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Rome –  September 26th to October 1st, 2014 

Written by Len

We fell in love with both Morocco and its people. We will always look back on our time in Morocco with great memories.  However, after five weeks of exploring Morocco, it was time for us to continue on.  In the early morning of September 26th, Abdou walked us through the medina one last time to meet our driver, Aziz, who was our driver in Fez.  We exchanged hugs and said our goodbyes.  It was a little sad leaving our new friends and the experiences of Morocco, but it was time to carry on.

We flew out of Fez with a short layover in Barcelona (we made it back to Spain!!) before flying onto Italy. Our destination was Rome, so yes, at least the road of The Family Bucketeers led us to Rome.  We landed in Rome (Italians call it Roma) in the late afternoon of Friday September 26th.  For September 26th, the weather was great, it was hot, summer heat… shorts, t-shirt and sandal weather. We got a taxi to take us to the apartment we had rented for our stay in Rome.

At the apartment, we were greeted by our host’s mother, who spoke only Italian.   After a quick and un-ceremonial introduction to the apartment, including holding an electric hair dryer up and referring to it numerous times as “phonenaaa” (my best phonetic spelling of her speech), Roxanne nodded in agreement, with her and then our host promptly left. I was very surprised to see how well Roxanne understood Italian, so when I asked her, about what a “phonenaaa” was, I was surprized to discover that she did not have a clue!!! Roxanne had just nodded, because she was bamboozled by the Italian dialogue and just wanted the conversation to end.

Italy is the first country we have been to, for which no one in the family knows a single word of the language. It’s been a challenge, for us, but we rose to the occasion by luck and persistence by finding locals who speak some English. In the Spanish speaking countries we could get along because we had learned some Spanish from our lessons and from our long immersion in the language; we also all knew some French to get us by in France and Morocco (many speak French in Morocco).  However, we don’t know any Italian and often have felt at a loss in our attempts to communicate. If it were not for the many people who speak some English, I’m not sure what we would have done. I, myself, have resorted to carrying a small note pad and drawing elementary pictures of what I am asking for. My art is apparently a little better than my Italian, which is nil. For taxi drivers, I’ve got my “little green book” that I carry with me all the time, and I just write down the name of our destination and the street address, show it to the taxi driver, and ask “… how much fare to get to …?” and then negotiate a fair price. Usually we find out from locals what an approximate fare should be, and we decide ahead of time what the maximum fare is, that we are willing to pay.  This system has worked well for us so far.  Whenever, we have had Wi-Fi, I’ve used my tablet with translated text. Thank goodness for Google Translate, which has helped me through many conversations and questions.

Our apartment in Rome was great, less the fact that it did not have internet or a Wi-Fi connection. It was large, with two bedrooms, large living room, kitchen, dishwasher, spacious bathroom, big screen television and a washing machine, which is always a great amenity, as we have a constant need to do laundry. The apartment was also complimented with a large balcony from which we could see the hillside neighborhood. After some of the experiences of our more “cozy” apartments and accommodations, this was a very pleasant and welcome change, and gave everyone some much needed personal space.

One night we were treated to a show of fireworks being set off from what appeared to be not that far away from our apartment. The kids got up out of bed to watch the end of the show. We don’t know what the fireworks were for, but it was a good show.

Not having Wi-Fi in the apartment made our trip coordination much more difficult, because we plan and book each subsequent section of our trip by internet, and without internet our planning grinds to a halt. We dealt with that by seeking out restaurants with free Wi-Fi whenever we were out and I was lucky enough to discover a pub that had free Wi-Fi, for the cost of a drink.  They initially offered to let me use the connection totally free of charge.  However, I couldn’t refuse the chance to have some locally brewed Italian beer, could I?  Eventually we got a sim card for Roxanne’s phone that gave us the ability to make some local telephone calls and get some basic internet, for finding our way around with GPS and Google Maps.  By the way, Google, has been a great assistant to us during our trip.

