I got to know my newly found Brazilian friends, Inacio & Julio(i can’t remember if that is real name but he looks like Brazil’s Julio Cesar so let’s just leave it at that). I found out that Inacio and i shared the same surname! It was Julio’s last day in the city before he returned to Brazil so all three of us set out to try to cross all of Rome’s major attractions in one day. Rome is pretty much a walk-able city with attractions located relatively near to each other. Another reason for me to gorge myself with Italian cuisine!
Colosseum & Roman Forum
First stop on our list was the Colosseum. I visited it the day before so i adopted the role of tour guide in getting us there. Similar to the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum is a monument of architecture that you never get tired of seeing. The walk to the Colosseum proved to be scenic too with an age-old park on top of a hill along the way.
The Colosseum similar to the the Eiffel Tower belongs to a special group of structures which oozes seduction. It entrances you from afar despite it still being partially obscured and then it draws you in slowly, revealing a little more of itself with each progressing step; urging you to appreciate it’s beauty before it hits you fully, leaving you in a state of awe. It is this very experience that contributes to it’s magnificence and appeal.
The Colosseum is stunning no matter which direction you approach it from.
Right next to the Colosseum is the Roman forum, the focal point of power in the ancient world where the Roman Empire ruled most of the globe. The tickets for the Colosseum and the Roman forum are bundled together so no reason for you not to visit this historic site. The forum like it’s meaning implies is a complex of government buildings as well as personal residences of Roman senators. The forum is located on top a hill overlooking the city. A fantastic vantage point for photographs.
The forum also houses a museum if you’re a culture buff and is worth a brief visit. After immersing yourself in Roman history, unwind in the many well-manicured gardens in the complex. These were private gardens of Roman senators so grandiose and fountains are a given.
Since i visited both the forum and Colosseum the day before, the three of us parted ways. I left the Brazilians to explore the forum & Colosseum while i set off for the capital of Catholicism- Vatican City.
Heaven on Earth?
Ever since i left home, i was disconnected from global happenings. I arrived in Rome oblivious to the fact that the Pope, Benedict the Sixteenth had resigned the very day i arrived. If not for Inacio mentioning ” PAPA HAS LEFT ” earlier on in the day, i would still be left in the dark. Yes, for some strange reason they refer to the Pope here as Papa. It took some time before Inacio finally manage to explain who Papa actually was. I would like to think that it was sheer coincidence that the Pope stepped down the very day i set foot in Rome but the idea of me unknowingly being the anti-christ or some kind of satanic omen did cross my mind.
I decided to ride the metro out of curiosity as well as convenience. You can walk to the Vatican but that would drain both your time and energy. At the time of my visit, the Roman metro was still not fully completed. The trains were modern and efficient though.
Vatican City holds the record of the smallest internationally recognized state in the world and is home to the headquarters of the Catholic Church. To give you an idea of how small it actually is, think of your typical Singaporean neighborhood. You could probably walk across it in less than hour.The Vatican is segregated from the rest of Rome by ancient stone walls with arched entrances & exits for people to enter and exit.
Despite it’s small size, Vatican City has much to offer culturally-Majestic architecture and numerous commissioned works of art by some of the greatest artists in history. If God was an urban planner, this would be his masterpiece. Everything about the Vatican from the azure blue sky dotted with perfectly formed clouds, to the buildings and the ambiance of serenity it exuded made me think- This is what heaven must look like and that this was probably the closest i’ll ever get to it. Well don’t take my word for it since it might be a biased perspective given that i am Catholic-visit it for yourself!
How I got airtime on International Radio
The Vatican was buzzing with activity following the Pope’s announcement of his retirement the previous day. There were multiple news crews set up around the vicinity. Groups of nuns and priests shuffled past me, muttering in low hushed voices. Speculating perhaps? There was an air of uncertainty coupled with both curiosity and excitement in the city. It was to be expected. This was only the second time in the Church’s long history where a Pope had resigned out of his own accord. Barely a few steps into St Peter’s Square, an Italian woman in a suit approached me.
Woman: ” You speak English? ”
Me: ” Yes ”
Woman: ” Are you Catholic? ”
Me: ” Yes. Why? ”
Woman: ” Do you mind if i take up a few minutes of your time to ask you for your opinion on the Pope’s resignation? I’m from Vatican Radio ”
She whipped out a voice recorder from her bag and that is how i ended up giving an interview to the Church’s very own international radio station. I can’t remember exactly what i said. I think i was quite taken aback and i might have said something stupid anyway. It then dawned on me that i was now a live spectator/calefare in one of the most controversial events in the history of the Catholic Church.
