A holiday within a holiday: Rome and the Vatican

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“And the password for the day is women’s underwear!”

Perhaps this is not what you would expect a high school teacher to be saying to his students as he commences the day’s lesson, but then ancient history lessons with Mr Raeburn were never dull or usual. I always went to each class eager to hear that day’s stories told through Mr Raeburn’s interpretation. The ancient texts we read such as Suetonius were brought to life in his classes. The lives of the Roman Emperors were dramatised through his teachings into the most fascinating tales. My memory is somewhat hazy as to which Roman Emperor Mr Raeburn was pretending to be on the occasion of the women’s underwear shenanigans, but if memory serves me right it was Caligula.

We studied a number of the early Roman Emporers: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Nero. If the ancient historians are to be believed they were indeed a colourful bunch! Their exploits were definitely sufficient to keep my history class thoroughly entertained. My fascination with ancient Rome has never left me and with this trip I finally got to walk through the ruins of where these legendary people of history walked before me. How wonderful!

We chose to fly into Rome and leave our little Eriba and Golf to have a sleepover in a campground not far from Genova. We were quite excited about the whole prospect of flying into Rome and staying at the Sheraton for the duration of our time there. It felt decidedly like a holiday within a holiday to us.

Driving around Europe leaving thousands of kilometres in our wake is a most excellent adventure. We have loved our cozy little home, somewhere to call our own for two whole months! No new beds or packing and unpacking of backpacks for us! Just us, our trusty little stead, the road ahead and the next destination. So this whole flying into Rome thing sounded quite exotic and decadent to us at the time. It was definitely out of character to the rest of our European summer trip.

Staying at the Sheraton was a nice little present to ourselves and I think a fitting way to spend our time in this grand city. We had a number of points accrued that allowed us to stay at the Sheraton for next to nothing. We had originally planned to spend four nights in a beautiful resort in Chang Rai, Thailand with our points but as fate would have it the tsunami evacuation and my accident put an end to that. Well, as it turns out, having somewhere a bit fancy to stay in Rome suited as very nicely, thank you!

To top it off when we arrived I was tinkering on the internet when Damien strolled over with the grin of a Cheshire cat on his face. “Guess what?”  he said, “We just got an upgrade and access to the Club Lounge!” Big grins ALL around :D Oh and they also gave us a complimentary bottle of Italian liqueor and chocolates. So all in all we were pretty happy with our digs on this occasion!

But enough of that and on to Rome!

I expected that I would be impressed with Rome but I had no idea how big an impact it would have on me. As we alighted from our bus from the hotel we were immediately greeted with the imposing white magnificence of the Museo Centrale Del Risorgimento (or at least we think it was that!). Welcome to Rome! Both Damien and I were unprepared for the grandeur of it all. What an introduction and it wasn’t even on our list of things to see!

As we had two and a half days in Rome we made a list of just a few places that were our “must sees” and stuck to our plan. We managed to fit in a few other things here and there but I am going to focus on just our highlights list.

Day 1

This was a ridiculously hot day. Searingly hot. In fact I would go as far to say it was the hottest day I have experienced this year anywhere, and this has been (with the exception of three weeks in Northern Europe) an endless summer for us. I don’t know if it was the relentless heat or not but the crowds did not seem as bad as I had feared. Before going on our trip to Europe in summer we were reasonably concerned about the crowds. Yet I am pleased to say that we really haven’t had any major concerns in this area.

Our first stop was the Roman Forum. This large area was apparently the civic and religious centre of ancient Rome. We purchased an audio headset and commenced our wander through the ruins. Some of the ruins were in better condition than others but taking the complex as a whole left an indelible impression on me. With a little bit of imagination I could conjure up an amazing picture of how impressive this ancient city once would have looked. What was somewhat disappointing however was that most of the ruins weren’t labelled and the audio wasn’t much help in pinpointing exactly which ruins it was referring to. Thus, we walked around quite a lot of the time guessing which building the audio was talking about.

The Curia, which was effectively their ancient parliament was still standing in all its glory. We went inside and received instant relief from the blazing heat outside. It was staggering how much cooler it was in there by comparison. It was also one of the few well labelled areas of the Forum. There was an impressive selection of ancient artefacts in there from frescoes to ornate glass bottles and dishes in a myriad of colours and designs to gorgeously delicate jewellery. Damien rightly commented on the frescoes saying that anywhere else you would think that they were replicas as they were in such great condition. But no, this was the real deal, just a couple of thousand years old is all!

Next we walked up to the Palatine which is directly adjacent to the Forum. This was apparently the district where the wealthy lived back in the day. We walked around to the site where Emperor Augustus’ home still stands. But alas, access to this is shut on Fridays so we couldn’t have a look through it. I have read that it was restored in 2008 and it contains excellent frescoes. I guess I will have to try and catch that should I return to Rome in the future.

Part of our reason for going to the Forum and Palatine first is that we had read that it is best to visit the Colosseum in the afternoon. Additionally, you can purchase a joint ticket for the Palatine and Colosseum at the gates to the Palatine. This is a cunning and most excellent move as you then just sail on into the Colosseum past the crowds lining up to buy their tickets at the gates of this gladiatorial slaughterhouse. Nice. High fives to us for our planning! Walking through the Colosseum was indeed a memorable and totally mind warping experience. Looking at the bowels where the animals and humans would wait to be hauled to the arena floor via pullies is amazing. Then you spin around and see the sheer size of the seating areas for the spectators. Then you try and imagine this whole thing with a floor and a roof of sails and then full of water (for the mock naval battles) and simply put, you’re bloody impressed! Excuse the pun.

Day one. You were magnificent. I believe the hype!

