Last year, my husband and I flew around the world in 17 days, visiting Dubai, the Maldives, Phuket and ending with a flourish for New Year’s in Sydney, Australia. Not exactly relaxed, but working gals need to catch as catch can. If one can traverse the world in 17 days, Italy in 10 days should be a snap. It had been 30 years since I visited Venice, Rome and the Amalfi coast, and I had never visited Tuscany. So off we went.
Buono Giorno Rome
With only 36 hours in Rome, we had to pick our spots. Fortunately, our hotel was near the Spanish Steps and shopping heaven. Unfortunately, our hotel was what could best be called “tired.” Note to self: Be wary of hotel sites that trumpet "old world charm."
Note to self: Be wary of hotel sites that trumpet "old world charm."
I am not that picky about hotel rooms for business travel, but for vacations I want a big enough room so I don’t find myself wishing I were home instead. I want a room where my husband and I both can stand up at the same time. Sadly our hotel disappointed on both counts.
Window shopping in Rome for the fashion minded is a feast for the eyes—the Italians know how to dress—but on closer examination there is little you can find that would not be cheaper in the United States. Moreover, with temperatures in the 80s, the heavy winter coats that are part of the fall line offered by the leading designers—well, we just didn’t feel the love or have the desire.
Doing battle at the Colosseum
Our first stop was the Colosseum, which has undergone extensive restoration since my last visit when it was covered with scaffolding and green, smog-protecting netting. Located in the center of Rome, the Colosseum is the ancient world's largest amphitheater and has been estimated to hold at least 50,000 people. And from the looks of the line to buy tickets (about $15 a piece) 50,000 people were there.
Once in the Colosseum, we realized we had made a mistake by not booking a tour, of which there were hundreds. With no guide we only walked around and gazed at the admittedly beautiful site — that is until the heavens opened with a Texas style downpour, complete with thunder and lightning. We discovered that the Colosseum has a lot in common with modern stadiums. There just isn’t the capacity to provide cover from the elements for everyone. With that, off we went.
Vatican City, its own country, is about the size of Central Park. However those without citizenship or papal permission are limited to the Vatican Museum which comprises over 50 galleries containing the Roman Catholic Church's impressive art collection amassed over the centuries. Tours culminate at the Sistine Chapel with its famous ceiling painted by Michelangelo. Heeding the advice of friends we booked a tour in advance. There are so many tours from which to choose. Figuring this would be a once in a lifetime experience, we were drawn to the "VIP: tour that said “visit the Sistine Chapel alone, after the crowds have departed, with your own tour guide….”
As we waited in front of the entrance with literally thousands of others for our 2 p.m. appointment, I felt a sense of “What are we getting ourselves into?” Our guide arrived holding a sign with our name and I breathed a sigh of relief. She quickly whisked us in the door and up an elevator to the first floor. She then suggested we buy postcards to send to our friends that would show the Vatican postmark.
In nearly every room there was a retail area selling pictures of the Pope and other spiritual souvenirs.
We then proceeded on the tour, which was the exact same tour that anyone else would have except that our guide was one of only 280 approved Vatican guides with a vast array of knowledge about the art, the Vatican’s history and a passion for the church — all things you want in a guide. One of the most important things we learned is that 25,000 tourists visit the Vatican Museum every day, and it felt like we were all crammed in the un-air conditioned corridors housed with admittedly breathtaking art. In nearly every room there was a retail area selling pictures of the Pope and other spiritual souvenirs.
In short, the Vatican tour is a cash cow for the Church.
When we finally arrived at the Sistine Chapel, we asked if we would be there alone and our guide replied that of course, she would leave us alone to spend as much time as we wanted. What she didn’t say was that there would be all of the other groups crammed in as well. For those of us who are claustrophobic, the beauty and spiritual wonder were hard to absorb in the jammed packed chapel. And those of us hoping for a moment of spiritual contemplation were jarred as people whispered (OK, talked) loudly, babies cried and a stern voice admonished everyone: “Silencio.”
Our guide was to meet us outside the chapel, yet when we exited, all too quickly, she was nowhere to be found. We saw two exits, chose one and started walking. We never saw her again, though to be fair, she did text us asking where we were. How she thought she would find us in the throng of exiting masses I don't know. In retrospect I’m glad we saw the Vatican. I now have a desire to see a good documentary on it as well as the Coliseum in the comfort of my home without the crowds…and with A/C.
Far from the crowd
Maybe it was the jet lag, the crowds or that everyone was a tourist, but we were “Romed out" after only 24 hours. Fortunately, a client who works for an Italian company suggested his favorite restaurant. Da Felice, located in a suburban neighborhood, is way off the tourist path.
We spent time walking the neighborhood, greeting the residents and envisioning the way locals live. There was an ambience and grace that we simply did not find among the crush of tourists. We were delighted that we were the only Americans in this family run restaurant with a daily changing menu. We enjoyed a sumptuous meal of Spaghetti Carbonara with a local brunello, polished off with the best tiramisu I ever had. All was right with the world.
We left Rome determined to return — but next time not stay at the Spanish Steps and find a non-tourist experience.