Italy, a detour.
Cheating here: I stopped by Rome in 2015, separately from my week around Italy, when I was living in Germany that other time. But I didn't have a blog, so let's revisit it along with those other Italian cities!
Important thing about this write-up: Rome has always been a Big Deal for me. In high school, I took four years of Latin, from one of the best teachers I've ever had. He was the closest I've ever gotten to Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society (or his character in Good Will Hunting, for that matter). He shared slides from his own visit to Rome in the 70's, on his honeymoon, with his students; Rome itself, both in modern state and throughout history, was a big part of his class. So visiting Rome was something I've wanted to do since I was fourteen, when it became this mythical place, more so than Paris. Therefore, my expectations were huge, I was visiting through rose-colored glasses, and now I've also gotten two years of time to add some nostalgia to the trip.
The Vatican. I went to Rome to see the Colosseum and the ruins. I tacked on the Vatican as an after thought. Do not do that. The Vatican is awesome.
Some ground rules: for a lot of the churches in Italy, including this one, your knees and shoulders must be covered. Really, Italy and Spain were the only places in Europe I encountered this and even then, not all churches are created equal. Recommendation: bring a scarf. These places can get hot. Wear your shorts and tank tops and wrap a scarf around you to cover up while visiting the holy spaces.
Also, for the Vatican specifically, get here early. Expect a line. The place inside is massive so it might not feel crowded once you're inside, but security takes awhile to get through. Also, you will have to go through security. This was true of several big churches in Spain and Italy but to an extreme at the Vatican. Which makes sense. It's the Vatican!
One more note, my very Catholic friend visited with her daughter a few years ago and actually got to sit in on some prayer service with the Pope himself. I'm not Catholic and have no idea what she was talking about, but hey, it happens!
I got here right when the church opened and this was the line. Again, it's security, not the attraction itself, that causes the lines. Once you get inside, there's plenty of room to wander.
While we're waiting in line, some facts. The Vatican is technically its own country, and the smallest one in the world. This is also the reason Milan can say it has the largest chapel in Italy - technicalities. It's been its own country since 1929.
While you wait in line, you are in St. Peter's square, built around the 1650's. Overall, the architect intended an impression of being embraced in the arms of the church. Okay, sure. It also provided shade, which was nice. Several tourists also picked umbrellas up for this reason. Something you're probably going to hear again from me in the next couple of paragraphs - Rome was hot!
The big guy, St. Peter's Basilica. Not pictured is the dome, which is just out of the frame. Sorry, this was my view from the line. The exterior is fine but the interior...
Inside the church. I'm glad the Vatican was at the end of my three months in Germany, because it seriously altered my expectations for churches. Damn. The interior is breathtaking and impressive in its size and scope. I felt like I kept finding a new alter, a new corner, or a new piece of the place while I was walking around. According to Wikipedia, it was built the in the 1500's and 1600's and has a gross volume of around 5 million cubic meters. So there's a reason it feels cavernous and massive.
Just some ornate marble sculpture by some giant of Italian Rennasance hanging out. Everywhere you turn, there's an alcove with a spectacular piece of art. At times it felt neverending.
The baldachin, built over the altar in the 1630's. In addition to tourists, the Vatican itself was very much alive. In the various corners and nooks of the place I stumbled upon nuns praying, choir practice, and some sermoning. When visiting, be sure to be respectful and quiet. Don't embarrass us other sunburned tourists. Also, caveat, I'm not a religious person, but when I was traveling around Europe in 2016 and seeing so many churches, I got in the habit of paying a Euro here or there to light a candle and leave it at some candle stand. I would say whatever the agnostic's version of a prayer is while lighting, feeling like I left a piece of me behind. Towards the end of 2016, I started including two people in my pseudo prayers - my cat Raygen and my candidate for President, Hillary Clinton. Raygen died, Hillary lost, I feel partially to blame. Sorry, guys. But hey, the Vatican is really great! And when in Rome, light a candle at the church. It's nice!
