let’s talk about the pantheon

I can’t believe I have only a week left in Rome. After that, I’m off to Sicily with my family for a few days, then back to Rome for a couple days to finish packing and then…home. But Rome is home too, and the thought of leaving makes me way too sad, so let’s stop talking about it.

The real issue is that I have only a week left to figure out how to bring the Pantheon home with me. I figure I can disassemble it, pack it, and reassemble it in my backyard (Mom, would that be cool?). Because although I can (barely) live without the pizza and the pasta and the pidgeons, I’m not sure how to go back to living in a place where I cannot see the Pantheon at least once a week.

Rome is not exactly short on beautiful monuments and sights. In fact, one of the things I love most about this city is that all of its beauty and history is laid out in the city itself, no museums required. But out of everything, all the fountains and piazzas and churches, my favorite sight by far is this one.

The name “Pantheon” comes from the Greeks, and means “to every god”. The building was commissioned in the year 126 A.D. by Marcus Agrippa as a temple to the ancient Roman gods. The writing on the front, M-AGRIPPA-L-F-COS-TERTIUM-FECIT, translates to “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, consul for the third time, built it.”

What we actually see today is not Agrippa’s Pantheon, but Hadrian’s. Hadrian rebuilt the structure on the site of Agrippa’s original temple, but retained Agrippa’s original inscription on the front.

Since the Renaissance, the Pantheon has been used as a tomb, housing renowned individuals such as the painter Raphael. The building is still used as a church, however, and masses are still held inside.

Its dome still holds the record for the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, and if you are lucky enough to be there on a rainy day, you can go inside and watch the rain fall through the oculus – it’s magical.

But let’s be real. It rains all the time in Rome, so getting to see the Pantheon in the rain is awesome, but not at all impossible. You know what hasn’t happened in Rome in the past 26 years? A significant snowfall. Not just a little flurry that is over in 30 seconds, but big fat snowflakes that blanket the cobblestones and cause the Romans to behave as though the Apocalypse is imminent.

That happened last Friday. I woke up to the aforementioned big, fat snowflakes, grabbed my friends, and ran to the Piazza della Rotunda to check out the Pantheon in all its snow-covered finery. Amazing.

One of the reasons I love this building so much is because it is simultaneously imposing and unassuming. Unlike the Colosseum, or St. Peter’s, there is no grand thoroughfare leading up to it, announcing its presence. It is more than happy to be tucked into its little neighborhood, thus allowing people to simply stumble upon it and stare in awe. Words just don’t do it justice.

As if this place wasn’t magical enough, the other night I was waiting to meet some friends in the piazza, and saw a lone cellist sitting in the only pool of light between the columns, filling the whole place with music. I’m. Not. Leaving.

24 hours in venezia

This past weekend, my friend Allyson and I decided to head up to Venice, to escape the chaos of Rome, to celebrate her birthday, and also to finally make use of the scarves and gloves that have not yet been necessary in the capitol city. In Rome right now, the weather and the calendar are not presenting a united front. The calendar is telling me that it’s almost mid-January, but the weather is saying “Early September! Back to school! Buy new notebooks!” Not cool. Literally.

Venice, on the other hand, was beautiful. It was around 40 degrees, but sunny, and really, there is nothing more magical than Venice in winter. Just ask Joseph Brodsky. The cool weather, coupled with the fact that we went after the holiday tourism season was over, allowed us to experience a (relatively) uncongested Venice.

Half the fun of visiting Venice is just walking around, seeing all the little canals and bridges, and just letting yourself get lost in the city (you are going to get lost, no matter how hard you try, so don’t fight it!). Because we had such limited time there, this is exactly what we did on Saturday. We were staying in a small bed-and-breakfast in the Cannaregio district, and after checking in and dropping our stuff off, we ventured out with nothing but the vague goal of making our way towards San Marco (the big church and square).

Navigation is a little bit interesting in Venice. In most cities, including Rome, you can look out for street names and, with a good sense of direction and a decent map, you’ll end up where you need to be. In Venice, the most helpful navigational tools are actually the big landmarks themselves, such as the Rialto bridge, or Piazza San Marco. All over the city, there are little signs that say “Per San Marco” or “Per Rialto” or “Per ____ (insert landmark here)”, with, if you’re lucky, one single arrow pointing in the correct direction. It’s not unheard of to see a sign saying “Per San Marco” with a double-headed arrow that forces you to wonder why they bothered to put a sign up in the first place. You use the landmark signs to get to the correct general area, and then you just wander till you find what you are looking for.

