Soooooo…, you know that something is wrong when your alarm wakes you as planned but you’re parked in Aigle, Switzerland, and not approaching Milan, Italy.
I wandered down to the buffet car, which was supposed to be serving breakfast, but it was dark and no-one was around. Quite a few people expecting to disembark in Milan turned up and we exchanged information. It seemed there’d been some kind of a problem and there’d be a delay while they fixed a cable, or brought a new engine, or waited for a clear path, or something. I went back to bed.
Around 06:30, one of the train crew came along with solid information and compensation forms. Apparently the engine had failed and we were waiting for a new one. It should be here in an hour or so and that meant, in all, a four-to-five-hour delay. Without an engine we were without power, so she pointed out the station’s branch of Relay (a European convenience chain) for coffee and croissants.
Just after 07:30 we pulled out of Aigle. It was a bit stop-start as the train had lost its route because the delay and had to give way to other traffic. As we crossed into Italy, Trenitalia staff came round with snack packs – plus the buffet had reopened and there were free coffees and pastries to be had. It was a bit of a croissant-overload this morning!
The real upside of the delay though was that we got to enjoy the Alps as we passed through to Italy and had beautiful views of Lake Maggiore in the morning sunlight.
We reached Milano Centrale station around 11:40 and there were Trenitalia staff waiting on the platform with reserved seats on everyone’s connections, so we ended up on the 12:00 departure for Rome – which turned out to be half-an-hour faster than our original train. So, in the end, we lost about four hours in Rome, but got to sleep some more and enjoy more varied scenery than we otherwise would have.
We had an evening ticket for the Vatican Museum booked and so, once settled into the hotel, we headed over towards St Peter’s. It’s a good job we left in plenty of time as the entrance wasn’t the most obvious thing. There’s a very grand Exit from the museum in the back wall of the Vatican City, but no obvious entrance. After some confusion and unnecessary walking, we discovered the entrance was actually the unmarked bronze gate near the exit. This rather set the tone for the evening in the museum; not the best signposted museum I’ve ever visited…
That said, the buildings which house the collection are magnificent; huge gilded palaces with craftsmanship as great as the grandest of cathedrals. The collection itself seemed to overwhelm the space to the extent that, in some galleries, items were crowded in and just standing around haphazardly. The Vatican could definitely benefit from a more professional approach to collection curation and interpretation; Very few of the pieces had any information on them at all and there was no sense of theme or chronology as you walked through the museum.
Later in the tour, I think in one of the Papal Apartments, or the Rafael Rooms, the audio guide would go on and on about the art on the walls and the allegorical meanings and then just note that, “The mosaic floor is Roman, from the excavations at Ostia.” At which point I would look down and marvel at the massive thousand-year-old, wall-to-wall image that pretty much everyone was ignoring. I wondered how they manage to conserve those floors with so much traffic over them every day.
Periodically throughout the museum there were impulse-purchase gift stands selling museum postcards and memorabilia, such as crucifixes, saintly iconography and pictures of the pope. I wondered what the biblical Jesus would have made of this, what with the Mosaic Commandment forbidding worship of images and Jesus himself turning the businessmen out of the precincts of the temple…
The signage in the museum is based around the highpoint of your trip being the Sistine Chapel; it’s the item in bold on all the route directions, almost like it’s telling you not to worry too much about what you’re looking at now; that painting of God and Adam on a cloud is just a little further along!
The Chapel itself is almost an anti-climax when you reach it; beautifully frescoed, though it is, you’ve seen lots of great art already (at least if you didn’t rush through the Stanze di Raffaello) and would get better views from a guide book. Like the Mona Lisa, it’s a victim of its own fame and the Chapel is a scrum of tourists, a constant hum of conversation frequently interrupted by the museum staff shouting(!), “Silencio!” and “No phones!” The rebel in me wished we’d thought to organise a flashmob to sing something inappropriate back to them.
After the Sistine Chapel, it was a bit of a rush to the exit to find somewhere to sit down and have a lemonade to rehydrate. In retrospect, I suppose like the Louvre or the British Museum, the Vatican’s collection is simply too big to do in an evening; to do it justice, you need to allow time – probably several days, along with a certain amount of pre-planning. Still, I’m glad we did it; it’s another place on my list of things to come back to.