By the time we arrive in Rome we’re very comfortable in Italy. We’ve been in Italy for over 2 weeks now and we feel like we’ve got a small window into Italian culture. But once in Rome, we quickly see how different it is from the other parts of Italy we’ve visited so far. Hustling, bustling, running and frantic, it is New York City and LA rolled into one. Fast paced AND sprawling. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s bright. It’s Rome!
We stayed in the area of Policlinico in another airbnb.com rental. This time, renting a room in an apartment with some sweet Italian girls. We had a nice time staying there, but it was a bit like a sorority. At one point, a girl knocked on our door and started talking to us as if she lived there. I realize she is one of their roommates. I had never seen her before and we’d been staying there for 4 days….? It was great, but a little, um, crowded at times.
We arrived in the evening and our first order of business was dinner. We asked our host, Irene, if she had any recommendations. Immediately she says “Ah yes! Mizzica! It’s Sicilian food. Delicious. Get the arancini! They’re delicious! I can’t really describe them, but so good!” Ok! We ask if it’s fancy and she says “Oh no, it’s not fancy. It’s not a restaurant.” Not a restaurant? What does that mean?
It means something between a deli and a super crowded bar. It’s called a tavolo caldo. Basically, they it’s a lot of fresh, pre-made items, pizzettes, baked goods, etc. and a giant dessert case (think cannoli, cream puffs, marzipan). They have cakes to order for parties, gelato by the cone or the kilo and granitas. Oh yea, and they serve alcohol, so you can go there for apperitivo. It’s pretty much got everything you need.
Thing is, if you’re American, as I happen to be, you’re really into the concept of forming a line. And, if you don’t happen to be Roman, which I don’t, you probably aren’t very loud. You probably don’t like to talk as much as an Italian person. These two things get in your way when you are at Mizzica on any night of the week. Heck, day, night, morning, afternoon, tea time, whenever. The place is always packed! Eric got it right away, “You have to treat it like a busy bar in the Mission on Saturday night. Just elbow your way to the front of the bar and get your order in.” Needless to say, I’m a big square and my baby Italian fled in the crush of people. Eric handled it though and got our food!
Another food treasure in Italy! Spinach Arancini, cheese and spinach, inside a ball of some sort of rice (not long grain, it’s like a flattened sphere), breaded and fried! So tasty it must be bad for you.
On our first real day we took it slow and essentially took a long walk that brings you through several main attractions. We started in Piazza del Popolo and visited the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. A little known gem that houses two amazing works by Caravaggio. I’ve always loved the first painting pictured here because it was the first time I remember seeing art from this period that was ironic.
We kept going through Piazza del Popolo and marveled at the giant obelisk in the middle of the Piazza. Our path led us to the Spanish Steps where we enjoyed gelato just like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.
Then we made our way to the Trevi Fountain, one of the symbols of Rome. It must be selective memory but I do not remember it being this crowded with tourists last time I was there! And that was in August! Once we saw the mob scene at the fountain we got an idea of how popular Rome was as a tourist destination. The whole trip we’ve been saying that by the time we get to Italy, the crowds will be gone because it will be September. Wrong! Rome seems to be so popular that it will never not be crowded. Anyway, we did manage to find a seat and marvel and this giant marble behemoth.
The next day we visited the Coliseum. Because of our luck, it happened to be “European Heritage Day” and it was free to visit! Woohoo! We decided to spend the 5 euro and do the audioguide, which was well worth it. I had been to the Coliseum before and had no tour whatsoever. I don’t recommend this, because then you’re walking around one of the most important archealogical sites in the world with no information. Then you start to feel bad because you’re “unimpressed” with the Coliseum. If you go with a guide (audio guide or person) you definitely learn much more and the Colliseum takes on new meaning.
Then we took a siesta at a cafe not too far from the Coliseum. We realized that we were in the same neighborhood as Basilica di Santa Clemente-a church our friend Noeleen had recommended to us. It’s a modern day Catholic Church, on top of a 4th century Christian church, on top of a 1st century Pagan Temple (they were succesively built on each others foundations)! Amazing! Unfortunately we didn’t take pictures but I recommend a visit. You don’t often see the history of Rome laid out in such a literal way.
