Finally, some photos from our tour of the Vatican. We were lucky to have a guide that does an early morning tour, so we saw the Sistine chapel in the company of perhaps 100 rather than 1000 or more people. No photos are allowed in the Sistine Chapel, so I was on best behavior and kept my camera turned off, though it was difficult.
Luckily, other areas of the Vatican are camera friendly, so here goes:
This is the painted ceiling of one of seemingly miles of Vatican hallways. The artistic effort involved in creating these spaces is almost beyond comprehension.
And of course, you know if there's a way to include birds here, I'll find it. These sculptures of mute swans done by the Boehm porcelain company were a gift from New York (city or state, I can't remember which) and they are exquisite.
This stained glass window of Madonna and Child looks almost like a modern interpretation of an older style.
Here's another ceiling view, this one in a sort of hallway alcove. The blue pigments used remain so brilliant.
The Swiss Guards in their colorful uniforms stood outside the entrance to St. Peter's Basilica.
This is the famous Pieta, completed when Michelangelo was 25 years old. It is now displayed behind glass, after being damaged by a vandal.
Finally, this is my favorite photo, showing the light streaming in through the high windows of St. Peter's. The arched ceiling's ornate carved decoration is covered in real gold leaf, and the Latin phrases around the top of the walls are done in fine mosaic tile. The artistry itself and the wealth needed to create it are mind-boggling.
I had no idea beforehand of the beauty and wealth contained in the Vatican Museum collections. In four hours of a guided tour, we barely skimmed the surface. It was simply amazing.
We're home now, but thought I'd share some Rome photos, since wi-fi wasn't to be found while we were there.
Sunday morning, we took a guided walking tour of ancient Rome.
First stop, the Trevi Fountain, where the incoming water from the ancient aqueduct system still runs fresh and clean after 2000 years. A tap for drinking is located off to the far side of the fountain.
At San Pietro in Vincoli, Michelangelo's Moses marks the tomb of Pope Julius II. It's amazing to see the delicate physical details, such as veins on the hands and forearms, that Michelangelo perfectly sculpted from a block of Carrera marble.
The Colosseum is so huge, it's difficult to capture enormity of it, but I loved this shot of its weathered ancient architecture against the soft summer sky.
This is the Temple of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, where the Vestal Virgins (who were actually female priests) had to keep the sacred flame burning.
Upon entering the Pantheon, this beam of light streaming through the roof opening was magical. The Pantheon is a circular building that dates to 125 AD and has an amazing poured concrete dome with the open center (oculus) as its source of interior light.
The Pantheon was originally a temple to the Roman gods, but in the 7th century it was converted to a Catholic church, Santa Maria ad Martyres.
On Sunday evening, we walked along the Tiber and found some mature wild fig trees (with fruit) growing out of crevices in the walls along the river. My guess is that they grew from seeds deposited in droppings of birds that roost along the wall's narrow ledges.
(This post was written Saturday, but couldn't be posted until now, as we couldn't find any wi-fi spots near our hotel in Rome. We're home again and pretty jet-lagged.)
I'm writing this on the train from Foligno to Roma. We surrendered our lucky (automatic) Avis rental car, as there's no way we'd try to drive in Rome. Anyway, last night before dinner, we walked around Bettona taking photos, so here are a few of the local sights...
A luxuriant doorway garden tucked in along the narrow winding streets.
A mystery-to-me plant (one I don't recognize from the U.S.) with such an intense color.
The sweet painted entry sign for a Franciscan mission monastery.
A car on a typical Bettona street, with barely enough room to open both doors at once.
This is probably why... John could almost touch the walls of the buildings on either side of the street -- yes, this is a Bettona side street. Think medieval scale.
And from the back of the hotel, the neighbor's lovely tomato garden with a view of sunflower fields in the distance below.
Finally, this photo is for our kids... they'll understand!
Well, Umbria has been a bit of a different driving experience, as they tend to omit directional signs here and there, just to provide some extra mystery and/or to make you earn your destination. Today we got lost several times on the way to and from Assisi, even though the desk clerk assured us "there is only one way to Assisi from here". Ah, yes... but so many more ways (plentiful unmarked intersections and roundabouts) to go astray!
One wrong turn led us to stop beside this field of sunflowers in their prime, so I took photos while John re-evaluated our location. (Never come to Umbria without a good GPS, we've learned that lesson repeatedly now.)
But this field of sunflowers made a wrong turn seem like a blessing in disguise.
John thought I was nuts for taking this picture, but Assisi has the most civilized parking garages I've ever seen. Beautifully clean & painted, with clear directions leading you to town, spotless restrooms, a cafe/gift shop on the first floor, and soothing classical music playing on a sound system through the whole garage.
