“Faith makes us open to the quiet presence of God at every moment of our lives, in every person and in every situation. God is present in every one of you, in each one of us.” – Pope Francis
I grew up Catholic, so being able to go inside the Vatican is very special for me. Admittedly, I haven’t been an active participant in the Catholic Church in the last few years, but I still adhere to many of its beliefs and teachings. To be at the center of Catholicism was very spiritual, and I’m glad Michael and I could experience it together.
We had a quick breakfast at the hotel then took a cab to the Vatican Museums, where we were supposed to meet up with our Dark Rome tour guide. Yes, we were going on yet another Dark Rome tour. If I counted correctly, this was the third one we were taking with them in 3 days. With the number of tours we’ve taken with them, Michael and I should be spokespeople for Dark Rome by now. Haha! Seriously though, their company really does have good tours and their guides are among the best in the business. I liked them so much that when my mom and I went back to Rome a few months after Michael and I were there, I again booked tours with them. They really are great! Go check them out if you’re looking for a tour company in and around Rome. They even have tours in other cities, like Florence and Venice. Disclaimer: I neither work for nor get paid by Dark Rome. I just think that it’s nice to share information with other people when we find something we liked during our travels since we rely so much on other people’s reviews for our trips, as well. Tit for tat.
That day, we were scheduled to go on a 3-hour tour of the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica with Dark Rome (see tour here). To be honest, we probably could’ve done these on our own but we didn’t want the hassle of having to line up for tickets ourselves (especially after seeing how long the lines were when we got there) plus we really do like having a guide give us tidbits about things that we’re seeing when we visit places for the first time.
The first item on the itinerary that morning was the Vatican Museums. If you love museums, you will adore this place. With over 9 miles of art spread across 2,000 rooms, the complex was huge! Obviously, we didn’t have time to see everything. You’d probably need hours . . . no, days . . . to see the place in its entirety. Michael and I aren’t really “museum people” so we were quite satisfied with strolling along a few of the galleries such as the Gallery of Tapestries, viewing ancient Roman sculptures and other works of art, and walking through the early papal apartments.
Our favorite area was definitely the Gallery of Maps. Trust me when I say that your jaw will drop once you enter this hallway, which I believe was why it was built in the first place. Our guide told us that Pope Gregory XIII, who was pope from 1572-1585, wanted to show the power and greatness of the Catholic Church to everyone who set foot in the papal palace (especially royals from other nations) so he had 40 frescoes painted on the walls, all based on drawings of papal properties by the famous geographer Ignazio Danti. Well played, Pope Gregory, well played.
Another highlight of the tour was seeing the masterpieces in Raphael’s Rooms. Magnificent works of art, for sure! A fun tidbit from our guide: Check out the faces of the men in the School of Athens painting. Do they look familiar? That’s because Raphael painted them in the image of some of the most popular artists and philosophers of the time, including Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, Donato Bramante and a self-portrait of Raphael Sanzio himself. Fascinating! Another fun tidbit: Apparently, Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel at the same time that Raphael was working in these rooms. Raphael was so “inspired” when he saw how life-like Michelangelo’s paintings of human bodies were that he decided to paint the images in his rooms similar to the ones in the chapel. How amazing it must’ve been to have two of the greatest artists of all time working a few feet away from each other!
After, our tour guide led us to a courtyard and had us sit down so she can give us a brief overview of the life of Michelangelo and his famous work at the Sistine Chapel. She informed us that talking was prohibited inside the chapel, so she needed to give us all the information we needed to know before we headed inside. I loved that she brought illustrations so we could actually see what she was talking about. She had enlarged images of the paintings inside the Sistine Chapel so we could see the details more clearly. The stories and characters hidden in Michelangelo’s masterpiece were extremely fascinating!
