31 March 2011

Gypsy Kitchens: Braising Octopi

Before we leave Vatican City, Rome and our kitchen behind, we thought it would be nice to give our readers one last food post. So, here is how to make simple, delicious, braised octopus.
There are a lot of complicated recipes out there for cooking octopus. Many of them actually take less time than this method, but involve more work. We didn't make anything easier while here in Rome. The problem for many people will be finding octopi - all Italian fish markets have a few lying around, but they're rarer in the US. Apparently, using frozen octopus can actually work quite well because the tentacles are softened with freezing. That may or may not be true, but it's probably more convenient for a lot of people. We started with two medium-sized, purplish, fresh squigglers from a gruff man at Trionfale market.
The body can be discarded for this recipe, which saves a lot of work - frankly, we don't know how to clean out the ink sac or remove the beak. Cut the tentacles off right at the base, where they come together, making sure to get as much of the thick meat at the fattest part. Also, snip off the very ends of the tentacles if they are very thin and threadlike - one of our octopi had this problem, the other didn't. It's easy meat to work with, because it holds together well yet cuts easily. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees fahrenheit.
When you're finished, scald the tentacles for thirty seconds in boiling water. Make sure that your pot is big enough and that you have enough water - if you have a small pot, like we did, dunk the arms in batches, letting the water come back to a boil in between. Let the octopus dry in a colander.
Now, you're almost done. Put the tentacles in a heavy pot with a good cover. Don't add any liquid - the liquid in the picture above was entirely extruded from the tentacles during cooking. Quarter one yellow onion and halve four cloves of garlic, then add them to the pot. Don't salt it! There's a lot of salt in the meat already.
Cover the pot and put it in the oven. Keep the pot in there for five hours at 200 degrees. Open the windows, because your kitchen will begin to smell strongly of octopus.
After five hours (maybe a little less, if you know how to test octopus for doneness), take the pot out of the oven and let it cool to room temperature. Then, strain out the liquid - I'm sure you could reduce it to make a sauce, but we didn't - and serve.
We ate the dish with maltagliati pasta "al nero di seppia," which is essentially raggedly cut, flat pasta blackened with cuttlefish ink. Also, chicory hearts, pear and shaved brussels sprout salad. The black pasta seemed appropriate; it had a nice, hearty, nutty flavor that didn't need any sauce aside from olive oil and parsley. The chicory hearts were so prettily curly that we knew we had to put them on the same plate as the spiraling tentacles.
Here's a picture of the maltagliati before it was cooked. The pieces look just like blue corn tortilla chips, don't they?
For those who need it, here's the recipe:

1 or 2 medium to large octopi
1 small yellow onion
4 cloves garlic

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees fahrenheit.
Rinse the octopus very well in cold water, then cut the tentacles off at the very base. Discard the body.
Blanch the tentacles in boiling water for 30 seconds, then let drain.
Put the tentacles in a large pot (preferably cast iron or something else heavy) with the onion (quartered) and the garlic (halved). Put the pot in the oven and bake for 5 hours.
Remove the pot from the oven and let cool to room temperature.

