Gianluca* is on time this morning! That’s a near-miracle of Italian train travel, which is fitting we we segue from Ancient Rome yesterday into ‘Religious Rome’ today – we have an 9.30am tour at the Vatican Museums, and a short walk through the older part of town with one stop en route.
First stop is the Pantheon, as ancient as it religious. Strictly speaking it’s a Catholic Church (and free to go inside), but it was built by the ancients in 128AD as a temple to all gods (pan-theon). Raphael’s renaissance tomb is here, as is the more recent resting place of Vittorio Emanuele II and his son Umberto I. But most breathtaking is the large hole in the centre of the domed ceiling – ancient climate control at work, and surreal as we watch a light rain shower fall through the roof into the quiet space below.
Next we cross over the Tiber River, and into Vatican City – a sovereign country in its own right, though with a population of barely 800 and a 10:1 male:female ratio. The grandiose St Peter’s Square is calling us for an embrace, but for now we loop around to the right.
The Vatican Museum tour takes us through just some of the priceless art accumulated by the Catholic Church over the centuries – old masters, tapestries, and sculptures all feature, as does Pope Paul VI’s modern art collection that the Vatican guide and Gianluca both agree is ‘skippable’. The tour ends in theoretical silence inside the Sistine Chapel – when Cardinals meet here to elect a new Pope they probably make less noise than the whispering tourists here today! Interestingly, some people who have misheard the name try to find “the 16th Chapel”, wondering where the other fifteen must be hidden. The chapel is the pinnacle of Michelangelo’s career, despite his personal dislike for painting (which might explain why he painted himself as the flayed St Bartholomew in The Last Judgement fresco on the altar wall.)
Gianluca takes over again – most tourists spill out from the Sistine Chapel (an exit different to the entrance we used two hours ago) and head from here back to the main square, and the already hour-long queue to enter St Peter’s Basilica. Instead we turn to the right, and the much shorter queue to climb the cuppola (dome). With gelati as an excuse, we avoid the escalator and walk up the ramp, where we are suddenly greeted by the breathtaking spectacle up close inside St Peter’s Dome, the largest of its kind in the world.
On the external rooftop, with views over the private Vatican gardens, we take five minutes to grab some postcards – this is the only official Vatican post office, for those philatelist friends!
And then, just as we wonder whether the outside queue is really worth joining, the steps back down take us directly inside the Basilica. Michelangelo’s La Pieta is a must see (to the right inside the main door) but is just one altar in this glittering gold structure. We gawp just like medieval pilgrims must have done.
Seeking a late lunch (even by Roman standards), we avoid the tourist fare close to the Vatican and instead follow the river down to Piazza dell’Ara Coeli, where the pasta and red wine options are plentiful. Then, of course, it’s afternoon coffee time, and while there are cheaper cafes available Gianluca likes to take his guests to Caffe Barocco inside the Piazza Navona, where an espresso (definitely not a cappuccino after 10am!) combines with the many tourists milling around three recently restored fountains.
Our time in Rome is drawing to an end. As we head for the airport train and an evening flight to the Viennese Christmas Markets, Gianluca provides a final local’s tip: Fassi Gelati on via Principe Eugenio, near the train station. “Try the rice pudding gelati, and you’ll be happy,” are his final words.
The train line from Roma Termini to Fiumicino Airport is perhaps the most reliable in all Italy, and before we know it we’re checked in on our 8.15pm Air Berlin flight to Vienna. We land on time, and our car transfer is waiting to take us to our hotel in the centre of the old town. Tomorrow will be Vienna.
Thankfully, there’s a coin in a fountain ensuring that we’ll be back to Rome.
Want to Go? Need to Know…
- Vatican Museum Tours cost €32 and are best booked in advance at mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/MV_Home.html
(They are closed Sundays, except the last Sunday of the month which is free!)
- Capuccinos really are a breakfast drink (and don’t come with chocolate on top!). This is a good thing
- In warmer months, try a Caffe Freddo – usually an espresso poured directly over (or blended with) ice cubes
- Booking is not really necessary on the airport train, but if you plan to use the left luggage service at Roma Termini give yourself time for the 30 minute queues
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