Once our little break was over, we were finally allowed to go up the stairs to get inside the Sistine Chapel. The guide mentioned that they only let a number of people in at a time and allow them to stay inside for about 15-20 minutes to see the inside of the chapel, then they basically get herded out so the next group can come in. Despite what our guide said about “no talking”, the first thing we noticed once we got in was that it was really a bit noisy, with the constant shuffle of feet and the buzz of muffled conversations all around us. The sound would get louder and louder until one of the guards would finally yell out “Silencio!”, and then everyone would stop talking and for a few brief moments, it would be silent. After a while, the noise would build up until another guard yells out again. This cycle would repeat over and over the entire time we were there. We were also informed that picture-taking wasn’t allowed inside the chapel but I guess some people didn’t know (or didn’t care) about that rule, so the guards would also often yelled out “No photo!”. It was really a bit chaotic, if you ask me! Also, it can get really crowded inside. Most people are standing and all of them are looking up and not really paying attention to what’s going on around them. It was difficult (almost impossible, really) to move around, but we were able to get a spot in the middle of the room which had great views from every angle. If you get tired, there are benches on both sides of the room but you will rarely find an empty seat. Once you find a good spot, stay there, look up and prepare to be amazed at the unparalleled genius of Michelangelo.
Despite the chaos and the crowds, it was really a delight to finally see the Sistine Chapel. Contrary to popular belief, he was not laying on his back as he painted but stood on a unique system of platforms that he designed. He worked on the ceiling for years and was able to paint the extensive piece of art without ever seeing it from a distance. Like I said, genius!
As I mentioned earlier, there were a lot of intriguing tidbits about Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel, most of all about his The Last Judgment painting. It is said that Michelangelo did not want to go back to Rome to do it, but he was “strongly encouraged” (aka forced) by the church to return. Hence, this part of the room was done years after he had finished the ceiling. The Council of Trent condemned nudity in art at the time so the pope, upon the urging of a certain papal official named Monsignor Biagio Da Cesena, asked Michelangelo to paint drapes over the “unmentionables” in the painting. Not only did Michelangelo say no, he took revenge by painting said papal official’s image in the area of the painting depicted as hell, complete with donkey ears and all. Haha! What a rebel he was! A few years after Michelangelo’s death however, another artist named Daniele de Volterra was commissioned to paint over the nude scenes with fig leaves and loincloths. I guess Da Cesena got the last laugh, after all. Pssssh. And because of the work that he did in the Sistine Chapel, Volterra was forever dubbed Il Braghetonne (“The Breeches Maker”). Poor guy. If you ever get to see The Last Judgement for yourself, also look for the image of St. Bartholomew. It is believed that this saint was skinned alive for spreading his faith, so many depictions of him show him holding onto his skin. In The Last Judgment, Michelangelo painted his own face on to the skin being held by St. Bartholomew which is fascinating but really quite grotesque, and was fodder for the gossip-mongers at the time.
There is a door in the chapel that leads straight into St. Peter’s Basilica, which saved us from having to go around and wait in line again to get into the basilica. This door is only supposed to be used by tour groups but I’ve read somewhere that the guards usually look the other way, if you wanted to try it. Before we headed out, our guide showed us a small dark area on the floor near the doorway. She said it was blackened because this is where the stove that is used to release smoke during papal conclaves is placed.
We passed through the door and went in (a much shorter) line to get in to the basilica.
Just like on our first day in Rome when we first saw St. Peter’s, we were in awe of how grand and splendid it was when we finally got inside. Usually sealed with mortar and cement, the Holy Door or ‘Porta Sancta’ is only open during a Holy Year (Jubilee) which occurs every 25 years, the last one was in the year 2000. Last year, Pope Francis declared it a special Jubilee Year of Mercy so holy doors were opened around the world. We were blessed enough to pass through the ones at St. Peter’s Cathedral, not once but twice!
Despite the crowd in front of it, we were able to squeeze our way to the front to see Michelangelo’s Pieta. Interesting story: This is the only piece of artwork that Michelangelo signed and he only did so because he had overheard people attributing his work to another artist. He later regretted his own youthful vanity and pride, and resolved never to sign any of his other artwork again. Another interesting fact: The Pieta was damaged in 1972 by a man who leapt over the railing and started hammering the sculpture. The restoration was widely debated and took 10 months to finish. This is why the sculpture is now behind bullet-proof glass. It really makes me sad to hear stories like this. Everyone needs to do their part in helping preserve the art, culture and traditions of the past, so that future generations will be able to enjoy and learn from them, as well.
