Tuesday, June 30th
Once we were finally able to escape Venice, it was a fast train ride to Rome. These rail lines were some of the fastest in Europe and the speed was sustained over long distances between stops. The info screens in the car would occasionally tell the speed and it topped out around 250 km/h which is about 155 mph!
The next task was to find tickets for the metro system. They only have two lines that intersect at one station, but Rome is a big enough city that the metro system is useful. The trains were packed. The cars felt very sterile on the inside but many of them were covered in graffiti outside.
The subway station we needed to get to was just a couple blocks from the Vatican and a couple more blocks in the other direction was our hostel. It ended up being in one of those typical neighborhood apartment buildings. I guess the people that ran the hostel owned the entire building or something and used one of the floors as a hostel. The lady that checked us in did not speak much English at all, but assured us that her husband knew it much better and could help us if we needed it later.
One thing that makes Rome stick out from every other city is the amount of ruins around the city. It is rare if you can go more than a few blocks without seeing them. Some ruins are larger than others, but the fact they can keep them and often put them on display in a modern city is great. After wandering around for a while and going down a street that had some really nice shops, we wound up in front of a large set of stairs. It turns out these were the famous Spanish Steps. I think they should be renamed the Spanish Seats, because a good portion of the steps were being used as places to sit.
The steps also bring up another thing that makes Rome stand out. It’s hilly. Probably more than most cities in Europe. After walking around some of the ruins down by the Colosseum, we came across this huge marble temple structure. It made the surrounding ruins look small. While I thought it was probably ancient, it turns out it was built in the 1800s and unlike the ancient things around it, the “Altar of the Fatherland” was completely closed.
The very warm temperatures in Italy highlighted a high priority need: deodorant. While it seems like that should be very easy to find, most of the small markets only carried food and had a very small selection of other things, if they carried them at all. There were plenty of stores dedicated to what seemed to be shampoo, but no stores dedicated to deodorant. Luckily, one of the small groceries did carry a couple bars of fine smelling deodorant. I went with the less feminine smelling of the two.
It was getting dark, so it was time to head back in the direction of the hostel. There were a couple of detours on the way. First, was the Pantheon. It had a really nice atmosphere outside of it, with a couple of street performers and people gathered on the stairs that surrounded a fountain.
Closer to the hostel was the Vatican, and the whole area was nearly empty. On the long boulevard leading up to St. Peter’s Square there were plenty of shops closed for the day and an unusually high number of homeless men sleeping in front of the buildings. All over Europe it wasn’t unusual to see the homeless stake a place (especially on Sundays) underneath a building’s protective overhang but they would be few and far in between. The Square was mostly clear of chairs and the lighted fountains looked great at night.
Wednesday, July 1st
After booking a place in Venice that did not have air conditioning, I made sure to book a place in Rome that had air conditioning. That eliminated a lot of places, but this place definitely had air conditioning, as I woke up COLD. Got my money’s worth.
The first sight of the day was the Forum. At the suggestion of our host, we went to the side entrance. There were maybe two or three people in line compared to a much larger line at the main entrance. The ticket for the Forum was also good for the Colosseum, which also had a very large queue. It was cool to see such a large grouping of ruins like the Forum provides, but it gets old after a while, as they are just that – ruins. My enjoyment of the ruins was also somewhat affected by my choice to not bring a bottle of water. I’m not sure why I decided to do that, but it was a bad choice. So I was very thirsty after walking around a warm, paved section of Rome for a couple of hours. While there’s people selling stuff everywhere around every European city, they did not allow any sort of selling in the Forum grounds. I bought an expensive bottle of water as soon as I left the grounds.
After a mediocre lunch was the Colosseum. There was still a line despite having tickets. I was surprised how spacious it was along the concourse for being two centuries old. It’s so massive that it’s hard to take it all in at once.
I needed a break after all of the walking and heat, so I took a nap for a couple of hours. Dinner was much better than lunch and came from an Italian place suggested by the host.