We were only in Rome for a week and had to make the most out of our time there.   We knew that the Pope does a blessing every Sunday morning at 11 am, so we made the smallest country in the world our first stop.   We really didn’t know how far a walk it was to the Vatican City and by the time we got there it was well after 11 and was very crowded.  We got in line and made our way through security and screening before we entered St Peter’s Square.  Once inside, it was a sea of people, we could barely move.  Every color, race and age were waiting to see the Pope.  There were individuals, tour groups, families and groups wearing brightly colored t-shirts, with club and group names on them.  There was even a woman in a wheelchair holding a sign that said she was 106 years old.  I am not sure how to describe the feeling of standing there in the crowd in St. Peter’s Square, for the first time in our lives.  We grew up seeing photos and television images of the Vatican, and it always seemed like a place so far away that we would never ever see.  It was a good feeling and a little surreal too.

After Pope Francis gave his blessing he got in his “Pope-Mobile” and drove in and around the square. To describe what it looked like, it was as if the Pope was a huge magnet, because as the Pope moved around the square the crowd moved along with him, all in unison.  The crowd moved like an immense school of fish concentrated right at the spot where the Pope was.  Then the further he moved away the less dense was the crowd.  Cameras and videos (including ours) were being held up to get photos of the Pope.  This went on for about half an hour before he had been driven all throughout St. Peters Square.  We got some photos of Pope Francis, but mostly from behind and at quite a distance.  It was nice that they had a Jumbotron set up for everyone to have a better view.  We enjoyed standing back watching this and have to wonder what it looked like to the security staff standing on the roofs of the buildings.  It must have appeared funny to them, how the crowd flowed with the Pope.

After receiving our Papal group blessing we were off to get in line to see St. Peter’s Basilica. The Basilica is usually what most people think of, when they think about the Vatican.  It is such an amazing building, filled with even more breathtaking pieces of art.  You can’t help but stand and admire the paintings (that aren’t really paintings), but that are really mosaics.  Painstakingly, the artists placed millions of tiny pieces of colored glass into geometric shapes to resemble paintings.   If you look close, you’ll notice that many of what appear to be paintings are not actually paintings, they are all mosaics of glass and tiny tiles.  These mosaics are difficult to show in photos because they are so large and high up.  Even with photos, they do not do justice to the artwork, let alone appreciating them amidst the beauty of the building, its architecture and all the other artwork.  It’s a must see of Rome.

St. Peter’s Basilica is also the home to one of Michelangelo’s most famous masterpieces, the Pietà, which, by the way, he carved when he was only 24 years old.  Unfortunately it is now behind bullet proof glass after a crazy man took a hammer to it and broke off Mary’s nose and a part of her arm.

Following seeing St. Peter’s Basilica, Noah and I bought the extra tickets to see St. Peter’s Dome. Roxanne and Aurora preferred to stay at ground level and left the high viewing, for Noah and me.

Something else that was unique about being in the Basilica, was the weird combination that exists between tourism and spirituality. Here you have St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican, where the Pope, the top person of the Roman Catholic population says mass and where the world’s Catholic church is being overseen and run and it is a place is filled with tourists of all denominations, and probably even many Atheists, Catholic worshippers, and just a mosaic of curious tourists.  I guess the Vatican realizes the value of treating itself as both a place of worship and tourism.   Without a doubt this tourism brings in a ton of revenue.  There were thousands of kinds of Vatican and Pope touristy items for sale, from hundreds of different shops in and around the Vatican and in Rome.  There were dozens of different tours you could go on and so many things you could see.  We decided that we would focus our time on seeing the Square, the Basilica, the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel.

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Our second day at the Vatican, we went to see the Vatican Museum. The things we saw were spectacular, but the experience of being in the museum was much less spectacular.  The physical experience of being in the museum was one of the worst experiences of our trip to date.  There were thousands, probably tens of thousands of people in the museum.  It was overcrowded to the point of taking away the enjoyment of seeing what we were seeing, as well as being unsafe.  At many times the crowd was so large we were shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip with everyone else in the museum.  It was often impossible to even stop and look at anything, because the crowd simply pushed you along if you tried to stop or go against the flow.  It was impossible to keep all four of us together a group as we walked, or rather as we were pushed along.  You simply had to lift your camera above your head turn it towards whatever you wanted a photo of and snap a picture while moving along, and hope that your photo turned out well.   At some points the entire crowd of people was being funneled through one or two regular household doorways, the same size you would have leading into your home’s bedroom.  I got separated from Roxanne and the kids for much of the time until I finally managed to catch up.  The body heat, stale air (no air conditioning or even any air circulation) was stifling.  We have no idea how anyone with a cane, walker or wheelchair would have survived this day.  The crowd was so large, that for a large part of our time inside our only goal was to get far enough to a museum café where we could escape the crowd, cool down and have a drink, at highly inflated prices!!  So that portion of the day was by far in no way enjoyable.  The museum has to find a way to limit the crowd size or find a better way to manage the crowd.  If there had been an emergency, fire or some other event, there would have been people trampled and hurt and or possibly killed.

