Ok so this post is arriving much later than expected, and some of the Christmas and New Year posts I’ve writing in previous years are not going to materialise this time. Life got very busy in the last month or two, and blogging fell aside – hopefully I’ll write more about that soon, as I still want to write my 2019 review post, and an update/look forward for 2020. For now, there’s still the second half of my Rome trip last month to cover! We were there for four days, so part 1 featured the first two days, exploring the historic city centre and the Coliseum. There’s still another day and a half (before our evening flight home) to cover!
We started off early again on our third day to go visit the Vatican, including the Museums and St Peter’s Basilica. We took the metro to get there, as it was a little further from our apartment than anywhere else we’d been. I had pre-booked our Vatican Museum tickets, with an early time slot, so we were able to bypass the queues outside, and get in before it got too crowded. We ended up spending a good 3 hours or so inside, and it was packed full by the time we left! The Museums are home to gallery after gallery of artwork, collected by the Vatican and past Popes over the years. It’s too big to get round everything in depth, but of course it depends on how big of an art lover you are, as some people could probably stay for an entire day.
The Sistine Chapel is the most famous thing to see inside the Museums, so we made a beeline for that first, to beat the crowds, whizzing through the upper galleries to get there. There is a sort of ‘recommended route’ through the whole place, but that went out the window for us. I was trying to see what I could in these galleries on the way through, as we could have come back later, but it’s such a long corridor to go back and forth along multiple times. It included the Gallery of Candelabra, full of marble furnishing, and the Gallery of Tapestries, a series of huge tapestries depicting Bible stories, commissioned in the 16th century. I did like the Gallery of Maps though, a series of hand-painted regional maps of Italy, also from the 16th century. Everything has been so well-preserved over the centuries, you’d scarcely think these were 500 years old! And of course, the galleries themselves are such richly decorated, decadent venues to host these works – I spent half my time staring at the frescoes and friezes on the ceilings!
Of course, as frescoes go, the Sistine Chapel is certainly the most impressive. You have to be very quiet inside, as it is a chapel after all, and photography is not allowed. There’s just so much to see inside, with paintings covering every inch of the ceiling and walls, showing Bible stories and figures. The ceiling, which depicts the Book of Genesis including the famous ‘Creation of Adam’, and ‘The Last Judgement’ on the altar wall were famously completed by Michelangelo, but a team of other Renaissance painters did the other walls prior to this, including Botticelli, Ghirlandio, and Perugino. We made sure to spend plenty of time in here to try and soak in as much of it as possible, but there’s just so much detail everywhere you look!
After that, we browsed the rest of the Museums at a more leisurely pace. It can be a bit disorientating at times, as it does have so many galleries to it, so we were checking the map frequently to get our bearings. We accidentally missed the Rapahel rooms near the Sistine Chapel, and when we nearly went back later, the upper galleries were so crowded that we opted to skip it instead. We made our way back along the lower level of the main galleries – which is actually the recommended route, we had just done the upper level very quickly. Many of these lower levels were taken up by different religious artefacts, including crosses and jewellery, fragments of texts, globes, furniture, and much more. Again, I was enraptured by the decoration of the galleries themselves half the time!
Besides the main long galleries, there are so many other wings and rooms to explore – we saw so many religious themed paintings in the Pinacoteca gallery, and more statues than you could imagine in one place scattered between several more galleries! In the outer courtyard, there is the huge, golden ‘Sphere Within Sphere’, which actually rotates we discovered, when a tour guide pushed it around! That courtyard also has the Pine Cone, an ancient Roman fountain, but it was covered for restoration at the time. We also found a particularly pretty marble gallery, the Braccio Nuovo, which was filled with statues depicting the Classical era gods and scholars and other notable figures. I found this one interesting, as I’ve read plenty about that mythology so I knew a bit about them all!
