AC Italy 3 & 4: Rome

So, I’m covering two days of travel in one post here. Much like Rome, it’s kind of overwhelming.

Let me put that another way. If I were covering two small places that I saw over two days, that would be easy. Rome isn’t easy. It’s huge, filled with sights, beautiful and crazy all rolled into one. It deserves a post on the blog, but the act of writing about Rome itself is kind of difficult.

So, I’m going to try a different format for this one. There are some “Rules” in Rome that you need to follow if you’re not going to get overwhelmed by the sights. I’ll mix those into the different locations as I give you a play by play of the last two days.

I took the early train from Siena (6:00 am) to get to Rome early (9:22). Check in at the hotel was at 3 pm, so I checked my bags with the concierge (I got a good deal on the 4-Star Best Western Mondail through and I was off.

ROME RULE: Once you’re out, you don’t go back to the hotel room unless you’re going to sleep, or changing to go out for the night. There’s plazas to rest in, places to see, and things to do. Your hotel room may be cooler with the air conditioning, and the bed may be comfy, but don’t go back until you really have nothing to do.

So since I had been to Rome before, the goal this time was to see a few things I hadn’t yet seen and check out a few favourites from the last time. If you don’t see it here, assume I saw it last time.

Museo National Romana: Palazo Massimo alle Terme

I was reading about this museum in my Rome guide, which basically said that it doesn’t get the traffic it deserves. Sure enough, I was there, not many other people were, and the museum was absolutely incredible. Now, I’m a sculpture guy over a paintings guy, so a musuem focusing mostly on classical sculpture, with several amazing frescoes and mosaics as well. You’ll see a 2nd century version of the discus thrower, a bronze seated boser from the 4th century BC and amazing frescoes that are a thousand years old, pulled from the Villa Livia, where Augustus’ wife lived. Make the point to see it if you’re in Rome.

Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vitoria
The inside of the church is quite beautiful, and there’s a Bernini sculpture called “The Ecstacy of St. Teresa”, which involes a saint being teased by an angel’s arrow. It’s not as dirty as it sounds, but it still kind of is.

Quattro Fontane
It’s a four way intersection, and each intersection has a beautiful little fountain on it. You’ll invariably pass by it if you’re walking in Rome, as it’s on a pretty major pedestrian thoroughfare, but I figured it deserved a mention, since I found it pretty beautiful the last time I was in Rome as well.

ROME RULE: Bring your own water bottle. The fountains all provide clean water, totally drinkable, just make sure it pours into your bottle and you don’t scoop from the basins. If you’re lucky enough to find a supermarket, bottled water is reasonable, but if you have to get it from a tourist trap, you’re looking at 3 Euro for a big bottle of water. Rome is hot in the summer and you will be walking a lot, so save the money by buying a bottle at home and bringing it with you.

Piazza di Spagna
I had made it to the Spanish Steps the last time I was here but got a pretty crap picture, so I figured I’d make my way into the square again for a second try. Definitely did better this time. Also wandered up high above the steps on my way to the next stop, which gave me some great dome shots of various churches.

Villa Borgese & Galleria Borgese
ROME RULE: Book your ticket for the Galleria in advance, either by phone or on the internet. The ticket office at the Villa doesn’t actually sell tickets, and they’ll just give you the phone number where you can reserve. Do this a few days before you want to see the gallery, otherwise you may be SOL.

Called by some the greatest private art collection in the world, I’d be hard pressed to disagree. There are some amazing Bernini statues on the first floor as well as a few Carvaggios, and I think if this stay in Rome did anything for me, it established those two as my favourite Renaissance artists. Bernini for the softness and realism he puts into his figures, Carvaggio for his use of light on dark backgrounds. Anyway, you can debate whether this place deserves the massive waitlist (not entirely sure it does), but I can at least respect trying to limit the crowds, even though the guide books at the front cost 16 Euro and you can’t take pictures inside. I wouldn’t put it above some of Rome’s bigger sights on the “must see” list, but if you’re into art, it would definitely shoot to the top.

