Our hotel in Rome was modern, coming with all sorts of neat amenities…including blackout shades. They were soundproof and completely dark. I woke up on this morning trying to figure out why the people in the room above us would be vaccuming at 3am. After a bit of fumbling around I found my iPhone, it read 9:30…certainly my phone was still on American time. But then I looked at the alarm clock in the room. Also 9:30.
Could it be 9:30 at night?? I was in a downward spiral of confusion, it was like a horrible episode of the twilight zone. I had no concept or idea of what time it actually was…where was the sun!
And then Lauren pressed a button and the shades opened. And low and behold it was a beautiful sunny day outside…not raining…
We walked to the Vatican with no tour plans. Again this is a flexibility allowed while traveling in the off-season, not necessarily a great idea in the busy season. I’m not really sure why we walked, but we did. It was a long walk, but pretty as we followed the Tiber.
After ducking in for coffee we headed down towards St. Peters Basilica…it’s tough to miss, big dome…it’s own country. As we approached the square it was only a matter of moments before we were hit up for our first tour. Getting a tour is a little like buying weed outside a Phish concert…you get a lot of shady offers, and ultimately you just have to go with the one that looks least desperate.
We ended up with a guy named Angelo, a fast talking American-Italian. He told us he grew up in Rome, but his parents were Italian, but that he went to college in California. I don’t know, I lost track…but he sounded pretty American with very Italian pronunciations. It didn’t matter, because he was good. I secretly grade all guides in the back of my head…mainly because I was, and still am, one. I’m not afraid to admit that I think I’m very good at doing the job, and it takes a lot for me to admit that someone’s actually better than me.
Angelo was better than me.
His information was top notch, his timing was excellent…but most importantly his presentation was perfect. I’ve always lamented guides who spit out random dates and facts as though they mean something to an audience. What separates good guides from the rest is the ability to put those dates and facts into context. Make them part of the story that explains a culture. Create a narrative that engages the audience enough to build a curiosity within them. A good traveler should be hungry to learn…and a good guide transforms average travelers and tourists into good travelers.
This was my second tour of the Vatican, and honestly…it didn’t really get me going the first time around. I’ve got a natural distaste for organized religion, and I really let that cloud my last trip through more than it should have. I broke my own rule about keeping an open mind. This time I wanted to fix that.
Things were much busier than we had expected around the Vatican for the low-season…but something was happening. In just 48 hours Pope Benedict XVI would be giving his final mass, and by weeks end he would be retiring. The first pope to do so in 600 years…and we were there for it.
I know when I give tours around big event in America I really try to stress the importance on my clients, because it goes beyond a simple holiday or vacation. Your trip is now intertwined with history, and every time you hear about that important moment you will remember your trip. For the rest of my life when I see Pope Benedict XVI or Francis I I will think of my time in Rome. Angelo did a masterful job of driving that point home.
Around the square scaffolding was going up for television crews, already satellite trucks from around the world were deployed. Just walking to the entrance of the Vatican Museum I counted three cardinals. We were but flies on the wall…but it was an important room of history. Inside the museum was crowded…walking through I took notice of things I hadn’t recognized before. Partly thanks to Angelo, partly because I wasn’t quite so disoriented as before.
Trying to get a handle on the Vatican Museum in one day is impossible, in fact it’s impossible in a decade…that’s one of the reasons a guide is so critical. Aside from the National Mall here in DC, the Vatican is the second largest concentration of human knowledge on the planet. Really getting to know everything here requires a PhD.
I finally caught the significance of the headless, armless sculpture that everyone stopped to photograph: it was Michaelangelo’s model for God. I understood the connection between ancient Rome and the Church: a large porphyry wine vat/bath will do that. I grasped the symbolism of the Map Room: the maps are arranged in geographical order from south to north with the west on the left and the east on the right. My brain was just being bombarded with incredible information throughout the tour with the grand finale yet to come.
My first time in the Sistine Chapel was memorable, but slightly underwhelming. I didn’t fully comprehend what I was looking at. Before we even entered the museum corridors, while we were in the Court of the Pine Cone, Angelo did what all the guides do: he went over a replica of the Sistine Chapel on a poster board. But he told the story so well that I could feel the angst of Michaelangelo as he spent four years arching his back in the most unnatural way, alone, in the dark…painting. And he had never painted a fresco before. Never. Angelo illustrated how we could look at the ceiling and watch Michaelangelo learn from panel to panel as the depictions became less cluttered and sharper.