The first postcard i ever sent
Since we’re in the Vatican at this juncture of the story, I shall make a confession. I am not a fan of postcards; be it sending or receiving them. I can’t really pinpoint the exact reason but it somewhat revolves around the issue of practicality. I mean there’s a wide array of inexpensive souvenirs for you to choose from, why a POSTCARD? What is the recipient supposed to do with it? It’ll probably just make him/her feel bitter or jealous at how lucky you are to travel while they’re stuck at home. Why would you want them to feel that way? Right? Despite my dislike for postcards, I had to send something through the famous Vatican Post. If you are unaware, the Vatican Post is highly regarded in Italy and pretty much the world as one of the most efficient postal services in operation. Such is it’s reliability that residents from around Rome visit the Vatican just to use this service!
The Vatican Post Office i visited was a movable white cargo trailer parked in St Peter’s Square. I scanned the display which had a whole range of religious memorabilia. Pope Benedict’s face was literally plastered on almost everything on display.Talk about religious merchandising eh? I picked up a postcard of Pope Benedict waving and penned a status update to my family back home. If all went well, the postcard would reach Singapore before me. (UPDATE: It arrived in my mailbox about a week after i sent it)
St Peter’s Basilica & Square
This has to be the centerpiece of the Vatican. The square has seen countless of Pope’s waving from the balcony as well as the millions of pilgrims who visit yearly. The square is situated right in front of the Basilica and is flanked around it’s circumference by adjoining columns. To add to the grandeur, numerous Saints grace the top of each column watching over you and if that isn’t enough there’s even a majestic fountain in the middle of the square.
*Restoration works on the columns and statues were still ongoing at the time of visit*
As you approach the basilica, you’ll be greeted by two of Christianity’s greatest apostles on both your right and left: Peter & Paul immortalized in the form of towering statues.
The interior of the Basilica is a treasure trove. Every single inch of space was covered in art.
Not many people are aware that it’s possible to climb to the top of the Basilica. For a small fee of 5 euro(without elevator) & 7 euro(elevator) you get sweeping views of the Vatican from above. If you really want to get a sneak preview of how God views the Vatican you should really part with the cash and give it a go. Do note that the elevator only brings you halfway up so in my opinion walking all the way up is much more worth it. There are 320 steps from the ground to the top of the dome. Having climbed up the Tower of Notre Dame earlier on, I figured this would be a piece of cake. My confidence was misplaced as this turned out to be a much harder/breathless climb than Notre Dame.
Lunch at an Italian Trattoria
The Vatican is a functioning city-state with a secular working/residential population. Put that together with the millions of visitors it welcomes each year and you get quite a vibrant dining scene. Most of it are around the perimeter of the Vatican though, right outside the arched gateways. You still can find eateries inside the Vatican if you look hard enough. I chanced upon this quaint Trattoria as i was wandering around. Judging from the pictures that adorned the stone walls, it seemed rather old and established.
I don’t really remember the name of the place but the food was superb and it had a nice homely authentic vibe to it.
After lunch, i went to the Vatican gift shop to grab a few religious artifacts for my mum back home. Chanced upon the famous Swiss Guards on the way out.
The biggest regret i had from the Vatican was not visiting the Sistine Chapel. Due to Pope’s Benedict resignation and the ongoing voting for succession, it was closed to the public. I got to find out when Pope Benedict’s last mass was though and it’d be only a few days before i returned.
MALAY IN ROME? BOLEH AH SIAL!
Even in my wildest dreams, i never imagined myself speaking Malay in Rome out of all places. I’ve always looked at my 10 years of learning the language as unproductive yet here i was in Rome speaking Malay to a stranger. After i returned to the hostel, i met up with the Brazilians and we went out to our usual pizzeria for dinner. They wanted to do some laundry after that so i tagged along. We went to a laundromat pointed out by Victor just a few blocks down the road. There was a stout Arab-looking man seated behind the counter. He didn’t understand English so he called out to somebody at the back. Moments later, an Indian-looking man appeared. INDIANS THEY’RE EVERYWHERE! Ok he was not Indian, he was Bangladeshi as we would later find out. YES BANGLADESHIS ARE EVERYWHERE TOO! The four of us chatted as the machine did it’s work. As soon as i mentioned i was from Singapore, his eyes lit up. He began talking about his time in the region. Though he had never been to Singapore, he worked in Malaysia for close to 10 years at Dunhill rolling cigarettes. I think he must have suspected that i didn’t believe him so he began talking in Malay. God…his Malay was better than mine! Not to be outdone, i played along and we continued the conversation in Malay till we were unable to comprehend each other(more like he couldn’t comprehend my poor Malay) The Brazilians looked bewildered at what they were witnessing! The Bangladeshi was clearly taken by us. He went to have a word with his Arab boss and the three of us got a discount! What a good lad!