One of the main things Eric wanted to see in Rome was the Sistine Chapel. One thing we were really inspired by in Italy was all the Renaissance art. Just looking at paintings, sculptures and drawings by the Masters makes you want to pick up your pencil and have at it!
I had never been the the Sistine Chapel even though this was my 3rd time in Rome. I had always avoided it because of the infamous lines, but it actually wasn’t that bad. The Sistine Chapel is located within the Vatican Museums (which are essentially the Catholic Church’s treasure trove). The museum opens at 8:45am and so we decided to be in line by 8:00am. We did and we were about 100 yards from the entrance. Once the clock struck 8:45am, we were inside within 10 minutes. Easy! On the advice of Noeleen, we made a beeline for the Sistine Chapel to beat the crowds. We would go back and visit the other parts later. When we got there there was a lot of people of course, but not a crush and you could move around fairly easily. The problem is the tour groups that just take over the entire museum and cause traffic jams. Anyway, it really wasn’t so bad and we got to spend a good chunk of time there.
Naturally, they don’t let you take pictures of the Sistine Chapel so I can’t post any of our own, but I’ll put this up for reference.
The thing is, it’s the Sistine Chapel right? There is certainly a lot of build up to seeing it. You’ve heard about it all your life as the pinnacle of great art. The Master Michelangelo’s finest work. However, when you first walk in, you’re a bit underwhelmed. But! This is only because there is so much to take in. Even this photo above, it’s got a lot happening right? But if you focus in on small sections, you begin to realize just how amazing the forms and bodies are. They are so incredibly life like that the more you look at the ceiling, the more you start to think someone is going to fall down on top of you! It’s because Michelangelo was a Sculptor, so he really knew the human form, and was able to portray it in paint, even though that wasn’t his chosen medium. The more we looked, the more we were amazed and the more we realized what a Master Michelangelo was, and what a special place the Sistine Chapel is. It really lives up to the legend and is worth the lines and crowds for a visit. After a solid 30 minutes, we made our way out to the rest of the museum. Here are a few photos from some sections we enjoyed.
After lunching outside of the Vatican, we came back to visit St. Peter’s Basilica itself. On the advice of my friend Amanda, we visited climbed all the way to the top of the Domes to see the mosaics there. Definitely worth it! These mosaics were incredibly impressive. They had weight and volume like I’d never seen in that medium.
But we weren’t done climbing! We kept on going all the way to the top to look out over the entire country of Vatican City.
When we descended we visited the inside of the Basilica and took a turn around the enormous Piazza in front.
On our last day we enjoyed Mizzica one last time and set off to visit the gardens at the Villa Borghese. The famous art museum at the Villa Borghese is so popular that it is by appointment only. When we were walking around the gardens, which were turning into their fall colors, we came across the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, or the National Modern Art Gallery. Actually, when we first came across it we thought it was the Galleria and wanted to just give it a try getting in. When we walked in, we realized it was a completely different museum and said, Why not?
Because it’s Rome, and everything there is truly old, the modern art museum means art from the late 1800’s-early 1900’s. There was almost no one there, and the gallery is chocked full beautiful, wonderous paintings. Mostly full of Italian artists, so it was really wonderful to see some “local art”. Each of their sculptures were truly arresting as well.
As we’re strolling along we come across a room that seems familiar. As I look around, I realize I’m in a room with a Monet “Waterlilies” Painting, a Cezanne, a Degas and two Van Gogh’s! What a surprise! This unassuming little museum has a few tricks hidden up it’s sleeve! I couldn’t believe that there was almost no one else visiting this museum and it had so much wonderful work to be seen! Just goes to show that the other tourist sites in Rome are truly overworked and there are plenty of treasures to see outside the big names.
We had our last pizza dinner that night and our last italian gelato. Delicious meals to end a delicious trip. After spending a little over 3 weeks in Italy, we really felt like we were getting the hang of the country, even if only a little bit. My baby italian was getting stronger and we learned to roll with the chaos and uncertainty that is Italian infrastructure. We did learn that our favorite times were those spent in the quieter, smaller cities in Italy and we will definitely be exploring those locales more on our next visit.
The next day we took the train to France for a few days in Nice and Monte Carlo. We were excited for a change of pace and a new country. I’ll tell you all about our trip to Monte Carlo in our next post!