We were impressed by these ornate iron dragons, just a sample of the elaborate ironwork found throughout Assisi.
However, it's not a town for the faint of heart or the weak of knee, as there are some steep climbs to get from one place to another.
Our ultimate reward was reaching the Basilica of San Francesco. This beautiful church was built in honor of St. Francis, the humble friend of the poor, both needy humans and vulnerable animals. A basement crypt was built around St. Francis' once-hidden grave, and the huge two level church was erected in his honor. Picture taking was not permitted inside, but it is the most beautiful church I've ever seen, and when we get home I'll update here with links to published photos if I can find some.
This was the window display of a bakeshop in town, though we somehow managed to resist their temptations.
Evidence of our cleaned-plate lunch at a cafe on on the central piazza... we chose the cafe in part for their shaded outdoor seating, but the pizza was delicious!
And here, an ancient arch framed a lovely view as we headed back to Bettona (and got lost again!) for a well-earned rest. One great thing about visiting these hill towns is that you can enjoy a delicious lunch and know that the walking is burning off the calories! But the Italians really do seem to eat a much healthier, fresher diet, and maybe that's part of their Mediterranean secret. Tomorrow we head back to Roma for our last few days.
Wednesday we finally made it to Siena, after getting charmed/detoured by San Gimignano Tuesday.
Our first stop was at the Cathedral of San Francesco. I loved the horizontal striping of the marble walls and the striped banding of the various arches. This cathedral exuded peace, more so than any other church we've visited, and thus became a favorite.
Above is Siena's central Piazza del Campo, where on July 2 there will be an annual horse race (Il Palio) in which Siena's 17 city wards compete, although they are represented by only 10 horses, with the jockeys riding bareback.
This is San Domenico, and within is a lovely chapel dedicated to St. Catherine, where her remains are kept.
Back at La Sovana, our "agriturismo" lodging, we enjoyed a tour of the small winery run by La Sovana's owner, Giuseppe Olivi, and his son Ricardo, under the Olivi Cantine label.
Their facility is about 5 years old, beautifully designed, and state of the art. They take pride in the fact that their grapes are all handpicked and hand sorted for optimum wine quality.
We finished the tour with a sampling of three delicious Olivi red wines. Once again, it was impressive to witness the knowledge and passion that ultimately results in lovely wines, and to see the fresh enthusiasm of 21st century Italian winemakers.
The wi-fi connection has been persnickety so I've fallen behind with posting, and am trying to get caught up. Tuesday we set out for San Gimignano and Siena, but in the end, Siena had to wait.
San Gimignano, another small ancient hilltop town, completely charmed us. Above is one of several piazzas.
And wonder of wonders, they have a Museum of Ornithology (birds) full of beautiful antique specimens once collected by a member of the Del Monte family. The entire collection was donated to the town and is housed in a small frescoed church.
Needless to say, I was in awe. The specimens are superbly posed and most look quite natural, especially given their age, over 100 years old.
Unfortunately the interplay of light on the old glass cases made it hard to avoid odd reflections in the bird photos. Ah, well. It was an amazing display.
There were lovely public gardens behind the bird museum, where this odd blue-tinged bee was hard at work.
Here and there you'd get a view over the wall to the countryside. It really does look like the stuff of paintings in every direction.
But every now and then, there's a reminder that real everyday life does exist behind these magical old facades.
The Tuscan fun continued Monday -- an all day wine tour with a wonderful American expat guide named Patrick Spencer, who took us to three small vineyards.
First stop: Argiano vineyards, owned by the Countess Noeme Marone Cinzano. (Yes, that Cinzano. No, we did not get to meet her.)
This was their tasting line up; our favorite was their 2005 Brunello. It was our first-ever sampling of brunello, which is made from Sangiovese grapes.
Our three destinations were a good distance apart, so we got to enjoy lots of varied Tuscan scenery along the way.
Second stop: the Abbazia de Monte Olivete Maggiore, a beautiful Benedictine monastery south of Siena, where they once made wine only for liturgical use. This is their wine cellar. They make a delightful white, which we later had with lunch in a nearby country taverna.
More scenic driving after lunch...
Last stop: Fattoria Santa Vittoria, where a passionate young winemaker gave us a thorough tour and crash course in small vineyard winemaking. They still handpick the grapes used for their label. Above is the room where their premium Vin Santo wine is aged in old oak barrels.
John with Claudio, the Santa Vittoria vintner. Spending an hour learning about the science of winemaking from him was a treat we'll always remember. Altogether an amazing day. If you ever visit Tuscany, spend a day with Patrick!