With so much that we could potentially see and do in Rome in just over four days, we thought it might be wise to buy a three-day ticket for a hop-on, hop-off bus tour. We figured that we could use it to take us to more distant parts of Rome and let us off, and that we could then take our time walking back to our accommodation. If we got tired, we’d hop on the next bus. If it rained, we’d get on the bus. Additionally, the Big Bus website also offered skip-the-line guided tours of the Vatican. Figuring this would be our best chance of covering a good deal of territory today, rather than standing for hours in a queue, we took this option. We’ve also bought skip-the-line tickets for the Colosseum tomorrow, because we saw the length of the queue yesterday afternoon.

A potential spanner in the works we have to consider too is that Sunday is Italy’s Republic Day, a national public holiday, and we are aware there will be big festivities in the roads around the Colosseum and the Roman Forum and elsewhere in the city. Roads will be closed, attractions will possibly be closed, and the hop-on, hop-off route will undoubtedly be impacted. In other words, we might not get a chance to see much of Rome on Sunday. So we have to make it count on our other days.

On our way to the bus stop, we passed the Largo di Torre Argentina again. The light was much brighter than yesterday, so I stopped to take a better photo and noticed a guy taking exact measurements of a piece of rubble from the site. I guess there are times when archaeologists must perform mundane tasks like this, rather than daredevil acts like Indiana Jones.

We hopped off the bus and walked across the Ponte Sant’Angelo for first look at the Vatican. At the end of the road, the familiar dome of St Peter’s Basilica came into view. As we drew near we could see the long queues to enter. They were barely moving. We were grateful for our skip-the-line tickets.

We met our tour guide, Federico, and joined the shorter queues at the rear gates. We were inside and through the scanners in no time. Hearing devices were handed out and soon we were climbing the stairs with Federico to begin the tour.

The first rooms we visited were sculpture galleries, with classic marble sculptures dating from antiquity lining the walls and display alcoves. Ornate painted ceilings were on show in most galleries. One thing that intrigued me in Pope Leo’s gallery is the presence of an early camera in one of the ceiling paintings. Apparently the Pope had recently received a camera as a gift, and wanted one in one of the ceiling panels. There were exquisite tiled mosaics, and rooms filled with large tapestries. Marg and I really liked the map room, in which two brothers had completed large paintings of maps of all the regions of Italy within a time period of only three years.

Eventually we arrived at the Sistine Chapel. People were asked to remove our hats, or cover their shoulders with a shawl if bare skin was visible. There was to be no speaking and definitely no photos. We filed into the room, past quite a large number of security guards. And then we all just stood and looked upward, awestruck. The room is not so large, but it is dominated on one end wall by Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. And, of course, high up on the ceiling is the fantastic painting that illustrates stories from the Old Testament, including the Creation of Man, and Adam and Eve being cast out from the garden. Or guide, Federico, got quite upset when a member of the group took out his phone and began videoing the ceiling. He admonished him in front of the rest of the group and demanded that he delete the footage. He didn’t let up until the guy showed his phone to prove the video no longer existed.

Leaving the guided tour, we entered St Peter’s Basilica. Our guide had said it was the largest Christian church in the world, capable of holding 60,000 people. It certainly rivals the biggest and best of what we’ve seen in Europe for grandeur – for example, St Mark’s in Venice or St Chapelle in Paris. It contains Michelangelo’s Pieta and works by Bernini and Raphael. But it also is evidence of the immeasurable wealth of the Roman Catholic church, and that makes me feel a little uncomfortable as we are all aware of the issues concerning improprieties carried out in the name of the church and the struggles of the victims for adequate compensation. And with so much poverty in devout communities around the world, to have so much money tied up in Rome seems terribly inequitable. Interestingly, our guide had pointed out a number of artworks and antiquities and told us straight out that Popes had ordered them to be stolen and brought to Rome. The way he spoke about some of these Popes made them out to be tyrants rather than holy men.

We left the Vatican near the gatehouse where the Swiss guards stood watch. The blue skies had been replaced by grey clouds, and the heavens over the Vatican were now dark and brooding. Hmmm.

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