7. At the Vatican: Walking some 500 metres from Ottaviano, I reached a huge elliptical enclosure which could hold hundreds of thousands of people at once. Colossal colonnades stood framing the perimeter of the large area; like the vanguards of the enormous 500-year-old basilica.
This new country within Rome was a bliss to the eyes. At the centre of the vast expanse of the St. Peter’s Square stands an Egyptian Obelisk which was brought to Rome some 2000 years ago but moved to the Vatican nearly 500 years ago.
The place was so beautiful that I nearly forgot my audio-guide (As I carried my own audio-guides, I didn’t have to purchase one at the venue). Moments later, I found myself gazing at the greatest church in Christendom. The lines to get into the basilica are usually extremely long and you cannot expect it to be better on a Sunday morning. Without any delay, I got into the queue hoping to spend at least 2 hours inside Michaelangelo’s watchful dome.
There’s a strictly enforced dress code – no shorts or bare shoulders allowed inside the building – and the Swizz guards outside were restraining some people from entering the building.
Once inside, even the most travelled will be fascinated by the riches that confront you. Following the audio guide’s directions, I found myself looking up the sky through the Oculus. Nearly 2000 years ago, said the audio guide, well before Christianity established a strong foundation in this area, the Vatican was the site of Nero’s circus (think of ancient stadiums; Chariot races, Gladiatorial fights, Crucifixion) and the Oculus was the centre of the circus. I was suddenly reminded of the quote by Marcus Claudius Tacitus: ‘The Emperor who fiddled while Rome burned’ (In fact, Rome was destroyed by a great fire during Nero’s reign which lasted for 6 days. The old city could never be revived again). Well, I was going off course; Nero’s nowhere connected to the Vatican. The beauty and the richness of the interior could be best appreciated only after pausing the guide.
The Roman circus which stood 2000 years ago was a place to entertain its audience by torturing slaves, especially Christians; people were crucified or even burned to act as human torches. It is believed that Peter, Jesus’s right-hand apostle was one among the many people who were killed here; Peter was crucified upside down as he felt unworthy to die in the same manner as his master.
I had one more thing to see in the Basilica; I’d heard that the view from the dome was spectacular. The tickets to the Dome or Cupola were issued outside the main entrance. I had two options, I could either take the steps just outside the main entrance or take the lift. I climbed the 500 odd steps to the top of the Basilica from where I could see the Vatican city in full; some parts of Rome was visible from across the river Tiber as well.
Unfortunately, as my time was limited, I had to rush back to the St. Peter’s Square to attend the most important event of the day.
Meanwhile, people were gathering outside the basilica to listen to the Pope’s speech. The Angelus – as it is called in Latin – is held at the St.Peter’s Square at 12pm sharp and lasts for 20 minutes. (Vatican Sundays are special in that the visitors get the opportunity to see the Pope and receive his blessings). The traditional Angelus was to take place within minutes now. The Basilica was so abundant with artistic treasures that 3 hours had gone by in an instant; it’s weird how time flies inside the Vatican!
I made a terrible mistake by underestimating Rome’s weather; I was ill-supplied and the scorching Sun burned my skin. Never forget to bring a hat or an umbrella on a midday’s event at the Vatican.
Angelus literally means ‘Angel declared unto Mary’; the second person of the Holy Trinity. The Son of God delivered to the world by Holy Mary. Though the Pope delivered the speech in Italian and recited the actual Angelus Domini in Latin, it is later translated and delivered in various other languages like English, Spanish, French, German among others.
It was over in a flash. By 12:30pm, the crowd dissolved into the country and everything was back to normal again. I, however, was getting ready to leave the country (I think the world’s easiest border crossings is here between Rome and the Vatican City). And, mind you, I was not done with the Vatican yet.
8. A journey across the river Tiber: It was nearly 1 pm and my stomach was expecting some food. Food is easy to find in Rome; There is food in every nook and cranny of the city but for a vegetarian like me, finding food takes time and a lot of energy. My hunt for food in Rome took me from the narrowest, remote areas to the most famous streets in Rome. The nearest restaurant that served vegetarian dishes was about a mile away from the Vatican.
I walked the distance going west on the Via della Conciliazione street leading straight to the river Tiber. Walking is a pleasant experience in Rome; even the narrowest roads will be teaming with tourists on a Sunday. Especially near the main attractions of the city. About 500 metres across the river is the Vegan Food restaurant. They serve a wide variety of Indian food as well as other vegan cuisines.
