During our second day in Rome, we knew we wanted to do something special in order to distract us from the fact that we weren’t at home in America celebrating Thanksgiving with our families. We decided this day would be our big day exploring Vatican City.
As usual we were up on the early side and took a stroll through one of Roma’s most famous plazas: Piazza Navona. It was eerie how little people we saw – almost no souls in the whole place! I’m not complaining though because it was perfect for pictures. Like plenty of European cities we have visit, we initially had issues finding a place to eat other than a bakery…. so we resorted to Yelp to find a restaurant called Etabli. Super rustic and Italian…we were the only non locals in the place! We could finally get eggs for breakfast along side some delicious juices. We grabbed our cappuccinos to go and started the journey to the Vatican.
We walked over the St.Angelo Bridge, straight for the St.Angelo castle. We noticed this building from a distance while taking our cab to Trastevere the previous night, and made a note to see it up close when we could. This old building originally housed a mausoleum, was then a fortress, and is now a museum. It’s a massive structure and was once the tallest building in Rome. We strolled along through the neighborhood surrounding the Vatican, where we once again hit a giant stone wall. We knew we had found it!
Our guided tour began with The Vatican Museums, which is a HUGE collection of all different types of art from sculptures to paintings to tapestries, acquired over time by the reigning popes. I would bore you to death if I went in to detail of everything we saw, so I’ll just mention our favorites:
- The Sculpture Museums – tons and tons of statues, busts, and masks all displayed over a beautiful mosaic marble floor in a large room with walls of gilded columns
- The Gallery of Maps – a long room whose walls are made up of topographical maps of Italian regions. Loved seeing Trapani up there!
- The Raphael Rooms – these are the public areas of the papal apartments and consist of 4 rooms that house ceilings and walls of frescoes completed by Raphael. It amazed me to see how colourful these paintings still are today.
Next up was…dun dun dun…. The Sistine Chapel! Seeing this work of art in real life was incredible. Hard to believe that Michelangelo was able to finish the whole thing himself in only 4 years. Did you know that Italian architect Bramante resented the fact that Michelangelo was chosen over him to build the Pope’s tomb (a previous project) so insisted the Pope commission The Sistine Chapel be created in a medium Michelangelo was not familiar with, which is why fresco was chosen? He wanted him to fail but instead created one of the most famous pieces of art in existence. Karma’s a bitch!
Anyway, the chapel is definitely a site. You aren’t allowed to raise your voice or take any pictures so there are tons of security monitoring the crowds, but luckily Joe snuck some pictures and we came away unscathed. Our tour allowed us about 20 minutes to sit in the chapel to take it all in – 1000 square meters is a lot to study. We learned so many interesting facts on our tour such as that since Michelangelo was a trained sculptor and devoted his entire life to mastering his craft, to the point where he had little social life, and few friends. He constantly studied the human anatomy and was very much inspired by Greek and Roman mythology. This is why in many of his paintings, the subjects look more like heroes rather than Biblical characters. Also, the hardest part about painting the ceiling wasn’t back problems, it’s that he began to go blind!
On the back wall of the chapel is a large altar where Michelangelo painted The Last Judgement. The colour of the sky is extremely vibrant and that is because he used lapis pigment which was extremely expensive for the time, but was insisted by the Pope. The painting depicts many saints on the rise to heaven including John the Baptist, Peter who is carrying the keys to the kingdom, and the skin of Bartholomew which Michelangelo painted his face on. Some say he did this because the project “took the life out of him”. Others say it is because he was highly criticized to have so much skin & body showing in a religious depiction, that he wanted to relay the message that what really matters is the soul inside. I won’t lie, I loved learning about all the different symbolism throughout the painting we saw…. I really embraced my past Catholic school girl nerdiness.
The 60’s was the last refurbishment of The Sistine Chapel and took 30 years to complete! Once they removed all the dirt and dust from the ceiling, the colours became even more vibrant.
Next up was St.Peter’s Basilica. To our surprise we learned that this is actually NOT the most Catholic-est church of them all, but actually was built on top of the old St.Peter’s in the 16th century after it fell to ruin. St.Peter was one of Christ’s most significant martyrs and because of his undying faith to Jesus, his remains were buried directly under the highest altar in the Basilica and the church dedicated in his name. The Basilica itself is incredible – so massive and so ornate. Again I was overwhelmed by all of the details in the paintings on the ceilings and walls – more Michelangelo masterpieces! Lavish marble mosaics and beautiful sculptures with golden details all over the inside. This place is enormous and there is so much to explore, but the other sites we enjoyed seeing are Michelangelo’s famous Pieta statue as well as the underground crypt which houses over 100 tombs. The dome of the Basilica is also unlike any I’ve seen, definitely the most beautiful. Who knew we’d see so many church domes in our life?! I know Joe sure didn’t, he he he….. Overall, St.Peter’s Basilica defines Renaissance art and is definitely a Rome must see!
We finished off at St.Peter’s Square, which is that familiar plaza we see the thousands of people flock to when a new pope is elected. On each side of the Basilica there are two structures of columns that are almost hugging the plaza, which symbolize the Catholic church’s open arms… pretty cool.
As if we didn’t see ENOUGH churches for one day, when we arrived back to Rome, I forced Joe to stop in another, The Church of St.Louis, just for good measure. It is the seat of the Catholic French community in Rome, and is known for its elaborate interior. I have to admit though after coming from St.Peter’s, it was unimpressive. Therefore it was time to mangia, and we pretty much collapsed at this tiny, hole in the wall deli called Da Simo pane e vino. Oh my god this was so good – we had some delicious meatballs, and 2 sandwiches another one with beef and ratatouille and the other with sausage and broccoli rabe. Seriously TDF! My mouth is watering thinking about it. We loved even more how authentic this was, being that it is run by a mom and her daughters.
Now we were off to The Spanish Steps. The walk from where we were took us along a very posh shopping street known as Via Condotti, which houses every luxury brand you can imagine – this is Italy after all. Once we arrived we took a break to sit on the steps and take in the hustle and bustle of the Piazza di Spagna below. Joe kept noticing people eating these desserts out of boxes and couldn’t help but ask a stranger what it was. Turns out, they were tiramisu, so he bee-lined for Bar Pompi. His goal was to eat as much tiramisu as possible during this trip, so we couldn’t pass it up.
Before dinner we decided to walk around and do some shopping. We stocked up on some Italian goodies at some great spots such as Paul Taylor and Bags & Fruits. For dinner, we were about to embark on our first pizza journey. Similar to Joe’s goal with tiramisu, my goal was to eat as much pizza!!!! We went to what we thought was a recommendation from our friend Steph, called Gusto. (Turns out she was talking about Gusta in Florence, oops!) But nevertheless, it was exactly what we needed. As our order of pizza approached the table, we were skeptical because it was thick, doughy, and square (!) but turns out it was incredibly delicious. Phew. Pizza #1 complete.
While we were walking home we literally stumbled upon this little courtyard of buildings dripping with ivy and twinkling lights. WHERE WAS THIS ALL ALONG? All we wanted was a small, intimate Italian restaurant and Il Bacaro was exactly it. We decided to have dessert and coffee just as an excuse to sit at this place. The even funnier part is, when we put in the directions to go home, the restaurant was literally a minute and a half walk around the block from our flat. Although there was a slight part of me that wanted to scream, we were so happy to end our Roma trip on a high note at this gem of a spot.