The view from St. Peter's Dome. It doesn't suck. Admittance to the church itself is free but you can buy a ticket to walk up the dome. Do it! You're at the Vatican! That being said, while the hike isn't arduous itself, it's not for the faint of heart. You first go up to the interior balcony of the dome (this might not be the right word). You can walk around the upper interior of the dome, looking down into the basilica. Then there's another level to go to the top of the Dome on the outside, where this picture was taken. And it gets tricky. Again, it's not an extremely strenuous hike but the stairs are curved around the dome. It's not for people uncomfortable in small spaces, usually stuck with random strangers. The place is old and was not designed for tourists. It's one of the more bizarre hikes to the top of a church I experience in Europe. And I got to check out quite a few. The number one spot still goes to a church in Freiburg that involved a very questionable ladder, a very tiny balcony, and some angry Australians.
Next up, the Vatican museums. These were super crowded. I mean, really, really crowded. The main attraction here is the Sistine Chapel, which is difficult to get to. And once you're inside the Sistine, be prepared to be packed into the small space like sardines. And no pictures allowed, or the angry, red-faced woman next to you will you at you. To be honest, the Sistine Chapel was not my favorite. It was small and cramped and smelled (I'll blame the angry, red-faced woman). Maybe I was just tired? Other parts of the museum dazzled me more. But regardless of what you see and where you go, it's gonna be busy. Pictured is not the Sistine Chapel but, hey, still a pretty ceiling.
To be honest, I didn't remember this bridge aside from being a pretty thing I took a picture of after leaving the Vatican. Luckily, Googling 'bridge near the Vatican' is super useful! And now here we have it, Ponte Sant'Angelo. According to Wikipedia, the bridge has been around a long damn time. And isn't it pretty.
And near the bridge is Castel Stan'Angelo itself, built in 134. Today, it's a museum and impressive structure. I only had four days in Rome. Priorities. But hey, I got a picture while walking from the Vatican to the next stop on my list.
And now we transition to modern Rome. Via del Croso is one of the few straight roads in Rome. And for me, it was a highlight. You have a thoroughly modern road, with lots of trendy and recognizable shops and eye-catching restaurants. But just a block or so off this lovely and straight and modern road are these ancient Piazza's, with fountains or steps but definitely picture worthy. In general, it's a great place for shopping, taking pictures, and finding restaurants. To me, this is the beginning of the Croso, Piazza del Popolo.
Another view of the Piazza del Popolo, from the top of a hill. The Vatican is visible in the distance.
Piazza di Spagna. The stairs lead to Villa Borghese, a nice city park packed with art museums. The stairs were built with French money in the 1700's and lead to a French church, but we call them the Spanish steps. This was a happening spot. I went through this area twice, once at peak times (pictured), where the place was crowded with tourists and all types of poses, and again in the early morning, when it was just me and some random model, getting professional pictures taken for some type of fashion venue. Mostly I was just impressed - she was wearing lots of clothes and looked cool as a cucumber, no sweat to be seen. Did I mention Rome was hot? Fun fact - just behind me, from the picture's perspective, is a store for Dolce and Gabanna, some modern Italian art for your perusual.
Walking around Rome, I came across this cute French cafe and had champagne and macaroons, as one does. I just really like macaroons. Look how colorful and fluffy! Also, Rome was hot. I needed some air conditioning.
The most disappointing part of my trip! The Trevi Fountain. This fountain has been around for literally centuries, enduring ages of tourists throwing coins in for good luck. Unfortunately, the guy was under construction when I visited, so I could only take partially-blocked photos and keep my coins to myself.
Next up, in Rome's Historic Centre, the Pantheon. A 2000-year-old temple and one of Rome's best preserved ancient monuments. The original was built in 27 BC and the current construction was built over the original in AD 120. The dome was the largest in the world until the 1400's and is still the largest un-reinforced concrete dome ever built. The 8.7 m opening in the dome acts as a compression, letting in light and rain while also redistributing the dome's vast structural forces.
Let there be light. The picture might suck, but you can also see a glimpse of the interior. Much more ornate than the exterior would suggest. And that famous hole, obviously.
Next up, Piazza Navona. This square has it all - awesome sculptures, more street artists than you can shake a stick at, and all kinds of restaurants. I came here on a Saturday afternoon and had a nice market-side lunch, watching people haggle over the price of tomatoes and enjoying the ambiance. This picture is post-market, but still a nice place for people watching.
Real talk: I don't know what this is. It's been two years and Rome is full of ruins! Even Google has failed me here. But I do want to point this out. I was walking from the Pantheon to my next spot and literally stumbled upon this site. Ruins, ruins, everywhere.
