Rome and The Vatican, Italy 2017

Rome 26-30 July

The trip from Naples to Rome was the most comfortable for several months, mainly because we were back to being able to use Flixbus. Somehow, the Flixbus line seems to be able to do what others can’t, make things work without fuss and on time. The trip took two and a half hours and was a direct route along the Autostrada so it was smooth and relaxing.

Things even went well once in Rome. The bus dropped us off at the bus station in Turbunia and it was a very short walk to the adjoining Metro station. It was so refreshing to walk around a bus and train station area that was neat and clean. Even the graffiti was far less than it had been in Naples. The Metro train whisked us five stations to Cavour then another 300m walk took us to our accommodation, although a couple of flights of nasty steps did get in the way.

Our apartment is set in what used to be a monastery right in the heart of old Rome. The apartments have been beautifully modernised and have all mod-cons, although nothing much in terms of a view. However, the view up the nearest street is one of the glorious Santa Marie Maggoire, a Papal Basillica that dates back to the 5th Century AD. It is owned by the Vatican but remains on Italian soil. Back the other way and around a corner the street ends in the Colosseum, so we are certainly well placed. So much is easily walkable, the Roman Forum, the Piazza Venezia and the Trevi Fountain. Beautiful eateries and bars abound in this part of Rome. Just going for a stroll is a fantastic experience, with stunning piazzas, historical ruins and grand buildings visible from every vantage point. It is a true visual feast.

Ancient Rome

We booked up for a Segway tour as a way of getting to lots of places in the historical centre quickly and with a guide to explain things. The Segway tour of Paris we took back in 2012 has remained as a highlight of our last trip to Europe and this one proved no different. The group was small, an American, a couple of Norwegians and us. Together with the guide, Patricia, an Italian/German girl, we had a lot of laughs, mostly at Christine’s expense because she kept letting out little screams or calling out “Shit!” when she hit a bump or felt she might crash, which was quite often.

After a brief familiarisation and practice session we set off on our Segways, working our way through the ancient Roman Forums, the Forum Romanum, and the Forums of Julius Caesar, Augustus and Trajan. Then it was on to the Colloseum where the crowds were staggering. Inching our way through the huge throngs of people waiting to gain entry was actually a lot of fun and quite easy. Segways are so easy to control and so versatile.

The Segway Tour, showing The Forum Romanum, Colloseum, Constantine’s Arch and The Circus Maximus.

The Colloseum is one of those things that is more impressive and bigger in real life than the pictures. This is so often not the case but the sheer size and scale of the structure is quite breath taking. We have seen so many ancient sites and ruins on this trip but nothing quite stacks up to the Roman Forum and the Colloseum, all overlooked by the Palatine Hill, probably because of the sense that this is where it was all centred. Moving on we admired the Arch of Constantine then on to the huge Circus Maximus, the enormous arena featured in the chariot racing scenes of the movie Ben Hur. At its peak, the Circus Maximus was capable of seating more than 150,000 people, putting the MCG to shame. Around the outer parts of the seating structures, the porticos housed numerous shops and artisan stalls so the complex was an important part of Roman life even when not being used for games or events.

From the Circus Maximus we climbed up the Avertine Hill to get some terrific views over Rome and the River Tiber. It was a wonderful relief after all the hill climbing we have done to just glide up the hills on our Segways, whizzing past all the other tourists struggling up the streets in the heat. From the Avertine, we had to use the roads, which was a little daunting, but Patricia showed us how to fit in with the traffic and just go with the flow. We climbed the Capitoline Hill, the supposed site of the founding of Rome, and took in the amazing views over the Forum Romanum. I have always enjoyed reading Roman History, right from my early teenage years, and it was a very special to be able to look down on the places that had been the centre of so much history and home so many great people.

From the Capitoline Hill we worked our way back down to the end of the tour, a brilliant three hours of history, fun and the thrill of riding a Segway through one of the World’s most significant cities.

The Vatican City

A Metro trip took us across the River Tiber to the Vatican City. We had purchased some “Skip the Line” tickets on the Internet and we were so glad we did because the line for people waiting to get in was horribly long. The “Skip the Line” system operates across all the attractions and is basically a pay more and get in system, making you pay around 10€ each more than lining up in the case of the Vatican, but considerable more for The Colloseum. You have to book a specific time and tickets are limited. We had time to kill and had a coffee at a cafe opposite the entrance, waiting for about 40 minutes. The line did not appear to move in that time. When our appointed entry time came we just walked straight through.

