Europe Day 9: Vatican City, Pompeii, to Sorrento
24 Sep 2012
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Sorrento, Capri, Florence, Pisa:
Monday 24th September.
Day 9 Rome to Sorrento, on the Neopolitan Riviera. 515km
Another bloody 6am start to beat queues. This morning we are visiting the Vatican museum and the Sistine Chapel, tour cost is EUR55 each. We pick up a local guide and drive to St Peter’s Square. There is already a long queue to get tickets, and once again being part of a tour group makes it worthwhile.
The tour was something special, far beyond what we expected, the artwork is amazing and the history interesting. We see another of the “Sphere Within Sphere” bronze sculpture works by Arnaldo Pomodoro – the first that we saw of these was at Trinity College, in Dublin. We had forgotten that there was also one here at Vatican City.
Before we go through the museum we are taken to a set of story boards that fully explain the paintings on the ceiling of the chapel. No talking is allowed in the Chapel, our guide cannot even use the radio system, so it is good to hear about what we will be seeing.
Walking through the Vatican Museum we are treated to some very special art, not only is it wall to wall with massive murals, but here the ceilings are also painted. You would swear that some of these are 3D when in fact they are very clever optical illusions. There are many statues and the Gallery of Tapestries is a collection of various 15th and 17th century tapestries that cover the high walls. The mind is sent reeling to think of the work that went into these.
We can see the Vatican Gardens from the hallway of the museums, and we wish we could have had the time to see these as well, though the entry charge is quite high.
We are not allowed to take photos in the Sistine Chapel, even without a flash (any photos we have we had to get off the internet!). The Chapel dates from around 1480, when the previous chapel was extensively restored. The Sistine ceiling was originally painted by Piero Matteo d'Amelia, who included a star-spangled sky. But in 1508 Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo Buonarroti to paint the 1100m2 ceiling depicting scenes from Genesis, the four year project was completed in 1512. The paintings have recently been cleaned and the colours are so bright people are questioning the authenticity of the work, some even suggesting that the ceiling was repainted. The restoration included removing several of the "modesty" drapes that had been added over some of the nude figures. These days the Chapel is known as the site of the Papal Conclave, the process by which a new Pope is selected.
In 1537, when Michelangelo was in his 60’s, he was commissioned to paint the end wall above the altar with The Last Judgement, the work being completed in 1541. The work centres on Christ as the Judge who compels the damned to hell with his left hand and lifts up the saved to heaven with his right. Christ is surrounded by the planets, the sun and saints. We are told of the revenge that Michelangelo had over an adversary, where Minos, the Judge of Souls, is shown in hell with the ears of a jackass is a portrait of the papal Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena. Biagio frequently complained to the Pope about the nudity and immodesty of the painted figures, saying it was more fit for a bathhouse or house of ill repute.
When Biagio complained to the pope about his consignment to hell in Michelangelo's painting, Paul III is said to have replied that he has no jurisdiction in hell. After Michelangelo's death many of the nudes had modesty covers painted on.
Michelangelo's self-portrait appears twice in The Last Judgment: in the flayed skin held by St. Bartholomew and in the figure in the lower left corner, who is watching the dead rise from their graves.
The side walls are covered with important Renaissance frescoes by other artists, depicting biblical scenes and contemporary popes. The tapestries are designed by Raphael and were woven in 1515-19 at Brussels.
In the Chapel silence is demanded, but people just cannot help themselves, in the chapel staff are constantly “shushing” everyone, something some of us found more annoying than the chatter.
There has been a church on the site of St Peter’ Basilica since the 4th century. Construction of the present basilica, over the old Constantinian basilica, began in 1506 and was completed in 1626. Because of its location in the Vatican, the Pope presides at a number of services throughout the year, drawing audiences of 15,000 to over 80,000 people, either within the Vatican Basilica, or in St Peter's Square. When we were here yesterday it almost seemed that there were that many there, it was very crowded. Saint Peter's is one of the four churches of Rome that hold the rank of Major Basilica. Contrary to popular misconception, it is not a cathedral as it is not the seat of a bishop. As we leave the Basilica we see the Swiss Guards at the entrance.
We leave Rome around 11am, feeling that we have seen so much in such a short time that the brain is still spinning.
