My weekend in Rome was defined by strange and, I would say, nearly impossible schedules. My flight arrived at Fiumicino at 11:40 and I arrived by bus in the city center at 1:25, which was certainly not ideal, but it got the job done. Luckily, my friend Wayne had been in Rome for most of the day and he was extremely kind to come meet me at the train station since we were staying at the same hostel. THANK YOU, WAYNE!! You are the best!
After a subpar night of sleep at the world’s sketchiest hostel (not dangerous-sketchy, just strangely-managed-sketchy), I enjoyed a cappuccino and pastry and embarked on a strenuous morning of being lost in Rome. I had to move from one hostel to another, and luckily enough, my destination’s street was too small to be located on my map, so I spent about an hour bouncing from shop to shop asking people to give me directions. Finally, a kind English-speaking woman approached me and asked what I was looking for, because she had seen me walking around for half an hour! She helped me find the hostel and the day was saved.
I dropped off my stuff and then took the metro to the Vatican to do some research for the next day, when Daniel would be joining me. I’d been to Rome before, but Daniel never had, so we basically had a day and a half to see everything. I had heard the Vatican Museum would be a hot ticket due to the canonization crowds, so I wanted to see what our best options would be to make the day go a bit smoother.
Then I grabbed some pizza to eat on the go and walked to the Spanish Steps to meet Wayne and his friends from Schoenstatt. We then walked to the Trevi Fountain and split into two groups for more efficient sight-seeing. My group, which consisted of myself, Wayne, and his friend from Hungary, headed to St. Paul Outside the Walls, my favorite of the Papal Basilicas.
There was a lively, poppy Mass happening at the time which provided an interesting atmosphere for our visit. I had never known this before, but apparently St. Paul is actually buried in the basilica (how did I miss that last time..?) so we got to pray at his tomb. There’s also a small portion of the chain from St. Paul’s imprisonment in Rome! The one major thing that’s changed since I was last there was the installation of a new Papal portrait:
Our next destination was the Pantheon, which I had never actually seen before! This time, we only viewed it from the outside, and then headed a few blocks over to a church that was hosting a German Mass and prayer event put on by a Catholic group that started after World Youth Day in Cologne (2005). The Schoenstatt crew had met a girl on the plane who was in charge of music for the Mass and she had invited them. It was really beautiful and super cool to go to a German Mass in Italy!
I then said good-bye to the group and tried to head back to my hostel to maybe get a little bit of sleep before meeting Daniel at the train station at 1 AM. Predictably, I got lost… which was fine, because I got to see Piazza Venezia and a few other parts of town I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to visit otherwise, and I ended up back home within an hour and a half. Plus, I enjoyed some delicious gelato as I walked.
I did get to sleep for a little over an hour before I got a text from Daniel saying he was on the bus from the airport. So I went and picked him up, still a little delirious from sleep, and informed him (I’m sure he was delighted) that the best way for us to see the Vatican Museum the next day would be to stand in line at 7 and wait for it to open at 9. That gave us a good 4 hours of sleep, the auspicious beginning of a weekend short on sleep but long on everything else that’s good about life.
We sat in line at the museum for 2 hours, which would have been a long time but it was nice to just get the chance to talk to each other face-to-face and take silly pictures together, two activities you can’t do often when you live several countries apart.
Finally we were admitted. We visited one exhibit of sacred art that I hadn’t seen before; the styles spanned from older, more eastern-looking iconography to Baroque-style paintings of biblical events and saints. Then we saw an exhibit of Popemobiles through the ages, which was awesome! It spanned from the days of horse-drawn carriages (apparently called Berlins?) to the VW Beetle given to JPII by the government of Mexico. It also included the Popemobile that JPII was riding in during his assassination attempt.
Then, we took the “short” route to the Sistine Chapel, all the galleries of which I’d seen before. In all, the exhibits are… decent. There are some antique maps and beautiful tapestries, as well as some very famous (and gorgeous) rooms painted by the likes of Raphael which depict the life of Constantine, the pantheon of classical philosophers, and the “triumph of the Church,” my favorite.
And finally you end up in the Sistine Chapel, which of course is breathtaking and wonderful but altogether it’s just a strange atmosphere. Photography isn’t allowed, and rightly so, and you aren’t allowed to talk, and these rules are very strictly enforced by guards who yell at you, and so it kind of feels like you’re on a field trip and being supervised by grouchy elementary school teachers. Nevertheless, picking out the symbolism and the organization of the Chapel, as well as marveling at the intricacy of Michelangelo’s project, is an experience that totally justifies visiting the Vatican Museum, in my opinion.
