Rome, Italy – Europe 2010 (Blast from the Past)

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series Europe 2010 (Spain and Mediterranean Cruise)

This is a Blast from the Past post. These posts chronicle our travels and other life events before we started blogging!  These posts are usually heavy on the photos, but lighter on the narrative text.

So, the idea of visiting Rome as a stop on a cruise is kinda crazy. Only twelve hours in one of the most historically-rich cities in the world? What to do? Focus on one or two major sites and be done? Or try to do a whirlwind tour of the entire city?

I was open to either option. I mentioned in my Florence post that I had previously traveled to Italy when I was in high school. (It was my first trip to Europe without a family member!) The trip included three or four days in Rome, so I had already gotten a good sense of the city, even if I was just a teenager at the time. My one major interest was the Sistine Chapel. When I was in Rome in 1997, the Sistine Chapel was under restoration, so I wasn’t able to visit. But, I left it up to Ken to decide what he preferred to do regarding whirlwind tour or just one or two places.

Whirlwind tour it was!

My sister and her family (as well as some of her friends) were also on this cruise, but we had not yet been on any excursions together. For Rome, we opted for an independently-organized van tour for our entire group. We figured we could truly maximize our time with a smaller group, because it would mean less time waiting for people, less time loading and offloading a big bus, etc. I can’t remember how many of us there were total (10 maybe?), but it was reasonably priced once you factored in the per-person price. I think the van and tour guide was $1200 for the day, but divided among 10 people, that was only $120 per person and MUCH cheaper than any of the cruise ship-offered excursions.

St. Paul’s Basilica

Our tour guide and van driver were waiting for us when we disembarked, and we were able to leave the port city long before any of the cruise ship buses departed. Our first stop was St. Paul’s Basilica, which, incidentally, I had not visited in 1997.

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Since we had beaten all the cruise ship crowds, we had virtually the entire place to ourselves.

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My nephew, who was four years old at the time, was so impressively well behaved. At one point, the guide was giving us an explanation of the crypts underneath St. Paul’s Basilica. A few minutes later, my nephew signaled that he wanted to whisper something to me. He pointed to one of the small sets of stairs that led to a crypt, and he said to me, in a VERY concerned voice, “A man died, and they PUT HIM IN THERE!” It was almost like my nephew had interpreted the guide’s explanation as something wrong or inappropriate. I stifled a giggle, and just explained that that is where the man wanted to be buried after he died, instead of having a outside grave. And that the man had died a very long time ago. He seemed okay with that explanation and he continued on with his exploring inside the Cathedral.

St. Paul’s Cathedral is a reconstruction of a cathedral that was destroyed in a fire. The original was built in the 400s AD, but then a fire destroyed it in 1823. It was rebuilt and reopened in 1840. There are some remants of the original basilica outside the current basilica.

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The Colosseum

Our next stop was the colosseum.

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Our guide began by giving an explanation outside of the Coloseeum, and then allowing us to go inside by ourselves. We were so thankful that the tour guide had pre-arranged for tickets, because the line was SO LONG to buy tickets at the Colosseum (just to keep in mind for those of you that might want to visit it on your own during a cruise stop … you might spend most of your day in line for tickets). However, we still had to wait in line for security, understandably so.

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The Colosseum was pretty crowded by this point. I’m sure there’s a reason for it, but I can never understand why cruise ships from different cruise lines all seem to follow the same itinerary. There must have been people from a dozen cruise ships all flooding into Rome on the same day. And it must happen on the same day every week. Anyway, the Colosseum was crowded, but manageably so. Keep in mind that this was early October, so definitely the off season. We had seen virtually no crowds at different sites during our time in Spain the week before, so I tend to believe that the crowds were virtually all cruise passengers.

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A few quick stops – Circus Maximus, Capitoline Hill, The Roman Forum, The Pantheon, and Trevi Fountain

Next stop, Circus Maximus. It is currently a big open field, but if you use your imagination, there used to be a big platform in the middle, with race tracks circling it.

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Then we made a quick stop at Capitoline Hill:

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Then a drive down some very narrow streets and a stop at the Pantheon:

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And, of course, the Trevi Fountain:

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(I said this was a whirlwind tour!!)

We hung out in the area of Trevi Fountain for a while and grabbed a quick lunch at a local place. There were cannoli involved. It was glorious.

Then we headed to the Vatican …

 

Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museum

I would just like to start out by saying that the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museum was a really terrible travel experience.

Allow me to put this in context. In my travels around the world, I have been ripped off, violently groped, nearly robbed of my suitcases, seemingly trapped alone on a mountainside, groped again (and again … that’s what happens when I choose to live in the Middle East I guess), and almost hit by a train twice on the same day (once in an auto rickshaw, once on foot). So when I say that something was a truly dreadful experience while traveling, you can believe me. I have the previous dreadful experiences to compare it to.

