All Roads Lead to Rome

Itinerary: 

  • Day 1: Venice
  • Days 2-3: Florence
  • Days 4-6: Naples
  • Days 7-12: Rome

RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ Chile → Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina→  Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan

Dates: July 20-31, 2014

Our Odyssey: 

Capping off our nearly four months in Europe by visiting Rome was fitting. From London, throughout mainland Europe, and even in Morocco, we saw remnants of the Roman Empire in the form of ruins, old city walls, ancient amphitheaters, and in the very languages spoken in Europe.

After we got to Rome and checked in to our hotel, a Marriott we booked using reward points, we went on a free walking tour that, while generally not very informative or interesting, took us to the Pantheon. This is the single best preserved structure leftover from ancient Rome and my personal favorite as well. The Pantheon was built as a temple to honor all (pan) of the gods (theos) in 27 B.C., but was destroyed in a number of fires. The structure that we see today was commissioned by the emperor Hadrian in 127 A.D. The ceiling inside is a grand dome 142 feet high, and 142 feet long- the largest dome built until the Renaissance. Although originally a temple for the Roman gods, it was later adapted to be a Catholic temple.

The next day, a Sunday, was the last Sunday of the month and therefore was the “free day” at the Vatican, meaning that the Vatican museum and St. Peter’s Basilica were all free to enter (instead of the standard 16 euros per person). We got up early to try to beat the rush of people who would be taking advantage of the free day, and we ended up waiting in line for about an hour and a half, getting in to the museum just a half hour after it opened. The highlight in the museum was, of course, the Sistine Chapel and its magnificent ceiling painting by Michelangelo. We used a Rick Steves audioguide to learn about the painting more in depth and how the panes tell stories from the Old Testament, starting with creation through Noah’s ark. We spent about 45 minutes in the chapel sitting on a bench along the side and craning our necks up to the ceiling. It was an impressive experience that I obviously cannot really capture in words.

Rick Steves’ audio guide gave us a tip about leaving the Sistine Chapel for St. Peter’s Basilica- rather than exiting through the main exit, we exited through a door in the back right corner that leads directly to the basilica, skipping the line entirely. This probably saved us a few hours of time. We spent about an hour in the basilica, again using a Rick Steves audio guide to learn about the amazing building. We also had the privilege of observing mass. This place is absolutely huge. Beneath the dome in the center is an alterpiece that is seven stories tall in and of itself, still leaving plenty of room between it and the peak of the dome. The lettering alonge the walls, which quotes everything Jesus ever said to Peter according to the Bible, is seven feet tall. Everything is so large it is hard to even fathom it. This particular basilica was built in the Renaissance, with the dome being the work of Michelangelo, but there was an earlier church in this spot that lasted for about 1,200 years. It is alleged that Peter died in this place, and that is why a church was built here named for him. He is also considered the first pope.

The grandeur of this basilica was intentional- during the Renaissance, the Catholic church wanted to ensure that people did not leave the religion, and to do so, they would build these large churches to impress the people. Basically, it was propaganda.

After our time in the basilica, we stepped out into St. Peter’s Square, the heart of the Vatican City, to eat some sandwiches we had packed. We noticed that the square was packed with people, and that they were all looking up towards one particular window. Additionally, several large screens were set up, with an image zoomed in on this open window. We had learned that this particular window was part of the Pope Francis’ apartment, and it suddenly occurred to us- was the Pope about to speak?

We had not been outside even ten minutes when a man in a white robe appeared in the window and began to address the crowd. There we were, in the middle of St. Peter’s Square, on the Vatican’s free day, listening to the Pope speak. It was unreal, and we were astounded. We still feel so exceptionally lucky for how this whole day had panned out. There are some people who were there among us who saved up every penny they could to one day make a pilgrimage to the Vatican to see the Pope, and we were fortunate enough to be there sharing that space with so many others witnessing what would be a major life event for many of them. It was truly humbling. This day will always be a highlight of our trip.

We spent our next days in Rome exploring the delicious food (more gelato, pizza and the original Italian ice- grattachecca) and the off-the-beaten path neighborhoods of Trastavere and the Jewish Ghetto. We also spent a day visiting the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.

Being at the Colosseum was very cool- it is very well preserved and intact. You can really visualize what it would have been like to see a fight here. It thunderstormed while we were there, which created an eerie atmosphere fitting for a place where killing was a sport. Built in 80 A.D. at the peak of the empire, the inaugeration celebration consisted of 100 days of games where 2,000 men and 9,000 animals were killed. Employees had to spray perfume around to hide the stench of blood and death. Gladiator fights continued until the 5th century.

Just across the street sits the ruins of the Roman Forum, the social center of the empire. You can see the remains of various temples, the spot where Julius Cesar’s body was burned, and triumphal arches that military commanders would parade through when returning from a major conquest. One of the most interesting set of ruins we saw were the Temple of Vesta and the apartments of the Vestal Virgins. Girls were selected at a young age to serve the temple as a Vestal Virgin, responsible for tending the flame that had to continually burn and sworn to remain a virgin during their 30 year term. After their service they were allowed to marry and have children, but if it was found that they had broken their vow of chastity during their term, they would be killed. So long as they met the expectations, they were honored by the people of Rome. They had grand apartments with gardens in the Forum and had special box seats at the Colosseum.

That night we went out to dinner at a local restaurant where we had three pasta meals that were all amazingly delicious and a liter of house wine for 6 euros. It was a perfect date night.

Our next day in Rome was our last before heading to Phuket, Thailand, so we decided to take advantage of the hotel’s free champagne at the breakfast buffet. I think we drank all of the champagne they had available, and after a few hours we were dancing on the balcony, laughing and having a great time before crashing for an afternoon nap. It was a pretty fun and relaxing way to spend our last day in Europe before traveling 30 hours from Rome to Phuket.

Ending our European adventure in Rome left an impression on us. After lasting for nearly a thousand years, first as a republic and later as an empire, all that is left of this ancient civilization are architectural wonders and works of art representing places that must have been glorious in their time but are now only shadows of what they once were. Comparing our own modern day society to the longeavity of ancient Rome can make you feel quite insignificant. We can only hope that maybe a thousand years from now people will learn about us, and that we won’t be forgotten.

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