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Florence-San Gimignano, Day 20

Under the Tuscan sun (what else would I say?)

sunny 26 °C
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The temperature today was much more bearable, around 26 I think, and bright sunshine again. It’s soooo nice to have a light breeze and not be melting from the heat.

Schlepped my bags to the bus station, about 15 mins from the hotel, and took the bus to the airport for 5 euros. Much better than 23 euros for a taxi.

I think I got the same car as last time – a black B Class Mercedes. Perhaps they kept it just for me. Yet another model of GPS to learn, so I changed the voice to “Tim” instead of “Jane”. He sounds like Jeeves, much better than the poncy chick anyway, and I’m sure he won’t mean me any harm. Everything went swimmingly & it’s strange how close the Tuscan countryside is to Florence. It’s instantly recognisable having seen so many scenic Tuscan shots in movies and in books, almost like I've been here before and I was able to get a nice shot or two on the way.

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I got to San Gimignano too early to check in so went into the village, which is really lovely. Yes, it’s another walled medieval village – they don’t just do them in France. The Italians do it more colourfully too, instead of boring grey stone blocks, theirs are different shades from cream to peach to tan to different shades of brown, with a little grey thrown in. San Gimignano is a tourist spot because, of its original 72 towers, 14 have survived, unlike many cities and towns in Italy which have had theirs destroyed through war over the ages. Tourists can’t take cars in, but there are tons of (paid) parking areas that you can walk from. Although the parking areas were really full, there didn’t seem that many people in the town. It has a nice, airy feeling, you don’t feel hemmed in because the main streets are quite wide and there are a lot of flowers in window boxes.

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View from inside San Gimignano to the countryside

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Inside the walls of San Gimignano

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Tourist hordes!

Because of the angle you drive up to it from Florence, you don’t really see it from a distance, so the first view of the towers I had was when I walked inside. In a way, it almost looks like high rise buildings at first. There’s such a contrast between the beautiful curved arches and the square sharp lines of the towers, it’s almost hard to believe they were constructed together.

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I got a little arty-farty with the photos, because of the interesting angles.

I followed the main street uphill, checking out a couple of shops on the way. At the top is a piazza, with eateries and other shops.

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There’s a gelateria that won the best gelato in Italy a couple of years running, and they have 40 different flavours! I had 3 in a tub – mint (delicious & creamy), pink grapefruit & sparkling wine (quite nice, with a little bit of a bite to it), and blackberry & lavender (not bad, but not very lavender-y or blackberry enough). I wasn’t keen to try the gorgonzola and walnut flavour though – there’s something not right about a savoury ice cream, especially one that’s bound to taste like vomit, though you blue cheese freaks would probably love it!

On the way back to the car, I stopped in at the Archeological Museum that has some Etruscan artefacts, but frankly I wouldn’t waste my time again. There’s not a lot there, but it was really cheap to get in so I guess you get what you pay for.

Headed off to my accommodation – a fattoria, or farmstay-agritourism place – about 5 km out of town. The road it’s on isn’t an official road so it’s not in the GPS, so I gave Tim a break once he got me to San Donato, the area it’s nearest on the map, and followed the instructions from the website. It’s about 1.5km down a narrow gravel road (just for a second I thought I was in another GPS nightmare!), that ends in a lovely peach coloured building in typical Tuscan countryside. You can see the views from my room in the photos. My room is fairly spartan, to say the least, a bit smaller than my Venice room, but here it doesn’t seem to matter so much because it’s a farm.

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View from my door

There’s a pool, which the pretty, slim young things also staying here were using this afternoon – bikinis, long tanned legs without cellulite & flat bellies, and even though I’d fit right in (yeah, right – there’s a Tui billboard if ever there was one!), I just laxed out under a pergola on a lounger & read my book. It was lovely & peaceful after the hustle & bustle of Florence – a great way to unwind. This place also does all meals if you want to pay for lunch & dinner (breakfast is included). While I was waiting for dinnertime, I was enjoying the view & there were dozens of little black birds (like swallows, but with different tails) zooming around, doing barrel rolls, feeding on the insects that come out in the early evening.

