The morning “nap” turned out to last for a few hours. It’s always thus when traveling to Europe. At 4:30 we set out towards Termini, stopping for some delicious (vegetarian!) pizze and taking the Metro to Ottaviani. A short walk later we walked through Bernini’s famous colonnade, into another country, into St. Peter’s Square. A few people stood about and the sun shone weakly through the bluish-grey clouds. The lights were on in the papal apartments. “Maybe he’s home!” suggested J. There was a short line for security, and we wandered around the Basilica, pausing for prayer in front of the body of Pope John XXIII. Walking into St. Peter’s is always an overwhelming experience, as the baroque beauty of the place engulfs the senses. This time I noticed how the twilight filtered brightly through the famous Holy Spirit window at the back, which slowly darkened with the lowering sun.
We paused for the obligatory photos in front of Arnolfo di Cambio's famous statue of St. Peter’s, wandered around a bit more, admired the huge bronze central doors (trying to follow Ms. Mason’s clues to locate the artist’s self-portrait) and walked out back into the piazza, to spend a few minutes in the Vatican bookstore before it closed. [Oh those Latin breviaries looked so tempting!]
[The pictures from inside the basilica didn't come out too well --- I hadn't yet figured out all the settings on the camera, and in Auto mode, it refused to go below a 1/8 shutter speed. And it was stuck on ISO50!]
“Vai via, diavolo!”
I had to step out to use the facilities, and a couple of American tourists (studying in London, it turns out) asked me if I knew how to get into the Sistine Chapel. “You’ll have to come back tomorrow, during the opening hours of the Vatican Museum.” I walked them down the square a bit to where one can see the roof of the Sistine, the famous spot where the white smoke is seen by the waiting thousands (oh, almost a year ago now!). “White smoke?” “You know, when they go to elect the Pope.” “Oh.” Boy. Oh well. I then point to the papal apartments, and talk a little about the colonnade. Nearby, there is a woman, dressed entirely in black, head bent down to the pavement, muttering to herself, and fervently crossing herself. Suddenly she looked up and gave me a piercing look with a glint of something fierce in her eyes. “Vai via! Vai via! Vai via, diavolo!” she screamed. (“Get out, you devil!”) We jumped back startled. “Seems quite deranged” one of the kids offered. We moved away, but she continued a stream of “Vai via”s and something more incoherent (thankfully) in Italian.
We wandered a bit in the Borgo, and then went down to the Lungotevere, by Castel Sant’Angelo and boarded the no. 40 bus, which dropped us off at the Largo delle Torre Argentina, the site of an ancient complex of excavated, near the spot where Julius Ceasar was probably murdered, and now a sanctuary for nearly 350 Roman cats. A couple of the felines looked at us suspiciously from down below (the street level, has, of course, risen several dozen feet since the time of Ceasar).
“This is how you are to pray”
A short tram ride on the no. 8, across the Tiber, and we’re in Trastevere, that ancient Roman neighborhood, and a kind of Bohemian locale nowadays. A short walk past Rome’s earliest (and only?) Baptist church, and we’re in one of my favorite spots. The Piazza di S. Maria in Trastevere, with a beautiful fountain, overlooking that austere medieval church build by Innocent XII in the 12th century. One can spend hours sitting by the fountain, admiring the blazing mosaics of the Blessed Virgin, flanked by five women bearing gifts on each side, that line the façade. We got some gelato and did just that (I didn’t know they made spicy chocolate flavored gelato. I swore I thought I misheard him when he said “è picante”! Most interesting!). Musicians plucked their guitars at one end. A gaggle of schoolchildren huddled together seemingly for warmth on one side of the fountain. A few vendors had stalls open selling cheap jewelry and knick knacks. At 8:15 pm, we wandered into the church, letting Ms. Mason prep us on the various sarcophagi and funerary inscriptions around the portico, and then into the stunningly beautiful interior, with the cosmatesque pavement, and fresh, bright mosaics going back over a millennium.
Evening prayer with the Communità di Sant’Egidio is a must when I’m in Rome. The simple chant (with Byzantine-style harmony) is other worldly. The gospel was Matthew 6, on prayer. A fitting way to start off the penitential season. Prayer, of course, is a hallmark of the Community. The homily focused on the centrality of prayer as well. This is, indeed, how one should pray!
Dinner by the Pantheon
We took the no. 8 back to L. di T. Argentina to Café Brek, recommended by a certain student from Notre Dame. It turned out to be closed! The Pantheon is just a short walk away, so we ended up having some neat pasta (rigatoni all’arrabiata) with a pretty decent white table wine, in front of Hadrian’s majestic edifice. The square was filled with an endless stream of Bangladeshi vendors trying to pawn shiny neon-flashing-musical-toy-thingies. One wonders if they actually sell these! I saw one enterprising fellow trying his luck with a group of Friars Minor! Good luck!
Lots of German
For the first time, I noticed a whole lot of Germans – on the Metro to the Vatican, in St. Peter’s, around the Pantheon, in the bus ride back to the B&B. Never heard this much German before in Rome! I guess it’s the new Pope! Herzliche wilkommen, lieber Papst!