We eventually made our way to the stunning Ponte di Rialto, the oldest of the four bridges that span Venice’s Grand Canal (the big thoroughfare, or “main street”). Rialto is always packed with tourists, and on either side of the bridge, as well as along the entire length of the bridge itself, are numerous souvenir and jewelry shops. Near the bridge is the Rialto market, where vendors sell fresh seafood, herbs, fruits and vegetables in the morning.

From here we decided to take a gondola ride. The price for these rides can get up to 100€, even for just two people. Luckily, because this was off-season, we managed to haggle down to 60€ – still ridiculous in my opinion, but we couldn’t just go to Venice and not ride in a gondola.

The ride lasted about half an hour, and to me the most impressive part was how those gondoliers manage to stay so well-balanced while rowing the boat. We saw Marco Polo’s house, as well as Casanova’s palace, and ended the ride right back at Rialto.

We resumed our stroll to San Marco, this time also keeping an eye out for somewhere to eat some dinner. By this time, the sun had set and both the Basilica San Marco and the piazza were beautifully lit.

After wandering around the piazza, stopping to do a little shopping, and gazing into Florian’s cafe and wishing we were fancy enough to eat there, we made our way to Ristorante Marciana, a restaurant just outside the piazza that had looked promising.

My biggest regret of this little whirlwind trip is that we failed to really experience true Venetian dining – we didn’t go to a cicchetti bar, or even have seafood, because by the time dinner rolled around we were both so hungry that all we wanted was pasta. We did have a delicious dinner of ravioloni in cheese sauce (for me) and carbonara for the birthday girl, but next time I go to Venice I will definitely try to eat like a Venetian.

We ate until we could not possibly accomodate any more food in our stomachs, and then we asked to see the dessert menu. One delicious tiramisu later, we waddled out of the restaurant and wandered around some more, eventually making our way back to our B&B.

The next morning, we woke up, grabbed some croissants from the breakfast area, and made our way back to the Piazza San Marco, this time trying not to get lost because we needed to make our 9:50am SECRET PASSAGEWAY TOUR of the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace).

The Palazzo Ducale was the seat of the Venetian government back in the days when this town was a prosperous and important part of trade routes between Asia and Europe. The city was ruled by the Doge, an elected noble, and his council of advisors. In addition to the Doge and his cronies, there was also the eternally feared “Council of Ten”, a body that acted in secret to exact justice upon lawbreakers. As part of our secret tour, we got to see the rooms where the Council of Ten would convene, as well as the places they would interrogate and torture suspected criminals. We also got to see the Piombi, or prison cells located immediately below the attic of the palace. The Piombi take their name from the lead that lined the ceiling of the cells. It was from one of these cells that Giacomo Casanova famously escaped in 1755.

After we finished our tour of the main palace, we crossed the famous Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) to see the rest of the prison cells. The bridge was given the name “Bridge of Sighs” by Lord Byron, because prisoners being lead across the bridge would look out and see their last view of Venice, and sigh. The bridge itself was actually designed by the nephew of the man who designed the Rialto bridge. And, of course, the local legend says that lovers who kiss while riding a gondola under the bridge will be granted eternal love.

We finished our tour of the Palazzo, grabbed a quick lunch, and headed back to our hotel to check out. It was sad to say goodbye to Venice, but so nice to have gotten to spend time there at all. Venice feels like a complete escape from the real world, and it is such a big contrast to Rome. For one thing, there are no cars, so it feels like you are walking in a bygone era. As a result, the city is also very peaceful and quiet, and the whole place feels like it can’t possibly be real – sort of like a Disneyland for adults. I would really encourage anyone who gets the chance to go and visit, and I myself can’t wait to go back!

Go visit quickly! Before it sinks!

buon anno!

Happy New Year! 4 days late I know, but the year is still new, so humor me. During the week between Christmas and New Year’s, I visited Barcelona, Granada and Madrid in a whirlwind 5 days, seeing lots of beautiful sights and eating lots of delicious food.