However, next came the best surprise of the day–as we left the Sistine Chapel, we followed a big group of people on the way out. I looked around, thought about the layout of Vatican City, and ascertained that the building next to the walkway was St. Peter’s Basilica! And sure enough, we emerged just outside the doors of the world’s most important Catholic church!
Now, when I had been doing my research about how to best visit the Vatican Museum, one of the big selling points for the expensive tour groups was that, instead of waiting in line for the Museum and then returning to the Square to wait in line for hours and hours to get into the Basilica, you could just do them all at once! So I realized at this point that we had somehow bypassed a several hour long line to get into St. Peter’s and felt really guilty! We tried to find a way out, but after asking a guard, we realized that the only way out… was to go into the Basilica! That, we had not expected, but it was a welcome surprise!!
It was gorgeous. I was just slightly shocked to actually be there… because of the wait time to get in, especially on a canonization weekend (I’ve only been in Rome for the beatification and now the canonization), I had always figured I’d just never be able to see St. Peter’s, yet there we were! It was so ornate and just gorgeous. We saw the world’s most recognizable Pietá image, the world’s most famous Holy Spirit stained glass, and we even glimpsed the Blessed Sacrament in a closed-off adoration chapel. For the first of several times that day, we were scolded by security as we sat to pray within sight of the Eucharist through a little window… sorry, but we really weren’t sorry, Vatican guards.
After we finished gawking at the beauty and recovering from the surprise of even being able to see St. Peter’s, we attempted with various levels of success to take “Papal selfies” with the portraits of John Paul and John hanging on the portico and then made our way into the Square.
Our next objective was to find somewhere to eat. We found a restaurant on the trusty TripAdvisor app, but when we got there, it was closed… they only served dinner, not lunch! So we ate down the street, instead, both enjoying bruschetta, gnocchi with pork ribs, and house wine before heading to St. Mary Major, the second of three Papal Basilicas we’d see that day. I haven’t been to John Lateran so I can’t say for certain, but I think Mary Major is the smallest of the four. It is ornately decorated with gold, but somehow the interior is very dark… hence the lack of pictures there!
We rounded out our Basilica trifecta for the day at Paul Outside the Walls once again. It’s my favorite and I knew going into the weekend that I wanted to take Daniel there so he could see it, too. It really is beautiful. This time, the tomb of St. Paul was not open for prayer, or so we found out when we and a group of other people were ushered away from the area after trying to kneel around it… again, sorry not sorry!
Finally, we headed to the Colosseum area. I had hyped up the impressive view emerging from the metro station, but unfortunately the most prominent part of the Colosseum is all under construction and covered by scaffolding! Because we didn’t have the time, money, or stamina for more official touring, we just looked around a bit, peering into the Roman Forum through the gate and catching a glimpse of the Piazza Venizia area before heading back to our hostel. Our last objective of the day was to stock up on snacks for the next day before heading to bed before our 1:30 AM wake-up call! We did grab a quick bite to eat at McDonalds… which we didn’t feel bad about because, in Daniel’s words, we were purely eating for sustenance at that point.
The next morning (if you can call 2 AM – 2 PM “morning”…) was consumed by the Canonization, which you can read about here.
After our brief encounter with Pope Francis and the impossibility of actually getting a margarita due to crowds and geographical circumstance, we instead walked, with thousands of other people, down the same road trying to find a restaurant. This was theoretically an unattainable goal, but somehow we stumbled (literally, given the state of our feet at this point) into a little pizzeria, which had precisely one two-person table left, and ordered the best pizza I think I’ve ever eaten, and of course more house wine.
The restaurant happened to be just a few minutes’ walk from the Pantheon, one of just a few more Roman sites that Daniel hadn’t seen yet! This time, we got to go inside… again, with so many pilgrims straight from the canonization. Everything was just NUTS! The inside of the Pantheon was striking. I won’t say beautiful to avoid word inflation 😉 Definitely rich in history and meaning, and it’s really awesome that it’s now a Catholic church! It’s certainly imposing from the outside…
We enjoyed some gelato in the shadow of the monstrous building and contemplated knocking the rest of our “to-do list” out in one fell swoop by seeing the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, but then we realized how incredibly dirty we were, not having showered the night before and having spent so much time in close proximity to so many people! So, we decided that showers and naps would be a more prudent choice! It felt amazing to be clean and off my feet for the first time all day!
After a too-short hour long nap, we wrested ourselves from the hostel and headed for the Spanish Steps. Not exactly a breath-taking site, especially after having attended a 500,000-person Mass in St. Peter’s Square earlier that day, but definitely a “must” for Rome. From there, we strolled over to the Trevi Fountain, tossed in the obligatory coins, and took the obligatory pictures before enjoying one last meal in Rome.
What a weekend! I can’t believe I was only there for three days when I think of how much I was able to see and do! It was certainly a completely unforgettable experience.