Take Me to Church: Three Audacious Atheists Visit the Vatican

I struggled for months with whether or not to visit the Vatican. I am, after all, a pastor’s daughter-turned-atheist, so being inside the Mothership of Catholicism doesn’t exactly sound like my jam. But the home of the Holy See houses the largest privately owned collection of art in the entire freaking world, including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. The Church has also, in large part, shaped the path of the western world for more than 1500 years. Less so now than, say, 400 years ago, thank God (pun intended), but it’s impossible to separate Christian history from European history–which is totally my jam. However, the Vatican amassed their enormous collection of priceless art through centuries of widespread greed, corruption, plunder and slaughter, and they ran (run?) the largest pedophile syndicate in all of documented history, so. . . yeah. I struggled.

In the end I decided that I’d be contributing to the preservation of the art and history, not the Ring of Rapists, and our one-time $20 donation wouldn’t go far in the grand scheme of things, anyway. So, the Mother, the Daughter, and the Bestie ventured into the inner sanctum of et Patris, et Fili, et Spiritus Sancti (Amen).

Now, about that history. . .

Notorious Roman Emperor Caligula, in the 1st Century CE, began building a massive circus (think chariots, not clowns). However, Caligula was a super shitty emperor (rumor has it also a sadistic, incestuous, nymphomaniac), so his own men murdered him after he’d reigned for a mere 4 years, leaving his circus unfinished. Enter Nero, the villain of early Christianity who, upon completing Caligula’s circus, promptly took all the credit and named it the Circus of Nero.

In CE 64 about a third of the city was destroyed in the Great Fire of Rome. As usual, people wanted someone to blame, so Nero gave them one: adherents of a strange new cult who worshiped only one god, and had earned the nickname (derogatory at the time) “Christians.” Given the absence of modern investigative and forensic tools to reveal how, or at whose hands, the fire actually started, scapegoating the folks his subjects were already suspicious of must’ve felt like a no-brainer to a ruler who just wanted to restore order to a city teetering on anarchy. To placate the throngs of angry Romans, Nero’s soldiers started targeting and executing Christians (by crucifixion, as they’re infamous for doing), and the primary spot used for the executions was–that’s right–the Circus of Nero.

The bodies of the alleged arsonists were laid to rest in a cemetery right next to the Circus, including that of the most famous of Nero’s victims, one of the men credited with founding The Church, Peter the Apostle. St Peter’s Basilica is suposedy built over his grave, and the sprawling complex of palaces, gardens, offices, chapels, residences and museums has been built up around it over the ensuing centuries to give us what is now the independent city-state called The Vatican.

There’s one piece of the original circus left, and that’s the obelisk at the center of St Peter’s Square. Not a Christian relic at all, but a pagan one, Caligula looted the obelisk from Egypt way back in the early 1st Century CE. I can’t even tell you how hilarious I found it to be standing in the epicenter of the Christian world, neighborhood of the Pope, burial place of a dude who purportedly walked with Jesus Christ himself, and staring at looted, pagan booty. See, guys? History is fun!

More than the paintings and sculptures, or artifacts and relics, the rooms themselves were incredible, especially the ceilings. The Sistine Chapel doesn’t have the only magnificent ceiling inside the Vatican. Others are just as spectacular, and many are covered in gold. So. Much. Gold. Despite their beauty, I kept wondering, “Y’all sure this is what Jesus had in mind?

Through the entire museum, room after room, gold ceiling after gold ceiling, I was amused by the juxtaposition of a hippie like Jesus, who reportedly said it was, “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God,” (Matthew 10:25 NLT) with the obscene wealth that now oozes from the seat of the church founded in his name. If they melted down all the gold in the Vatican they could single-handedly end homelessness for millions of displaced persons, which, let’s be honest, is what Jesus would do. Yet there I was, walking under gilded ceilings and surrounded by art that’s worth more than the GDP of most nations. “Seriously though, you guys even read his work?

Confessing nearly 44 years worth of sins was a lengthy endeavor. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. How much time you got?”

After the museums we headed to St Peter’s Basilica, stopping for souvenirs along the way. Another building that would be far too ostentatious for Jesus’ liking, it’s basically a massive marble and gold testament to the ingenuity, artistry and power of man. If the builders and architects wanted visitors to feel small and insignificant under the eyes of God, they nailed it. The giant atop Jack’s beanstalk wouldn’t even need to duck his head to walk into St Peter’s Basilica.

St Peter’s tomb is at the front of the sanctuary near the high altar. The above ground marker is a massive bronze and gilded baldachin by Bernini that is absolutely stunning. While I may be an atheist, the history nerd in me was beside herself to be potentially standing over the grave of yet another pivotal historical figure.

