14 June 2012. We had a full day in Rome awaiting us. We were to start the day with a tour of the Vatican Museums, something I had done before. It was an optional extra and wasn’t included in the tour, but I loved it so much the last time that I just had to visit it again. Besides, by going with a group, you don’t have to wait hours in a long queue. Also, seeing the Sistine Chapel in person is priceless, so I couldn’t wait to see it again.
According to our day sheet, we were supposed to be at the Vatican museums at 10, so we actually had plenty of time. We were around 20km out of town, at the 4-star Park hotel. It was a great hotel and it was such a beautiful morning. We had to take a short walk outside the main reception area to get to breakfast. Once we were done, we got onto our bus and driver Steve did some magical maneuvers to get out of the hotel’s driveway. He really is an excellent driver. He dropped us off at the train station, which was very close by, and Steve told us how to get back later that night. He advised us that it would be safer to take a taxi back, though, since that area is very quiet at night.
At the station, La Giustiniana, it was a bit of a mad rush for us all to get our tickets. Some people figured out that you can get a number of tickets at once, so we just gave our money to them and they got about 10 in one go. It made things a lot faster. The platform was rather empty, so most of the noise came from us. When the train arrived, it was quite a squeeze. It was really busy! I suppose we were, after all, using it during peak hour. I don’t think any of us got a seat and filled the aisle as a result. I heard stories about getting mugged in crowded trains, but I wasn’t worried at all about it here since I was near Alli and Paul, and of course the rest of my group. The locals that were seated were mostly elderly people and were more interested in sleeping than us.
We had to change trains at Valle Aurelia so that we could get onto the main line to get to the Cipro station, which is one of the closest stations to the Vatican. I never stopped at the Cipro station before, so I thought that Ottaviano was the closest one. Both are actually correct, its just that you end up entering the Vatican from a different direction. Cipro takes you closer to the Vatican Museums while Ottaviano takes you closer to St Peters Square.
After getting off at Cipro, Rome was my oyster. I became like a kid in a candy store again, and more so when I saw the high walls of the Vatican. I had to stop myself from skipping. And I never skip, let alone get the sudden urge to.
We walked around the Vatican walls and eventually came to the entrance of the Vatican Museum. There was already a line, but because we were the “privileged bunch”, we waited separately, a little further away from the actual entrance door. We got there early and had around 45 minutes to kill, so I went to grab some coffee from the Caffe Vaticano across the street, along with a couple other people.
The atmosphere around the Vatican is something else. I don’t know if it was just me, but I was really on a high. It was already quite hot and there wasn’t much shade to stand in, but I didn’t let that dampen my spirits. It was much better than rain. The excitement of going into the Vatican Museums again kept me going.
Eventually our guide came, with her blue handkerchief which we had to keep an eye on so that we wouldn’t get lost. Like most places, the tour guides either hold up an umbrella or something similar so that it stands up above the crowd, so that you can always find them. She stood to one side and handed each of us our tickets. The tickets have not changed since my 2009 trip. I know this because I still have my first ticket to the museums. There’s no way I’ll ever get rid of it. It has the image of the centre of the painting The School of Athens by Raphael, which sits in the Vatican Museum itself. The centre of the paining is actually Aristotle walking alongside Plato, although I think there is some debate as to whether it is them or Leonardo Da Vinci alongside Aristotle. Personally I think its Da Vinci on the left. Just cos I idolize him. The man was a legend.
Many people don’t know that Raphael painted himself in this painting too, and only if you actually do research on it or are lucky enough to have a guide to tell you, will you know. Michelangelo is also a prominent figure in the painting because Raphael greatly admired him (for obvious reasons).
Anyway, we had to have our bags scanned and remove any jackets (I don’t know if there were any mad people who had one on that boiling hot day) before going through the metal detector. The museum was crazily busy and we really had to keep an eye on our group so that no one would be left behind. This was quite a task when we went through the turnstiles which required us to slot out ticket in, just like how the metro turnstiles work where you put the ticket in on one side and it comes out the other.
Once everyone was through, we flooded the escalator which took us up to an open area where we could get our first glimpse of St Peters dome. 8 November 2009 was the first time I saw St Peters, and it was really a “wow, I’m actually here” moment. I had to get a photo of myself standing there then, but it was a crap photo cos it was in winter and it had rained and I was wearing a big, puffy, brown jacket that made me look more than double my size; so I just had to get a decent photo this time. In fact, I planned to correct a number of photos that I had taken upon my first trip, seeing as it was now mid-summer and the weather was beautiful rather than dull and dreary.
I had taken around 180 photos of the Vatican Museums on my first trip, so I didn’t want to waste my phone’s battery by going overboard again, especially taking ones that didn’t have me in it.
