Rome in August?!?! What were we thinking? As reality set in we were both a little tempted to make another crowd avoidant gypsy detour. Alas, you can’t stay with the gypsies forever and somehow we pulled ourselves together for the hardest challenge of our travel boot camp to date. It was super hot, it was super crowded, and it was super expensive, but luckily the fabulousness of Rome was all worth it. The Vatican, not so much… but we’ll get to that.
Rome was very cool – a bit of a ‘Disneyland’ version of itself but it was inarguably cool. We stayed in Rome’s central Monte neighborhood and it was a perfect hub for exploring the city on foot. This was a necessity since the public transportation in Rome is S-H-I-T – incredibly it’s even worse than Athens. Monte is full of restaurants, cafes, and cute little shops that all seemed to be closed for the summer. Even though August is the high season for tourism, many businesses are closed because Italians want to take off the whole month (duh, who doesn’t). They’ll just post a little note on the door saying, “Closed August 6th – 30th”. It’s super irritating if you’ve, say, schlepped across town for a pizzeria or nail salon and find out its closed for the month. I simultaneously curse and envy this trait of Italian culture.
My new favorite thing is ‘skip-the-line’ tours and we booked one to visit the major sites of ancient Rome. By this point in the trip, we’ve seen more Roman ruins than I can count in places like Lebanon, Cyprus, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Crete, and even a potential (albeit unproven) Roman fortress in Uzbekistan. The Romans left their mark all over the world and it was quite exciting to finally see the Empire’s HQ with our own eyes.
Our first stop in Ancient Rome was the Colosseum – the indisputable crown jewel of Rome. Built between 72 and 80 AD, the massive structure was constructed by 20,000 slaves to host public shows like gladiator fights and executions (what fun!). The intact-ness of the structure is amazing and you can easily imagine just how impressive this place was when it was full of 50,000+ Roman citizens. I keep wondering how many people over the millennia have had some experience with is building – Romans who saw a show, medieval travelers who glimpsed it from the road, and modern day tourists who climb all over it. The Colosseum has to be the (or one of the) most visited and observed buildings in the history of the world, and that’s pretty cool.
Next we walked toward the Roman Forum, the center of political discourse and decision making in the Roman Empire. It’s fascinating to think that the ideas and activities of the forum grew out of the unassuming Pnyx in Athens. Surrounding the Forum are the Temple of Vesta (home of the Vestal Virgins), the incredibly understated tomb of Julius Caesar, and like 1,000 other monuments that would be the highlight of any other city. All of these monuments and ruins are crowded together densely and its utterly amazing to consider how much of our current culture, values, and ideals sprung from discussions and debates held in this geographically small place.
Our final stop was the Pantheon, a Roman temple built in 27 AD and dedicated to the worship of all gods, past and present. At the beginning of the 7th century the pagan temple was converted to a Christian basilica. It’s a little weird, actually, but I guess it’s pretty. Maybe we just had a case of monument-fatigue by this point in our day… it happens.
We also visited the Vatican on a ‘skip-the-line’, and thank god we did or I would have murdered someone waiting in the hours-long line. As part of visiting the Vatican, you ‘see’ the highlights of the Vatican museum (i.e. be physically near to said highlights behind 500 people), visit the Basilica of St. Peter, get ‘shushed’ in the Sistine Chapel, and walk the Vatican grounds. The Vatican sucked – categorically sucked. We were contractually obliged as ‘tourists-in-Rome’ to visit the Vatican but I wouldn’t do it again. Luckily for me now I don’t have to.
I don’t have much to say about the art in the Vatican museum, not only because I didn’t really ‘see’ anything but because the only memory I was able to commit to long term storage was of being hot and herded like a cat. We saw some cool maps, some gaudy tapestries, and lots of stuff made out of marble. This is the extent of my memory.
The highlight of the Vatican were the futile attempts by Vatican staff to maintain a reverent and peaceful atmosphere in the Sistine chapel. The chapel rules are no photos and no speaking, but of course barbarian tourists don’t heed. The mucho-serious guards dodge and weave through the crowds swatting iPhones out of the hands of photo-eager Chinese grannies. Every 3 minutes or so, an ominous ‘voice of god’ comes out of some hidden speakers to shush the crowd. “SILENCE!!! SHUSH!!!!!” Jeff and I used to go to a schtik-y bar in the NYC with a monastic theme and a strict code of silence – any chatty-pants would be aggressively shushed by the bartenders. The Sistine chapel is kind of like that bar, but a lot less fun.
After like 3 hours in the Vatican, we were shuffled toward the gates and thus ended our visit to the Pope’s house. Check and mark. Tourist obligations fulfilled.
Hot, tired, and a teeny bit traumatized by the Italian tourism industrial complex, Jeff and I took a high-speed train south from Rome to our next stop – Naples.