Sunday, January 10, 2010

Civita di Bagno

The Coliseum on a rainy Roman day.

The Number 19 tram runs right by my place. This makes visiting the Vatican relatively easy, because the Number 19 tram ends its run one block away from St. Peter's Square. Friends of mine assured me that this was the case and so, on a blustery cold Saturday about a month ago, I stood in the rain at the tram stop on Viale Regina Margherita for about twenty minutes before climbing aboard the first Number 19 to come along. It may interest you to learn that there are, apparently, two Number 19 trams with two very different final destinations. The Number 19 tram that I boarded made a right turn where all the Number 19 trams headed for the Vatican make a left and stopped in a very nice neighborhood about five miles from St. Peter's Square or, as the crow flies, farther from the Vatican than I had been when I started out. I decided to just sit tight and wait until it began its return journey across town and give up on the Vatican that day, after all it was now raining quite heavily and the wind had picked up. Unfortunately, the driver explained as he kicked me off the tram, this one was going out of service and I would have to catch the next one to go home. By the time I made it to the doorway of a nearby apartment building to wait for the next tram, I was soaked to the bone.

I mention this because that was my most pleasant trip to the Vatican. Four friends came to spend New Year's Eve in Rome with me and they wanted to see as much as they could in the few days they were here. High on their list was a visit to the Vatican and the Vatican Museums with the Sistine Chapel. I hadn't been to the Sistine Chapel since its restoration in the 1980's so I was looking forward to seeing it too. We got up early to get a jump on the crowds and caught the Number 19 (it has to say "Risorgimento" on the front or it's the wrong Number 19) which, as promised, dropped us off a block away from St. Peter's Square. The line to the entrance of the Basilica was six across and already curved back past the famous colonnades.

After counting their feet and dividing by two, I estimated that there were 1,000,000 people in line ahead of us.

However, we were in good spirits and the line was moving slowly but steadily so the time passed relatively quickly and within half an hour or so we were in St. Peter's Basilica. The church is massive and easily accommodated the crowd. We took our time and wandered around admiring the artwork and architecture. People would wait patiently for others to move before taking their photos and apologize if they walked into someone else's shot. It was all very civil and we were able to see and photograph everything that interested us.

The roped off center aisle is where the Pope was mugged by a mentally disturbed woman as he walked towards the altar to celebrate Christmas Mass.

The Papal Altar by Bernini. Only the Pope may celebrate Mass at this altar.

Then it was time to visit the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. There is little I can say about that experience that Dante hasn't already covered in "The Inferno". To visit the Museums, you must exit the Basilica and walk around the Vatican to a separate entrance. The line, again six deep, for the entrance to the Museums began right outside the colonnades and went up Via di Porta Angelica, turned left onto Via Pio X which eventually became Viale Bastioni de Michelangelo and made a final left onto Viale Vaticano. We stood on this line, shuffling forward inches at a time, for three hours. Once past the entrance doors, we shuffled gamely forward until the ticket seller could relieve us of 15 euros each and then we shuffled along with the crowd towards the various exhibits.

An anonymous visitor to the Museums upon learning that there is no way out.

I'm told that the artwork in the Vatican Museums rivals any collection anywhere in the world but I'll have to take that on faith. If you visit the Museums, you do so in a press of humanity that staggers the imagination. You move in lockstep up and down hallways and corridors like cattle in the slaughterhouse pens. Stopping to actually admire any of the art on display is impossible as you are being pushed, shoved and jostled by the horde coming along behind you. There are no side corridors and the route is laid out to march you past the entire collection and then deposit you into the Sistine Chapel. If you decide that you've had enough and no longer have any interest in seeing the Chapel, you're out of luck because there is no way to escape once you enter the first corridor. It took two hours for us to get to the Chapel, half an hour to work our way through the five or six thousand people jammed into that small room and another half hour to follow the long and twisting road to freedom. Like any self-respecting museum, the Vatican exit route dumps you into a series of gift shops selling tasteful memorabilia like Sistine ceiling coffee mugs and calendars of 'hot' priests. The 'experience' itself had lasted just over six hours and was memorabilia enough for all of us, although one of my friends did buy a 'hot' priests calendar. "Just as a joke," she insisted.

When we finally hit the street, we put our backs to the Museums, walked away and didn't look back. While we were wandering through the neighborhood north of the Vatican, one of my friends spotted a small trattoria and we decided it was time for a meal. She went down the steps, tried the door and came back saying it was locked and the restaurant was closed. However, there was a small sign on the door and I thought it might have the time the place would open for business so I went down the steps to look. The sign said (in Italian) "We keep the door locked. If you want to come in, ring the bell on the left." When I tried the bell, a very pleasant woman opened the door, asked how many we were and said she could seat five right away. The restaurant was quite small but there was one open table and they quickly set it up for the five of us.

I asked her why she kept the door locked and she whispered, "Well, we don't really want tourists in here." Bene, molto bene! The food was excellent, the wine plentiful and the desserts homemade.

Civita di Bagno

The 'hill towns' of Central Italy are iconic and Civita di Bagno, although not very well known, is especially picturesque. About an hour and a half north of Rome, it's located just outside of Bagnoregio on a hill that has been eroding away for centuries. When the path across the valley between the two towns finally became too narrow and steep to provide safe access, the long footbridge was built. Until recently, all goods going to Civita di Bagno were moved on the backs of donkeys but now tradesmen use three wheeled motorscooters with small pickup beds to carry their wares. During the winter, the town only has about twelve permanent residents but its population swells to well over 100 in the summer. Many of the small homes and apartments have been bought by Romans looking for a weekend escape from the summer heat in the city. There are half a dozen restaurants, several small shops selling crafts and artwork and two or three bed & breakfasts.

The entrance gate to Civita di Bagno.

The side street.

One of the restaurants was open and my friend Kathleen and I shared a plate of mixed bruschetta with ground olives, truffles and crushed tomato toppings, another plate of mixed local cheeses and then a pasta course of tagliatelle with wild boar sauce. Espresso and panna cotta for dessert wrapped up a perfect meal for a cold foggy day. I could have used one of those donkeys to carry me back to the car.

January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany and a national holiday in Italy. It is also the day La Bufana, a witch, comes to people's homes during the night to give candy or coal to nice or naughty children. The kids hang up stockings the night before and hope for the best. For the rest of us, it means that work more or less gets put on hold from just before Christmas until the week after the Epiphany. Tomorrow marks the day when everything should kick back into gear.

This year a woman managed to elude security and tackled the Pope as he made his way to the altar in St. Peter's to celebrate Christmas Mass. She, according to all reports, had also tried to knock him down last year but had been stopped as she reached the ropes. The press uniformly described her as "mentally disturbed" but I think that such persistence of intent can only have been born while on line for the Sistine Chapel and if you search her coat pockets you'll no doubt find in them a frayed and crumpled ticket to the Vatican Museums.

Io non sono un tourista.