Thursday, January 14, 2010

Mickey Mouse Says Ciao, Baby!

St. Peter’s View, 1996

My wife and daughter and I flew to Rome one Christmas Day. We knew that most of the museums and other attractions were closed the day after Christmas, but assumed that between the jet lag, the unfashionable location of our hotel and the cold—it never got above 27F the whole time we were there—that we wouldn’t want to be very busy on the day we arrived.

St. Peter’s basilica is open every day. So we chose that as our only destination for the day. On our walk over to the Vatican City, we stopped at a basement pizza joint where they apparently think the Mickey Mouse drawing up by the sidewalk is a magnet for American tourists. We were Americans, weren’t we? We were coming in for pizza, weren’t we? The truth was this was the only place we could find open. We’d have come in if there’d been a portrait of Mussolini on the wall.

My wife and I had been to St. Peter’s the summer before when the temperature was almost 100F. I’d read that there was an elevator that went to the top of the cupola, but our summer tour didn’t allow enough time to check it out. It was too blasted hot to go up there anyway. But on this cold December day with little else to do, I suggested that we pay the few euros involved and see what the view offered.

It turns out the elevator only goes to the roof of the basilica. But a cheery attendant assured us that it was a short climb from there to the top of the dome. A broad ramp with a gentle rise beckoned us. And what a view of the church below!

But, oh, those wily Catholics!

About the time you’ve gotten out of sight of the elevator landing on the one-way ramp to the top of the dome, the ramp narrows abruptly and transitions into a series of very steep stairs. When my wife started to complain about the climb, I tried to encourage her by telling her the stairs would warm us up on that cold day. Besides, I said, we were on a one-way path and there were people in front of us and behind us. There was no going back.

If you’ve been to St. Peters and climbed to the top of the dome, you know that the broad ramp gives way to the stairs and the stairs give way to even narrower and steeper stairs. Before long, the curve of the dome starts hemming you in and the stairs themselves are barely wide enough for one person. (You wander what the swarthy tourists do in the summer when it must be hot as hell in there?) At one point you find yourself on a circular stone staircase that has no railing and is so narrow and steep that the only thing to hang on to is a rope that hangs down through the center of the stairs.

Of course, it was no warmer when we stepped out onto the narrow balcony of the cupola at the top of the dome than it was down below. In fact, there was a stiff wind, which combined with late afternoon temperature well below freezing made it a pretty miserable place to stand. My daughter and I darted outside a couple of times, made a few circuits of the cupola and had a good laugh over the adventure. I snapped a few pictures. The view really is impressive.

Then we did the same trip in reverse down the other side of the dome. On the walk back to the hotel we discussed where we might have dinner that night. But that turns out to have been a moot issue. We decided to take quick naps before dinner and not one of us woke up before the next morning.


  1. That's a good story. My dad told me he'd gone up into the dome like that, but he never mentioned the small detail of that climb. Your photos are fabulous!

    It's so true--that first jet lag hits you so badly. I was in Delft once, and I was supposed to go to a Delft manufacturing facility, and had set my alarm for "pm" instead of "am," and overslept. I tore out of that place like a bat out of hell to get there when I did wake up.

  2. Great story. I felt almost nervous as you described your ascent of the stairs! Thank goodness you didn't describe the descent. I might have had to stop reading....