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La dolce vita

rain 16 °C

The morning of Wednesday, 13 November 2019 was yet another dismal, drizzly morning in Rome. Yet again I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about leaving my comfortable hotel room. But leave I must for I had an important date.

On Monday afternoon when I visited St Peter’s Basilica I approached a couple of Swiss Guards on sentry duty at one of the many checkpoints controlling access into Vatican City. I asked nicely if they could please spare me a ticket to the weekly audience with the Pope on Wednesday morning and they gladly obliged, giving me a little pink slip of photocopied paper. The Swiss Guards are the defence force of the State of Vatican City. They look decidedly un-martial with their baggy blue, red and yellow uniforms, berets cocked on their head, perfect grooming, smooth complexions, winsome smiles and sweet, polite demeanour. Would that all the world’s militaries were like the Swiss Guards! This planet would be a much more peaceful place.

In typical Urban Reverie fashion I arrived at the audience with Pope Francis a little bit late at about half past nine. The audience was an intimate affair, just me, His Holiness and about ten thousand other people.

On most Wednesday mornings when the Pope is in town, His Holiness will hold an audience in St Peter’s Square with the faithful and the not-so-faithful but merely curious. You need a ticket from the Swiss Guards which is free for anyone who asks. The Pope will make a speech to those assembled, his face shown on big screens for the benefit of those up the back. Portions of the speech will be translated by other priests in various languages; I recall English, German, Portuguese and Spanish being used. Most of the Pope’s speech will be only in Italian and left untranslated.

Pope Francis is in the cream robes in the centre of the podium

Pope Francis is in the cream robes in the centre of the podium

With the possible exception of Queen Elizabeth II, Pope Francis is now the most famous person I have ever seen with my own eyes. He was a long way away; a mere cream-coloured dot on a podium surrounded by black-robed priests, but I saw him nonetheless. The crowd was silent and respectful; dotted through the multitude were various national flags flown by groups of people who had come all this way just to see His Holiness – Argentina, the Philippines, the Czech Republic. About half of the immense expanse of St Peter’s Square was occupied by the audience.

I must admit I was slightly disappointed. I sort of half-expected that the majesty of the moment would fill me with reverence and awe while I would be struck by a lightning bolt from Pentecostal skies like what happened to St Paul on the road to Damascus and God Himself would say to me in a booming voice, “Urban, my dear child, give up thy sinful ways and follow my path of righteousness!” Instead I spent most of my time wiping the drizzle off my glasses with my handkerchief, trying to decipher Pope Francis’s Italian – the Duolingo course only got me so far – and wondering when the speech would ever end.

Pope Francis on the big screen in St Peter's Square during his weekly audience

Pope Francis on the big screen in St Peter's Square during his weekly audience

The audience did finally come to a close; the Pope led the crowd through the Lord’s Prayer in Latin – the text was helpfully printed on the back of my ticket – and His Holiness blessed the crowd, also in Latin. The audience had the opportunity to meet the Pope afterwards; many had brought along religious items such as Bibles and Rosary beads to be blessed by Pope Francis, but I was getting wet and hungry so I went off to a nearby municipal covered market to marvel at all the amazing fresh produce and have some lunch.

I had booked a ticket to the Vatican Museums for the half past twelve slot. I joined the long queue and was granted entry. The next five hours were a blur. The sheer amount of art, sculpture, architecture, artefacts – it was too much to take in. It was far more overwhelming than the Uffizi in Florence. The Vatican Museums are dizzying; I passed from gallery to gallery, corridor to corridor, courtyard to courtyard and only remember little bits of it, there was far too much for one brain to absorb in just one day.

Vatican Museums

Vatican Museums

Note that the correct name is Vatican Museums; plural, not singular – they truly are several museums in one complex. I would advise visitors to set aside an entire day and book a morning slot, half past twelve didn’t leave me enough time before closing.

The range of exhibits covers the entire gamut of human civilisation; from Egyptian mummies to post-modernist paintings, from Ancient Greek statues to Renaissance frescoes. The museums aren’t just galleries of Catholic religious art; they are also ethnographic museums; statuaries; natural history museums; contemporary art galleries. The Vatican Museums are every great museum in the world distilled into one location.

Gallery of Maps at the Vatican Museums

Gallery of Maps at the Vatican Museums

My favourite part of the Vatican Museums was the Gallery of Maps. This is a long, elaborately decorated, barrel-vaulted corridor with enormous painted maps along both sides; each map depicting a different region of the Italian peninsula. This gallery was commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in 1580. I spent at least half an hour just marvelling at the detail and skill. By the cartographic standards of the sixteenth century these maps are incredibly detailed and accurate. I found all the places on the Italian peninsula that I had visited and travelled through so far.

A little further on I entered the Sistine Chapel. I took a few steps into the hall, extracted my phone from my pocket and took a photo. One second later a security guard came up to me and snarled at me. No photos! Photography forbidden! I apologised profusely but he didn’t seem mollified. I didn’t see any sign prohibiting photography in the Sistine Chapel but apparently it is. He didn’t make me delete the photograph from my phone so I have included this TOP SECRET ULTRA-ILLEGAL CLASSIFIED INFORMATION photo here for your enjoyment.

