If you were going to London, chances are you would want to see Big Ben and the London Eye. To Paris? Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. Berlin? Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate. Rome? The Colosseum and the Vatican.
The two most popular and iconic Roman destinations, and we were going to attempt to do them in one day. When I booked our tour, with Through Eternity, they even asked “are you sure? That’s an ambitious plan.” But we only had 4 days, and wanted to give our students a good taste of what Rome had to offer, so we were willing to take both on.
We came across Through Eternity through recommendation on a travel blog. I was hesitant when contacting them, as they came up more expensive than their competitors. But after 4 weeks of contacting a dozen different companies, Through Eternity came across as the most professional; they were organized and clear in communicating what services I would get, how the day would go, and how we could make the best of my “ambitious” plan. So I took the risk, and parted with a few more euros. Best. Decision. Ever.
Enter Luca and Tom. As we had a group of 30, Through Eternity booked us with 2 guides, and we divided the group into groups of 15. This was better for moving through the sites, asking questions, interacting with the guides, and getting the most out of the experience. Luca was the guide with Ray’s group. Luca has a Ph.D. in archeology, and actually helped excavate part of the Roman Forum. Touring the sites with a guide who had such education and hands-on experience was a treat. This was not a tour company providing guides who had memorized the scripts, this was a tour company providing highly educated and experience professionals. It was above and beyond anything I could have expected. I thought I was impressed during our Heart of Rome tour with Mario (who was awesome), but this just exceeded all expectations. Thomas (or Tom) was the tour guide with our group. He had a Ph.D. in History and spent many years as a professor at an American University before getting tired of trying to win the tenure game, and decided to bring his passion for history to the sites of the history. It didn’t take my long to figure out what we were paying extra for. I worry that after such a tremendous experience, every other guide from here on forward will just be a disappointment.
We met our guides right around the corner from the Colosseum. Upon meeting up our guides gave us some background information on the sites, and then we went straight into the Colosseum, with our headphones in, so we could head them clearly.
We started on the outside ring, learning about the structure of the building before he took us to the inner ring, where you could see the Arena in all its glory. There are two responses to seeing the Colosseum (among out group, and from what I could observe, the majority of visitors there). The first is the wide-eyed jaw-dropping stare. Most of us have studied ancient Rome in school, and at bare minimum, have seen Gladiator. So you have an idea of what you are about to see. But it just doesn’t compare to the moment you realize that it is a REAL PLACE. What immediately follows, are photos. Tons and tons of photos. And so within 30 seconds there is a wall of iPhones lining the rim of the Colosseum, all ready to be savoured, facebooked, snapchatted, and instagramed.
We made our way around the upper and lower levels, while Tom added in stories and anecdotes, and I tried to remember it all while simultaneously taking photos. Of course we stopped in a nice location for individual portraits and a group shot. You can see your group below, and one picture with Tom, at the top right. I won’t give away most of what I learned here, because the facts without the context of being there just don’t do it justice. Also, I think you should all go experience this yourselves (with Tom or Luca to guide you, of course!)
After we finished in the Colosseum we walked across to the Roman Forum. While the Colosseum is definitely the icon of Rome, the Roman Forum is where out understanding of Ancient Rome really lived, complete with temples, political offices, and the home of the Vestal Virgins. Stories of Julius Caesar were the ones we were drawn into here, but really walking down “main street” of Ancient Rome (while trying not to trip on the uneven surfaces) is an unbeatable experience. Given that we wanted time at the Vatican (and needed lunch) we didn’t have time to include Palatine Hill and the Circus Maximus into our Ancient Rome visit – but it would be easy to spend an entire day in just the Ancient Rome triad (Colosseum, Roman Forum, Palatine Hill).
So now a change in pace. We took the metro from the Forum, over to Vatican City. The Roman metro is a terrible system. There are only two lines, and they don’t connect to most of the things in the core of Rome. This is because every time they dig, they run into more Roman ruins. Also, efficiency doesn’t seem to be the Italian way. But, if you are moving from the Colosseum to Vatican, the two big icons of Rome, they are connected by an underground system. So if you only have a day, this will make life easier for you. The Vatican station is still on Roman soil, just outside of Vatican City. It is about a 5 – 10 minute walk up a slight hill to get to the entrance of the Vatican Museums. It is here that you go through security, and, if your backpack is too big, have to check it. This happened to one of my students. Now if you are just staying at the museum, this is not a big deal. But out tour had us take the shortcut out into St. Peter’s Square. This means a 30-35 minute round trip walk around the outside of the city in order to get back to the museum lobby. So if you are on a tour, and know that you end in St. Peter’s – make sure that your bag is small!