Now here is the spectacular portion of our time in the museum. We saw incredible art dating back hundreds of years, including well over a thousand years.  We saw art, antiquities, items of significance from Catholic history, but also from many of the other countries, religions, races and cultures of the world, Egyptian, Roman (pre-Christian and Christian), South American, North American, Oceanic, European and so on.  The things we saw were simply amazing.  It was wonderful to see all these things all in one place and at one time.  The nature and amount of things we saw in the museum was at times just overloading to the senses.

The final and by far the most spectacular portion of the museum, was at the end, when we got to see the Sistine Chapel. The crowd in the Chapel was also huge and at times loud, which took away from the experience.  That aside, it was definitely the highlight of the day for Roxanne.  Looking up to see Da Vinci’s art, and the art of many other artists was completely amazing.  For example, the walls of the Chapel, appeared to have drapes on the bottom portions of the walls.  It was only through our audio guide that we discovered that the walls were not covered in drapes but in paintings that were so lifelike, that they appeared as drapes.  Da Vinci’s art at the center of the ceiling with God’s hand touching and giving life to Adam’s hand and, was right there in front of everyone.  The art we grew up seeing in photos and books, was suddenly all there, for real.  Putting up with the crowd as we had, was suddenly more tolerable, to be in the Chapel that was so elegantly painted by Da Vinci and other artists.  I am happy to know that Roxanne, the kids and I got to see the amazing beauty of the Sistine Chapel.

Other miscellaneous facts about the Vatican: Did you know?

  • The Vatican City is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
  • About 700 people actually have Vatican citizenship. Citizenship is given to those appointed to work on behalf of the Vatican in various capacities. When their postings are over then citizenship and the Vatican passport is revoked and they become citizens of Italy.
  • The Vatican City is the only country that does not have babies to increase its population.
  • As a sovereign country the Vatican has its own postal service and has its own currency, but we didn’t find any coins in our pockets, nor could we find any currency or commemorative coinage during our time at the Vatican.
  • Swiss Guards have protected every Pope here since 1506.

Our next Rome must sees included, some of the Roman ruins sites and the Roman Coliseum. What we saw in Rome, the stone architecture was simply amazing, especially when you see archeological drawings of what the buildings looked like in their day.  Some tidbits of information to add.  Did you know that over 2000 years ago that the Romans had fresh running water systems (at least in the homes of the wealthy) as well as an underground sewer systems?  The Romans were the first civilization to have urban planning practices such as night lighting of cities and public spaces, they designed central streets, commercial and residential zones and many of the urbanized practices that nowadays we take for granted.  Seeing this stuff first hand, and hearing of its history was incredible.  The experience of seeing first hand, the remains of an ancient civilization amongst the current daily life in Rome is difficult to describe.  It most certainly gives you a unique feeling and appreciation for human history.

Seeing the Roman Coliseum was definitely a highlight of our time in Rome. Again, here are some photos which I hope can covey some of the feeling of awe that comes with seeing such a structure and understanding that it was the beginning of the concept of modern day stadium.  The Coliseum could hold up to 60,000 people and was built in the First Century AD.  The disappointing aspect of this site for me was to hear the history of violence and death that occurred in this Coliseum, including the battles to the death of Gladiators, and how the Roman Emperor staged hunts (or more appropriately slaughter) of over 5000 wild animals including bears, tigers and other exotic animals, purely for the enjoyment of the crowds.  Seeing this architectural wonder was awesome.

Photos of the Coliseum

Our days in Rome flew by. Besides seeing the sites we managed to squeeze a little time in to do a few mundane things like getting our hair cut at a little salon down the street from us booking more flights and accommodations and arrange for a car rental.   Before we knew it, it was time to move on.  Florence here we come.