Because I had been before, I knew what was in the museums, so I was very disappointed when the tour ended suddenly. It was shocking to me how much was left out. We didn’t even see The School of Athens, nor one of the inner courtyards that has the huge, red marble bath that can fit at least 10 adults. I was very annoyed when before we knew it, we were at the entrance to the Sistine Chapel. I thought “what on earth happened to the rest of the museums that we’re already here?”, because the Sistine Chapel is the last thing you see before going into St Peters church.
I had to block out my frustration as we went through the short passageway and entered the Sistine Chapel. For those who haven’t been I can tell you one thing: its much bigger than you think. Pictures of it that you see on the internet just don’t do justice. It literally takes your breath away. The scale of it is awe inspiring, and what strikes you is how much work Michelangelo put into it. There are people out there (I have a marvelous word for them: idiots) who are so ignorant and oblivious to the fact that such a great person existed. In that time, people really worked hard. All of us are so lazy now, and I don’t know if there’ll ever be a man as great as Michelangelo. I idolize Da Vinci, but I worship Michelangelo. Greatness personified.
You aren’t allowed to take photos inside the Sistine Chapel, and the Swiss Guard are there to make sure of it. They’re all over the place shouting “No photo! No photo, please!”. I actually think those guards are more part of the Vatican Police because the Swiss Guard are there for the Pope’s protection specifically and there are very few of them, and they do not wear suits. They wear those colourful outfits. Clearly, I snuck in a photo (or 2) of the ceiling. I just had to. Thank God for the second camera on my phone, so I could just hold it out in front of me instead of aim upwards, therefore greatly reducing my chance of getting caught.
We had more time in the Sistine Chapel than the last time I had been there, so I took a few moments to admire the finer details. My favourite fresco is undoubtedly the Touch of Life, but you can’t ignore everything else, especially the Last Judgement which towers above you on the wall behind the altar. That was what surprised me the most in terms of size, because seeing images of it growing up did not prepare me for the enormity of it. Also, my mother had spoken of the fresco looking as if its in 3D, and it was hard to imagine a painting that can do that, but when you really look at it , the figures look more as if they are sculptures coming out of the ceiling. It can be very confusing to the eye, but a feast for them nonetheless.
We all gathered near the door to the exit when we were done absorbing as much as we could, and then left to St Peters church with the guide. The last time I had done that, I got my first glimpse of St Peters Square through the pillars, and became emotional immediately because I had wanted to see it for the longest time. This time however, I was prepared for it, so I concentrated more on the majestic ceilings and pillars that formed the entrance way to the church, as well as the gigantic doors, not to mention the golden door that only gets opened every 25 years.
I was in heaven once again upon entering St Peters church. There is simply nothing like it. Its also much bigger than you think and you only know when you’re actually there.
I didn’t follow the guide too much as I was more interested in admiring the La Pieta more than I could the last time. I separated from the group a number of times, though I maintained my proximity. I was too busy admiring the beauty of the church in the wonderful light that was filtering through the dome and the other little windows all over the roof. The last time I was there, the lighting was terrible for photos because of the dull weather, so I had ended up going back the following day on my own just to take it all in again and to get better photos, since it was a much sunnier day.
We finished our tour in St Peters Square, where I found the sculpture for the West Wind near the obelisk. Angels and Demons fan, you’ll know what that is. We walked to the end of the square (or rather, the beginning) before going with Steve to the Vatican Museum shop. There were just so many things there that I wanted to buy but I didn’t want go crazy and get them all. If I could have, I definitely would have. I ended up buying myself a beautiful deep red rosarie. It was enough since I had gotten myself Vatican souvenirs before.
When everyone was done, we met Steve again outside the shop and walked with him to the Spanish Steps. We passed many gelato and pizza shops, and our mouths were watering. I couldn’t wait to get my gelato for the day, but it was still early. We were walking along the road that takes you directly to Ottaviano station, so I figured we were going there. Hence I was walking ahead of the whole group because I knew exactly where we were. I ended up crossing the road and leaving the lot of them behind.
Steve and I spotted another suit of armor outside a shop, so he did a quick hop and skip to pose for a photo before someone came out screaming. We tried to do it at another shop the previous day, but I was having spastic moments with my camera and by then someone came to tell him to move away from it. I should have used my phone’s camera from day one. That Sony camera gave me hell at the best of times, even though it takes pretty good photos.
When we got to the Spanish steps, most of us split up. Some went nearby, around the corner, to a restaurant, while others disappeared altogether. I don’t know where they all ended up going. My 2-minute team from Venice, Alex, Kameron and bald Adam, went loafing around looking for a bite to eat. Adam managed to get something from a shop that seemed to have an endless supply of cheese and bread, so he concocted his own sandwich from there. I can’t remember where Kameron and Alex went or what they got, but I got myself a slice of pizza. I learned from previous experience never to get pizza from a restaurant because you’d miss out totally on the authentic Italian pizzas. At restaurants, you pay for the view, not the taste. We walked around for a bit then went back to the Spanish Steps to see if we could meet up with those who went for lunch nearby.
