The Mediterranean Journey Begins ~ in Rome.
It was nearly the end of July and the first of August and time to embark on another annual summer vacation. As cruising has become our getaway of choice, we chose an 11-night cruise to the warm waters of the Mediterranean, where we would spend time on shore immersing ourselves in ancient history, architectural ruins and gelato! Our cruise would begin in Rome, so it only made sense to spend a few days prior in this magnificent city.
The Royal Treatment.
A few months prior, I had booked our flights on Aer Lingus, with a ridiculously long layover in Dover because it was the cheapest flight available. Just days prior, in a moment of insanity, I went on line at Aer Lingus and upgraded our seats on the transatlantic portion of the flight to business class. We felt like we had died and gone to airline heaven when greeted on board with a glass of wine and way more leg room than we needed – can you imagine? And check out the table linens in the pic! But the leg room is needed – to make room for those incredible seats that recline in a number of positions including lying all the way flat for sleeping. Aer Lingus also has a bidding system for business class seats, and as such, I placed a bid for business class on our return trip. I received an email several days before our flight home and learned we were upgraded to Business Class for the ride home. On one hand, I was thrilled. On the other, I was thinking where would I find a second job to pay for this indulgence.
Not wanting to bother with exiting and re-entering the airport terminal in Dublin, we wondered what the heck we would do for the long 7 hours between flights. Fortunately, my clever husband found some chairs and footrests in an out-of-the way spot in a terminal cafe, where we were able to catnap in comfort, thereby avoiding some bad jet lag. The plane was packed on the flight into Rome from Dublin, as well as noisy, thanks to a large group of rambunctious teens onboard. Happily, we landed safely and smoothly – and only a few minutes late. Our pre-reserved driver, Massimo, from a great, well-respected company called RomeCabs was waiting for us, as anticipated, at the meet-up point, and we were immediately whisked off in comfort to our hotel, the Albergo del Senato.
Hotel Albergo Del Senato is absolutely gorgeous and sits directly on Piazza Della Rotonda, right beside the Pantheon. The location was ideal for getting to the major sites, either a short cab ride or a short walk away. We were given a room on the third floor facing the Pantheon and piazza, as I had requested in advance. The room was fashioned in understated elegance and the bed was very comfortable.
But the real beauty was what awaited our eyes outside the window. The windows opened in and the shutters slid out, providing the most amazing view of the Pantheon and all the lively action happening on the piazza below. A light sleeper like me had no need to worry about noise from the plaza below, either, because the windows were fairly soundproof, and I slept like a baby. With a prime location, comfortable accommodations, a killer view, complimentary breakfast, and helpful and friendly staff, we couldn’t have picked a better hotel for our first visit to Rome. Oh, and did I mention the rooftop terrace? It was a stairway to heaven!
Our first meal in Rome was right outside the door of our hotel in a sidewalk cafe directly on the Piazza Della Rotonda within sight of the Pantheon. As all the guidebooks warned, we paid more for the privilege for dining directly on the piazza, but it was worth it just for the experience of taking in all the Roman sights and sounds all around us.
We followed up dinner with a walk around the corner for a cup of Italy’s famous gelato. Gelaterias in Rome are like Dunkin Donuts in the states – there’s one on every block. Delicious and so convenient!
Here are a few photos of the Albergo Del Senato – beautiful inside and out. A little pricey, but worth every euro!
Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica: The Tour.
The next morning, we rose before the sun and took a taxi at 7:00 am to the Vatican for our pre-reserved 5-hour VIP tour of the Vatican with Through Eternity Tours, including the famous Sistine Chapel, the Vatican museums, and St. Peter’s Basilica. I highly recommend this small-group tour, limited to just 7 people, the primary reason being early-entry to the Sistine Chapel before opening to the public. Instead of standing shoulder to shoulder with a massive crowd, we were able to enjoy the magnificent art of Michelangelo with just a couple of other small groups. Later, as we passed through the chapel again on our way to the Basilica, we completely understood the importance of this early tour. By that point, the crowds were so heavy that every inch of the chapel was filled with people gazing up at the ceiling, shoulder-to-shoulder, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for these people who could not have had the same serene experience as we did.
