The Engelens Strike Back…

Today, we saw Rome on our own terms.  Just a little bit of it…a few sites…but at our own pace, in our own way, and under our own power.  And they were all free, too…yay. =)  And no Italian woman yapping away through my earbuds.

Today had no timetable, so we took advantage of it.  Drove home to me how crucial it is to plan open days into a vacation like this one…even though we didn’t, except for travel days, which means they aren’t really open days ‘cause you gotta travel.  But today, we really got it right.

We slept in this morning!  All the way to 7:30 am!  Packed everything…easy ‘cause every last stitch we have with us is dirty laundry…and after breakfast and check-out, found we could leave our big bags in the foyer of the hotel room, directly under the eagle eye of the concierge at the Hotel Napoleon (which we highly recommend, by the way…they were wonderful there).  I’d formulated a plan for us at breakfast based on the layout of the Metro, our hotel, the train station, and the four or five sites I’d declared must-sees (to varying degrees) before we caught the train to Florence.  We’d decided to splurge on the fast train, and since they leave every half hour or so, unlike the every-two-hours slow train, we had as much time as we felt like taking.  Yyyyeah. =)

So off we went.  San Giovanni in Laterano first.  Two stops down on the Metro, pop up above street level, and look to the sky for white saint sculptures.  Never fails.  St. John’s was beautiful.  Huge rectangular façade with columns (sound familiar?), topped with giant white sculptures of saints and such folks…including one very stern-looking pope who seemed to be glaring straight at me, Gandalf-style, a la “You shall not pass!” The interior was wonderful as well.  I don’t know how I’m not overloaded on giant marble sculptures of saints and apostles and angels, but I’m not.  And I’ve decided Andrew is my guy.  I think I already mentioned that.  But he is, he’s my buddy…him and Jude (mainly because of my marathon, but hey, he’s the patron saint of lost causes, and I pretty often identify with that myself).  Andrew was there, in front of his giant X, his hand around one arm of it, his face turned towards it as if it were a lover he were about to kiss…very moving.  Bartholomew was there, too, holding his flaying knife and his skin, which even had his face on it…he kinda skeeves me out.  And then there were ten others…Peter and Paul both looked magnificent, with sword and keys, respectively.

In the center was a giant bronze canopy, like the one at St. Peter’s, but smaller…and at the top were two bronze statues of Peter and Paul, in a cage-like structure, and my Rick Steves book says that inside that statue are remnants of…their heads. (!!!)  It also says that there’s a rumor afoot that the Vatican tested the DNA inside this statue against the remains of St. Peter from the Basilica…and they didn’t match. But shhh.  It’s more fun to believe it all…that everyone is where they say they are, that the artifacts are what they say they are, that the icons are all real, the chains are all real…I love it all.  Anyway.  San Giovanni was totally worth the trip.

Across from San Giovanni is the Sancta Scala…the 28 steps Jesus supposedly ascended when he was sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate, and which Constantine’s mother, Sta. Helena, sent to Rome from Jerusalem.  They’re inside this chapel-like structure, and they’re covered in smooth, worn wood, and there’s a placard stating that you may only ascend the Holy Steps on your knees.  A handful of the penitent were there already, on their knees, laboriously ascending another step every few minutes, bent over, elbows on the step above, lips moving in prayer…there’s apparently a prayer for every step, in a book you can get from the nun at the kiosk at the bottom of the steps.  On either side of the actual Sancta Scala are two other staircases, not special, that you can walk up to get to the altar at the top of the steps.  I knelt on the bottom one for a few moments, and it hurt my knees.  The folks doing the whole 28 are pretty tough…but maybe Catholics have stronger knees than us heathen Prots do. ;)  Either way, this was definitely worth seeing, too.