This imposing wedding cake has several names - Il Vittoriano, Altare della Patria, etc. It's near Palantino and doesn't quite fit in. Built in the 1880's, it houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and a museum to Italy's unification. More importantly, there's an elevator that takes you to the roof of the building for a breathtaking view of Rome (scroll down for that one). The view was thrilling but I was also really excited about the elevator.
Okay, now for the money, the Colosseum. I planned my visit around visiting the Colosseum, as one should if you're gonna go to Rome and really see the sights. First off, how pretty! But really, get a fucking tour guide. If you only get a tour guide for one spot in all of Europe for your big European tour, get it for the Colosseum and ancient ruins. Sure, there's Acropolis in Athens and the Tower in London. But this you need a tour for! I did a combo, three hours for the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. So worth it! Sure, there was skipping the lines but also just knowing what the hell I was looking at.
Inside. The partial floor to the left gives us a hint at what it looked like back in the day. The halls and rooms seen were covered by a floor and sand, to allow for animals and gladiators to move about. Inside the Colosseum, you get a hint as the to the massive size of the thing. It's colossal! You also have access to the interior of the walls. There are some museums.
Walking inside the Colosseum. It's been two years since I visited Rome and yet this has stuck with me, if nothing else - the original toilet system was designed here. Hey, where there's a crowd... We were able to see the remnants of ancient latrines. The more you know.
When used for gladiator sports, slaves fought to become celebrities and stars. But history is still history. In 1749, the Pope deemed the Colosseum a sacred site, as early Christians had been martyred there. This saved the Colosseum from ruin. At the same time, he installed this cross, though there is no historical record to support his claim. But hey, thanks for saving the Colosseum!
A cross section of the walls and facade. And some history. The structure was built in AD 72 and held around 50k people, organized by class. When in use, a giant canvas would cover the awning. In general, visiting the Colosseum was much more accessible than I imagined it would be. You really get close to some serious history. But seriously - get a guide. If not, do some internet research to avoid crazy queues.
And now the Roman Forum, once a marketplace, civic center, and religious complex. The space was first developed in 7th century BC; today it is a confusing pile of stuff. You really need a guide! Maybe he's just a good salesman, but our guide had a book he hawked. A quick Google search didn't find it but it's basically a small picture book of Rome. There are images of the various ruins today, with an artist's rendition of how it looked back in the day you can lay over today's image. It was interesting to see the comparison and also useful to orient yourself to where you were, physically. And a handy guide to remember the stuff I saw while in the city itself.
A green break, the Casa delle Vestali, the former home of the Vestal Virgins who kept the sacred flame alight. They couldn't have sex but at least they had a good spot in the Forum.
Another picture of ruins, to give you an impression how massive they were. After the tour, the guide left us here, with an hour left on our Forum tickets to wander around. And I did, for an hour. There were gardens (not pictured) and plenty of buildings, in various states of decay, to wonder at. The Colosseum and the Forum deserve at least a day. A startling piece of history, right here for you to walk all over.
Another perspective of the Forum. You can see Il Vittoriano in the background. There are modern apartment buildings to the left of this photo. Can you imagine this being the view from your living room? The rent alone... For the view! Truly one of a kind.
Just behind Il Vittoriano are more remnants, including foro di cesare. Walk ten feet in Rome, you'll fall over a ruin. The street between Il Vittoriano and the Colosseum/Roman Forum (behind me in this photo) must be observed at all times of the day. There's the lighting - gorgeous views of the ruins are offered throughout the day. Sunset at the Colosseum isn't the worst. But it's also quintessential Rome - modern cars and shops in this ancient place. And it's lively. People and street performers and artists everywhere. Don't miss it.
The Arch of Constantine, sitting between the Colosseum and Palatine Hill. It was built in 312, dedicated in 315, to commemorate Constantine's victory over Maxentius. It is walled off, so you can't get too close, but you can still see the detailing in the artistry and appreciate the age and size of the thing. For a closer look, go to Paris.
Circus Maximus, an ancient chariot racing stadium. Today it's a public park. And it felt more like a public park than some ancient ruins. There were kids everywhere, wreaking some form of havoc. Places for walking, places for construction. It was a nice walk but I was also peak tired here and maybe didn't appreciate it as much as I might have if I had visited it the first day of the trip instead of the last.
