Saturday, July 6, 2013

vacation 8: Vatican City

Do you remember that Bugs Bunny cartoon where they kick Yosemite Sam in the pants and slap a pie in his face repeatedly to teach him to control his anger? And by the time he learns not to react, he's out of money? That's Rome.

Vatican City was planned as the cornerstone of our European tour, and seeing the pope was the pinnacle. We got up 3.5 hours early to get their with plenty to spare for the 10:30 event. One small problem remained, we didn't have the remaining 50 Euros in cash for the tour guide that afternoon because the bank took a two hour siesta yesterday. So, we waited in line for a bank that opened at 8:35, had a line already, and a mantrap/metal detector better than the airport. Even the key to the locker where you put your watch, phone, and change was plastic. How much robbery happens here on a daily basis to necessitate this? The line moved like molasses--10 minutes a customer. With five workers in the bank, only one dealt with customers, and he stopped to talk on his cell phone.

After all that, they wouldn't take the Citibank Visa card we ordered just for this trip, and neither would the ATMs because Citi wouldn't issue us a pin. We had to stop at a money changer for a 16 percent fee. We still made it through the pope's security checks to St Peter's Square, grabbed our tickets, and were passing through the third line to our seats at 9:30am. Alas, too good to be true.

Secret Service slammed a sawhorse down between me and my family with no explanation. My family got in, but I couldn't. The angry crowd of tourists who also had tickets pushed against me so hard that they ruined the metro pass in my pocket. I was trapped in limbo, I was later told, because the pope decided to travel around the perimeter of the seats, and they needed the aisles clear. Sitting in the heat for an hour, I began to wonder if this was a metaphor for heaven.
When they lifted the gates, people surged forward, leaving me to wait for my family. In that enormous crowd, there was no way for me to find them. Talking to our priest, I found that this mismanagement is pretty common for crowd control, and happened to his group, too.

Next, the camera battery died, and I had to get the other one from the hotel so we could have a camera for the tour. I actually cursed during the pope's speech.

Guess when I found out my Metro card didn't work anymore? I ran back to the hotel, dripping sweat, and return 80 minutes later, 10 minutes before the Roman Odyssey tour is scheduled to start. No one at the restaurant had the faintest clue who this Rick Steves-recommended company was, and there was no sign like the other 3 companies who met here. We were terrified that someone had just stiffed us for 100 Euros plus the currency conversion fees we just paid. Though he gave us a 5 hour tour instead of the usual 3, and the Vatican Museums were the highlight of our vacation, this is not an experience I ever want to sit through again.

The first thing the guide did was take us past the lines to pay at the entrance with the money we just gave him. He told the kids to lie about their age to save him 20 euro and he'd buy them each an ice cream cone when we were through. He was very knowledgeable and interesting, and geared the tour so the kids could understand. Emily liked the tapestries designed by Raphael, but when the Vatican used them to secure a loan, someone pulled all the gold thread out of them. The restored Sistine Chapel was amazing, but there are no photos allowed. Our guide had to ask one guy to put out his cigarette before going in. As you stand cheek-to-cheek with hundred of others staring up, professional shooshers stand on the podium, tell people to be quiet, and point out tourists who snap photos to the police. I kid you not, they make each person delete the photos. Meanwhile, there are signs every three feet and stories in the paper warning you "there are pickpockets active here." The same was true of the Pieta and every item of exquisite beauty in Rome. Hmm...a metaphor?

The pope was performing mass in the basilica while we were leaving the tour. The corona of light in this place was awe inspiring. I'm told that instead of glass, the windows are thin slices of alabaster to achieve this affect.

By the time we were done, the Holy Stairs, the ones from Pilate's palace that Jesus walked on, were closed. The next day we made the long trip again--to find they were closed for siesta. When we arrived the third time, (does this sound like Monty Python to anyone else) a tour group clogged the stairs. You can only climb these stairs on your knees, but Tammy and Emily waited for the crowd and did it. They had professional shooshers here, too. Did you know that churches won't let you sit on the floor?

That night, we had our best and least expensive meal in Italy. At a local pizzaria, we ordered off the local menu instead of out of the glass case and for 8 euros, they gave us enough great food for two meals! We had enough left over for a picnic in the park the next day, where Tammy found a man with a tan poodle and showed him photos of our tan poodle.

The last modern site was the Borghese Gallery, which we had to get ticket for in advance or you don't get in. They give you a two hour slot, but open the doors late and kick you out 15 minutes early. We took a taxi to avoid losing our slot, and the driver had a GPS with Mario as the symbol! It was hilarious. We had to change our symbol on the TomTom the next day. There are no photos allowed at the gallery, no backpacks, or cameras. However, all the guards had their iPhones for texting. After the Vatican, these exhibits were dull. Five minutes in, I couldn't stand another sculpture (aside from Apollo chasing Daphne as she turned into a tree) or woman in blue with a boy child flaunting his penis. Pierce felt the same, and we made a game to count how many boys were peeing on us in each room.

The best irony of the trip: The gallery told lots of stories about how the cardinal who owned the place threatened people into giving him the art in the gallery. His uncle was the pope, and he could (and did) have people excommunicated or assassinated. In the last room, the galley people bemoaned the fact that Napoleon looted their collection and sold the pieces to others. Because there was a bill of sale, they couldn't get "their" art back. Tammy and I looked at each other. Hello, you STOLE it, too!

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