Saint Peter's Square

We spent more time in Saint Peter's square than in any other part of Vatican City. Why? Because it's easily accessible, it is the front lawn of the country and it is a pleasant space to sit and look at the wonders of the basilica and the papal apartments. We went to two papal audiences there (one and two), and seem to always cut across it on our way from place to place. It's a grand courtyard, but a welcoming one, and we thought it merited having its own post.
The square is really not a square at all, but an ellipse with two trapezoids attached. There is a colonnade around most of the ellipse, designed by Bernini to hide the buildings that encroached on the open space. Around the top of the structure, 140 statues of saints are positioned, framed against the sky. It's very cool - even during the heat of midday - amongst the columns. Hidden there are several banks of security metal detectors, used during audiences and other events.
A large space near to the basilica is typically reserved for rows and rows of empty chairs - they are removed and taken inside when not needed, but there are so many events here that they seem to be a constant presence.
Saint Peter's is the only part of the Vatican that - on most days - one doesn't need to pass a checkpoint to enter. People wander through unaccosted by security and groups of people hang around. The square is actually under the jurisdiction of the Italian police, rather than the Vatican guards, although it is considered to be part of the holy state. Mehmet Ali Ağca, who attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981, found this out the hard way: when the pope tried to pardon his attacker, he was rebuffed by the Italian authorities who insisted on persecuting Ağca. Because the attack occurred in the realm of Italian responsibility (though on Vatican soil), Ağca was sentenced to life in prison, instead of going free immediately, as was the pope's wish.
There are three major landmarks in the square: the obelisk, in the center, and two giant fountains on either side. The fountains are original to the space - though they were built about fifty years apart. The first was designed by Carlos Maderno, and built in 1612. The second was built by Giancarlo Bernini as part of his grand design for the square, and was finished in 1677. Both fountains were originally powered solely by water pressure from a dedicated pipeline from the Aqua Paola aqueduct, which had enough pressure to propel the water 20 feet into the air. The modern fountains are a little more sedate, with a lot less oomph behind the water jets.
The obelisk is a much older thing, and is one of the only remaining artifacts from the original Vatican basilica. In fact, it was erected in 37 BC at the center of the chariot fields upon which the first church was built. But it was carved some 2,000 years before that, even, in Heliopolis, Egypt. The huge granite rod was brought to Rome by the Emperor Caligula, and then moved by Pope Sixtus (in 1582, almost 1,550 years after the first move and 3,500 years after it was built) to the center of the new public space from its old station nearby. Today, it sports a Christian cross and 17th century brass adornments. The white markings in the cobblestone around it act as a sundial, though the shadow's passage is difficult to follow from ground level.
The square is empty in the mornings and becomes quite full as the day goes on. Men wander around selling rosary beads and others try to coax tourists into paying for phony tours. A line snakes along one side as people wait to gain entry to the basilica. There's a Vatican post office van, security forces and many, many groups of pilgrims. For a few days, the state fire department was conducting some kind of test with the manholes, and we saw their vehicles stationed here and there. If you click on the picture, notice the "SCV" license plate - one of the rarest in the world, this is the official vehicle tag of Vatican City.
A few nights ago, we cut across the square at dusk, just as the sky began to light up behind the basilica. It is a magnificent space - not just because it frames the grand buildings so well, but also because of what it is itself. There are few public places in the world that are as open and as harshly cobbled as Saint Peter's, yet that remain as welcoming and pleasant as this place.

30 March 2011

Gypsy Kitchens: Roman Artichokes

A lot of people asked us "what the hell are you going to do in Vatican City for two weeks?" Well, as you can probably tell, a huge part of our time here has been spent cooking. (Though, it's not like there has been a lack of sights to keep us occupied). We wanted to try our hand at as many of the dishes and utilize as many of the most common ingredients around here as possible. I would say that the most ubiquitous vegetable in Rome/Vatican City is the artichoke - which also happens to be one of the most intimidating.
We kept putting off artichoke night. It all just seemed so difficult, the trimming alone gave me the jitters. Steaming the whole thing and dunking its petals in some hollandaise was simply not an option. They're never served like that here! I wanted it to look and, hopefully, taste just like the ones I eat almost daily. Carciofi alla Romana. Artichokes you could eat whole. Artichokes you could just pick right up by the stem and bite the head (and heart) right off of.
When we visited the awesome Trionfale Market right outside the Vatican wall and saw carciofi for sale already trimmed up and ready to go (as shown above), we knew that it was time to take the plunge. All that was left for us to do was remove the chokes. We slammed the artichokes face down on the counter to loosen the petals a little and burrowed a hole down the center with our index fingers. (Be careful, some of those inner leaves are pretty sharp!) Merlin used a knife to scrape out the choke and I used a small spoon. I really wished we had our grapefruit spoons with the serrated edges - but, really, how often do those come in handy? It was quite the workout. At first, I was worried about all the tiny leaves that were falling out along with the furry choke bits. But when Merlin told me they'd been the ones that had attacked my finger, I was glad to see them go. As was my esophagus.
It would have been much simpler if we'd just split them all in half like this, but I really wanted to stay true to the Romanesque way of doing things. Many recipes suggest coating them with lemon juice or putting them in an ice bath after your initial trim to prevent discoloration. The man at the market hadn't done so, but we thought the purple discoloration was just lovely.
When all eight artichokes were cleaned up, we fit them snugly into a pot with some bay leaves, a half a bottle of white wine, three lemon halves and enough water to cover them. Then, we turned on the heat, waited until it hit a boil and then turned it down to cover and simmer for about 35 minutes.
While they cooked, I made a sauce of olive oil, lemon juice, fresh mint, garlic, salt and pepper. I probably should have gone with a little less lemon, as the halves in the cooking liquid did more infusing than I thought they would. Still, our carciofi alla romana were absolutely delicious. The hearts were perfectly softened and if you've never had the stems before, they also have that great creamy artichoke flavor. I think they were a little better the next day- making for an excellent cold, midday snack.