Back on the train and up to the Repubblica stop, where we went to St. Mary of the Angels and Martyrs…only really remarkable to me because of its modern art (which I typically don’t like, but there were some great pieces in here) and the fact that it’s a converted Roman Baths…and then to Santa Susana…not at all remarkable…and to my primary must-see, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, at St. Maria della Vittoria, which, I gotta admit, I wanted to see because of Angels & Demons, not just because it’s a Bernini and another marble sculpture and just friggin’ awesome.  And there wasn’t anything else in della Vittoria that struck me, and the only thing I really have to say about Teresa is that the whole statue is so much smaller than I thought it would be.  It will be really interesting to see A&D again after this.  I wish I’d watched it just prior, honestly.

Not much at St. Maria Maggiore really impressed me, either, though Rick Steves lists that as a big, big deal.  Bernini is buried there, so it was cool to see the inscription of his name over his tomb.  That’s about it for Maggiore.

And at that point, we bagged St. Peter-in-Chains, which is a bummer, because I wanted to see that huge scary Moses statue, which I think I spotted from the bus the other day, and noted because he has horns and looks really frightening, but it was time to move on and when you’re traveling with the Mama, you gotta keep an eye on her fortitude…can’t use her up too early in the day. =)

So we went back for gelato…and our bags…and the Termini station…and managed to figure out the automatic ticket machines after four false starts…and got on the hi-speed train to Florence.

The AV trains are nice. They actually have legroom!  And places to stash suitcases!  And flight-attendant-type people!  And big spacious windows and comfortable seats and no one’s smoking, and though I didn’t look, I bet the bathrooms are nice, too!  AVs are the way to go in Europe, says I.  They’re double the price of the slow train, but double the speed, too, and 44E wasn’t bad for an hour and a half to Florence.

The scenery was breathtaking on the way.  I can’t tell you how good it was – we both noticed it almost immediately, simultaneously – to get out of the city…to get out of Rome. I just wasn’t that thrilled with it.  Maybe that was Rome, maybe it was our botched tours…dunno.  Maybe next time will be better.  But the scenery up the countryside to Florence looked like California/Sierra Nevada.  Some of the mountains looked like the ones outside Reno, there were lots of red-tiled roofs and olive groves, tall cypress trees, villas, rolling hills, lots of green…vineyards…it was gorgeous. Maybe even better since we’d been in smelly city streets and tube stations the past three days, with everyone and their grandmother blowing smoke in our faces.

And in an hour and a half, we were there, just before 3pm.  Note – the “fast train” did not really feel overly fast at all…seemed about highway speed, actually.  Wonder how fast it actually goes.  Maybe the “slow” train stops a million times and that’s why it takes twice as long.  Ours went on to Bologna and Milan after we got off.  Anyway.  Florence’s train station looks a thousand times nicer than Rome’s.  We caught a taxi out with no problem, and ten minutes later, we’d been delivered through the narrow streets crowded with pedestrians and capped by the dome of the Duomo to a little mews where the front of our hotel was located.  Through another narrow little alleyway lies the Arno river, and right down the road is the Ponte Vecchio.  It’s a perfect location.

It’s also a perfect hotel room.  We’re on the top floor.  We actually have a full-on bathtub, comfy beds, a spacious room, and a big veranda!! With a table and an umbrella and chairs and a wooden chaise lounge, all overlooking the hotel’s front courtyard and buildings surrounding us in a Chinese-wood-puzzle interlock…one of them is a church complete with a bell tower (whose every-half-an-hour bells thankfully stop at 9pm), others are hotel verandas (containing the drummer for Dionne Warwick’s band)…they’re all beautiful and old-looking and totally provincial.

I already love Florence.

It was about 4pm, and Rick Steves said the Duomo would be open till almost 7, and that there was a Laundromat in that general vicinity, so we went off in search of both – and dinner.  We found all three.  Dinner was so-so pizza in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, which has a fake statue of David and several other replicas out front…found the Laundromat…and discovered that the Duomo, in fact, closed at 5pm.  So we wandered some more, found gelato (of course), and headed back to our hotel, where we made the concierge earn his day’s wages asking him to call this and that tour to find out specifics for us.  And thank God he did.

