When you think of Rome, many images spring to mind: magnificent ancient ruins, glorious artwork, and winding cobblestone streets leading you past gelaterias and cafes tucked into niches and corners of centuries old buildings. And then there’s the Vatican and Vatican City, a whole other side of Rome that is a part of its fabric and pulse despite being its own city. This is where Mappy and I went on our third day in Rome, into the very heart of Catholicism.
Our tour of the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica was in the afternoon so we had the morning to do some more exploring. At the suggestion of our B & B host, the ever helpful Giorgio, we decided to walk up the Gianicolo Hill, which is situated between Trastevere and Vatican City, and affords incredible views of the city. We grabbed ourselves a picnic lunch from the bakery across the street and began our walk to the top.
Even though it was already a hot, steamy day, the view of Rome from the top of Gianicolo Hill was spectacular. Beneath the shade of the towering trees, it was a great place for a picnic.
I had booked us a guided tour with Walks of Italy on their Sistine Chapel Spotlight tour. The fee included entrance tickets to the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. All we had to do was show up at the appointed time and place to meet our tour guide.
I chose Walks of Italy because a) they were getting stellar reviews from people who had taken their tours in Rome and b) the founder, Jason Spiehler, is an art historian and theologian from Louisiana who began giving tours in Rome over ten years ago. The guy really knows his stuff and was lauded as a great storyteller and an engaging guide. Here is a brief video of him talking about some of the art in the Vatican Museum:
I booked the tour through their website and included a request to have Jason as our tour guide, if possible. I didn’t know if they even looked at requests such as mine, let alone honor them, but I figured I didn’t have anything to lose by asking.
When our tour group gathered at the designated corner near the Vatican Museum entrance, I was pleasantly surprised to see Jason, along with another tour guide, approach our group. After he introduced himself, he asked for me by name, wondering if I was present. I sheepishly raised my hand, feeling certain I was about to be busted for unwittingly committing some grievous social or cultural faux pas in the city. But instead of being carted off by the caribinieri (police), Jason shook my hand and said, “Thank you for requesting me as your guide today.”
THAT, fine readers, is the way to run a business.
We first entered into the Vatican Museums. Even though I had booked us a tour on a Monday afternoon (which was supposed to be a less crowded day and time), our small group was jostling between hundreds and hundreds of people, many of them in their own tour groups. I was thankful we all had headsets through which we could hear Jason’s explanations and stories as we stopped at different paintings, sculptures, and tapestries throughout the museums. He went at a faster pace than I normally would have gone through a museum, but given the crowds and brevity of the tour (about 2 1/2 hours), I felt like we saw and heard about plenty of the art work.
Next, we were led into the Sistine Chapel. No photography is allowed in there and a reverent silence is expected (guides with tour groups wearing head sets are the exception). If you go, be prepared to be overwhelmed and in awe. This was where I really loved having a guide explain some of the finer points of Michelangelo’s work as well as the stories behind some of the paintings.
Construction on the Cappella Sistina began in 1473 and opened ten years later in 1483. Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the now famous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel despite his reputation as a sculptor. It took him four years (1508-1512) to complete the nearly 5000 square feet of frescoes.
Additional frescoes adorn the walls and were painted by artists such as Botticelli, Perugino, and Ghirlandaio as well as several others.
After craning our necks looking skyward in the Sistine Chapel, we followed Jason like dutiful students to the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica. This was where our tour with him ended and we were left to explore the basilica on our own. (It a well worth the money to take a tour with Jason and Walks of Italy. My only regret was not booking more tours with them while we were in Rome.)
St. Peter’s Basilica is named after one of Jesus’ apostles who, while visiting Rome around 64 AD, was crucified by Emperor Nero who had penchant for persecuting Christians of the time. The Egyptian obelisk in the center of St. Peter’s Square is near the place where he was crucified. He was later buried 150 meters from that spot and over time a shrine was built on his grave to honor him. Nearly three hundred years later, the first basilica was built on that spot as commissioned by the first Christian Emperor of Rome, Constantine the First.
(Flash photography isn’t allowed inside so unfortunately our photos didn’t turn out so great.)By the 15th century, the first basilica fell into disrepair and was ordered to be restored and enlarged, first by Pope Nicolas the Fifth, and following his death, by Pope Julius the Second. Construction was completed in 1626. An architect named Bramante was hired to design and construct the basilica but he died before much of it was built. In 1546, Michelangelo took over control of its design and construction, with the goal of building a dome that would make the Pantheon’s pale by comparison. The basilica is one of the largest religious structures ever built and has the most spacious of interiors of all Christian churches in the world.
After leaving the basilica, we decided to treat ourselves to one of the few cab rides we took during the whole trip (not counting to/from train stations) to be able to go inside the Pantheon before closing. Just having seen the massive St. Peter’s Basilica, I wasn’t sure how it would measure up. Once inside, I realized there was no comparison. While it’s not as fancy inside as the basilica, it remained as awe-inspiring as it was the previous night when we saw it on our walk.
All of the sightseeing and church-going wore us out. After downing a quick shot of espresso while standing at the bar (cafe counter), we grabbed a scoop of gelato for our daily fix and meandered back to the B & B.
After dinner (during which we were treated a little more pleasantly), we walked down to the sidewalk that ran along both sides of the Tiber River where a street fair was taking place. Vendors selling art work, jewelry, clothing, and makeshift trendy bars were set up along the river front. There were also musicians and at one spot, an outdoor showing of a movie was playing. We wandered for a while and then sat down to do some people watching. One of the more fascinating things to watch was the seemingly effortless way women in four-inch stilettos managed to walk gracefully down the cobblestone path that, in some places, had at least an inch or two gap between the stones.
A day full of interesting architecture, gorgeous artwork, and an engaging tour of the Vatican sights did not disappoint. Rome was growing on me, bit by bit. I was very curious to see what was in store for us on our last day in Italy before flying home.
And now for your turn, intelligent readers. I’d love to hear your questions, comments and thoughts about the sights we saw in Rome. Sit, sip and chat. I’m listening…