PROHIBITED photograph in the Sistine Chapel

PROHIBITED photograph in the Sistine Chapel

I found the Sistine Chapel rather unpleasant. It wasn’t that Michelangelo’s art wasn’t fantastic; of course it was. But the chapel was much dimmer than I expected; I had to squint to see some of the ceiling frescoes. Also, the priests running the show were simply horrible. There was a strict rule of silence in there, but of course people would whisper to each other in hushed reverential tones about being surrounded by such amazing art. People would begin to whisper quietly and the priests would bark at everyone at the top of their lungs – NO TALKING! THIS IS A SACRED PLACE! Then silence for a few seconds, a few of the hundreds of people in the Sistine Chapel would begin whispering once more, and thirty seconds later the priests would again bark at us – NO TALKING! DID YOU HEAR ME? NO TALKING! THIS IS A HOLY PLACE! RESPECT THE HOLINESS OF THIS CHAPEL! Honestly, the only people desecrating the holiness were the vicious, snarling priests acting like sadistic prison guards in some dystopian horror movie.

Another interesting thing were fragments of a moon rock. The crew of Apollo 11 brought back rocks from the moon and US President Richard Nixon sent little samples of them preserved in glass to every country in the world including the Vatican City. The last thing I visited was an ethnographic museum showing artefacts from indigenous cultures around the world; my country was represented with a large collection of dot paintings, woomeras, coolamons, boomerangs and Arnhem Land burial poles.

In the evening I went to a restaurant near my hotel. It was recommended in my Lonely Planet travel guide. I tend to avoid restaurants found in travel guides but I was sick of getting ripped off by scam artists posing as restaurateurs and I thought perhaps Lonely Planet would do a better job than I could at picking the genuine Italian places from the con jobs.

Rigatoni all'amatriciana at Hostaria Dino e Toni

Rigatoni all'amatriciana at Hostaria Dino e Toni

I thought correctly. Hostaria Dino e Toni is an old-fashioned trattoria in the neighbourhood of Prati and ought to be the greatest tourist attraction in all of Rome. The Colosseum? The Roman Forum? Pffft. They can’t even hold a candle to the greatness that is Hostaria Dino e Toni.

The place doesn’t look like it ought to be a great restaurant. Hostario Dino e Toni is a cramped little place with unassuming signage. The interior looks like it hasn’t changed much since the 1950s with battered green walls and chequered tablecloths. Yet the food was out of this world.

The two elderly proprietors, the eponymous Dino and Toni, constantly shuttled between the kitchen and the tables. There was no menu; whatever is being cooked on a given evening is what you get. Plate after plate of delicious food was placed on the table by the ever-smiling Dino and Toni. First, there was antipasto – salami, prosciutto, suppli, and spinach and ricotta pastry on a separate plate. This was followed by the first course, primo piatti – two pasta courses, really; rigatoni carbonara and rigatoni all’amatriciana in separate bowls; all washed down with a carafe of delectable house red wine and sparking mineral water. Dino suggested the second course, secondi piatti, various grilled meats and fish, but by this time I was more than full. I obliged by consenting to be served dessert, a nearly overflowing bowl of tiramisu.

Antipasto at Hostaria Dino e Toni

Antipasto at Hostaria Dino e Toni

Not only was the food divinely inspired but the atmosphere was fantastic. Dino and Tony were so friendly and happy and they made me feel like I was an honoured guest in their home. The courses were not only made with skill but made with love; love of food, love of life, love for their customers. It was rather expensive but I didn’t mind, it was worth every cent and then some.

While at Hostaria Dino e Tony all the bad things I had been thinking about Italy melted away. I had finally found the real Italy. And I learned a lesson: Italy is great. It’s just great in different ways to other countries.

Yes, Italy is disordered, dysfunctional, corrupt, barely belonging to the First World. But what life, what passion, what beauty. Thanks to Dino and Tony I no longer regretted coming here.

Ceiling fresco in the Vatican Museums

Ceiling fresco in the Vatican Museums

Egyptian mummy at the Vatican Museums

Egyptian mummy at the Vatican Museums

Statue of Ancient Greek statesman Pericles at the Vatican Museums

Statue of Ancient Greek statesman Pericles at the Vatican Museums

Adoration of the Magi at the Vatican Museums

Adoration of the Magi at the Vatican Museums

Map of southern Italy in the Gallery of Maps at the Vatican Museums

Map of southern Italy in the Gallery of Maps at the Vatican Museums

Rome in the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museums

Rome in the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museums

San Marino in the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museums

San Marino in the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museums

Moon rock samples at the Vatican Museums

Moon rock samples at the Vatican Museums

Scale model of the entire country of Vatican City at the Vatican Museums

Scale model of the entire country of Vatican City at the Vatican Museums

Payphone with Vatican City coat-of-arms at the Vatican Museums

Payphone with Vatican City coat-of-arms at the Vatican Museums

Spinach and ricotta pastry at Hostaria Dino e Toni

Spinach and ricotta pastry at Hostaria Dino e Toni

Rigatoni carbonara at Hostaria Dino e Tony

Rigatoni carbonara at Hostaria Dino e Tony

Tiramisu at Hostaria Dino e Toni

Tiramisu at Hostaria Dino e Toni

Posted by urbanreverie 09:43 Archived in Vatican City Tagged art museums restaurants italy cuisine rome pope vatican_city Comments (0)

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