Saturday, February 04, 2006

Seven Days in Italy...Two days at a time

Okay, I don’t even know where to begin with blogging about Italy. Should I do a day-by-day? Should I talk about food, then art, then people? Should I just start writing and see what happens? I have no idea. So….in the interest of simplicity, day by day it is. This could get tedious but I’ll try to keep it interesting.

Day 1: Cairo to Rome.

Of course, the flight was delayed and we had the intense pleasure of hanging out an extra hour or two in the Cairo airport, which has not enough chairs and also apparently not enough “no smoking” signs, because I saw dozens of people smoking while standing or sitting right next to the signs posted every twenty feet or so. The Cairo airport is also interesting in that passengers are not allowed into the departure gate (where all the chairs are) until it’s nearly time to board the plane. Instead passengers mill about the congested terminal area, waiting until a gate is posted and actually opened. Then they go through a security check, then wait in the gate area about 20 minutes, then board the plane in a very unorganized all-at-once fashion, rushing the door. It’s very exciting.

Once we arrived in Rome, we were quite late. We got our bags, went through a very useless customs service area, and headed for the train. Train tickets into Rome are nearly 10 Euro, but it’s worth it! In 30 minutes you are basically downtown, AND the Metro entrance is right in the train station. We, of course, couldn’t figure that out and we ended up asking for help at a door that went outside. We finally found the metro, worked out the ticket machine, and got ourselves onto the right train. It was a very fancy-schmancy metro train, more like an accordion bus than a train. You could see/walk through the entire train, with no car divisions. Very strange. Very new. Very cool.

We went seven stops, consulted the map in the Lonely Planet Book for Rome, and found our way (past our first view of the Vatican and the dome of St. Peter’s basilica!) to the Grand Olympic Hotel, one of the Aurum chain hotels. It was an incredibly nice hotel, and we had rooms hidden away at the top of what we termed our “private staircase.” Nice. Our rooms were huge. Anyway…after dropping off our stuff, we headed down to ask the front desk man for a good restaurant. It was nearly 11pm and we were STARVING!!!!! The front desk guy was an incredible man who spoke several languages and pointed us to a neighborhood place called Taverne Varrone (tavern-a veron-a). We found it easily, as it was just the next street over—Via Varrone. It’s underground—we went down about 10 steps to get in. It was incredibly dim, and we were told that there was only half power so we could only have pizza or pasta. Perfect, since we wanted pizza!! I had a mushroom pizza, Roman style. It’s VERY VERY VERY thin crust, with really great tomato sauce, wonderful mozzarella, and fresh button mushrooms, plus a few spices. It is, by far, the best thing I had ever eaten. Ever. oh my gosh. I kept making Rachael Ray noises—“mmm, oh, mmm….wow…” It was so good. I told Jason that if I had actually been Rachael Ray, I would have gotten a tour of the kitchen and seen the wood fire oven they baked those pizzas in. I ate the entire pizza—it was probably 10-12 inches across. In Rome you don’t touch your food—you eat your pizza (which comes whole) with a knife and fork. It’s a little fussy, but worth it because the crust is so thin you probably couldn’t hold the pizza anyway. It was SO GOOD. So good. I have never been so happy to eat pizza. Plus the atmosphere of the place was awesome—only a couple of other people, dim light, underground, etc…

After the pizzas, we decided to share a tiramisu. Oh man, there is nothing like Italian desserts in Italy. Tiramisu at this restaurant was again the best thing I’d ever eaten. I don’t know how they did it, but yum!!!!! We wished we’d ordered one each instead of sharing. Seriously. Weightwatchers, goodbye (I know we parted ways months ago, but still…). tiramisu, hello!!

After that amazing dinner, we pretty much collapsed into our respective beds, knowing we had a big day to come!

Day 2: Rome.

We awoke to a thoroughly non-Italian breakfast at the hotel—it’s obviously designed for foreigners because there’s cereal, pastry, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, tea and coffee and juice, yogurt, etc. Italians normally just grab a cappuccino and a croissant while standing at the bar of a cafĂ©. But since we had breakfast in the hotel, we saved a couple euro by eating a heartier meal. How often do you get to say that?