I would love to tell you how to trim an artichoke, but being as I didn't do it myself, I don't feel like I am the right person to explain it. To be honest, I'm still pretty intimidated by the process and have yet to work up the courage. But we're about to spend two weeks in San Marino (another microstate surrounded by Italy). So...

Castle Hunting: Castel Sant'Angelo

I'm sure most people have assumed that I wouldn't be doing a castle hunting post for Vatican City. Well, I am, and it's not even that much of a stretch. Castel Sant'Angelo is a two minute walk from our apartment, and we pass it so often that it's blended into the scenery. It used to be the papal fortress (it's now owned by the country of Italy), and was a refuge for various popes during troubled times. I took a few of these pictures early one morning, and most of the rest on an afternoon visit with my brother.
The fortification has a long and unusual history. The base of the main building is a huge cylinder of limestone, built between the years 123 and 139 by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a tomb for himself and his family. Inside, a defensible passageway circles up through the stacked stone blocks and once accessed a high, parklike space on top. It's use as a resting place was brief, though. In 401, the huge mausoleum was incorporated into the new city walls and fortified - the tombs were desecrated after the fortress was sacked in 410 and much of the original statuary and decorations were destroyed to be used as ammunition against the Goths who had besieged the city in 537.
The gradual fortification of the structure was accelerated when the papacy purchased Hadrian's tomb in 1277. The walls were strengthened and heightened, and a second defensive system was put in place around the outer perimeter in the shape of a square. The popes were concerned, at the time, about their safety in Rome, and wanted some kind of fortress in case of invasion. This is the view from the top of the walls, with the basilica rising against the sky on the left. A long wall is visible on the right - this contains a passageway, called the "Passetto di Borgo," which connects the Vatican's main complex to Castel Sant'Angelo. It was used infrequently for actual escape, though I am told that it is featured in several works of fiction. I have never read Dan Brown, but apparently everyone else has and knows about this walkway.
The upper walls enclose a pretty little collection of courtyards and buildings - there is now a cafe and an art museum housed in the castle. It's a little warren-like, and it's easy to miss the directional signs, but the sun was pleasant and the views out over Rome are spectacular.
The popes made many renovations that were non-military in nature, and the uppermost spaces are beautifully decorated with frescoes and plaster moldings. Inside, where the art museum now is, the rooms are nearly as fantastic as those in the Vatican museums. Photography is prohibited, but I can assure you that it's striking. This is certainly unlike any castle I've ever seen. There is, for example, a church on site that was designed by Michelangelo.
The Sant'Angelo bridge was also erected by Hadrian, in part to access his new tomb. It has survived remarkably well, and is now decorated lavishly with renaissance-era statues. Here it is, stretching across the muddy, springtime Tiber.
Roman history is different - this is a city that has so many old things that millennia seem shortened and antiquity has become part of everyday life. This castle is amazing. It is no longer part of the Vatican, and it's military importance has long been minimal, so it appears now as a kind of layered story in stone. The great cylinder is like a giant, archaeological core sample of the past two thousand years: ancient rome at the bottom, the later finery of the renaissance on top, the middle ages sandwiched in between.

