Before I booked my ticket, I’d heard a lot of mixed reports about Rome.
Mixed reports and graffiti (it’s excessive) be damned. I love it.
I arrived on Tuesday night at about 9pm – suitably stuffed. I went three doors up from my apartment to grab something to eat (spinach and mozzarella Panini) and completely forgot I was in another country and started speaking way too fast in English.
After a solid sleep I improved quite a bit the next morning and ordered my coffee in Italian in a little espresso bar up the street (I’d been practicing) and the man started offering me pastries in Italian, assuming I spoke it. I was pretty happy with that.
I was only in Rome for three full days and one of those (Friday) was a public holiday when all the holy and archeological sites would be closed, so I made sure I ticked quite a few boxes in the first two days.
I got going pretty early (I’d been awake since 3:30) and the streets were pretty quiet.
On my way to Vatican City I was walking across a large footbridge when I was approached by a policeman. I’d seen him staring at me already. He pointed at me and said ‘Italiano?’ People can’t work out my nationality here. We started chatting – me in completely broken English, him completely in Italian and mostly with his hands. I don’t think either of us know what we talked about.
He asked me if I’d like to go into Castel Saint’ Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel – which was said to be protected by Michael the Archangel), which we were walking past on the way to St Peter’s. It wasn’t actually a monument I was planning to visit or knew anything about. He took me ahead of the line and got me in for free.
He continued to chat as we walked through the castle, pointing out parts of the building and the view out the windows. Once we made it to the top he bought me a coffee and showed me photos of his kids.
I was expecting to get stopped on the way out and asked to pay, or given an exorbitant bill for the coffees, or forced to buy a little Archangel statue or something. I was slightly suspicious I was being had the entire time. But none of that happened. He walked me back to the gate, said goodbye and that was that. It was a pretty good first interaction as a tourist out by myself.
The Vatican was beautiful. I arrived a little later than planned and the Pope was holding mass in the square. He does this every Wednesday at 10:30 when he’s in town. I couldn’t get up close (you need a ticket) but could see and hear plenty from outside the crowd barriers. There were flags in the audience from all over the world (I spotted Germany, Brazil, India, and Britain) and people cheered every time he paused like they were at a concert.
From there I went into the Vatican museum and the Sistine Chapel (which was my main motivation). Anyone going to something like this, there is one major piece of advice I can give – PRE PURCHASE your tickets. You can do this online or via one of the city wide tourist passes. I bought mine the night before and waltzed in. There were seriously thousands of people in line. I walked straight past them. I don’t know why people don’t do it. It cost me an extra 2 euro and saved me at least three hours waiting around in the sun (the same goes for the Colosseum, where I did it again the next day.)
The museum was easily the best one I’ve ever been to, but very museumy – ie you really need to be in the mood. I struggled to give much attention to the tapestries, paintings and busts, but I hung around in the sculpture section and the quadrangle outside full of ancient Roman statues for most of the three hours I spent inside.
The Sistine Chapel was pretty special. There are bench seats around the outside, but otherwise no furniture. It’s just jammed with people looking up and shuffling backwards. It’s not as big as I thought. It took me about five minutes to realise there was no structure to the roof and all the pillars, ledges etc I could see were painted on. Once you realise, your eyes keep battling the forced perspective. It’s actually amazing. The detail you can see even from the ground is unbelievable.
You’re not allowed to take any photos inside, so I put my camera away and did my best to capture a couple of sneakies with my phone. They certainly don’t do it justice, but you might be able to see just how bright it is. I hired an audioguide that I really only used for this part of the day – but it was well worth it.
The middle section of the ceiling was pretty clear to me. There were three sections depicting the creation of Adam, then Eve, then the first temptation, as well as a series on Noah. I wouldn’t have understood the apostles or profits around the edge of the ceiling, or the work on the walls (which were not done by Michelangelo) if I hadn’t paid the extra for the guide.
The following day, I managed twice what I thought I would. I guess that’s the bonus of travelling on your own and being able to go at your own pace.
Next up: National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, The Colosseum, The Roman Forum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and Piazza Navona (mostly photos – I promise!).