Rome. All roads lead there, or so they say.
Did you hear about the Italian chef who died? He pasta way.
I’ll spare you the rest of my Italy puns (although I have as many as an Italian grocery store has tomatoes) and jump into the story of my time in the Eternal City.
Upon arriving in Rome, Will and I headed to St. Paul’s Outside the Walls of Rome. Having started from St. Paul’s in London, we celebrated the last leg of our journey at St. Paul’s in Rome.
Although less well known than St. Peter’s Basilica, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls of Rome is equally crucial for Christianity. Both St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s are among Rome’s ancient, papal, major basilicas. Roman Emperor Constantine I founded St. Paul’s in 324 A.D. over the burial place of Paul after his martyrdom.
I found this aspect of the basilica very intriguing: it contains portraits of every pope who has ever led the Catholic church. Past popes are illuminated with low lighting, whereas a bright light shines upon the current pope.
To jubilate completing our journey from St. Paul’s to St. Paul’s, Will and I feasted Italian style. I chose cacio e pepe (a simple dish composed of black pepper, Pecorino Romano cheese, and pasta) because it originated in Rome.
This was Will’s face upon taking his first bite of Tiramisu for dessert!
All was jolly as we navigated our way around Rome until I had a terrifying encounter with a public restroom. Allow me to explain. Public restrooms look like this in Rome.
I paid to enter, the door opened, and I walked inside. Perfectly normal, right? Just wait. As soon as I walked in, the door slid shut with a bang and locked. I looked around warily and noticed that the bathroom was really wet. Then a creepy voice boomed: “You have three minutes. Then the door will open. If you do not leave rapidly, the door will close, and the entire bathroom will be soaked in cleaning fluid.”
Oh dear! Not only would I be exposed to the world if I took longer than three minutes, but also there was the possibility of getting locked in the bathroom and soaked with questionable fluid! Needless to say, my Rome bathroom experience was the most anxiety provoking bathroom experience I have ever had. I resolved to just wait in the future.
The next day’s dawn took us to the Vatican Museum to witness one of the most impressive art collections in the world.
Pope Julius II founded the Vatican Museums in the early 16th century. The Vatican displays works from the immense collection amassed by popes across the centuries, including renowned Roman sculptures, Renaissance art masterpieces, and the incomparable Sistine Chapel.
The Sistine Chapel with its magnificent ceiling by Michelangelo draws over 6 million visitors every year. In an effort to maintain peace in the Sistine Chapel, photography is banned–a decision I wholeheartedly condone. In lieu, I will share with you a painting from the rooms surrounding the Sistine Chapel.
Raphael painted The School of Athens in 1509-1511. Hailed as “Raphael’s masterpiece,” it is one of my favourite paintings because it represents Philosophy and depicts some of the greatest thinkers to ever live, including Plato and Aristotle (the two middle figures). Seeing it was an apt way to conclude our time in the Vatican.
As we left the Vatican, we passed the normal Swiss Guard, but also something a bit more intimidating.
In recent years, Rome has made significant efforts to increase security. Ubiquitous soldiers with machine guns are a bit unnerving, but to its credit, Rome has not suffered a terrorist attack, unlike similarly large European cities, such as Paris.
One downside of Rome’s increased security is massive queues. Sites like the Vatican Museums, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Colosseum feel like Disneyland during summer vacation. On our third day in Rome, to avoid the python-esque queues at St. Peter’s Basilica, we woke before the sun crept its way across the sky and lined up in the wee hours of the morning.
Originally completed in 349 AD and rebuilt in 1626, St. Peter’s Basilica lies at the heart of Vatican City and is regarded as one of the holiest Catholic shrines. It is the largest church in the world, and tradition holds that it was built on the burial site of St. Peter.
Will and I were very fortunate to go on an archeological tour underneath St. Peter’s Basilica, which allowed us to see the tomb of St. Peter and the Necropolis. If you get one thing out of this blog post, let it be this as a recommendation. I was not allowed to take photographs, so my words will have to suffice: the archeological tour is enlightening and astounding.
The Vatican purposefully does not advertise it, so to most visitors, it remains a secret. The tour allows a very small number of people to enter the excavation site each day, so you have to book far in advance (for reference, I booked a year in advance). Here is the website, my friends: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/institutions_connected/uffscavi/documents/rc_ic_uffscavi_doc_gen-information_20090216_en.html
Now that I have shared with you my best Rome secret, I will move on to slightly less mind boggling nuggets of wisdom.
Rome is hot. If you have skin like mine that shrieks and turns a defiant tomato red upon seeing the sun, bring a hat.
Will and I primarily explored Rome in the early morning and evening for two reasons. First, this allowed us to escape the midday heat. And second, it helped us cope with the fact that Rome has become a tourist attraction. Queues abound, tourist buses pollute the air, and street vendors who are not even Italian sell useless rubbish everywhere.
“Get your selfie sticks!”
“Napkins with Pope Francis’ face on them!”
“Tours of the Vatican that include St. Peter’s Basilica complimentary!”
Well, thanks a lot for the complimentary St. Peter’s Basilica visit but I just so happen to know that visiting it is free!
For those of you planning to a trip to Rome in the future, be wary of people trying to swindle you. In other parts of Italy like Trieste, I do not think anyone tried to rip me off, but in Rome sellers frequently prey upon tourists.
On a happier note, two of the most iconic sites in Rome, the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, are definitely worth one’s time.
Built under Emperor Vespasian in 72 AD, the Colosseum is the largest amphitheatre ever built and could hold approximately 80,000 spectators. With its rich history of hosting gladiatorial contests, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on Classical mythology, I had one happy history nerd on my hands.
His smile only grew as we roamed through the Roman Forum.
The Roman Forum provides a glimpse into what life would have been like at the height of the Roman Empire. The Forum was essentially Rome’s city centre.
After exploring the ancient side of Rome, Will and I entered a more modern edifice: a cafe. In Italy, I noticed a major cultural difference: there are no take away coffees. Although coffee is extremely popular in Italy and any host worth his salt will lavishly inquire of his guest “cappacino?” an absurd number of times, Italians do not walk around carrying to go coffee cups. A ubiquitous sight in other major cities like London and New York, the rush hour coffee cup craze simply does not exist in Rome.
People prefer to sit at a cafe and drink their coffee leisurely, or, if they are in a hurry, they will sweep into a coffee shop, order an espresso and down it with a single sip flourish at the counter.
Motorbikes make up another key aspect of Italian culture.
Motorbikes are everywhere in Italy. Whilst trying to take a photograph of a national monument, I inadvertently captured the essence of Rome: a motorbike wizzing in front of a glorious old building, new and old juxtaposed together, buzzing with life.
This brings me to our final night in Rome, upon which we patronised the opera.
We saw La Traviata, an Italian opera by Verdi based on the love and loss of the leading lady, Violetta. We had a truly marvellous time.
In other countries, opera can feel bourgeoisie and exclusive. In contrast, in Italy attending opera is as common as attending the cinema. We had a myriad of opera houses to choose from, bought our tickets for a reasonable price, sat in an audience replete with old and young alike, and were even treated to a free pasta buffet upon arriving early. If opera was like this in other countries, I think it would appeal to more people.
All in all, seeing an Italian opera was the perfect finale for our journey. We delighted in the places visited, the time spent together, and all that we learned. And with that, I shall bid you arrivederci 🙂