Casa Batlló (Barcelona) - built by Antoni Gaudí, one of the most interesting aspects of this structure is the lack of straight lines - the facade (as well as many of the walls) is curved, and decorated with mosaics. The chimney at the top is fashioned to look like a dragon

Parc Güell (Barcelona) - a park on the El Carmel hill, also designed by Gaudí. The park contains the house where Gaudí lived, which is now the Casa Museu Gaudí (Gaudí Museum).

Gourmet Seafood Paella at Can Majo. Paella is a rice-based dish that is commonly considered the national dish of Spain. In addition to rice, it consists of a variety of proteins including (but not limited to) chicken, rabbit, duck, shrimp, clams, crab and other types of seafood.

After a day in Barcelona, we headed to Granada, a city at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains in the south of Spain

Granada's most famous monument is the Alhambra, a palace and fortress situated on top of a hill, overlooking the city. The Alhambra was built in the 14th century for the Moorish rulers of the Nasrid Dynasty. The palace is full of beautiful and perfectly-preserved Islamic architecture.

Cueva Venta El Gallo, a restaurant in the Sacromonte quarter of Granada, where we had a delicious dinner and saw a wonderful flamenco dance show. The Sacromonte quarter is home to a large gitano (gypsy) population.

Leaving Granada, we headed up to Madrid for our last few days!

I didn't get too many pictures in Madrid, but this is the Museo del Prado, the most famous Spanish art museum. If you are traveling to Madrid and want to visit the Prado, be sure to check and see when/if free entrance is available (in our case, tickets were free between 6 and 8pm, but I don't know if this changes seasonally!)

I flew from the land of Prado back to the land of Prada on New Year’s Eve, just in time to bid farewell to 2011 and usher in 2012 with my friend Allyson at a small party hosted by Maureen Fant, a cookbook author and writer who lives here in Rome.

The food was as expected: amazing and plentiful. We started with a variety of antipasti, including tuna spread, olives, cheese, crudite, bread, crackers, tzatziki, and paté. From there, we moved on to the main course, which consisted of two delicious baked pasta dishes, one of which was a lasagna that was out of this world (but I failed to get a name or a recipe!). In addition, we had lentils, a traditional Italian New Year’s dish. The lentils (which look like tiny little coins) symbolize wealth and prosperity in the New Year. I ate a whole bunch, so I think I’m pretty much set.

After dinner, we headed up to the rooftop terrace. Maureen lives very close to il Colosseo, which is where the city-sponsored fireworks are held. In addition to the city’s fireworks, however, were about a dozen other private fireworks shows all over town, resulting in a beautiful, deafening, and extremely well-lit midnight!

Because of how close we were to the Colosseum, it was difficult to get a picture with both it and the fireworks in the frame - this was the best I could do!

The area between the Colosseum and Piazza Venezia is Rome's Times Square on New Year's, completely packed with people and covered in discarded champagne bottles and broken glass. This is a shot of the LEAST crowded side of the Colosseum. It was a looong walk home.

Here we are, 2012. May your year and stomachs be filled with delicious food! Happy New Year!

buon natale!

Merry Christmas from Rome! Last night, on the way to midnight mass at the Vatican, I snapped a bunch of pictures of Rome in all its Christmas finery. Enjoy, and have a wonderful holiday!

Nativity and tree on Piazza Venezia (in front of Il Vittoriano)

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Italian flag lights on the via del Corso

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View of Piazza Venezia from via del Corso

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Lights on via dei Due Macelli (leading up to Piazza Spagna)

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Under normal circumstances, the only time the Spanish Steps are this empty is at around 4am. Normally this place is packed with people, both locals and tourists, and is one of the most popular (and, as a result, most inconvenient) meeting places in Rome.

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Beautiful lights on Via dei Condotti, perhaps the most expensive street in Rome. The street, which connects to via del Corso on one end, and the Piazza Spagna on the other end, is named for the conduits that once carried water to the Baths of Agrippa. Modern Italians with addresses on this street include Gucci, Prada, Valentino, Ferragamo, Armani, Fendi and Dolce & Gabanna. I’m pretty sure I get a little poorer just window shopping on this street.