The Villa is surrounded by what looks like Rome’s biggest green space, a kind of Hyde or Central Park setting high on a hill. Beautiful setting.

Piazza de Popolo
I got here a bit too late to se the church that I wanted to see, but I still managed to get a walk around the square and snag some better pictures than the last time I was here. I’m chalking it up to improvements in memory cards, as the early wave of digital cameras didn’t pack as much of a memory punch, so you couldn’t always be so experiemental with your shots. Anyway, Chiesa del Santa Maria del Popolo was put on the “return” list for later that day.

ROME RULE: Have a plan. It doesn’t have to be minute by minute, and you can deviate, but there’s so much to see in this city, you need to at least think about what you want to see and in what order. The last think you want in a city this big is to be backtracking to see something you missed. Also, if there’s a church you want to see, check the opening time, as most close in the middle of the day.

Castel Sant’Angelo
Originally a mausoleum for Hadrian and turned into a Papal palace in the 6th century, I had walked by the Castel last time I was in Rome but, as we were headed to the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica, I never managed to make it in. It was a major setting in the AC: Brotherhood, so I definitely wanted to make it a stop and, I have to give it to the game designers – they got the feel of the place exactly right. It’s rocky, harsh, with big dark corridors and some beautiful rooms and views. Definitely not a walk-by site if you have the time.

St. Peter’s Basilica
I did the Vatican Museums the last time I was here and, even though I’m sure I could go back and see some more amazing art, time didn’t permit this time around. Plus, I had my pants on, which are a must for visiting.

ROME RULE: Sleeves. Wear them. I know it’s hot, but there are plenty of cool T-shirts out there, you’ll get into all of the churches with no problem or hassle. You can probably get into some of the smaller ones without sleeves, but the big guys will probably kick you out. I no way is borrowing your girlfriend’s pashmina and telling the Vatican security guard “It will stay on your shoulders the whole time” get you past the metal detectors. For a place frequented by guys in robes, they weren’t too friendly to the guy wanting to wear his girlfriend’s clothes.

Back to me. I did manage to climb the dome of the Basilica, which allowed me a great view of the sunday services. Also, amazing views of the whole city, all the way to the Colosseum. Due to being fairly late in the day, I also got some nice beams of light coming in through the windows into the basilica. Pretty beautiful stuff.

ROME RULE: Don’t visit St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday for your first or only visit. St. Peter’s turns into a real church on Sunday (although I’m not sure how you get into the pews, exactly), so you’ll end up missing some prime views of some of the statues and art. It’ll still impress the heck out of you, but you won’t get the best of it.

Chiesa del Santa Maria del Miracoli
So check the name of that church, then check the name of the church I said I was going to visit in Piazza del Popolo.

Yup, went to the wrong church. All I could think was, “Man, Bernini’s early sculpture was rough,” until I figured out that I was at the wrong end of the Piazza. By the time I got to Santa Maria del Popolo, it was closing (15 minutes early!), so I put it on the to do list for the next day.

Trevi Fountain
The old legend is that, if you throw a coin into the fountain, you’re coming back to Rome. If you throw a second one in, you’re falling in love with an Italian. A third coin means you’re marrying them. I’m not sure if you had to throw all three in at the same time to go the marriage route or if there’s a statute of limitations between visits, but I threw in one on behalf of Daina so he’d be able to see the city, too. As always, the fountain is packed, but worth it. I managed to get one of my favourite pictures ever, too, as I asked this guy to take my picture and he suggested I go “Captain Morgan style”, which I did. Great pic.

Famous gelato place featured in movies and eaten at by the Obamas. The gelato is awesome, reasonably priced for Rome, and you get a pretty decent portion. My only complaint is that, the first time I went (I know, I’m a pig), my large cone got me four flavours but, the second time, the guy only gave me three and was quite adamant about it. Italian service at its best.

