The sun has only been up for two hours, but already the line of people queuing up outside the Vatican snaked around the block. When the doors to the museum finally opened, the shuffling and gentle nudging began.
Most visitors moved in groups, their color-coded name tags affixed to their chests, headphones in while they listened to descriptions of the ancient sculptures and paintings along the way. Their tour leaders stood in front, each waving a small banner above their head.
During most of our three-hour visit to the Vatican, packed elbow-to-elbow, we all tried to get a glimpse of the art. It was not easy. We had to dodge selfie-sticks and people posing next to ancient sculptures to prove, perhaps, that they indeed had been there.
Most of the pieces in the Vatican Museum are priceless works of art. Who can argue that the Greek sculpture known as Belvedere Apollo is breathtaking in its depiction of the male god in his prime? I was able to take this photo of the Apollo by waiting for a split-second opportunity when the crowds had stepped away.
Inside the Sistine Chapel, no photos were allowed and, although a couple of visitors tried to sneak a picture (“I didn’t know,” said one), you can stand for as long as you want to study the frescoed walls and ceilings where Michelangelo painted the story of creation and humans’ fall from grace. It was possible for your spirit to soar under the glories depicted with unparalleled skill.
St. Peter’s Basilica is huge, every nook and cranny, every chapel, decorated with the finest Renaissance art. Surely if you attended a Mass in the great cathedral you would soak up more of the spirituality for which it was built. But as you shuffle through, it is hard to experience the awe, though looking at this alabaster window by Bernini came close.
Years ago, on my first trip to Rome, I stumbled into St. Peter’s Square not knowing that it was the weekly blessing of the crowd by the Pope John Paul II. On a balcony above the square, the pontiff, his white beanie glistening in the sun, raised both his hands and spoke.
I don’t recall if he spoke in English, Italian or Polish, his native tongue, but I had been raised Catholic and just to be in his presence brought tears. That memory has stayed with me longer, is more meaningful, than that of any of the priceless art we passed by.
Leaving Rome, with its countless Roman ruins and Catholic edifices, we headed north to the Tuscan countryside. We thought we’d stop in the hilltop village of San Gimignano, whose medieval walls and churches are said to be among the best-preserved. The town is now on the “must-see” list for tourists and, unfortunately, we were unable to experience the history of the town. From the South Gate to the North Gate, the main cobblestoned streets are awash in shops selling trinkets that overwhelm the Gothic arches and towers the town is famous for.
Back on the road, we traveled further north, down narrow, twisting roads, past olive groves and vineyards, to arrive at our small villa in the countryside. For the next days we explored the ancient walled villages and churches that revealed the history of Italy in manageable bites.
Our preferred method of transportation was by foot. We logged eight-to-ten miles most days and got to know every hamlet and hill.
Towns that don’t appear in the guidebooks came alive. Ghissano and Cedri, places so small that they had no store or café, whose liveliest resident was a cat. From the medieval town of Peccoli we could look out over miles and miles of countryside.
In the nearby town of Peccioli, we opened the door to a church and stepped inside to discover a delightful 14th-century fresco painting in an otherwise deserted nave.
The next day, we decided to scratch plans to go to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, another “must-see” stop where we would have to wrangle through crowds of tourists, and visit more convents and churches instead.
We were experiencing the rural beauty of Italy, the ancient towns, the cobbled streets, the history that comes alive in daily life. This is the must-see place that I love most. Florence will have to wait.