A young couple stands at the bus stop, gently holding hands, and speaking softly to each other. I stand near them, in a lightweight Italian-made white polo shirt and gray Haggar pants. My shirt is drenched in sweat. I can feel it running down my back. It is the end of the week, the hottest second week in June since 1742. The temperature nudges ninety-five degrees, and the humidity is just as high. The sun is shining brightly overhead, and a warm breeze provides little comfort as it makes its way down Via Balduina.
Presently, the bus comes. Few people are on it; it's siesta time. There is an attractive woman sitting with her mother, and another sitting alone. The couple decides to stand near the front. I sit across from the woman and her mother. The ride is mostly silent, with an occasional soft word here and there. It's too hot to talk. It's too hot to even think.
The bus stops near the Vatican. I get off, and saunter toward Saint Peter's square. Around me, the symphony of languages has shifted to a mixture - here Italian, there German. I walk around the square, between the columns. The square is nearly empty, but the area between the columns is laden with people seeking refuge from the heat. To my right, boys and girls around 10 years old play, smacking each other with wet bandannas while babbling in Italian. On my left, children and adults gather round a seated nun, listening in rapture to her story. I wonder if it's Sunday school, or just conversation. Then I notice she is not alone - other nuns are doing the same, all while wearing the old black outfit and habit. Parents walk their children; families map out where they wish to go. As I near the basilica, a crowd is forming. Flags held high in the air represent tour guides attempting to gather their flocks. The crowd pushes slowly forward. Do I need a ticket? Is that the hold up? I don't remember needing one last time - I just walked in.
But that was May, 2001, and the world was a different place then. We all lived in safety - terrorism happened only in the third world. Then came September 11th, the worst birthday my friend Miguel has ever had. And now we wait at the basilica for the Polizia to pass over each of us with a metal detector.
Once inside, it's easy to find the Cupola entrance, but not so easy to tell where the line is. People mill about in groups, children run about rambunctiously. An American couple tells me yes, they are in line for the Cupola, and I can follow the chains back to the start. But there is no one behind them, and no one coming down the path, so why should I walk all the way back? The Dutch couple doesn't; they simply duck under the chain. I follow their lead. A French couple expresses surprise at the fact that it is not free.
°Does that mean we need tickets?° an American man asks me, as I stand under the sign proclaiming ticket prices.
°That would be my guess,° I reply.
The cost is four euro if you want to walk, five if you want to take the elevator. I wonder how to communicate that I want to walk, since I didn't take notice of the Italian word for lift, and I can't remember the German one, either. But then I notice most people just pointing to their selection on the sign by the cassa (cashier).
Behind bulletproof glass a man sits, collecting money and dispensing tickets. He wears a uniform, and the light blue color of his shirt is broken by dark rings of sweat. Beads of sweat dot his forehead, and run down his tanned face, stopping at his moustache, or rolling on down his neck. He looks hot and tired and annoyed. I pay him four euro and go inside.
The group in front of me waits at the entrance - there is not room for them on the elevator. I show my ticket, and they let me in. I start up the stairs. They are white, and wide. After about twenty, they are low, covered in reddish tile, and take two steps on the outside to cover, one-and-a-half on the inside. Just as I start to get dizzy, they end, revealing a small open-air area, perfect for photos. I snap a few.
Across the open area, the stairs continue, partially inside, and partially outside. I climb up them, and soon arrive inside. Before me is a sight to behold. Is this the cupola? It is magnificent. I look down, and the inside of the basilica lays before me in all it's beauty. Directly below me is the tomb of San Pietro - Saint Peter. I break out the camera and snap a few more photos. The light breeze by each doorway breaks the oppressive heat. No shorts here - you're not allowed in unless your shoulders and knees are covered. Everyone looks hot.
I take note of the exit, and head for it. As I go out the door, I see a sign - Cupola. It points up a narrow staircase to my right. It hadn't seemed like I'd climbed so many stairs, and I was right. Three hundred and twenty more awaited me. Up I went.
And went. And went. The staircases kept getting narrower and narrower. I could tell where the curve of the basilica roof was - I was forced to walk leaning to my right. Every time I thought I was there, I encountered another staircase. My calves and quads began to tighten, but I was not out of breath. Finally, only one staircase remained. Steep and narrow, a rope dangled from its center to provide a handhold. The stairway was barely wider than my shoulders. The people ahead of me gripped the rope for dear life, their strength at its end.
And then, suddenly, there I was - at the Cupola. Towering above Rome, I could see for miles. In front of me, the Vittorio Emmanuele II monument, called °the Wedding Cake° by Romans. It looked more like a wedding crumb. On my left, Monte Mario, distinguishable by the observation dome. On my right, an immense house (the Pope's?) surrounded by beautiful gardens. And all the while, a strong cool breeze blew. I snapped off the rest of the roll. Eventually, I started back down.
Halfway down was a souvenier stand. I walked through it, looking for a rosary for my sister. They had more than enough to choose from. I remembered that she used to love the color violet, but that was long ago when we were children. Of course, I did have my cell phone with me.......
I think I woke my sister up. She says I didn't, but I think I did. And she still liked violet. We chatted for a bit, and I went back inside. I looked for something else to buy, and finally settled on a nice shot glass for my father's collection. An American woman struggled to communicate with the nun at the cashier. The nun told her she'd take American money, but not American change. The woman stared blankly, not knowing what to do, and holding two dollars in her hand. I took the two dollars, and gave her two euro, eating the forty cent loss. She thanked me.
I paid for the rosary, and the shot glasses (I got one for me, too), and managed to do the whole transaction in Italian. That mini-lesson I'd given myself in Italian numbers back in Sorrento came in handy. I walked down the rest of the stairs, wandered through Saint Peter's for a bit, then dropped my pictures off for processing. Afterward, I went over to the Old Bridge Gelateria, and treated myself to a nice gelato.