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Report 1084: A Springtime Slow Travel Prize: Ten Glorious Days In Umbria And A Little Bit Of Rome

By Stella from New York, NY, Spring 2006

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Page 11 of 12: The Vatican Museum Is Easy, and An Odd Quest for Pizza

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St. Peter's Dome seen from Ponte Garibaldi

It was our last full day in Rome, and the plan was to go to the Vatican Museum. One of my Roman friends advised me to simply get on line by 8:00 am, stand on line patiently, and I would be rewarded with an easy, fast entrance. I was a bit worried that C. would not make the early call, but he was raring to go and prepared for the wait.

We hopped in a cab near the Ponte Sisto and arrived at the entrance to the Vatican Museums promptly at 8:00. To my utter shock the line was not as painfully long as I thought it would be, stretching from the entrance to about halfway down the block to the next corner. We quickly jumped onto the line and I headed to the cafe across the street to grab some cappuccini to go.

Now, I need to stress here that coffee to go is not common in Rome, but at this location, the cafe has it down to a science. They must make thousands of these cappuccini to go each and every day that the Vatican Museum is open. There is no ceremony, no ordering, just two baristas pumping the milky coffees into plastic cups - no time for much foam - and lining them up in rows. They charge a pretty penny for the luxury of havng a cup while you wait in line to get into the museums; the coffees were 3 a piece! You simply tell the cashier how many, give her money, grab your cup(s) and go.

C. became happily lost in his iPod, a good book and the over-priced cappuccino; I wished I had brought something to wile away the time. I noticed that the line had grown much longer while I was getting coffe, and I was glad that we had made the effort to get there early. I killed the rest of the wait by watching the scruffy college kids hawking dubious guided tours of the museum and the guys trying to unload some rather ugly postcards.

At 8:45 the doors opened, and the line moved pretty quickly. Within five minutes we were in the door and getting our tickets. We paused for a minute to get a musuem guide book to help me in my duty as tour guide, and then joined the flow of the crowds.

The trick to enjoying the Vatican Museums on your own is to pause when you find yourself surrounded by a massive tour group, rather than following the natural urge to sprint ahead of them or get caught in the flow. Inevitably, after enough of them pass around you, there is a quiet lull before the next wave during which you can enjoy the museum in peace. We did this with great success that day, and since we were not in a hurry there was no pressure to be finished at a certain time. I was thrilled when we reached the Raphael Rooms - so many tours had passed ahead of us, we were able to linger in them with only a few other people with us. It was the first time in my three visits to the Vatican Museums that I had the chance to really relax and study the details.

There is no way, however, to avoid the massive gathering inside the Sistine Chapel, which was at a fever pitch when we reached it. We lingered for as long as we could before the noise level got to us, and I wondered why the guards were so lax in hushing people during this visit. It must be tiresome to constantly clap your hands and shush people over, and over, and over again.

St. Peter's Basilica was magnificent, as always, but I was heartbroken to discover that it was set up for Easter Week; rather than being open and airy, there were barricades everywhere, directing the flow of traffic and keeping visitors confined to the perimeter of the church only. C. was wowed by what he saw nonetheless, but I felt so badly for him that his visit there was so cramped and restricted.

When we finally exited the Basilica and into Piazza San Pietro it was well past noon. C. was starving. I was still limping from my combination of blisters and a twisted knee. A taxi was in order. I decided that I wanted C. to at least get a glimpse of Castel Sant'Angelo, so I asked our very friendly taxi driver to do his best to take us to Piazza Navona by way of the castle. He was happy to do so, giving me a charming, impromptu narrative in Italian about Castel Sant'Angelo, which I translated as best as I could. I am embarrased to admit that I have yet to visit Castel Sant'Angelo in my four trips to Rome, and it is a situation I must remedy soon.

We walked through Piazza Navona on our way to the Pantheon, and La Sagrestia, a great restaurant located on Via del Seminario, just off of Pizza della Rotonda. I decided to take C. here because it is a pretty little spot, the pizza and food are great, and I knew that we would have it virtually to ourselves. I stop here every time I am in Rome and it never fails to charm me. We ordred some olives to have with our bread and house white wine while our pizza margherita was charred to perfection. It had come to pass that C.'s first experience with pizza in Italy was on his last day in Rome. We undoubtedly should have ordered two; that pizza was polished off in what seemed like seconds.

We decided to stroll back towards Trastevere by way of the Campo de'Fiori, to visit some shops near there one last time. It was Monday, the second day of the important two-day elections that would decide Italy's next Prime Minister. The streets were relatively quiet as a result, and we enjoyed the reprieve from the often crowded streets that surround the Campo. At that point, I wanted to figure out something fun to do for our final few afternoon hours in Rome, and after running a few suggestions by C., I learned how powerful that pizza had been. "I want to have another pizza, someplace good," he said, with an earnest face and longing tone in his voice. "That way, I can compare and contrast."

