Wednesday, October 21
Another early morning on Wednesday, though not as early as we had originally planned to get up – exhaustion from the day before had set in. We hopped a taxi over to the Vatican again, this time to the main extrance for St. Peter’s Square. It was 9am and already the place was a mob scene of pilgrims, church groups, school groups, priests and nuns. About 7,000 can sit in the Square for a papal audience, and it sure seemed like we’d reach capacity that day.
We had our yellow tickets in hand, but it appeared like the guards were too busy quickly checking bags to pay much attention. I really think anyone could get in if you just pushed your way through. We were supposed to try to pick up our “special tickets” again, so vespa went off on that mission, only to discover the hand-engraved ones could not be found/were never finished. Oh well. He was given another envelope with our name on it instead, though we made the mistake of not opening it until we’d already found our seats among the masses. Inside were two RED tickets, not yellow ones, and they said “Special Ingresso”. Would this have gotten us some kind of preferred seating, we wondered? Oh well, too late now.
As it was, it was kind of fun sitting where we did. In front of us were a church group from Kansas and another from Germany. Behind us were a group of parishoners and nuns from Poland. To my right sat an elderly British gentleman and to our left a group of Italian boys from Genova.
We had about an hour before the audience was to begin, and our main mission at that point was figuring out how the pope would arrive. Should we have chosen a seat more near the middle, or were we good off to the right side? We weren’t sure, only that the popemobile had to show up at SOME point and we wanted to get a look!
By about 10:30am the crowd was getting more and more noisy and excited. Some groups were singing and chanting. A bishop came out and read some kind of announcement or list of names/cities in German. Then the weirdest, kind of chirpy/cheesy organ music started playing over the loudspeakers–here comes the Pope! Vespa was on the phone with his parents back home, describing the arrival in detail. I was trying to see where the pope was and if I could get a good shot on my videocamera (sadly, my computer messed up after the fact, and the video I had along with most of my photos from the morning are fubared. At some point I’ll try to recover them as they’re really quite amusing…)
People were standing on their chairs to get a better look while others were yelling at them for doing so. I got up on my chair just to try to see where the popemobile was — and sure enough, it looked like it would be making a turn right near where we were sitting! We were only 4 chairs in from the outer barricade, and people started going nuts as the car made its slow turn to come down the side. vespa at that point knocked me OFF my chair to get a better view himself!
When I was able to rewatch the video, I was surprised how fast it actually drove by, as it seemed much slower at the time. The pope was smiling and waving at everyone in the crowd, making as much direct eyecontact as he could (vespa claims I blushed. I might have. It’s a weird experience and hard not to get swept up in the moment; as vespa said, this is the man who is perhaps the leader to the greatest number of people in the world) and vespa let his mom know exactly when the pope passed us so she could say an extra blessing. After looping around the crowd, the vehicle slowly drove up a ramp to the main stage for the official audience to begin.
Mostly, a papal audience boils down to one thing: different groups of people being acknowledged by the pope. The pope first read a long message in Italian to the audience. Then in turn a German, Polish, English and Spanish-speaking bishop took the stage to announce “special” visitors there in the audience. It was fun as each of the groups would have their name called, to see them jump up and shout, cheer, sing, or wave banners as the pope looked for them and waved. Some of the Polish groups were definitely the loudest and most enthusiastic and I enjoyed being among them, given my own heritage and knowing how much that side of my family was deeply Catholic. The Pope then read another short message in each language, there was a little more ceremony, and then a final blessing over the crowd and for any holy articles (rosaries, etc) people had brought.
The whole thing was over a little before noon. The crowd began to pour out onto Via della Conciliazione and we wondered what we should do next. Food seemed like a good idea, but we wanted to get away from the crowds. To do so, we walked towards Castel St. Angelo to cross the legendary “Bridge of Angels”, where I took a lot of photos of the beautiful sculptures along the walkway.
Not far across the bridge we managed to get away from the crowds and found ourselves in a charming little artistic district. Painters, mosaic artists, marble-cutters all had tiny shops and we found ourselves at the delightful Osteria Le Strenghe for a leisurely, excellent lunch. Fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with cheese and anchovies; bruschetta con lardo; excellent pasta — this was some seriously authentic Roman dining! A place I’d gladly return to on a future visit and recommend wholeheartedly.
Full and rested, and glad for the peaceful respite, we decided to spend the rest of the day hitting some more of the main sites we’d missed so far. We started at the nearby Piazza Navonna, another ancient Roman Circus. Street artists and eager cafe hosts fight for the tourists’ attention, but the star of the show is Bernini’s fountains. We sat for a while and enjoyed, and also checked out a few nearby churches.
From there, we decided to head over to Via del Corso and up towards Piazza del Popolo. Corso is a serious retail street, so we did a fair amount of window shopping as Romans began to hit the streets for the traditional evening passeggiata. I often felt woefully under-dressed in Rome, and seeing everyone wearing their best for the nightly walk only increased that feeling a hundred-fold! I did make note of a little leather shop on our stroll, though, that seemed to have some nice jackets for sale at good prices.
We made it to the Piazza just about sunset. There, we ducked into a couple of churches to check out the artwork, notably the Caravaggio at Santa Maria del Popolo. In Santa Maria di Montesanto we sat for a few peaceful minutes enjoying the evening chanting of monks.
We also stumbled upon, much to our surprise, The Genius of Leonardo DaVinci” at Chiesa Santa Maria on the Piazza. I had seen a version of this exhibit a couple years back in San Francisco but vespa never had and is a diehard DaVinci freak. We managed to get in and spend some time checking out the fun exhibits based on DaVinci’s machines and inventions.
Most notably, and what I had NOT seen before, but the exhibit was temporarily showing the Acarenza portrait, a recently discovered work of art believed to potentially be one of the only portraits ever made of DaVinci during his lifetime. Who is the artist? (Could it be a self-portrait, even? A newly-found DaVinci?) The real thing or not, it certainly makes for quite a mystery and we spent a lot of time studying it, trying to decide for ourselves.
From there, we headed back down Via del Corso. We sat for a few minutes at the bottom of the Spanish Steps, people watching and fighting off guys trying to sell us roses. We figured we should get a “light” dinner at that point, but were too tired to search around too much. We ended up in a place not too far away from our home base near Via Veneto. This turned out to be one of our most expensive meals of the trip (with the location, not surprising), not necessarily the best, although I will say that vespa’s chicken cacciatore was outstanding and that’s normally a dish I hate (my grandma made it way too much when I was younger. But I would have had no problem eating this version on a regular basis.) I had a pretty decent pizza capricciosa…what I liked best about it was the olives had been well-marinated in red pepper flakes and were extremely tasty. Mmm, olives.
Extremely full and extremely tired from what was somewhere near 4 or 5 miles of walking that day, we found our way home by looking for the Cicacica Boom sign, our beacon of light on the dark streets of Rome.