We went around the church, going inside the small chapels where people pray or hear mass, and viewing the imposing sculptures and beautiful paintings. Well, I shouldn’t say paintings since none of the ones in St. Peter’s Basilica are actual paintings. To preserve the original paintings, they were all replaced by ones made entirely of small pieces of glass that were painstakingly put together to replicate the old ones. Amazing! We also saw the incorruptible body of Pope John XXIII. Roman Catholics believe that the bodies of humans who are deemed by God to be holy do not undergo normal decomposition upon death. There are incorruptibles found in many chapels and churches all over Rome. The gift shop sold many religious items, including small water bottles which can be filled with holy water from the church. I bought some for my family as souvenirs. Most impressive of all was the Baldachin that was designed by none other than Bernini himself. Looking at it, the solid-bronze canopy that stands over the main altar doesn’t seem as tall due to the dome right above it, but it is actually an impressive 96 feet tall. Wow! It marks the site where St. Peter is believed to be buried (see our post on our first day in Rome to read about the Scavi under the basilica – St. Peter’s burial site). There were so many things to see inside the church. Being in St. Peter’s Basilica was both an overwhelming and humbling experience. We were awestruck by its sheer majesty, and then we realized how minuscule it actually was compared to God’s all-encompassing glory. We don’t usually talk about our faith or religion, but this was truly a special and spiritual experience!
We wanted to go to the top of the dome but unfortunately, the lines to go up were really long that day. You will have fantastic panoramic views of Rome, and you will be able to have a top-down view of the nave of St. Peter’s . . . if you can survive the climb to the top. There is an option to take an elevator which saves you 320 steps, but you still have to take an extra 200 steps to get to the top. I also read somewhere that the pathway gets narrower as you get higher, and it can get really humid especially in the summer so be careful! Going down, you will again be given the option to take the elevator. If you can, take the stairs because it has marble plaques of famous people who have gone up the dome over the years. Gravity will be on your side so going down should be easier than going up. You will end up inside St. Peter’s Basilica after visiting the dome.
The lines to go inside the Vatican Grottoes were much shorter so we decided to see this instead. Here, we found chapels dedicated to saints and burial sites of various popes and royalty dating from the 10th century. FYI, the exiting the grotto directs you inside the basilica again.
Once outside again, we were able to take a few minutes to look out across St. Peter’s Square. It was designed by Bernini (yes, him again) to seem like a “hug”, welcoming Christians and non-believers from all over the world into the faith. There is an obelisk and fountains in the middle of the square, and 140 statues all around it that was sculpted by Bernini’s students. Despite the sheer vastness of the space, the area is usually filled to bursting during the papal audience on Wednesdays and on holy days. I know I’ve used so many superlatives in describing what we’ve seen in Rome so far, but this square was truly magnificent and just takes your breath away!
