YOU read about the Sistine Chapel, don’t you? The four long years it took Michelangelo to paint that now celebrated ceiling; how the artist tried to refuse the commission from Pope Julius II on the grounds that he was a sculptor not a painter; that afterwards he suffered from a painful eye disease as a result of poisonous paints continuously drip-drip-dripping into his eyes and the strain of working by candlelight.
Then there was the revenge he took on the pope’s sanctimonious master of ceremonies, who complained about the “shameful” nudity on the altarpiece, by painting him into the creation – well on his way to the fires of hell. When the priest in question spluttered his indignant complaints to the pontiff, the Holy Father is said to have replied that his jurisdiction did not extend to hell, so tough titty. Or words to that effect.
Ah, what a wag Michelangelo was. (Though, talking of titty, the genitalia were all tastefully covered up later by another painter, who draped the illusion of fabric across any offending droopy bits.) But to see the Sistine Chapel in the flesh – this masterpiece created more than 500 years ago by one of the greatest artists who ever lived – what a privilege. What anticipation.
It is the highlight of a tour of the Vatican Museum, the climax of a visit that includes so many ornate works of art, priceless artefacts, golden embellishment, spectacularly detailed frescoes and ancient works plundered from Egypt in the name of God, that the senses are already overloaded.
No photographs are permitted, nor are we allowed to talk, the signs tell us, as we shuffle, shoulder to shoulder, up the narrow internal staircase toward this most hallowed of chapels – the place where cardinals gather to pray for guidance when choosing a new pope.
But it is not silent, nor is it contemplative. It is impossibly crammed with bodies, and a loud rumble of chatter slowly builds until a guard instructs us, in that most universal of languages, that we must please be quiet. “SSSSSHHHHHHHHH!”
So we are hushed. For approximately a minute. Before it all starts up again. Rumble, rumble, rumble, SSSHHHH!
I can’t say it’s not a bit of an anti-climax. There is no sense of divine presence. And while the paintings are undeniably beautiful, would it be sacrilege to say that it’s all just a bit too busy for me? Too much going on? And you get a bit of a crick in the neck looking at it for too long? Imagine how Michelangelo must have felt.
Many visitors end there, having ticked yet another Roman work of wonder off their list. And there are many: the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, the Forum, the Coliseum, the Pantheon ...
But we go on, past the stalls selling assorted popery – the fridge magnets and rosaries, the bottles of holy water, the Sistine Chapel jigsaws and the souvenir teaspoons – to St Peter’s Basilica, the church with that great dome dominating St Peter’s Square. And it is here that I finally find God.
Entering just as 5pm mass begins, the pure Latin voices of the choir rise high into the ceiling, where shafts of sunlight are breaking through the dusty gloom. After negotiating the reckless driving of Rome’s streets, the hordes making the most of the late spring sunshine at the Trevi Fountain and the mobs of pilgrims clamouring into the Vatican, this is a moment of such deep, spiritual calm, I shut my eyes to pray and tears form at the corner of my eyes.
Rome. The Eternal City. Eternally beautiful. Eternally busy. Happily, I’m not staying in the centre, where car horns and braying voices and a constant hubbub continue into the early hours, but at Rome Cavalieri, part of the Waldorf Astoria group, a hotel built on a hill amid 15 acres of parkland and overlooking the Vatican City.
It took a bit of effort to get here – an East Coast train from Edinburgh to London (first class, mind you, which wasn’t much of a hardship), another train then a bus to Luton Airport, before the two and a half hour flight to Rome. But it’s a journey worth taking. Housing one of the most extensive and valuable private art collections on the planet, the Cavalieri boasts three Tiepolos over the bar, a rare 18th-century tapestry in the lobby, a series of Warhols and a Karl Lagerfeld sofa in the penthouse suite. George Clooney slept on those high-class sheets when he was making Ocean’s Twelve, and when Julia Roberts arrived for three days to film Eat, Pray, Love, she ended up camping out for three weeks.
Who wouldn’t? Celebrating its 50th birthday this year, it wears its age lightly, with a lush La Prairie spa (fall asleep during the Pure Gold Radiance Facial and wake up looking dewy of skin and good-night’s-sleep refreshed), tree-lined, heated pool and, the diminutive jewel in its culinary crown, Heinz Beck, at the helm of the three Michelin star La Pergola restaurant.
We dine there one evening, feasting on amberjack marinated in white balsamic vinegar with pomegranate snow, leg of lamb with artichokes in ash and crisp potato crumble, and iced sphere of pomegranate on gianduia cream. We also try Beck’s famed fagottelli – tiny parcels of pasta filled with carbonara that explode in contact with the tastebuds. Michelle Obama was so impressed she asked for the recipe. We like to imagine her spoon-feeding Barack the same thing back at the White House, looking at him all expectantly as if to say, “Well ...?”
One of the highlights of our seven-course tasting menu is a dish simply called Woodland – a work of art that takes six chefs to assemble, featuring tiny mushrooms standing erect amid an edible forest. Honestly, I have tasted nothing like it. It’s exquisite.
As part of its birthday celebrations, the Cavalieri has packages featuring personal shopping trips, gladiator school and Ferrari hire (you know you want to). Or you could just go off-piste and do your own thing, exploring the cobbled lanes and cafes and breathtaking churches that seem to be round every corner. We eat an amazing buffet lunch in the courtyard of Babette (named after the 1987 Danish film classic Babette’s Feast), plates piled high with fresh, colourful, simply cooked but delicious dishes.
We pick up coffee at Caffe Sant’ Eustachio in the piazza of the same name, the best espresso available in all of Rome we are informed, and buy overpriced ice-cream. Then, when night falls, we find ourselves in Piazza Navona, and the vine-clad Bar de la Pace. We order what all the hip young Romans are drinking right now, an Aperol spritz – the orange liqueur mixed with prosecco – and sit outside, watching as the city slowly, reluctantly falls asleep
Nightly rates at Rome Cavalieri, Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts start from €290 per night for a deluxe room, inclusive of VAT and breakfast for two people (+39 06 3509 1, www.romecavalieri.com).
Monarch flies to Rome from Birmingham and London Luton with fares, including taxes, starting from £126.99 return. Services include pre-allocated seats for £5.99 each way and extra legroom from £11.99 (www.monarch.co.uk).
East Coast operates 40 services each weekday between Edinburgh and London King’s Cross. Customers travelling first class enjoy complimentary food and drinks offer plus unlimited wi-fi. Advanced return fares start from £34 standard, £95 first class (08457 225225, www.eastcoast.co.uk).
Babette, Via Margutta, 1, 00187 Rome (www.babetteristorante.it)