Sunday, April 15, 2012

Guest Post - The Vatican

First breakfast, then The Vatican
Day 3 – Vatican City and the surrounding areas
We started the day with the “American” breakfast for ONE person and paid 12 euro.  I want to stress – this was for ONE person.
I highly recommend, when looking for a hotel in Europe, that you find a hotel that includes breakfast in its fares.  It will save you a lot of money, and most breakfasts are quite large – eggs, meats, yogurts, fruit, cereals, breads, you name it.  My favorite thing soon became the croissants with Nutella.  Heaven. 

The Vatican off in the distance

The only good thing about our first hotel was the view.  We were able to see the entire city, including the Vatican.  So, on day 3 we left our perch and headed into the city to a new hotel – the Hotel Britannia.  After a crazy cab ride (the metro was on strike) that lasted upwards of an hour, we learned the hard way that it is very important to keep your papers with you at all times.  I had to chase the cab down when I learned that my traveling partner had left our Eurail passes and all of our itineraries in the cab.  Thank goodness for helpful Italians, because otherwise we would have been in big trouble.  Screaming and running thru the streets of Rome is not something I enjoyed. 
The Hotel Britannia is a small British hotel just east of the Piazza Republica, near an Irish Pub that served nothing Irish in any way.  Funny that we ate there twice for that very reason – great Italian food, no gimmick.  Guinness was the only thing Irish about it.
The rooms at the Hotel Britannia were incredibly small!!  Our double room was the size of my bedroom at home and the bathroom was just as small. The good news - after a long day of walking, we found a great use for the bidet – soaking our feet!

Tré chic

After our cab adventure, we headed to an appointment at the Vatican.  Our tour was thru  Agnes, our tour guide, was fantastic!!!  We were able to bypass all the lines and get VIP treatment.  The tour was 3.5 hours, and took you thru the museum, gardens, the Sistine Chapel and then the Basilica.  We had the option of climbing up into the Basilica dome, but I was told that if you are afraid of heights (which I am), or claustrophobic (guilty again), than it’s probably not a good idea.  Plus, the line was incredibly long, which I imagine everyone is afraid of.

Vatican Museum

The Dome

The museum was gorgeous and incredibly ornate.  Knowing that the museum is basically a collection of Papal knick knacks was kind of interesting.  It’s separated by interest, or sections, per se.  Egypt, Animals, Roman history, etc.  The mosaics on the floor, I will say, were incredibly impressive, as were the frescoes on the ceilings.  The amount of time spent is mind-boggling 



Something we learned along the way regarding the statues of Rome.  You won’t see a lot of penises in Rome.  The ruling leaders of Rome (Nero being the biggest whiner) believed that was inappropriate and requested that all statues be covered (Penis envy).  Any “fig leaves” that you may see now have a penis underneath though the statue may look like it was made that way.  Even the golden statue of Hercules has an added leaf. 

He's quite dandy

You’ll find a lot of incredible art in the Vatican museum - frescoes, long hallways of gold, and geography galore.  We did NOT do a tour of the catacombs, but I hear it’s fabulous.  This year, the remains of Pope John Paul II will again be brought up into the Basilica because he has reached the next level toward sainthood.  Rick Steves has a great update on Italy on his website –
We were able to tour the Sistine Chapel, which was beautiful.  Knowing that Michaelangelo created those frescoes while standing up, is incredibly impressive.  Please, if you visit, respect the rules.  No photos and silence is stressed over and over again.  But do people listen?  No.  I found it to be incredibly disrespectful.  You will also notice that Michaelangelo created all of his models and subjects in his likeness, including the women.  They are very masculine looking with huge biceps and rippling abs.  Some suggest this is because Michaelangelo was gay, and never knew what a woman looked like naked.  Who knows?

Random Vatican pic

And another

The Basilica is incredibly beautiful.  The pics speak for themselves.  It is incredibly crowded though, so be prepared for ugliness amongst the masses

Light penetrates the Basilica dome

More Basilica

Panorama of the plaza

Pope's crib

Monday, April 09, 2012

Guest Post - Rome, Italy

(Ed. note- K.O. has graciously shared a recent trip to Italy.)

