The flight to Europe turned out better than expected. Instead of flying to Newark then Zurich, and then finally to Rome, we ended up flying to Paris and then to Rome. Since we flew on January 2nd (in retrospect an awful idea) flights were delayed on United Airlines so they bumped us up to Delta! We arrived in France around dawn (Parisian time, which is 7 hours ahead) and had a small lay-over in Charles De Gaulle Airport. It was easily the biggest airport I had ever been in; it put LAX and La Guardia to shame. The flight was about 8 hours and had movies playing so I didn’t get much sleep on the plane. Therefore, I was pretty tired upon arriving in Paris. Our time in the airport was only a mere 2 hours before we boarded the next flight to Rome via Air France. That flight only lasted a little over an hour — talk about a fast flight! We even got to see the Italian Alps while in the air since we were flying so low; it was pretty cool.
We landed in Rome around 1pm Roman time (7 hours ahead of Minneapolis) and had no problem finding the train to take us from the airport to Roma Termini, the central train station of Rome. Our hostel was only a five minute walk from the train station which made things even easier. Our room was not ready until 3pm so Ali and I got some quick lunch from a café across the street. This was our first experience of REAL Italian cuisine. Albeit it was cheaper for their standards, but that pizza tasted like heaven. Once we got our room, we decided to take a quick nap and decide on what to do that evening/for the rest of the week. The nap quickly turned into twelve hours of sleeping. Yes, we all know the importance of staying up to ward off jet-lag, but come on, our bodies had no idea what time it was, plus I didn’t get much sleep the nights before due to the anticipation of this trip.
Needless to say we woke up before the sun rose. On the first day we explored many parts of the city. Our hostel was only a fifteen minute walk from the Trevi fountain (which we frequented many times during the day throughout the trip) so we went there first. It was a lot different than I imagined since it is built into the side of a building, but one of my favorite parts of the city nonetheless. Next, we ventured North to the Spanish steps and the church at the top of the hill called Trinita dei Monti. From the Church’s steps, we had a great view of Rome with St. Peter’s Basilica in the background. As we walked in search of the Roman Forum we became lost and stumbled across the ancient Pantheon. It literally came out of nowhere, located in a Piazza in a central neighborhood in Rome. It was truly extraordinary. For those of you who don’t know, the Pantheon was originally created by the Romans during the 2nd century to worship their many Gods. However, after the fall of Rome, the Church gained ownership in the 6th century and has thus been a tomb and church for some of Italy’s greats. For example, Raphael the famous artist and Vittorio Emmanuelle II (first king of Italy) are buried there. It is most known for its dome like structure with a hole at its apex. Next, we walked South to the ancient Roman Forum. This was the original center of the Roman Republic. We saw ruins of temples, emperor’s houses, stadiums, markets, and lastly the Colosseum. The Colosseum was definitely one of my highlights. The sheer size and history within the complex is amazing. They say it could hold up to 70,000 people during its golden years, and the size was slightly smaller than TCF Bank Stadium. Luckily, we got all of our sightseeing in for the day because it started to rain around 5pm that night. We were wiped out by the time we got back to the hotel that we went to bed early again that evening. The only disappointment for the day, in my mind, was not having a guide book for the Roman Forum. It’s hard to know what the buildings looked like/what they were used for in the past…since most just look like rubble now.
The next morning was another early morning due to our peculiar sleep schedule. This day we visited Vatican City. It was about a 50 minute walk from our hostel. Upon arrival to Saint Peter’s Basilica, they make you stand out in St. Peter’s square in huge lines (our line easily had over 8,000 people) to go through security. The square alone is impressive, but once one is inside the church it is truly breathtaking. The ornate collage of frescoes, sculptures, and marble floor patterns provide enough eye candy for a whole week. Being Catholic it was an awesome experience to be able to travel to the Basilica itself. I was even able to bless my Grandmother’s rosary in the holy water there, too. However, the hidden gem of Vatican City is not the Basilica, but the Vatican Museums. The Vatican Museums are a bit of a misnomer, though. They do display certain Church artifacts, but the majority of their exhibits, rooms, and even buildings are dedicated to art…especially frescoes. The two top exhibits are the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel. Unfortunately, the Raphael Rooms get overlooked many times due to the crowds rushing to the Sistine Chapel. My favorite painting in the entire Vatican is Raphael’s “School of Athens” often displayed in European history books. I’m glad I didn’t rush past this enormous piece. Last stop on the tour was the Sistine Chapel and words can describe the beauty of it. The amount of art that decorates the chapel from ceiling to floor is mesmerizing. Although you are not allowed to take photos in the chapel, Ali and I snagged a few. We finished up this long day by walking through Piazza Navona, a popular square near the river. There is always a market going on this square, and all of the locals were out that night enjoying the “fair” like atmosphere. They even had a carousel!
Our last full day in Rome was like a conclusion: we summarized the city once more and tied up its loose ends. We started off the day by walking to Castel San Angelo, a fortress within the borders of Vatican City. It was a main focal point in the book Angels and Demons. The fortress dates back about 2,000 years used as a Roman tomb for its emperors, but eventually became under the control of the papacy and since then has been a fortress. Now-a-days it’s just a museum, but you get a real castle feel from the inside of the giant structure. From the top, Ali and I got panoramic views of Rome. We continued on to another square known as Campo di Fiore. Here we found another market (more traditional) dating back to Roman times as well — it was an excellent spot for people watching! We then ventured across the river to a more traditional Rome known as Trastevere, here you would find images similar to the ones on the walls of Bucca di Peppo. Here we found a more tranquil city, not the tourist chaos that is the rest of central Rome, complete with a Byzantine styled cathedral (you can’t have too many churches in Italy). We then concluded the day by walking by the Trevi fountain and the Pantheon once more before we would pack our bags to leave for Florence.
Our daily routine consisted of us usually waking up at an ungodly hour. We would then make our way to a cafe or snack bar on the way to different sites to grab breakfast which was usually some form of pastry and a cappuccino or espresso. We would then explore until around 1pm where we would eat at a trattoria or food stand on the street. Lunch consisted of usually pizza or a panini (grilled sandwich). We would then explore again until 5pm where we would be too exhausted to continue and then eat dinner which was usually a pasta or pizza. Then head back to the hostel…where we would then say we would take a nap…but then not wake up again until 5 or 6am. It isn’t until about today (6 days in to the trip) that I can say jet-lag is no longer with me.
Coming to Italy during the winter definitely has its advantages and disadvantages. One pro is that there are way less tourists than in the summer. We’ve never had to wait in line for anything longer than twenty minutes (and that was only once). Another pro, the Christmas decorations are still up everywhere and with a very Catholic country like Italy, you know they’re packing some Christmas heat. Lastly, the weather is bearable! Normally, if Minnesota wasn’t having an Arizona type winter, Rome would feel pleasant. While we were there it never dropped below 45 during the day and it only rained once. One day it got up to 60 degrees. However, the huge con with going during the winter is the constant race against the setting sun. We always felt we had to get everything done before 5pm otherwise the sun would set on us.
Overall, Rome was everything I thought it would be. From the moment we stepped out of the train station, it was amazing. I know everyone talks about the food, but good God, it IS amazing. It’s even better when you get to sit and eat it right outside of history (i.e. Pantheon). And the Romans love affair with art is understated. There is ornate art everywhere you go from piazzas to fountains and churches all over the city, the Romans are truly patrons of art.
I realize this post is long… Sorry, I got excited.