I also knew there was a very famous statue somewhere in the collection, but I couldn’t remember what it was at first. We eventually stumbled across it by accident, in the Pio-Clementino Museum, in the Cortile del Belvedere, an open air courtyard in the middle. It was the Apollo Belvedere statue, which I immediately recognised again when I saw it, an ancient Roman statue that is incredibly well-preserved (with some restoration as well), depicting the Greek god Apollo. There are many other statues in the courtyard as well, followed by even more rooms we hadn’t seen yet. I like the Room of the Muses as well, since I’m familiar with the nine Muses – goddesses of the arts – anyway and recognised their names and patronages.
The Vatican Museums are one of the largest museums in the world, and I couldn’t possibly describe everything we saw inside. But after 3 hours, and with it getting increasingly busy, we decided it was time to head out again. The exit is actually a pretty interesting experience as well though, as you have to descend the Bramante Staircase, a double helix spiral ramp, which looks very cool from above, as you can see here! However, the entrance and exit to the Museums are pretty far away from St Peter’s Basilica, our next destination, so we then had to walk all the way around the walls of the Vatican City to reach the piazza in front of it.
The Basilica is free to visit, unlike the Museums, but you do have to go through another security check to get inside. Fortunately, as it was November, the queues weren’t too long, and in the mean time you can admire the square, itself, with the vast column lined galleries stretching around the circumference. Once we got through security, my dad, sister and I decided to climb up to the dome on top, while mum opted to stay down below. You can either take the lift or the stairs – but it’s worth noting that the lift only goes partway and you’ll still have several hundred stairs to do anyway! We took the stair option, which involved over 500 to go up! The first stretch takes you to the flat roof on top of the basilica, which is already a good height up. You then continue to the dome itself, where you emerge inside it, and can walk on a narrow path around its circumference, high above the altar below. The dome is lined with ornate mosaics, which you can see up close here – we later spotted them from down below, but you can only see them from certain angles there!
The climb continues to the very top of the dome itself, including sloping corridors around its edges, and a tiny stone spiral for the last stretch. It was a long way up, and our legs were definitely burning by this point! There’s not a lot of space at the top, with everyone crowded around the tiny walkway, so you do have to exercise a degree of patience. You’re fenced in by a sort of cage for safety, which definitely helped me, as my fear of heights started kicking in a little at this point, realising just how far up we were. I was pretty nervous when we were inside the dome earlier, as you could see the drop down to the floor below, and my brain kept reminding me that we were essentially standing above the centre of that now, just even higher this time. I kept a handle on it though, and slowly got used to the altitude, as we made our way around the walkway, admiring the view in all directions. You can actually see more inside the Vatican City from here, the buildings that are not accessible to the public and where (we assumed) the Pope himself lives. It was a clear, sunny day as well, so we could see all the way out of Rome, to snow covered mountain tops in the distance!
We made our way back down the dome after that, and you actually exit into the basilica itself. I remembered it being big, from my last visit to Rome, but I had forgotten just how big it is. It is truly massive, and so ornately decorated, everything covered in statues and carvings, gold and marble. It was all so lavish – a far cry from the simple, Presbyterian churches we are used to in most of Scotland. The central altar – the papal altar, where the Pope celebrates Mass – has a huge bronze canopy over it, topped with four angel statues, created by Bernini. It stands the tomb of St Peter, where he is believed to be buried after being crucified, and the Basilica was built on the site and named for him. Although this is the centrepiece of the church, every corner and wall has something splendid to see, with so many other altars around the sides. It is mind-boggling just how much work and expense went into this building! I later learned that it took 120 years to complete the project, from 1506 until 1626, so it was no easy task.