Uh, that was fine with me, but where? We had reached that time of day that can be either sweet or vexing when visiting Italy; it was around 3:00, and everything was shutting down for the rest of the afternoon. C. excitedly headed foor the Ponte Sisto. His old college friend he ran into by chance the night before had told him about a great spot for pizza in Trastevere. I asked where it was, but all C. could remember was that it was somewhere near "that church." "Great," I thought to myself; since there was a church on every corner in Rome, this was going to be easy. I led C. to Santa Maria in Trastevere and asked if this seemed familiar. It did! He was really excited now, and the quest became more intense. Finally, after trudging up and down one too many of the streets surrounding the piazza, I called it quits in the name of my blistered feet. I plopped myself on the steps of the fountain in the middle of the square and told C. to come and get me when he found the Holy Grail of Pizza.

After about 20 minutes, C. returned and said that he thought he might have found the restaurant, but it was closed. I pointed out that he now had yet another reason to return to Italy again someday, which cheered him up a little. As the afternoon gave way to early evening, we made our way back to the apartment to get ready for our last dinner that night. I was particularly excited because we would have company that night! Franco, my good friend and longtime resident of Rome, had selected a restaurant on the outskirts of the city; he would pick us up in a taxi in a few hours.

As we showered and got ready for the night, I resisted the urge to get gloomy about our departure the next morning. I called Rental in Rome to confirm the hour that our car would pick us up, and did some light pre-packing. My bedrooom had a really awful white melamine desk, and as I heaved my suitcase on top of it, I paused to look out of the tall window next to it. The windows were really the most charming part of this rather odd apartment, and my view was pretty nice, looking out over the rooftops of Via Garibaldi, I could see the treetops of the Parco Giancolese. This had been a bit of a whirlwind trip for C. and I, with lots of ups and a few downs. My skills as a navagator turned out to be nill, I learned I would never cut it as a mountain goat in my next life, and I had unintentionally declared war, full-on war, with both my of my feet and one of my knees. Standing there at that window, I came to only one conclusion: I needed a drink.

So off we went in search of a bar where we could sit outside and toast ourselves to our successful trip. We were meeting Franco in Piazza Trilussa, so we headed in that direction. Having a drink in the twilight of a spring evening was a popular choice for everyone, it seemed, and it was a bit difficult to find a place where we could sit, but eventually we found a free table at a bar on a corner of Via della Scala. We sat down and ordered: a mojito for C. and a spritz for me. This was probably one of my favorite snippets of time of the entire trip; we sat and sipped our drinks, talking and watching the parade of people going by. The first round of drinks went down surprisingly easy, and we ordred another round.

As we happily became slightly tipsy, we took note of something odd that was happpening around us. Every few minutes, groups of tourists would stop and look just beyond our heads, pointing and acting excited. Cameras would then appear and they would happily snap away. We didn't really care at first; someone is always taking a picture of something in Rome, but something behind us certainly was attracting attention. Our table was actually sitting at the mouth of a small alleyway that seemed pretty nondescript when we sat down. At one point, a very loud woman practically screamed and pointed, directing her husband, "Take a picture, oh my gawd ... look!!!!"

That did it. We had to turn around and take a look. So we did. And what did we see that was attracting so much attention? It was a clothesline, with clothes hung on it.

At the appointed hour, we paid our check and took a quick walk to Piazza Trilussa, where we connected with Franco. It is from this point onward that I fail as a trip report author. Franco grabbed us a taxi, and off we went to our location, which shall, for now, remain a mystery. The restaurant was in an area of Rome I had never visited, far out of the Centro Storico. I failed to write down the name of the tiny gem of a place, but it was filled with Romans, of course, and the food was fabulous. There was too much wine for me to remember exactly what we had, and in my slightly inebriated state, I was a little emotional about it being my last night in Rome. What was most memorable about our dinner, besides the fantastic company and conversation, is that the election returns were starting to filter in. The wait staff of the restaurant was huddled around a radio during most of our meal, conversing with Franco in Italian every 15 minutes or so with the latest numbers. It was too close to call by the time we had our dessert.

There was a slight spring chill to the night when we left the restaurant at midnight. Franco called a taxi, getting into a small argument with the dispatcher over our actual location. The taxi finally arrived and we all piled in, and after we said goodnight and thank you to Franco, C. and I quietly climbed up the stairs to our apartment for the last time. I tried to make sense of the election returns for a little while on TV, but it was still too close to call by the time I was ready to doze off. I tumbled into bed wondering if Silvio Berlusconi had pulled off another win, which took my mind off the fact that it was the last night I would spend in Italy for a bit of time.

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