So, I visited the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel. For context, the Vatican Museum is a huge building with dozens of rooms. Just like any other big museum. You have to walk through the Vatican Museum to eventually get to the Sistine Chapel.

But I barely saw any of the museum or the Chapel. Why? This is what my view looked like for the entire walk:

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We were shuffled through like herded cattle. Literally shoulder to shoulder, chest to back, with everyone in every room, at all time. A person could not just stop to take a picture or read the explanations of the beautiful artwork or ancient texts. No. You just had to keep shuffling. Or risk getting trampled. Not that we could actually get close to the artwork or other artifacts. We were in the middle of the herd, and obviously had no way to get to the walls and perimiter to see anything. It wasn’t a peaceful experience. Tour guides from all different groups were shouting in all different languages. People were getting upset with other random people over bumping into them.

We were able to snap a few photos here and there (they are permitted in the Vatican Museum), but the photos were mostly blocked by the crowds. The other photos were all taken upwards (luckily the ceilings and high walls were ornate!)

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I should point out that we’ve been to crowded places before. The room containing the Mona Lisa at the Lourve, Stonehenge in the summer, crowded DC metro cars during the inaguration and on the 4th of July, the Kennedy Space Center on a Shuttle Launch Day, the Khan al Khalili on a Friday evening during Ramadan … You get the idea. This was not our first rodeo. But this was probably 20 times worse than any of those other experiences.

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People pushed. My brother-in-law eventually had to put my nephew on his shoulders, because the poor kid kept getting pushed and lost in the crowd.

The worst part was, that this could be totally avoidable. I have traveled to plenty of places (the Pyramids and Valley of the Kings come to mind) that limit the number of visitors. Whether by timed entrances (like our tickets to the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence just the day before) or just an overall per-day number (like the Washington Monument), there is ZERO reason that the Vatican Museum couldn’t limit the number of people allowed in at once, so that folks could actually enjoy the museum. At best, it’s greed, at worst, it’s negligence. However, I’d gladly pay twice the price for the entrance to the museum just to have less people around.

I kept a panicked eye out for emergency exits. Because all I could think of was that if there was a fire, we were goners. There would be no escape.

We finally made it to the Sistine Chapel. While the Vatican Museum permitted photography, there was no photography allowed in the Sistine Chapel. However, everybody around us was taking photos. Security guards would yell from the perimeter of the room “No photos!” but the room was too crowded for them to actually get to any of the people taking photos. So, I made sure my flash was off and joined the crowd of taking photos.

The Sistine Chapel itself (viewing the ceiling of course) was gorgeous. Despite the crowds, I tried to enjoy the masterpieces around me. I had been told before that the Sistine Chapel is much smaller than most people expect. So perhaps I had been envisioning it as so tiny, that I actually thought it was BIGGER than I expected. (Again, mostly because I had been picturing it as tiny).

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The crowd, in its continuous shuffle, eventually led outdoors. I was so happy to be breathing fresh air and to actually have room to move around a little bit!

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Afterwards, we went into St. Peter’s Basilica. I remember going there in 1997 and being so awestruck by how beautiful it was. Although St. Peter’s Basilica was less crowded than the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel, we were so annoyed by that point we couldn’t even enjoy ourselves that much. We had lost the rest of our group, including my sister and her family. But, we walked around the Basilica for a while and took some photos (photography is allowed, just no flash).

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We left the Basilica, snapped a few photos of the Vatican, located everyone else from our group, met up with our van and tour guide, and headed back to the cruise ship. The entire way back everybody lamented how crazy the crowds were.

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Perhaps the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museum are not like this on a “normal” non-cruise ship docking day. I’m not sure. Like I said, I didn’t visit the Sistine Chapel during my previous trip to Rome in 1997, so I don’t have anything to compare it to. Perhaps there are different private tour options, or early morning tours?

Either way, I left completely disgusted. It could have been an enjoyable experience of something so beautiful and historically important, but it was terrible.

As we waited to board, some ship crew members were greeting the passengers, including the captain! My nephew was a hit!

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And that was it for our whirlwind tour of Rome! Admittedly, that is not the best way to travel. There was just too much to see to absorb everything in a single day. Ken and I plan, in the future, to perhaps do another Mediterranean Cruise. But maybe one that leaves out of an Italian City. Then we could spend a week or more in Italy before the cruise actually departs (like we had just done … Spending the week in Spain before our cruise left out of Barcelona). But, we were happy to see so many exciting things in Rome during our very busy day. And next time, we’ll definitely explore other options for avoiding crowds at the Vatican!

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