After breakfast we headed out towards Vatican City, a grand total of two blocks away. We ended up walking right into St. Peter’s Square, without even really trying. It’s crazy—from one country to the next through a colonnade. St. Peter’s Square is huge—practically sprawling, actually. Two huge colonnades, a large basilica in the center (from Heliopolis, Egypt, just a few miles away from where we live), and it still had the nativity scene when we were there too. The basilica is so big. I can’t even begin to express it. There are statues of saints all around the colonnade and the top of the basilica, and obviously in the center (over the door) is Jesus. They look about life-sized from the ground, but it turns out they’re actually about 4-5 times larger than an actual person. Wow.

We spent quite a bit of time wandering around this square, thinking about looking for the excavations office (where we were slated to go the next morning), but mostly people-watching, walking through the colonnade, taking photos of the massive Saints Peter and Paul guarding the entrance to the basilica, and also taking pictures of the Swiss Guard, who have really outrageous uniforms. They were supposedly designed by someone famous—Michelangelo or Leonardo or something—but they’re actually just hilarious. I have a feeling those guys get their pictures taken a lot.

There were a ton of people in the square. I was surprised at how many, actually, given that it’s low tourist season and a Sunday. Of course, the Pope gives his weekly address on Sunday, and I learned on Monday morning that Sunday must actually be one of the bigger crowd days. Monday and Tuesday the square was deserted in comparison. Anyway, about half an hour before the Pope was to appear, we heard a commotion coming from the opposite colonnade. We half-heartedly ran for it, only to discover we should have really tried harder! The Swiss Guard was in formation, complete with a band and a spear-weilding cavalry, all headed by a cardinal or something. We got a few photos, but mostly we just enjoyed watching people flock to one little part of the square. The guard stood around for a while and the square filled up. There were probably several thousand people there. Then he was in the window! Pope Benedict XVI appeared, waved, and began to speak. In Italian, of course. I caught a little of it…mostly it was about Christian unity and the love of God and the church. Then he began to recite the Angelus (which of course I didn’t understand at all) and suddenly people around us were reciting too—it was actual liturgy and people had it memorized and the pope was leading worship and prayer for thousands of people and it was very cool. After that was finished, he continued to talk a little bit more in Italian—maybe five or six sentences—during which time Jason and I moved into a convenient position to see the Guard better when they recessed. Suddenly we realized the pope had started speaking in English! He delivered his 5-6 sentence summary: welcome, this is the week of prayer for Christian unity, we have a lot to pray for, we need to show the love of God to the world, etc. He then proceeded to do the same in German, French, Polish, Russian, and Spanish. Dang. That guy knows a lot of languages. A lot. As he greeted each language’s people, people in the square erupted in cheers. One group of nuns started singing. It was really neat. I’m sure there were people there whose language was not spoken, but I would be willing to bet that they understood at least one of the seven languages I remember hearing.

After the Pope had finished and offered the benediction, the Swiss Guard band started up and then did indeed come marching straight toward us. Everyone ran over, but we had front row places. ilhamdulillah! It was so neat. I got some great photos.

Anyway, after our Sunday address with the pope, we headed out for some lunch back at what had already become “our” restaurant—the one we ate at last night. It had full power and actually was a little too bright, I thought, compared to the night before. But the food was still really really good! mmm, mushroom fettuccini!! So yummy. I think we may actually have had tiramisu again too. heheh! The staff were just as friendly as the night before too, and this time they had a full house. It was great.

After lunch we decided to strike out on a Lonely Planet walking tour of the Appian Way—what used to be like the longest, straightest road in the empire or something. It leads from Rome across to the other coast of Italy, and at one time you could see really really far down it because it was so straight. Part of the original road still exists, which is always fun. “I’m walking on a Roman paving stone…la la la…” Anyway, we hopped on the metro underground and then a bus. We got off not at the place the book told us to but rather at the “Via Appia Antica” stop, which seemed like what we ought to want, and proceeded to be very confused for a while about which direction we should go. Luckily Jason got us straightened out and we headed in the right direction eventually.

