This place is crowded. I know it is packed in summer, but was told there would be fewer tourists in winter. If this is what fewer tourists looks like, I wouldn’t want to be here in summer, when it also gets hotter and more humid. The journey from Leonardo da Vinci – Fiumicino airport (FCO) to Roma Ostiense train station to Roma Termini to Ottaviano Metro station to the B&B was pretty easy, what with my penchant for advance research, awesome sense of direction, and ability to remember things. True, the non-stop Leonardo Express would have been faster and easier (avoids transferring at Ostiense), but I saved €6, you can decide for yourself if that’s worth it. (Nota bene: This post is image-heavy.)
The Touch of Rome B&B is nice, they gave me a clean and large room (mine could sleep four people). While they don’t provide the second B (that’s breakfast), they do give a voucher for a half-price breakfast at a nearby cafe. That night, I walk around the neighborhood picking up a SIM card from Vodafone (€20 for voice calling in Italy and data, vs the €30 from TIM), and check out the street market. Lots of cheap clothes and souvenir stuff on folding tables, roasting chestnuts, and the same toys I will see from other street hawkers in Florence and Pisa. Dinner is takeout from McDonald’s, because I like to see if it is any different from home. There are a few different menu items, due to regional tastes, but it is pretty much the same, except that it seems to be treated as a bit more upscale, cleaner and brighter, like a meeting/dining place for young people before heading out into the night, instead of in the US where they seem to be rest stops for a snack or the bathroom on road trips. Also, I guess Italians love Foot Locker, as several Foot Locker stores survive in the area and they were still busy deep into the night.
With my new SIM card, I check my email to find out that there is a problem with the Vatican tour I had scheduled for the next day. We are told there is a problem with the air conditioning, so the Sistine Chapel will be closed on the only day I can visit, as all my time is already booked full with tours. My options are a full refund, reschedule for another day, or a 2/3 refund, since 2/3 of the tour highlights are unavailable (Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica). I obviously can’t reschedule, and if I take the full refund, I’ll have to find something else to do with my time. I take the partial refund, since I’m already here and don’t know when I might return to Rome. While I would have wanted to see the Sistine Chapel in person, my main reason to visit the Vatican museums was the opportunity to see The School of Athens fresco by Raphael, and I am assured that we will be able to visit the rest of the museums.
The next morning, I head out for the Borghese Galleries, stopping to pick up a cornetto on the way for a walking breakfast. There are no cameras allowed, so I can leave the DSLR and backpack in the room and look less like a tourist. It is a half day tour, so I can return to the room afterwards to pick up my camera before the Vatican Museums tour. Some of the most famous artworks in the Borghese Galleries are the Bernini sculptures, one of which includes a more dynamic version of David (compare to Michelangelo’s masterpiece). The atmosphere among the sculpture and paintings (from Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael, and more) and is calm and respectful, similar to what I felt inside Windsor Castle, and I suspect the ban on photography may be part of it. My tour guide is an American, and while you might think that foreigners or immigrants wouldn’t have the same grasp on local culture and history as a native, as long as they know the history and are enthusiastic about where they lead you, it’s fine by me. Many of the guides probably studied art, history, or art history, and have their favorite works inside each museum. Since they can’t possibly show you everything in 3 hours, they take you to their favorites or the ones with the best stories. If I were to visit by myself, I might be able to see more, but wouldn’t get the history lessons from the information cards, probably stay too long, and not leave enough time for other museums.
I chose my B&B because of its location, price, and amenities (wifi, tv, private bathroom). You can see the walls of the Vatican right outside the front door. You’ll see leaking fountains like the one below all over Rome (and probably all major cities). I find out that these fountains dispense clean drinking water, and you can tell who is a local vs a tourist by how they drink. Beyond providing free and clean water to animals of all kinds, these hundreds of fountains are necessary because they relieve water pressure in the pipes and keep water from becoming stagnant. These days, there are apps to help you find the nearest one (Android and iOS). They are called “nasoni“, which translates to “noses”.
These tour companies provide a radio and earbuds for each guest, so the guides don’t have to shout to be heard, which would be difficult in crowded museums and around other tour companies with groups at the same time. It also means you can hang back a little longer to look around and still hear your guide, provided you don’t get too far behind, and you’ll not want to get lost or left behind anyway. There are outdoor gardens and a lot of rooms with paintings and frescoes and tapestries and sculptures and artifacts and other sorts of art and architecture that they all kind of blend together unless they have some special significance to you. As mentioned, the reason I wanted to visit the Vatican was to stand in front of The School of Athens. Mission accomplished.
Since they couldn’t get us into the Sistine Chapel or the pathway to St Peter’s Basilica, we were able to get there on our own after the tour ended, by walking the long way around the walls to the entrance of St Peter’s Square between the colonnades.
Papal Swiss Guard