The thought of visiting Rome without the hordes of people became our compelling reason to visit Rome. We headed to Rome on Monday, May 31st on a train and returned Friday afternoon via train. We were a little wary about traveling via train because of COVID, but we took our wipes and kept our masks on. I’m fully vaccinated, but Jim just had his Johnson & Johnson (one and done!) vaccine this week. The train personnel were very diligent about everyone following the COVID precautions, so we were able to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery through Tuscany and Lazio. They even handout out packets with masks, antiseptic gel and some weird thing to go into your nose.
I hope that you enjoy reading about our short visit to Rome, including the current state of sightseeing with the decrease in COVID restrictions.
Day 1: Pantheon, nearby church (a hidden gem!), and the Trevi Fountain
The Pantheon is one of my favorite spots in Rome. At first glance it may look somewhat simple and plain, but when you consider when it was built and its current condition, it is astonishing! This church was built around 125 AD (yep, that’s almost 2000 years ago) and was made out of an early form of concrete. It is a perfect sphere resting in a cylinder. The oculus, the only source of natural light in the Pantheon, is a round opening in the center of the dome. When it rains, the water freely falls into the Pantheon and quickly drains away.
During the medieval ages, the Romans stopped making concrete – they lost the recipe! 1500 years later our modern method of making concrete was discovered but some say the Roman approach was better. Until the 20th century, the Pantheon was the largest concrete structure in the world. Michelangelo studied this dome before starting work on the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. Oh, and Raphael is buried here. Wow!
The picture taken from outside the Pantheon was from a restaurant where we ate our first lunch. No lines, no wait. They were clearly anxious to have tourists return. We noticed that their coperto was quite high and so hesitated. The coperto is the cover charge that is for each person and is sometimes used to run up tourists’ bills unexpectedly. A euro or two is to be expected, but I think that this was 5€ each. They assured us that there would be no coperto (desperate times!) and we enjoyed a lovely lunch looking at this beautiful site. We finished our lunch and checked our bill carefully. No coperto but the small water bottle was 5€. SMH.
One block behind the Pantheon is the Church Santa Maria sopra Minerva. I had never heard of it before, but I discovered that there was a Michelangelo sculpture in it and I wanted to see it. We found the church and outside was an obelisk standing on an elephant. Very odd, so I read more about it. It turns out that there are more ancient obelisks in Rome than in any other place in the world – 8 Egyptian and 5 Roman. The elephant was sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1667. Bernini created the Baroque style of sculpture; he was also an architect, city planner, and painter. He was considered the most important artist in Rome during his lifetime. If you are wondering why I had time to research all of this on the streets of Rome, it is because the church has very odd hours – 5pm to 6:45pm most days. I had forgotten this, but we arrived about 4:45pm, so we didn’t need to wait long.
Inside the church, there was a riot of colors, shapes, and smells. Got to love these Gothic churches! And next to the very busy altar stood Michelangelo’s Christ the Redeemer or Christ Carrying the Cross. The experts say that it is one of his lesser works, but a “lesser Michelangelo” is still a masterpiece! And from Wikipedia “Christ is shown by Michelangelo unclothed in a standing pose. Christ’s sexual organs are exposed in order to show that his sexuality is uncorrupted by lust and completely controlled by his will, so that in his resurrected body he shows his triumph over both sin and death. During the Baroque period a bronze floating loincloth was added.”
The Trevi Fountain was nearby so we headed there next. The last time we were in Rome, we enjoyed the fountain at night so an afternoon visit would give us a different look. There were quite a few people around the fountain, but most were trying to keep their distance from other groups. We found a bench and were able to enjoy the fountain and this classic tourist destination.
Day 2 – The Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel
We had visited the Vatican in 2014 and were astonished at the beautiful art that fills every inch of the museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. We took an organized tour, which was the only way for us to reasonably get a ticket. The “tour” of the Museums consisted of walking down long hallways hearing about beautiful treasures but not really stopping to see it. (at least according to my memory) Then the real point of the tour… the Sistine Chapel. They gave us a description before entering because they are not allowed to do so inside of the chapel. We entered and it was literally wall-to-wall people. We had 5 to 7 minutes before we needed to meet our tour group outside. Next stop was St. Peter’s Basilica. We had a decent tour of this huge church and were left on our own in the church. We spent quite a bit of time wandering around the church, including going up to the dome and onto the roof. I realized that there was so much more to see and experience that I wanted to return “someday”.
So with the Vatican re-opened but tourists at a minimum, we headed back to the Vatican. We purchased the tickets to the Museums & Sistine Chapel online directly from the Vatican at a low fee. We spent hours wandering through the museum and enjoyed the beautiful art that surrounded us. Then it was time to enter the Sistine Chapel. We spent more than 30 minutes in this rather small space, listening to an audio guide and just gazing at this masterpiece. You aren’t supposed to take pictures, but I took one photo of the crowd to include in this blog post:
I took lots of pictures in the museum but I’ll just share a few from portions that I particularly enjoyed. The Vatican has a “Gallery of Maps” which consists of 40 frescoes of maps, detailing the Italian regions and papal properties that existed around 1580. The Pope had these designed so that he could understand his properties without having to leave his home. The maps were accurate for the most part. It was especially fun to look for “our” map (the region of Etruria or Tuscany as it is known now) and we even found the town of Lucca on it. Oh… and check out those ceilings! The paintings show scenes about the regions of the maps that they are close to.