The Vatican Museum is enormous, housing many of the Christian World’s finest art works. The complex of buildings is an art work in itself, with every ceiling, wall, door and window frame being something special. There are displays of Greek, Etruscan and Roman art works. Strangely, there are displays of Egyptian antiquities, purchased in the late Nineteenth Century by the Vatican. It defeats me how they can still justify keeping these pieces. They should be returned to Egypt.

Our main aim, as with most other visitors, is to see the four Raphael Rooms and Michaelangelo’s painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Both are located at the far end of the building complex away from the entrance, which means a very long walk through the halls to reach them. The guide books suggest a 20-30 minute walk without stops but it took us a little longer. The crowd is very manageable, controlled by the ticketing system but there are a great many beautiful distractions along the way. We are certainly not students of religious art but the works were simply glorious.

Along the way there are many fine classical sculptures, mostly nudes in the classical manner. The females are always demurely draped but the poor guys had mostly got the “chop”, their penises removed by various Popes through the ages. Some had weird looking fig leaf things covering their naughty bits but others had just been “done”. Apparently, the balls are OK, just not the other things.

One fascinating room was the Gallery of Maps, commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th Century. Skilled artists were brought from all over Italy to paint a series of enormous maps, depicting all the areas of the Italian Peninsula and islands. The major cities were also depicted in map form, leaving a lasting and significant historical record.

The Raphael Rooms date from the early 16th Century and are simply stunning. Many of the frescoes depict quite violent episodes throughout early Christendom or stories from the Old Testament. The paintings adorn the walls and parts of the ceilings of four rooms, mostly used as reception rooms for Papal visits. Below the Raphael Rooms lies the famed Sistine Chapel, a small chapel but one of the best known because of Michaelangelo’s ceiling paintings, completed between 1503 and 1512. Art historians generally agree that it, along with the enormous Last Judgement that covers the altar wall, is one of the greatest artistic achievements of mankind. What I was surprised at, is just how small and relatively insignificant the centre piece of the ceiling is, the famous Creation of Adam, that is so recognisable and so frequently copied as a symbol of art. It is no bigger than the other panels, just more famous. It is a requirement of entry into the chapel that shoulders and legs be covered, causing a bit of anxiety for many of the female tourists who choose to wear the fashionable Italian fashions. Fortunately, the gap is filled by the numerous wrap sellers outside the Vatican who do a roaring trade. Inside the chapel, the visiting crowds are requested to remain silent and photography is not permitted. Al this is largely ignored of course, so at regular intervals, a very loud announcement screams out “Silence!”, which produced the required effect for 10 to 15 seconds before the noise returns. When someone is spied taking a photo, a guard will rush over and yell at them, so they look sheepish and put the phone down for a few minutes rest.

St Peter’s Square and Basillica, Vatican grounds.

After leaving the Vatican Museum, we walked around the vast walls of the city to re-enter at St Peter’s Square. This most famous of all Rome’s Plazas is certainly impressive and must be an awesome sight when it is filled with people for a Papal blessing or appearance. Backed by the huge St Peter’s Basillica, the square is framed by two enormous arcs of colonnades, producing a truly impressive sight. In the middle is an enormous obelisk, originally erected in Heliopolis in Egypt by Augustus then later moved to Rome by Caligula. All the way around the long colonnades was a heavy line of people, queued waiting to gain access to St Peter’s Basillica to climb to the top of the famous dome. Unlike the line to get into the Vatican, this one appeared to move, although slowly. We had no thoughts about even trying. We decided to leave that pleasure to the Pope.

We walked a few streets away from the Vatican until the menu prices at the restaurants dropped to an acceptable level and settled down for a sandwich and a beer, alongside a group of three Aussies (of Italian origin) from Melbourne. They had done the climb up the dome but had not waited in line, electing to pay the extra for “skip the line” tickets. It is really a bad system when you think about it but an absolute necessity if you want to get in to something.

Around Rome

We relied heavily on the Metro system to move around the city. With only two lines, the system is not extensive but it is cheap and very reliable. Even the crowds are not too bad, except near the Termini Station, which is the cross-link between the two lines and also the Central Railway Station. Here the crowds can be crushing and I even had to pull Christine back from the doors once when they started closing. Only a few weeks ago, a woman was dragged along the platform, caught in the doors. Plans are afoot to expand the Metro but money is always tight and progress is slow once they start because any digging means coming across ancient buildings and buried monuments.