The most magnificent part of the entire basilica, as far as I’m concerned, is, hands down, Michelangelo’s Pieta. WOW! There’s a reason he’s considered a master. The emotion on Mary’s face, the realistic lifelessness of Jesus, the detail of every inch of them. . . and just knowing that before my eyes was a piece of marble carved by Michel-freaking-angelo was overwhelming. I felt the anguish of a mother who’d lost her child, and I actually cried. My daughter made fun of me, but this wouldn’t be the last time Renaissance art moved me to literal tears.

The least intimidating looking security of all time: the Swiss Guard.

As we left the Basilica the girls did an impromptu impersonation of the Swiss Guard, after which we fled before getting arrested at spear-point, tried for heresy, and burned as witches. We then found a shady spot in St Peter’s Square to sit down, relax and enjoy the day. While the museum had been crowded the square was relatively empty. I’m sure there were an equal number of people in both places, but the square is so enormous and open that it felt nearly deserted. We all FaceTimed with family, I smoked a cigarette, and we spent an hour just chilling and soaking everything in. We listened to the bells tolling from the basilica, watched as traditionally dressed priests, monks and nuns passed by, and I tended to my blisters. A lovely respite before continuing with our day of sightseeing.

Swiss Guard Imitation Vatican
Olivia and Carey imitating the Swiss Guard, but in less ridiculous outfits

Though we’d taken a taxi to the Vatican, we walked back in order to see some sights along the way, the first of which was Castel Sant’Angelo. Originally built in the 2nd Century CE as a tomb for Emperor Hadrian, history has seen it used as a prison, and even a papal hideout during the Sack of Rome in 1527. While primarily German and Spanish troops pillaged the city, Pope Clement VII fled down the Passetto di Borgo, a secret passage that connects the Vatican to the castle, and remained there until the troops finally exhausted the city’s resources and left. Not exactly one to lead by example, that Pope, but before he died he did commission Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, so he’s not without his contributions to posterity.

We admired the castle, then crossed the Ponte Sant’Angelo and continued walking along the Tiber until we reached the Mausoleum of Augustus. The building itself, like the Castel Sant’Angelo, was austere and imposing, but had lost most of its decorative detail to the ravages of time, and was visually unimpressive. We sadly weren’t able to go inside, but I did take a moment to pay my respects to the superstars of history entombed within: the entire Julio-Claudian Dynasty, starting with Augustus and Livia, and going all the way to Caligula, Nero, and finally Nerva. Some bad, some badass, all part of the history that shaped Western Civilization.

After I’d paid my respects it was time for some more gelato, and to head back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. As we walked, we passed Trajan’s Market, the Altar of the Fatherland, and a statue of Julius Caesar. One of my favorite parts of Rome is that, no matter which way you turn, there’s probably something fun around the next corner.

That evening, as we savored our final dinner in Rome (best steak I’ve ever had), we decided we greatly prefer the European style of dining to the American way. Dinner is an event, and it anchored us each evening. The waiters are always nearby, ready to help, but they don’t bug you. No loud music to impede conversation, no interruptions to ask if you’re enjoying your meal, no rushing you along to free up their table. Instead, we were able to enjoy leisurely, relaxed meals that allowed us to decompress, reflect on the day, and really connect with one another. I can’t begin to say how refreshing an experience that is when you’re used to places like sports bars or Olive Garden.

Rome had been as magical as I’d always dreamed, and although we were sad to leave, we knew we still had a week and a half of European adventures still to come. Stay tuned for the next installment when we trade the narrow, cobblestone streets of Ancient Rome for the wide avenues and posh luxury of Paris! Until then, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

Exploring the Eternal City: Rome for History Nerds

Rome, the Eternal City, is like Disneyland for history nerds. The Roman Empire once stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea, as far north as England, and as far south as Egypt. Rome helped shape Western civilization for thousands of years, from their time as conquerors to the height of Vatican power. For better or worse, Rome changed the world, and for history nerds like me, exploring the Eternal City was a dream come true.

After breakfast at our hotel we headed to Rome’s main attraction: Il Colosseo! Built between CE 72 – 80, the Colosseum is the largest amphitheater, and one of the most recognizable buildings, in the entire world. Once used to stage public entertainments for up to 70,000 plebeian and patrician spectators alike, it showcased everything from gladiatorial combat and battle reenactments, to animal hunts and public executions; the bloodier the better for Ancient Romans. On the one hand, it’s rather disturbing to think that watching people fight to the death in an arena passed for quality entertainment a couple thousand years ago. On the other hand, beating the shit out of people is an actual Olympic sport, and we spend millions of dollars every year flocking to theaters for movies like Saw and its many sequels, or reading true crime novels about grisly murders. So it seems our humanity hasn’t evolved quite as quickly as our technology.

