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Ancient Rome and the Vatican

Four days of intense touring

storm 18 °C
View The Reisert Family Grand Tour on jrreisert's travel map.

Monday

On Monday, we went to the Colosseum, which was a big disappointment for Joseph and not just because of the huge line to get in (and that was the shorter of the two lines — the security line for people who already had tickets; the other line was, even in late October, colossal). It’s an impressive spectacle from the outside. Inside, it still impressive, but not really any more so than from the outside. In fact, all of the really best details are on the outside. As for me, it was difficult to focus on all of the carnage that once took place at the Colosseum, including the slaughter of Christians, when the experience was shared with so many people all vying for the best viewpoints from which to take photos.

On Monday, we also visited the Spanish Steps and wandered about that part of the city. We found a nice little café in a park (the Pincio) and, since they weather was good, we had coffees (the kids had hot chocolate) and cannoli. Delicious. We wandered down to the Piazza del Popolo, where there was one of the super-touristy Leonardo da Vinci exhibits that seem to be franchised all around Europe. This time, we went in. Joseph thought it was so-so; the kids had a great time.

From the piazza, we walked to the Pantheon, which is a bit of a hike. We admired the architecture (including the little hole Brunelleschi was allowed to cut into the dome), and the tombs of two Italian kings and of Raphael. Then, it started to rain. We grabbed a taxi to get back to the flat.

Tuesday

On Tuesday, we started the day with some lessons. Then, we walked to the Crypto Balbi, which is not far from the flat. The Crypto Balbi is a bizarre little exhibition that is intended to show the various layers of development in Rome. The kids liked going underground (the old city of Rome is quite a bit deeper than today’s Rome), but our “tour guide” (you can only get there with a tour guide) didn’t guide us with English or Italian, so we had a hard time making out what we were looking at.

In the afternoon, we explored the Capotoline Museum, where we were hounded again by the exact change monsters. We admired the sculptures, etc. Joe was disappointed that there was no post card of the massive fresco depicting Brutus condemning his own sons for treason.

TIME FOR AN INTERESTING, IF UNSETTLING, FACT ABOUT ANCIENT ROME:
What did the upper class folks use for toilet paper when using the loo? They used the soft feathers on the underbelly of a small bird. Think about that! (Or this may just be a made up "fact" added to the guidebook to see how credulous guidebook readers are — but it's in the book Keys to Rome by Frederick and Vanessa Vreeland, p. 34!).

After the museum, the sky opened up once again. We took refuge in a church (Basilica of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ara Coeli), where John prayed for better weather. Following the advice of our kids’ guide to Rome, we looked for the bees of Urban VIII and the image of Emperor Augustus (on an altar!). That night, we called it an early evening, made a big visit to the Despar (that’s what the big “Spar” stores are called — no kidding!) and got ready for our big Wednesday. (And Joe wrote his KJ column about the Roman Republic).

Wednesday

We got up early and got ourselves together to storm the Vatican. We wanted to get to the Vatican Museum early to limit the time spent in line—because, well, there’s almost always a line! Well, when we arrived at the Museum, there was no line. Lots of tour groups going in, but hardly any individual tourists. This actually ended up causing all kinds of problems. Joseph was just not prepared to just walk in. It was the Vatican! There was supposed to be a line and . . . . suffering! That’s what is was all about.

When Joseph finally gathered himself, we made our way through the Museum, which is quite a large one. Although we spent a little time amid the Egyptian pieces, we soon figured out that we should get going toward the Sistine Chapel. The hordes of tourists were bound to come at some point. We knew they were out there somewhere (likely at the papal blessing that takes place on Wednesday mornings). So, we started off in earnest toward the Sistine Chapel, which turns out to be really quite far away.

Much of the way was littered with things we didn’t really want to spend much time gazing upon, but we were all left agape by the Raphael rooms. Very impressive (Margaret thought the rooms were the best part of the Museum). Joseph was pretty much rendered speechless by The School of Athens. The kids and I enjoyed the moment of silence!

Finally, we reached the Sistine Chapel. Almost immediately, Margaret declared it a let-down. It was too small. John seemed just overwhelmed. As we have written, John has become something of a Michelangelo fan. But, the Chapel was almost too much for him to appreciate. Our kids guidebook was helpful in pointing out the highlights of the ceiling. But, then we got to the wall behind the altar, The Last Judgement. Finding St. Bartholomew actually hanging onto his own skin (he was skinned alive) was about when the kids and I declared that we were done.

We made our way out (fighting the crowd because by now, the hordes of tourists had most definitely arrived) catching a few of the other highlights of the Museum on the way. We also posted a few post cards, with the Pope’s special stamps. We had a simple picnic lunch just outside the gates of Vatican City. Then, it was time to go back in—this time to see St. Peter’s.