Dinner tonight was really nice – pork hock & veges, with panna cotta & berry coulis for dessert. There was also a pasta course, but I never would have eaten everything so I didn’t have that. There are probably about 35 people staying here – at least that’s how many had dinner, so it’s pretty popular, and most are Italian. I sat with a young Swedish couple whose English was perfect, so at least I had someone to talk to. Was a bit sick of eating on my own (table for one, per favore – just one? – si, grazie).

Tomorrow morning, I think I’ll just pick a point on the map that feels right and aim the car in that general direction & just drive to see where I end up. I may even be intrepid enough to only turn Tim (the GPS) on (so to speak) when it’s time to come back.

Posted by judesbucketlist 15:12 Archived in Italy Comments (1)

San Gimignano, Day 21

Etruscans, Romans and power plants

sunny 29 °C
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Took off this morning, heading west in bright sunny weather again, temperature got up to 30 deg in places.

The first main town I got to was Volterra, which I knew nothing about, but when I saw the turret on the battlements, I had to go in of course.

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Entry to Volterra

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Yes, it’s another walled town, but with a difference. I believe the state prison is housed in part of the battlements too, will have to do some research to be sure. There is also a green park in the middle of the town, which is really unusual in these settlements.

At one end of the park is an archeological dig, where there’s the remains of an Etruscan acropolis.

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Not very exciting to look at unless you’re interested in that sort of thing (which I am). The ticket to get in was really cheap, and also gave access to the site of a Roman theatre on the other side of town. Naturally, I had to head over there, and promptly got lost in the streets because their maps are like a mirror image for some reason! Made it eventually, and was absolutely blown away.

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This is the stuff I learned about at school (when I took Latin), and loved so much I wanted to be an archeologist. Couldn’t get enough of the place and didn’t want to leave – took tons of photos (but don’t worry, you only have one to look at).

Headed back to where I came into the town, and looked for where I parked my car… but… couldn’t find it, so kept walking. Ended up skirting half the town, going back inside & out the same exit. Finally asked an attendant at the nearest carpark if there was another parking area. After a bit of a discussion, she was really helpful and figured out where I’d parked, just to the left and down a bit from the entrance. Amazing what too much sun can do to a person – I’ve never been so glad to see my car before!

Got back on the road, following the map, and just before the next township I saw some ruins on the top of a hill beside the road. And strangely, right in front of them is this huge disk of (I think) concrete, painted rust red around the edge of it. I could also see from the vantage point of that one, another one with a hole in the middle of it some distance away. I think that’s the one I saw some guys erecting in a field earlier in the day.

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Not long after that I headed south, which took me into the Colline Metallifere hills. The road started climbing and the corners became sharper. Though it never quite got like the Gorges du Verdon, there were times I started to wonder. I think I came upon Tuscany's dirty little secret - there's a geothermal power plant spewing out smelly stuff in the middle of those hills, at a place called Larderello. Not a very nice spot, so unlike the rest of this area.

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Tuscany's dirty little secret?

Drove as far as the turnoff to Siena, and drove northeast, still in fairly hilly territory, but the road was pretty good, and wide enough for two vehicles to pass comfortably (provided the oncoming truck didn’t cut the corner!). It was about this time I turned on the GPS to give Tim his outing for the day, and input San Donato to get me as close as possible to the farm. The route he took me was a bit different & I did begin to think he was leading me astray, but it all worked out. This, despite the fact that the screen on the GPS was showing the road I should be on as a dead straight line, but it wasn’t. Perhaps being carried around in my bag all day caused a wee glitch in the display.

It was a relief to get back without any major issues. The pool area was empty & when I tested the water it felt so good, so I had a dip for the first time in years. Total heaven. The breeze made things a bit cool, but the water temperature wasn’t chilly, so nice & refreshing.

Tomorrow I’m off to Spoleto, a bit of a drive southeast, but much of it on the autostrada and main highways, so should be no incidents.

PS - the wifi here is incredibly slooooowwww.

Posted by judesbucketlist 13:37 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

San Gimignano – Spoleto, Day 22

A lake & a bridge, but not too far – and some more ruins

sunny 25 °C
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A much milder day today, though still sunny for the most part but still a relief & made for a pleasant drive.