We arrived early and had plenty of time to admire the exterior and take pictures before going inside. That so much of the structure is still standing and intact after thousands of years being ravaged by the elements is astounding. The phrase, “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” never seemed so fitting. Earthquakes, fires, rain, snow, hail, wind, war–she’s been battered, but never beaten.

We had all our documents ready when our time came to enter the Colosseum, but we weren’t sure what to expect since Italy had rolled out their new health pass. There was some confusion as to whether or not a US CDC card would be sufficient for entry to Italy’s museums and restaurants. We were pleased to learn that yes, our CDC vaccine cards with our passports were all we needed to get into everything. Europeans are now used to seeing them from American tourists, and we never ran into an issue. Though you may be slowed down if you received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, as they expect to see 2 doses on your card, so you will have to explain why there’s only one.

Being inside a building that was constructed 1400 years before Europeans even knew America existed is surreal. It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around just how long ago that really is. 21st Century life would be unrecognizable to the men who built The Colosseum entirely by hand. No cranes. No computers. No power tools. Just human ingenuity and raw strength. Mind: blown.

Our next stop was the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Even older than the Colosseum, The Forum was the heart of Rome before Julius Caesar even walked its streets. Speeches were given, commerce conducted, trials executed, debates and tributes held there. Palatine Hill, on the other hand, held the most expensive residential property in town. According to legend, around 754 BCE, twin brothers Romulus and Remus disagreed as to on which hill to found their new city. Romulus preferred the Palatine Hill, while the Aventine was more Remus’ jam. So, being the superstitious ancient humans that they were they, “let the gods decide.” Remus claimed to have seen 6 birds from the Aventine Hill, proving him divinely favored. Romulus, not one to be outdone, said he saw 12 birds from the Palatine (totally legit, surely), declared himself divine winner (yep, because birds), and killed his brother Remus, thus making the Palatine Hill prime Rome real estate, while the Aventine became Skid Row. It’s also why it’s called Rome and not Reme. Isn’t history (mythology, in this case) a hoot?!

Once we’d finished walking through the Tribeca of Ancient Rome we were ready for some lunch. We started walking and came across a lovely trattoria with what we were all craving: pizza! We sat on the patio and enjoyed a leisurely lunch, watching as two old nuns left the convent next door for supplies, then came back oblivious to the trail of onions they were leaving in their wake. Just as we noticed them falling off their little wagon, a passerby kindly pointed it out to them. The nuns just shrugged and kept going. Zero fucks given. It was fantastic. Even more so when a car ran the onions over, moments later causing a very confused pedestrian to wonder why the street was covered in smashed produce.

Olivia has always been obsessed with France, and Paris in particular, but her favorite movie is Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. In the movie Greg takes Audrey to the Mouth of Truth. He tells her the medieval legend which says the mask will bite the hand off any liar who dares to put their hand in its mouth. It’s one of Liv’s favorite scenes from her favorite movie, so it was a must-see. The mask is located in the portico at the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, and Liv was so excited and adorable as we waited in line to reenact the scene. Bonus: we all kept our hands!

On our way to the Pantheon we passed one of the spots I was most excited to see. On the Ides of March, 44 BCE, Julius Caesar walked into the Theater of Pompey for a meeting with a group of senators. What he didn’t know was that the meeting was a ruse designed to lure him to his own murder (et tu, Brute?). Caesar entered, and the senators swarmed around him and pulled daggers from their togas. As the blows rained down on him Caesar knew he was toast. He pulled his toga over his head so they wouldn’t see his face as he died, then bled to death right there on the temple steps. His assassination sent Rome into chaos, triggered a civil war, and effectually ended the Roman Republic for good. Gaius Octavius Julius Caesar Augustus (commonly referred to as Octavian, because that name is a hell of a mouthful), Rome’s first emperor, was Julius Caesar’s great-nephew and posthumously adopted son. After gaining control of Rome, he erected a monument on the spot where Uncle-Daddy Caesar was assassinated, and that spot is located in what is now an archeological site called Largo di Torre Argentina.

