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Italy travelblog: St. Peter's trumps the Sistene Chapel

by Berry Tramel Modified: July 1, 2014 at 10:40 am •  Published: July 1, 2014
St. Peter's Basilica. (Photo by Tricia Tramel)
St. Peter's Basilica. (Photo by Tricia Tramel)

Buon giorno.

I’ve heard of Vatican City all my life. But just like a bunch of Rome, what I’d heard and what I experienced was nothing at all alike.

We toured the Vatican on Monday — St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum — and in some ways, it’s as awe-inspiring of a day as walking through the Roman ruins.

The Vatican is an absolute monarchy (they say one of six left in the world), which means it’s independent of Rome and Italy and I guess any other government.

It spans 110 acres (my church back in Norman sits on 36 acres), has a population of 840 and is surrounded by a huge stone wall except for the Piazza Pio XII, St. Peter’s Square. You reach St. Peter’s Square from the Via della Conciliazione, a boulevard which runs from the nearby Tiber River to St. Peter’s Square.

The Square is where you see the crowds of hundreds of thousands gather for special ceremonies and services, where the Pope occasionally will greet the people and make their year.

It’s a stunning place for non-Catholics. I have no idea what it must be like for a Catholic. Here’s what it was like for us.



I don’t know what the Taj Mahal is like. I haven’t made it to the Palace at Versailles. I’ll probably never darken the doors of Buckingham Palace.

But I’ve now seen St. Peter’s Basilica. If it ranks below the European gold medal for opulence, I’ll be surprised. Counting inside and outside, upside and down, St. Peter’s is the most incredible building I’ve ever seen.

The massive cathedral at Vatican City is beyond stunning.

It was designed in part by Michelangelo. Ground was broken in 1506, and the church was completed in 1626. It spans 730 feet in length, 500 feet in width and 452 in height. Its spectacular dome is 137 in diameter on the outer rim, 136 feet on the inner rim.

It is part art gallery, part Christian campus and part crematorium.

Spectacular giant sculptures and magnificent epic paintings. Tombs of popes over thousands of centuries, including St. Peter, per Catholic tradition.

It is billed as the largest church building in the world and the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture.

I couldn’t adequately describe the Colosseum to you; I’m going to fall way short of St. Peter’s Basilica.

But I also got a funny feeling in St. Peter’s. Seemed a little too opulent. OK, seemed way too opulent. Excess.

It’s a strange mix of sacred/historical feelings.

A beautiful cathedral is one thing. A church that would shame Louis XIV is another.

I know all the history and reasons for such largess, and there are valid arguments.

But is that really what the Catholic Church is about? Is that really what any church is about? This was an instructive visit for me. At Lakeside Church of God, when our board meets to decide whether to spend $1,000, or $10,000, on a certain project, is that really what we want to do? Brick and mortar and beauty and art are important. But they are less important than people.

I think the Catholics know that. I think Pope Frances knows that. But let’s not ever forget.



For a good chunk of my life, I thought the Sistine Chapel really was called the Sixteen Chapel. I have no idea why. Maybe for the 16th century. Then I became a little educated. But not a lot.

I walked into the Sistine Chapel on Monday and asked the Dish, “Is this the Sistine Chapel?” A couple of minutes later, I decided to get more confirmation. I asked Darrell Bull the same question.

The answers were the same. I was indeed in the Sistine Chapel. It’s quite impressive. It’s just not what I expected.

I don’t know why I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. But I was expecting a domed ceiling. Not particularly big. Just something gorgeous at the apex of the Sixteen Chapel.

Instead, Michelangelo’s masterpiece (masterpieces?) spreads over 560 square meters (40×14). A virtual history of the Bible, painted by a genius from 1508-1512, lying on his back atop wooden scaffolding.

But I wasn’t blown away. Felt sort of bad about it. Felt like I should have been more impressed. But the Sistene Chapel seemed to be an artistic wonder of the world. Which is great. But I’m more awed by architectural and construction marvels. Probably a character flaw, I know.

