Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The city is still in the middle of a heat wave and I’m trying my best to survive it.

Originally, I had hoped to go to the Papal Audience in St. Peter’s Square today, but the website warns that “As Rome can get extremely hot in the Summer, particularly in June, July, and August, and the Audience is outside, it is good to come prepared. BRING HATS, SUN SCREEN AND WATER.”

Yeah, no kidding.

The website also advises visitors to arrive two hours early for a security screening and to expect the Audience itself to last at least an hour. Because I had to reschedule my trip at the last minute, I’ve already missed seeing the new Pope on Corpus Domini. I would hate to surrender my only other chance, but I can’t bear the thought of standing for three hours or more in the boiling sun. I decide to scrap Plan A.

I devise Plan B over breakfast—which is, incidentally, still in the godforsaken basement of the Hotel Hosianum Palace, and not on the rooftop terrace. I suppose if I were to ask again this morning, the answer would be: “Madame, it is too hot.”

And maybe it is.

Plan B involved securing a last minute ticket on Viator’s half-day bus tour to Hadrian’s Villa and Villa d’Este. At least that would have allowed me to escape the burning pavement of the city and retreat to a greener locale. My bad luck with bus tours has continued, however. The phone line keeps patching me through to a call center in the United States, where the difference in time zones makes it much too early to reach anyone during business hours.

Outside of hotel rooms, air conditioning is a rarity in Rome, especially in museums. Still, I’ve exhausted my options, and at least being indoors during the heat of the day is preferable to being out. Ultimately, I settle on Plan C, a return visit to the Vatican Museums. When I was first there in 2008, I was on an organized tour that careened through the galleries at breakneck speed. Today, I’ll be able to wander at will.

Determined to avoid the museum’s notoriously long queue to get in, I buy a ticket online before leaving the hotel. I have no way to print out the confirmation page, as requested, but I have an e-mail receipt on my iPhone and it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Despite the temperature, I’ve decided to brave a leisurely walk down Corso Vittorio Emanuele II and across the Tiber to the Via della Conciliazione. It’s noon by the time I approach St. Peter’s Square. Apparently, the Papal Audience has just let out and I’m in need of Moses to part the Red Sea of people flooding towards me, many of them sunburned to a crisp.

It’s still a long walk out and around the Vatican walls to the museum entrance, but there’s no line at all for pre-paid tickets, and the man at the counter inside doesn’t hesitate when I show him the confirmation number on my phone. At least something has gone according to plan today.

In their only gesture toward crowd control, the Vatican Museums are arranged into a one-way street, with large black arrows printed on the gallery map. There are minor deviations here and there that allow visitors to move more quickly to the Sistine Chapel, but mostly it’s like being on a theme park ride from which there is no escape once the rollercoaster has left the platform.

I devote the rest of the afternoon to inquisitive exploration. I visit the Pinacoteca for the first time, which the tour guide had bypassed entirely on my previous trip, and also the Padiglione delle Carrozze, which has an historic collection of cars and carriages, including the white jeep John Paul II was riding in when he was shot on May 13, 1981.

It’s been especially nice to see the Gallery of Maps again. I had missed seeing the island of Venice the first time around because I was rushing to catch up with the guide, but today I’ve been able to gape all I want.

The frescoes were commissioned in 1580 by Pope Gregory XIII and they’re rendered in such exquisite detail that many of the maps are navigable today, which says at least as much about the permanence of Italian architecture as it does about the skill of the artist himself. In Florence, the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore is clearly visible, as is the octagonal baptistery in front. And today in Venice, all a time traveler would have to do is pull up a chair in Piazza San Marco to feel perfectly at home in familiar surroundings.

It’s late afternoon when I emerge back onto the street. There are vendors selling colorful paper parasols to shade the sun, and people are buying them in droves. Combined with shorts and T-shirts, it makes the average tourist look like an out of place extra in a production of Madame Butterfly.

I have one last errand for the day, and it’s a special request. I’ve been challenged by a good friend from work to find the “tackiest” souvenir in Vatican City. I walk up and down the Via della Conciliazione before picking a shop that has a “We ♥ Papa Francesco” sign taped to the window, which looks promising. Inside, I find a combination key ring and bottle opener stamped with the Pope’s likeness that surely meets the mark, and I laugh when I imagine my friend wafting a prayer over a bottle of beer before popping the cap.

It’s time to catch a taxi and head back to the hotel, although this time—for the first time ever in Rome (surprisingly enough)—I’m ripped off by the cab driver. Despite showing him the address of the Hotel Hosianum Palace on a business card, he takes me somewhere else entirely, a Via dei Prefetti instead of Via dei Polacchi, and then insists on running the meter all the back to the proper destination. When we get there, I refuse to pay him in full and we settle on a smaller amount, but the experience still leaves me steamed.

I’m tired and not in the mood to go far for dinner, so I pick a table at Vinando in Piazza Margana and enjoy a good Margherita pizza with fresh mozzarella and cherry tomatoes. Feeling as much refreshed by the meal as by the cool descent of night, afterwards I decide to stroll down Via dei Fori Imperiali to take some pictures.

In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain had described the Coliseum as a “band-box with a side bitten out… Weeds and flowers spring from its massy arches and its circling seats, and vines hang their fringes from its lofty walls. An impressive silence broods over the monstrous structure where such multitudes of men and women were wont to assemble in other days. The butterflies have taken the places of queens of fashion and beauty of eighteen centuries ago, and the lizards sun themselves in the sacred seat of the Emperor.”

As with so many evocative travelogues about Italy through the years, Twain’s words could have been written as easily today, which is a sign of the culture’s strength and resilience, just like the Gallery of Maps at the Vatican. And while inertia rarely serves modern Italy well in politics or business, it’s hard not to appreciate it here on a balmy summer’s night in Rome, when the sublime view you see is the very same view enjoyed by so many who have come before.

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