DM and MM's Italy/France 2012 Diary

Day 8 - Vatican, National Museum of Rome

Saturday, 5 May, 2012

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We are having an afternoon off after a busy morning. We got up early at 06:30 so we could eat breakfast and head out to the Vatican before the queues to get into Basilica San Pietro built up too much. We left about 07:00 and went via the bakery, where we got a couple of biscotti (which they call tozzetti here), pistachio and lemon flavoured, and ten of the little nutty bread rolls which we've grown to like. I wanted more of the mini pizza style sausage rolls with mixed fillings, but they didn't have any, so I got the extra bread rolls instead. The cool thing about the bakery is that they weigh the stuff we buy and give us a receipt for something like €5.34, and the guy at the cash register only charges us €5. The always seem to round the total down for us. Maybe they recognise us as regulars now!

Dawn Angel 1
Angel on Ponte Sant'Angelo in early morning light

We walked towards the Vatican, stopping at a fountain where the water emerged from a growling bear's mouth to fill our water bottles. At the Ponte Sant'Angelo we crossed the river, enjoying the beautiful light of the early morning on the river, the buildings, and the bridge. The Bernini angel sculptures looked gorgeous in the light and I took several more photos of the ones on the western side, their faces illuminated by the slanting morning sun. Then we walked up the street towards the Vatican, hoping the queues for the Basilica weren't too long. And despite Tony telling us that when he got there at 07:30 there was a half hour queue, for us there was nothing! We walked straight up to the security check and through, even taking time to snap some photos at our leisure before walking the rest of the way to the open doors of the Basilica.

St Peter's Dome
Dome of St Peter's

Inside, the enormous space was as impressive as I remembered it from last time we were here. The right side of the nave was roped off though, so we couldn't get close to Michelangelo's famous Pietà statue, but I snapped a couple of shots with a long lens. We walked down the length of the structure, admiring the decorations and the light which was streaming in through the windows high in the eastern wall. The space was very free, with only small knots of tourists walking around, plus several priests and nuns bustling to and fro. A service of some sort was in progress at one of the chapels on the right side of the nave, with a dozen or so priests leading some chanting. As we walked past large circular brass grilles set in the floor, we could hear male voices singing coming up from below. We weren't sure if it was being performed or was just a recording.

Lots of marble
Inside St Peter's

We wandered around for a while, doing a circuit of the floor, watching the other people move around the space. We walked into the sacristy area, down a passageway, but reached a spot where it looked like we weren't allowed to go any further, so turned around. As we walked out, a bunch of priests emerged and followed us out into the main space. Eventually we'd had enough and left, emerging into the Piazza outside. We saw some Swiss Guards near the exit, resplendent in their colourful uniforms, one holding a halberd or some other pole arm of some sort. Nearby were toilets, so I made use of those. A large sign inside said in six languages the toilets were free of charge and that the staff were not allowed to take tips.

St Peter's front, fisheye
Front facade of St Peter's

From there we walked through the colonnade of Bernini's enormous columns until we reached a barrier. We decided to head to the nearest Metro station, at Ottaviano, north of the piazza, so walked across the middle of it, stopping to ask some Japanese tourists to take our photo along the way. After they handed the camera back, I said, "arigato", but they simply walked away without acknowledging. It was only then I figured maybe they were Korean or some other nationality. Then we walked up the street towards the Metro station, stopping at a bar for a macchiato for M. and a cornetto con cioccolato for me. When I asked for the croissant, the guy behind the counter said I should just take one from the display, so I opened it up and grabbed one from behind jam-filled ones. The coffee cost a mere one euro, but the cornetto cost two!

A bit further up the same street M. ducked into another bar to use the loo. While waiting, I bought a delicious looking cannoli stuffed with ricotta, with half a cherry on each end. I ate that too as we continued walking up to the station. The filling was sweetened and contained chocolate chips in it, and the crust was very crisp and flaky. Delicious.