When we got there, I met the twins outside and we decided to walk around the vicinity rather than stand around waiting. Like me, they wanted to go to the Colosseum, but they knew of a few others who also wanted to and didn’t want to leave them behind. We checked up on them and they still had a way to go, so we took a stroll around. We came across an Indian street vendor who was selling some hats. The twins wanted to get one each since they were cooking in the sun. I was horrified when the vendor asked them for €20 per hat! What a rip off! They were ordinary straw hats, nothing special. I had bargained with Indian street vendors before and I know Hindi, so I thought that if push comes to shove, I’d haggle in Hindi instead. Being American (and therefore used to the not-so-bad exchange rate), the twins didn’t think that €20 was too much, but I chipped in and asked the vendor what his best price was, and he said €15. Even then, I thought it was too much, but I wasn’t the one buying, so I asked the twins if they were fine with that and they agreed.
The vendor tried selling me a hat too, but I wasn’t interested. He was grinning at me like a blithering idiot, and I kept saying no. Eventually he asked “Oh, you like hot?”. I glared at the twins and they laughed because the guy was clearly trying to hit on me. I just thought “pay up now and let’s get the hell out of here!”.
When we got back to the restaurant, those who were eating there had just asked for the bill and were waiting to pay, so we sat with them for a few minutes discussing our plans for the rest of the day. When they were done, some wanted to go shopping but the rest of us wanted to go to the Colosseum. I actually wanted to go to Villa Borghese, but I thought it better to see the more obvious tourist attraction like the Colosseum first. I can always do Villa Borghese the next time I go to Rome.
About 12 of us walked to the nearby metro station to take the train to the Colosseum, and when we got there it was so insanely busy that we actually had to stay back on the platform because the train was so full. Tina wasn’t feeling so well so we had to look out for her.
We were relieved when we got off the train at the Colosseum, happy to be out of the crowded train. We got separated from most of the people we were with, and I ended up with the twins, Tina, Natalie, Kameron and bald Adam. We walked together, still watching out for Tina (who by then was pale and looked like she was about to fall over) as we went to the entrance where we could get our tickets. Our initial plan was to get a group of 10 so that we’d get a discount, but since we got separated, it didn’t work out.
I had another Indian guy hit on me as we walked there, much to the twins amusement since they had witnessed the first one only an hour earlier. This one was selling some random dumb item and was following tourists around. I kept the “carry on walking and don’t acknowledge” attitude. The twins gave me mischievous grins and I just shook my head, smiling.
We were so relieved to get into the shade at the ticket office. The queue was quite long, but moved at a steady pace. We waited for around 25 minutes which wasn’t too bad. The colour seemed to be coming back into Tina’s face too, and she looked fine. There was a refreshing, cool breeze because of the stone and it was like a natural air conditioner.
We spent nearly an hour walking around, taking in as much as we could. There was a killer staircase that we had to go up and I thought I was going to die by the time I got to the top of it. After that one, none of us really wanted to go any higher. Its not an extremely pleasant building to look at, on the inside, but it is definitely impressive. Especially the fact that it was built over 2000 years ago and is still standing.
By the time we were done, I was really craving for gelato. I had seen many vendors selling it right outside the Colosseum, but rule #1 about buying things in most countries is that you never buy from a busy tourist spot because you pay at least double the price that you’d normally pay. I was prepared to wait.
I walked a little more with my company in the direction of Piazza Venezia, the same road we had trodden on the day before. Hence, we got to the street vendor that owned the fruit jungle. I got myself a delicious nectarine, and had my third bout of being hit upon. What is it with the Indian men in Rome?! Why couldn’t it have been an Italian? Needless to say, the twins were right there in the middle of it once again. The man asked Kameron if I was with him, and Kameron didn’t know how to answer and it was such an awkward situation because I was with him, but not with him. We just walked away, pretending as if nothing happened.
We then decided to lose ourselves a little in the streets, taking some random turns here and there. Eventually, after around 30 minutes of exploring, I chose to head off on my own. I actually wasn’t sure what more I wanted to do, but in my heart I wanted to go back to St Peters Square. I had at least 2.5 hours to kill before I had to get back to Piazza Navona to meet Steve and the group to go to a nearby piazza to play beer pong.
When I was on my own, I had flashbacks of my time alone in Rome 3 years ago. It was the best feeling at the time, and I was reliving it. I headed north towards the Tiber River, and planned to walk along it as I had done previously, waiting for Castel Sant Angelo to peep out at me from between the trees.