I recognized it right away and immediately began nerding out. I was staring at the spot where one of the most pivotal events in ancient history took place, and I couldn’t even. There’s not much left of the temple, and even less of the monument, but I couldn’t help but visualize what it must have been like as the senators fled the theater and word spread that Caesar was dead. Loved by the people and hated by the ruling elite, whatever you think of him, Julius Caesar’s fingerprints are all over our lives. He’s the man who gave us the calendar we still use today. July is named after him, August after his successor. He had an affair with Cleopatra, crossed the Rubicon, and inspired Shakespeare. “I came, I saw, I conquered.” He’s legendary. So, I pulled my kimono over my face to pay homage in my own way to the OG JC.

The girls finally dragged me away from my nerd-fest and we arrived at the Pantheon, which is the best preserved ancient building in the city. Commissioned in the early 1st Century CE by Agrippa, bestie to Emperor Augustus (Octavian), but rebuilt after a fire around CE 126, its original purpose was as a temple to all the gods of Rome–and they had a lot of gods (shoe leather? Yep, there’s a god for that). Even Caesar and Augustus were posthumously deified and worshiped. Of course, the Pantheon was eventually converted into a Catholic Church in the 7th Century, but I still see it as a pagan monument. Once again, its size blew our freaking minds. Absolutely colossal. It was impossible to not feel dwarfed in its presence, and mad respect for the dudes who were up there building that roof more than a millennia ago. Unfortunately reservations aren’t possible, and the line to go inside was several blocks long. So we enjoyed the view from the fountain and then headed to one of the most famous piazza’s in Rome.

Piazza Navonna. I’ll be honest, this wasn’t a huge priority for me, but I was so glad that we went! Having been built on the site of what once was the Stadium of Domitian, Piazza Navonna is huge, of course, and utterly charming. The Baroque fountains are beautiful, as was the 17th Century church of Sant’Agnese in Agnone, but our favorite part was a man called Super Mario.

We were about to walk back to the hotel, not interested in being lured into sitting down at one of the overpriced cafes, when one of the maître d’s caught our attention in the cheesiest, most cliché way. Realizing we were Americans, he said, “My name is Mario. Super Mario!” mentioned cocktails, and we caved. When in Rome, right? This was the perk of not scheduling every minute of the day. We had the freedom to just stop, relax, listen to the old man playing a portable organ, and sip our cocktails, soaking it all in. Olivia ordered an espresso martini, while Carey and I went for the frozen mimosa, and they were absolutely divine, the perfect way to cool down on a 90 degree day. Thank you, Super Mario!

Our first full day in Rome was everything we’d dreamed and then some. After hitting so many sites in one day we were once again exhausted, but so excited to get up in the morning and head to the Mothership of Christianity: The Vatican. Come back next week to read about how St. Peter’s Basilica became a trip-favorite of us three atheists.

Stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

Ciao, America! Ladycations Goes International: Italy and France

Airport selfie

Ladycations is back! And we’re going international! After my last Ladycation turned into a total crap-cation, then COVID-19 grounded us all for more than a year, I was beyond ready for an escape in 2021. I’d taken social distancing and masking very seriously, hadn’t done much of anything outside my home and work throughout the entire pandemic, and had worked myself into hypertension over the cacophony of misinformation being spewed. I wanted to completely disconnect, and flee to far away lands that stir the imagination and stimulate the senses.

If you’ve been following Ladycations you know I love nature. I’m always down for camping and hiking, and generally escaping humanity for the serenity of the Great Outdoors. What you might not know is that I’m also a history nerd. I devour historical non-fiction, binge low-budget documentaries, and will randomly announce historical “fun facts” to people who then question whether I know what the word “fun” actually means. Going to Italy was my dream, like an historical pilgrimage for nerdy nerds. So, instead of getting my nature fix I decided to feed my history habit, and with at least six miles of walking a day, it was basically hiking with cuter shoes and better snacks (and considerably more people).

France was my daughter’s dream. She even minored in French in college. She worked her ass off throughout her entire education, has literally never gotten into trouble, and graduated summa cum laude from the Ohio State University in May. She’s smart, witty, kind, responsible, thoughtful, poised, driven. . . She’s amazing. So, being the proud, cool-ass mom that I am, I decided to make both our dreams come true and take Olivia and her best friend on a two week tour of Italy and France to celebrate their awesomeness.

Our adventure began in Cleveland with a flight to Rome, and we were prepared. We had our passports, my international drivers ID, we were vaccinated, Covid-tested, and equipped with KN-95 masks. But, because preparation can only do so much, an unwelcome surprise: our flight out of Cleveland was delayed by several hours, adding an additional layover in Frankfurt, Germany, and getting us into the city much later than we’d planned. Welcome to international air travel, folks! Between that and all the uncertainty associated with traveling during Covid, despite having all our documents in order, part of us wasn’t sure we were actually going to make it to Rome at all.

