Our last big trip of the year added another new country to our ever growing list. We boarded a plane at Frankfurt am Main, and disembarked at Fiumicino on the coast of Rome. We stepped out of wet chilly air, and into a delightful heat that kissed our tired skin like little butterfly wings.
Since it was late when we arrived, we ordered our breakfast to be served in our room the next morning, and fell into bed with that same Roman air brushing over us through the cracked windows.
It was a bit surreal the next morning as we stepped onto the small cobbled streets. Tourists and locals alike were already bustling around trattoria tables, sipping their morning coffee, organizing their wares, and snapping photo’s of everything in site. We fell into the latter category, especially as we stepped foot into Piazza della Rotunda. I so wish I’d recorded a video of the moment we turned the corner and suddenly the buildings on either side sandwiched the Pantheon. As it came into full view, I was in absolute awe. Never did I think I would ever stand before this ancient piece of architecture, but there we were, staring up it’s columns like wide-eyed children gazing up at Santa.
Originally, the consul Agrippa erected the building in 27-25 BC. The land it’s built on had once been owned by Pompey and Marc Antony, and was called the Field of Mars. After a couple of fires destroyed the building in 80 AD and 110 AD, the Pantheon was restored and rebuilt by the emperors of the times: Domitian and Hadrian. It isn’t certain if the Pantheon was actually a temple used to worship all the gods. While it held statues to honor gods such as Mars and Venus, it’s possible that it was used as an imperial representative building. It’s thought that Hadrian held court here.
In 609, the Pantheon was given to the Pope Boniface IV by Emperor Phocas, and was converted into a Christian Church. The official name of the Pantheon is Santa Maria ad Martyres and is a Roman Catholic Church that continues to hold mass. (Wikipedia)
Unfortunately, Tristan and I didn’t view the inside of this marvelous building. The line was exceptionally long, and we had an appointment with our next big site: the Colosseum.
While the transportation system in Rome is seemingly easy to use, I chose for us to walk to our destinations as I’d heard there’s so much to see everywhere you go. I’m glad for this decision, because as exhausting as it was to pound the pavement everywhere we went, there truly was so much to look at. It was difficult to take it all in – difficult to not just stand and stare for hours at each building, ruin, and statue. As it was in Colmar, it was also easy to imagine yourself in ancient Rome, sandals slapping the stones and dodging the business of the markets and streets. Bread, pastas, and meats pushed their aroma’s into the air – our stomachs growled constantly whether or not we were hungry because of the delicious smells all around us.
Ruins of columns and theaters and buildings sprouted up all around us; so much so, Tristan became frustrated that I constantly wanted to stop and take photo’s of everything. And, as the Pantheon peaked through the buildings in the street, so too, did the Colosseum. It slowly filled the horizon like a monster crawling out of its hole. It was amazing. I loved the way the rays of the sun speared through the windows and onto the streets.
In the photo, you’ll notice the exposed brick on the right. Tristan and I rested here before our scheduled time to tour the Colosseum. Initially, I assumed this was simply a modern design, however as we later toured the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, I learned otherwise.
As we entered the Colosseum, our gaze immediately went skyward at the utter vastness at the ceilings above us. Luckily we had skip the line passes, which also included the “full experience.” This included the Colosseum floor, but not underneath the floor as we’d assumed (sadly. Tristan and I were both disappointed by this). We breezed through the museum area, only stopping at things that snagged our attention, as it was crowded.
We stepped out onto the platform, the sun beating down on us, and turned a circle to picture the seats crowded with ancient Romans, the Emperor, and the gladiators on the floor. As always, I brushed my fingers along the old stone, slipped off my sandal to feel the vibrations of old through my toes, and breathed in the Roman atmosphere.
Tristan and I worked through the Colosseum pretty quickly and worked our way over to Palatine Hill.
We were both surprised at the vastness of Palatine Hill. Our tickets included the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum, however, by the time we were finished with Palatine Hill, we were walked out. We were able to see the Roman Forum from Palatine Hill, and we both decided that this would suffice for now.
Palatine Hill has a vast history. As I was reading on britannica.com, “Rome was founded on the Palatine.” Both prehistoric and imperial palaces have been discovered on the Hill. Further, the Roman legend of its founding began with Remus and Romulus abandoned at the foot of the Hill where a she-wolf sheltered them in her cave. They were then raised by a shepherd whose flocks grazed upon the Hill. Thus Rome grew like arteries away from its heart.
Palatine Hill is a cluster of temples and houses dating back to the Republican era of Rome. Later, it was the birthplace of Augustus and it was here that he maintained his residence. With our “full experience” tickets, we were able to wonder through what was left of his domain. It was a little disappointing because while we were able to see his personal study and another room behind plexiglass, we were unable to explore anywhere else because it was closed.
There were also remnants of Livia’s house. Livia Drusilla was the wife of Augustus. She was influential in his decisions regarding state and exceptionally devoted to him. Her son, Tiberius, from a previous marriage, later became emperor.
As we worked towards finding our way out of Palatine Hill, we wrapped around the backside of the emperor’s palace where we once again ran into this creative bit of brick laying. It was here that I realized this was an amazing piece of Roman engineering. I marveled at it for quite some time, amazed at the pattern and it’s seemingly accurate measurements. It completely hypnotized me.