Cannoli siciliana
The cannoli really was delicious

We took the Metro from Ottaviano to San Giorgio so we could visit the markets there again. M. had decided the leather jackets there were too good a bargain to be passed up and wanted to buy another one in a brown colour. She'd seen one she liked the other day in a different stall to where she'd bought the blue one, so we went straight there, passing quickly by the one with the old woman who'd sold us that one. M. tried on several jackets, helped by the younger lady at the second stall, before settling on one that she liked. The price, when questioned, was €100. At this point, after we'd been there with the woman helping us for several minutes, an older man came in and started dealing with us. I offered 80 as an opening ploy in the bargaining, but he went off in a string of Italian that made it quite clear he would be losing a fortune if he gave it to us for such a low price. M. indicated to me that €100 was a bit much, so we started walking away, at which point the guy pleaded and begged and then dropped his price to €90. We accepted that and walked away with the purchase after handing over the cash.

That done, we hopped back on to the Metro to Termini, where we emerged into the bustling bus interchange outside the station and crossed the busy road to get to the Museo Nazionale Romano: Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.


We've just returned from dinner, but more on that later.

At the museum we stopped outside briefly to charge up on some biscotti, then entered. We had to pass our bags through an x-ray machine and walk through a metal detector, before checking our bags at the cloakroom. I asked if photography was okay, and the guy at the cloakroom said yes, but no flash. So I took only my camera with the 24-70 zoom lens.

The ground floor of the museum contained marble busts and statues of Roman origin, plus a large special exhibit of an adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Wild Swans. A summary of the tale was printed in Italian and English on signs; it was about a girl with eleven brothers, children of the king. But when their mother died the king remarried and the stepmother, like all good fairy tale stepmothers, decided she hated the kids and had the boys turned into swans and the girl adopted out. She slaved for years weaving magic cloaks out of nettles and used those to turn her brothers back into princes, except one cloak got ripped by the stepmother and one brother ended up with a wing instead of an arm. Somehow it all ended happily, or something like that. Anyway, this story had been turned into a film, with actors placed in front of backgrounds made by decoupage by Queen Margrethe of Denmark. The costumes from the film and the decoupage backgrounds hand made by the Queen were all on display. To tie it into Rome, there was an accompanying display of ink drawings of Rome done by Hans Christian Andersen when he stayed in the city in the 1800s.

The Pugilist
Roman bronze statue: The Pugilist

Upstairs, the first floor contained more busts and statues, and also a collection of bronze fittings from a Roman era ship, being mostly sculpted animal heads holding large rings in their mouths. There was also a dimly lit room with a collection of carved ivory, including a life sized face. These had been looted from an archaeological site in 1990-something and only recently recovered by the Carabinieri. Also on the floor were astounding carved marble sarcophagi, dating from around 200 A.D., when the Romans began burying people instead of burning them.

Roman sarcophagus detail
Detail of Roman sarcophagus

The second floor, however, contained the best stuff. This was a vast collections of frescoes and floor mosaics from Roman villas and houses, and they were simply stunning. Many of the frescoes were faded and the colours muted, but the details of the designs could still be made out. Some were in better condition and still vibrantly colourful, and these ones were amazing. One room contained a full set of frescoes from a room in the Villa di Livia on the Palatine hill (which we'd not been able to go inside yesterday). The walls had spectacular paintings of a garden scene with dozens of accurately depicted trees and other plants. Another room had frescoes from another villa, including what the Italian sign termed a "scena erotica" in one part. Other frescoes included things like sea life, hunting scenes, and mythological animals and gods, as well as geometric patterns and other decorations.

Resting in Villa di Livia
Frescoes of Villa di Livia

Then there were the mosaics, which were even more amazing. There were some relatively simple ones, with geometric patterns in light and dark marble tiles about a centimetre or two across. Then there were intricate pictures done with tiles two and three millimetres in size, of delicately shaded hues of many different colours to achieve astoundingly lifelike representations of animals, people, and mythological beings. And there were halls and halls and rooms and rooms of these, each more stunning than the ones before. We spent a long time admiring them and moving slowly through the galleries to make sure we didn't miss any.

Mosaic hall
Hall of Mosaics

The last floor was the basement, but we skipped this since it contained the coin collection we'd seen here in 2001 when that was the only part of the museum which was open while they were refurbishing the upper floors. And it was now about 13:30, so we were glad to reclaim our bags and exit the museum so we could eat some of the food we'd brought with us. After a snack we headed home, walking through various streets on the Termini side of Via del Corso. We passed the place we had dinner two nights ago with Tony, confirming the name as we walked by.

