Monday, 15 October 2012

Vatican City - Day 15

Founded over 2,750 years ago on the seven hills over the site of a Neolithic village near the banks of River Tiber, Rome had grown into the sprawling metropolis that serves as the cultural and political heart of a modern European nation today. After exploring the vast megalithic temples and the classy capital of Valletta in Malta, we felt that it was only natural for us to savour the impressive remnants of the Roman Empire and the grandeur of the Vatican City after making landfall back on continental Europe.

Hotel Marco Polo

Hotel Marco Polo is co-located with a number of other small hotels in a building along Via Magenta which is only a five minute walk away from Rome Termini station.
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The antiquated cage lift in the middle of the stairwell immediately caught our attention. The cage lift can only fit one person together with his luggage at any one time and offered a considerably more authentic experience than the one at the Geneve hostel with its exposed lift shafts and mechanisms.
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Standard double room. Though slightly cramped, the rooms are generally well maintained and the central air-conditioning system offered a welcome respite to the sweltering summer heat. The hotel takes up an entire floor of the building and the individual rooms are laid out on both sides of a maze-like corridor. While some of the rooms offered views of the street below, the windows of our rooms opened out to a central service yard.
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Some of us were offered a complimentary upgrade to a deluxe triple room for the first night due to a lack of rooms. The deluxe room was noticeably larger than a comparable standard room and featured better furnishings and decor. In addition, the individual air-conditioning provided better ventilation than the central air-conditioning in the standard room.
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The complimentary breakfast was served each morning at a small bar area where guests can avail themselves to a standard selection of pastries and juices to start off the day.
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Getting to the Vatican City

After checking out from our deluxe room and transferring our luggage to the other room, we had an early start to our first day of exploration of the Eternal City. Our initial plan was to hop onboard a service 5 or 14 tram from Rome Termini to transfer to another service 19 tram which would bring us to Risorgimento/S. Pietro located near the Vatican Museums. However, the on-going improvement works had cordoned off a large area and our unfamiliarity of the area meant that we were unable to locate the required tram stop. The next option was to hop on a direct bus service 64 from Rome Termini to our destination but this idea was quickly discarded due to its notoriety as having the highest incidence of pickpockets on a Rome public bus. With that in mind, we made our way into the depths of the vast Rome Termini and made use of the city's metro system instead.

Entrance to Rome Termini. The design of the current structure was a result of a competition which was held in 1947 and was inaugurated in 1950. Apart from being the focus hub of Trenitalia's extensive rail services, Rome Termini also serves as a major transfer interchange for the city's two underground metro lines and the adjacent bus terminal.
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The public buses and metro system in Rome are operated by ATAC and passengers have a choice of purchasing a single trip ticket (€1) or a ATAC Roma Day Pass (€4). The single trip ticket allows for multiple bus transfers and a single metro ride within a set duration of 75 mins, while the day pass allows the bearer to enjoy unlimited bus and metro rides throughout the day.

Despite being Italy's most populated city with a resident population of 2.8 million, Rome surprisingly only has 2 underground metro lines as the vast amount of archaeological ruins that remain hidden under the city's streets had frustrated attempts at expanding the system. After purchasing our tickets, we headed down the dim and sparsely decorated corridors to the narrow platform level which featured utilitarian bare concrete walls and exposed overhead electrical viaducts as decor.
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Interior of a CAF (Construcciones Y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles) MA300 series trainset. These Spanish built trainsets are run in a 6-car formation and have a carrying capacity of 1200 passengers with a maximum speed of 90km/h. As first time riders of the Rome metro, we were initially caught off guard by the hard acceleration and braking of the trains while the locals seemed to have accustomed to it.
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After a short ride on Metro Linea A to Ottaviano, we made our way down the leafy Via Ottaviano towards the Vatican City. We were accosted by numerous touts who lined the sidewalk and promoted tours of the Vatican City. With an irresistible offer to bypass the lengthy Vatican Museum queue, these tour groups are known to disperse once past the ticket barriers of the museum. One of us decided to indulge himself in entertaining the touts and we were surprised by the touts' ability to converse in a wide range of languages including Chinese and Japanese.
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ATAC (Agenzia del Trasporto Autoferrotranviario del Comune di Roma) services the comprehensive Rome public transport system with a variety of bus models and rolling stocks used on the city's metro and tram networks. Introduced in 1952, fleet number 7111 is one of over 100 Stanga trams which are actively deployed in revenue service today. This unit was photographed laying over at Risorgimento/S. Pietro tram terminal and waiting to operate the next trip of service 19 towards Piazza del Gerani.
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Vintage but well-maintained interior of an ATAC Stanga tram. The original wooden seats had been retained and the bright yellow validating machines seem to be the sole modern additions to the interior.
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ATAC Irisbus Europolis 7.6 S fleet no. 2048 laying over at the terminal with a paper destination sign stickered on the windscreen. ATAC currently operates a fleet of 70 Irisbus Europolis 7.6 S and 12 examples of the longer 9.2m variant. In addition, ATAC has a sizeable fleet of Iveco 200E.9 which was succeeded by the Irisbus Europolis product line.
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Interior of an Irisbus Europolis 7.6 S. The Irisbus Europolis 7.6 S was introduced into service in 2006 and is powered by an Iveco Tector diesel engine.
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We also made good use of the excellent morning sun to obtain photos of ATAC citybuses and coaches along Piazza del Risorgimento with the walls of the Vatican City in the background. Iveco CityClass fleet no. 3937 was photographed working on ATAC route 49.
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Italian Star MAN Lion's Coach. The integral coach product is comparatively less common as compared to the German manufacturer's integral citybus product, the MAN Lion's City.
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Operated by Proia Bus on behalf of Trafalgar Tours, this two axle Scania coach with Irizar Century bodywork wears the clean and well-defined livery of the prominent UK based tour operator.
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Vatican City - The Holy See
Vatican City is regarded as the smallest sovereign state in the world with a land area of only 0.44 square kilometres and is situated on the western bank of the River Tiber in the city of Rome. Vatican City was established under the terms of the 1929 Lateran Treaty between the Kingdom of Italy and the Holy See, which put an end to the strained relations between Italy and the landless papacy since the unification of Italy in 1861. With its magnificent architecture and monuments, the Vatican City attracts both devout pilgrims and curious visitors around the world. It was also the sixth country that we had visited during our trip.

