Yesterday, we had picked up a few groceries so that we could eat breakfast and get an early start today. One item we picked up was this hot pepper fig jam. It had just the right amount of spiciness to pair extremely well with the smoked mozzarella we had also picked up. That enabled us to get out of the hotel with plenty of time to make it to the Vatican Museum early. We had ordered tickets online for an 8:30 am entrance, and that turned out to be a brilliant idea. We were able to bypass the main line to get in, and I think they didn't even start letting the main line in until 9. Even so, there were mobs of group tours and other tourists to the point where I was almost claustrophobic. We followed the map that came with the audioguide to the first area- stuff stolen (or gifts given) from ancient Egypt and some levant. The collection of sarcophagi and heiroglyphic tablets was large, like all collections at the Vatican. Next up were the statues from ancient Greece and Rome. It's a bit hard to tell the difference, as it seems that most of the Roman pieces are copies of Greek originals. I think it's funny to see so many statues that are completely naked, except for a strategically-placed fig leaf. The Vatican must have spent an enormous quantity of money on vandalizing statues by attaching marble fig leaves in the years that they decided that penises were inappropriate. Of course, there are still plenty of statues that haven't received that treatment, and some where it's quite obvious that they used to have a fig leaf, but no longer do. We took a break from the overwhelming quantity of art by ducking outside to the courtyard for a breather, and then plunged back in to the Etruscan art.One thing that was a bit annoying was that the official Vatican audioguide (which we paid money for) is not evenly spaced at all. There will be 3 displays with a super-long explanation each, all next to each other, and then there will be long rooms with no content at all. At this point in the day, the mobs of tourists worsened. By the time we were in the long galleries, we were just two points in a sea of humanity, slowly flowing past and mostly ignoring the insanely expensive, centuries-old artwork. Most people would glance at the work or tapestry as the flowed past it, ignoring the ceiling that probably took man-years to paint, ignoring the mosaic floor they walked upon, which also probably took man-years to lay down, and just barely taking in the works the tour guides were describing. Periodically, an entire tour would whip out their phones to take a picture of whatever the guide was talking about, return their phones to their pockets, and move on.We were moving slowly and trying to take more in, but it's the Vatican. It's impossible to take it all in. I'm sure that people could spend months writing a Master's thesis on any one painting or set of artifacts, and there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of them in here. Personally, I'm not super into Renaissance art, but I really enjoyed the hall of maps. It contained whole-wall sized maps of Italy at some given point in history. I guess the pope could plan battles and check his taxes and see what areas were under his control from them. I also found a great spot on a ceiling with a picture of a guy labeled “Assa” who was acting like an ass by standing on a baby. This, along with the various pictures of people beheading others (or holding their beheaded heads) were the highlights for me. Plus, I found some babies that were sort-of puking if you looked at them the right way. Of course, then we got to the Raphael rooms. These are a series of rooms with amazing mosaics on the floors, walls and ceilings that are completely covered in Raphael's art, and mobs of tour groups looking at the highlights and moving on. Somewhere around here, there was a side path with some hidden Van Goghs and Gaugins that most of the tourists didn't go see, because it wasn't on the shortest way to the Sistine chapel. These side paths provided a space to breathe. Then, we went through the area with the modern art. Most people just whisked through there, completely ignoring the works by Matisse, Dalis, Chagall, and other artists I haven't heard of, but I found those works to be much more to my liking than most of the other stuff we had seen already. In fact, had the gift shop had a print of one of the large Matisse pieces, I would have bought it. Then of course, comes the reason half of everyone comes to visit- the Sistine Chapel. There were at least half a dozen different audioguide pieces covering everything from the art on the ceiling to the architecture, to the history of the artists who worked on it and the bible stories behind some of the panels. Every few minutes, a Vatican staffer would come on the PA system with “Silencio! Silence please! This is a holy place!” As if the throngs of tourists and guides were actually going to pray there. Everybody would get quieter for a minute, and then the volume of the rumble would slowly increase again until the guy got back on the PA system. After the Sistine Chapel, the crowds were thinner, as I suspect that most tours ended there, allowing the tourists to enjoy the many gift shops on the way to the exit. For many people, the chapel was the climax, and everything else was denoument that needn't have attention paid to it. Meanwhile, I found the part after the Sistine Chapel to be better than the part before. The ceilings were just as