The following two photos give an idea of the difference a few hours can make:
Our guide was very knowledgeable, thoroughly explained the history of what we were about to see, and expertly guided us through the exhibits, though at a somewhat faster pace than we would have liked. The frescos, tapestries and mosaics, for instance, were stunning, and I would have liked to spend a bit more time viewing them. Still, the museums are so large and the collections so vast that you would need days or weeks to see everything. With that said, he did a good job of giving us an overview and showing us a wide selection of important works in the amount of time we had. Here is just a small sample of what we experienced:
The tour ended at St. Peter’s Basilica, which was incredibly beautiful, with it’s stunning soaring dome, statues and artwork of Bernini, the Holy Door with its ornate carved panels, and, perhaps most moving – the Pieta, Michelansgelo’s famous statue of Mary holding the lifeless body of Christ after the crucifixion.
We exited the Basilica into St. Peter’s Square, where the Roman sun, heat and humidity hit us like a wall. We sat a few minutes taking in the surroundings, amazed that we were actually there in this holy place. We rested our weary feet and were grateful for the drinking fountains throughout the city, allowing us to refill our empty water bottles. We would have liked to linger for another hour at the Square, but by this time we were exhausted and made our way back to the hotel by taxi for a mid-afternoon rest.
A Dining Disappointment
After our much-needed catnap, we walked around the corner to De Fortunato Al Pantheon for our pre-reserved dinner reservation. Honestly, after reading some recent not-so-great TripAdvisor reviews of this restaurant, I wanted to choose another. My husband, however, had his heart set on this dining establishment, highly recommended by travel guru, Rick Steves. My instincts turned out to be right. Although the meal was fine, the service was far from it. I fully understand the American and Italian differences in wait service, i.e. American waiters are friendly and talkative, while Italian waiters are simply there to serve and won’t interrupt you unless you request something. Fine – I get that. However, our waiter – an older, surly sort, was downright rude. He was all set to take our order, when an elderly gentleman, who was obviously a favorite regular customer, was seated directly to the small table to our left, about 6 inches away. The waiter immediately became animated, turned away to greet the guy like an old friend, and momentarily forgot we were even there. He only returned when my husband slapped his menu closed to get the waiter’s attention, who offered nothing in the way of an apology.
Sorry, Rick Steves, but you got this one all wrong. For a Saturday night, the place had plenty of empty tables, even when we left at 10:30 - very surprising, given the fact that it’s supposed to be a favorite old classic. We didn’t really get that authentic Italian feeling described in the Rick Steves’ Rome video. To be fair, I am partly to blame for the negative experience. I chose a table in the rear, thinking it would be a nice quiet place for the hubby and I to enjoy a nice romantic dinner, when the front room, street side, would have been livelier. Unfortunately, this restaurant was a real disappointment. While I didn’t expect the “Rick Steves” VIP treatment, a friendly server would have been welcome and would have made all the difference.
On a positive note, the food was very good and well presented, though overpriced as compared to other eating establishments in the same area of town. In fact, we were so underwhelmed that this was the only photo I have from the restaurant.
We left the restaurant, feeling pretty unsatisfied, and grabbed a table at another outside cafe back on the piazza, where we enjoyed both drinks and some people watching before picking up some delicious gelato and calling it a day.
The Colosseum, Palatine Hill and The “Caesar Shuffle” (or more commonly known as the Roman Forum)
On our second morning in Rome, we awoke refreshed and took a taxi to the Colosseum for our 8:30 am pre-reserved small-group tour with Walks of Italy of the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Forum. We had specific directions to the tour meeting point, but we had a little trouble communicating this to the non-English speaking cabbie. I showed him the map, and everything was cool, except that he dropped us at the upper level entrance to the Colosseum rather than the lower level, as the instructions specifically indicated. While my husband wandered away to shoot some photos, I found another tour company who pointed me in the right direction. My husband seemed in no particular hurry, but not wanting to keep our guide waiting, I dragged him away from his photo op, and we walked a short way through the subway station to get to the bottom level. Pretty easy, fortunately.