Back at the apartment we decided to take a rest afternoon, just sitting and relaxing, letting me catch up writing the diary and M. have a little nap. It was good to have a rest off our feet for a few hours. We also used the time to have showers and get cleaned up for dinner.

At 18:30, we left to walk over to the Jewish ghetto neighbourhood for the restaurant we'd booked the day before. We took our time, but made it to the area with time to spare, so we took a long way around near the end, detouring to walk along the river for a bit. While walking along near the Isola Tiberina, we spotted a guy down by the river bank on the island, fishing. And as we watched, he pulled a large fish from the water, about 40 centimetres long! Some mates helped him land the fish and took it away to put it in a plastic bag, and he tossed his line back in. We realised there were about three people at stations along the river bank with fishing rods. And then as we watched the first guy got a bite and pulled out another fish as big as the first! I'm not sure if the fish from the river would be safe to eat, but if so then this guy had got himself a couple of cheap meals.

Via dell'Arco della Ciambella
Roman street scene, on the way to dinner

After taking a few photos of the setting sunlight on the river, we headed in to the restaurant, which was called Nonna Betta's, after the Nonna Betta who presumably ran the place originally. There were old black and white photos of the actual Nonna Betta floating around. We got a table inside, where only one other table had anyone at it. The menu was divided into two separate booklets, one the meat menu and the other the milk and fish menu. A note said that because the restaurant was kosher, it was not permitted to cook milk and meat together. The meat menu looked very good, but we moved to the milk and fish, which featured dishes involving cheese and other dairy products, as well as fish dishes and a lot of vegetarian options including some Middle Eastern food such as couscous and falafel. I'm not sure exactly how a kosher restaurant works; if it's possible for different diners at the same table to order across the two menus, or if everyone in the same party has to order off the same menu. This wasn't an issue for us though, as the milk and fish menu held plenty of good looking choices.

In the Ghetto
Evening in the Roman Ghetto

We ordered a vegetable couscous for M., a pesce alla Nonna Betta (fish cooked in Nonna Betta's style) for me, and some falafels and mixed grilled vegetables. The waiter asked us if we wanted the falafels as a starter, but we didn't think fast enough and said we just wanted everything served together. In hindsight, it would have been better to have the falafels first, since the whole lot filled up our table with virtually no space left, and the guy who brought the dishes out gave us a disapproving tut-tut as he deposited them for us. Everything was excellent, with the fish split down the stomach and splayed flat, then covered with a crust of spiced breadcrumbs, olives, and small pieces of cherry tomato. It had some bones that needed to be spat out, but the flavour was wonderful. The couscous was also amazingly good, with a spicy vegetable stew to spoon over it.

After finishing the delicious mains, we considered dessert. I asked for a menu, but the waiter said that because all the desserts are freshly made they change every day, and the best thing to do was to go to the counter near the back and have a look at what was available today. Most of the selections involved ricotta in some form, being essentially ricotta cheesecakes with various inclusions and toppings, including pine nuts, apple, about three or four other fruit options I can't remember, and the one I went for, which the waiter, who described all of the others in accented English, simply referred to as visciole. Fortunately, I knew from last night's dinner at Trattoria Arancio d'Oro that that was wild cherries and, having been denied the ricotta and cherry tart there, I had to go for it this time. M. ordered her new favourite, macchiato caldo. The tart was delicious. I must try more desserts made with ricotta while we're in Italy.

Navona Night
Piazza Navona at night

After our meal, we walked back north to our apartment, via Piazza Navona, where we stopped to take some night photos. I think we got some very good ones there, with the buzz of people moving around the piazza and many of the art stalls still set up doing business, as well as the al fresco dining lining the sides of the square. And of course in the middle were the fountains, and there was also a full moon rising just over the flats on the eastern side as we wandered and set up photos to take advantage of it.

L'Orso 80
On the streets of Rome at night

We also stopped a few times to take some street snaps along the walk from the piazza back to our place, including some at the Pantheon. We got home just a few minutes after 22:00, giving me time to type up some diary before going to bed.

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