Sicily Tour 2016

Day 1 Saturday November 19, 2016

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There was no argument about the first stop in the airport.

I was wide awake at 5 a.m. I decided to check the flight's progress on the little screen on the back of the seat in front of me. It was not easy; the top of that seat was near my chin. I had to scrunch down a little just to see the screen, and every movement in that cramped position was painful. We were almost to Brest, the westernmost point of France.

They spelled my name right this time.

An hour or so later the lights in the cabin came on, and the flight attendants began passing out breakfast, which was a sort of pop-tart that was empty of filling throughout most of its bulk. I also got a glass of orange juice.

The guy in front of me finally raised up his seatback. At least I could move my legs a little at this point. I looked around. Everyone on the plane looked ugly, and I do not exempt myself.

We finally landed at about 7:15. The sky was getting brighter, but it was still a very bleak picture. It appeared to be raining as we approached Leonardo Da Vinci Airport in Fiumicino.

Three hotels shared this building and its only elevator.

After touchdown the plane drove around for quite a few minutes, and it did not appear to be going toward the terminal. It was instead headed for a parking place that seemed at least a mile from the terminal. Sue and I were among the very last to depart the plane, which meant that we had no chance of claiming seats on the bus.[1] My lower back was in considerable agony standing on the bus as it maneuvered its way toward its destination. The combination of not being able to move for hours on end and the cramped standing on the bus—it must have been at least a ten-minute ride— was as much as my tendinitis could bear. At that point I absolutely hated Alitalia, and I was determined never to fly on its planes on any future trips.

Note the barricades, the security tent in front of the Lateran Palace, and the blue sky. The Scala Sancta is across the street from the Palace on the right. The obelisk is behind the palace on the right.

When we finally reached the terminal things improved. We had no trouble at passport control. The line was slow, but the officer who processed us was too busy talking on his cell phone even to say “Ciao.” He paid little attention to us as he used the elbow of his phoning arm to hold down the passports while he stamped them with his other hand.

This is the Holy Door that Pope Francis opened on December 13, 2015, in honor of the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

We found our luggage, noticed that there did not seem to be anyone at all interested in what we were bringing into Italy, and proceeded to the exit. We soon located our driver, who was holding a sign with my last name on it. He spoke just enough English to tell me that he would not be able to accept our credit card despite the written assurance from his company that he could. Welcome to the Italian way of doing business.

Constantine is the only one allowed to wear a short skirt in the basilica.

At my behest Sue had obtained several hundred dollars worth of euros before we left. So, we did not need to avail ourselves of the ripoff bancomat that the driver indicated was available. The drive in the black Mercedes from Fiumicino to the Hotel Selene was uneventful. The man at the desk welcomed us and checked us in. It was not even 9 a.m. yet, and so he could not give us the key to our room. He assured us that it would be ready by lunchtime. We rearranged things a little,[2] and left our suitcases at reception. I set off for St. John's Basilica at the Lateran via the Metro. Sue wanted to find a place to sit and drink a cappuccino. She had proven herself perfectly capable of stretching this out to be a three-hour activity.

There was no wedding in the Corsini Chapel this time, but the gate was intimidating.

The San Giovanni Metro stop was only three away from Termini on Linea A in the direction of Anagnina. I was very happy to find a seat on the train that arrived just as I got to the platform. At the first stop a woman dressed in tattered clothes and carrying a baby entered the car and stood at the back even though there were several empty seats. Once the train started moving she began this weird song during which she walked up and down the car and asked everyone for money. She snarled at people who turned her down. At the next stop she got off of the train.

This photo of the Corsini Chapel was shot through the gate. It was the best that I could do.

I got off at the San Giovanni stop, which is just outside the city walls. The Lateran complex is just inside the walls. Unlike the last time that I was here, I figured this out immediately and proceeded toward the basilica. Three things surprised me. The most obvious was the security.[3] I just walked in unchallenged the last time that I was here in 2011. On this occasion a makeshift barricade of what looked like bicycle racks had been placed in front of the basilica. In addition, I could see on the left side of the church, which was where people were exiting, two soldiers apparently bearing automatic rifles. On the right was a makeshift tent that served as the only entrance. Inside was an x-ray machine, a scanner, and two heavily armed soldiers.

This is the entry for Peter in the collection of statues of the apostles. He always has his keys in one hand. Boromini designed the basilica, but the statues were provided decades later by various sculptors.