Just as with the Vatican the previous day, this tour was a small group of 6 and gave us early entrance to the Colosseum before opening to the masses, thereby avoiding huge crowds that arrive later. Tickets were reserved in advance by the tour company, and there was no need for waiting in line.
Our tour guide, Rosa, was friendly, knowledgeable and explained in detail everything we saw. The day was cloudy and overcast, with periods of rain, but it was actually a blessing, as we didn’t need to endure the heat and sun which we had anticipated. Still, it was a lot of walking, and Rosa was kind enough to point out an elevator which we could take to the upper level, as my knee arthritis had flared up recently, preventing me from much climbing. Yes, it seems odd – an elevator in the Colosseum, doesn’t it. How did disabled Romans climb, any way?
Here was the Colosseum. It’s what I picture when I think of Rome: Gladiators, man-eating lions and, of course … Russell Crowe! Just imagine the labor that went into building such a place in A.D. 80. There used to be a wooden floor (located where that white platform in the picture is) where the games were held. Beneath it is the “backstage area” where both gladiator and animal prepared for whatever fate awaited them above.
A few more photos:
Next, it was on to Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum.
Honestly, I don’t remember much about the history we were given for Palatine Hill. I do remember climbing a bunch of stairs, once we left the Colosseum, it was raining on and off, and I was focused on keeping my camera dry. In any event, here are a few photos I shot along the way.
The Roman Forum I do remember much better, and I see why it’s affectionaly known as the “Caesar Shuffle” (according to the Rick Steves guide, anyway). Walking through the ancient stone road of the Forum was like a step back in ancient times when this place was the political, religious and commercial enter of Rome. I can imagine emperors in chariots and processions of high-ranking officials making their way from one end to the other.
We began our own Caesar’s shuffle at the Arch of Titus, which marks Rome’s victory over Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The inside of the Arch is decorated in scenes depicting the defeat over Israel (or Judaea, at the time) and other ornate carvings.
Also of note along the old road was the Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina in honor of the emperor of the same name and his wife. It must have been mighty grand in its day. See the green door? That was originally at ground level in Caesar’s day.
Here’s a little of what we saw after the tour on our walk back to the hotel. Since it was Sunday, the main road to the Colosseum was closed off to motor vehicles, making for a pleasant and safe stroll.
During the remaining time over our two days in Rome, we also wandered a bit around the Pantheon neighborhood, stopping for pizza, dinner at an outdoor cafe on Piazza Navona, and dropped by a couple of nearby churches. Churches in Rome are like nothing I’ve ever seen, and I am not talking about the grandest of the buildings of worship such as St. Peter’s Basilica. I mean regular neighborhood churches. For instance, we happened upon the Church of St. Ignazio di Loyola, located in the Piazza of the same name, and our jaws dropped. The church with its beautiful dome, artwork, sculptures and architecture is absolutely stunning and rivals anything you’ll see at St. Peter’s Basilica. If you don’t get to see the Sistine Chapel, or if the crowds at the Vatican scare you away, stop by this gorgeous church. It wasn’t very crowded, and we spent quite a bit of time going through this huge, magnificent place.
Another church we saw was The Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, dropping in on our way to Piazza Navona. I wish I had read about this church before going because come to find out, it is famous for the painting done by artist Caravaggio. Not as ornate or adorned as the Church of St. Ignazio, it was still beautiful to see.
A few more shots of a pizza stop and the famous Piazza Navona.
Final Stop ~ The Pantheon.
With our hotel being a stone’s throw from the Pantheon, our visit to Rome would not be complete without a look inside. Since we were scheduled for a 10:00 a.m. pickup on our final morning for the ride to Civitavecchia to meet the ship, we used the time after breakfast for a walk through this magnificent ancient masterpiece. After admiring the Greek-style portico and huge bronze doors, we entered this magnificent structure and were instantly mesmerized by Roman-style rotunda, the gorgeous dome and tombs of famous people including artist Raphael and modern Rome’s first two kings. This was a very special place, and one which I am glad to have admired for so long from a hotel window.
Our time in Rome was very brief, and there was so much we did not see including The Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain (which I reminded my husband about 100 times that it is under renovation). It is our hope to one day return to this amazing city.