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The via del Corso ends in the Piazza del Popolo

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Christmas tree above Piazza del Popolo

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Here we are! Christmas tree in Piazza San Pietro

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Nativity scene at St. Peter’s (sans Baby Jesus, because it was not yet midnight). I had to do some impressive elbowing and some moderate foot-stomping to make my way to the front to get this picture. Do as the Romans do, right?

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We did not have enough Papal pull to attend the actual mass inside the basilica, so we stood in the square with the masses and watched the whole thing on one of several screens stationed throughout the square. Please notice Santa Claus fleeing the scene!

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St Peter’s nativity scene post-midnight, now with Baby Jesus. It’s officially Christmas!

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View of Castel St. Angelo on my way home – not Christmassy, but still kind of spectacular

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Last, but not least, the tree in the Campo di Fiori

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Buon Natale!

p.s. Tomorrow I am leaving for Spain at the ungodly hour of 6:45 am, and I won’t be back until New Year’s, so my next post won’t be until 2012! Happy holidays!

rainy day assisi


Rome is beautiful and exciting, but sometimes a little too chaotic for this small-town girl to handle. In situations like this, a day-trip to Assisi with a few friends is just what the doctor ordered. So this past Saturday, Becca, Allyson, Jordan and I headed out to explore this beautiful town.

Assisi is a 2-hour train ride out of Rome, and is known for being the birthplace (and final resting place) of San Francesco (St. Francis), the patron saint of Italy. In addition, Santa Chiara (a contemporary and friend of San Francesco) lived and died here as well. Each of these saints has their own basilica in the hillside town of Assisi, and in fact, the basilicas were built in such a way that they face each other, as a tribute to the friendship they shared in life.

Because Assisi is built on a hill, once you arrive at the train station, you have to catch a bus (or a taxi) to get to the actual town. Our first stop was the basilica di San Francesco.

The basilica was built in 1228, and is divided into two parts; the upper basilica and lower basilica. The upper basilica contains a series of frescos depicting the life of St. Francis. The lower basilica contains chapels, as well as a series of frescos depicting the life of St. Catherine of Siena (the other patron saint of Italy). Below the lower basilica is the crypt, where St. Francis is buried. Visitors are able to walk around the crypt, but photography is not allowed, so if you want to see it, you’ll have to go there yourself!

Once we had had our fill of St. Francis, we turned our attention way up to the fortress at the top of the hill, called the Rocca Maggiore. I should mention at this point that it was foggy and rainy, and for that reason I have no photos to show for our beautiful (and painful) hike up to the top.

From the top of the Rocca Maggiore, you can see everything (or you can take a few obligatory photos and then squeeze your eyes shut and pretend you are not up so high). The above picture is a view of the basilica of St. Francis, as seen from the top of the Rocca Maggiore.

This is one of the remaining outer walls of the fortress. You can actually walk inside this wall to get to that far tower. While you’re doing that, you can take advantage of the fact that the weather has driven every sane person indoors, thus leaving you and your friends all alone in a giant castle. Now is a good time to start pretending you are Indiana Jones.

Our next stop was the basilica di Santa Chiara. When we got there, the whole piazza was completely obscured by fog, as were all the breathtaking views of the countryside. Luckily for us (or probably because of us), the sun came out within 2 minutes, and the views were amazing. Inside the Santa Chiara, you can see the tomb of the saint herself. More interesting than that, however, were the display cases that contained the actual clothes that Santa Chiara and San Francesco wore! They even had a pair of San Francesco’s stockings that had a few drops of his blood on them (according to legend, St. Francis was the first Christian in history who received the stigmata), and a few locks of Santa Chiara’s hair – she was a curly-haired blonde, if you’re curious.

San Francesco, Rocca Maggiore, Santa Chiara. These are basically all of the main things to see in Assisi. But what did we eat in Assisi?

On our way down from the Rocca Maggiore to the Santa Chiara, we were soaking wet, shivering, and starving. We wanted food and shelter, and our standards and expectations were low. We stumbled into the first restaurant we found (I never actually caught the name of it, sorry!), and we were so excited to see pizza margherita for the low, low price of €4.90. Once again, we were all reminded of just how expensive Rome really is. In Rome, you won’t find a pizza margherita (always the cheapest, most basic pizza on any menu) for less than €8. And even then, there’s no guarantee it will be good. This pizza was GOOD. The crust was impossibly thin, and the cheese:sauce ratio was perfect. Well done, Assisi.

