Posts tagged Rome
One of the most special things you can do on a trip to Rome is to take a tour of the Vatican. My wife and I both looked forward to our visit.
Before we left home I went online and booked a tour through Viator Travel. The tour was described as Skip the Line: Vatican Museums Walking Tour including Sistine Chapel, Raphael’s Rooms and St Peter’s, for $74.99 each. Visitng the Vatican is a once in a lifetime event, and we both looked forward to it.
Our first challenge was deciding how to get from our hotel, the Sheraton Roma, to the Vatican. The bus from the hotel would take us downtown to a location that was “near all the major sites,” except for one — the Vatican. I thought the Vatican would be near the Colosseum, but I was wrong, it is actually several miles away in the northwest part of Rome. So, the hotel bus was not an option. I spoke to the concierge at the hotel, he told me the best option was to take a taxi. The doorman got a cab for us: the fare to the Vatican would be 20 Euro.
It was morning rush hour, the streets were congested, and we had the chance to watch as drivers on motor-scooters cut in between cars and trucks every time traffic stopped for a red light.
I’ll say this for the people on those motor-scooters: they are braver than I am!
After a 20-minute drive we arrived at the Vatican. I had thought that we would pull up in front of St. Peter’s Square, but we did not — we arrived on the other side of the Vatican at the entrance to the Vatican Museum. I was glad that we would not have to wait on line for our tour; even at this early hour there was already a 90-minute wait to get in.
We made our way to a stairway across the street from the museum entrance where we would meet our guide. Several tour companies use that stairway as a meeting place, and where they organize the tour groups of 10-20 people and introduce them to their guide.
We met our tour guide, Simon, and were issued our radios. These small devices hung around our necks, we used ear-buds to listen to Simon as he conducted the tour. Every group had their own radio on a different frequency and the system worked perfectly, we never had any interference from any other group’s radio.
Simon gathered us up and we crossed the street to the Vatican Museum entrance. The entrance is on the side of the Vatican where the original fortress wall was built.
The first thing we had to do once we entered the building was to clear security. Entering the Vatican is like entering an airport terminal: it’s loud, crowded, and everyone must go through a metal detector and have their bags scanned.
After we cleared security Simon got us back together again as a group and led us to the beautiful Vatican gardens.
We were also able to see the original transmitting tower for the Vatican Radio.
So many people take the tour that the Vatican wants to avoid anything that might slow down the flow of people once they moved indoors. Their solution was to set up information kiosks outside the museum where guides can describe what the tourists will see inside.
Simon, our guide, is a college student, working towards his Masters degree in art history. His love of art was obvious to us during the tour. His detailed explanations provided an insight we might otherwise have not had.
As Simon took us through the Museum we saw paintings, tapestries, statues, every type of art you can imagine. The breadth and variety of the Vatican art collection will take your breath away. One constant throughout the tour was how crowded it was.
While the artworks were beautiful, I must admit that I am not a great fan of art, and after a while, it all started to look the same. I knew however that we would soon reach the one thing I was most looking forward to: The Sistine Chapel. Little did I know that it would also be the most disappointing part of the tour.
The Sistine Chapel
The beautiful paintings on the chapel ceiling were painted by Michelangelo Buonarroti during the 1500s. Unfortunately, 450 years of burning candles in the chapel created a layer of soot on the ceiling that hid a great amount of the detail and beauty of these magnificent paintings. A complete restoration of the ceiling began in 1979 and was completed 20 years later. Simon explained that Kodak had funded a large amount of the restoration with the condition that no photos could be taken in the chapel: if someone wanted a photo they could buy a book or a postcard. He told us that no photos were allowed due to copy write and that photos with flash could damage the paintings, but this was the only place in the Vatican where photos were not allowed.
This prohibition did not mean much to me, I didn’t plan on taking any photos, but I did look forward to seeing the ceiling.
When we got to the Chapel entrance Simon again explained that no photos or videos were allowed once we went in, and that we should only speak in whispered tones since this was a Chapel where the Pope sometimes holds services. He also explained that he was not allowed to conduct a tour in the Chapel, and he would meet us at the exit at the far end. With those comments from him, we went through the door and entered the Chapel.