I crossed Ponte Sant Angelo again, slower this time, and got lost in the beauty of the sculptures of the angels. I stopped a few times to look at St Peters from there, with the Tiber River in the foreground. If you go to the front of Castel Sant Angelo with St Peters on your left, you need only walk down one straight road to get to St Peters Square. That was my plan.
I took a leisurely walk from Castel Sant Angelo, turning around and seeing it from different angles, while watching other tourists haggling with more street vendors. The walk was much longer than I expected, and my feet were really sore by then. I was also pretty exhausted, but I kept going. I stopped at a shop about 200m away from the Basilica and got the gelato I had been craving all day, as well as some 2013 calendars that were going for a mere €2 each. They were small, sticky-note sized ones that had different themes like the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s works. Obviously, I got both.
Because of the road I had taken, when I got to St Peters Square, where I was standing seemed to be directly in the middle of the arms extending out from St Peters church. Its a sight everyone should see at least once in their lifetime. There’s nothing quite like it opening up in front of you.
I wandered around the square a bit before going inside. I didn’t bother joining the queue, as you can enter by walking alongside the guards by the metal detectors. No one stops you really, unless you look like some crazed villain I guess.
When I got inside the church, I moved in slow motion. I stood in one spot and looked 360°, at least twice. There really is nothing like St Peters church. I went to the back end of the church, passed the main altar, and sat on a section of pillar that was jutting out, for nearly 10 minutes, watching people go by, taking in deep breaths, and praying. It was the best this time because it was in the evening and there were probably only about 100 people in the whole church, so it was practically empty. Even though my feet were killing me, I realized that it was the fourth time I had been to St Peters church, and I had no regrets. I’ll go there every time I go to Rome.
When I was satisfied, I started making my way back to Piazza Navona. I took a different route this time, and crossed over another bridge which is technically right next to Ponte Sant Angelo. I knew that I needed to head south east from St Peters Square. On my way there, however, I got lost. The streets of Rome are very winding and narrow. I knew that I was in the general vicinity of Piazza Navona, but because of the narrowness of the streets, I couldn’t see the landmark that I was looking for – the dome of the church in the piazza itself. I asked a local man, who didn’t understand English, and he pointed me in the right direction, however it still didn’t help because of how twisted the roads are. Time was running out, and I knew I was going to miss meeting Steve. Yes, I had my map with me, but I knew that I wasn’t far off and I trusted my sense of direction, so I never looked at it.
Eventually, I got to Piazza Navona about 10 minutes after we were supposed to have met. I looked around and it was very obvious that the group had left, as we were supposed to meet at the fountain. Just before I could get out my map to find the place where Steve was going to take us (he made us draw a circle around it the day before), I spotted the twins. It was definitely luck. I caught up with them (they had clearly gone back to the hotel cos they had changed into nicer shirts) and we went together to the bar in the piazza where the rest of the group was.
There was a lot of excitement because of the Euro 2012. I think Italy was playing that day, too. When I went to the back, even more of the group was there, as Steve and Jose were playing beer pong against two local guys. I had never seen beer pong before, so it was quite entertaining for me. After the guys were done, two of the American girls, Taylor and Sarah, wanted to have a go. Taylor was epic and kicked those guys’ asses. They also had a game with the thinner guy’s girlfriend, who was, I thought, such a cheater! Before the ball could settle in the beer cup, if she was quick enough, she’d blow it out of the cup so that it didn’t count as a point. It was very impressive, but very unfair! All good fun, I guess.
It got dark, eventually, and we were all pretty tired. Most people left in groups so that we could share the cab fare. I got in the cab with Tiffany, Kelly, and I think Seeta and Chloe. We had a female cab driver who hardly spoke a word of English. Tiffany was trying to talk to her but she would just smile. She couldn’t understand where we wanted to go. Luckily I remembered Barbarano Romano, which I said to her, and she nodded and said “Si, ok”, and we left. It was very funny listening to Tiffany trying to speak to her. The driver was a very friendly lady but whatever she tried to answer with didn’t make sense at all. After some time we told Tiffany to just give it up (which worked, though not 100% cos she still wanted to talk) and we just admired the view on the way back to the hotel.
The cab cost us about €30, which was fine because it worked out about €6 each. Better than the hassle of taking other public transport. Alex had arrived just before us, and Alli, Rachel, Paul and Adam just after. They must have been right behind us, which made sense because we did leave at about the same time. I was glad Alex was back (she probably felt the same way about me) so that I wouldn’t have to open the door for her later. I’m pretty sure I passed out once I got into bed with my slightly swollen feet. I had Florence to look forward to the next day, and all I could think about was “I have to get a pair of leather boots”.