Seventeenth Email- Rome and the Vatican

Sent 7.4.06


I left off the last email with Tom and I's departure from Dublin. We arrived at Shannon airport a bit early for our flight, but the bus schedule made it tough to time the arrival perfectly. Eventually the check-in time came for the flight and we got in line behind a few other people. Why do I even mention this? Only because someone in front of us was checking in a giant teddy bear with a detachable head on a Ryanair flight, of all airlines. This thing was huge- the head was probably four feet wide and the bear itself was about five feet tall. I'm not quite sure what the purpose of it was, or why it was making the journey from Shannon to Rome.

Tom and I enjoyed our last Irish beer at the pub in the airport while watching Ireland's final match against England in the Six Nations Rugby tournament, which I now see is a pretty intense sport, and very enjoyable to watch. We were getting into the game and it was a great match (and the boys in green won). From there, it was a uneventful plane flight to Rome, a bus to the train station, and a short walk to our hostel, eventually arriving and collapsing in our beds at around 2 am. Day one of our trip started relatively early around 9:30 am; sleep is enjoyable but it can be done anywhere. We wanted to see Rome and not just our hostel bedroom. It was pretty cool to step out of our hostel door and realize that we were in Rome- when you come into a city at night it doesn’t always seem as obvious. Ironic that within our first ten minutes of walking, we did manage to see an "Irish Pub".

Rome in a few words: big, extravagant, and wow. There is so much to see around every single street corner that you quickly grow accustomed to seeing a fountain, church, or old Roman ruin every two minutes. Our first stop was Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, just a short walk from our hostel. It was an impressive church to start with, with a beautiful interior. Our next stop was another church, San Pietro in Vincoli, or Saint Peter in Chains. The church holds the chains of St. Peter, which are on prominent display in the middle of the church, with a Michelangelo statue overlooking the relics.

Our plan for the first day was to see ancient Rome, so we eventually made our way toward the Colosseo. It kind of sneaks up on you from the direction we took to get there, and looking up and seeing that really drove the idea home that we were walking around in Rome. It is a big building, and incredibly impressive to think they constructed this almost 2000 years ago. We walked around the whole thing before deciding what to do. We wanted to go in for sure, but the line was rather long. I had my trusty Let's Go guidebook that I had used on my last trip, but Tom's Rick Steve's travel guide really pulled through for us here. Rick suggested that people wander over to Palatine Hill to purchase their ticket. The ticket for the Colosseum gets you into Palatine Hill and vice versa, but tourists typically do not know this before they have waited in line for an hour to buy a ticket. We walked over to this alternative ticket counter and only had to wait in line behind about five people. Thank you, Rick Steve. Palatine Hill was quite interesting in its own right, as it gave you a great view of the entire Roman Forum down below, and you got to see plenty of 3000 year old remains of old Roman rulers' palaces. We then headed over to the Colosseum where we were able to walk pass most of the line waiting to buy tickets and get right in. Well worth a visit if you ever go to Rome- the inside is quite impressive and we were just amazed at how something like this can still be around.

After the Colosseum, we walked through the Roman forum, which is very impressive as well. Pretty much everything in Rome is impressive, so I should stop repeating that over and over. Julius Caesar's grave was inside the Forum, with a few (3 or 4) flowers laying on it. It was around lunch time, and we picked a good café for our first Italian meal. Total price was only around €7, with a great deal on wine- only €1 for a glass. It was pretty funny that wine was cheaper than any other drink option there. From there, the day turned into an extended walk across the entire city. We headed first toward Capitol Hill, past Palazzo Venezia, to and inside the Pantheon, and through Piazza Navona. The Pantheon had a very impressive dome, and was quite amazing considering its age. The Piazza Navona was also cool to walk through, with fountains, artists, street performers, and cafés all there. We then headed across the river and towards the Vatican. It was Sunday, so we were planning on trying to make the 5:30 pm mass at Basilica di San Pietro, or St. Peter's. Walking up the street leading to the Basilica was fairly impressive, and the dome of St. Peter's had been growing larger all day as we made our way across Rome. It is an impressive and very large church, to say the least. Standing in the courtyard (and being in our third country in 24 hours, if you want to make that little joke) was very cool. After getting inside, we caught the end of a Sunday vigil in Latin, and then stayed for the 50 minute Italian language mass. We didn't get much of a chance to look around because they were closing as mass ended, but we knew we would come back.