We walked into a room that was so crowded that it reminded me of Grand Central Station at 5 o’clock on a Friday evening. Wall-to-wall people bumping into each other, jostling each other.
Even though photos and videos were not allowed, that did not stop some of the wiseguys from trying to take them. As soon as the security guards saw this they started shouting “No photo! No photo!” or “No video! No Video!” If the crowd got too loud, the guards would clap their hands or blow whistles to get everyone to quiet down. This was not the atmosphere that I had expected for the Chapel. I had hoped to be able to quietly gaze upon the wonders of Michelangelo’s works — unfortunately that was not meant to be. The Chapel is a large area, 43 feet wide by 131 feet long, with room for a lot of people. The crowd and the noise from everyone talking and the guards shouting simply made me want to leave as soon as I could.
Our next stop was the largest church in the world: St. Peter’s. Why is it called St. Peter’s? I did not know, but the answer is fairly basic — St. Peter is buried beneath the church. You can see his tomb, but it is not part of the standard tour, you need to take a second tour to see his resting place.
Simply put, St. Peter’s is spectacular. The size is one of the first things you notice; it is 730 feet (220 m) long, 500 feet (150 m) wide, and so large that it can hold more than 50,000 people inside. The size is amazing, but the great beauty of everything in it cannot be compared to anything in the world.
There was, of course, a huge crowd in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta — it was so large that I could not get close enough to get a good view or picture.
We saw a massive marble crypt holding the remains of Pope John-Paul II. Simon explained that he was placed in crypt after he was beatified.
And then we saw something that just seemed odd to me. We saw the crypt that serves as the final resting place for Pope John XXIII. It was odd because one side of the crypt was glass and you could look in at him.
The Pope is in his Papal garments and is, thankfully, wearing a death mask. There was something about it that just did not seem right to me, from someone bumping into me and saying, “Excuse me, I need to take a picture of the dead Pope!” to the young child with his face pressed up against the glass to get a better look, just like he would look at the penguins at the aquarium.
At this time our tour ended, we all thanked Simon for the four hours he spent with us. He did a magnificent job.
We walked around some more, marveling at the great beauty of St. Peter’s. As we were getting ready to leave I managed to get a photo of a wonderful scene.
We went outside into St. Peter’s Square.
We admired the square, then left the Vatican grounds. Our first stop was in front of a food stand where we each ordered one of Italy’s treasures, gelato! Italian ice cream is delicious, much thicker and more flavorful than what I am accustomed to here in the States. We tried to eat gelato every day.
We walked away from St. Peters, even from a distance it remains an impressive sight.
We soon came upon Castel Sant’ Angelo, a massive fortress built on the banks of the Tiber River. It originally served as a mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian (AD 130-139), but it later served as a dungeon, and eventually a place where the Pope could seek shelter in time of danger. A covered passageway connects Castel Sant’ Angelo to the Vatican.
Atop the Castel is a statue of an angel. The statue depicts the angel who, according to legend, appeared on top of the fortress in the year 590 and miraculously ended the severe plague that had infested the city of Rome.
We crossed the Ponte Sant’Angelo, found a cafe where we had lunch, then took a taxi back to the hotel. The cab driver told us that the fare would be 40 Euro, not the 20 Euro we paid that morning because demonstrators had forced the police to close down several major streets in the area, and he would need to take a much longer route to get to our hotel.
Was he telling the truth, or did he see us as tourists that he could take advantage of? I don’t know, but we had to deal with demonstrators closing streets late on during the trip, which led to one of our worst days of the vacation. But that’s another story that I will share in a later post.
We were tired after the long trip from from Austin to Rome and the eight-hour time zone change that came with it, so we slept late on our first day in Rome. While we had tours and trips scheduled for almost every day of the vacation, I had intentionally left this day open as a “recovery” day.
We ate lunch in the hotel restaurant, then decided to go into town.
The Sheraton Roma is a nice hotel, but its location is terrible. Basically, it is not near anything. The closest shops and restaurants are a 10-15 minute walk away, and the hotel is nowhere near the famous sites of Rome. On a positive note the hotel knows this and operates a bus to the downtown area that runs every 90 minutes. And this is not a van, it is a full size bus that holds more than 40 passengers. The charge for this is a reasonable 3 Euro per person, round trip. So we took the hotel’s bus. I had a map that showed where we would be let off, and the concierge had told me we would be within walking distance of many sites, but I was still not sure where we would end up.
