I’m ashamed to say that Rome and Vatican City were never at the top of my must-see list. They were on the list but lost somewhere among a host of interesting places in the middle. I was wrong to put them so far down! Thankfully, Anthony convinced me I was mistaken and that Rome was worth a train trip! Having been there, I can now say that the architecture alone merits the trip! Everywhere we walked there was something to see–sometimes famous (the Roman Forum, the Colosseum) sometimes less so but still full of interest in the eyes of this tourist. Ruins, churches, columns, fountains and centuries of history compete for your attention! And, of course, there was the Vatican, Saint Peter’s and the Vatican Museum where we started our visit.
Saint Peter’s Basilica is one of the world’s great churches. Believed to be built on the tomb of Saint Peter, one of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles and the first Bishop of Rome, the Basilica holds a unique position in Christian and Catholic history. It’s religious and historical roles, link to the papacy, and art attract both pilgrims and tourists alike. We arrived early at Saint Peter’s Basilica to avoid the crowds. The Basilica opens at 7 o’clock. We ate breakfast and arrived around 8:15 am. Entrance to the Basilica is free but you must pass both security and “modesty” screening. The security screening is similar to that at most museums/airports today–you walk through a metal detector and your bags are scanned. Lines form quickly and depending on the weather/season, it can take up to three hours to get in. We didn’t have to wait long but the line when we left was impressive! Visitors must be dressed conservatively–knees and shoulders must be covered at all times. I wish we had taken pictures of the signs near the metal detectors showing how you were not supposed to be dressed ie no shorts, no tube tops, etc. If you are wearing shorts, you will not be allowed in. Staff are polite but firm and we saw several men being turned away as well as one woman for not being appropriately attired. You are visiting a religious site and I don’t see anything wrong with asking men and women to dress appropriately. A light sweater over my dress and I was fine. While you can bring a purse, larger bags must be checked. Bathroom facilities, a post office, first aid and visitor information (audio guides, etc) are available after security.
Walking into the Basilica is an amazing moment–the amount of art, marble and history in one place is mind-boggling and that without touching on the religious significance of the basilica and it’s place in Christendom. You quickly lose count of the art before your eyes. The basilica is huge–the interior is unequaled in size by any other Christian church. The basilica boasts Michelangelo’s Pietà and Bernini’s Baldachi among its holdings. The amount of marble alone has to be seen to be believed! Polishing it must be a full-time job! As a functioning religious site (something not all tourists seem to understand and that the guardians do not let you forget), you can attend Mass here. Mass is celebrated several times a day and if you are Catholic or Christian a chance to pray in such a holy place is worth taking advantage of. Even if you don’t want to attend a formal celebration, the Basilica is full of places to pray. Despite the number of people visiting or praying in the Basilica while we were there, it never felt crowded to me. We spent our time in a mixture of admiration, prayer and thought. Photography is allowed–use good judgement. Unfortunately most of our interior photos did not turn out due to focus and lighting issues. Anthony has since bought a new camera designed to take pictures just about anywhere and I can’t wait to try it out.
Before climbing the dome, we chose to visit the Vatican Grottoes where many of the Popes are buried. Staff in the basilica can direct you in the right direction. There is no fee to visit the Grottoes. Pope John Paul II’s influence and impact were immediately obvious. Of all the tombs, his was clearly the most popular. His tomb was surrounded by people praying, crying or just standing in thought. I couldn’t help but think of his funeral and the solitary, simple coffin standing in front of the Basilica. It was on our way back from the tombs that we also finally saw the famous Swiss Guards and their flamboyant uniforms. I had told Anthony that our visit wouldn’t be complete without seeing at least one Guard in person.
Following the tombs, we bought tickets to climb to the top of the Dome. You can choose to walk the entire way for 5€ or combine the elevator to the roof with the stairs of the Dome itself (7€). For once, we actually chose to take the elevator halfway as I was pregnant at the time. The elevator (or first set of stairs) takes you to the top of the inside of the basilica. Take your time crossing the walkway along the top. Looking down at the people inside the church gives you another perspective on both the church itself and the mosaics covering the walls. When you exit the church for the roof, you can take a break before climbing the next set of stairs to the top of the cupola. There is a small souvenir stand on the roof! I ended up waiting near it while Anthony climbed the dome for both of us. One look at me and the man in charge of the access to the next set of stairs gently insisted that I pass on the view from the top. The Sisters who run the stand sell postcards, stamps and religious memorabilia. The Vatican as a sovereign city-state mints its own Euros and has its own postal service. Don’t expect to find Vatican Euros though–signs everywhere we went read “We don’t have Vatican Euros” in Italian and English. Due to their rarity, they are actually worth more than their face value!
