The Angels and Demons Tour was, perhaps, the highlight of my trip to Rome. In fact, if you can, re-read the book before you take the tour. I read the book when it first came out, and re-watched the movie recently to ensure I had brushed up on the plot line. However, after the tour, the differences in the plot between the book and movie are like night and day. Many parts of the book are left out, and the ending is completely changed… forgot about that…
Our tour guide was an alternative fellow, but the kind with whom you could immediately find something in common. He was animated, knowledgeable, and approachable. I mean, his copy of Angels and Demons was dog-eared, and in Chinese, for goodness sakes. I think he knew what he was talking about.
We started out our morning early, but for me, I had a shit night’s sleep. At 6:45am, we headed down to our hotel’s free buffet breakfast included with the room rate. If you can find a deal like that in Rome, I say go for it. Totally worth it to pack you up with nutrients you’ll need for the day. My favorite was the somewhat runny scrambled eggs and hot dog “breakfast sausages.” Note the sarcasm there. I had a double espresso and a couple of glasses of water to jump-start my day. Helpful.
Also, something I’ve learned in Rome – if you’re just going out in the heat to walk around, you might as well not shower before going out. If you want to be a true Italian, use the bidet in your hotel room, or as my mother calls them, take a “whore’s bath.”
I did just that, but figured visiting so many churches today would set my whorish ways right again (but not straight.) We travelled on the metro for the first time on this trip, and the stop for Piazza del Popolo was only 3 stops away. From the Republicca stop, this may seem easy, but not when your train is crowded for the Friday morning commute at 8:30am.
We arrived to a nearly empty Piazza del Popolo, but for those passing through to get to work in the winding streets surrounding the plaza. We noticed immediately the giant Egyption obelisk in the middle of the square, and noticed even more the temporary fencing indicating it, too, like most of the city, is undergoing renovation. The hideous fencing usually includes some kind of advertising – the Michael Kors ad at the Spanish Steps yesterday was enough to turn me off to the steps, unfortunately.
As with many of the piazzas in Rome, the statues were beautiful and the architecture was impressive. Here are some of my better photos there:
Within the Piazza del Popolo, is the first stop in Dan Brown’s book “Angels and Demons” – inside the Santa Maria del Popolo church on the north side of the plaza. Inside are tombs for some of the wealthier families, of which Gian Lorenzo Bernini was commissioned to design the tomb for one such family. Their family crest looks like a pyramid of hills, and helps create the background for the first of the elements used in the “altars of science” – earth.
There is a great story the tour guides will share with you about the angel in this particular church, and what it’s actually pointing at. Also, in real life, as of today, the tip of the angel’s finger was broken off mid knuckle. Poor angel. It is the old story of Daniel in the lion’s den, and Habakkuk (pronounced ‘habba-cook’) with his picnic basket. There are statues of both within the tomb – have a look:
I don’t want to ruin the story for you if you decide to do the tour yourself, and I’d hate to be sued by the tour company or guide for infringement on their trade secrets, so I’m leaving that story out. Suffice to say, you learn something new every day, and that was my new thing today.
The demon’s hole in the poem which provides the clues to the altars of science at this particular one was actually the hole in the ground, which leads down to a crypt where the actual bodies are kept. This was the demon’s hole in the tomb:
The next stop on our journey was to St. Peter’s Square inside Vatican city for the “air” altar of science. Luckily, we made a separate trip the day prior to the tour to see the Sistine Chapel and Vatican museums, and had plenty of time to take in the square. The tour left us 10 minutes to get to the square and find the angel there, which would continue pointing us on our lofty quest. If you can, I recommend you head back to the square outside of the tour because we simply didn’t have time to do it justice.
Also, though, Dan Brown did take some liberties here – there are actually 16 of these “angels” in the real square, showing various directions – west, south-west, and south-south-west, for example in just one quadrant of the full circle. There seems to have only been 1 related to wind in the book. I got some good pictures of some of them, but not all. Also, the family crest with the hills is actually present at the top of the square in a few different places where Alexander is mentioned. Turns out the family with the “earth” crypt in Santa Maria del Popolo was also the family that raised the future 7th Pope of the Catholic religion, and Bernini was again commissioned to design the square, therefore the crest was repeated in the square. Another thing I did not know.
Every Wednesday and Sunday the Pope gives a Papal blessing to an audience at the square, and you have to purchase tickets in advance to be able to get a seat, if you are into that kind of thing. The chairs are also set up on off days and roped off, why I cannot tell you. Except that it must take them a long time to set up the chairs, so perhaps they do it days in advance? We didn’t do that on this trip, as it was not a high priority to us. But I would recommend, if you are interested in the Sistine Chapel and Vatican museums, to buy your tickets online ahead of time and use “skip the line.” We were inside the museum within 10 minutes, and it’s easy to get confused with all the queues around St. Peter’s Square where you need to go, once you arrive there. The queue for the Sistine Chapel is actually a couple of blocks away, and we didn’t stand still once as we had a 12:30pm appointment/ticket time. We were promptly let in with no delay. However, the “skip the line” tickets for the Colosseum were a bit of a joke. That place is a clusterfuck all the time, and has a line for buying tickets and a line for “skip the line” (which was, in fact, longer than the line to buy the tickets that day.) But I digress…
Back to my task at hand, sharing of the various stops of the Angels and Demons tour. The angel in the book, the “only one” was the Western wind that blows to the east, so the next stop is in the eastern part of Rome. This is also where the history went into a story I’d never heard, that of Saint Teresa of Avila, originally from Spain. She was born in 1515, thus this would be the 500th anniversary of her birth this year. Our guide informed us she actually has an autobiography, and it reads a bit like the 50 Shades of Grey novel, except, you know, by a nun. The story got a bit racy, to explain the work of art at stop 3, Saint Teresa in Ecstacy, in the Santa Maria della Vittoria Church.
