Under, Inside, and All Around St. Peter

For not considering myself Catholic (not even a non-practicing one), I –and therefore C which was raised Protestant and is 100% non-religious- have been to a lot of sites which are very important to the faithful. But where the Church goes, magnificent art and architecture usually follow. And so do we… Well, I do, C usually just tags along.

Once again, the alarm sounded off while we were still sleeping like logs. After a quick breakfast we made a bee-line to –drumroll please!- the TAXI LINE!!! Yay, C’s staunch moral stance against indulgence of the transportation kind had been overcome. ‘Why don’t we just save our feet for the return walk, that way the actual visit will be more enjoyable…’ had gone the winning argument.

BTW, my extra ugly, black, mary-janes-on-steroids shoes from Alegría are potentially the best and more comfortable travel shoes I have ever worn. No foot pain whatsoever. I even wore them without socks and they did not scrape or pinch. And the Nike’s are not that bad either.

A 1.5 mile, 5 minute, €8 taxi ride, brought us into the Vatican and dropped us off next to the road in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica. It was basically empty so we got extra attention from every single tour peddler that we walked by. There must have been at least 50 of them on our side of the road, actual estimate, I kid you not.

The sun was out, the sky was bright blue, and the piazza was mostly empty at 9:15am, so I got the best pictures ever of the Basilica and Bernini’s Colonnade. True masterpieces of the Renaissance and Baroque! We found the entrance for our tour but we were not allowed to go in as we were too early, so we continued to wander around (in the cold and windy piazza).

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In the pavement, close to and on both sides of the obelisk, there are two discs (not the ones with the wind directions) that mark the center of perspective for the colonnade. If you stand on them you will only see a single frontal column along its embracing arms.

At 9:45 we presented ourselves to the Vatican Police security station, showed our confirmed reservation email and were let in to the Uffizi Scavi (Excavations Office) for our tour to the necropolis under the basilica, and the site of St Peter’s actual burial. The ‘actual’ part is debatable but during the tour we were presented with enough historical evidence to believe that it is in fact plausible that this is the real site and the bone you see belonged to the historical Peter the Fisherman. No pictures allowed.

Getting this reservation is not straightforward. I had tried during our previous visit and it had not worked out with the dates. This time I managed (almost 3 months in advance) to get the reservation online. The Scavi page is a borderline-hostile site. You send a request, stating how many people, the preferred language, and several potential dates and times when you attend.

If the planets align themselves in your favor, you get an email saying your request has been approved. BUT this is not the final step, in the VERY LONG email you receive, AFTER all the rules, regulations and disclaimers, there is a statement saying that you must pay in advance and a link to do so. This is where a lot of people fail. You put in your credit card and maybe, if everything works, you get a confirmation receipt. BUT, do not be fooled, it might not be over yet…. Depending on your credit card’s foreign transaction policies, the charge might be rejected and you are back to square one.

Anyway, we had the reservation and payment confirmations so we were ‘cleared’ for the tour and handed our precious tickets. Only 12-15 persons are allowed per tour but we wound up with only 6 persons in ours because the group they were expecting did not show up on time.

I have read mixed reviews from this tour. Some like it, others don’t, lots of people say ‘meh’. We had a great –enthusiastic and very knowledgeable- tour guide and we loved it. Yes, even C liked it very much.

You first go into the roman necropolis –a city built for the dead as if they were living- was fascinating. You get to see the interiors of some of the family tombs. We got a lot of interesting information about the evolution of symbology from the Roman/Mithraean usage into early Christianity. It was quite educational and delivered in a very entertaining manner. Kudos to Mary the Guide.

Getting the lay of the site is complicated. The first burial site, a roman trophy built above it, the first altar encasing the tomb, the wall was built above it, the second altar was built around the first altar encasing it in the first basilica, the newer basilica altar was built above it…… even with models and layouts it was hard to follow.

The story with the remains is also complicated: in the tomb, out of the tomb, placed in the wall, split in half, moved back to the tomb, then back to the wall and decoy bodies placed in the tomb. The urn with the bones were then found during the modern excavations but not listed in the first catalogue due to an oversight, then someone asked the right questions and the remains were found in a shelf somewhere (though properly identified)…..