Centro Storico
At this point, the sun had set, so I was really looking for two night photo ops. The first was the Pantheon, which is a 2000 year old church, a Roman landmark, and home of the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. I’d end up making my way back the next day to go inside, but the shots on the night square were quite beautiful. Also headed to Piazza Navona, home to some of Rome’s most beautiful fountains. Great way to end the first night.

ROME RULE: Most museums are closed on Mondays. The Coloseum and Forum are open, as are the Vatican Museums, but most of the other ones are closed. The Vatican Museum, being part of a church, are closed on Sundays. So plan ahead and, if you have to be in Rome for only one day, try to make it not a Monday or Sunday.

Chiesa di Santa Maria del Popolo
Yeah, WAY better than the other church in the square.

So apparently the ghost of Nero was haunting this spot (in the form of demon crows), so this church was built to exorcise his spirit. There’s a lot packed in here, including Rome’s first stained glass window, two Carvaggios, a Raphael, a Bernini, and some amazing frescoes by a guy named Pinturicchio, who I’m sure is great in spite of me never having heard of him before today.

ROME RULE: If you only have one day, or one day left, grab a transit card. 6 euro, unlimited transit. If you have a few days, get a Roma Card (30 euros), which gives you unlimited transit for three days, two free museum entries and discounts on other museums after those two are used. Either will save you time and, if used properly, money.

Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli
The church itself is pretty standard, but it has two major things going for it. The first are the chains that bound St. Peter back in the day which (allegdly) came back together after he broke free from them. After watching The Borgias and the episode where Pope Alexander VI got his hands on the Spear of Longinus, I tend to be a bit suspicious of religious paraphenlia, but as I’ve said before, if enough people belive it’s real and take it seriously, then it at least becomes important and interesting to see. The other big ticket item is a Michelangelo statue of Moses, which features a horned Moses, based upon a mistranslation of the word “radiant.”

Piramide de Caio Cestio
…was covered for restoration. That being said, this is an actual pyramid in Rome, 37 meters high, built for a 1st century Roman magistrate. I’ll have to add it to the “when D and I get to Rome together” list.

The Roman Forum & The Colosseum
So, not entirely sure, but I think the Forum has received some upgrades since 2005. I don’t remember it being so “streamed” in terms of paths to walk on, or having as many flowers, or the giant top part (the Palatino) being as well restored. So whether it just got better, or if my memory is starting to go, it was a nice surprise. Refreshing. I didn’t have enough time to get into the Colosseum this time around, but I’m okay with that. One thing I do like, though, is that the Colosseum has been “pedestrianized” much more. The last time I was there, it was practically a traffic circle. Way better the new way.

Chiesa di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
Greeted by another Bernini, this time in the form of an elephant under an obelisk in the piazza, I got to see the rest of St. Catherine after seeing her head in Siena. Yup, the rest of her body is buried here. Now, I seem to remember something about spirits needing to be laid to rest all in one place, but this was a church-sanctioned head transfer, and she’s a saint, so I’m guessing this was okay. There’s also a Michealangelo on the inside, Christ Bearing the Cross.

Chiesa del Gesu
Rome’s first Jesuit church is pretty darn impressive and also features the tomb of the founder of the Jesuits. Not a must see, but if you’re in the Storico Centro, why not drop in.

Forno Roscoli
It’s a bakery with some of the best pizza ever. Giant slice of salmon pizza, served cold (a good thing!), with lots of other deliciousness inside as well. Fantastic little shop, not quite on a main strip, but worth the stop. Lots of local traffic, so you know it’s good.

Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi
Three Carvaggios, one chapel, all of them beautiful. Nice little way to end off the day.

So, after two trips to Rome, there’s still things I want to see again, things I didn’t get to see, and a whole host of suburbs to check out. Tomorrow, out of Italy, into Toronto.

Sure I’ll be back in Rome at some point.

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