We arrived in Roma Termini just about 6pm and the heat of the day was permeating everything. After just hiking to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa earlier in the day (we squeezed this in on our train ride from La Spezia to Rome), we were not really in the mood for much. We exited the train looking for free WiFi to make getting to our Airbnb slightly easier with a map, but we had no such luck. Eventually, through the Google translate app, we were able to navigate ourselves using the city trains and buses and we got on the right track to the apartment. This time we booked an actual B&B…well sort of, it included a prepackaged croissant and “make-your-own” coffee each day. Still, it was quite inexpensive and one of the few options available in our budget.
As soon as we were settled in we sought out an authentic Italian restaurant in our new neighborhood. I ordered “off the menu” a spaghetti bolognese and Whitney a spaghetti carbonara (on the menu). We found exactly what we were looking for and both were excellent. (I’d give the name of the restaurant, but I have no idea what it was called). From there we headed back home to sort out our next few days in Rome with plans to at least visit the Vatican and the Colosseum.
That night we ended up booking a reserved ticket for the Vatican Museums for 1:00pm the next day, so we moved a little slower the following morning, taking our time to sleep in and get ready. We even had enough time to hit up the local grocery store for a couple of nights of home cooked pasta. We eventually arrived at the Vatican Museum a little before 1pm after dodging the plethora of hagglers trying to upsell us on a guided tour of the different parts of Vatican City. The benefit of having purchased the reserved ticket (16euro each plus a “pre-purchase fee” of 4euro each), was that we were able to follow the group ticket line. This meant we essentially walked right past the excruciatingly long line of patrons standing in the hot sun waiting to buy their individual tickets at the door. 4euro well spent!!
The Vatican Museum has amazing sculptures, artwork, and incredible murals on the walls. Once in the museum the path to the exit sort of winds through in a one-way direction, so everyone visiting passes through just about every room. We had purchased the audio guide for 7 euro each to accompany our self-guided tour and found it be similar to others, nothing special, but did answer a handful of questions we may have had. One of our favorite rooms was the Gallery of Maps. As might be expected, this hall was lined with beautifully drawn maps and the ceiling was covered in decorative enhancements around a variety of murals depicting different historical impressions. Finally, the museum tour ended with the Sistine Chapel…the final masterpiece hand-painted by Michelangelo for the Pope at the time. We were ushered into the crowded Chapel around to the back, which actually gives you the best view. The images depicting the book of Genesis on the ceiling are like no other and when combined with the murals lining the walls, it’s no wonder why everyone fills the room.
After spending time in the Museums, we headed back to St. Peter’s Square and the Basilica…indulging in a little gelato along the way…this was our attempt at cooling down in the brutal Rome summer heat.
At the recommendation of one of the intrusive guides trying to upsell us on a guided tour, we headed for the Holy Door entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica. There was no line for this entrance and we gradually walked the distance from the security point on the edge of the square all the way to the doors of the cathedral. I got to share another “back in ‘98” story with Whitney mentioning a square filled with people watching as the Pope made a presentation to the crowds on the day we happened to be visiting.
Upon entering St. Peters Basilica we were taken aback. The incredibly high ceilings, the enormous sanctuary, the high altar all surrounded by memorials, sculptures and murals bring 15,000 to 80,000 worshippers (combined in the Basilica and the square) to events and services given by the Pope. I almost never take pictures in churches, but we made an exception this time.
Before heading home for the day we made one last stop. We visited the Vatican post office to send a postcard to Mom from Vatican City. I hope she gets it before she reads this article…either way she will let me know.
On our second day we planned to see the historical ruins of the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum. We had no desire to wait in any long ticketing lines, especially after what we saw at the Vatican Museum, so we purchased reserved tickets and opted for a guided tour that would take us to the Colosseum underground and the 3rd level, both of which are only available through guided tours. We booked ours through tickitaly.com (not sure if it was a good idea, still waiting on an issue to be sorted out).
