Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Sistine Chapel, Saint Peter’s, & the Colosseum — Our tour of Rome

by Richard L. Weaver II

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” said Saint Ambrose, in 387 A.D. Some aspects of this popular aphorism cannot be avoided. For example, as you get closer and closer to the city, traffic begins backing up, and you wonder — appropriately — if you’re ever going to see the city. Traffic is horrendous, and our excursion guide told us it is that way all the time. The best advice she gives to tourists is, “Don’t drive in Rome.”

A comment like that, “Don’t drive in Rome,” doesn’t just refer to the amount of traffic; it refers to Roman drivers as well. Watching our bus driver maneuver was an amazing display of negotiation and orchestration. Every move, in a bus full of 50 people, requires plotting, scheming, and skillful operation. It isn’t just the small cars going in and out of traffic and trying to enter already full lanes, it is the thousands of motor scooters (Vespas) following the middle area between the lanes of traffic — zipping along on the right and left, then crossing between and among the cars. Viewed from above, as we did from the seat of our excursion bus, it looks like chaos — crowded, clogged, and going nowhere fast — and yet it is a spirited, high-octane, gutsy chaos that reveals a zestful dynamism that is positive, aggressive and, finally, with patience, successful.

Just an aside about Rome traffic has to do with trying to cross a Roman street. Not only do automobiles not obey the traffic signals, but the notorious Vespas appear suddenly out of nowhere to wreak havoc with attempts to cross the street. The best advice is to latch onto natives, and let their expertise be your guide.

The drive into Rome from the port town of Civitavechhia takes 1½ hours, some of that on a 4-lane highway — which should be 8-lanes just to service the traffic. On the way, we passed the small port city where our bus-tour guide, Valerie, lives — a 21-year-old, attractive, female, college student studying Italian, English, and Chinese. She told us about her interest in rock music (and the groups she likes, e.g. “Guns & Roses,” “Queen,” and “Kiss”), her interest in moving to Los Angeles, her car, and some of the things she and her “spinster” (her word) girlfriends enjoy doing. It wasn’t about sightseeing, explaining things we were seeing along the way, or even about Rome and what we could expect; it was about her, her life, and her interests.

We passed a McDonald’s and sitting in the second row of seats at the front of the bus, I asked Valerie if she likes McDonald’s. She said she goes there at least once a week for a cheeseburger, fries with curry sauce, and a coke. She said, “I love Coca-Cola.”

Although Valerie was not one of our better guides as far as her historical knowledge and amount of information, she gave us insight into the life of teenagers in Italy. She probably learned as much from all of us as we learned from her. She proved her English acumen at reciting one tongue-twister, and we taught her two others: “She sells seashells down by the seashore,” and “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood.” I wrote these two in a notebook she provided for me.

After picking up a tour guide for Rome, we went directly to the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica, both located in the one-half mile square, smallest country in the world — Vatican City. Although the Sistine Chapel was crowded shoulder-to-shoulder (we had 20-30 minutes there), the line to get into Saint Peter’s Basilica went around the entire Saint Peter’s Square — almost a mile-and-a-half we were told. The Basilica takes its name from Saint Peter who was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and who is buried there. We went directly to the front of the line, took less than 15-20 minutes to get in (because we had a reservation), and then spent almost an hour (way too long!) inside. Our guide was not only knowledgeable, she wanted us to see and experience everything in this massive, marble, memorial to dead Popes — beginning with the first ones. We would have preferred a more balanced approach, because our next stop was the Coliseum where we had just 15-20 minutes to see everything and use the restrooms.

Two impressive sights within Saint Peter’s Basilica are Michelangelo’s “Pieta” and Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Pulpit. The Pieta depicts the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother, Mary, after the crucifixion. The Pieta is in the first chapel to the right as one enters the basilica, and was moved to this location in the 18th century. Bernini’s Pulpit is an 85-foot high Baroque baldachin over the high alter in Saint Peter’s. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, canopies were used for various purposes.

We became even more aware of our guide’s predisposition toward Saint Peter’s when we exited the Basilica into Saint Peter’s Square only to realize that Pope Bemedict XVI — elected on April 19, 2005 — was on site. Visiting a nearby museum, they had a large screen television set up in the Square that followed his every move, and chairs were everywhere for people to sit and view his presence. Our guide remarked how lucky we were to be there when the Pope was visiting. Truly, she was in awe.

We stopped for lunch at the Ristorante Tanagra where we were served pasta with tomato sauce, peas, potatoes, and two hamburger patties, along with tiramisu for dessert. There was champagne, wine, and bottled water as well. It was an adequate lunch but nothing spectacular.

The Roman Colosseum — our last stop in Rome — is a colossal structure and the largest ever built during the Roman empire. It is one of Rome’s most popular tourist attractions. Known to seat 50,000 spectators, it was used for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles such as mock sea battles, animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on classical mythology. It remained in use for nearly 500 years with the last recorded games being played as recently as the 6th century. Following its use for entertainment in the early medieval era, at various times it was used for housing, workshops, quarters for a religious order, a fortress, a quarry, and a Christian shrine. Its current damaged condition resulted both from earthquakes and stone robbers.

We were already running late, and the bus ride back to the ship (1½ -hours) got us there at 6:30. We had to hurriedly change clothes and proceed late to a 6:15 dinner. Being at a table for two, however, allowed us to discuss our long day in Rome. There is no question that the Roman sites we visited today were stunning, but the immensity of the city, the volume of traffic, and the narrowness of the streets made our visit a singular one. We enjoyed every minute of our 10-hour stay, but we have no interest in ever returning to Rome!

On lonelyplanet, offers an overview as well as things to see and do. This is a tourist website, but it provides most of the information tourists need to get started.

At, the website on “Rome” offers comprehensive travel information and a virtual tour of the city through a beautiful display of photography. This is a delightful website.


Copyright June, 2009 - And Then Some Publishing L.L.C.

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