had a swath of cobbles above the flow of piss) and made our way into the piazza. As we turned towards the Steps and Fountain it became clear (if it hand’t already) that we were not in a safe place. That became more evident as the riot police arrived. Tawny suggested we get save the Steps for another time and get the Hell outta there. I looked to my right and recognized a street our taxi had driven down earlier that day. “We can go this way around and get to the top of the Steps to look down and see what’s happening.
We hiked up the steep road and into a stair case to come out upon the back side and top of the steps where we could hear clinking bottles, drunken dutch singing futbol songs, and police barking orders from behind a barrier of riot shields in formation to keep the Dutch from ascending the steps while police helicopters flew overhead.
We must have left before the Rome Riots started and made international news. Because it was getting dangerous I put my camera away in my bag to keep a low profile so I don’t have many pictures to share (click the link above to see images of the riots and arrests).
We made our way to our tour of the Borghese Gallery and eventually back to our hotel about 6pm. We went to the rooftop bar and thought we’d have a glass of wine. But at 6:05 they told us “Sorry, we can no longer serve wine. The city has been put on a city wide restriction to serving alcohol until Midnight because of the Dutch Hooligans”. “What?”. We went to the lobby and were talking to the concierge who told us that the police had come to tell the hotel to no longer serve any drinks. He told us our dinner reservation would probably also not be able to serve us. As we explored our diminishing options for enjoying a fine glass of Italian red on our vacation a pair of American’s approached us to announce they had just purchased two bottles of wine at a wine shop down the street which appeared to either not know of the temporary prohibition or was blatantly ignoring it.
The next morning we headed to the Spanish Steps and Fontana della Barcaccia to see the damage before heading to the Coliseum. Throngs of Italians had come out to see the damage to their beloved and recently restored Bernini fountain as well as the news media. The fountain had been drained, baracaded, and experts had been brought in to survey the damage.
Post our Vatican tours and in need of sustenance to power us through jet-lag and into the afternoon tour of the Borghese Gallery we headed through backstreets off the tourist beaten path and find a good place to eat. To our surprise we found Romeo Chef & Baker, a modern twist on Italian cuisine. There we had a few delicious micro brews, a buffalo mozzarella with prosciutto, and gnocchi on pecorino fondue with fried artichokes. It was rich and fantastic and well deserved after the 12K+ steps my Fitbit had registered that morning.
After lunch we took the subway back to Spagna and got out to see the Spanish Steps before walking back to our hotel (The Grand Flora). Upon entering the piazza we saw a scene of near riot (another blog post to come) with Dutch football fans disrespecting the famous Roman landmark.
We quickly got ourselves out of there before things became dangerous and headed through the Borghese Gardens to the Borghese Gallery to see a few Bernini statues we had heard about. They were incredible.
Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne with Daphne turning into a laurel before your eyes had motion and transformation carved into marble with intricacy and detail that was hard to believe.
Bernini’s other master work of Pluto and Proserpine was also spectacular. With the weight and pressure of his hand wrapped around her and pressing into her flesh made the marble seem soft and pliable and, well…fleshy.
We were also impressed by Canova’s carving of Paolina Borghese in repose on a marble mattress so detailed you could see the sense the weight of her body pressing down into the mattress which was hard to imagine as marble.
There were many paintings (most of them titled “Adoration of the Bambino” and equally “Madonna & Bambino”) as well as paintings by Caravaggio and Raphael.
But most impressive to me were the detailed mosaics.
After the gallery we headed back to our hotel for a glass of vino only to be denied. Two hours earlier, because of riots from futbol fans across Rome (mostly drunken Dutch) all alcohol sales across Rome had been suspended. But that’s a story for another blog entry to come. Instead we headed out to Piazza Navona and to a restaurant recommended by a friend (which was great btw) called Osteria Del Pengo (where it was too dark and intimate to take any pictures of the food).
When my friend Damon and I went for the weekend in Rome from Cortona in the summer of 1990 we had no guide books, no smartphones, and no clue. We wandered off the train and most likely into the nearest bar (we were 19) and then lit out across the city. We somehow found our way to the Colleseum, the Forum, Trevi Fountain, and the Vatican.
It was summer. It was hot. I remember waiting in the queue to get into the Vatican for what seemed hours only to be pulled aside by the fashion police and told that our shorts were not allowed inside. It was like 95 degrees and we were made to put on these pajama pants over our shorts if we wanted to continue in. Begrudgingly we complied and grumbling under our breadth we entered. Not being Catholic we really didn’t know what we were walking into. As we entered I was overwhelmed and quite frankly disgusted with the wealth and opulence of the place. We took a very quick look around and decided to leave in a huff.
Upon arriving back in Cortona my parents asked what we had done. We told them about our experience at the Vatican and that we left in a hurry. “Did you look up?” my mother asked. “Huh?” I said (the way only a 19 year old could). “For what?”. ” For the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam” my mother said. Disappointedly we admitted we didn’t.
So all these years I believed I had walked into the Sistine Chapel and forgot to look up. Its been a good story of mine, the kind you pass on to your kid and has become family lore. Today I realized that I had never been to the Sistine Chapel but had instead walked in and nearly immediately out of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
With online reservations allowing us to skip the line we headed first to the Vatican Museum and which culminates with a trip to the Sistine Chapel. Upon entering I clearly new I never been here before. It would be impossible to enter this sacred space without looking up. Photography isn’t allowed so I snuck this photo with my iPhone to prove to Mom I was there.
We made our way through meandering tour groups and endless halls of Vatican treasures and spoils, and back to Saint Peter’s Square to get in the queue.
The line moved reasonably fast and it was only 60 degrees, so a sunny but cool and comfortable wait. And this time I wore pants.
Once in side we took our time. While the opulence and extravagance still offended my secular sensibilities I could appreciate and admire this masterpiece of architecture, symbolisim, and history. Its pretty stunning. And just to make sure I didn’t miss anything I made sure I looked up repeatedly.