Ciao bella! Rome and Vatican City

January 22, 2012

Kat: Rome. A city full of history from Emperors to Popes. A city with notoriously lax attitudes to time. A city where the vocal volume goes to eleven. Love it or leave it, Rome is one of the great cities of the world. And we spent the last week powering through the great landmarks of Rome and Vatican City with my parents in what is now known as hardcore tourism. None of this softy-soft wishy-washy let’s take a break and relax crap. Just keep tourin’ until your knees bleed with pain and the tingling sensation in your feet turns to numbness.

Justin: The first monument we visited was made to honour the first king in unified Italy, Victor Emmanuel. The building is somewhat derogatorily known as the wedding cake. It has been criticised for being too dense and too different from its immediate surroundings. Without a doubt it stands out, big, bulky, white, heavily ornamental and packed in with opulent sculptures and Romanesque themes. But not really as an eye sore in my opinion. Just a little Italian pride! Yes a little ostentatious and proud, but hey after all, we are in Italy. It’s cool here and it works!

Kat’s mum had the privilege of going up to the top and enjoying spectacular panoramic views from the roof. One of the highlights for me were the two quadriga, a two-wheeled chariot drawn by four horses sitting atop the building.  I’m a massive Ben-Hur fan so to slightly paraphrase Hunter S Thompson, “this is Ben-Hur country”.

Dah dah daaaaaah! The Coliseum

First main stop in Rome was none other than the Coliseum. Who can forget Ridley Scott’s Gladiator? An amazing movie which did the stadium justice through well used CGI. The coliseum wasn’t as large as I had initially imagined but we are talking about a stadium built nearly 2000 years ago, in that respect it was mighty impressive. Like Pompeii, the ingenuity of design, the effective tiered system and crowd control mechanisms were something to behold. The turf of the coliseum is barely visibly now, only the cavernous maze where lions and slaves sweatily awaited their fate remain. The ghosts of past tortured souls and groaning beats still lurk in that ancient air and dirt. The tiered system reflected the class division, these divisions are still part of most contemporary sporting stadiums.

Inside the coliseum

From the Coliseum we went to Palatine Hill. These two places really were the heart of Roman power and Empire. It dawned on me that we are progressively going back in time in terms of superpower, we started with the States (admittedly still a current superpower) then England, now Rome, former countries who ran vast empires which they never thought would eventually surrender their title of being the world’s dominant player. But kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, fortunately when they do fall important bits are left under the layers of time.

Ancient sculptures in the Vatican Museums
Ancient sculptures in the Vatican Museums

What are left are relics, crumbled stone depicting a glorious former age. I must admit prior to coming to this country I didn’t know too much about the Roman empire. Pompeii definitely opened my eyes and trawling through Palatine Hill cemented it further. Palatine Hill is part of the seven hills of Rome, the problem with Seven Hills is that I can’t think of that name without thinking of Aussie train announcements, oh how does one break deeply malevolent associations I wonder? I think in this instance chronic hypnotherapy is the only viable solution. The word palace is derived from Palatine Hill which accommodated the who’s who of Rome including, allegedly, its founders Romulus and Remus, as well as many affluent members during the Republican period and Emperors during the Empire. Speaking of dastardly associations I can’t get the republic to empire shift, or vice versa, without Star Wars popping up.

Definitely one of the stand outs in in the Italian trip was seeming Saint Sebastian’s catacombs located on the famous Appian Way. But the day didn’t start well… we walked around 4kms to see an ancient villa to find one of its entrances was closed, no staff available, and the nearest entrance was another few more kms away. My wife phoned to try and get an explanation and copped an Italian earful. She wasn’t impressed and lost it on the side of an ancient road eating a pork and broccoli sandwich.

Fortunately the catacombs of Saint Sebastian made up for this big time. Descending into them was like going into a deep and cavernous cellar of dead. It also continued the Last Crusade moments like going under the church/library we saw at Venice, fortunately their were no rats! The catacombs are a treasure trove of early Christian art. A lot of sarcophagi are dated in the early era of Christianity, amazing to see gospel vignettes depicted so long ago. St Paul’s and St Peter’s remains were also stored there while the church was outlawed. A lot of the persecuted and martyred Christians were buried there, so this spot was pivotal for the development of the Christian faith housing many of the early martyrs. An amazing experience!