Gelato and Italy go hand in hand, so we took a short walk and soon found a good place to have our first but definitely not last serving. We then jumped on the subway for the first time and rode it over to the Spanish Steps. By this time night had come so it was cool to see them under the streetlights. We went back and saw them the next day, but they were much more crowded with tourists and there was not as much of a relaxed atmosphere. When we arrived at night two guys were playing guitars on the steps just for fun, not looking for money, and many other people were just relaxing taking in the night. We then headed over to the Trevi Fountain, which was very beautiful at night. It was one of my favourite sights in Rome, because the entire atmosphere surrounding the fountain just had something special to it. There were a good number of people there, but everyone seemed to be relaxed and happy and having a good time. We got some seats right near the centre of the fountain (keep in mind 'fountain' in this context means the entire front of a building, it is pretty big). It was cool to just people-watch and take everything in from there. We stayed for a while and even ended up coming back the next night because we had enjoyed it. The next night, we actually were sitting about ten feet from a marriage proposal, so that was pretty interesting. We finished out our night by doing some further night walking past Capital Hill, the Colosseum, and stopping at a pizza restaurant to eat. We then headed back to our hostel and went to sleep soon after we decided to set our alarms for 8 am so we could go see the Vatican Museum the next morning. We were pretty tired from walking around all day.

The next morning didn't quite go as planned, but hey, "When in Rome". We actually woke up at 7:58 am or so to someone from the hostel knocking on our door and coming in, calmly saying "Fire, everyone needs to leave." There were six guys in our room including Tom and I, and none of us were very awake at this point, so we all groggily got up and put on some pants and a shirt and slowly made our way out. I of course didn't bring a jacket, not really knowing what was going on. We didn't smell anything funny when we were in our room, but we soon smelled smoke in the hallway. Our belief in her claim grew quickly as we passed fire-fighters in the stairwell heading down from our fourth floor room. Stepping out of the front door of the hostel, we looked right and the three doorframes next to ours were putting plenty of black smoke into the air. This was no false alarm. To summarize: six fire trucks, two ambulances, six police cars, photographers and TV cameras, and lasted a little over an hour. Fire-fighters used our doorway to bring some hoses up and then through to the burning building to help fight the fire, so that was interesting. One of the rooms the hostel used apparently did have smoke pouring into it, and those people all got moved for their next night. It was a pretty exciting start to our second day in Rome.

So needless to say, Tom and I got a late start that day. By the time we arrived at the Vatican Museum after taking a packed subway, the line was a bit long. By a bit long, I mean probably three hours just to get in the door. We weren't really up for doing that, so we headed to St. Peter's to see the inside since we didn't have a chance the night before. There was a line here, but wasn't as bad. We bought some postcards and stamps and used those to keep us occupied while waiting in line. Once in, I first headed to Michelangelo's Pieta, which is right inside the door. It is a great piece of sculpture, to say the least. We then slowly walked around the rest of the church, which is a place you could spend a day in if you wanted to look at every piece of art. We did stop and stare at a lot of it. The 70 foot alter under the dome is fairly intricate, and sits over the remains of St. Peter. Even its 70 feet only go about a third of the way to the ceiling of the Basilica, however. After exploring the church we then headed down into the crypt where the tombs of many popes, including John Paul II, lay. We then got in line for the ascent to the top of the dome. After taking an elevator to the roof, it is only another 323 steps to the top. Before these steps, you are able to go in the interior of the dome and look down at the church floor, which gives you a good idea of how big the place is. The people down below look like ants. The dome climb itself is pretty cool, with stairs, spiral stairs, slanted hallways, and several zigzags. Once on top, you get a classic view of the Vatican courtyard in front of St. Peter's, and the entire city of Rome is visible, although it was a bit hazy the day we were there. After the dome, the climb down takes you to the roof of St. Peter's where there is a gift shop ran by nuns, along with a post-box where Tom and I mailed some postcards from. After St. Peter's we headed for lunch, where Tom and I split our first bottle of Italian wine of the trip.

The rest of the day was just filled with random walking and exploring of Rome. It was weird how much English we heard being spoken there; I hadn't expected that. I can't imagine what it is like during the higher tourist season in the Summer. Tom and I slowly picked up a few basic Italian words on our days in Italy, 'vino rosso per favore' perhaps being the most important.

Our final day in Rome started with our second attempt to go to the Vatican Museum. This time, we woke up even earlier to ensure we wouldn't have to wait in a two hour line; we got there early enough that we got in 20 minutes after the museum opened. This was the only museum the entire trip that gave a student discount, which we found pretty crazy; I remember seeing a lot of student discounts on my last trip. The museum itself is absolutely huge. There was a ton of Egyptian and Roman sculpture, and more marble busts than I have seen in my life all in one hallway. We then moved on through huge tapestries, world maps, and a huge selection of paintings and frescoes. The museum had more than a few works that made you say, "I've seen this in a book before." The School of Athens fresco by Raphael was impressive, and of course the Sistine Chapel was no letdown either. After going through the museum, Tom and I were arted out for the day. After spending a little over three hours at the museum, we headed back to the train station to make our plans and head out of Rome. We wanted to be in Florence for the night, but we had an afternoon to use, so we decided to go through Assisi.

Sorry about the repeated use of the word 'impressive' in this email; that is just what Rome was. And if you need context for my long-winded emails, make sure you take a look at all of the pictures on my website. Next email should cover Assisi, Florence, and maybe more.

Keep in touch,

Dan McGee
Mobile: +353 87 056 4163