I’m sitting in the second-level balcony of our hotel at 11:30pm Roman time, writing this, and it is gorgeous. The view of the city below is spectacular, and the weather is just perfect enough for a light sweater. I still can’t believe I’m here in Italy.. so far, Europe is just as you would imagine it to be and more. The cars are tiny, the streets are narrow and built with cobblestones, and the people are beautiful. (No, seriously. Italians are tall, skinny, and um gorgeous haha.) Since arriving, I’ve already noticed so many things, and my mind has been unable to rest with everything going on around me. With a group of 12 of us, including the disabled grandparents and kids, it’s a little difficult to get around, especially having to push two wheelchairs. But, so far, we get by! We’re just the slower group is all, haha. But I’ll say it again & again; it is so incredible to be here. We’ve had a tiring, eventful past two days so far!
Wed, June 4 | Day One: The plane landed on schedule at around 1:30pm at Leonardo da Vinci airport (cool name right?), and after passing rather quickly through customs–they didn’t give us any papers to declare any items–we met our driver from the Filipino tourism company, who took us on a 20 minute van ride from the airport to the Citi de Vaticano, the Vatican City. Our hotel Residence Candia is literally a few blocks from the giant walls surrounding the Vatican, St. Peter’s Square. It’s a simple, beautiful hotel with apartment-style living and a really nice view of the Roman streets below. We settled in, rested after the long 12-hour flight, and around 7pm we went to a local pizzeria as recommended by the hotel manager, a really nice man who speaks pretty decent, heavily-accented English. A few of us walked around the area around our hotel just to explore the area, & that was my first real impression of Italian culture: speedy Fiats, people walking everywhere, stores open selling every kind of good imaginable. Oh, and pizzerias/gelaterias EVERYWHERE. The pizza we had was delicious! Italian pizza is WAY thinner, and also way cheesier. And the slices are small, but somehow more filling than ever! Not too bad paired with a sweet red wine either 😉 My Uncle Freddy and his family met up with us by then, and it was nice to have our first night’s quiet dinner with the whole family. The restaurant service is top notch and the waiters, all speaking broken English, are really great and helpful! After a quiet dinner, the grandparents and kids settled in for bed, and my Uncle Anthony, Uncle Freddy, Aunt Patricia & I went to explore the Vatican at night to see how the walk would be for our trip there tomorrow. After going down about 4 or 5 blocks, we reached the opening in the towering walls, and entered St. Peter’s square! It is beautiful at night, all lit up and emptied out. There were still people walking around, couples taking pictures, and the moon was bright out. What took my breath away was the giant statue of St. Peter right in front; definitely a site to see. The Vatican is so beautiful, even at night! We were trying to guess which apartment building Pope Francis lives in – I guessed the most simple one, somewhere elevated along the square. It’s crazy to think that this “city” behind walls is also its own self-governing country (within a country). It even has its own post office! I couldn’t wait to see the Vatican and explore more. I went to bed feeling restless, but excited/hopeful for the days to come. My Lolo Pete kept telling me to get some rest, but I could tell he was just as excited too.
Thurs, Jun 5 | Day Two: Morning in the Vatican
First off, waking up in EUROPE after what felt like the longest day ever was the most wonderful feeling. The view from my bed is surreal; Via Candia is right outside, and I love waking up to the sound of cars whizzing by on the street and people chatting, hanging up laundry from their apartment windows across the street. We woke up at 7, & I was finally able to FaceTime with my parents (thank goodness for free Wi-Fi!) and show them around the hotel! Uncle Anthony and I discovered a really pretty hostel with pretty flowers in front, and we had a mini photoshoot hahah. Walked two blocks down the road to a local bakery called Forno, where we had a simple pastry and caffe breakfast. I really like how welcoming and communal everyone is, and instead of sitting at the “bar” they stand at the counter, sipping their cappuccinos (coffee is STRONG here) and making conversation with the baristas. After breakfast, the parents got their phone SIM cards–I’m relying on free wi-fi here–and we made the short walk to the Vatican for the day. Well, first off- the Vatican/St. Peter’s Square during the day is EXTREMELY crowded. I’m talking major tourist spot here; long lines, security guards and tourists everywhere, and hundreds of tour groups. Luckily we found a really nice guide who found us a shorter way to get into St Peter’s Basilica by skipping the line, at 15 euros each, and it includes an audio tour of the Basilica. (We couldn’t get into the Vatican Museum, gardens, or the Sistine Chapel – three hour lines plus a hefty admission fee!) So we waited about 20 minutes for the group to get together before we cut through the line around the square, went through an extensive security check-point (there were body scanners and bag checks), and finally ended up at the front steps of the Basilica. Wow. I was already intimidated by the huge dome, but going inside is ginormous. Aside from the rush of people and cameras flashing everywhere, I was busy taking my own photos but also trying to take in the experience. It was kind of difficult with all the people around, and super easy to get lost, but overall the Basilica is a beauty in itself. Thousands of years old, and lined with huge statues of past popes, large tombs of saints, and many altars. My favorite was the curtained-off Blessed Sacrament altar (we were’t allowed to take pictures inside); adorned with gold, a very ornate setting, but the most quiet and peaceful area of the whole Basilica. I said a few quick prayers for myself and my family before moving along with the rest of the crowd. St. Peter’s Basilica is also home to famous artworks like Michaelangelo’s Pieta, and many paintings done by 14-15th century European artists lining the walls of the church. Elaborate paintings and giant marble sculptures, not stained glass, was definitely more in style back then! After getting my souvenirs at the nearby shop inside the church, talking to one of the guards I soon discovered there was a funeral for a cardinal going on in the very back of the Basilica (closed off), and supposedly Pope Francis was in attendance. UM, WHAT. I tried looking for him/taking as many pictures as I can, but it’s pretty hard to spot the Pope… regardless, it was such a blessing just to be in there, walking in the same places where hundreds of Popes have stood, held masses and other special events. I’m Catholic and definitely nerding out. To think of how old St. Peter’s Basilica/the whole Vatican square is is beyond me – the bones of St. Peter are down below in the catacombs, and I’m standing in a building that dates back to the 4th century Roman Empire. Incredible doesn’t even begin to describe it. I hope to be back again soon!
I later found out this isn’t just any old altar… it’s the tomb of newly canonized Blessed SAINT Pope John Paul II! Out of respect they didn’t allow pictures through the gate so this is as close as I can get. The body of JPII is embalmed inside the white tomb! I knelt at the pews and said a short prayer in gratitude for this amazing moment.
Will post pictures about the rest of my first day in Roma soon, including my adventures taking the European metro for the first time, navigating a Roman map, and seeing the Pantheon & Fontana di Trevi! I have to get some sleep for our early drive to San Giovanni Rotondo tomorrow. Buonanotte!