Trevi Fountain, an Italian high earner – 3000 Euros a day!

Kat: To make up for our breakdown at the Appian Way, we walked to Trevi Fountain to throw our money away. Well, Justin did. I blatantly refused; after walking up and down the Appian Way for no reason due to Italian opening hours and their failure to do anything orderly or on time, I didn’t want to come to Rome ever again. Apparently 3000 euros are thrown into the fountain every day, as one hotelier said “they use it to build things.” But my Rome hatred did not last for long, as we entered the world’s smallest country, the Papal State.

Saint Peter's Basilica in the morning
Saint Peter’s Basilica in the morning

Vatican City is home to the greatest collection of religious artwork in the world. It has three out of four Ninja Turtles (Donatello’s main work is in Florence’s Duomo). As you walk into Saint Peter’s Basilica it’s hard not to say “Wow!”

Jaw-dropping? Incredible? Simply put, one of the most beautiful churches in the world. Light fell from the large windows atop marble columns, below enormous classical sculptures. Along the intricate floor ran circle upon circle of decorative patterns, leading to the enormous cupola designed by Michelangelo himself. The arches of the Basilica reached up to the heights of heaven, culminating in a stained glass window of a dove breaking through the sun surrounded by a centerpiece by Bernini.

The interior of the church

Being a talented lad, Michelangelo was a sculptor, architect and painter; the genius of his works remains visible today. On the right as you enter is his most famous sculpture after David, the Pieta, something he put together when he was only 23. It’s the only sculpture he ever signed. A young Mary holds Jesus in her arms, limp from his execution on the cross. In every alcove of the basilica, there is a new discovery; sculptures of the saints, places of prayer, the papal keys embellished in seals on the floor.

Michelangelo’s Pieta
The philosophers in the Raphael Rooms

From the Raphael rooms it is a quick walk up the stairs, down the stairs and up the stairs again to the Sistine Chapel, a highlight of anyone’s trip to Italy, or Europe for that matter. The high roofed church is home to the finger of heaven, the ET touch between Adam and God before the fall of man. The ceiling depicts the history of creation: the fall of Satan, the relationship between God and man, the temptation of the serpent, the expulsion from Eden and the building of Noah’s Arc. The ceiling highlights Michelangelo’s talent as a sculptor; looking up the painting appears three dimensional, the columns and arches popping out from the roof, the curtains almost real.

Pope and the gang: classy souvenirs outside the Vatican

That night, before my parents left for Australia, we went for dinner at a bonafide trattoria. Dry garlic hanging from the roof. Check. Cheery Italian waiter. Check. Loud discussions about someone called Mario. Check. Red checkered tablecloths. Check. Our dinner was served in glorious style; my Gorgonzola and speck gnocchi resembling a fancy macaroni cheese. Tears were shed as we said goodbye to the two baboons; they’d been great travel companions for five weeks.

Castel Saint Angelo from the Tiber river

The following day we took it easy, we had been walking up to 8kms a day in order to see everything. So us young people were pretty tired. On our last day in Italy we headed back towards Vatican City, stopping at the Castel Saint Angelo to gorge on yet another decorated papal palace. The Borgia Pope decided to covert Emperor Hadrian’s tomb into a fortress… I wonder why? If you’re familiar with history you’ll recognise the nefarious Borgia name, infamous for poisonings, power plays and a video game called Assassin’s Creed II. He needed all the protection he could get!

The view from Castel Saint Angelo

And so we left Rome on the overnight train to Munich, which sounds like it should be a song. Uscita Roma! If only Australia could enter Eurovision.

xx Kat and Justin


Hi guys! Wow what a read, it’s a nice way to brighten my 6:30am train ride to work this morning! Actually Justin I again giggles at your Seven Hills comment as I definitely believe your version may be slightly more ‘beautiful’ than mine…
I hope you both got to rest your weary legs on the train to Munich, 8kms a day, nuts!!!

Well guys enjoy the next leg of your trip and I will wait for the next update, take care, xxx

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