Day 2

Day two saw us in need of some further self congratulation due to our planning foresight. We had decided to purchase our tickets to the Vatican Museums on line prior to hitting Rome to avoid the queues of tourists who simply wait to buy them on the day. When we went to purchase the tickets we noticed that the Sunday we would be in Rome was the one day of the month that the Vatican allows visitors in for free. We reasoned that more people would try and go on the free day so we should definitely go on the day before and hopefully encounter less people.

We caught the train so we could arrive at the Vatican as soon as the museum was open to avoid crowds. Lucky for us, we just waltzed straight on in as there was no line for pre-purchased tickets. Gold. Not so for those who didn’t we noted. I really wanted to walk as fast as we could (without running!) to the Sistine Chapel so we could get there before it was packed with people. This seemed almost sacrilegious once we entered the Vatican though as we were both gob smacked at what we saw. I couldn’t believe we were burning through these halls at a ludicrious speed. As I blazed a path for Damien to duck, dodge and dive his way through the meandering horde I kept yelling over my shoulder that this was the right decision and that we could come back and take in all this amazing stuff upon our return. This is when being Carroll sized comes into its own as you can squeeze through the tinniest of passes and these little legs can get some speed on when they need to! I could tell by the look on Damien’s face that he wasn’t entirely convinced of the plan and I was yelling him my assurance in part to convince myself that not stopping to jawp and admire everything en route to the Sistine Chapel was the right thing to do.

Well, the proof of our high speed hike was in the result! When we arrived there were maybe thirty odd people in the Chapel! Success. We positioned ourselves on the side wall where there was seating and there we sat for about 40 minutes, our necks craned to the roof and we just admired this masterpiece of Michelangelo. And to think he viewed himself as a sculptor first and foremost! The most lovely part of all was that for a good 20 – 30 minutes of that time was spent without crowds and we had the opportunity to take in everything in almost complete silence and no jostling for space. After absorbing as much as we could from our seat we then spent another 20 minutes or so taking in the walls (which are painted by Michelangelo and several other masters such as Botticelli). By this time it was packed with people and not a pleasant experience nor how something so beautiful should be appreciated in my opinion. Several times the crowd was instructed to be quiet because the din was getting too loud for this chapel, which is afterall the Pope’s chapel and where the cardinals assemble to decide who should be the next man to hold this title. I find it hard to fathom that anyone could not be impressed with this Chapel. We did not opt to have a guide and I can definitely see merit in being part of a tour through the Vatican Museum for the additional information you would learn, but I found the detail provided in the audio tape we purchased to be fantastic and it added a lot to my experience as a whole.

As for the rest of the Vatican Museum all I can say is it is phenomenal. You could literally spend days in there looking at all the religious artefacts, ancient Etruscan, Roman and Egyptian collections and the list goes on. The sheer size and number priceless pieces of art is astounding and has to be seen to be comprehended. Even then, I don’t think I can fully understand the enormity of it. The rooms in which all these magnificent pieces are housed are in themselves so ornately beautiful that I can’t begin to think of the amount of power and wealth it takes to gather such a horde. Well, I guess I can, it takes religion to gather that. If one wants to, one can ponder those age old monologues about the tyranny of the church etc etc but seriously, when I was in the Vatican and I was trying to take it all in, the main thing I could focus on was how amazing it all was.

Then as if I hadn’t been wowed enough in one day, we then swung past the Pantheon. This building is just shy of 2000 years old. The outside of this astonishing building is impressive, for sure, but walking into its interior is when you marvel at the ingenuity and engineering mastery of ancient man. This building is the only one EVER built in the world to date of its size with an un-reinforced dome. So the Romans back in AD 120 engineered something that hasn’t bet topped since, and it’s still standing. Need I say more.

Day 3

We saved St Peters Basilica until the last day. To be honest I hadn’t given it much thought. I hadn’t pondered what it would look  like inside in the slightest. I had seen the outside the day we went to the Vatican Museum but that was it.

Like the previous days we got up to be there early. We caught the train in and were somewhat perturbed by the masses of people in the carriages with us, when the day before at the same time there were pretty much none. We were hoping like mad that they were all going to the Vatican Museum and not St Peters or we would have some serious lining up to do. We had barred going to St Peters the day before due to the lines in the afternoon, we had hoped that arriving early would circumvent this. Upon arrival at the Vatican our questions were answered. Everyone was lining up for the free day. Oh. My. God. Seriously, you would not want to do it unless you had to. The line must have been at least half a kilometre long. Not knowing if this would also translate into a similar line up outside St Peters we hot footed it to the Basilica.

I hallelujah was in order as everyone was clearly lining up for the museums and like the rest of our time in Rome and the Vatican we just walked on in. Well, not really, “just walked”, I think we actually stumbled in because we tripped over our jaws. Once again I was finding it hard to dig up sufficient superlatives to explain how I felt about what I was seeing. This was the Vaitcan piece de la resistence. If ever there was a shrine created to try and materially explain how much man wants to worship God than this is it. Or for the more cynical (some would say realist) out there, n’er was there a more decadent display of the immense power and wealth of the church in the creation of one building. Either way, it was truly magnificent. I think Damien summed it up best when he said, “I expected to be impressed but I didn’t expect to be stunned like a mullet”. Indeed. For Damien, visiting St Peters had an unexpected effect of moving him quite deeply as he reflected how much it would have meant to his father to have visited the Basilica. It’s simply that kind of a place.

Categories: travel | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “A holiday within a holiday: Rome and the Vatican

  1. Adz

    Kris – you wrote “Even then, I don’t think I can fully understand the enormity of it” about the Vatican Museum. I had similar feelings on this when visting pretty much everything in Rome. It’s like an overwhelming feeling of sensory overload. The Colosseum, The Pantheon, Vatican Museum, St Peters Basilica. All of it. And then there’s the gelato….. ;-)

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