I bet that "The House of the Rising Sun" would sound great on this organ.

The other noteworthy difference was the presence of beggars on the outskirts of the piazza in front of the basilica. This really surprised me, especially because the tourist season, if not totally ended, was at least close to the end.

The best surprise was the change in the weather. The sun was out, and it was so bright that I switched to my sunglasses as soon as I exited the Metro station.

The security tent was not much of a hassle. I ran my backpack and camera through the scanner, but no one seemed to be checking the screen. The two soldiers were chatting up some nuns. The metal detector made a noise when I walked through, but no one paid any attention.

Behold the pope's official throne.

On the way inside the basilica I stopped to snap a few photos of the statue of Constantine. He moved the empire's capital to Constantinople in the fourth century, but he also officially established and enforced freedom of religion[4] and donated a lot of property to the Church, including all of the Lateran complex. At the time of the donation it belonged to Constantine's second wife, Fausta.

Once inside I made a beeline for the Corsini Chapel. The iron gate was locked this time, but I managed to get a few awkward photos of the interior. You can see a much more impressive 360-degree photo of the chapel at this website. I think that the huge painting behind the altar depicts Pope Clement XII, an uninspiring pontiff in the eighteenth century whose family name was Corsini. Some remember him as the man who installed the Trevi Fountain, but he also outlawed Freemasonry and made membership a capital crime. Benjamin Franklin was a founding member of the first American lodge in the first year of Pope Clement's pontificate. In central Italy that act might have gotten him hanged or burned at the stake.

I expect a short match. Paul, as always, has a sword; Peter has those lousy keys.

The soldier guarding the exit was, needless to say, a long way away when I snapped his photo.

The interior of the basilica contains oversized statues of the original apostles (except Judas) as well as St. Paul. Statues of Saints Peter and Paul are also in a cage at the top of the baldachino. Don't ask me why. I know that the two of them sometimes squabbled, but I have never read about them facing off in a cage match.

I noticed that some of the confessionals were in use. On each was the name of the priest and what language(s) he spoke.

It tooke me a while to find the entrance to the Scala Sancta.

I spent some time taking photos of the art and statues and then I exited. The soldiers outside the door were dressed in camos and they were definitely carrying automatic rifles at port arms. I never thought that I would see this. It really bothers me that the so-called free world has become so paranoid and militarized.

This Scala is not Sancta.

Before the trip I had purchased a very nice city map of Rome. I withdrew it from my backpack to help me locate the Scala Sancta. I was pretty certain that the building identified as housing it was across the piazza from where I had exited. The entrance on the side that I was facing was clearly boarded up. The map seemed to indicated that the functioning entrance was on the opposite side of the building. I walked all the way around to that side. There was no entrance there, but ahead of me I could see a paved piazza with a very large obelisk in the center. As I walked towards the obelisk, I discovered to my left the entrance to the building that housed the Scala Sancta.

This one is.

I saw a few of the faithful kneeling on the steps. Other people were walking up, some prayerfully, some with determination. I ascended the steps and was surprised to find at the top a chapel on the right. I sat there and took out my Rick Steves Rome book.[5] I read that the Sancta Sanctorum was at the top of the Scala Sancta and that there was another set of stairs to the right. I realized that I must have walked up the side stairway. I walked over and found the Sancta Sanctorum, which is now devoid of precious relics and is only rarely used by the pope as a chapel. On that day it was just a black room. The Scala Sancta, on the other hand, was filled with people on their knees. I don't believe for an instant that that stairway ever belonged to Pontius Pilate,[6] but the dedication of those who did was impressive.

I am not sure why they put a statue of Pio Nono, the last of the Pope-Kings, here.

I had noticed that the basilica had a set of public bathrooms on the left side of the nave. More than an hour remained until my meeting time with Sue. It seemed like I should take advantage of the available facilities. I therefore walked back to the basilica. I had to stand in line for a few minutes. The men's room was extremely unimpressive. Relieved that I only needed to do #1, I wondered if it had been upgraded since Constantine's time. Incidentally, I did take a photo, but it is too gross to make the cut for this journal.

The main altar in the basilica.

I exited the basilica again and padded back to the obelisk. I wanted a photo, but I had to walk all the way to the other side in order to get a shot that was not blocked by phone and power lines. Form there I could read the inscription, which retold in Latin the ridiculous story of the Donation of Constantine, which has been universally recognized as a forgery for almost eight centuries. I guess that nobody ever felt the need to shell out the money needed to provide a base that was not a blatant lie. It is not as if the popes over the centuries were reluctant to build, destroy, or even change monuments.