With the weather showing no signs of improving, we wanted to linger in the restaurant a little longer. In order to avoid dirty stares from the waitress, we decided we’d better order something else. Enter cioccolato caldo (hot chocolate). I think we were all expecting something similar to the milky, drinkable concoctions we get back home, but what we were brought was completely different. The best way to describe it would be piping hot chocolate pudding, only better. I suppose if you really wanted to, you could pick up a cup of this and drink it, but a spoon is really a better approach. It was rich and chocolatey and amazing – the perfect cure for a rainy day.

After we were done seeing the Santa Chiara, the rain had let up, but it was still a little chilly and gray, and we had a couple of hours to kill before our train. Pastries and cappuccino just seemed like the obvious solution, you know?

We walked a little ways up the Corso Mazzini (which seems to be one of the main streets in Assisi) before we found the Gran Caffè. They had a decent selection of gelati (but that’s not what we came for, people), and a seriously impressive pastry selection. They also had an adorable seating area in the back, and we each picked our beverage and pastry of choice, and took a seat in the cozy back room. I chose a cannoli and a cappuccino, and while the cannoli turned out to have lots of weird neon chunks of candied fruit inside, the cappuccino was perfect.

On our way from the pastry shop to the bus stop, we stumbled upon a free olive oil tasting. Right in the middle of one of the piazzas, a friendly old man was toasting pieces of bread, rubbing them with garlic, sprinkling them with salt, dousing them in olive oil, and handing them out to anyone with enough elbowing skill to manage to get to the front of the crowd. The Italians are good at elbowing. We were better.

Once we had each consumed a disgusting delicious amount of olive oil, we finally caught our bus, only to discover that we had missed our train by a few minutes. Luckily, there was another train in a couple of hours, and we finally made it home exhausted, sore, stuffed, and shivering – all in all, a great day!

creamy fusilli with zucchini

Pasta is like a blank canvas. It can adapt to all moods, all ingredients, and all seasons. You can open your pantry/fridge and start pulling things out, add some pasta, and just like that, what was once a motley crew of ingredients is now a meal.

Of course, as in any civilized society, there are rules that one can choose to either obey or disobey. For the most part, the rules are pretty intuitive, and at the end of the day the dish will probably still be delicious, even if you do pair capellini with meat sauce like some kind of unstoppable maverick.

I’m  not such a rebel, and anyways it’s still way too warm for meat sauce. I’ve been buying zucchini non-stop since I’ve been here, and using it primarily as a pizza topping and a side dish. Then I came across a Roasted Zucchini Pasta on Ezra Pound Cake, and I couldn’t believe I had never thought to combine my two addictions into one amazing meal. How (fu)silly of me (sorry, had to!)

I didn’t actually roast the zucchini, I sauteed it in a pan with some onion, sliced garlic, dill and crushed red peppers. Also, I didn’t use goat cheese or parmesan, but opted instead for some herb cream cheese that I had hanging out in my fridge. It turned out to be delicious, with a little subtle tang from the cream cheese.  Next time, I’ll definitely try it with the goat cheese though!

But look, there is more to Italy than delicious food. Especially here in Rome, history is everywhere. Even beyond the big tourist attractions, you can find little pieces of antiquity scattered in the midst of all the modernity. What I love about this city is that history is never sacrificed for the sake of building something new; they quite literally build around their ruins. One such example is Il Teatro di Pompeo (Theater of Pompey).

Considered the original Roman theatre, this site is most famous for the assassination that took place right here. The victim’s name? His followers called him Caesar, but his friends probably just called him Julius. Actually, if memory serves, they probably called him Julī , as per the rules of the Latin vocative case.

Nowadays, this site occupies the heart of the Largo di Torre Argentina. Surrounding it, however, are shops, restaurants, and a major bus and tram stop. Every morning as they board their buses to work, countless friends, Romans and countrymen can check out the location of the murder that has been so immortalized through art and literature. But they aren’t the only ones who love to gaze at these ruins:

The ruins of the theatre have also become a cat sanctuary, home to many Roman gatti. And you thought Broadway was the only place you could see Cats onstage!