There is also a tram system, quite old and noisy but useful for accessing areas that the Metro doesn’t go. There is also a bus but it has a poor reputation, even with locals. Using busses within a city is always our last option, mainly because they are difficult to work out unless you know where you are going and can recognise landmarks.

Around Rome. Our street and apartment is at bottom right.

It would be easy to spend days just visiting the many piazzas dotted across the city. Most are big splendid affairs, full of history and usually with an incredible fountain as a centre point. The Piazza Repubblica was not far from our apartment and is an enormous semi-circular piazza on the site of Diocletian’s Roman Baths.  At its centre is the Fountain of the Nymphaids, depicting four nymphs fighting various creatures.

Of course, Rome’s most famous fountain is the Trevi Fountain. The fountain is situated at the junction of the modern water supply and Rome’s ancient Aqua Virgo aqueduct. Only a few weeks before our arrival, Rome’s Mayor had decreed that poor behaviour by tourists around Rome’s monuments must be stamped out and that throwing things into the water or bathing or washing in the fountains must stop. This was wrongly reported in the press as being a ban on throwing “three coins in the fountain”, a popular pastime with the Trevi Fountain signifying that one would return to Rome. This is still permitted. However, there were a number of police stationed around the fountain who would blow on whistles and point to people in the crowd. No one knew who they were pointing at or why, but then no one seemed to care. No one jumped in either, but there were coins flying everywhere. In fact, there is over 3000€ a day thrown into the Trevi Fountain, all thrown by the right hand over the left shoulder. The money is retrieved and used to support a supermarket for the city’s needy. Beyond all the hype, the fountain is certainly very beautiful, especially since a major refurbishment was undertaken and completed in 2015, leaving it all gleaming white and free of cracks or chips.

Around Rome, including The Trevi Fountain

All of Rome’s fountains are currently getting a lot of press, with the city in the grips of one of its worst ever droughts. Water supplies are becoming critical and there has been talk of closing down fountains. These are not the big display fountains that adorn the piazzas, but the tiny little continuously flowing faucets that are spread throughout the city to ensure that one can get a cold refreshing drink wherever one is. They are dotted all over the place, more than 2500 of them, all with a trickle of water and no tap. It is a luxury that Rome cannot afford in the current climate.

Our final packup was a moment of sadness. Although going home brings with it seeing family, neither of us reached the point where we had had enough of travel. Had we kept going, a major relocation would have been called for, maybe Scandinavia or Poland, because we were ready to leave Italy.

It is impossible to describe all the delights of Rome without writing a book. I think we could come back here many times and always find something new or interesting to see or do. Our scratchings have been very shallow and there is much remaining to be explored. Patricia, the guide on our Segway tour, described Rome as like a lasagne, with many layers. This is so true on both a historical level, with city built upon city, and also on a social level, with so many people all with different reasons for being in the Eternal City. We never did throw three coins in the fountain but I think we will be back one day.

Getting to the airport was so easy, a short walk to the Metro, a ride to Termini Station, then a very comfortable trip on the airport train (The Leonardo Express, 14€ each). It being Christine’s birthday, she wore a special Birthday Badge, which she shamelessly brought to the attention of the check-in girl. The girl apologised that she could not upgrade us to Business Class but did make a phone call and managed to get us front row seats, giving loads of extra legroom. It made all the difference to the 10 hour trip to Bangkok, although I had a guy next to me that just hogged the arm-rest between us for the entire trip. We had a rushed 40 minute layover, made tight by the increased security precautions in place for flights to Australia then a 6 hour flight home, all on Thai Airways. In the total flight time of around 17 hours, I slept about two hours and Christine about three so between us we did some serious movie watching.

We arrived in Perth to a twelve degree very wet day, dressed in shorts of course, bringing to an end nearly five months of travel and living out of our backpacks. I know the exhaustion will set in as we unpack. If we get too tired, we can always take a holiday somewhere.


Rome City

Vatican City

  1. Tosca

    That was the best read… it’s a shame about Naples…i love it.. your description of the Vatican made me want to visit…i have been to Rome a few times (my sister has lived there for 25 years) but never to the Vatican. Welcome home… come for a holiday to safety bay… lol

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