Took off from the farm at about 10am, for the almost 3 hour drive to Spoleto, using the GPS. At one point, I kept left instead of right & almost ended up having to drive all the way back to Florence (30 km), if Tim had his way. But I took the next offramp & turned back the way I’d come, saving a bit of time. Tim didn’t hold it against me – well, not straight away. I think he holds a grudge.

Anyhoo, it was a really nice drive, and about 2 hours in there’s a lake in the middle of the countryside - Lago Trasimeno. It reminded me a little of Lake Taupo (NZ). That was as good a time as any to stop for a break, so I pulled off the highway at a little town called Torricella. Nothing special, and really quiet – probably a bit early for the summer crowds but there were a few people sunbathing along the shore.

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Finally got to Spoleto township about 1pm and input the address for my hotel into the GPS. Here’s where Tim was able to get me back. Let me paint a wee picture for you – ancient town, steep, narrow streets, many of which are one-way and/or too narrow to fit my car in with room to spare either side. I found the address (a piazza) where my hotel was, but there was nowhere to stop, and I couldn’t quite see exactly where it was. Had to keep driving because someone was right behind me, so Tim tried the “alternate route” trick, wanting to shave the sides off my car and take me the wrong way down a one way street. So we drove around & around for a while, me getting increasingly frustrated and I turned Tim off because he was starting to annoy me. I eventually found a carpark & got out, hoping to get some directions. Luckily the tourist info office was just down the street & they were able to give me a streetmap and drew the right route for me. It still took a bit of negotiation around the streets, but I found the hotel, and a carpark – all only 45 mins after arriving in town!

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My room’s pretty good, bigger than the farm, and just above a restaurant. Spoleto’s a small town, so it’s a short distance to just about anywhere you want to walk (if I lived here, I wouldn’t even have a car).

The reason I chose Spoleto was for the Ponte delle Torri, a massive aqueduct across a gorge. Once I’d freshened up, I hit the pavement (well, the stones), and headed uphill to the other side of town where the Ponte is. Only 20 mins of slow strolling later, I arrived at the edge of a bluff, with a beautiful outlook over one end of the town. A bit further around, and I had my first sight of the Ponte. What is it about these ancient structures that makes my jaw hit the ground? It’s just, well, there – this enormous piece of stupendous engineering from 800 years ago. Just to carry water from point A to point B. "So, Fred mate, um, there’s a bloody great gorge in the way." "Never mind Bob, we’ll just take a zillion tons of rocks & mortar, some horses and (probably) a few hundred slaves, & a couple of dozen blokes with whips and… abracadabra! There you have it."

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There’s a walkway down the entire length of it, and I was so disappointed to see that taggers have got to it.

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Mostly words of love, but just the same, it does spoil it. There isn’t a lot of tagging on actual ancient sites in Italy, not that I’ve seen. I headed across, and there’s a fort on the other side, Fortilizia dei Mulini, to offset the bigger fort on the town side (Rocca Albornoziana). It’s all just amazing.

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Ruins across the gorge

You’ll see from the photos that there are also ruins along the hillside to the left of the Ponte, so me being the intrepid chick that I am (and tough Kiwi in jandals), I decided I had to see it. So I took the less-travelled path (there’s a reason it’s less travelled!), which was pretty rough & rocky, and headed west & up, then down, then up… At an intersection of the path, I took the turn upwards which connected with the path for the wusses, which did have a lovely panoramic view of the Ponte & of Spoleto. Still wanted to see the ruins, so took the bush path again & turned downwards at the intersection. It wasn’t far, just a bit rocky.

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The ruins were definitely, well, ruined – and clearly used by those young and in amore (a few empty Durex packets lying around – so glad they’re being safe!). There’s also a lot of tagging inside, but I was really excited to see a slightly hidden section of the wall that still had some of the old plaster attached, along with some of the painting from way back when (see pic). I just wanted to hack it off & take it with me! Not sure how I’d have got it back home in one piece, but the thought crossed my mind.

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View of Spoleto township

Walked back across the Ponte after investigating the Fortilizio without incident & on the way back to the hotel I called into a Casa Romana (Roman house) dating from the 1st century AD.

