More than ready to get back out in the world, we were also concerned that we might have to return soon for a Covid booster and thought staying sort-of close to home would be wise. Maybe Central America or the Yucatan. But as more evidence showed that 2 shots were providing good protection, and some European countries like Italy began to open, we posited that they might not be so crowded yet. Bingo!
Still a bit groggy after 13 hours on the plane (although the champagne and beds with blankets helped!), we changed some money (bad idea at the airport), hunted unsuccessfully for SIM cards and grabbed a taxi to our hotel in the city centre, just east of the Tiber River. The room was small but tidy, with twin beds, mini-fridge, large tv and a GREAT shower! € 81 per night, which is high for us, but have been assured prices are lower now because of Covid.
First order of business is finding SIM cards for our phones. TIM stores seemed to have the best reviews, however our experience was not great. The lone agent spoke limited English and had difficulty explaining the plans – or we had a hard time understanding – or both. We walked away with functioning phones, but Susie discovered a couple days later that iMessages had cost her $.50 per message (and she sends a lot!) because we didn’t pay an “activation fee” for iMessage! If you don’t know what to ask….
Next day we pop into the tiny bar (coffee shop) right outside, that is bustling with tourists, locals & utility workers. Two cappuccinos, one pastry and one tuna sandwich (white bread – no crust) in hand we grab the last of 4 tiny tables on the sidewalk. Now this is why we travel! Sipping some great coffee and watching the world go by, in all its glorious varieties.
But can’t sit here forever – at least not today. Pointing our noses northward has us walking towards the Villa Borghese, a lavish estate with a museum, landscaped grounds and a small lake. People are setting up an outdoor movie screen for something while children are riding a small carousel and a tourist train, as others rowed boats around the lake.
Now it is time for the Spanish Steps where we will meet up with a free walking tour of the city centre. Our small group has people from France, Italy and Germany – the guide is an English-speaking Roman who is extremely well versed in history – but not much personality. Which is fine.
Over the next 2 ½ hours we viewed and learned many amazing things about ancient and
present-day Rome, including the Spanish Steps (they were not built by the Spanish), Trevi Fountain (fed by one of the last remaining aqueducts), the many obelisks (more than any other city anywhere) and why the Acqua Vergine aqueduct is still functioning (it is mostly underground). Trevi Fountain had the steps closed off by barricades – anticipation of craziness following the Italy vs Spain EURO soccer match that evening!
The end of our tour had us climb Capitoline Hill (one of the 7 hills of Rome) to the Piazza del Campidoglio, redesigned by Michelangelo in 1536, with an imposing statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback as the focal point. A short walk to the east provides a sweeping view of the Forum, Colosseum and Palatine Hill.
By this time, we were both dead-dog tired, I was twice-soaked with sweat and frantically looking for shade. (our guide always stopped in full sunlight – even if shade was 2 meters away!) Susie decided we could make it a little further and maintained there were some decent eateries in the old Jewish Quarter nearby. (nearby? Ha) But we made it, and had an ok meal of falafel & fried artichoke (Sus) and spaghetti carbonara (me), while 2 hustlers played 2 songs in the street and then passed the hat to every table within 100 meters. Strolling back to the hotel was not so bad now as most of the streets had shade on one side, and we were fortified with wine & food. 6.3 miles walking on Tuesday!
Wednesday morning found us back at the bar for our usual, except a chicken salad sandwich with our coffee. We have tickets to the Vatican Museums for opening at 8:30 so we start walking west across the Tiber, pleasantly surprised to hear & see parrots winging around palm trees in the piazza outside the Supreme Court building.
Winding our way through multiple morality & security checks we were inside, and Susie
suggested making a beeline for the Sistine Chapel to beat the crowds. Well, she was right, as was our guess that Rome would be less busy this summer. It was amazing! There were only a dozen other people inside the Sacellum Sixtinum (Sistine Chapel) so we could linger as long as we liked, gazing at the amazing frescoes painted by Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists. Using the Rick Steves audio guide into earbuds let us listen or pause at our own rate instead of following the schedule of a tour group.
As I have, you have likely read about this Renaissance masterpiece. But it is truly breathtaking in person, to follow the progression of Michelangelo’s work, from the Creation of Adam at the center of the ceiling through to the great flood and the ark. Imposing portraits of major religious figures adorn the north & south walls, with the Last Judgment covering the wall above the altar. Michelangelo was not enthusiastic about his painting here as he considered himself a sculptor but was coerced by the Pope into the huge task. For his efforts, he was roundly criticized for depicting so many shameless nudes that were later partially covered by other artists. Michelangelo hid a few “Easter Eggs” in his work to “even the score” with the pushy Pope.
Walking out of the chapel Susie suggested we scoot on over to St. Peter’s Basilica before it
became too crowded, so we hurried through the hallways of the museum and back out to the street, and around the Medieval walls to the entrance to St. Peter’s Square on the east side of the Vatican.
This giant, oval plaza, which may hold 300,00 souls on important occasions, has massive Doric columns lining the sides, guiding you past the Egyptian obelisk in the center, towards St. Peter’s Basilica standing majestically at the far end. There were very few people in the plaza or security line and we strolled right on in!
The first thing that struck me was just how large this building is! There are many famous statues of the apostles, paintings, frescoes, gilding and ornamentation everywhere. Michelangelo’s Pieta was one of Susie’s favorites. The center of the 615’ long main room leads to the baldachin (canopy) over the main altar. St. Peter’s remains are kept in St. Peter’s tomb far below – not open to the public. The majestic dome soars overhead.
Holy Mass was in progress in the southern nave, so we sat in for a bit, enjoying the singing and chanting in Latin. I am not a religious person per se, but I will accept blessings from anyone who chooses to administer them.
OK – let’s go on up into the dome. Sus suggested we pay the extra € 2 for the elevator to skip
the first 231 stairs so up we went. Now up a few more stairs until we are let out onto a small walkway around the inside of the dome’s base, 136m above the floor. Another masterpiece by Michelangelo, the base of the cupola’s wall is lined with mosaic murals of cherubs, with tall windows above. As the dome curves towards the top, 16 radial panels depict various holy figures and angels brilliantly painted with gold gilding featured prominently.
Now, onwards and upwards! Yes, you can go farther – about 320 steps farther. The steep single-file staircase becomes increasing narrow, with the walls leaning in on you, ending in a tight circular stairway with no railings. Not for the claustrophobic types!
But we are here – on the outside of the very top! Panoramic views on Roma spread to the horizon, with the Vatican Grounds on 3 sides and St Peter’s Square to the east and the Tiber
River just beyond. Need to find some shade and let my shirt dry out, so take your time – drink in the views!
Back down the stairs (still scary) and one more turn through the main hall and out onto the piazza, admiring the colorful Swiss Guards. Still awesome, but somebody’s stomach sounds hungry. Head east young man. We think it not best to stop anywhere too close to the Vatican, but I spy with my little eyes a sign for iced coffee immediately, and in we go. Ahhhh.
Moving on we only get a few meters before a guy thrusts a piece of pizza in our faces – and it is mighty tasty. The wall sign shows different slices for 1 or € 2 which is a great price so in we go and park in front of a fan. After slurping down some good pizza we are presented with a bill much higher than expected. Seems that in some trattorias food is sold by weight rather than per piece. Closer inspection of the advert reveals a little "hg" after the price. Per hectogram (100 grams) which is about 3.5 ounces, also called an etto. We each ate much more than an etto. Lesson learned. (ha…we’ll see)
Now, should we circle back to the Vatican Museum to check out all the other exhibits we bypassed? My feet vote no, so back to the room to read & chill – and maybe a glass of vino.