The metro in Rome is not great. And there's a reason - every time they start a new dig site for a piece of the upcoming line (that has been in development for years), they discover some ruin and anthropologists come in and it's another year or two delayed. Therefore, every night, on my way back to the hotel, I had to go by the Colosseum metro stop. Seriously, there's a stop right by the Colosseum. So I basically stopped and had a mimosa by the Colosseum each night. The friggin' Colosseum! Enjoy my drink and chipped nail polish.
I'm grateful for my time living in Germany and have not exhausted this well of experience in blog posts yet. But visiting Rome is something this girl from a small town in rural Illinois didn't think she'd ever really get to do. So nightly mimosas at the Colosseum on a long weekend? Not the worst!
Here is where I also note that this is my only food-adjacent image. I ate my way through Rome, trust me. My first night there, I had this decadent pasta thing in a nice restaurant that was decorated to make me feel like a character in a Jane Austen novel on a trip. I discovered a fantastic pizza place near my hotel that I fell in love with. I had lunch near the Spanish steps and gorged myself. I had the best gelato of my life, that place in Paris and Tuscany aside. So don't take the lack of pictures as meaning. The food in Rome was awesome. Sure, occasionally over-priced. But you're eating pizza and ravioli in Rome!
I visited in June and, damn, was it hot. Have I mentioned that? My more recent visit to Italy was in November. Still really friggin' hot. Luckily, Rome had an extensive free water system. Here is an example of such. They were all over the city. I highly recommend getting a bottle of water and then refilling it while you're in town. It's necessary. A few other European cities do this, offering free water via fountains throughout the city. Thanks, guys! I was in NYC last weekend and they had free charging ports for your phone, so America is getting there.
The view from Villa Borghese. The park was created in the 1600's and provides a welcome, shaded break from that Roman sun. I walked to this magestic view via the Spanish steps. Yes, the park is that close to the stuff the tourists care about. But a bit of a warning - the Spanish steps are just the beginning. There is much more of a hike to the top after that. I was sweaty and halfway through my water bottle by the time I got to the top (luckily, there were water fountains along the way). Also, I got lost. A lot. Get a map of the park if you can or be prepared for patience.
The Museo e Galleria Borghese is home to 'the queen of all private art collections', according to people who know. It includes works by Caravaggio, Botticelli, and Raphael. FYI, you'll need to book a time ahead of your visit. I did not know this. Like a true naive Americano, I showed up and balked at my lack of foresight. Or, you know, basic Googling. It's literally in my years-old guide book - you'll need to book ahead of time! Oh well, Villa Borghese was lovely and its namesake wasn't the only game in town.
When your second choice is a home to giants of the modern age, like Cezanne, Kandinsky, Klimt, and Pollock and housed in a friggin' palace. Sad.
So maybe I didn't get to see the museum I originally intended but I ran into these ladies at the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in Villa Borghese, that other art museum in the park. Here is where I note that, besides this museum and the museums at the Vatican, I didn't do a lot of museum-ing while I was in Rome. Mostly it was ruins. But they're out there and, according to my guide books, they're lovely, so pick your poison and allot time accordingly.
View of the Colosseum and Roman ruins from Il Vittoriano. The view from here can't be missed. And there's an elevator, so no excuses.
The Mouth of Truth, at the Piazza della Bocca della Verità. Historians aren't totally sure about the original purpose or effigy of the thing but hey, it's featured in a Hepburn movie and makes for a fun tourist spot. To be honest, I happened across this dude after a very long day. The line to actually put your hand in the mouth (for good luck!) was long and I was tired. Instead, I waited until it was between visitors and snapped a pic. Shortcuts are sometimes necessary.
And now, after all that traipsing around Rome, the spas. And you'll need a stop here because my long weekend can in part be summed up by: a hot, sweaty mess. The Terme di Caracalla are the ruins of a Roman spa/bath complex, built around AD 217. The place is massive and could hold up to 1600 people in its heyday, making it the second largest such structure in Rome. The complex was home to pools, gyms, shops, Today, in addition to a place to walk around, there is an area that hosts summer operas. It was nice to check out. You can walk around and get lost. I was impressed by how massive the place was.
And that's Rome.