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As I said yesterday – I LOVE this stuff!! Much of the floor is still intact, with the mosaics in really good shape, not bad for a 2000 year old floor. They think it burned down in the middle ages, and the house was discovered in the late 1800s and excavated by archeologists over the following 30 years.

Called into a couple of shops, then got back to the hotel around 5:30. Will upload this before dinner, doubt there will be much else exciting to tell.

Posted by judesbucketlist 11:07 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Spoleto – Rome, Day 23

Of horses and men in uniform – and statues of horses and men in uniform (sometimes together)

semi-overcast 24 °C
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Slightly cooler day today, around 24 deg I think, with a very few spots of rain during the drive – thunderstorms were forecast for Rome but didn’t eventuate.

Breakfast was included in my room rate, so thought I’d make the most of it. They do interesting breakfasts, the Italians. There are the obligatory cornflakes that have been at every hotel breakfast I’ve attended so far – here and in France. There was also cheese & salami, bread, 2 different fruit flans, yoghurt, choc chip muffins, prepackaged biscuits and those crunchy melba toasts. The coffee was like tar, and even with tons of milk in it, it still looked like chocolate mud. I’d kill for an egg right now (and bacon), and a flat white. Hopefully the Rome hotel brekky coffee will be better.

Left the hotel about 9 am to make sure I got to Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport on time for the car drop off. Was feeling a bit off colour, don’t think it was anything I ate (maybe that dodgy coffee), so I took it slow & easy in case I had to pull over quickly. Most of the trip was on the autostrada or its slightly narrower cousin, so I didn’t hold anyone up. Tim got me to the airport safe & sound & the signage to the rental car returns got me the rest of the way.

Jumped the train (the Leonardo Express, no less – 14 blimmin’ euros!) to the central station & got a taxi to the hotel. Wasn’t going to but where I came out of the station it was a lot further from my hotel than I thought. The taxi driver gave me a little tour commentary on the way, which was nice – and he asked why I was single (good question!). The hotel is OK, with a flash green marble reception area. My room has a single bed, for the first time, and this is the smallest room yet because of it. Still it has all the amenities, including bidet (as all the Italian hotels have had), which I’ve found is really handy for cooling off your feet or shaving your legs when you don’t have a bath. Don’t say yuck, it’s perfectly clean (well, I hope so).

After settling in, since I’m in the Trevi area of Rome, I thought I’d traipse over to the Trevi Fountain. On the way, I noticed there were a lot of carabinieri and police around, including at intersections directing traffic. Then I heard a band, and towards me up the road came a phalanx (this seems the right word under the circumstances) of men on horseback – the first section on white horses & the second in shiny metal armour like real Romans, on brown horses. I tried to find out from some cops on the footpath what it was all about, and they told me it was the carabinieri, and gave me the impression that it happens fairly frequently in that part of town – past the Palazzo del Quirinale, which is the official residence of the President of the Italian Republic. Kind of like Italy’s version of the White House.

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Real men on horseback

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Men & horses statue in Piazza Quirinale

So that was a pretty cool start to my time in Rome. Continued to the fountain, and although I knew there would be a lot of people there, I wasn’t really prepared for the setting it’s in.

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Perhaps my brain’s just overloaded with amazing spectacles lately, but I was really disappointed – it wasn’t as impressive as I thought it would be. I expected it to be in a large open area, up some steps, but it’s surrounded by buildings (a few bars) in a small piazza, which is really only big enough for it, and it’s in a dip, so to get to the edge of it you have to walk down some steps. You can see it from street level, because, if nothing else, it is huge and beautifully sculpted, but I found it quite hard to gaze in awe at it. It was surrounded by tons of people, all snapping photos, and there were road works of some kind just in front of it in the piazza, which kind of killed the ambience. Perhaps I should have gone at night, or early in the morning, but I did throw 3 coins in, so here’s hoping. Maybe I’m just getting increasingly frustrated with the sheer numbers of tourists in these places, which means you can’t get a pic without some stranger’s head (or butt) in the shot. It’s certainly been much more crowded in Italy than in France, and it’s not even the main tourist season yet.