28 March 2011

Domeward Bound

The dome at the top of Saint Peter's Basilica can be seen from most places in Rome. The design of the cupola, like the basilica itself, went on for over a hundred years and passed through many popes' and architects' hands. However, the final design has mostly been credited to Michelangelo. It is a magnificent part of the Vatican's skyline, as well as the Eternal City's and a must-climb for any able bodied tourist. Honestly, it is spectacular in every possible way, from every angle - and, true to form, it offers quite the spectacle of a trip up.
The very top is just under 500 feet high. So, as you can imagine, it's quite a trek. I tried to count the steps as we walked. I'm pretty sure it is 239 up to the drum of the cupola, where you can stand and gaze up at the beautiful interior. It's also pretty amazing to look down onto the floor of the basilica and realize just how much higher up you are than the little ant people below. Most trekkers take the elevator to this point, saving themselves that generally uninteresting first chunk of stairway. However, if they want to go out and stand on the very top of the dome, out around the exterior, they've gotta do the rest sans lift.
And that's really where the fun part begins. The next 332 steps are a steep, narrow, spiral. At around step 356 (from the bottom - 117 from the elevator) you've begun to scale the dome itself. The outside shell of the dome is raised a little further out from the inner ceiling and you are walking right in between the two. It was a pretty crazy optical illusion, standing straight up and looking forward to see the person in front of me at a 45 degree angle. Our bodies curved against the sphere as we walked in a circle, higher and higher. At step 498 (259 from the lift) it becomes so steep and so narrow that a rope hangs down the center for you to hold on to.
Then, you emerge! The fresh air alone is enough for people to cherish this moment. Throughout the trip up, there are small slivers of window, but not much else. However, when you make your way to the edge and realize that you are indeed at the top of the largest church in the world, looking out over Saint Peter's Square and the rest of Rome, it is a reward like no other. Merlin used a photo from up top in his Vatican Gardens post and will also in his look at the square, so I won't bother with more here. Instead, enjoy the view of people enjoying the view.
On the way down, you get to access the basilica's roof terrace. It's a gorgeous place to spend some time and there's absolutely no rush to get going on down. I've been up three times and it's never felt full. There's a bathroom (!) that rarely has a line and a potable water fountain. Large seagulls perch and pose for pictures on the decorative cupolas scattered about. I thought it was just the coolest place before I even walked to the front and realized exactly where I was.
These are the thirteen statues that line the top of Saint Peter's. Logically, I knew they would have to be enormous to be seen from so far below, but it was still pretty crazy to encounter their magnitude. Jesus is at the center, flanked by eleven of his twelve apostles (Peter's statue in the series is down in the square) and John the Baptist. If you look closely, you can see a little rectangle at the base of the closest statue, which read "S. Matthias." Matthias took Judas' place in 'the twelve' after the whole betrayal/suicide incident. Judas didn't make the final statue cut.
On the roof you will also find a Vatican post office, a souvenir shop run by nuns and a cafe that serves surprisingly low-priced refreshments. It really feels like some secret village at the top of the world, blissfully above and away from the madding crowd.
Before heading back down, I refilled the plastic cup my cafe-served water came in at one of the fountains. The walk down was slightly shorter than it was up (only 400 steps) and much simpler to navigate. We were a little disappointed that the dome closes at 5pm, far too early to catch a sunset - but long daylight hours aren't really something we're going to complain about.

Just a word of advice: signs at the cupola ticket office repeat over and over that those who are unfit or elderly should be advised that there are 300+ steps to scale even with the elevator. I don't think that many people understand that those stairs will be continuous, that there won't be many opportunities to rest - if any - and that it is very claustrophobic. Also, they are probably not allowed to comment on people's width, but it is simply to narrow for larger people (and too low for extremely tall folks). So, please, be advised.

Gypsy Kitchens: Shrimp and Asparagus Risotto

A few days ago we made a nice, seasonal dish in our little apartment: shrimp and asparagus risotto. Now, you can go any number of places for a risotto recipe, and many people believe risotto can't really be made well from instructions, so this is really more about the shrimp broth that we made and how we used it. It's only the end of March, but the asparagus is almost past its prime here, if you can believe it. We are in such a tropical climate!
The broth gives the dish a wonderful fishy-ness that can't be attained just by adding cooked seafood. It also uses what otherwise would be lost: all the flavor in the shrimp shells.
Shrimp broth is incredibly easy and uses everything that you don't want from the crustacean - the head, shell, legs, antennae, blood, eyes, etc... Simply put a pot of water on the stove, bring to a boil and shell your raw, whole shrimp directly into it. Actually, let me rephrase that - keep the shrimp, put everything ELSE into the water. Flavoring is a matter of taste, of course, but I added a bay leaf, three garlic cloves, a pinch of coriander and some salt. Also, olive oil and white wine - the wine I added later, though, about fifteen minutes before I started using the broth.
This process should be started long before you plan on cooking the risotto - preferably several hours before. Cook it at a steady simmer right up until you need it, then strain it, discarding the shells and other detritus. Keep the liquid at a steady boil. It needs to be hot to go into the rice.
Steam the asparagus until soft, then wash quickly in very cold water so that they don't get mushy and so that they stay green. Also, cook the shrimp however you'd like. We sauteed them fast in butter.
Like I said, everyone makes risotto differently. I am far from an expert, but here's how we approached the process. Cook a moderate amount of yellow onion slowly in a good deal of olive oil with two teaspoons of lemon zest (we've been on a big zest-kick recently!) When the onions are soft, add a little more olive oil and the rice (really, you should use arborio). Cook the rice in the oil until the grains are mostly translucent, then begin adding the stock, slowly. Add a few spoonfulls of stock at a time, stirring the rice constantly. Wait for the liquid to be absorbed before adding more broth.
Cook like this (stirring always!) until the rice is almost done, then add the garlic and parsley. Keep adding broth (if you run out, start using boiling water) until the rice is finished, then turn off the heat, stir in the chopped asparagus and the cooked shrimp, then let sit for a minute or two. The rice should be moist, not dry. If you like, you can make it even soupier.