Day 1 –
Flight into Rome – the craziest, most stupid airport I have ever been in.  God forbid you have to get off a plane quickly because they do not have gates, they have parking spots for their planes.  We spent over 30 minutes just getting off the flight, only to get onto a bus that takes you to the terminal.  We had a driver meet us at the airport to take us to our hotel, which was a great idea.  We got to see some of the surrounding areas, and it let us get some time to decompress after 16 hours of traveling. 
Our first two nights were spent at the Courtyard Marriott outside of the walls of Rome.  NEVER AGAIN.  If you go to Rome, stay in the city.  You will save a lot of money on taxis.  We bought a Roma Pass, which gives you access to the Metro and all trains for a full 24 hours, and it was only 30 euro. 
Our flight arrived at 930 AM, so we had all day to see Rome.  Our first visit was to the Borghese Gallery, which was beautiful.  The Borghese gardens that surround the gallery are like Central Park in NYC, but more beautiful.  The gardens are in the heart of Rome and offer beautiful views of the city.  There are several fountains, parks, cafes, and a couple loving on each other wherever you look. The gardens are situated close to the Piazza di Spagna and the Piazza del Popolo – both close to the Metro.  If you plan to see the gallery – mostly statues and art – get a reservation and a tour guide.  Also, dress lightly, there is no air conditioner in the gallery and it’s hot!! There is a bookstore and café in the basement, and I recommend bringing home a book because you will never remember everything you see.  The gallery was a private home that had such a large amount of art that is now open to the public for viewing.

View from garden overlook toward ancient Rome

Piazza del Popolo - Plaza of the people
You will find an obelisk wherever you find a church.  They were brought from Egypt by the ancient Romans.

Day 2-
We were up early the next morning to be able to make an appointment at the coliseum.  I highly recommend a tour to see the coliseum, not only to avoid lines, but also to learn everything there is to know about the history, both good and bad. We did a tour through, and it was incredibly worth the 150 euro.  Yes, 150.  It was a four hour tour of the coliseum, Palatine Hill, the Forum and Capitoline Hill. If you enjoy being able to take photos, the early light of the day is great for seeing ancient Rome, and it’s amazingly quiet.  Any later in the day and you will fight crowds and the heat.

The Coliseum -

The travertine and marble arches of the Coliseum

What I was not aware of before this trip, is that the coliseum is in pieces because the people of Rome used its travertine to build their homes.   The only portion of the coliseum that remains intact is the ground floor compartments that once housed gladiators, animals, and slaves.  Restoration of the coliseum continues, and in 2012, more portions of the arena will be open to visitors.

The ground floor is now open to tour

 The Forum -

Panorama of the Forum

The Vestal Virgins were women that contracted themselves to the dignitaries - sometimes for upwards of 30 years of their life.  They were to remain virgins and were given housing in the forum.  If they were proven, or even suspected, to have given up their virginity they were buried alive in a coffin and given a candle and a loaf of bread.  So eventually they starve to death, but how long it takes was up to them.....

The Vestal Virgins

Depending on your class, you were only allowed to enter thru certain numbered doors.  Most of the senators and their "virgins" entered thru 30-34 (if i remember correctly).

I'll take what's behind door 32

The aviaries of Palatine Hill, nestled above the dormitories of the Vestal Virgins
After our tour, we had lunch at a café across the street from the Forum, where everyone smoked and everyone drank.  The funghi and prosciutto pizza made up for the smoke - it was absolutely fabulous.  We never had a bad meal in Italy, and we never overpaid.  Food was always reasonable, and you tend to revisit your favorite places. Water bottles are a must, but you never need to buy water from the store fronts.  All of the fountains in Rome are natural springs so you can drink from them and the fountain will usually have a spout specifically for this purpose.
One piece of advice - bathrooms are scarce in Rome, so when you find one, use it. They do have public restrooms, but they are never clean and rarely separated by sex.

Spanish Steps
Prada, Escada, Dior, and McDonald’s. Yep.
The Spanish Steps are always crowded and one of the most tourist laden spots of Rome.  It’s close to the Metro stop, and great for high fashion shopping.  The church at the crest of the steps is beautiful, but be sure to wear sleeves and respect the silence.  A guard will kick you out or deny you entrance if you don’t meet up to his standards.