The Via Appia Antica (the Appian Way…not to be confused with Via Appia Nuova, which is somewhere else inside the old city walls) is lined with ruins. It’s home to mausoleums and catacombs, which were what we were particularly interested in. We found our way to the San Sebastian catacombs, and we took a tour of one particular catacomb that houses approximately 500,000 tombs. Christian tombs in the first centuries after Christ were designed like beds—the body was simply laid in the niche on the wall as though they were sleeping. In this way niches were dug below others, and the catacomb extends down four levels below ground. This is also one of the places where the early church would meet for worship—because it was underground, so it was more secret. Also, the pagans at the time who saw people going there would assume it was for a funeral, since this was a known burial ground. Christians did little to change this assumption, mostly because it was convenient for them and also because the theology of that isn’t so bad—since Christian funerals are REALLY about the Resurrection, and that’s what regular Lord’s Day worship is also about…Anyway, there were thousands of tombs down there, most very small (as in, they were for children). They are empty now, of course, because the last known use of this catacomb was in the 4th century. However, some are still bricked up, so you never know what you might find in there. I suggest dust, since caskets were not used.

The catacombs were really really fascinating. Apparently many church groups still ask permission to celebrate the mass or other (protestant) worship services there, because it is a holy place. I think it was amazing. I could really visualize the early church meeting here while trying to escape persecution. Plus the corridors were so narrow and the place was so deep that it would also provide a relatively secure hiding place if that became necessary.

After we left the catacombs, we had a long, long walk back to the city. Lonely Planet isn’t kidding when they tell you this walk is going to take three hours. We definitely took three hours beginning to end, plus we stopped for about 45 minutes for the catacombs. Anyway…along the way there is a church that commemorates Jesus appearing to Peter and telling him not to flee Rome, but to be persecuted and crucified here. There is a stone with some vague footprints that are supposedly Jesus’ footprints. I saw the footprints, but I somehow doubt they’re Jesus’. Maybe they are and I’m too much of a skeptic. Or maybe they’re not. In any case, there they are. I think people really come to touch them or something, but I just saw them and went on the way because it was getting dark.

We finally made it to the city gate, apparently the best preserved remnant/gate of the old city walls. Then we had further confusion, again my fault. There was a lot of confusion on my part during this trip, so you’ll find this a common refrain. I thought the book told us to go through the gate to catch the bus. Apparently after you do all the things inside the gate, you are supposed to go back out to catch the bus. we didn’t, obviously. We walked and walked, and it got dark, and we finally came to a piazza we didn’t recognize (it being our first full day in Rome) and we had to figure out how to get a bus from there. We finally did figure it out, and the bus took us to the metro station where we finally found our way home. Jason was very upset about this, mainly because I was stubborn about it being the right way and also, I think, because he was anxious to get back to the hotel to try to call Victor.

Victor Makari is the PC(USA) WorldWide Ministries Division Area Coordinator for Europe and the Middle East. There are a couple of mission co-workers in Rome (well, until March 1, anyway, when they will move to work in the Holy Land…therefore I will not use their names here, as that’s a sensitive area) who needed a visit, and Victor was orienting a new colleague in the Mission Partnerships office to her “territory.” Conveniently this visit coincided with our visit, so we called their hotel when we returned from our epic adventure on the Via Appia Antica. Their hotel was only a few minutes’ walk away from ours, so they came to pick us up (with the missionaries as well) and we all went to dinner at one of the favorite restaurants of the two co-workers. It was run by a lovely older man named Luigi. One of his children (or his children’s spouse?) has converted from Catholicism to Protestantism, and attends the same church as the two mission coworkers. The food was amazing, the atmosphere wonderful, the owner congenial, and the company excellent. Jason and I had a great time meeting the two co-workers, and also getting to know Angela, the new person Victor was orienting. Not to mention catching up with Victor, who we haven’t seen since Thanksgiving. There was good red wine, and I once again had mushroom pizza, which was amazing!! After dinner we had lots of different desserts to share and they were all good. Jason and I shared most of a tiramisu again! And then Luigi brought out his signature (secret recipe) after-dinner liqueur. It had amazing flavor, but he refused to tell us what was in it—even when I gave him my cute and pleading “pretty please?” face.

After all that great conversation and good food, we were sad to leave. But we did have the mission co-workers’ phone numbers, and agreed to call them again tomorrow and maybe meet for a cappuccino or something.

After that, Jason and I headed “home” again because it had been such a busy day! But, of course, no night in Rome is complete without an evening view of St. Peter’s all lit up. I stood in the middle of the road (no cars, don’t worry) and tried to get a photo, but I needed the shutter to be open longer than I could hold very still in order for it to come out. You can see the result of that first effort on the photo page—it’s blurry. :-)

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