After we left, we ended out of the Piazza San Pietro again, and followed the road straight down in front of us. We were aiming for the Castel Sant’Angelo eventually, but we stopped off in a cafe for lunch first, where I continued to eat as much pasta as I possibly could in four days! We had walked a lot already, and crammed plenty into the morning – though it was about 2pm by this point – so we were definitely in need of a break. The Castel Sant’Angelo is also known as Hadrian’s Tomb, one of the ancient Roman emperors. We didn’t go inside, we just walked along the river beside it, as I had read online that there wasn’t a huge amount to see in there. We also wanted to check out the bridge next to it, the Ponte Sant’Angelo. The tomb and bridge themselves were both built in the 2nd century AD, but their current names are in reference to the angel statues added to the bridge in the 17th century. It was Bernini again who designed them, but he only complete two out of the total ten himself. Each angel is unique, holding one of the instruments of Passion. We wandered over the bridge, admiring the views of St Peter’s Basilica and the Castel along the way.
Then, we hopped into a taxi and made our way over to Villa Borghese. My sister is very interested in the Medici family (after watching the Netflix show), so we got dropped off outside the huge, imposing Villa Medici. Today it is used by the French Academy, so there isn’t a great amount to see or learn about the Medici themselves, and you have to do paid, guided tours at specific times, so we only looked at it from the outside. The Villa Borghese is a large park, on the hilltop just north east of the historic city centre. We sent an hour or so just having a leisurely wander through it, taking a break from the city streets and all the history we’d been absorbing in the last few days. The Galleria Borghese is here as well, a famous art gallery, though we opted not to go inside, as it was a bit expensive, and we didn’t know enough about the art and artists inside to feel like it would be worth it for us. We did a slow loop around the park, before heading back downhill again. We wound up at the top of the Spanish Steps, looking down over the historic city centre again – we’d passed the steps several times in the last few days, but hadn’t actually been up them yet!
I separated from everyone else at this point, as I wanted to visit the Keats-Shelley Museum, but the rest of my family weren’t bothered about it. The museum is right next to the Spanish Steps, in the house where Keats spent his final days, so it made sense for me to head in then. Keats is one of my favourite poets, from the Romantic era, and he died at just 25 years old, after contracting tuberculosis. He had come to Rome for his health, to a warmer climate than Britain, but actually died in this house, in 1821. The room where he died has been recreated with similar furniture (the originals had to be burned, because of the disease), and the rest of the rooms are filled with artefacts about his life, and his fellow poet, Shelley, as well as Lord Byron as well. These men all travelled and worked in Rome, so there is a strong link to the city for the Romantic poetry era. I haven’t read as many works by the other two, but I’m familiar with them, as Romantic poetry in general is a favourite of mine. It was rather surreal to know I was standing in the room where Keats lived and died! It’s a small museum, but I explored it thoroughly, before heading out again to meet up with the rest of my family.
We wandered back through the city centre, ending up in Piazza Navona again, where we saw the fountain lit up at night. Although it can be a bit touristy around here, this was our final night in Rome, and it’s a lively area to sit outdoors, so we chose a restaurant here for our last dinner. We also ended up getting four cocktails, each one inspired by one of the four rivers in the fountain, which I thought was a fun idea!
Our last day in Rome was only a half day, as our flight was at about 7pm that evening, so we had to allow time to get to the airport. We still had the morning to explore more though! We separated for this, as my mum and sister wanted to do a bit of shopping, whereas I wanted to go see the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla instead. Dad decided to come with me, being more interested in history than shopping as well. We had tried to go to the baths after the Colosseum a couple days earlier, but they had closed early that day, so this time I double checked online, and we were able to this time. We walked there from the apartment, retracing our route past the Colosseum again, and it took us about half an hour to get there.
I opted to get the audioguide inside, to better understand what the buildings were used for, as they are largely in ruins now, and I relayed much of the information to Dad as we went along. What I had not expected, was how big the baths were! There were reconstructions visible with the audioguide (which is on a phone), showing how it would have once looked, and comparing this to what remains of the buildings, you can start to understand how vast this complex was. It would have also been ornately decorated, with tiled mosaics covering much of the walls and floors – you can see some examples of this that still remain, but like most of the ancient buildings, the materials were repurposed in the Renaissance era. Roman baths were essentially gyms and spas – there were rooms where they worked out, as well as the baths themselves for relaxing in. The baths were different temperatures, as you would start in the hottest ones, them move through warm and cold waters, before finishing in the open air swimming pool.