Here's the recipe:
1 pound shrimp, head and shell on
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
1 cup cooked asparagus
1 cup olive oil (at least)
1 cup white wine
1 small yellow onion
5 cloves garlic
2 tsp lemon zest
1 bay leaf
However much parsley you think you should use

As far ahead as possible (maybe even the day before?), bring about a half gallon of water to a boil. Remove the shrimp heads, legs and shells and place them into the water. Devein the shrimp - discard the veins into the trash, not the water!
Boil the shells for several hours with 3 garlic cloves, a good bit of olive oil, the bay leaf and some coriander. Let sit overnight (refrigerated) if you can.
Before using the broth, strain out all the shrimp bits and other stuff, add wine and bring to a slow simmer.
Cook the shrimp and asparagus, then chop both into small pieces and set aside.
Dice the onion and saute slowly in a large pot or pan with a lot of oil until onion is quite soft. With this, cook the lemon zest.
Add the rice to the oil and begin stirring the rice. Try to stir it the rest of the way, until you turn off the heat. This can be tiring.
When the grains of rice are translucent, add a little salt and begin spooning the broth into the pan slowly. Let each amount of liquid be absorbed before adding more. Cook like this for hours and hours (not really; about 20 to 30 minutes) until rice is almost done. Add the garlic and parsley, and continue cooking. If the broth runs out, use boiling water as a replacement. Don't use cold water - it will separate the creamy starch that has built up in the risotto, and the texture will be ruined.
When the rice is done, turn off the heat and let sit. Make sure that there's a good deal of liquid in with the rice. Stir in the shrimp and asparagus, test to make sure it's all salted well, and wait about a minute, then serve.

27 March 2011

Gypsy Kitchens: Squash Blossom Dessert

I will warn you now that this is a very untraditional dessert recipe. Not only because the ingredients are mostly savory, but because its an exercise in baking without any measurements. (And, for us, without a baking sheet - more on that later). Zucchini blossoms pop up everywhere here in Rome, in sandwiches, on pizza, still attached to the squash in the produce section. Stuffed blossoms appear on menus, deep-fried with ricotta inside. This is basically a sweet take on that.
I saw a recipe from New York magazine that featured this dessert, except it called for dried chocolate cake or chocolate cookies for the 'breading.' Opting to go a non-chocolate route, we chose some almond cookies (graham crackers and Carr's whole wheat cookies were our first two choices, but neither were available). A mason jar full of raw honey from our beekeeper friend Josh in Vermont already sat on our counter. So, the other ingredients to buy were eggs (two) some fresh ricotta and basil (which was also not in the original recipe, but I thought would be nice).
The ricotta, basil, honey and an egg white mixed together easily for the filling. The amount of honey you put in depends on your taste. I recommend sampling the mixture before combining in the egg white. You know, to avoid eating raw egg white.
Some of the flowers still had the stamen inside, some didn't. I wasn't sure how delicately I'd have to handle them. It turns out, they're more resilient than their dainty beauty would suggest. Just get a fingertip in between two leaves and they'll all flop open pretty easily. The petals stick to the cheese, which is handy when you're folding them all back together. The natural seal formed is fantastic. Though, I'm sure it also helped that we bought relatively firm fresh ricotta.
The cookies crumbled easily in our palms and - not having a pastry brush - we coated the stuffed blossoms in a beaten egg with our fingertips. It was a very hands on affair. The 'breading' process was made easier by the fact that we'd refrigerated the blossoms after stuffing them. It made them a lot easier to handle. Again, firmer ricotta helped, I'm sure.
A quick google told us that 350degrees farenheit equals about 175 celsius. Fifteen minutes and they were done! The ricotta had become a sweet cake , the cookie had crisped. If you're not into the taste of zucchini, I recommend breaking off the stems. But I actually liked having that weird vegetable element in there. Ours weren't as crispy as they should've/could've been and took a little longer to cook because we didn't have a cookie sheet. Instead, we coated our cast iron skillet with butter and placed that in the oven. That gave the bottoms an unintentionally sauteed quality.

