Rome (Part Two), Italy & Vatican City
Protesters and rioters had thankfully cleared the city for our third day in Rome, leaving us free to roam around unobstructed. Our first stop was the region of Trastevere, supposedly a little more traditional and less commercialised than the rest of Rome. Danny immediately hit the crowded flea market, while I visited two churches and just wandered aimlessly. The area was definitely not as beautiful as other parts of the city, but it did have a captivating charm. Cafes and restaurants lined most of the streets, and we agreed to return for dinner later tonight.
From Trastevere we walked to Capitol Hill, passing the ruins of the Theatre of Marcellus on the way (I thought the ruins were impressive; Danny did not share my sentiment). Once arriving at the Hill, we climbed the steps and made our way through the main plaza to the terrace, which offered okay views over part of the city. Once the obligatory photos had been taken, we made our way (via another church) to the Vittoriano Monument, distinctive with its glaringly white facade. Although we didn't enter the building, our every move was monitored by the numerous guards surveilling the area. Apparently even taking a sip of drink was a potentially dangerous act, as I was swiftly scolded when I attempted to do so. We didn't stay here long.
The Santa Maria in Cosmedin was yet another church on our hit list, but not because we wanted to go inside. This one was popular for its “Mouth of Truth”, a stone face mounted on the exterior wall. Supposedly if a liar puts his or her hand inside the mouth, it will be bitten off. The line of people waiting to put their hand in the mouth was ridiculously long; I wasn't sure why that many people would want to risk losing their hand. We had no desire to join the lengthy queue, so we took a photo from outside the gate then left.
Nearby the Mouth of Truth was the Circus Maximus, a former chariot-racing stadium that was now a long, underwhelming oval with grassy banks. There was really nothing to see here, but Danny decided this was the perfect place to stop and draw for a while. He has recently started sketching and he is incredibly talented – I had no idea that this artistic side existed. Meanwhile, I ventured down the Appia Antica, a road that was an important thoroughfare in Roman times and was now lined with tourist attractions. It took me a while to figure out if I had the right street - for what felt like hours I was walking on a narrow road lined with stone walls and tall trees, and there was nothing significant to see. Eventually, I made it to a large arch, through which the more popular part of the street was located. There were several catacombs along here that I had planned on visiting, but they were too far away and I didn't have enough time before I had to meet up with Danny. Regrettably, I abandoned my plans and trekked all the way back to the centre again. The street was beautiful though – it felt like I was in the countryside rather than a major city.
As planned, we returned to Trastevere late in the afternoon, where we ascended a hill for views of the city. Disappointingly, the lookout was mostly obscured by trees, but at the summit was a fountain that was almost as majestic as Trevi. Next, we found a bar that served fantastic cocktails, which led to us lingering much longer than we anticipated. To counteract all the alcohol, we ordered a mixed fried goods plate (sounds healthy doesn't it?) containing a multitude of treats, such as arancini, mozzarella, mushrooms, olives, seafood, potato nuggets, chicken nuggets and zucchini flowers, all battered and deep fried. It was very, very good. I don't know if the drinks or the food were the highlight.
Somehow we still had room for dinner, and we found a table in a busy restaurant. We hoped for a more traditional style meal in Trastevere, but unfortunately we picked a restaurant that tasted like cheap, reheated meals. My lasagne tasted like it came out of a packet, and Danny's gnocchi was average at best. It wasn't terrible but we had definitely eaten better. Afterwards, Danny was desperate to try tiramisu, having been in Italy for weeks and not having sampled the classic dessert. We did some research and found a nearby cafe advertising the best homemade tiramisu in Rome. Danny totally agreed, woofing it down in seconds. I don't know how he fit it in.
It was an early start the next morning, as we hoped to reach the Vatican Museums before the lines built up. We arrived half an hour before it opened and joined the back of the queue, which was already 100 metres long. Forty minutes later we were inside, where we were immediately greeted by grand spiral staircases. Almost straight away, we were lost. The place was a maze, and we had no map and no plan of where we wanted to go. We randomly followed signs, trying to see everything but we had no idea if we did or not. Honestly, most of what we saw was fairly boring to us – lots of busts, tapestries and frescos, resulting in us speed walking through several sections. What we did enjoy was the tiny modern art section, plus an exhibition on Aboriginal art (although I'm not exactly sure how it related to Catholicism). Of course the high point is supposedly the Sistine Chapel, but when we arrived we were surprised at how small the room was, and the minuscule size of the artworks. With all the hype surrounding Michelangelo's Creation of Adam painting, we expected it to cover most of the roof, but it was just a tiny panel in the middle of dozens of paintings that was barely discernible. It felt like a bit of a let down. The fact that one person painted the entire ceiling in such detail is remarkable though.
Finally escaping the labyrinth, we headed over to St Peter's Basilica and waited in line for half an hour to enter. The line snaked its way around the edge of St Peter's Square, giving us opportunities to take photos from all directions. The court jester-like outfits worn by the Swiss Guards kept us entertained while we waited. Inside, the Basilica was massive (of course), covered in gold and not all that different to many other churches in Rome. The coolest part was stumbling upon a hidden staircase behind a statue, leading us down to an underground section full of tombs. It was the only room that wasn't mobbed with tourists. Back on ground level, I was keen to climb up the dome but Danny was sick of standing in queues, so he sat in the Square and drew while I waited in line for 45 minutes. From the top there were far-reaching views in all directions, partially shrouded by haze but still worth the wait.
That was it for Vatican City. It's not often we can say we covered an entire country in only a few hours.