We made Piazza San Pietro the first priority of our visit to the Vatican City as we would be able to make use of the crisp morning sunlight from the east to admire the sunlit facade of St Peter's Basilica in its full glory. As we continued to head south along Via di Porta Angelica, we caught a very brief glimpse of the famed colourful Renaissance-era tunics worn by the Swiss Guards at the entrance to the Swiss Guards Barracks at Via Sant'Anna. Widely known for their fierce loyalty and devotion, the elite Swiss Guards also serve as the sworn protectors of the Holy See.

As the centre of the Roman Catholic faith, the St Peter's Basilica never fails to awe with its spectacular cupola and ornate Baroque facade. The basilica took over a century to complete since the scope of the church was first laid by Pope Julius II in 1506. The exterior of the basilica is dominated by the 136.5m high dome which was designed by Michelangelo, while much of the elaborate decoration in the basilica could be attributed to the work of Bernini who integrated elements of Roman Renaissance and Baroque into his unique and captivating designs.
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Flanked by a pair of spectacular colonnades at the edges of the piazza, the vast Piazza San Pietro was laid out by Bernini between 1656 and 1667 for Pope Alexander VII. A large photo of the Blessed Pope John Paul II was erected at the southern end of the Piazza during our visit to commemorate the beatification of the Pope which was held on 1 May 2011.

Viewed from above, the surrounding colonnades encircle the ellipse shaped piazza that straightens out towards St Peter's Basilica, and was intended to symbolise the 'motherly arms of the church'. A 25m tall obelisk sits in the middle of the Piazza and was originally shipped to Rome from Heliopolis in Egypt under the orders of Caligula. It took a massive effort to erect the obelisk at its current location in 1586 with the help of 150 horses and 47 winches.
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140 statues of Catholic saints adorn the top of the colonnades that ring the expansive Piazza San Pietro. The semi-circular colonnades are also each supported by four rows of Doric columns.
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Noting the one-way flow of visitors that was enforced to facilitate crowd control, we decided to backtrack to Piazza del Risorgimento and follow the well-marked signs to the entrance of the Vatican Museum instead of seeking a shorter way through St Peter's Basilica. As we had a prior tour reservation, we were able to bypass the snaking queues that had been formed outside the entrance of the Vatican Museum along Viale Vaticano. We were let in by the security guards after a quick verification of our tour reservation printout.
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Vatican Gardens

The Vatican Gardens occupy over half the land area of the Vatican City and apart from the beautifully manicured themed gardens and monuments which date back to the 9th century, offer visitors a rare peek into the inner workings of the fully functional city. However, visitors are only allowed access to the gardens by registering for one of the daily two hour long tours on the Vatican Museum's website. It costs €31 for an adult ticket and includes admission to the Vatican Museum (€15) and a compulsory reservation fee of €4.

With an unparalleled collection of Renaissance artworks and other historically significant artefacts, the Vatican Museum is arguably the world's largest art museum. As such, strict security measures were in place and visitors have to deposit their bags at the cloakroom after passing through a security check. Perhaps as an additional safeguard to allay the fears of visitors in a city that had been beset with security concerns, the entire bag deposit process is under the care of the armed Carabinieri (Italian military police) officers instead of the museum's own staff. The entire process resembled that of an airline baggage check-in counter where individual bags are tagged and a corresponding tag with a 2D barcode is printed out and handed to the person.