Creamy Fusilli with Zucchini recipe (adapted from Ezra Pound Cake)

  • 1 cup dried Fusilli pasta
  • 1 zucchini, chopped
  • 1/4 white onion, chopped
  • 1 tsp. crushed red peppers
  • 1/2 tsp. dried dill weed
  • 1 clove garlic, sliced (minced or grated would also work)
  • 2 oz. cream cheese
  • salt to taste
  • olive oil for sauteing

Set pasta to boil. In a separate pan, add olive oil, then zucchini, onions and garlic. Saute for 1-2 minutes. Add red peppers and dill and continue to saute until zucchini and onions reach desired level of “done-ness” (I prefer both a little crispy, but if softer consistencies are desired, then allow both to cook for longer).

Once pasta is cooked, drain, but reserve 1-2 Tbsp. of pasta water in a separate dish. Combine pasta and sauteed vegetables, and immediately mix in cream cheese. The heat from the pasta and zucchini will melt the cream cheese. If pasta still seems a little too dry, add pasta water in small amounts until desired consistency is achieved. Add salt to taste.

St. Peter’s

St. Peter’s square/basilica and I go way back. My first trip to Rome was in April of 2005, right after Pope John Paul II had passed away. I happened to be reading Angels and Demons at the time, so of course I was extremely knowledgeable about all of the steps that were being carried out at that very moment to elect a new pope. Of course, conclave or no, no trip to Rome is complete without a visit to Il Vaticano, which technically involves leaving the country. On any given day in St. Peter’s square, you will find hundreds of tourists snapping pictures of the famed basilica, or standing in absurdly long lines to gain entrance to the most important church in Christendom.

April 2005 was a little different. The basilica was closed, so there were no lines, and as a result the number of tourists lingering around was significantly reduced. There were rows and rows of folding chairs, largely vacant, and a haunting rendition of The Litany of the Saints playing over loudspeakers. Inside the Sistine Chapel, the College of Cardinals was in the process of electing their newest leader. I, of course, explained all of this to my family while surreptitiously looking around for abducted cardinals and canisters of antimatter. At my mom’s insistence, we took seats and listened to the prayers for a little while.

All of a sudden, other people nearby started exclaiming and pointing in the direction of the chimney of the chapel, where smoke started to appear. When everyone realized it was black smoke, the excitement died down (black smoke = no pope), and I resumed my reading.

Sometime during all this, the square slowly started to fill up with people from all over the world, often congregated into groups according to their nationality. Many of these groups were waving signs or flags, hoping and advocating for their country’s cardinal to be the new pope. Still the square was not that crowded.

Suddenly, people started exclaiming and pointing again – sure enough, more smoke. This time everyone was really hesitant for a minute, then someone shouted “bianca! bianca!” and then everyone flipped out. White smoke = POPE!!!

Within minutes, what seemed like the entire population of Rome swarmed on St. Peter’s square, even filling the Via della Conciliazione, the road leading up to the square. Bells started ringing and people were laughing and crying and snapping pictures like nobody’s business. This went on for maybe 30 minutes, then the big window in the center of the basilica opened, and everything went silent in anticipating of the big announcement.

Habemus papam.

And that is how Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany became Pope Benedict XVI.

Ok, now back to this trip, St. Peter’s 2011. Sadly, PapaRatzi was absent, spending his summer at Castel Gandolfo, as popes are wont to do. I guess I will have to catch the German Shepard next time.

Inside the basilica are numerous paintings and sculptures of religious and historical importance, as well as confession boxes and altars (it is a real church, you know). Perhaps the most famous sight inside the basilica is St. Peter’s baldachin (top left), designed by Old Reliable himself, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Also of note inside the basilica is Michelangelo’s Pietà, of which I was only able to get two very blurry pictures.

Of course, when Michelangelo wasn’t busy creating famous sculptures and painting certain ceilings, he liked to try his hand at fashion design.

Here they are, those sexy sworn sentinels of Vatican City, the Swiss Guard, in the latest Ready-To-Wear line designed by Michelangelo himself.

Next time, I’ll visit the Sistine Chapel, although you won’t know because photography is verboten (tell that to a certain badass, photo-snapping mother of mine).

And because I hate to leave without mentioning food even once, check it out:

chocolate pasta!