Thursday, July 2nd
The morning started out pretty lazy. We had bought tickets online a week or so earlier for the Vatican that weren’t good until noon, so there wasn’t too much of a rush to get over there. The online tickets were a great choice because there was a line that stretched for at least two or three blocks along the Vatican walls. With our pre-purchased tickets, we could take the “group” entrance and walk right up to the main security line.
The Vatican Museums combine to form the largest museum I think I’ve ever visited. It’s all planned out so you’re basically in one huge line for the Sistine Chapel, but it just seems never-ending. It felt like Venice, with signs at every turn telling you the way to the main attraction. It surprised me that so many different subjects were covered in the museum and not all of them were church related. There were impressive collections of all sorts of artifacts, statues, artwork, and sometimes that artwork included the rooms themselves as famous masters had painted many of the ceilings throughout the buildings. The Sistine Chapel itself was great too, but it was so crowded it was hard to appreciate. Also for some reason they wanted to maintain silence in the room, which meant they employed guys with loudspeakers to yell at people every minute or so. One absence stood out at the Vatican: Bibles. I don’t know if they didn’t want them on display with that many people around or if they were in a library or being actively studied by the cardinals, but it seemed a bit strange that there weren’t Bibles in the museum.
The Vatican even has a cafeteria! After walking through all of the museums, I definitely had an appetite. The pizza was probably a bit overpriced, but it was an excuse to eat someplace historic.
In other Vatican peripheral activities, they also have a post office, which I visited to mail a post card. Up next was St. Peter’s Basilica, the famous domed church in the Vatican. It wasn’t included in the Vatican Museums tour, so it had a separate security line. It is also free to visit. The line moved quickly, and the shade provided by the colonnade in the square outside was a nice break from the 100+ degree heat. I guess this would be a good time to mention that despite the heat, I was wearing jeans because you’re supposed to cover your knees at the Vatican.
St. Peter’s is a massive church. While other churches may have been more ornate, the sheer enormity of St. Peter’s sets it apart from everywhere else. It’s also nice that they actively hold mass in the church. I think it was at least half a dozen times each day. There were floor grates in a few places, and you could occasionally see people passing underneath. The mystery was solved when I found an entrance to the tombs tucked away in one of the massive roof supports. They were a bit eerie as expected for tombs, but really cool at the same time.
Dinner took a while to find, and came when we decided to go into a nondescript place. It simply said “PIZZERIA” over the door and I don’t think they even had a menu outside like a lot of restaurants. We had to promise to take less than two hours to eat before getting a seat because there was a reservation for the table at that time. It turned out that pretty much every table in the restaurant was reserved, and although it was almost empty when we arrived, by the time we left, the place was full of reserved seats. Since we were near the door we could see everyone that came in and probably a dozen or so people were turned away because they did not have reservations. The first nice touch arrived before the food — a free glass of champagne. The pizza was also great. I’m not sure if had something to do with the disappointment of the pizza from lunch, or the heat, but it was superb. My pizza had something like spinach and beef. A bonus came with the bill — there was no cover at the restaurant, which was also unusual for Italy.
A good pizza deserves good dessert, and thus began a search for gelato. Our host had mentioned a good place near the Pantheon, so we wandered around that neighborhood looking for gelato. Not sure of which shop was which, we settled on a place that had 150 different flavors.
On the way back to the hostel, there was an ancient castle. After briefly considering the nighttime tour, we decided against it. We figured we could still go around the castle and use it as a shortcut. It turns out the castle was on an island, and completely surrounded by a moat except for one place. The shortcut turned into a lengthy detour.
Friday, July 3rd
It was time to head out to Florence. While the train office in Venice had set the bar for futility, it managed to be outdone by the one in Rome. The line was longer, there still weren’t any places to wait comfortably, and even worse, the train I would have taken to Nice was already full!