The audioguide was fascinating because it explained how all of this worked – bearing in mind this was two thousand years ago! The hottest baths faced south, to get extra heat from the sun, and had glass walls around them. Below the complex, was a hidden series of tunnels, where slaves and donkeys with carts transported wood to burn in the furnaces and heat the water from below. The water was also carried through pipes from one pool to the next, cooling down along the way, and finally draining out of the swimming pool. And along the side of the complex, beyond the gardens, you can see the hillside where the water was collected, running down through the aqueducts. Rome’s whole water supply system is remarkable, but this is an especially impressive example of it!
Beyond the main building, there were some other buildings around the edges of the gardens, which we discovered were libraries. This seemed a bit strange to us at first, having libraries next to the baths, but we soon learned that the Baths also acted as meeting places, where people would people would debate and converse on many topics. So it made sense that they would have libraries there as resources to further fuel their debates, and to use those as meeting spaces as well. One of the libraries was for Latin texts, and the other for Greek, showing that the Ancient Romans had an appreciation for their Classical neighbours, and that both languages were deemed as important.
After we’d explored the Baths sufficiently, we started walking back into the city centre to meet up with my mum and sister again. We walked around the Circus Maximus, having only driven past it in taxis up until now. We took the upper path, along the west side, and from there we got a good view over to Palatine Hill again. When we had been there a couple of days before, I had felt a bit rushed towards the end (with a time limit on the audioguide), and not been able to fully see and listen to everything there. From this vantage point, I suddenly got a much better understanding of the villas built up there – when you’re on the hill, you mostly see the top parts of them, so I hadn’t realised that they were actually much bigger structures, built into the hillside themselves, to overlook the Circus Maximus. Also nearby, we passed the Mouth of Truth, which is marble face whose mouth you put your hand inside, and legend says it will bite the hands of liars. Our walking tour guide from the first day had said that this is largely a tourist myth, made popular by the film ‘Roman Holiday’, so it hadn’t been on our list of things to do while we were here. I had seen it on my last trip to Rome anyway, but I pointed it out to Dad since we were passing it anyways.
Dad and I got to explore a few new streets on our way into the city again, trying to take a different route to any we’d done previously. At one point, we came upon a square which had a large excavation site in the middle, with yet more ancient ruins inside it. We stopped to look at this, marvelling at just how much history Rome has to offer – anywhere else, this site would have been a much bigger deal, but here, it is just one of so many. It is astonishing how much has happened here over the centuries, and there’s always something more to see as a visitor. We met up with my mum and sister near the Pantheon, where they had found a restaurant in the square for lunch. After we’d eaten, I insisted on one more gelato before we left, and quickly found online that there was a place just around the corner, with 150 flavours to choose from! It was called Gelateria della Palma, and certainly lived up to expectations – I think it must have taken us a good ten minutes to browse and decide what flavours we wanted! We bought them in the end and left, eating them as we wandered back through the city one more time, before returning the apartment to collect our things and head to the airport.
I’m very glad I was able to go back to Rome again, as my first visit, fun as it was, simple wasn’t enough time to see such a historic city properly. I feel like this time I experienced it a bit more in-depth, and also, nowadays I have more appreciation for history than I did on my first trip (age 19). I think now I enjoy learning more about new places, rather than just seeing them and taking photos. I am by no means an expert on Rome (neither Classical nor Renaissance era), nor the many artists in its numerous galleries, so four days was a good amount of time to absorb the city, without getting overloaded on information – I’m sure proper Classical buffs, or art lovers could spend far longer here, seeing even more places that we skipped! But I still found myself constantly astonished by Rome, every time I stopped to think about ancient it is, and how many things happened here, as well as the beauty of the city as it stands now.
Check out my updated Travel Inspiration post on Rome as well, with new photos from this trip!