We took the bus into town, got off, and stood there with a some other couples, looking at our maps, trying to figure out where to go. Without any landmarks in sight we were not even able to get oriented to figure out where we were. Finally, one of the people told us that someone at dinner the night before had told them to go to the right when they got off the bus. With no idea where we were, that was as good a recommendation as we could get.
We walked a block or two and came upon our first ancient ruins, the Teatro Marcello.
This was the first ancient ruin I had seen and I was excitedly taking photos of it when I noticed something odd; they had built apartments on top of this 2,000-year-old structure! I live in Texas where we put historical plaques on a 100-year-old building. To me this ancient structure was so very special that it was wrong to alter its appearance with these apartments, just as wrong as it would be for us to add apartments to the Alamo. However, I soon learned that a 2,000-year-old structure in Rome is not the least bit rare, in fact it is fairly common, so this was not as unusual as I thought it was. As they say, when in Rome…
We walked on a bit more and saw what looked like a monument or memorial. We had no idea what it was, but knew we were going in the right direction!
So, we walked on. We soon came upon a long staircase with statues at the top. Yogi Berra said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” We were at a staircase rather than a fork, but decided to take it nonetheless.
The statues marked the entrance to a small plaza. We later found out that we were atop the Capitoline Hill, the smallest of Rome’s seven hills. It was the religious and political center of the city since its foundation more than 2,500 years ago. Today the hill is also known as Campidoglio, the Italian name for the hill. It is home to the Capitoline Museum and City Hall. The plaza features a statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback.
We walked through the plaza and came upon the Vittorio Emanuele II monument, a memorial to the first King of a united Italy.
The monument is massive and breathtaking; I was very impressed by it. We later learned that most Romans think it is too large, does not match the architecture of the area and they did not like it. In fact, they refer to it as “the wedding cake.”
The monument is not only a memorial to Italy’s first King, it also features the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the final resting place of an unknown soldier from World War I. I found it odd that it did not have a soldier form World War II; perhaps that is a time they would rather not remember.
One of the best things about the memorial is the spectacular views that you can get from the viewing areas on the side of it.
A slow pan showed all of these sites, ending at the Colosseum.
After taking in the view, we stopped for a cappuccino and took the bus back to the hotel. It was a good day — we enjoyed ourselves, We went to bed early that night so that we could get up early the next day for a very special event I had long looked forward to, our guided tour of the Vatican.
After several months of planning, it was finally time earlier this month for us to take our trip to Rome.
Our itinerary for the flight to Rome was not what I wanted, but it was the best I could get when using miles to pay for the flight. We’d leave Austin at 9:30 a.m., arriving at JFK at 2:10 p.m. That was okay. The problem was with the next part of the trip: our Rome flight wouldn’t leave until 8:50 p.m., giving us an almost 7 hour layover. That was not what I wanted, but it was the best I could do with the miles I had. (I used 30,000 miles for each of us to get from Austin to Rome. I would have had better scheduling options if I had paid 60,000 miles for each of us, but I did not have enough miles in my account to cover that. )
A friend picked us up at the house at 6:30 a.m. to take us to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Thankfully rush hour traffic did not delay us very much and we arrived at the airport at 7:15. We entered the terminal and went to the American Airlines First Class check-in line. (We were flying coach, but one of the benefits of Platinum status is the ability to use the First Class line which should be much shorter than the regular coach line.)
AA had two agents checking in passengers on the First Class line which should have been enough, but it wasn’t on this day. One of the agents was helping a family with their reservations. The passengers could not speak English very well; the agent was helping them when we got on line, and was still helping them when we finished our check-in 20 minutes later.
We cleared security and went to the Admirals Club. My membership had expired and I wanted to renew it for another year. American had sent me an email offering me the chance to renew; if I did they would give me two luggage tags. I managed to pass on that offer. Instead, I wanted to renew on this date at the club for a couple of reasons. First, the club gets credit for each member who renews at the club instead of online. The AAngels at the Austin club have been so nice to me that I wanted to return the favor by helping them get credit for my renewal.