We spent the entire morning in the Basilica before heading over to the Vatican Museum. You must exit the Basilica completely to visit the Museum. Make sure you have seen everything you want before you leave the secure area as you can’t get back in without going through security again! It’s only a short walk between the two sites. Unfortunately, having used our “early bird” card at the Basilica we ended up joining a very, very long line to get into the museum. The line did move quickly but my original expression upon seeing it was one of disbelief and dread. For once, I had not thought to book our tickets ahead of time online and we paid the price! Over 5 million people visited the museum last year! We passed the time listing all the places we had seen the Papal Insignia during the morning. At the risk of sounding very irreverent, the Vatican understands branding. The Papal Insignia, two crossed keys under a triregnum were everywhere–where you would expect it (stamps, the flag) and where you wouldn’t–manhole covers, drain spouts, and even a water fountain!
The Vatican Museum was amazing! The highest praise I could give it was to go back again the next day for the entire day! Full price adult tickets cost 15€ and the museum is open from 9-16:00. Like in the Basilica, the hardest part is trying to figure out where to look first! In our first five to ten minutes in the museum, the words we most often heard were “look up.” The ceilings are amazing! The floors are covered in mosaics, the walls and the ceilings are painted, there is art everywhere! The Museum is not air-conditioned and when crowded it warms up quickly. Medical aid is quickly available as I found out first hand when I nearly passed out in front of Anthony and a room full of visitors. (I blame being pregnant.) Other than feeling self-conscious and very stupid, everything turned out fine and I was able to continue our visit after a short break.
The Sistine Chapel is part of the museum complex. Michelangelo’s masterpiece was a deception for me. Perhaps I expected to much but the chapel itself was smaller than I expected and it was hard to appreciate anything while being constantly pushed around by other tourists. Photography is not allowed in the chapel (which did not stop people from pulling out their cameras anyway) and the constant repetition of “no photos/no photography” was also an unwelcome distraction. Too many people in too small a space can ruin many an experience unfortunately.
The Gallery of Maps, on the other hand, was amazing (and I could breath)! I have always loved maps and the Gallery was a treat for my eyes! 120 meters of maps to feast on! You can take a tour of 16th century Italy without ever leaving the hall. The vaulted ceilings are also covered in paintings. The only souvenir I actually bought in Italy, postcards excepted, was a book dedicated to the Gallery and its paintings. Due to the amount of things to see, we chose to come back again the next day. The museum does fill up and we were able to go back and spend additional time in various rooms that had been too full to appreciate the day before. We also ate early on-site (mediocre food but convenient) and made the most of lunch to visit a few more of our must-see spots. It’s hard to believe that so much art and beauty is packed into one place!
Before I continue our trip with more of Rome tomorrow, allow me to share a few practical details. While you can easily take any number of flights to Rome from Paris, you can also take the night train from Paris-Bercy. You leave Paris in the evening and wake up in the center of Rome ready to start sightseeing. Depending on flight times, airport transfer, wait times and availability, you can actually get more sightseeing time out of taking the train. (The return train leaves in the early evening as well letting you take full advantage of your last day in Rome.)
We spent five days/four nights in the city devoting three days to Rome and two to the Vatican. We stayed in a small hotel near Termini Station. Hotel Americana Nardizzi is a great budget option. It is simple, clean (always a sticking point for me) and centrally located. Staff are helpful and friendly. Breakfast (cereal, pastries) is included with your room price. The hotel is located within a larger building–you walk inside and take the elevator up to the hotel. The hotel also rents out an apartment; a good option for families or those looking to cook some of their meals. We love to walk and, with the exception of our two days at the Vatican, we walked everywhere from our hotel. For a glimpse of what we saw, stay tune for the next post!