Saturday, May 19, 2012

Rome & the Vatican

15 May

Apologies for the delay in updating! We have just left Florence and our accommodation there (a permanent tent in a caravan park) didn't have wi-fi - it was only accessible in their bar area, plus our days were quite busy!

But back to Rome. On our second full day in Rome (last Wednesday) we had booked tickets for the Vatican museums, having heard how very long the line can be. So off we headed for our 10:30 time slot. As we got closer the area was very busy as we expected, but as we neared St Peter's we began hearing people talk about tickets to see the pope. Sure enough, we had picked a morning when the pope was giving an address in St Peter's Square. This was both good and bad for us. It was on at exactly the time we were due to enter the museum, so this meant the queue for the museum was only about five minutes long. The bad part was, the queue was only five minutes long - so we had wasted an additional 4 euros each by pre-booking our tickets (thankyou catholic church for your ridiculous charges).

The Vatican museum was much bigger than I expected - we spent a good three hours in there. It had some impressive pieces in its collections and I particularly liked the hall of old maps and another hall of tapestries illustrating various bible stories, including some I didn't expect like Herod's massacre of all children under two in his effort to kill Jesus. However I also couldn't help but be a little disgusted by the enormous wealth that the catholic church has obviously put into relatively trivial things like the interior decorations of the building - frescoes, ornamental sculpture, etc.

The museum included a visit to the Sistine chapel, and although we had guards who were strict on their 'no photos' policy, we did manage a few photos. Michelangelo's paintings were quite impressive, although it looked to me like one or two down the far end actually seemed unfinished.

After the museum we went to have a look in St Peter's church itself. The line to get in was ridiculously long, and it was hot, so we decided to get gelato from a place nearby that I'd heard was good. It was a disappointment. My black cherry had that fake medicine cherry flavour and the caramel was more like vanilla with swirls of caramel through it. Note for anyone else: Old Bridge gelateria not worth it.

I was over walking by that point, so after looking round inside St Peter's for a while I went and sat outside while Michelle and André climbed the dome.

The next day we explored via Appia Antica, or the Appian way. It's a road that runs through southern Rome and is lined with roman ruins. Tip: most of it is not pedestrian friendly except for Sundays when it's closed to traffic. This seems absurd to me as one would think it's quite a popular tourist destination, but maybe it's not as there wasn't much in the way of food shops around either. So after much walking and re-routing we eventually made our way there. We should have taken advantage of the archeobus that runs that route, but somehow I hadn't heard of it before we got there.

We got there eventually though, and visited the catacombs of San Sebastian which were apparently the first catacombs used by the christians in ancient Rome. I didn't realise catacombs were also used by pagans and even after christians were no longer persecuted. After visiting the catacombs we walked along a more pedestrian-friendly section of the road (much of which still has the original roman paving) and saw a few other ruins including the mausoleum of Cecilia Metella. We debated whether to go across the park to see some aqueducts, but it would have required changing buses twice and still a bit of a walk, and we were also interested in seeing the Baths of Caracalla which closed shortly and were simpler to get to. So the baths won out.

I was actually a little underwhelmed by the baths complex, I think mainly because my expectations were too high. I had heard about how huge they were, and they weren't that big at all. The building was still impressive and appears to have been multi-storey, but compared to the Forum and Palatine Hill, they are nowhere near as extensive. The information boards did a good job of describing the original structure though, something that I found lacking in many other ancient roman sites.

We did so much waking that day we really were not up to eating out, so decided to eat in our room and buy something from nearby. While André went to put on a load of washing at a nearby laundromat, Michelle and I went looking for food. We found a great little place just down the road which sold the best and possibly cheapest food we had in Rome. We bought two meals for 9 euros each, and each contained a pasta primi (first course), secondi (meat-based second course) and a side of veggies. This means we took home a meal of lasagne, pork kebab with potatoes and peas, and an unidentified pasta dish, meatballs in tomato sauce and carrots. Between the three of us there were still leftovers and it was all very yummy.

For our final day in Rome, after a bit of a sleep-in we headed up to the Villa Borghese, a park to the north. This presented more of a dilemma than it should have. See, while Rome's metro system is not extensive at all, it's cheap (1 euro for a one-way trip) and we had a line running very close by our accommodation which would have taken us straight to the park. However when we turned up to the metro stop, we discovered it was closed for some reason and wouldn't be running again until 5. Wonderful. This meant figuring out buses, and do any of the bus stops have bus maps? No. We tried the bus operator's website from André's phone, and it was terrible. Purely by chance we came across a bus stop for a line that would take us to the park. The next bus was due in three minutes. Hoorah!

It was too full. We seriously could not fit on. Obviously as the metro was closed, everyone was on the buses, and the Italians are not as good at cramming onto public transport as Parisians and Londoners. Fortunately the next bus was only another fifteen minutes away, so we got onto that one, and after a 25-ish minute un-airconditioned ride we got there.

The park was quite pretty and had a wonderful look out. After lunch we hired a golf buggy to drive around and explore, and after getting a little lost initially, ended up spending about half an hour cruising around the park. We walked home via another gelateria which had good reviews. It was quite good though I found my lemon was a little too lemony (not sweet enough), and the caramel was more like butterscotch - yummy, but not quite what I was after. So Giolitti's remained our favourite. In accordance with this, I am fairly certain André intentionally took our route home past Giolitti's so that he could make our last gelato in Rome our favourite. As we had just had a gelato, we shared one between the three of us and each chose our favourite flavour, so our final gelato ended up having caramel, watermelon and pineapple.

Once we got home it was dinner time, so we decided to return to the same place we had bought dinner the previous night and try their pizza. We ate in the restaurant this time, and they sell their pizza by the kilo! It was very cheap and the best pizza we had in Rome, a great end to our stay there.

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