I was starving by the time we finished walking across the piazza so we headed towards the restaurant where I had made lunch reservations. People who know me know that I get “hangry” when we eat later than usual, especially when I’m tired. I become really grouchy, and whine about everything under the sun until food is put in front of me. This time was no different. When we checked Google Maps, it reported that the restaurant was only 10 minutes away. In the grand scheme of things, 10 minutes isn’t a big deal but of course, walking ten whole minutes seemed like hours to famished little me and the dramatics ensued. Just like always, my poor husband had to put up with my grievances about the injustice of not being able to eat right away with a smile and comforting words of “we’re almost there, babe”. Honestly, I am amazed at his patience when I get this way because if it were me, I would’ve snapped a scornful retort – probably something about being childish and impatient. I’m a very lucky girl, I know. Anyway, what do we find when we get there? A shut door with a sign that says they were closed for the season. What the?! We knocked on the door, which was answered by a rude man who brusquely told us that they were closed. Yes, I can see that, sir. And then he proceeded to shut the door in our face so I blurted out that we had reservations. He asked me if I was sure then in the same breath said (again) that they were closed and will be open in a few weeks. To say I was livid is an understatement. Yes, I am sure we have reservations! Yes, I know you are closed! And no, we can’t come back in a few weeks because we’ll be back in New York! But I wasn’t able to give him my response because he had closed the door on our faces by the time I could gather my thoughts. Boy, was I mad! If you don’t know, many restaurants and shops in Italy are closed in August since Italians go on vacation then. We knew this beforehand, which was why we had made restaurant reservations when we could during our trip. I was infuriated because I actually received an email, not from a third-party site, but from someone who actually works in their restaurant confirming our reservations. Why in the world would you confirm someone if your place was closed?! We reached out to them via email about the situation, and all we got was an “Oops, oh well.” response. Believe me, I wasn’t expecting them to open up the restaurant just for me. All I wanted was an apology for the inconvenience it caused. And honestly, it probably felt like a bigger deal than it actually was because like I said earlier, I was really hungry. He could’ve been nicer about it, though. I think his attitude was just the last straw. In the 17 days we spent in Italy, that was the only time that we received such poor customer service. So no, I don’t think we’ll go back there despite the good reviews. And no, I refuse to name their restaurant on my post and give them free advertising. I guess the moral of the story is always double (or triple) check your reservations, especially when you’re planning on being in Italy during the summer.
Michael, the level-headed one, then proceeded to steer me towards another restaurant in the area which worked a bit to diffuse the situation. We ended up eating at a place called La Caravella which guessing from their sign up front, is both a trattoria and a pizzeria. If I’m being honest, there was nothing special about the food and ambience of this restaurant. It was a regular restaurant serving regular Italian food, that just happened to be close by. To be fair though, they did offer quick no-nonsense service which we appreciated.
After lunch, we walked a few blocks to OldBridge Gelateria to further ease my annoyance. If you’re ever in Rome, try this gelato shop. They have a number of outlets around the city. They offer really yummy gelato which makes them popular with both locals and tourists alike, as shown by the line we saw when we arrived. Scarfing down my gelato soothed my nerves and finally calmed me down so yet again (like many times throughout my life), ice cream saves the day!
I’m not sure if it was the unfortunate incident earlier, the heat and humidity, or if we were still jet lagged at this point, but we were really tired after lunch so we decided to abandon the rest of our plans that afternoon and head back to the hotel to take a looooong (and much-needed) nap. As I get older, I realize how great naps really are, and I regret all those times when I was a kid and gave my parents such a hard time about taking them. Naps are the best!
Later that afternoon, we woke up refreshed and ready to take on new adventures. That nap really worked wonders! Instead of going to the restaurant where we originally had dinner reservations, we decided to have an early dinner at a nearby restaurant before heading to our planned activities that night.
Nonna Betta was a few steps away from the entrance to our hotel. When we arrived, we were greeted by friendly waiters and were seated promptly at a table out on the street (having tables extending out on the street is a popular practice in Italy and most of Europe). It is a Kosher restaurant in the Jewish Ghetto that was made popular by Anthony Bourdain who sang praises about their artichoke but because neither Michael nor I like artichokes, we opted to order something else.
What was a spur-of-the-moment decision about dinner plans ended up being the most fun meal we had in Italy. It wasn’t because of the food or the drinks or even the atmosphere. We had the best time there that night because of bees. Yes, bees! You see, during our entire meal, bees were buzzing around us and hovering over our food. We don’t see a lot of bees in downtown New York (we have bedbugs and cockroaches instead – hahaha!) so naturally, city people that we were, we were a bit flustered and were trying to wave them away. In hindsight, that probably wasn’t the best of ideas. Anyway, one of the waiters saw our hapless situation and decided to help by standing right beside our table with a fly swatter. You can only imagine how it was like to try to have a romantic dinner while having someone swatting away bees around you THE ENTIRE TIME.
Me: “Babe, I’ve really enjoyed our honeymoon so far.”
Michael: “I know! It’s been great.”
Me: “I wish it could last . . .”
