EXPERIENCING Rome would not be the same without going to St Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. As usual thousands vied for entry in 30° heat. In true Italian style we ignored normal queuing etiquette and merged with another group to shorten our wait in the queue. Perhaps our group of blue rinses would have been less obvious had the group not been one of Japanese students.
Unfortunately we didn’t have tickets for the audience with the Pope the next day. Once inside, the beauty and the opulence of St Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel are beyond comprehension. Everywhere was the well-known symbol SPQR: Senatus Populus Que Romanus, referring to the government of the ancient Roman Republic, evoking the power of times gone by (not, as some suggested SPQR according to Asterix – Sono Pazzi Questi Romani: they are crazy these Romans).
Ever present at most tourist vendor vans were an interesting array of calendars picturing very handsome young Mediterranean priests in full regalia, the relaxed poses peppered with a couple of provocative, over-the-shoulder shots, as if caught by surprise.
Food and leather in Rome
One wondrous day in Rome the Princess and I enjoyed the fountains of Piazza Navona, a walk along the Tiber near the little island of Isola Tiberino, pancakes in the Jewish ghetto, the lure of the Spanish Steps, caramelised almond pistachio ice cream and rhubarb iced tea at the Babington Tea House, plus the little gem of the Keats and Shelley Museum. This was topped by dinner in a lovely town in the Roman hills called Frascati, to view the lights of Roma while eating La Porchetta (aka slabs of wild boar marbled with fat – very popular especially with heart specialists).
Much of Italy is closed on Mondays including the Villa D’Este. Next door, an enterprising purveyor of exceptionally beautiful leather goods ensured his shop was open to allay the disappointment of those unable to experience the gardens and fountains.
The credit cards shone and almost glowed with exertion as they were presented to the charming, rather distinguished-looking gentleman in exchange for the much coveted hand-made leather Italian handbags and wallets. The shrewd Princess bargained robustly but was no match for the silver-tongued vendor who made us feel it was a privilege to buy his beautiful wares.
The tour director made a sterling effort to satisfy the vagaries of our little tour group. My guess is that he has honed his skills by extensive experience in herding cats.
Umbria in its beauty still lures many travellers far and wide to the many attractions of Assisi. Rumour had it that St Francis and St Clare had a more than pious relationship, but by my way of thinking anyone who wears a hairshirt and suffers stigmata deserves a little fun. Who are we to judge?
Uffizi guide never at loss
Firenze: The Ponte Vecchio with enough jewellery to sink a ship: Santa Maria Del Fiore (Il Duomo) – a breathtakingly beautiful cathedral; more stunning hand-made leather goods and of course the Uffizi Gallery. We hit the jackpot with Maria Grazia as our local tour guide for the Uffizi.
A former secondary school teacher, Maria Grazia was able to answer all our questions, no matter how obscure. When the Princess complained that our group kept getting in the queue that wasn’t moving, Maria Grazia’s answer was “It’s the Law of the Murphy!” A larger than life character, Maria Grazia related the politics, gossip, scandal and rumours behind the nobility featured in the famous paintings.
She told a complicated story about problematic inheritance involving the dispute on the legitimacy of the next heir. The nephew, considered unpopular due to certain sexual proclivities and apparent mental instability, was next in line, much to the chagrin of a certain Earl. The story ended suddenly with: “The Earl invite the beloved nephew to visit ‘im. The Earl’s wife give the nephew and ‘is wife a delicious mushroom soup, then boom! Problem solved and the Earl is the heir!”
Unbelievably, I bumped into my local GP just outside the Uffizi… of all the gin joints in all the world.