Second, since I had earned Platinum status, they would reduce the renewal fee by $100. I thought that was a good deal, but the AAngel told me even more. American Airlines has long been the Official Airline of Susan G. Komen for the Cure®, October is National Breast Cancer awareness month. Since I was renewing in October, American would reduce my fee by another $25 and donate $25 to the Komen foundation. So, I got the extra discount and money went to a good cause. Well done.
We soon boarded our nonstop flight to JFK in New York. We were on a 737-800, one of the newer planes in the fleet. The 737s are replacing the MD-80s and there are a variety of good reasons for them to do that. But there is one thing I will miss about the MD-80; the left side of the plane has only two seats; my wife and I could have a row to ourselves. The 737 is three-across on both sides of the plane, so a row of our own probably won’t happen.
However, one of the benefits that American offers its elite passengers is the chance to have a row for themselves. I reserved the window and aisle seats for us with the hope that the middle seat would not be taken. AA tries to keep those middle seats open as long as possible as a benefit to its elite members. Sure enough it worked this time, the middle seat remained open and we had the row to ourselves.
We had a smooth flight to JFK. One of the things I find interesting about a flight from Texas to the New York City area is the route. Instead of flying a direct route to New York, we go east to Atlanta, then turn north following the eastern seaboard to the New York area.
We arrived in New York on time, and began our long wait for the Rome flight. We went to the Admirals Club for lunch. The dining area offers a great view of American’s operations at JFK.
We finished our meal but still had a very long wait for our connecting flight. We read from our Kindles. We checked email. We watched TV. Eventually we got bored and left the club to wander through the terminal. One good thing about a long delay at JFK is that there are a lot of shops to visit. We visited most of them, then found another Admirals Club! So, we went into that one; it was smaller than the first club we had visited, but it was in a different part of the terminal and provided a different view.
Eventually it was time to board our flight for Rome. Our pane was a 767; I had reserved seats next to the window where they are only two-across and we’d have the row to ourselves.
The next several hours were, in a word, uneventful; we had a meal, we watched a movie, and we slept for a few hours. Sometimes the best flight is one where nothing out of the ordinary happens — that was the story of this flight. If you are at 38,000 feet over the North Atlantic, dull and boring is good.
We were able to sleep for a few hours, then woke up to a view of the Alps and a Continental Breakfast served by the flight attendants. Not long after that we began our descent into Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport. We landed two minutes early, not bad for an 8 hour 5 minute flight!
We got off the plane, enjoying the chance to stretch our legs and walk. We took the train across the airport to the arrivals terminal, where our first goal was to get our luggage. That was easier said than done. There were several luggage carousels, every one of them was very crowded, and we had no idea which one was ours. After stopping at five carousels we finally found ours, got our luggage, and moved on to the Customs and Immigration inspection. At least we thought we would do that.
With passports in hand we followed the signs to the “Non-EU resident” line, walked through door, and into the main terminal. That was it. No one looked at our passports, no one asked where we would be staying. No security check of any kind. We passed through one more door and were in the arrivals hall.
Our hotel offered a shuttle bus but we’d have to wait four hours for the next one. After our long wait at JFK that was the last thing we wanted to do! I had visited FlyerTalk to see what those travelers had to say about getting from the airport to their Rome hotel. Most of them wrote about the bus and subway service that went downtown — maybe a good idea for some, but our hotel was not in the downtown area. Several people suggested using a limousine service; that sounded like a much better idea to me.
I made a reservation with Rome Shuttle Limousine and could not be happier with the service they gave us. When we entered the terminal our driver was waiting for us, holding up a sign with our name on it. He took us to the limo, a very nice Audi sedan, and drove us to our hotel, the Sheraton Roma Hotel & Conference Center located 11 miles away. The cost was only 40 Euro.
I would have preferred to stay at a centrally located hotel in the downtown area but did not have enough Starwood points to do this. I could get five nights at the Sheraton Roma for 28,000 points. One night at the Westin Excelsior downtown was 20-25 thousand points. With my limited total, Sheraton Roma was our only choice.
We checked into the hotel and were in our room a mere 65 minutes after our plane landed. Our long anticipated Rome vacation had begun!
Where did we go? What did we do? I’ll cover that in future posts.