The Frankfurt airport is. . . off-putting. Very gray, very confusing and crowded, and not overly friendly, in our limited experience. We looked up reviews of the airport online to amuse ourselves. “Gray, gray, gray.” “Unsettling.” They’re not wrong. While I know logically that Germany would be a beautiful, super interesting place to visit, we won’t be doing that anytime soon. It’s like childbirth, we need time to forget the experience before trying again. On the bright side they did have smoking lounges, so I was able to smoke a couple cigarettes while we waited, which may have saved lives.

We arrived in Rome as the sun was starting to set, and I’m not sure I have the words to explain exactly how I was feeling. Years of dreaming and planning and reading and researching and pandemic-related apprehension, and here we were, in the back of a taxi, being driven maniacally through the ancient streets of Rome. We made it!

Our home for the first three nights of our trip was the FH55 Grand Hotel Palatino. I usually prefer to AirBnb or VRBO, but it was cheaper to book the hotel with the plane ticket, and I wanted to be within walking distance of all the major attractions. I also wanted rooms with balconies cause smokers gotta smoke, and a continental breakfast to simplify our mornings. The Grand Hotel Palatino checked every box, and we would definitely stay there again! Clean, perfectly situated near all the major attractions, with bright, spacious rooms and friendly, helpful staff. Two enthusiastic thumbs up.

We needed food. We were dying for our first taste of real Italian pasta, and after traveling for more than 24 hours, our nerves needed the sedating effect of wine. It took us all of 5 minutes to find an adorable trattoria in a little piazza with everything we craved and charm to boot. Within 10 minutes of sitting down at the tiny outdoor table we were sipping our wine and nibbling fresh-baked bread. It was so European that the reality of the distance from home really started to sink in.

Before this trip I’d been to Windsor, Canada for a couple nights, and had stopped in Mexico and Jamaica on my honeymoon cruise, but I was always surrounded by English-speakers. I’ve never been so far from home that everyone around me was speaking another language, and it was such a strange feeling. It gives a sense of vulnerability, and anonymity. You know you’re not going to run into that annoying coworker, or your ex. In fact, you’ll neither know nor see anyone you encounter ever again, and no one will even remember you once you’re gone. Just another American tourist. That’s incredibly liberating. But we also had a keen sense of being at the mercy of others, relying on them to know our language because we never bothered to learn theirs. That’s mercilessly humbling, especially with the added risk of traveling during a pandemic.

When we heard a police car nearby with its siren blaring I felt even more detached from life in the US. So many sirens, and not the sirens I’m used to hearing in the American Midwest, but the sirens I’d only heard in movies. Sitting there, as I alternated between white wine and Prosecco (because, why choose just one?), and savored my to-die-for lasagna, I half expected to see Tom Hanks come flying into the Piazza with the Swiss Guard hot on his heels, like a scene from The Da Vinci Code.

It was getting late when we finished our (delicious) meal, and we were exhausted, but we weren’t ready to turn in, so we headed deeper into the Eternal City in search of gelato and the 18th Century Baroque masterpiece: the Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain). Talk about living up to the hype! The gelato was sublime, and the fountain was massive and stunningly beautiful. All lit up for the evening, the water was glowing blue, reflecting its light onto the faces of its many admirers. The intricate detail and enormous scale of the sculptures cannot be adequately captured on film, and we were in complete awe. So different from anything any of us had ever seen. I wasn’t sure if I was more amazed by the fountain or knowing it was only the first of fourteen days full of being amazed by Europe’s magnificent art and architecture.

After taking some pictures and making a wish as we tossed a coin into the fountain we slowly made our way back to the hotel. It had been a long day, with unforeseen delays and lots of frustration, but it ultimately ended exactly as I’d imagined it would: joyfully, my appetite satisfied with scrumptious pasta, my thirst satiated with crisp wine, and me blissfully smoking a cigarette on my private balcony. The travel stress had been entirely worth it.

Before Covid hit I’d been planning a solo trip to Italy for Spring of 2020. As disappointed as I’d been about having to cancel, as I sat on the balcony, listening to the sound of the revelry on the street below, I was immensely grateful to have my daughter and her friend sleeping in the room across the hall. It was my first time overseas, which was a little unnerving. I’d have been fine alone, but it certainly would’ve added an extra layer of anxiety. Mostly, though, it was just special to be able to experience it all with Olivia, seeing everything from my own perspective and through her eyes, as well.

I couldn’t wait for morning to explore more of Caesar’s ‘hood! But first, a shower and the soundest sleep I’d had in months. Next time my fellow Ladycationers and I set off for the main event in Rome: The Colosseum! Until then, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.