This is the largest obelisk in Rome.

I took the Metro back too Termini. When I arrived I still had about forty-five minutes to kill before the meeting time that Sue and I had agreed to. I took the escalator down to the bookstore in the basement of Termini. It had a lot of books on a lot of different subjects, but I could not find a section devoted to biographies or history. They must have had at least ten biographies of Pope Francis and several of Pope John Paul II in the religion section.

The inscription says that Constantine, conqueror through the cross, baptized here by St. Sylvester, propagated the glory of the cross.

I then found a rare place to sit near the elevators and did some people-watching. A lot of people wore plain white Adidas tennis shoes. Most of them had the usual three black stripes, but several were wearing the Stan Smith model in which the stripes were perforations. Stan served in the army at the same time as I did. I wonder if he made a fortune on that shoe contract – the same design for more than four decades. A fair number of girls sported Converse All-Stars high tops.

An amazing number of people were wearing quilted jackets. The temperature, after all, was in the sixties. Maybe they were showing off that they were ready for winter.

I never even noticed the threatening clouds on the other side of the ancient walls.

I walked around the Termini mall for a few minutes. Then I went upstairs and sat near the ticket-selling machines. Some people were having trouble getting the machines to work. The man next to me yelled something at them (or maybe at the machines). After the people gave up on buying the tickets he started a different rant with too many uses of “bianco” and “nero” for my taste. I arose and went outside.

I spent three hours beneath this bizarre canopy over our bed.

It was not raining, but I was surprised to see quite a few puddles. Evidently a substantial rain had occurred while I was sitting in the train station. I started to walk toward the hotel, but I still had a few minutes to kill. I went past the reception office and sat for a few minutes on some concrete in front of the Rome Opera House, which was about a block from the hotel. When I finally got to the reception area, the clerk informed me that Sue had already picked up the key and the luggage and was in room 428.

The buffet at Il Botticelli.

It was a very nice room, but a long way from the elevator. We discovered that only one of our adapters worked with the Italian electrical system. We would need to purchase another one.

We needed to eat lunch. We looked for the pub in which Tom and I had shared a beer or four in 2011, but we could not find it. We settled on a buffet at a very modern restaurant named Il Botticelli. The fare was so-so, but the price was quite reasonable.

The ultra-modern interior at Il Botticelli.

Sue and I then napped for three hours.

When I woke up Sue asked me where the power supply for her computer was. I thought that I had packed it in my suitcase, but I could not find it. I took everything out of the suitcase, and there it was at the bottom. I was very relieved. The computer would never make it fourteen days without recharging.

I am not sure what this niche at Il Botticelli was used for.

I got caught up on my journal while Sue messed around on the computer. We decided to walk over to La Famiglia, a family-run restaurant that we had enjoyed all three times that we had been in Rome. I nearly got run over once.

Good food at good prices at La Famiglia.

My spaghetti alle vongole e cozze was just fair, but the gran grigliato was excellent. All four of the pieces of meat were delicious. The prices seemed very low. The guy at the next table had a large bowl of very hearty soup, the same spaghetti dish that I ordered, and an entire pizza.

The service was not up to par. There was quite a crowd; perhaps the restaurant's management did not expect to be so busy in November. Still, Sue and I had a good time reminiscing.

My luck was definitely holding up. It was raining when the plane landed. It rained while I was in Termini, and it rained again while we were napping. I never felt a drop.

It felt really good to be back in Rome.

[1]  Needless to say, the rain stopped shortly before we left the confines of the plane's cabin. Incidentally, Alitalia's safety video pronounced the word “cabin” as KAY bin.

[2]  I made the mistake of forgetting to remove the computer from my backpack. Consequently I was forced to tote it around the entire morning. I was already quite tired when I started. I certainly did not need all that extra weight.

[3]  The basilica is the pope's cathedral in Rome. Daesh had threatened the Roman Church in 2014.

[4]  After the famous battle at the Milvian Bridge Constantine even converted to Christianity and made Christianity the official religion of the empire.

[5]  For my money the Michelin book is much better, at least in its descriptions of major attractions like the basilica.

[6]  The legend is that St. Helena, Constantine's mother, brought the staircase back from Jerusalem. She also supposedly located Jesus' cross, the lance used to pierce his side, the tomb from which Jesus rose, and lots of other relics.