Rome: Vatican City & more

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The next morning we woke up early as we had booked “Breakfast at the Vatican” tickets which required us to be at the Vatican Museums’ entrance at 7 am. It was cool in the morning – sweaters were needed and our older daughter had a bad cold so she was not her usual self.

I had purchased the tickets from the official Vatican website and we paid substantially more for these tickets simply so we could avoid the huge crowds I had heard about. Once general admission starts at 9 am the crowds at the Vatican are huge and include thousands of people from many tour groups. We called for a cab using the number Sylvia at the hotel had given us and within 15 minutes we were waiting for the guards to let us in. They waited till it was exactly 7 am.

Once inside, you have to go through security like at the airport and large bags/backpacks are not allowed although small purses are okay. Dress code is strictly enforced at the Vatican and at many churches in Italy – no shorts (men and women), bare shoulders, or short dresses. We were directed straight to the breakfast buffet which was set up in a courtyard in the Vatican. Breakfast was a good spread but we hurried through it since the intention was to see the place in relative peace before the hordes descended. We picked up our audio guides and as suggested by the attendant went straight to the Sistine Chapel.

Vatican City is impressive and grand. As we walked the long corridor to the Sistine Chapel, the ceilings and wall were elaborate and ornate. When we entered the Sistine Chapel, it was a wow moment – the chapel is majestic and every bit as beautiful as expected.  It is the venue for the election of each successive pope.

Photography is not allowed in the Sistine Chapel but elsewhere in the Vatican it is allowed. Michelangelo’s genius and incredible talent are seen on the wall with the Last Judgment and the ceiling which depicts scenes from Genesis – God’s creation of the world, the creation of Adam & Eve, their expulsion from the Garden of Eden and Noah and the great flood. I was glad we had the early admission, there were not that many people and we could see the grandeur of the Sistine Chapel in peace. How a human being could paint such beautiful art onto this giant ceiling is mind blowing – your neck will hurt looking up at the ceiling though. We spent some 20 minutes or so in the chapel. We went out of the Sistine Chapel and then realized we had exited without going back to see the Vatican Musuems- going out would mean having to go through security again so we back tracked back to the Sistine chapel and back to the entrance.

The Vatican Musuems have a great collection of art especially some famous paintings by Raphael. We could have spent much more time but with this being our last day in Rome, there was much more to see so we did not linger much.

There is a secret door at the back of the Sistine Chapel on the opposite end from the “Last Judgment”, to the right which leads straight to St. Peter’s Basilica – it is normally meant for the official Vatican guided tour groups only but I learned of this from Rick Steve’s and no one stopped us so we quietly slipped out via this exit. It was really convenient as it takes you straight down a ramp and into St. Peter’s Basilica. The official way out would have required a walk around another really long corridor on the other side and the gift shop and then entering St.Peter’s from the outside with security checks.

The largest church in Christendom, St.Peter’s Basilica is the size of two football fields and can hold 60,000 people. Throughout our Italy trip I was just in awe of the genius of Michelangelo – he conceived the imposing dome at St.Peter’s too  – a great painter, sculptor and architect, almost believe that there has never been another human with this kind of genius and creativity. St.Peter’s also has his Pieta and other monuments by Bernini. As we exited St.Peter’s and into the square we could see the really long lines of people all waiting to get in and were so glad we took the early admission. They were setting up chairs for the Wednesday Papal audience at the Vatican, I think – we were there on a Monday so did not see the Pope. We took another cab and went back to the hotel.

After our morning Vatican City visit we headed to the opulent Santa Maria Maggiore church. Lunch was at “The Old Marconi” pub on the street leading to the Santa Prassede church. The Old Marconi had a lunch special with bruschetta, entrée and water for 10 Euros.  In Italy at restaurants you always pay for water and at times a bottle of water may cost as much as 1 glass of the house red wine. Italians only have wine with their meals though and and as a nation do not have alcoholics. Rome is the only city that had free drinking water fountains in various places and our hotel had one too so it was easy to fill up our water bottles from time to time.

In the afternoon, despite the heat, we toured ruins from ancient Rome when Julius Ceasar and Rome ruled a vast empire – the remnants of Rome’s 1000 year empire can be seen at the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. The 3 share an admission ticket and since the ticket lines are shorter at the Roman Forum entrance we went there and the entrance to the forum was right next to it. Much like Pompeii, this is another confusing place – the 3 areas are all connected – the Colosseum is opposite the street from the Roman Forum. It is difficult to determine the significance of each area although there are some signs. Rick Steve’s audio guide for the Roman Forum is good only if you enter from the same entrance that he starts it from.

The Colosseum was grand and the RS audio guide was sufficient – can imagine the gladiators and spectators here much like fans cheer in today’s football stadiums except back then it was slaves fighting others or animals – a rather barbaric society but Rome was built on its conquests and wars and such was the culture then.

By the end of the day, the phone was showing close to 25,000 steps walked by us. In the evening, we spent a little time in Piazza Navona itself, the area where our hotel was situated. In the center stands the famous Fountain of the Four Rivers sculpted by Bernini – another Italian genius. No wonder so many great fashion designers are Italian – their heritage is incredible.

Dinner was at the Cantina e Cucina right at our hotel door step on the same street. The gelato at Frigidarium on the same street was also excellent. I loved the Piazza Navona area as it was convenient for all sightseeing and had really good restaurants. Back in our oasis of peace in the hotel our last night in Rome,  I was relieved – had felt that Rome would be the toughest city and that the remainder of the trip would be much easier. Rome is a destination in itself for 5 nights easily and we had pushed ourselves with non-stop sightseeing in 2 nights so we could at least see part of it. If you have had the patience to read so far, thanks for sharing our journey. Tuscany awaited us the next day.