Arriving to the Colosseum about 1.5hrs before our tour would start we were sent from the main entry line to a booth across from it to exchange our pre-purchased vouchers for actual entry tickets. We were informed that the power was out in that booth so we were next sent to another booth about 1km away…not a nice thing to do in 90+ degree weather, but we had no other choice. We got to the next booth and lined up. We eventually got to the front of the line and were told that we only purchased the guided tour and not the entry tickets. Here is where it got interesting. Our voucher clearly stated that it included the entry tickets and the guided tour, but the person working the desk refused to acknowledge this. He basically stated that we had to buy new entry tickets if we wanted to go inside. Fearing that we would miss our guided tour we paid the additional 12euro each and head back to the Colosseum…we ran the 1km back as time was running out. (If you haven’t guessed, this is what tickitaly.com needs to look into).
With a guided tour arranged we entered through the group entry gate and this saves us at least 30-40minutes at this time of day. We fond our group meeting point, and waited for our guide to arrive. She arrived right on time and the tour began. She first walked us through the “losers gate,” where the deceased or injured gladiators would have been taken out of the arena, and onto a platform on the floor of the Colosseum. She shared history of the arena and the events that were held there as well as the structural elements that existed in the past through various renovations. Next, we toured underneath the floor of the arena and through the areas the gladiators, slaves, and animals would be held, sometimes sadly waiting for up to 3 days before entering the arena. One of the most interesting things I learned was that the arena floor would be purposely flooded at times in order to display the naval battles that would entertain the crowds. From here we followed our guide up the steep stairs to the 3rd floor, another area only accessed with guided tours. We heard more of the history before getting some amazing pictures. If the ticketing issue works out, this tour was well worth the additional cost.
After the tour, we grabbed a sandwich from the supermarket for lunch and made our way to Palatine Hill. The ruins that remain on Palatine Hill give plenty of room for our imaginations carrying us back in time. I can vividly picture knights walking the same pathways as us as they entered or exited the now decaying buildings. We continued over into the area known as the Roman Forum and imagined the same things. A few columns remain of some of the buildings that once had a façade representing the great strength that Rome once was. (Now I want to watch “Gladiator” again).
Leaving the area, we decided to walk over to the Trevi Fountain…we soon discovered that 3pm is probably the worst time to go here. We saw the Vittoriano, viewing it from the Piazza Venezia, along the way. As we entered the Piazza di Trevi we were overrun with tourists. Layers and layers of people with their selfie sticks crowded the steps of the fountain. The fountain itself is absolutely gorgeous with the crystal clear water and surprisingly clean sculptures. But the crowds, the crowds were too much to deal with that day and really took away from the experience. With that, we headed home to relax in the AC of our apartment and enjoy our own homemade chicken pesto pasta.
For our last day, we took a desperately needed break from the tourists. Yes, we are tourists too, but we needed a little space to sort of clear the tension that surrounded the crowded confusion we were experiencing there. We previously wanted to see the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, maybe another church or two and may have missed out on seeing them, but we certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed the experience. So instead, we headed to the neighborhood of Trastevere for a little lunch based on a suggestion of Nomadic Matt. We split a few slices of pizza for a little over 4euro and immediately felt at ease as the quiet neighborhood is far from the tourist sites.
After lunch we wanted to continue to soak up some AC and headed somewhere more familiar, the mall. We spent the next couple hours wandering through the Euroma2 mall. I somehow talked myself into buying a European bathing suit, short shorts, for 5euro. On our way back to the metro station we saw a rowing competition in action and watched briefly as the international teams paddled furiously to the beat of a drum. It was very cool to watch.
That evening we wanted to have a final Italian meal together before departing Rome. We stopped at a nice restaurant only a block from our apartment and sat outside. Mixing up the happy hour options we ended up ordering 2 plates each for the buffet bar rather than splitting 2 plates…not usually a problem for me, but I was set on a seafood ravioli. We filled up on the buffet and called it a night from there, sadly no ravioli for me this time.
Our overall impression of Rome is that it is similar to spending time in New York City. There are innumerable amounts of tourists at most of the sites and it felt like we were back in Times Square except of course the sites were obviously different. Second, the smell of trash and the dirty streets matched many of the areas of Manhattan that we visited. We still recommend going and specifically to see the Vatican and the Colosseum as we did, but be ready for the crowds if you arrive in the summer.
For now, Ciao Roma!