What kind of sold me into the story was that the bones were DNA tested and the genetic profile does match Historical Peter –and- they belong to the same body as the skull that is preserved as Peter’s in San Giovanni Laterano. Anway, you get to see Peter’s tomb directly and even a bone from his hand, whether you believe these are his remains or not…. Or whether you belive this is important or not, is entirely up to you. But it is a place filled with faith, and I do believe that energy like this is collected to make a site ‘holy’.

So, if any of this is interesting to you, get that reservation and go see it for yourself.

The added and completely unexpected bonus to the tour was that we were released in the Grotto where the Popes are buried so we got to see that without making the long line AND you still come out inside the Basilica’s gate (where the tours come out of the Sistine Chapel) so we got to merge into that line and go into the church without making the outside queue that was by now all the way down to the street.

It is always a joy for me to walk into the space and delight in its beauty. To stand next to Bernini’s Baldacchino and know that moments earlier I had been 30m underground, exactly below one of its columns, left me speechless.

To see Michelangelo’s Pietá for the first time left me in awe of his genius and mastery. I had looked at many pictures of it but to actually see Mary’s hands! Wow, so subtle and full of emotion. Her fingers are slightly splayed, not yet touching Jesus’ skin. He has been placed in her lap but she has still not fully embraced the magnitude and finality of her loss. She is captured just a second before she becomes the Mater Dolorosa. You can see the wailing pain that is still building up deep in her throat. How did Michelangelo do that?!? Convey such sentiment in a hand and a throat made of stone…

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The sculpture had not been on display during our previous visit and I don’t know how I missed it the first time around. Yes, I did shed a few tears in case you are wondering.

We left St. Peter’s around 1:00pm so it was time to get a little something for lunch before deciding what to do with the rest of the day. We walked past Castel St. Angelo and over the bridge with its magnificent sculptures.

My plan was to ambush C into a restaurant which we would never agree to go in on his own. He despises on principle anything that resembles molecular gastronomy, uber modern cuisine or ‘fancy fussy cookery’ as he calls it. But we were there and I said I wanted to go in and try it. The winning argument was ‘It’s only lunch and I’ll cook you a real meal for dinner’. Not a happy camper but we walked into Retrobottega and sat on the bar overlooking the full cooking/laboratory area.

We had two appetizers and a dish from the primi. The sweetbreads were so good that I could have them once a week for the rest of my life without ever growing tired of them. A little caramelized on the outside yet creamy soft inside, covered with a glaze to die for. The texture of the sardines was amazing! They were cooked sous vide and had a little elasticity(meant in a completely good way) to the bite.

They separated in the kitchen the single plate of Orecchiette with seafood we ordered. The pasta was black so I’m guessing some sepia ink went into the. The little clams and mussels were delightfully sweet and tender. But the crowning jewel of this dish was the dabs of red onion ‘sauce’ or maybe ‘extract’ would be a better description. WOW. Simply superb.

C could not really find a thing to complain about and he eventually admitted that he liked what we ate. Even if it was ‘fancy fussy cookery’ and they ‘wasted too much time with decorations’ and he would rather go to ‘a place where the grandmother did the cooking’. Oh well. Happy marriages are all about compromises.

Having somewhat recuperated I decided to continue with my scheduled plan for the afternoon: a visit to Palazzo Altemps. C opted out so we found him a cozy restaurant in Piazza Navona where he happily settled with a bottle of wine to keep him company while he waited for me and people watched to his heart’s content.

I’m happy that I did not give up on this visit. Though the layout of the museum is somewhat confusing and could immensely benefit from basic signage to indicate where to start and how to continue, it is not too big of a place for this to be a problem. The collection of sculpture has some incredible pieces from Ancient Rome. I found it to be entirely worthwhile.

After that I rejoined C to help him finish that bottle and headed back home with a short detour into the supermarket. Dinner was lamb steaks, roasted potatoes and some extremely disappointing pre-made spinach and cheese cakes. I delivered on my promise and C was, indeed, a happy albeit tired, camper.

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—-Wednesday, April 19th


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