The point being that as we came into the Sistine Chapel with a much better idea of what I was looking at…key considering you don’t get a lot of time in there. It really is a stunning place, and this time I felt moved by its power. It’s not a well lit room, I’m sure mainly for preservation, and everyone inside is craning their necks to look at the paintings. Every once in a while someone takes a photo, prompting one of the guards to shout, “No, photo.” Seriously people, just stop taking pictures. Respect the room, there are good photos online…and your picture’s going to suck because you’re trying to take a quick shot in a dark room before a security guard yells at you.
Instead, soak in the moment…in just about two weeks television sets around the globe will be showing this room full of cardinals as they meet to select the next pope. This is the intersection of history and travel. We’d be one of the last groups to come through before the Sistine Chapel was sealed off for preparations. But in that moment, we saw what the cardinals would see…the place where stoves would be installed with pipes leading to the roof that would gush black smoke or white smoke. This was an epic transition, and we were standing in the room where it all would happen.
From the Sistine Chapel we went into the cavernous St. Peters Basilica…it does a good job at making you feel small. The interior again offered reminders that big changes were coming. The statue of St. Peter was outfitted in an ornate robe and wearing a crown. Thousands of candles were lit in every corner of the church. There was a general buzz of energy rolling through the great hall. We walked around taking pictures and listening to the stories about the statues until the tour wrapped up. It was a much better experience than my first visit to the Vatican, as a matter of fact I didn’t even make it up to the dome the time before.
Thankfully, again, the line was short. After walking miles already on the day we opted for the lazy route and took the elevator up…but even so the elevator only goes about halfway up. There’s still a cramped staircase to walk up. In one section the spiral case is so tight as to bring on some serious dizziness. And then the path follows the curvature of the dome such that you have to walk while leaning to the right. And then it’s a final set of ladder-steep stairs before emerging atop the dome. And the site’s worth it.
Even on this cloudy day Rome is sprawled before us beautifully. We can look down on the square and on the interior of the Vatican and on the Sistine Chapel.
Leaving the Vatican we walked down Via Cola di Rienzo toward Piazza del Popolo and finally stopped for food at a little market and had some pizza after a long day of not eating. The place was a good find, not necessarily unknown…but also not crushed with tourists. We kept walking before a tractor beam lured us into a gelato place called Mo’s Gelatarie. I don’t care if the name sucks.
I don’t care if it’s touristy (which I’m not sure it is). It was the best gelato we had on the trip. And as we devoured our gelato we crossed back over the Tiber and found ourselves in Piazza del Popolo. This was the entrance to Rome from the north before the city expanded. In the middle of the piazza is an obelisk brought in by Augustus from Egypt…like all the other obelisks and pagan symbols in this city a cross has been attached to the top, so as to protect it from being torn down.
Looking south from the obelisk is a straight show down Via del Corso to the Altar of the Fatherland, or the Victor Emmanuel II Monunment. It’s a neat site-line that also gives some clues to the city’s layout. We sat at the base of the obelisk for a little while, resting up our sore feet, before continuing down to Piazza Navona. This was a spot Lauren was anxious to get to…as was I. My last time through Rome I got a cursory look at it and then left, and it just seemed like a place I wanted to spend some time.
We sat at one of the overpriced cafes to grab a drink before dinner and take in the scene. The piazza had once been a stadium where the Romans would flock to watch the games and some races. Today it’s still a popular gathering place flanked by restaurants and churches…the centerpiece being Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, which has an…wait for it…obelisk as a centerpiece.
The plaza was full of chants and songs…not Italian chants and songs, but Welsh shouts and songs. It was the night before Wales took on Italy in the Six Nations Rugby Tournament. And the Welsh were out in force…and they tend to drink, just a little bit….and then they tend to chant and sing. After a trip to Cardiff a few years ago I can testify to the anarchy that is Welsh fandom, and it is beyond entertaining.
As we listened to the Welsh cheer, Lauren and I started talking about rugby, and the need for America to embrace the sport. As the conversation continued one of the guys sitting at a table next to us started leaning further and further back, until finally he turned around.
“Sorry for interrupting, but can I just say how nice it is to hear Americans talking about Rugby,” he said in a South African accent. And from there he and his friend basically joined our table. We drank with our random new friends for another hour and a half talking about random topics and giving them advice from our path. It’s chance encounters like this that really make me love travel. Finally after a few beers we made our way to dinner and then home.