But after walking around for a couple of hours looking at the Vatican Museum’s artwork, I was fairly accustomed to epic paintings. Not painted on the ceiling of the Pope’s chapel 500 years ago. But epic.

And the Sistine Chapel has a people-flow problem. The front of the chapel includes an altar and a small area dedicated for Mass. The rest of the chapel basically is an open hall, with benches lining the walls but everything else open. Which means it becomes a mosh pit.

Security personnel constantly are herding people through, asking them to move to the middle or keep moving. It’s not a walk-through experience. To fully take in Michelangelo’s work, you’ve got to stop and study and stare. Not for three or four minutes. For 30 or 40 minutes.

Theresa Marks kept trying to tell us all these interesting things, but it would take me 60 seconds to find the particular painting to which she was referring. Let me sit and contemplate and study it, which I think is what you’re supposed to do with great art, and fine. But to shuttle me through like I’m on a tram at Disneyland?

So I was much more awed by St. Peter’s than I was the Sistine Chapel. They’ve got the wrong Vatican icon.



A few things I noticed at the Vatican:

* You are spared the constant barrage of hawksters on the Vatican grounds. No one’s sticking a rose in your face, wanting a Euro.

* The Vatican itself will be glad to sell you stuff. Two gift shops/book stores were in St. Peter’s, and the Vatican Museum is full of commerce. In fact, you can’t really leave without venturing through a variety of purchasing options.

* The Vatican’s security operation is impressive, led by the Swiss Guard. These guys dress almost like court jesters, but I’m told they are Special Forces-trained and are no-nonsense. You certainly see no one getting out of line.

* Inside St. Peter’s, security dressed like the Rat Pack always are on duty.

They monitor the dress code — no short shorts or skirts, no open-shoulder shirts for male or female. And should a shawl get you in, don’t take it off. They are watching and will pounce.

Also, no photos are allowed of the Mass taking place. Those guys police that, too.



We finally dined outdoors at a sidewalk café, and it was a bummer. For this reason. Those incessant requests to buy stuff off the street — flowers, toys, scarves, same five or six things everywhere you go — follow you even to the table. The Dish and I dined with the Bulls; we went to a little place just around the corner from the hotel, sat at a table on the sidewalk, and probably 10 times in 45 minutes here came someone hawking something.

You would think the restaurants would police it, because it makes you want to scram.

This was not a fancy place, and I didn’t want to eat big anyway, since we have an early morning Tuesday. I had spaghetti with meatsauce and a side of mushrooms that I mixed with it. Darrell Bull had ravioli; Mitchell Bull and the Dish had spaghetti carbonara. It was all solid.

The pasta over here isn’t heavy on the sauce. In fact, if someone asked me how the sauce is, I’d probably have to confess that I haven’t eaten enough to know. I’m sure it’s healthier this way. I’m definitely not overeating, I can tell you that.

The food is not expensive. The four of us ate for 43 Euros, which is something like $58. Not terrible on the streets of Rome.

For lunch during our Vatican break, the Dish and I walked to a nearby café and shared a small pizza and a Greek salad. They apparently gouge you near the Vatican; our food, plus a big bottle of water, was 38 Euros. The Greek salad wasn’t the kind (nor as good) of Greek salad we get back home. It had no dressing, but the waiter brought the standard olive oil and balsamic vinegar, so apparently we were supposed to make our own. Which we did. But the salad did include corn, which I thought was a nice touch. The pizza was sauceless (told you) but very good; mushrooms and sausage.

And the café’s piped-in music got me again. I hadn’t even noticed what was playing. Then suddenly I heard Paul Young. “Every time you go, away; you take a piece of me, with you.”

When I leave, I promise you, I’ll take a piece of Rome with me.