Continued on to the Pantheon, since I’d been so impressed with the Paris one. This one is a much older and simpler building, which started as a temple built by Hadrian about 1900 years ago, and is now a church.

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The inside is pretty amazing (albeit full to bursting with people), with a perfect dome above and an oculus (circular hole in the middle of the dome), which lets in the light and is open to the elements. Apparently it’s amazing when it rains.

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Outside, around the back of the building has not been so well looked after but it really shows the origins of it much more clearly, with (unfortunately) broken carved stone still attached. I believe it’s an archeological site in parts, which is what it looks like.

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"Centurion" outside the Pantheon - for photo ops

On the way back, I noticed a shop selling clothing for nuns and priests and other ecclesiastical bods. Now that’s something you don’t see in NZ! And a nun was window shopping too – it struck me as pretty funny at the time.

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Ecclesiastical clothes shop

Also saw a West Indian priest – it’s hilarious hearing Italian spoken in a Jamaican accent – I wonder how you say “mon” in Italian!!

Snapped a few other palazzos & chiesas (churches) on the way back to the hotel, including the Palazzo Barberini which is where the Gallerie Nazionale d’Arte Antica is housed.

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Didn’t go in, but it looks pretty cool from the outside (and one of the cleaner looking buildings around). My impression so far is that the Romans really, really, really like statues, sculpture and obelisks – there seems to be a combination of at least 2 of these in each piazza. And on quite a few intersections there are sculptures on the corners of the buildings, which I never noticed in Venice or Florence.

Had McDonalds for dinner, believe it or not – Big Mac & fries taste the same everywhere it seems! It’s a cheap meal here too – 5.90 euros. They have a few different things on the menu of course, like foccacia bread for some burgers & different cheeses & ham.

Tomorrow I plan to go to the Colosseum, the Palatine and the Roman Forum – those last two are archeological areas so I’ll be as happy as a pig in muck. Might take the metro down to save my tootsies for the main event.

Posted by judesbucketlist 12:20 Archived in Italy Comments (1)

Rome, Day 24

Old Masters and Ecclesiastical Opulence – and rain at last!

overcast 25 °C
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Today dawned bright & sunny, but later in the day the threatened rain came, which was actually quite nice. Breakfast was OK, with rolls, sliced meat (including salami), cereals (including cornflakes), melba toasts & jams, plain yogurt and delicious cream-filled croissants (guess what I had!). The coffee wasn’t like tar, but it was pretty weak filter coffee, and easier to drink if not the greatest.

One thing that Lonely Planet doesn’t mention in my guidebook, is that 2nd June is the anniversary of Italy becoming a republic in 1946 so it’s a public holiday. This also means that there’s a big parade near the Colosseum, which was closed for the event for a few hours. Luckily I overheard a couple of English blokes talking about it because they had planned to go there today before leaving Rome. So rather than contend with even bigger crowds than usual, I changed my plans and went to the Vatican today instead of tomorrow.

Took the metro, which worked out fine & got me close by.

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Entrance to Vatican City

Most people were headed straight for St Peters, so I went where the fewest people were going, around the side of Vatican City to the Vatican Museums.

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There are so many museums there, many are more like anterooms, or corridors that lead into each other, but there’s also the Sistine Chapel. It costs 15 euros to get in, and is well worth it considering the sheer variety and quantity of things to see. It’s actually impossible to take it all in, what with ornate ceilings, walls & floors, as well as statuary, sculpture, old masters’ paintings, mosaics, maps, stamps & coins, books and ecclesiastical costumes and symbols.

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The beautiful ceiling of the Gallery of Maps

As usual, the tour groups were a pain in the rear, and I stopped being nice when they started pushing to get by me & someone stood on my foot. Ha, two can play at that game! Managed to push through and lose them which meant there was more room to see things. I could have taken thousands of photos & still not got it all, so settled for a few dozen things that really caught my eye.

Of course, my main goal was the Sistine Chapel – me and about 300 other people. No photos allowed, but no one was taking any notice of that, so I didn’t either and took a sneaky few.