We met up with our guide after locating the correct ticket window in the crowded ticketing hall and were issued a radio each. The radio allows tour members to listen the commentary from the tour guide through a pair of earphones without having the guide to raise her voice to make herself heard. However, the radio set had a very limited range and one have to be relatively close to the guide in order to obtain a satisfactory reception. Moreover, the battery of our radio sets barely lasted through the duration of the tour and most of the sets were not functioning after 90 minutes into the tour.

The tour guide led us through the throng of visitors to an architectural scale model of the Vatican City located on the second level of the Vatican Museum.
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We were led through a pair of glass doors onto the grounds of the Vatican Gardens with the magnificent dome of St Peter's Basilica in the background dwarfing the other structures and carefully trimmed vegetation. The Vatican Gardens had been regarded as a place of retreat for the Popes since Pope Nicholas III moved his residence back from the Lateran Palace to the Vatican in 1279.
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The new building of the Pinacoteca (Art Gallery) section of the Vatican Museum was designed by the architect Luca Beltrami for Pope Pius XI and was inaugurated on 27 October 1932. The gallery houses over 460 paintings by renowned Renaissance artists such as Raphael, Giotto and Leonardo da Vinci, of which the latter's famed unfinished work, St Jerome could be viewed.
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Gazing across the manicured lawns of the Giardino Quarttro to the main building of the Vatican Museum. This section contains the Galleria degli Arazzi (Tapestry Gallery) on the upper floor where one could view ten huge tapestries that date back to the 16th century. The renowned Vatican Library, which had been mentioned in several popular novels, occupies the lower floor.
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A statue of one of the patron saints of the faith, St Peter (San Pietro), looking out at the basilica named in his honour. The Vatican City was built upon the site where St Peter was martyred and buried and his original burial site is marked by an ornate Confessione situated in front of the papal altar in the basilica. Visitors can also sign up for a popular tour which leads them into the heart of the crypt under the basilica where they can gaze upon the remains of what was widely believed to be that of St Peter's.
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The Fountain dell’Aquilone, or Fountain of the Eagle, was commissioned by Pope Paul V (Camillo Borghese) in the 17th century to commemorate the arrival of water through the Acqua Paola aqueduct at the heart of the Vatican City. Designed by Vasanzio, the water feature incorporates the Borghese crest in the form of an eagle on top of the fountain.
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The remnants of a casino (which means little cottage) built by Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) as a retreat in the later years of his pontificate could be seen to the south of the Fountain of the Eagle. Surrounded by hedges of bougainvillea, a stone plaque was set into the eastern corner of the villa's wall as a tribute to the Pope.
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The design philosophy of an English Garden is centred on the idealized view of nature and rose to prominence in the 19th century where it started to replace the formal and symmetrical French Gardens in Europe. As we strolled along the gravel paths in the garden, the guide pointed out the extensive use of natural elements in the garden such as the undulating landscape and groves of leafy trees instead of carefully trimmed hedges typical of the French and Italian Garden. The shade provided by the trees and the cool spray of the water from the automated water sprinkler system also provided a welcome respite from the intense morning heat.
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Recreations of gothic ruins and temples are often employed to create the scene of an idyllic pastoral landscape in an English Garden. Some of the decorative ruins in the garden had also been cleverly adapted for more practical purposes in the form of stone benches.
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Situated in a particularly forested area at the western end of the English Garden, the Shrine of Madonna della Guardia was donated to the residents of Genoa by Pope Benedict XV (Giacomo della Chiesa) during his pontificate. This particular shrine is also an oft visited site during the Pope's daily walk.
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We were led past the Marconi Broadcast Centre which houses the Radio Vaticana. Set up by Guglielmo Marconi who had invented the radio telegraph in 1931, the station today broadcasts a wide range of content including international news and religious music in 47 languages.
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The adjacent French Garden also houses the first telegraph array which was used by Guglielmo Marconi to broadcast his first radio message from the Vatican City under the blessings of Pope Pius XI (left). Today, the Vatican City is connected to the rest of the world via a wide array of communication technologies such as satellite transmissions (right).
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The Gardens of the 'Palazzina di Leone XIII', which are often referred to as the French Garden after its neatly laid out paths and hedges, was built in honour of Pope Leo XIII who was the last Pope in the 19th century. Known as the “Delle Sirene”, or The Sirens in English, the two fountains in the garden were a favourite photographic subject of our tour group.
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The French Garden commanded a view of the St Peter's Basilica and the surrounding buildings of the Vatican City.
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Situated at the highest point of the Vatican Gardens at an elevation of 71 metres, the Lourdes Grotto is a replica of the actual site in Massabielle located in south-western France where the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared to St Bernadette in 1858. This replica was donated to Pope Leo XIII by the French in 1902 and an annual torchlight procession takes place in end May every year where the Pope comes to pray at this grotto and greet the crowd of pilgrims participating in the event. While we were not able to witness this spectacle, we were kept entertained by the screeches from a small colony of colourful monk parrots which nested in the nearby trees.
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The interior of the Grotto had been fenced off to preserve the sanctity of the grounds and the original altar which was donated to Pope John XXIII. A small statue of Our Lady of the Virgin Mary is located in a niche above and to the right of the altar and the rock face is covered with a bright green carpet of American ivy.
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Located as part of the ancient Leonine Walls, the St Johns Tower is used to house visiting guests and dignitaries to the Vatican City. The Madonna of Guadalupe sculpture in the adjacent garden commemorates the miraculous event in 1531 where an image of Madonna appeared on the cloak of a Mexican Indian.
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The Papal Heliport (L'Eliporto) was constructed under Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) and is frequently used by the Pope when He travels for official duties. The heliport is guarded by a bronze statue of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa which is erected at the far end of the facility. Apart from the heliport, the Vatican City also boasts its own railway station which is linked to the Rome-Viterbo line but it is currently only used for freight. Regrettably, we were not brought to view this unique station although it is mentioned in the official itinerary on the Vatican Museum's website.
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Olive trees are often associated with the Mediterranean region, and it is no surprise that it had also been a traditional gift offered to the Holy Father by visiting dignitaries. While retracing our path eastwards along the Leonine Wall, visitors were able to admire at close proximity the wizened form of the centuries old olive trees (Olea Europaea L) that had been donated to the Holy See over the years.
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The Italian Gardens are inspired by the geometric designs typical of Renaissance topiary art and feature carefully planted box hedges that are arranged to form a symmetrical motif when viewed from an elevated position.
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A mural of Our Lady of Virgin Mary and Jesus set in the side a brick wall in the Vatican Gardens (left).
The Jubilee 2000 Bell was installed to commemorate the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 in a clearing known as "Capanna Cinese", or Chinese Hut (right).
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The Pontifical Academy of Sciences is located adjacent to the Casina of Pius IV and serves to promote and ensure freedom in the pursuit of further research and studies in pure science. Formed in 1603 as the Academy of the Lincei, the current form now consists of 80 distinguished academics who are personally appointed to the committee by the Pope.
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The final part of the guided tour led us to the oldest part of the Vatican Gardens which was created by Pope Nicholas III in 1279. The Casina of Pius IV was constructed as a summer residence and hunting lodge by Pope Paul IV and was completed during the reign of Pope Pius IV in 1558.
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Designed by Pirro Ligorio, the elaborately carved facade of the Casina complements well with the distinctive dome of the St Peter's Basilica in the background.
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After the 2hr long tour, we were escorted back to air-conditioned comfort of the Vatican Museum.