After our tour of Palatine Hill, Tristan decided he’d had enough of walking around in the heat (he’d thrown on sweatpants in the 80 degree Italian sun), so we caught an Uber back to the Pantheon for gelato before the short trek back to the hotel for some downtime. Later that evening, we met a coworker of mine for dinner at a suggested restaurant, then found our way to the crowded Trevi Fountain. We stupidly forgot to throw our coins in to make a wish!
The next day was our early bird Vatican tour. We left the hotel around 6:30 am, strolling in the brisk morning air. A coworker had mentioned that this was her favorite time to explore as she was able to see the locals opening the stores, walking to work, and the crowds nearly nonexistent. This stillness in the morning was such a relaxing time, even as we walked to our meeting point for our Vatican tour. I enjoyed seeing the market set up in front of Castel Sant’Angelo, and once again, Saint Peter’s Basilica appearing around the buildings (notice the dome behind Castel Sant’Angelo).
If you’re anything like me, you recognize Castel Sant’Angelo from the book or movie Angels & Demons. While it’s now a museum, it was orginally built in 123BC as a mausoleum for the emperor Hadrian and his family (touropia.com). Other emperors were also interred here, but when the Visigoths invaded in 410, their ashes were scattered. The building was eventually repurposed as a fortress for the popes. It’s an incredible structure to see at all times of the day.
We met our tour group in a quiet square outside the city walls of the Vatican. I savored a cafe latte as we waited for the guides to check everyones tickets and organize us into groups. We then set off to begin our tour with breakfast at a small cafe just inside the city walls.
Our breakfast was peaceful and cool in the morning Italian air. We enjoyed pastries, pancakes, a meat plate (that Tristan devoured), and I, of course, partook in more coffee. After our breakfast, we met up with our tour group to begin our 4 hour trek through the Vatican museum, the Sistine Chapel, Saint Peter’s Square, and Saint Peter’s Basilica.
The Vatican is interesting because it’s its own city within the city of Rome. It began as a marshy area on the bank of the Tiber called Ager Vaticanus. It was home to gardens and villas owned by Agrippina, the mother of emperor Caligula, and a small circus for charioteers. It also has a network of necropolis’ of which the apostle Peter is entombed. Around 324, the emperor Constantine began the construction of a large church. The first palaces were built in the 12th and 13th centuries by the popes Eugene III and Innocenzo III (Vatican State).
Our tour guide taught us that it wasn’t until Mussolini that Vatican City was given its full independence in the Lateran Treaties in 1929. Mussolini recognized the immense power held by the Pope and Catholic religion, and chose to work with it instead of against. The pope was given an army, police force, post office, rail station, and country retreat (History Learning Site). Since then, the Vatican has maintained its own state within Rome where the Swiss Guard Corps stand guard and Corps of the Gendarmerie maintain order at the gates.
The Vatican museum had to be my favorite of our tour. The beautiful collection of statues, art, frescos, and history were so enlightening. And within the museum, my favorite area were the old rooms of the popes. Within one of these rooms, said to be the first decorated, the famous fresco by Raffael blanketed the walls. The color remained so vivid, the story seemingly so fresh. It was a wonder to see this famous piece of art in person. I wanted to stand and gaze at it for hours, memorizing each fold in the cloth of the robes, the face of da Vinci as Plato, and the enormous arches framing the scene. Raffael even painted himself as Apelles and Michelangelo as Heraclitus. It’s absolutely stunning.
My other favorite rooms were those of the Borgia’s. The utter opulence of each fresco, tile, and painting were breathtaking. The Borgia’s were well known for their excessive spending, frivolity, and gold. As some of the oldest rooms, you know I took my little sandal off and pressed my toes against the richly colored tiles, and ran my fingers along the walls I was able to. I closed my eyes and imagined myself in an audience before the pope.
We next entered the Sistine Chapel where we were required to be silent and not allowed to take photo’s. I abided by this rule, however Tristan sneakily captured photo’s with his phone as the ushers turned their backs. As what may be a bit of karma, none of the photo’s were in focus due to his hasty hiding of his phone. I could do nothing by smile at his admission to this when we exited the chapel. He later said that it was his favorite part of our tour. He too marveled at the history within its walls and painted on its ceiling.
The last stop on our Vatican tour was Saint Peter’s Square and Basilica. The first word that comes to mind when describing the Basilica is massive. I don’t know that I’ve ever been in a building with ceilings so high. Our necks craned back and took it all in.
Our tour guide explained to us that the painted letters in the dome measured 7 feet tall! She also mentioned that several football fields could fit underneath the top of the dome to the floor. A statue of a cherub was taller than me.
Our tour ended here, and after Tristan and I handed in our ear pieces, we took a moment to turn circles before exciting the basilica to continue on our way.
Here’s where our exploration of Rome was supposed to take us to Piazza del Popolo, the Spanish Steps, Villa Medici, and Villa Borghese… but we decided that we’d had enough of sightseeing and made our way to the Lego store (yes, the Lego store). I sat in a window while Tristan meandered through the Lego’s, then we headed back to the Pantheon for lunch. We both took a nap, went and had dinner, then called it a night.
Our flight home began with 80 degree sunshine and ended in chilly Deutschland fall gloom. We were tired, ready to go home, and utterly satisfied with our last big vacation before the new year. I think Tristan and I both completely enjoyed Rome. For myself, I want to return to see all the things we didn’t on this trip. I want to roam the Roman Forum, visit the Trastevere neighborhood, and explore some of the other hidden gems of Rome.
Enjoy the gallery below!