It’s supposed to be silent in there, but with everyone talking quietly it was surprisingly noisy. The atmosphere was kind of ruined anyway, with the guards constantly shouting, “No photo, no photo!”, and loudly going, “Shhhh!” Some people were really brazen about it & took flash photos, and one cheeky sod took one over the head of the guy straight after he shouted “no photo”. It was pretty funny but the guard didn't have a sense of humour & I think they took his camera away until he left.

The whole interior is completely covered with fabulous paintings. Where the walls meet the ceiling, there are a few that appear to pop out at you, like 3D – how Michelangelo worked out how to do that when he was suspended from the ceiling, I don’t know. In the middle of the ceiling is the one everyone recognises – God creating Adam, fingers touching. Truly lovely. At one end is the Last Judgement, with Jesus looking like Apollo, rather than with the standard long hair and beard. I thing old Mike took a few liberties from time to time!

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The Last Judgement

When my neck got too sore to stay any longer, there were more museums to see, including one with the obligatory religious paintings, many by old masters. My old pal, St Sebastian popped up again, including one that showed him having his wounds tended to. I’m glad he got looked after, I was worried about him going around with those arrows sticking out of him! One painting was particularly gruesome, showing St Erasmus (aka St Elmo) having his intestines pulled out and wrapped around a windlass, as per one of the stories of his martyrdom. Made me feel a little sick, actually. He deserved his sainthood, if you ask me!

There was also a collection of Faberge eggs on display (don’t think they belong to the Vatican), which are so pretty. Damned tour group tried to push in, but I didn’t give an inch this time. I especially liked this one, the Bay Tree Egg – with jade leaves and jewels studded around it.

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Exit ramp from Vatican Museums

Then it was time to see St Peter’s Basilica. The queue was so long, it stretched more than halfway around the piazza, and was up to 6 people deep in places. I considered not seeing it, but knew I’d regret it, and the queue did seem to be moving relatively quickly. It took about 45 minutes to get to the entrance, so not too bad. If you’re ever queuing in Italy, don’t expect to be able to hold your place. Italians all seem to know each other, and the couple in front of you will be talking to the family behind you, then magically, the family are in front of you as well! It’s also really noisy because they never, ever stop talking at a million miles an hour.

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View from entry doors of St Peters

Walking into the Basilica was like walking into another world. The opulence and splendour cannot be over-exaggerated. Where the Sistine Chapel still retains its humility, St Peter’s has none. It seems there is no part of the walls or the ceiling that isn’t covered in some form of art, whether it’s paintings, carved mouldings or sculptures.

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There’s also a museum there, which holds some incredibly valuable items, including ancient vestments and bibles. There’s a pair of elephant tusks that the label clearly states are “from Indian elephants” – hmmm, really? It’s interesting that they emphasise that – not protesting too much are they? They’re pretty big tusks, and I’m not so sure some great white hunter didn’t get them in Africa. Perhaps I’m just overly suspicious.

What struck me the most was the lavishness of the building interiors and the vastness of the Vatican’s collections, and I know I only saw a fraction in the 5 hours or so I was there. In one way it’s wonderful that these things have been kept safe and are available for people to see. But when you consider how it came by many of those assets, and that so many of the Catholic faithful live in poverty, and with famine, death and disease, that sense of wonder fades.

So although I’m really pleased I went, I came away saddened and a little angry. The highlight was of course the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo was a true master.

The rain started just as I was walking out of the Basilica – big meaty drops at the start. They steamed a bit when they hit the ground, it had been so hot and dry for so long. Walked in the rain back to the metro station, with Indian guys trying to sell me umbrellas on the way. Mine was in the hotel, and I wasn’t paying for another one so I just wore my sunhat. No issues with the metro – only 1 euro for a ticket to anywhere in Rome that you can get to within 75 minutes of buying your ticket. I was so happy to get into my room & take the weight off my feet – hope they make it through the Colosseum trip tomorrow.

The rain had stopped by 8pm and it's a pleasant night. There are a lot of cops & carabinieri around, and choppers keep flying overhead, and I hear lots of sirens - all apparently because of the Festa della Repubblica. Perhaps they think there are some monarchists left to cause trouble.

Posted by judesbucketlist 12:55 Archived in Italy Comments (1)

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