Vatican Museum

The extensive art collection and gilded halls of the Vatican Museum features highly on the itinerary of most visitors to Rome but we decided to give it a pass due to the crowds and we also did not really have a keen interest in art. Instead, we decided to allocate more time for a more leisurely afternoon itinerary. The museum shop stocks a number of popular guides which are published in an impressive number of versions to cater to the diverse language background of visitors who throng the Vatican Museum.
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As a sovereign country, the Vatican City boasts its own postal service and issues its own stamps and other philatelic products. With a branch of the postal office conveniently located beside the Vatican Museum Shop, we decided to pay a visit to post a postcard back home as a memorabilia of our visit to this unique nation. The Vatican City Postal Service is renowned for its service and efficiency and the friendly staff on duty born testament to that as they handled our requests with ease. We soon had the required €1.60 worth of stamps with a suitable postcard (€0.50) for our purposes (top). While taking turns to pose for photos of us depositing our postcards into the postbox, we also noted another Singaporean with his son at the post office from the Singlish (a variation of English which is unique to Singapore that reflects the multi-cultural diversity of the country) that they spoke!

In addition, one of us with a special interest in philately also purchased a First Day Cover (€3) which commemorated the opening of the Vatican City's Philatelic and Numismatic Museum (bottom). Although the Vatican City is not officially part of the European Union, it adopts the Euro as its official currency and also mints its own Euro coins. Unfortunately, we did not have the fortune of laying our hands on one of such coins during our trip as they often end up in the hands of collectors rather than in active circulation!
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The iconic spiral staircase leads from the Vatican Museum to the exit at street level and was designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932. The ramp is actually made up of two neatly intertwined spirals but one of the ramps had been sealed off as only one direction is in use. As with many other visitors to the Vatican Museum, we had fun attempting long exposures with the people heading down the ramp creating a motion blur effect.
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