Now for all the ingredients: (sorry for the lack of measurements, but your eyes and tastebuds will do just fine)

squash blossoms- aka zucchini blossoms
ricotta cheese- fresh, fresh, fresh. if you have a choice, go with the firmer one
1 whole egg
1 egg white
honey (real maple syrup would work well, too)
basil (or mint, maybe?)
graham crackers (again - we used Anna's Almond thins, but graham crackers would have been our first choice. plus, they're easier to find - except when you're in Rome)
butter- for pan coating

put them into a preheated 350degree oven for 30 - 35 minutes and you're done! being as the cheese cakes as opposed to melting, they're not too hot to pop into your mouth fresh out of the oven.

26 March 2011

Basilica Sancti Petri

Saint Peter's Basilica, built on the tomb of the saint himself, is the centerpiece of the Vatican. It is usually the first thing that any visitor sees of the country, as its towering dome dominates the Vatican and Roman skylines. Its the largest church building in the world (some people dispute this) and is jaw-dropping in almost every way. We go in often - to access other parts of the Vatican, to get up high for views or just to walk around inside.
The basilica is the easiest building to access in the country, even though the line typically looks like this. Unlike the line into the museums, though, this queue moves quickly. If you joined the end, here, you'd likely be inside within fifteen minutes. Admission is free, of course, and one only has to wait to go through the bank of metal detectors at the entrance. If you go, ignore the "guides" who wander the square and tell you that they can get you inside faster. They're lying to you, and the wait won't be bad anyway.
With room for 60,000 people, it never feels that crowded inside. The space opens to the sides and back, revealing nooks and alcoves that pull people away from the center. It's quiet, too. Unlike the museum, or other spaces in the Vatican, most respect the request for silence. On one recent visit, a choir group was singing and the whole structure rang with their voices. The acoustics are phenomenal.
The ceiling is over 150 feet above the ground, and is more finely decorated even than the walls. Above the ceiling, various domes rise even further, with the central dome rising to almost 380 feet above the floor (the whole structure is 452 feet high!). Much is made of the sistine chapel, but it is less impressive in many ways than this. The lighting provided by the cupolas and porthole windows is dramatic, throwing moving spotlights against the curves and facets of the interior.
The structure was built on the site of an older church, erected in the fourth century by Emperor Constantine. The site is the tomb of Saint Peter - which we saw, with a huge bit of luck, when we were able to finagle a tour of the excavations underneath the building. The current altar is placed on top of several older altars, all arranged directly above the burial site. The older church - the first Saint Peter's - fell into disrepair during the period that the Papal residency was in Avignon. In 1506, construction began on the new basilica, lasting for over 120 years until Pope Urban VIII consecrated it in 1626.
The greatest influence on the interior was the imagination of Gianlorenzo Bernini, the sculptor and architect, who contributed a great deal of the marble works and carvings found inside. He worked on the building off and on for fifty years. The statuary tends to be dramatic, oversized and over-concerned with narrative.
Excuse the quality of this picture, there's a metal grate around the inner balcony of the dome. You can access this view on the way up to the cupola, and it's amazing. The dome rises another 200 feet above this point. Standing there, perspective and distance are warped and the curved space seems too vast to be true.
Going to Vatican City can be a daunting endeavor - the lines, the hordes of people, the overabundance of things to see. I'm not sure that I would recommend the museums, for instance, to anyone on a short stay in Rome. Without much time, they are unconquerable and frustrating. Hours are lost in the crush, and there are more images and surfaces than can be processed. The basilica, on the other hand, can be "swung-through." It doesn't take long to get in, it's free, and the scale can be taken in all at once - standing for a moment underneath the great dome is an experience. You'll be amazed, and you can leave after ten minutes or two hours feeling satisfied that you've seen something breathtaking.