On this visit, we learned about “porphyry” a kind of purple granite. The word “porphyry” comes from the Latin word for purple, which was the color of nobility to the Romans. Porphyry was Imperial Rome’s most prestigious stone for columns, vases, alters, busts and other objects. Imperial porphyry had only one source, a desert in Egypt, in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Today it is quarried from many locations and isn’t considered quite as prestigious. It is even used for paving stones in some places now!
One more picture of the Vatican… an external view of St. Peter’s Basilica and the beautiful St. Peter’s Square. Yep… that’s an ancient Egyptian obelisk!
We planned to enjoy the church next, but we had spent too much time in the Vatican Museums and we had plans to meet a friend who lives in Rome. We decided that we would return later in the week for the Basilica. We visited Angelo, an Italian friend that we met in Virginia at Pazzo Pomodoro, our favorite restaurant. He and his family had returned to Rome during 2019 to be closer to their extended families and raise their girls in Italy. It was great to spend time with Angelo, to hear about his journey home, learn about Roman Pinsa (yummm!), and get his approval on my much improved Italian speaking skills. He had served as one of my first Italian tutors… every Friday night stretching me a bit further in my speaking skills. We look forward to seeing him again in Rome or for his family to visit us in Lucca!
Day 3 – Villa Borghese
The villa was the summer and party residence of the noble Borghese family, built in the early 1600’s. Today it is a rather small museum filled with wonderful sculptures and paintings. The museum is most famous for its collection of Bernini sculptures and Caravaggio’s paintings. The villa itself is also concerned a masterpiece. They normally allow 360 people to visit for a two hour window; with COVID they limited the group to 100 people. As with the other sites that we visited, there was plenty of space. And two hours seemed just the right amount of time.
The Villa is set inside a beautiful park that is often compared to New York’s Central Park. The day that we visited was a holiday and it was filled with families enjoying the beautiful day. We bought some sandwiches from a vendor by the zoo (not recommended!) and ate them on a park bench (recommended!), watching people walking, riding bicycles, 4 wheeled buggies, and lots of other vehicles.
Day 4 – St. Peter’s Basilica and the giant white building
We returned to the Vatican in the morning to visit St. Peter’s Basilica. There was literally no one in line. And when we entered, we saw that there were few visitors. I estimate 100 people – in the world’s largest church. My hope was to see Michelangelo’s Pietà in relative peace. When I had seen it before, there were crowds of people waiting their turn for a few minutes viewing time. This day, it was just me and the Pietà. Magical!
Since my first visit to Rome, I’m been wondering about the giant white building with huge sculptures on top. What is it??? Actually, it goes by several names: “Victor Emmanuel II National Monument”, “Altar of the Fatherland” and “Vittoriano” – but many people just call it the “Wedding Cake”.
Victor Emmanuel II was the first king of the unified Italy in 1861. The building is intended to commemorate him. There is a HUGE statue of a horseman in the center of the building that represents him. It also has a collection of museums relating to the unification, the Italian language and recent military history, the altar of the fatherland and the tomb of the unknown soldier. There is a viewing platform near the top that is accessible by an elevator, AFTER walking up about a million steps. The view of ancient Rome (Coliseum, Forum, Circus Maximus (race course)) was spectacular.
Mostly everything about this monument is huge. Many Italians do not like the monument because it is too big, doesn’t fit into the architecture of the rest of Rome and many historically important buildings were destroyed to build in.
Piazza Navona – every day!
The last evening of our first visit to Rome in 2014, we were looking for a place to eat dinner and wandered into Piazza Navona. We were pleasantly surprised to find this gorgeous and huge piazza. We got a table on the piazza, ate a lovely dinner, and enjoyed looking at the beauty of the piazza, the people and the street performers. It set the standard for wonderful experiences for our last evening of our vacations to Italy. I don’t think that any others quite were up to this level.
Since hotels were plentiful and inexpensive for this trip, we decided to stay near Piazza Navona. I selected a Bed & Breakfast that ended up to be right around the corner from the piazza. We paid €68 for our room that normally costs up to €268 per night. The room was small but nice. The location was fantastic! The entry to the B&B was part of a Roman ruin and our curiosity grew. We found the entrance and learned about the history of the Piazza – it was a stadium that held races during the Roman times. We enjoyed visiting the Piazza during different times of the day and enjoyed two dinners and some gelato there. And yes, that it yet another ancient Egyptian obelisk in the piazza.
We also discovered a neighborhood market. I loved the the fruits and vegies, especially the Roman artichokes – a local specialty. They even had a statue of Darth Vader???
The more I see of Rome, the more I realize that I have so much more to see.