painted, although by this time, I get how people could be “arted out.” But, many of the windows were open, so I could glimpse parts of the inner Vatican grounds. It's quite green there, and I imagine that it would be quite pleasant to live there. Plus, there was a hall with globes. I love seeing old globes and seeing how people imagined the world to be before they had really good maps. There are always some blobby areas that just kind of go nowhere or are drastically misshapen. Also, to see historical borders and what countries existed where when is fascinating to me. I spent quite a bit of time with these globes, seeing how the world changes with politics and technology. Upon exiting, we were starved, but didn't want to go to one of the many overpriced tourist traps, so we ventured back into a neighborhood and grabbed some fast food. The pizza came in a large sheet, and a guy with kitchen scissors would cut off a piece as big or as small as you wanted, heat the pizza, and then weigh it. It was crap pizza, but one of the pieces we got had zucchini flowers on it- not exactly a crap topping in most places. It was definitely the least gourmet way I've ever had zucchini blossoms. Since today was Vatican Day, we continued to St. Peter's Basilica. Unfortunately, the lines were ridiculous. We sat in St. Peter's Square, and took in the external scenery, then decided to come back tomorrow at 7am, when all of the guards, tour-hawkers, and the guidebook said the Vatican would reopen. One thing that was very different for me was that the square was permanently set up with chairs fences. The outdoor seating is because the Pope frequently addresses the people and so many want to come hear him. Last time I was here, the square was not blocked off like this and was completely open for people to walk around. It was much easier for tourists to look at all of the statues outside and to get nearer to the buildings, but it certainly didn't feel like an outdoor church. With the new setup, it feels like an outdoor church, which I guess it the new Pope's whole point. The Vatican feels more accessible as a church and less like a tourist spot this way. Instead, we decided to walk by Castle St. Angelo, walk by the river, and then go see the rest of the major sights like Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain, and the Pantheon. Again, due to massive lines, we didn't go inside the Pantheon, and the Trevi Fountain was completely covered in a sea of tourists. I was so sick of people by the end of the day. I know that me being there contributed to the issue of over-crowded Rome, but it really is just too much sometimes. We found a church in Piazza Navona that had some breathing space inside. It is impressive to people who haven't been inside St. Peter's yet, but for those of use who are “fancy church jaded,” it was just another of the many well-endowed churches of the world.
We went back to the hotel to get cleaned up and organized for dinner. Most of the things we had done so far were relatively cheap, but this was going to be our big splurge. We were going to a Michelin Starred restaurant. I had never been to one before in my life, and as a foodie, I really wanted to see what it was all about. We had made reservations a few months in advance, and were well aware that the bill was going to be about the same as what we were paying for 3 nights in a B&B. That's ok, sometimes you have to splurge for the experiences. Our restaurant was located in Trastavere, which was less than a half-hour walk from our hotel. We walked by the river and then walked around the neighborhood a bit. I had heard that this is a cool place to go at night, and it was certainly lively. There were plenty of restaurants, bars, and even people selling in the streets until late because there were lots of people out and about to buy from them. Finally, it was our reservation time at Glass Hostaria. The restaurant had a rich ambiance, but also made me feel a bit like I wanted to tell the Emperor he was naked. The odd modern art on the walls looked like somebody abandoned a construction site a bit too early. It left you feeling like you must be missing something because you didn't get it, but I'm sure that some avant garde artists would understand it. In any case, the place still felt very dressed up and ritzy. The service was very professional and the wine list was a book- literally- with more pages than many short novels. Our dinner began with a complimentary amuse bouche that was some sort of liquid in a bubble ball that burst in our mouths. The bread came with olive butter that appeared to use the "liquid nitrogen to make olive salt" technique I saw on Top Chef once. I've wanted to try it ever since. I was told that the beef tartare was interesting. The ravioli we ordered almost exploded in our mouths. They were filled with a 30-month aged parmesan that was melted into some sort of delicious liquidy filling. The risotto was in the best cheese sauce I've ever had in my life, perhaps because the cheese was so great and aged even more (60 months). The last course was some egg with asparagus thing that was amazingly cooked, but wasn't our favorite. We're definitely cheese people. Overall, it was definitely an experience worth having. The food was absolutely amazing, although I'm not sure I'm prepared to rob the number of banks required to regularly eat like this.
Some of many statues
One of many mosaics
One of many long halls filled with art
Castel St. Angelo