Saturday began with a short metro ride to the Vatican City. We'd reserved tickets and an entry time to the Vatican Museum online before we left (highly recommended). With reserved tickets, you get to skip the extremely long entry lines, and once you're in the museum, you can get over to St. Peter's Basilica without waiting in that line either.
The Vatican, in a word, is overwhelming. The museum contains a vast, vast collection of art. And not just Renaissance type religious stuff. There are huge collections of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Etruscan art. Not to mention the collection of Sumerian cuneiform writing. There's a great number of famous works here, including an old sculpture of the torso of Hercules that was said to be Michelangelo's favorite work.
Speaking of Michelangelo, he did some work in the museum in a little room called the Sistine Chapel. Perhaps you've heard of it.
To give a sense of scale to the museum, consider that to get to the area of the Sistine Chapel from the above mentioned collections, you have to walk down one hallway that's 1/4 of a mile long. Of course, the hallway contains a gallery of classic sculptures, a collection of huge tapestries, and a set of giant, ornately painted maps of Italy. Of course, you're not there yet. Before the Sistine you have to traverse a set of rooms decorated by Raphael. (Splinter would be proud of his turtles.) Raphael's most famous work here is the School of Athens, a wall painting that depicts all the famous philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians of ancient Greece, as well as cameos by Michelangelo and Raph himself. It's kind of an odd set of folks to show up in the pope's personal rooms, but every good painting needs a few pagans for balance.
Finally, after 10 or so more rooms of modern religious art, you get to the Sistine Chapel. It's awe-inspiring for sure, especially once you tune out the hordes of tourists and the numerous guards alternately shouting "No Photos!" and "Silence!"
Those in the know (i.e. those who buy Rick Steve's guide to Rome), avoid the long walk back and take the secret exit out of the Sistine that cuts straight over to St. Peter's. It's supposed to be reserved for tour groups, but no one gave us a second look.
St. Peter's Basilica: Coming out of the Sistine Chapel, we made our way into St Peter's Square, thankfully already behind the security line that can stretch on forever. The square itself is a massive work of art. Two sweeping rows of white columns line the huge elliptical space. Each column is topped by a 10 foot tall statue of a saint (140 saints of Bernini's choice, that's 1400 linear feet of saint statue).
In the center of the open space sits a tall granite obelisk. The obelisk is a good example of the Roman propensity for monument reuse. The obelisk itself is actually an ancient Egyptian relic. It was removed from Egypt by Emperor Caligula on a little antiquing trip he took. He needed just the perfect 300 ton piece of rock to put in his new chariot racing circuit. A mere 1500 years later, Bernini decided it would go perfectly in his new square, so he moved it from the circus (basically located underneath the church) and put it in the center of the ellipse. They slapped a cross on top and that was that.
Stepping inside St. Peter's, the sheer size simply blows you away. It's two football fields long. The top of the dome is 430 feet from the floor. The solid bronze altar is seven stories high on its own. Over-sized statues, chapels, paintings, and mosaics abound. Bernini sculptures are at every turn. Michelangelo's Pieta is one of the most beautiful works you'll ever see.
History is everywhere too. There's a purple spot on the floor marking the spot where Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. There's a painting that marks where Peter was crucified. Peter's tomb is located directly under the altar.
After spending quite a while wandering around in awe, we headed for the dome walk (except for Rebecca, who's afraid of heights and thus made an excellent choice by not coming). For a mere €5, we gained the privilege of walking up 551 steps to the very top of the dome. For €7, you can ride an elevator halfway up, but where's the fun in that.
The walk begins with a spiral staircase that leads up to the bottom of the dome. We came out of the stairway into the interior of the church, where the dome starts rising up away from the ceiling. To use the same word again, the view is awesome. You're up close and personal with the giant mosaics that decorate the dome. You realize that the letters in the verse written across the dome are actually 7 feet tall. The people are little specks far below.
Continuing upwards is a unique stairway that inhabits the narrow space between the inner and outer shells of the dome. As you ascend, the walls begin sloping more and more towards the top of the dome, to the point that you can hardly stand up straight. To fit stairs all the way to the top required a crazy combination of normal straight steps, spiral stairs, switchbacks, and ramps.
Finally reaching the top, the reward is a command view of the square far below and all of Rome stretching out before you. You can walk 360 degrees around the top to see Rome in all directions. I'll say it once more: awesome.
Leaving St. Peter's, we fell into one of the worst parts of Rome: tourist trap restaurants. We went into a little place called Antico Caffe San Pietro just down the main boulevard from the square. We went hoping for a little snack and left spending €60 for food we couldn't even finish. Michele and I got 2 espressos for €3 each and a little €8 plate of tortellini in red sauce that was so salty we couldn't eat it. Tim and Rebecca ended up with 3 €8+ dishes and 2 drinks. The food in decreasing order of edibility:
As if all of this hadn't been enough for one day, we had one more thing on our agenda: The Rick Steves Night Walk© across Rome. Because if Rick Steves said to do something, we just couldn't say no.
The Night Walk© is a cool walking itinerary hitting all the big outdoor sights in Rome in one go. The walk begins in Campo de Fiori ("Field of Flowers"), a big open space that hosts a market in the mornings and jumping night life after dark.
From there we headed to Piazza Navona, a big plaza with 3 big Bernini fountains. Here, we managed to have the best meal of our trip. Ristorante Panzirone was right on the square, which can be a gamble, but it worked out well. Excellent pasta, good wine, and a free glass of champagne to top it off. This was also where we solidified the notion that we couldn't go wrong with ordering a mixed cheese plate at a Roman restaurant, and we proceeded to do that at every meal until we left. Rome was not built in a day for the lactose intolerant.
Next on this whirlwind tour was a walk to the Pantheon, the best preserved piece of ancient Rome. The giant dome still inspires architecture today. It was neat to see the plaza in front of the Pantheon nearly deserted. During the day, the crowds can be tremendous (Michele and I made it back on our last day to go inside).
Onwards, through the Piazza Colonna, with its giant column depicting the life of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and up the street to the famed Trevi Fountain. The Trevi is tucked away in a small square that you can hear before you can see. Even with the clock approaching midnight, the steps around the fountain were crowded with tourists and young Italian couples. We did the requisite coin tossing and then hit the real highlight: gelato! Just around the corner is a gelateria called San Crispino's that came highly recommended (thanks Justin). All the flavors we got were great. The conversation went something like this:
Me: "I should have gotten the large size."
Tim: "Why not just get another one?"
Me: "Another one?"
Tim: "Why not? I'm Gonna."
Me: "..." (the silence of not having a good answer)
Gelateria door: [jingle jingle]
(Our four heroes reenter the gelato shop and proceed to each get another gelato)
Sufficiently stuffed with ice creamy goodness, we hit the last spot on the walk: the Spanish Steps. Long a meeting and gathering place for tourists, pickpockets, Romans, and dead English poets, the Spanish Steps lead to the aptly named Spanish Embassy. (Or perhaps the embassy was named first. History may never know.) Of course, we climbed all the way to the top of the steps just so we could take an elevator down into the metro station. With several miles and several hundred stairs behind us, time for a well deserved sleep.
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