Turns out you can blog from planes now, 30,000 feet over the Atlantic. To my right, the sun, having risen a spill of gold along the curve of the horizon, is climbing, but slowly, as we speed ahead of it. To my left, on an unoccupied seat, coffee and my notebook and a black Sharpie. And left of that, Pete, reading Miriam Toews' A complicated kindness.
We're en route to Vancouver after eight days in Italy. It was our first trip away together, without kids, in over ten years. Pete's parents flew in from Ontario to stay with the kids.
We started in Rome. Taking a taxi from the airport to the centre of the historic district, the driver continuously pointed out ruins, monuments, glorious buildings that we felt we should recognize but didn't. After a brief stretch of highway we were on tiny cobblestone roads, curling around old buildings, pedestrians moving aside against restaurant tables and planters - and suddenly we were in a square, with the Pantheon looming above us, and our hotel beside it. Our room was eye level with and literally a stone's throw from the Pantheon roof. We could look down the giant pillars at figures walking in and out, footsteps echoing, and across at birds in cubbies in the rocks of the roof.
We visited the Colosseum in the rain. The history of that place is truly fascinating. Almost two thousand years ago, spectators were given admission tickets in the form of pottery shards with the section, row and seat written on it. A day's events typically included animal hunts, followed by the execution of criminals, and then the gladiator fights. Part of the area beneath the arena is exposed, where men and animals were held until they made their entrance in the arena via a system of pulleys, lifts and ramps. Apparently one spectacle involved fifty bears being released onto the stage simultaneously. A few years ago restorers unearthed the arena's drainage system, and found ancient apricot and prune pits, bone hairpins and game pieces. Games (similar to today's board games) were only allowed in December, but spectators played anyway, surreptitiously, between shows.
We visited St. Peter's Basilica, waiting in line for security scans, white figures of the collonade above us, set against blue sky. All nationalities, languages, religions were represented in the lineup. Soaring spaces inside. Dead popes, stairs down to St. Peter's remains roped off, opportunities for offerings everywhere. Paintings and sculptures and marble wherever you looked. We went up to the dome, and looking down had a new perspective on the vastness of the place and the likely terror of working at this height. Inscribed in a complete ring around the base of the dome, in Latin: Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam mean et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum (You are Peter/'Rock' and on this rock I will build my Church, and to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven.)
Then flight after flight of stairs, not for the claustrophobic, in narrow slanting stairwells, to the cupola. Windy and packed. Down to the rooftop at dome level, where there was an espresso bar, and a store run by nuns with exquisite nativity scenes.
We went on to the Vatican museums, where we started with the Sistine chapel. A surprisingly simple, oblong, dimly lit room. I'd no idea the Creation of Adam was one of that many paintings. Full of visitors, but plenty of room to move. Necks craned, looking and looking, identifying the different biblical scenes.
I did not take this photo. Credit unknown. Available through Creative Commons.
We visited the Vatican museums when they were empty, the sun setting. Showcases (wunderkammers) of lamps, spoons, door knockers. Old maps, globes, where the west coast of the New World was a smudge or a shrugging line or simply a blank. The Raphael rooms were gorgeous; we were alone in them.
And finally, we visited the Galleria Borghese. The park was beautiful; flat with evenly spaced trees. We wandered through the museum with audioguides pressed to our ears, separated. There was Bernini's Rape of Persephone, her hands flung upwards, twisting away from him, thigh yielding to his huge hand, tear on her face. His Apollo and Daphne, she turning into a tree, skin to bark, hair to branches, toenails to roots, bushes between them. During restoration they discovered that when struck, the uppermost twigs ring like crystal. David, with furrowed brow, biting his lip, left shoulder twisted over right foot. Bernini's work introduced the Baroque period, with a focus on physicality and movement, and this collection is stunning.
And just as exquisite as the sights was having Pete all to myself, uninterrupted conversations, no need to be aware of the time. To be done dinner, with no counters to clear, no kids to put to bed, no lunches to make - instead to lie on the bed with our laptops, researching early Roman history side by side, was bliss.
Still to come, possibly, if the mood strikes me: Umbria and Tuscany.