It went on like this for a while until another waiter, maybe after seeing how hard we were trying to suppress grins, finally called out to our guy to leave us alone. He left and we were finally able to have our meal in peace. That is, until those maniacal bees came back to attack our food again and this time, we were left to our own devices. It must’ve been such a comical sight! I had my napkin up to my face and I’m pretty sure I was making little whimpering sounds while ducking to and fro to avoid the flying bees. Michael, however, was so busy trying to swat them away, he didn’t realize he was using his fork to do so. His fork . . . THAT STILL HAD PASTA ON IT. He was waving it around so much, he ended up getting sauce stains all over his white shirt. At this point, I was laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe, much less tell him about it. Upon seeing our situation, our bee-swatter comes running back to the table like he was Mel Gibson on Braveheart charging against the English. FREEEEDDOOOMMM!!!! Of course, this made me howl with laughter even more! By then, Michael had realized what had happened to his shirt so he was trying to clean it with water. With our waiter still battling with the wretched bees (SWAT!), a lady a few tables away yelled out that Michael really should be using club soda and not water. One of the other waiters ran into the kitchen to get some but the lady decided that would take too long so she passed us her own glass of club soda from which she was drinking so Michael could use it to clean his shirt. Needless to say, it was such a hysterically funny moment that will forever be branded into our minds. We ended up having the time of our life, all because of small little buzzy bees.
During the summer, there are a couple of shows in Rome that use light and technology to imagine what it must have looked like during the height of the powerful Roman empire. While researching about our trip, I had unintentionally come across a review about a light show in Rome that was a “must-do”. The more I read about it, the more excited I became about seeing it in person. Then I discovered that there were actually two shows, which got me even more psyched. We were able to get tickets to both shows, and headed out after dinner (and after Michael changed his shirt, of course) to see them .
The first show we went to was Foro di Augusto, which is located in . . . you got it, the Forum of Augustus. This archaeological site is usually closed to the public but every summer, bleachers are put up in front of the area and a 40-minute multimedia projection is shown on the ruins that remain there. Because we got a little lost, we arrived to the area only a few minutes before the show started, not knowing that seats were on a first-come first-served basis. They gave us headsets that provided an English-language narration so we could follow along, then we went up the stairs and settled down on our seats at the end of the bleachers. Despite not having the seats in the middle, we were still able to get good views and boy, were we impressed! I mean, I’ve always loved light shows and fireworks, but this was really really well-executed. From start to finish, it held our attention not just with the theatrics but also with the stories that they shared. We could actually see how the area looked like during the time of Augustus, which was so cool. So yes, this is definitely a must-do when you’re in town during the summer. Well worth the cost!
Walking towards the second show, you will pass by the Imperial Forum which is magical by the dark of night. While walking, we heard beautiful music across the way and saw a man playing the violin. We have buskers all over New York City, but it seems romantic when in Italy.
The site of the second show was a few minutes’ walk from the first one, in Caesar’s Forum. For this one, we were also given headsets but instead of sitting for the duration, we were asked to walk on a pathway to go through actual Roman ruins (usually closed to the public) on which they projected various images. The 55-minute traveling show talked about the lives of ancient Romans, including a particular famous one named Julius Caesar. It was such a spectacle unlike any we had ever seen before. What a wonderful – and educational – experience!
After the shows were over, we decided to walk home. On the way, we passed by yet another gelato place and we just couldn’t resist. When we were planning our honeymoon, I specifically checked to make sure that we were having gelato AT LEAST once a day. We even had a “gelato fund” on our honeymoon registry, which one of our dear friends gladly sponsored. Our entire honeymoon, unbelievable and enchanting as it was, was only made possible due to the big hearts of our family and friends who footed the bill for most of the trip. We are blessed, indeed.
Despite taking a long nap in the afternoon, our third day being tourists in Rome was a huge success! We will be sharing our original itinerary for our third day in Rome below, including all the other sites we didn’t get to due to said nap. We would love to know if it helps you during your trip. HAPPY TRAVELS!
Itinerary PDF: The Traveling Route – Rome 3
Filter: Priime Foliage and Priime Bushwick