That particular church is a bit nondescript compared to its two church neighbors. The Santa Maria degli Angeli was rebuilt using secondhand bricks by Leonardo da Vinci, and Santa Susanna alle Terme di Diocleziano was based on a much less racy and more saintly saint, Saint Susanna. The outside wouldn’t clue you in to what’s inside. But this was probably my most favorite part of the tour because it was a completely foreign and new story to me.
Bernini was also commissioned to create a work in Santa Maria della Vittoria that portrayed the story of Saint Teresa and her 12-seraphim-angel vision (our tour guide quoted some of her dream/vision, and yes, the author of 50 Shades of Grey might even blush and get hot flashes.) The story was so cutting edge for its time, especially being written by a nun, and the work of art itself so subtly portrays her tale.
You can tell the eyes of Saint Teresa are closed, yet her mouth is parted – you can almost hear the sighs and moans escaping her lips. Her toes are barely curled – and that is all you will get of her story from this piece of art with the 3rd angel on the “fire” altar of science. One could argue the fire comes from Saint Teresa’s loins on this one… but I’ll leave that to you to decide. I didn’t really ask about the connection to fire, and just assumed it was more poetic license Dan Brown took with his story. Let’s just say I know what I’m getting all my gay boy friends for Christmas – this nun’s autobiography, 500th anniversary edition…
Our 4th stop on the tour was an obelisk fountain in the center of Piazza Navona, depicting the four rivers through papal authority had spread (Nile in Africa, Danube in Europe, the Ganges in Asia, and the Rio de la Plata representing the Americas), again designed by Bernini. Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi was the “water” altar of science in Dan Brown’s story.
We had just long enough here to hear the story, and the Piazza is full of art, music, and life. At one point, Emperor Nero had it commissioned to be a circus. There were beautiful cafés down winding cobblestone streets here, with typical Roman windowfronts and bougainvillea on window ledges. This is the quaint Rome we all know and love. We had a break and a drink at a local café, and I loved the wall of star jasmine flowers and vines for the façade.
After our break, we walked to Castel Sant’Angelo, right on the Tiber river, and where the series of events in the story comes to a thrilling crescendo. The Castel is beautiful, with angels on either side of the bridge, leading up to the entrance. The angels depict the stations of the cross, and what happened to Jesus during the crucifixion.
This was also the mausoleum for one of the most loved emperors of Rome, Hadrian. I didn’t know the in depth history of the emperors of Rome, so again, I found learning something new and factually historical to be quite interesting. It was demolished by barbarians and pillaged by the Vatican for marble, and over a thousand years later, it was added upon with the Castel built up from the top of the original tomb for Hadrian.
I liked this part of the tour, because at the top, one could see a beautiful panoramic view of the city, everything. When you look towards the Vatican City, you can even see Il Passetto di Borgo, which links the castle to Vatican city. In my photo below, it’s literally the street to the right of the picture along the Vatican wall. This is not an underground or secret passage – this is an above ground corridor that serves as an escape route for the Pope in the event of an emergency. That bit of my conspiracy theory fascination was put out a little, to learn it was not like the catacombs in Paris, a series of underground passageways held in dark secret. But, it’s still interesting anyway.
This was the last stop on our tour, and a great place to end, with the view of the entire city. Again, I don’t want to spoil the story, so you will need to take the tour yourself to tie it all together with the story.
We wandered back to the side streets near Piazza Navona afterwards to a café and had a great 10€ meal of the perhaps the tastiest bruschetta I’ve ever had in my life, with the freshest tomatoes ever, and a simple margarita pizza with chunks of real buffalo mozzarella. We took the bus back to our hotel, being adventurers and unwilling to spring for a taxi.
A funny thing happened on the bus back, though, something that has never happened to me before today. The bus got very crowded, and was moving slowly in traffic. I’ve been on crowded public transportation before, but never before have I almost fainted. Yes folks, I couldn’t breathe, and was stretching my face close to the window as I could get. Luckily, a local Indian girl who spoke English must have seen the sweat rolling down, the whiteness in my face and my labored breathing. She let me have her seat, as my right arm went completely numb. I probably freaked out my friend, who was standing just next to me, poor thing. I’m alright now. I wasn’t hot or anything, but the sweat was a reaction to the lack of oxygen, I think. I don’t think it’s sunstroke, as I got better after sitting, and even getting off the bus entirely. But that has left me quite drained since, and I probably won’t be doing too much in the way of activities tonight. So yes, you don’t have to be old, fragile, or a smoker to nearly faint on a bus. It was only 25°C/77°F, so it wasn’t even the peak of what it would be in the summer.
I’m now going to engage in some reverse corgi sploots (translation: resting on my back) and deep, but not heavy, breathing. I have great memories of the sights today to which I might otherwise have not attached any importance. I have some great photos of the ancient works of art this city holds. Over and out…