Our Cinque Terre tour, scheduled for Thursday (Mom’s last day here), got cancelled.  We were the only ones going.  So we had to flipflop it with our Uffizi and Accademia day.  Which was no problem.  And bumped our Hop-On-Hop-Off bus day to Thursday as well.  Turns out we’ll have to wait three days till our next chance to see Florence…it’ll actually be our last day together.

We also managed to find out that we can book a flight for Mom from Florence to Rome on Friday morning…another thank GOD, because we were both sweating bullets about the prospect of her being able to make it into Rome on the first train out of Florence, and then from Termini to her gate in the 90 minutes she’d have once she arrived.  Wrestling her own heavy suitcase, which will surely have crap of mine added to it!  Now, a taxi driver will handle her bag from the hotel doorstep, take her straight to the airport here in Florence, where she’ll only have to roll the thing to the ticket counter, check that sucker all the way through to Washington DC, and make her flight with no stress at all.  We’re both relieved. I’d had visions of being up at the crack of dawn on Friday, just to accompany her all the way back to Rome to help her deal with her bag, then heading back the other direction to Assisi on my own and losing a whole day in the process.  Worth it, but a bummer.  Now all that’s no problem.

Anyway…Mom parked herself on the veranda for the evening while I loaded up all our smelly, sweaty clothes into my rucksack, borrowed one of her dresses so I could wash everything of mine, and struck out for the Laundromat!  It was a total success.  14E and one hour later, I was folding clean, fresh, piping hot and dry clothes for both of us and chatting with a couple of Tasmanians about their 8-week trek through the world!  Oh, the bliss of clean clothes while traveling….

I got back to find that she’d nipped pretty heavily into her supply of Crown Royal, made friends with all the veranda neighbors (including the aforementioned drummer), and was in very high spirits about the clean laundry and the fact that I hadn’t been stolen/mugged/knifed on the streets of Florence.

Running was supposed to happen yesterday.  Then today.  But it’s so hard! Traveling all day…wrestling suitcase and backpack…unfamiliar cities all the time…urban places with lots of obstacles and no sidewalks to speak of…uneven pavement when it’s not cobblestone…no clean clothes…it’s nearly impossible!  I start training a week from today…will just have to do my best in Vienna…try to squeeze one or two runs in this week…ugh.  Can’t say I regret the trip, though…it’ll work out in the end, I suppose….

And now, as I have spent the last hour and a half putting together this story for you (it takes way longer to write than to read), it is time for bed!!  Tomorrow is a coach tour through Tuscany – San Gimignano, Chianti, and Siena – swilling wine the whole way, I hope. =)  I’m excited…it’s going to be beautiful.  Wednesday is Cinque Terre all day long, and Thursday will be our Florence day…and then Mom is home and I’m in the wind for the weekend until I meet with Christa in Vienna on Monday!!  Hooray!!

I must also mention that today is the two-year anniversary of my arrival with Christa into Santiago de Compostela, after our 500-mile trek across Spain.  Thinking of Brad, Al, Felix, Kasey, Gunnar, Federico, and all my other Camino friends today.  I hope you’re all having new adventures as well.

PS – We’re sleeping tonight with our giant, 9-foot-by-4-foot glass doorway open onto our veranda.  The night breeze is wonderful…did I mention that I love Florence? =)

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About merlintoes

Amateur marathoner, constant wanderer, sometime teacher, and pilgrim for life. As of July 2012, I have picked up and moved my life to Colorado, a state where I know no one, have no job, and hear it is very beautiful. I don't understand it myself...but I'm gonna run with it.
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2 Responses to The Engelens Strike Back…

  1. Fran Phoenix says:

    I’m amazed it was quiet enough to sleep with the door open!

    You are NOT a lost cause and my Catholic knees aren’t any stronger than your Protestant knees…some people definitely are holier than others and I like to believe that God will listen to sincere prayers whether I am on my knees or not!!

    Keep on having a good time!

  2. Sesky says:

    I suppose it’s unsurprising that my knees are in bangin’ shape… ;)

    Sounds like an outstanding day. :) I’ve been told that Firenze is THE city to see, so I’m glad you’ve found you love it!

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