We arrived in the museum, and went through the map room, and courtyards, to see and learn about some of the key art pieces. We didn’t get to stop in the Raphael room to spend time with the philosophers though – which was too bad, as it is one of my favourite pieces in the building. You could definitely tell the difference between a morning and afternoon visit. At Christmas, we were at 8:00 AM, and I was surprised how “busy” it was. But being here after lunch redefined busy to me. Shoulder to shoulder through the halls, and of course, impossible to move in the Sistine Chapel. But Tom was able to find us some open space in the Pinecone Courtyard to talk about the history of the Vatican and of course the Papacy. I was so impressed with his ability to talk about the history of the Catholic church, in a way that showed respect to the church and it’s followers, but also acknowledged and respected that not all members of our group were Catholic. There are many less than favourable stories of the Pope’s over the years, and yet many ways that the Vatican is so important. It has relevance and irrelevance depending on the person, the era, the Pope, and the context, and he managed to navigate these waters with such wisdom and class. This was something that I wasn’t expecting, but that I was so grateful for. The marble statues, tapestries and architecture are beautiful, and from the courtyard we had a peek-a-boo view of the dome of St. Peter’s. We just had to sneak through the Sistine Chapel to get there.
If you are with an organized tour/certified guide, there is a back entrance that connects you directly from the Sistine Chapel to the front of St. Peter’s. This is wonderful, as you can avoid the 20 minute or so walk around the edge of the city, a second security check, and of course a potential 1-3 hour line up outside of St. Peter’s Basilica. Of course there are a few tourists who are guide free to try to make that jump as well (most do so successfully). We spent the least amount of time here with Tom. It was the day before Good Friday, and many Catholics had made a pilgrimage to Rome, not just because of Easter weekend, but because it is a Jubilee year. Many groups were walking the stations of the cross, and coming to St. Peter’s, through the Jubilee door, carrying a cross, to go down the front aisle to the altar. The church had been closed in the morning for the Pope (there is a washing of the feet on the Thursday morning), so of course crowds were larger in the afternoon as a response as well. Tom gave us an overview of a few sites and pieces, including Michelangelo’s Pieta. It was here that we bid adieu, and were left on our own. We gave our students another hour and a half to explore the church, go to confession, climb the dome, buy souvenirs, or just enjoy the views from the square (my first choice). St. Peter’s Square was set up for midnight mass, and Easter mass (and many other Easter services and events), but was actually pretty empty in comparison to the inside of the church and the museums. It truly is a beautiful building, with stunning architecture.
The Vatican Museum alone could take an entire day. It is 12 different collections spread over 54 galleries. It has works from Caravaggio, Raphael, da Vinci, Michelangelo, and many artists I can’t remember or have never heard of. There are frescos, paintings, sculptures, tapestries, scientific artifacts, mosaics, historical collections, tombstones and a papal throne. It has over 9 million pieces in its total collection, though not all are available for viewing (and the Vatican archives are one of life’s great mysteries – or source of popular Tom Hanks movies). They recommend a minimum of 5 hours for an art lover to get through the museum (not including the basilica or square), but if you are crunched for time (like us) you can power through the museum in 2-2.5 hours (but will only see a few highlights). I am grateful for having a guide, to help shed light on the big stuff and the significance of the items we were seeing. However, I have missed the vast majority of the museum, and one day will need to go on my own, with a plan (and maybe a book to guide me through and educate me on all the art I’m seeing. That or I need to bring a friend with a background in art!).
I don’t think I would recommend that you do both on the same day. Which ever site you hit second will be VERY busy. It’s hard on the feet to jam in that much walking. And your attention will start to wane at some point during the second location. I would recommend giving 4 – 5 hours at each, and going first thing in the morning for both. That way you can enjoy a long leisurely afternoon lunch (and gelato, and espresso), slow down and savour (the Italian way to do things), and enjoy both as thoroughly as they are meant to be. But, if you have a limited about of time, or, are just enjoying an overview of what the city has to offer (or both, as in our case), it can be done. Just bring some water, get a good nights sleep, and be ready to move. It also helps if your following day is a little easier and more laid back – or you can easily burn out. But as I mentioned previously, it depends on who you are, and what your travel style is.