|(From top) The beautiful Vatican by dawn; view of the bell tower of the historical Farfa Abbey at Sabina; an ornate sculpture by the noted Baroque sculptor Bernini
Photographs by author
This may sound sacrilegious — to even talk about any other church in the same breath as the Basilica of St Peters, the power centre of the Roman Catholic Church. But the two loveliest outings of my eight day visit to Italy were a morning at the Vatican and one at the Abbey of Farfa in Sabina and I cant help talking about the two together.
The Basilica of St Peter transcends all expectations. No written word or picture can come close to describing the reality of this opulent, artistic and architectural delight — a tribute to Italian Renaissance style and Baroque traditions. Along with my companions on this trip, Isabella, a French Canadian, and Sergei, a Tamil-speaking Russian, I gaped at the splendour and beauty on display. Truly, every marble speaks a story here.
We were lucky to have these stories explained in detail to us by our Italian friend Franco Oliva, who lives just a few blocks away from the Vatican. The 60-something art aficionado knows every stone here and his descriptions made this trip to the Basilica special. For instance, he pointed out how the Vatican church is not above showing off its superiority in size — there are subtle markings on the nave which give the length of St Pauls in England and Seville Cathedral and demonstrate how much larger this church is.
Franco lovingly took us through the contributions of Raphael, Michelangelo, Maderno and Bramante, and the story of how the architecture of the Basilica evolved, throwing in gossipy nuggets about various Popes and Roman nobles.
But its his tales of Bernini, the Baroque sculptor and architect, that captured my imagination. He designed the bronze canopy over the central altar (under which rests St Peters tomb). Under the four heavy columns, Bernini has wickedly sculpted the face of the Popes niece, who he had heard was pregnant. In fact, he showed her in various stages of pregnancy and childbirth, managing to depict the contractions of labour on marble most evocatively.
Franco showed us other examples of Berninis architectural conceit. Take the very entrance, the great plaza of St Peters, shaped like a mothers welcoming embrace. The geometrical accuracy with which the Corinthian pillars that are the welcoming arms of the church are designed is astounding. At the centre of the plaza on either side of the obelisk is a circular stone on which if you stand, the four rows of giant pillars merge and appear as though they are one.
It took almost three hours to tour the church and the grotto underneath where the Popes are buried. In the grotto, you could make out who is the most loved Pope of all — the crowds were milling around John Paul IIs tomb.
If the Vatican left us speechless by its grandeur, the Abbey of Farfa, a couple of hours drive away from Rome, in the lovely province of Sabina, left us captivated by its serenity. Pastoral charms are the speciality of Sabina, where you can see the best of Italys rural countryside. In the olden days, the Abbey used to control the entire Sabine region, and huge parts of Central Italy. Simona, our guide, told us that the Abbey, which had Charlemagne as its protector, ranks among Europes most famous medieval buildings.
The drive up the hill where the Abbey is located has beautiful views with the rolling green hills interspersed with vineyards and olive farms. The olive is the cultural symbol of the Sabine countryside and the region boasts the largest olive tree in Europe, dating back some 2,000 years ago, which we stopped to look at. Sergei had us in splits when he offered: The produce of this tree must be called Extra Old Virgin Olive Oil.
Bathed in sunlight, and dotted with gorgeous flowers, the Abbey is like a picture postcard. Its tough to imagine the past when the abbeys powerful Benedictine monks opposed the Pope and this was a centre of intrigue and plotting.
We were the days only visitors and we got a personal guided tour from one of the Abbey volunteers. Accompanied by a family of tubby grey cats we started out from the courtyard at the bottom of the Bell Tower, then through winding corridors to a room where the Roman sarcophagus from the 2nd century BC is locked in a vault. The library here boasts 35,000 books, many of them dating back probably to the time when the first Latin texts were written. Distracted by the gambolling cats, two of us managed to get locked in the room and had to be rescued.
In the Museum wing we were transported back to medieval era by the furnishings and artifacts. There were quaint dragon sculptures, and a rather eerie parade of silent monks marching.
Emerging out of there, we reached a terrace that opened out into a vineyard. When our guide said that the Abbey even offers rooms to visitors, all of us promptly noted down the numbers. However, the more popular options for stay are the farm houses in the Fara district, renowned for their cuisine. We learnt that Spaghetti alla Carbonara was created in Sabina. Indeed, Sabina is very popular for Italian cooking tours — customised holiday packages where along with culinary classes, there are visits to olive groves, the Farfa Abbey, and medieval stone villages on the hilltop.
Getting there: Romes main airport is Leonardo da Vinci airport. You get flights from just about anywhere to Rome. Alitalia, Italys national airline, operates flights from all over the world.
Accommodation: There are numerous options available ranging from budget, business, tourist and luxury to bed and breakfasts and apartments as well.
Currency: 1 EUR = 62.88 INR
Web Watch: www.italiantourism.com