Eurotrip 2012: Day one and two in Rome, Italy

10 – 14 April: Roma, Italy

Continued from part 2: Assisi. I am breaking our time in Rome into two posts. This first post will focus on our trips to Pompeii and the Vatican, while the second will be about the rest of our time in the city.

From a small train station in Foligno, we spend one and a half hours standing on the train all the way to Termini station in Rome. It is incredibly busy and a little overwhelming. This is our first encounter with any metro system, and we are a little lost as to which metro passes will offer the best value. My engineer husband insists on first working out how many trip on average we are most likely to make in a day (factoring in all the obvious ones), adding a few incidentals, and then comparing that with the cost of a five day pass for the trains and buses. We find a news stand and buy our passes, and head down into the depths of Rome’s metro lines. We are staying in a Bed & Breakfast within easy walking distance of the Vatican our first two evenings. We find our lodging without too much difficulty, and again realize that we will have to look for a local grocer that’s still open in order to restock our supplies for lunch and dinner. After walking around the Castel Sant’Angelo and discovering a little market as it is closing for the evening, we give in to our tired feet and aching bodies, and set off in search of a restaurant rather than a grocer. We have some delicious pizza and lasagna and head home. We have an early start in the morning with a day-trip to Pompeii.

Day 1: Pompeii
Up early (bright eyed and bushy tailed, more bushy tailed for some), we join our tour group for the two hour bus drive to Pompeii. We stop along the way at an Auto Grill next to the highway, and are super surprised to see that they sell everything from kids’ toys to wine and groceries. We arrive in Pompeii and realize that we’re starving, so after getting our entrance tickets, we find a little shop just outside the ruins and have some delicious sandwiches packed with cold meats, lettuce, tomato and mozzarella. We buy a guidebook with map before heading in, and finally we are trundling along the ancient roads of Pompeii.

A plaster cast and ceiling from Pompeii

Detail from a ceiling and a plaster cast of a victim in Pompeii

As with most cities you visit as a tourist, we realize the whole of Pompeii will be too big to see in one day, so we set about prioritizing what we want to see and devise a route that will encompass all of these. Halfway through said route, upon rounding a bend expecting to find the Lupanar and instead finding the stadium, we realize we are hopelessly lost. The closed-off roads for excavations and “renovations” have clearly played havoc with our sense of direction, and I feel a little happy that I was not the one in control of the map.

We walk down the cool, pine-lined road and I know that the smell of cold air and pine cones is one I will forever associate with Italy. We spend a little time taking a break on the grass and collecting our strength, before moving along to the Gladiatorial training arena and amphitheater. Francois loves this part of the ruins, as he has been watching a lot of series like Rome and Spartacus. 

A wall with mosaic, artwork from a bar, and detail of a bath in Pompeii

External wall with mosaic, frescoed wall in a bar with serving ‘holes’ in the foreground, and a bath in Pompeii

Finally we find the brothel, and quietly snigger at the age restriction signs outside the door. The artwork inside is amazingly well-preserved, as so many other frescoes and mosaics throughout the city. To me, this is the most fascinating part of the whole experience – how exquisitely rich the colours are in these works that have been through so much and dating from so long ago.

We return to Rome along with what seems like the rest of Italy, as it is the end of the Easter weekend. We arrive back in Rome with barely enough time to catch the last metro train to our B&B, and set off in search for a spot to have dinner at.

Day 2: Musei Vaticani, the Raphael RoomsSistine ChapelBasilica Papale di San Pietro
It is a cold, rainy, miserable day. We get out of bed late and lazily have breakfast, before checking out of our B&B and heading to Termini Station, where we’ve arranged to meet three of our friends. We are spending the next three nights together in Rome, sharing an amazing apartment on Piazza Bologna. We store our luggage on Termini and they rush off to join their tour of the Vatican ahead of us. Francois and I have more time before our tour starts, so we get a panini for lunch and wait around in the rain before we can get in.

We’ve booked our tickets to the Vatican online and luckily that means we get to skip the insanely long queues and walk right in. We receive earpieces and our guide meets us in the foyer. While we’re waiting for the rest of the group, I buy a postcard to send to my mom from the Vatican City.

We start with a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel, as the tour guides aren’t allowed to accompany the groups inside and talking is firmly shushed by the Vatican guards. She explains in intricate detail the significance of the Last Judgement, leading us through it’s creation, alterations and historical controversies. She then moves onto the amazing panels on the ceiling, constantly reminding us that Michelangelo was not a painter, but a sculptor. Every part of my being is tingling with anticipation… ever since the first time I saw pictures of the Sistine Chapel, I dreamt about seeing it. I am dumb-struck with the mere thought of the amount of amazing artworks we are about to see and it feels like an eternity before we finally start moving towards the museum.

We are guided through a plethora of sculptures, paintings, frescoes, tapestries, relics, urns, tombs, mosaics and more. I revel in the experience. It’s inspiring. It’s jaw-dropping. It’s intimidating. It’s amazing! It’s… an overload on the system. There are absolutely no words that could ever describe this feeling! The Raphael rooms are overpowering in their vibrancy and richness.

Laocoön and His Sons

Laocoön and His Sons

Detail of ceiling fresco in Musei Vaticani

Pressed ceiling and fresco detail from Musei Vaticani

From the Raphael rooms, our guide bids us farewell and we are directed to the entrance into the Sistine Chapel. The walk to the door through which millions enter the chapel seems to take forever, but we finally arrive amidst a throng of people all craning their necks to see over one another, gawking at the Last Judgement while others stare straight up at the incredible ceiling. A few guards are assigned to keep the crowd quiet and to remind the visitors that no photos are allowed. Both directives are blatantly ignored, and it’s not the first time on our trip that I am disgusted with the gross disregard that people have with regards to requests  not to take photographs. It’s a common occurrence to see people snapping away in ancient basilicas, with and without flash (though the former irks me to a level I can’t explain. I will get into this subject on a later stage).

Finally we decide to leave the Sistine Chapel behind and we fall into the next line snaking its way to the entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica. The immensity of these churches, the lavish finishing, their age – it all seems too much to take in. I had some expectation before heading in, but nothing prepares one for the sheer overwhelming riches and imposing size of the collections of art and architecture. I’m also relieved to see that Francois is enjoying this, as I feared that the art historian in me might take over the trip and (eventually) bore him to death.

St Peter's Basilica from the outside on a rainy day, Vatican City, Rome

St Peter’s basilica from the outside on a rainy day in Rome

The altar above the tomb of St Peter in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome

After a day of sensory overload and historical splendour, we check into our flat on the ninth floor on Piazza Bologna and enjoy a great family-style dinner of pasta and wine with friends, recounting the time we’ve spent apart. Oh, and doing washing (so domesticated!).

Continues in part 3.2 with our visit to the rest of the city of Rome, Italy shortly. You can find more of our photos of the Vatican and from Rome here.

Header photo by Deon Joubert.
All other images by the author: © catterflyworx 2012.

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