My friend John Allgood, vice president of Prodigal, which runs the Oklahoma City Barons and Oklahoma City Energy, sent me this email after reading about the Colosseum:

“Great blog today on your Rome experience … I, too, was blown away by the Coliseum and its now-present impact on today’s stadiums and arenas. Incredible. The lasting impact of design in today’s world.

“I learned on the trip that during the World Wars that the Italians would take parts of the Coliseum to help with the war efforts. Some of the holes in the structure were punctured to get materials.

“I also walked the entire tour with my iPhone on listening to music. Unfortunately, during the trip I accidentally erased most of my music library. I literally only had five songs. So I listened to Snow Patrol over and over.

“But I loved walking to the sites and getting a feel for the Forum. I was amazed to see how much is still being discovered as there were many sites still being excavated. How much history is still not available to the public.

“In the end, I use my time in Rome as a history lesson for Sport Management teachings. They figured out centuries ago, it’s not just about the event on the playing field. It’s about the entire experience. The community, the stadium/venue and the atmosphere.”



We’re leaving the Hotel Nord at 6 a.m. Tuesday, headed for Venice. I probably haven’t told you enough about it. It’s a cool hotel, but nothing fancy, just like a lot of the urban hotels in America. I’m not even sure of the rate, something around 165 Euros a night or so.

The Nord is something close to what you’d find at a downtown Fairfield or Courtyard by Marriott in New York or maybe Chicago. Small rooms but nice. The walls maybe not as thick as what we’re used to. Each of the last two nights, I heard noise from the other room — some singing, some furniture being moved, that sort of thing. Nothing out of control. I finally figured out it was some of the OU students, so I’m glad I didn’t complain.

The Nord has a complimentary breakfast each morning which includes brown hard-boiled eggs, some Italian meat and cheeses, a variety of breads, fruits and cereal. I’ve had some salami and cheese for breakfast, which is not standard fare in Cleveland County, I can tell you that. And the orange juice is red. Not deep red, or even Coca-Cola red. More like light red. I have no idea what it’s red. Maybe it’s supposed to be red and not supposed to be orange. But red it be.

The best part of The Nord is the rooftop terrace of the seven-story building. A little bar, some tables and sofas. Just a great setting, which looks out over a sliver of Rome, including some ruins. Jim and Julie Sluss like to hang out up there, just let the students know where they’re at in the evenings. We sat with them a couple of nights just chatting and enjoying the views and the great Italian weather, which by everyone’s testimony has been better than ever. Highs in the 80s, cool breezes, not much humidity. The evenings are low 70s.

After days of walking miles to see some of the world’s greatest sights, not a bad way to ease down.



A charter bus was scheduled to pick up the OU group at 9:30 a.m. and take us to the Vatican. Alas, by 9:40, no bus. Theresa Marks called the company, and there was a mixup. The bus was scheduled for the next day. So we improvised.

The entire 29-person delegation marched two blocks over to the train station and caught cabs. Which gave us another experience.

Rome cabbies drive like New York cabbies. They speed up trying to beat a light or a pedestrian, peel in front of another car and are blind to motorcyclists. Nothing really different than in New York, other than a lot more cycles in Rome.

Rome’s official cabs aren’t yellow. They are white. Yellow is much better, since lots of people drive white cars but who drives a yellow car? Rome taxis are smaller cars; New York cab sedans are quite roomy in the backseat. Not in Rome. But the Rome cabs are in better shape. They are scarred up as much as New York’s. Maybe they are more regulated.

After the Vatican, our group of nine — us, the Bulls, Theresa and four students — agreed a cab sounded awfully good, in lieu of a three- or four-mile walk back to the hotel. We split into two cabs, and our cabdriver copped an attitude with Theresa, wanting her to try to speak Italian. He should have heard the rest of us.

But in general, the language barrier has been no problem. Most people you need to converse with can handle a little English. The hotel clerks, the waiters, workers at the tourist attractions.

Most official signs, like at the train station and tourist stops, are in both Italian and English. Sometimes it’s good to be an American. Like, all the times.




by Berry Tramel
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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