The drive to Pompeii was delayed by bad traffic conditions, and we arrive quite late, and rather hungry, at around 2pm. We are told we have time for a quick lunch and that a restaurant has been booked for us. Mariella gives a quick run through of how it works, but she was hard to understand and before we know it we are marched off the bus in the direction of food (and toilets).
It was a case of “everyone come this way, hurry, and I will explain the rest when we get there”. So if you wanted to know what was happening with the tour that afternoon, you had to go with her. We didn’t get told that there were other options, and many of us would have gladly ditched the awful place for something more friendly. The service, if you can call it that, was shocking. One thing Mariella did say was that two could easily share a meal. EUR12 got you pizza or pasta (spaghetti bolognaise) with either fries or salad and a drink. The waiter was very sharp when asking what we wanted, it was almost as if he blamed us for being late. The drinks waiter came around and asked Tony “what you want to drink?”, and when he asked what was available was told coke or water. Tony ordered a coke and she just walked off to the next table without a word. Cynthea shouted at her that “he wanted a coke”, and she replied she had none and will have to bring it. The next table got offered beer or wine as well, so Tony called her back to change his order, she wasn’t too happy, but neither was he. Cynthea made noises about going elsewhere, but we thought perhaps there would not be enough time. As it was our food took ages to arrive. There was another tour group at the tables next to us, probably a more upmarket tour, they had bread and wine on their tables. The table next to us left with bread and wine (still in the bottle) on the table. Tony grabbed the bread, but Cynthea wouldn’t let him take the wine (the buggers probably dished it out to the next tour group!).
The waiters came around with a platter of fries and another came with salad. They were not impressed that Tony and Cynthea were sharing, the plate in front of Cynthea was whisked away, and our and food was unceremoniously dumped on Tony’s plate, mind you the others got the same poor treatment.
When the rest of the food arrived we were pleased not to have taken the pasta option (it was spaghetti). Although it very plain, at least the pizza was a decent size, and too much for just one, unless you are a bit of a guts.
After lunch we meet up with a local tour guide, she is a really hard case, lots of laughs. She tells us the tour will not be a fast one because she is not in shape, and laughs when Tony tells her round is a shape. We are given a bit of the history of old Pompeii, it was a port before the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79A.D. When the eruption first started people left the area for the relative safety of the coast, and returned when things died down a day or so later. During the night there was another eruption, and a poison gas cloud rolled over the town, killing everyone. Ash and pumice then buried Pompeii.
Our guide is showing us all the brothels in the old town, but because there are younger people in the tour she refers to them as McDonalds. We are shown carvings in the road, a large penis points the way to the next brothel. We go to have a look, and just like McDonalds there is a menu. As many customers were sailors who didn’t speak the local language a pictorial menu was provided for their benefit. The beds are very short, and made of high blocks of stone. One assumes that straw was provided for comfort! As you leave the brothel another penis on the wall points the way back to the port so customers can rejoin their ships!
Pompeii is very well preserved, around 60% is original. It was the roofs that suffered most damage, having collapsed under the weight of the ash. Even so there are a number that have withstood the disaster, and everyone is amazed at the high detail that has survived. In one slightly gruesome display a couple of bodies are on show.
We leave for Sorrento, a pretty town perched high on the cliff top. The view as we approach is stunning, and Ciro stops the bus at a lookout so we can get some great photos. We arrive around 6pm, the Hotel Tirrenia is nice, but a bit of a rabbit warren because it is actually more than one building, and the floors are not that well aligned. Our third floor room takes a bit of finding as it is in the adjoining building, so we have to got up another half level to get into the hallway, and we are at the far end. When we look out our window we are looking back at what is probably the original hotel.
Tonight there are two optional tours at EUR28 ea. The first is a dinner out, and the other, billed as a musical, was actually an opera. I guess when you think about it… but at the time we didn’t, and neither did a few others. Steve and Nick joined us for a wander down the street. We spent a long time admiring the beauty of the town, it was lit up so nicely at night. We finally decided to get a meal, and found a seafood restaurant down a wee alley. The prices were reasonable, and taxes were included, and there was no “table fee”, the scam where they charge you to sit at their table to eat their food! The staff were really nice too. Tony wasn’t too hungry, he just had a coffee and nicked a few bits off Cynthea’s seafood platter – i.e., the chips! Afterwards we walked the back alleys back to our hotel and enjoyed a beer on the balcony until well past bedtime.