There comes a moment in every single one of my travels when I first feel like I have truly arrived at my destination. In Bhutan, as soon as I stepped out of the plane, I knew instantly, Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore. In Hong Kong, even when I have been there many times, I only feel like I’ve truly arrived when I cross Orchard Road and pass beneath the neon signs of shops selling fake Rolex watches.
In Rome, I felt it when I was walking among the massive colonnades encircling St. Peter’s Square. Those huge, towering columns encircling the Vatican were once described by the sculptor Bernini as the “maternal arms of Mother Church.” Now that I think about it, those moments come when being in a new place makes me feel but a tiny speck in the order of the universe. There is an element of being invisible, of being almost, but not quite, lost.
Devotion, in all shapes and forms
Our first tour was inside the hallowed walls of the Vatican. I can’t imagine how it must have been like for my brother, himself a painter, to be surrounded by the very paintings he only used to see in his books. “The highest art is always the most religious, and the greatest artist is always a devout person,” says Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in Rome, where art and history, faith and religion, collide in one beautiful, dazzling explosion.
We wandered around St. Peter’s Basilica, and my most vivid memory of that Church, dubbed “the greatest Church in all of Christendom” was standing in the middle of it, and looking at the shafts of light that pierced the windows and roofs, spilling onto the floors in perfect, straight lines. If souls ever truly ascended into heaven, I imagine them passing through those very same beams of light, straight into the Lord’s kingdom.
I also remember standing inside the Sistine Chapel. It was forbidden to take photos, but I did see some tourists sneaking a shot or too. And who can blame them: the ceiling was absolutely glorious. The ceiling depicted the Book of Genesis, including the iconic Creation of Adam, and took 4 years to finish. Contrary to popular thought, Michelangelo painted the ceiling standing up, not lying down, on a scaffolding he himself designed. Four years of backbreaking work is to me, either madness or just plain devotion. Being inside the Chapel, face to face with Michelangelo’s painting of the Last Judgement, and knowing that this is the very room where Cardinals elect the next pope, the Vicar of Christ himself, stirred something in my little Catholic heart.
My last memory of the tour was looking at the Pieta, the world-famous sculpture by Michelangelo, housed inside a bullet-proof acrylic glass panel. I remember thinking, it was so intricately carved that I wold not be surprised if the Virgin Mary herself started breathing, or if Christ himself rose from the dead, covered in the drapes that swaddled his body.
Blast from the glorious past
Rome is an ancient city, and everywhere you turn there’s evidence of just how old it is. From the art, to the world famous structures, down to the cobblestone paths, Rome looks every inch a city that dates back to 3,000 years. The Colosseum is perhaps the greatest reminder of Rome’s majestic past. I had never before been inside a structure that was as old as the Colosseum. Up close, it resembled a maze made of sand and stone, instead of an organized ampitheater. Even if today the Colosseum is a mere skeleton of its original grandeur, it’s still definitely worth seeing, if only because it remains the best and most enduring symbol of Roman architecture and engineering.
Another ancient structure in Rome is the Pantheon, which is about as old as the Colosseum. Unlike the Colosseum however, the Pantheon is right swak in the middle of a bustling plaza, and just a few steps away from it are cafes, restaurants, and shops selling souvenirs. It’s rather disconcerting, especially if like me, you always imagined ancient structures as being on somewhat sacred ground, away from the madding crowd. But no, right beside the Pantheon was a line of taxicabs, which we actually took to get back to our hotel.
The first thing you notice in the Pantheon is the big oculus, a circular opening on the dome’s ceiling and a key feature of ancient architecture. It’s a doorway between gods and humans, as the Pantheon was first constructed as a pagan temple for the Roman gods (these days it’s considered a Roman Catholic Church). We, however, spent less time looking at the oculus, and more time looking at Rafael’s tomb as well as the massive, bronze Church doors.
Rome, the Eternally Crowded City
The person who said that all roads lead to Rome certainly knew was he was talking about. I don’t think I’ve been surrounded by as many tourists and travelers as I have been than when I was in Rome. Everywhere we went it seems, there were so many tourists jostling for that perfect spot to see the attractions or to simply take photographs. Of course, the more tourists, the more opportunities for local touts to make a quick buck or two.
Once, at the Piazza Navona, I saw a bunch of people clutching long-stemmed roses. I didn’t think much of it until a nice, friendly looking guy handed me a rose. How nice, I thought while I accepted the rose, these Romans are so romantic! Five minutes later, the same guy comes back and asks me for money. I was appalled, and mostly ashamed of myself. Over twenty years of traveling and I still fall for this crap! Christ. With my cheeks still burning, I handed him back his rose, got a nice, big gelato, and ate my shame away.
At the Trevi Fountain, which was my favorite spot in the entire city, we had a difficult time even getting close to the fountain itself. I, however, was adamant about throwing a few coins (right hand over left shoulder), just to make sure I’ll be going back there.
I guess it really worked because next month I’m going back to Rome, this time with my husband.
Next up: Firenze!