A dosa and a few vegetable rolls did justice to my hunger after half a day’s stroll. Time was of the essence and I had to rush from the restaurant. My journey resumed at quarter past 2. Less than a kilometre from the restaurant stands an ancient structure popularised by new-age cinemas and novels, but the structure is better known for its antiquity. Castel Sant’Angelo was originally a Roman structure popularised by the later Christian influence.
‘You have arrived at your destination’ said Google’s voice navigation system. The high walls of this ancient defensive structure were superbly preserved. The ticket cost me €8 and it was worth the price.
A bronze statue, the hallmark of the fort is seen on the top of the building; the statue of Archangel Michael pointing his sword downward (Michael along with Gabriel and Raphael are the 3 chief Angels or Archangels in Roman Catholicism). The information board inside states that the building, originally a tomb of emperor Hadrian and his family, was built in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. The lower part of the central cylinder is different to the upper part in terms of the materials used. Back in Roman times, Roman figurines would have ringed the original building with a quadrigas statue of emperor Hadrian in a chariot at the top. Hadrian also built a bridge to connect the fort to the city.
It aided the Romans perfectly when hordes of barbarian invaders laid siege to the empire after its fall in the 5th century AD. In the second half of the 1300s, the keys to the fort were given to the Pope Urban V on his return from France. After this, the fort has become an integral part of the defences of the Vatican, especially the Pope, until today.
On the inside, I was confronted by the beautifully designed Angel courtyard. The buildings around the angel’s statue were once used for garrison services. This whole complex was designed by Michaelangelo.
Unfortunately, as I was going off schedule, I had to skip the prison cells. My trip to Angel’s castle was short but pleasant nonetheless. The time was 4pm already and I had still 2 more places to visit going by my plan, but my time was short or perhaps the day was waning sooner than I had expected. So, I had to tweak the schedule to make it more feasible.
My immediate plan of action was to visit Largo di Torre Argentina before it got dark. By this time, my mobile phone was low on battery and I was all by myself. Luckily, I had purchased a map of Rome from a bookstore near the Termini station and that helped me a lot from this point onward. I had also made a list of buses from my last attraction (i.e., Largo di Torre Argentina) to Roma Termini.
It was a long stroll south-east of the river Tiber to get to the place. Largo di Torre Argentina is an archaeological site located at the junction of Rome’s busy streets. The first thing a visitor notices here is that the area is teaming with cats, and cats are, and have always been a part of Roman ruins; from the Colosseo to the Roman forum, cats can be found everywhere in Rome.
The site houses the ruins of Pompey’s theatre where the famous Roman statesman Julius Caesar was supposedly killed. This site also contains the oldest temples in all of Rome, as old as 400 BC. Though there was nothing much to do here, the site’s antiquity and its role in Roman history are particularly intriguing.
It was just about time for some tea. I came across a pretty nice restaurant by the name Il Delfino on the opposite side of the ruins; just across the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II street. And yes, A Cafe is usually called a Bar in Italy so, don’t mind the name.
‘A cup of coffee, please’ I said to the barista handing over the receipt from the counter (The man struggled to understand but the printed receipt saved the day). Italians like it quick and plenty. They are coffee addicts and there is no surprise in seeing one have more than one cup of coffee in quick succession.
‘Ah, sì sì!‘ said the barista and brought me a cup of hot coffee in a traditional ceramic cup. The drink was strong and after just one sip of the Italian coffee, I decided not to go back to Starbucks again.
By 5:30pm, I was rested and all fit for one last jog for the day.
9. Rome’s aesthetic pleasure: The Piazza Navona is a perfect example showing Rome’s commitment toward fountains. They’ve had fountains for nearly 2000 years in Rome, each one with its own unique design and architecture. This one, however, is one of the most famous in Rome. Located north-west of the oldest Roman ruins, the rectangular avenue has three fountains. The first one to the south is called Fontana del Moro.
The one in the centre of the avenue is Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or the Fountain of the Four Rivers. Originally designed by Bernini, this fountain represents or honours the four major rivers representing the four continents of the world; the Ganges representing Asia, The Nile representing Africa, Rio de la Plata representing the Americas, and the Danube representing Europe.
Standing majestically in front of the 17th-century church is the Egyptian obelisk commissioned by Bernini. It was an amazing experience standing there in the middle of these wonderfully designed fountains: especially the one in the centre. The streets were swarming with paintings and other artefacts, after all, Italy is never deprived of art, be it Pagan or Christian, and they are masters in it.
Finally, after a long day’s walk, my legs gave out on me and I returned to my room at 7:30pm. It seemed like the journey was incomplete; I was almost tempted to continue my journey if only my legs had borne me a little longer.
Meanwhile, the landlady was waiting in my room to collect the tax from me.
‘Tomorrow’, I said smiling at her.