There is, as Rick Steeves tells you, a way to get straight from the Sistine Chapel to St. Peter’s, but we couldn’t figure out how to do that and retrieve our bags with our lunch and jackets in them. So, after lunch we had to negotiate the 20 minute long security line to get into the Basilica.

Our first order of business was to climb to the top. Can you guess Margaret’s reaction?? It was pretty, let me tell you. Especially when she realized that there was an elevator that would have taken her about a third of the way up. Joe and I refused on principle, not because it would have cost 2 euros extra each.

The way up is quite an experience, especially with lots of other people you’ve never met (and speak an amazing array of languages). The staircase gets narrower and narrower as you ascend, but at least it’s enclosed (the stairs from the bottom of the dome to the very top at St. Paul’s in London is anopen, iron set of spiral stairs). Good thing, because once you start up, there’s really no way to change your mind. You must go along with the crowd. There’s no escape! I must be in a Catholic tower!!

Despite the iffy weather, we got a nice view from the top. Once we descended (and stopped at the roof-top snack bar), we were emptied into the church. The inside of St. Peter’s is almost impossible to take in. It’s just enormous. And, then, there are those hordes of tourists sharing the experience with you. And, some of them like to push and shove. We found a little place off to the side to read some excerpts from our trusty kids guidebook, which was helpful (although some of the best parts, pointed out by the book, were roped off).

By this time, it was late afternoon. Time to call it a day and head back to the flat?? No way! We walked over to the Castel Sant’Angelo, Handrian’s mausoleum. It probably would have been more fun during the day (Europe ended daylight savings time last weekend, so it’s getting dark quite early now), but we had fun exploring this very old site/museum.

And, still, the day wasn’t quite over. We decided to go out to eat. We went to a place recommended by Rick Steves, Trattoria da Lucia. It was just over the bridge, in the Trastevere neighborhood. We had a delightful Italian dinner of pasta, grilled veggies, wine, and fabulous desserts (chocolate mousse and panna cotta with fruit). Finally, it was time to call it a day, brush our teeth and crawl into bed.

Thursday

Yesterday, Thursday, we spent much of the morning ironing out details of our travels for next week (which had not been finalized before we left; we will be heading to Pompeii on Saturday and then to the Cinque Terre on Monday).

For our tourist endeavors, we headed first to the special Bellini exhibit in town (we’ve been noticing missing Bellini’s all over Europe, with notes that they are here, in Rome). Margaret has decided that she loves Bellini, so we decided to check it out. The exhibit is really very impressive and well displayed. But, the little guidebook that was provided was filled with the most ridiculous, pretentious sounding art-speak that we found ourselves laughing out loud at times as we read through (especially as John struggled to read through some of those very long words that don’t really mean anything).

We had a nice picnic just across the street from the exhibit, until we were shooed away by a police man. We have no idea what he objected to (other people were doing roughly what we were doing and he didn’t shoo them away), but we thought it best not to ask any questions. He wasn’t speaking English anyway.

In the afternoon, we visited Trajan’s market. Then, we hiked it over to the Diocletian Baths. We thought we found the Baths, only to find that we were really just in a museum of what was found at the Baths. We checked out the map again and felt pretty confident that we knew where we were going, so we headed in a new direction. That was when the sky opened up, with torrents of rain, and the place where we were sure we would find the entrance featured a locked gate with no information at all. So, we were soaking wet with no place to go!

So, we went to a café and got ourselves something warm and a couple of delicious Italian pastries to share. When the rain let up, we decided that we were done with trying to find the Baths, and we headed over the National Museum of Rome. It was very late in the afternoon, so no hordes of tourists to found anywhere near the Museum. Rick Steves gives the museum his top rating. We are not sure we agree exactly, although we did enjoy checking out the sculptures, the amazing display of mosaics and household frescoes (really, really impressive, beautiful, and well-displayed), and the collection of coins in the basement (with real and imposing vault doors). By the time we left the Museum, it was almost 7:00 o’clock. We were done.

We actually managed to successfully navigate the bus system to get ourselves reasonably close to the flat, although the information desk guy Joe spoke to had some fun with us at the expense of Joe’s lame efforts to give an Italian pronunciation to the place we were aiming to get to. Once aboard but 64, we had to share our section of the bus with a large group of obnoxious young, male Brits, who were on a school trip and fretting about their accommodations: “Oh, I do hoooo-pe there will be caaaah-pet underfoot” (you must say with the worst sort of almost lisping, limpid toff (upper-crust) English accent).

Susan prepared a home-made tomato sauce, which we ate with some ravioli, a veggie, and some fresh mozzarella on toasted bits of baguette. Yummy.

Pictures to follow.

Ciao,

Susan and Joseph

Posted by jrreisert 00:33 Archived in Italy Tagged family_travel

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