A Pair of Independent Travelers in Rome

I know, I’ve been missing from the blog, but I have a great excuse: My husband and I were traveling in Rome, Florence and Pisa and then stopped over in London for a few days on our way back to Chicago. Whew! A lot of miles, museums, art, food, wine, churches — too much for a single post, but let me start by telling you a bit about Rome…

This was our first trip to Italy, ever, and we were the quintessential tourists with all the classics on our must-see list in Rome: the Vatican, the Coliseum, the Forum, you know the drill. You should also know that we watch a lot of travel shows on TV, especially Rick Steves (which made running into him, twice, in Florence, really funny). In fact, we relied heavily on RS in planning the trip, reading his books and posing questions on his forums (which always results in great, informative responses).

I describe us as “independent travelers,” because we just like to move at our own pace. However, we did need some tour help to make sure we were making the most of our sightseeing, so we booked several specific tours well in advance of our arrival. Good thing, too. Rome is big, busy, boisterous and, as one friend who has traveled there often describes it, grittier than some other cities. Personally I would say it pulses with its own dynamic energy.

We arrived on a Sunday afternoon and checked into our hotel near the Piazza del Popolo in time to join the daily, late afternoon/early evening stroll known as the passeggiatia. (The piazza is located just inside the city’s northern gate known as the Porto del Popolo and is home to two churches, Santa Maria in Montesanto, built 1662-75 and Santa Maria dei Miracoli, built 1675-79. Brace yourself, history is everywhere here.)

Looking down on the Piazza del Popolo with the dome of St. Peter’s in the background

We walked down the Via del Corso, headed for the Spanish Steps. Alas, see the fences? The steps were closed for renovations! (I guess you have to expect some of that in a city over 2000 years old, but really, the Spanish Steps?)


It was, however, a walk to remember, a people-watcher/sightseer delight: tourists and locals of every age, tiny alleys and passageways, gelato stands and sidewalk cafes. We kind of had to pinch ourselves, “are we really in Rome?”

The next morning we joined an 8:30 am tour at the Vatican with one of their guides and 25 other eager tourists. What we did not know, however, was that this was a national holiday, celebrating the defeat of the Nazis in WWII. So despite our early start, we were shoulder to shoulder with everyone else in Rome, it seemed, as the tour proceeded. The guide was awesome, her knowledge of the art and artists endless, but frankly I think I will always equate the Vatican first with massive crowds, then with the art.

Just a section of one of Rafael’s frescoes in the Vatican’s Papal Apartment. Our guide told us that unlike Michaelanglo who worked alone, Raphael had a crew of artisans who colored many of the frescoes he sketched. The artist was only 25 when he began these works!


St. Peter’s is breathtaking and immense. I know that’s not saying much, but it pretty much left me speechless.

After more than three hours on foot at the Vatican, we were glad to take a quick lunch break and grab a cab for the Borghese Gallery for our next tour. We actually had not planned to do both in one day (and we paid for it with “museum overload”), but there was a last-minute change in museum schedules, and the tour company offered this change, so we went with it.

This tour was the exact opposite of our Vatican experience. Context Tours limits groups to six participants; this time there were only four of us with an art historian for two hours in the Borghese Gallery. The afternoon was essentially a mini-seminar in Italian art history.

The wealthy and powerful Borghese family built the villa to house and display their art collection, not unusual for Renaissance families. The gallery houses works by Bernini, Caravaggio and Titian, among others. Compared to most other European museums, it’s  small and intimate. We got a closer look at things in a much quieter setting.

Bernini’s “Rape of Proserpine” (1622) is remarkable for so many reasons, not the least of which is his ability to capture detail in marble. Look at the hands and feet!

After this first day, we continued to move farther back in time, pulling back layers of Roman history to tour the Coliseum and ancient Rome via the Forum and Palatine Hill. It was occasionally rainy and a little chilly that afternoon at the forum, but impossible not to be struck by the history that transpired there, just think Julius Caesar.

The Coliseum. Our guide told us that despite popular images of chariot races here, there was not room. They took place at the Circus Maximus.
Though it was once the heart of the Roman Empire, the Forum was actually buried by centuries of flooding from the Tiber River and run off from the adjacent hills. It was  only excavated in the 19th century.

One rainy morning we set off on foot (again!) and found ourselves first at the Trevi Fountain and later at the Pantheon. In both cases I was struck by how tightly both of these sights seemed to be “squeezed” into their respective locations.  The Pantheon was completed by the emperor Hadrian and probably dedicated about 126 AD. The circular building is topped by what is still considered to be the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The city just grew up around it!

Originally built as a pre-Christian temple to honor all gods, then later converted to a church, Michaelangelo used the Pantheon dome as the model for the dome on St. Peter’s Basilica. Raphael is buried here.

I can’t close out this Roman travelogue without telling you about the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. It is the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome and ranks above all other Catholic churches. It was the home church of the popes before the Vatican, in fact before the papacy was moved to Avignon. During that time, the church was damaged twice by fires and despite repairs, was not thought to be adequate when the papacy returned from France. Ambitious renovations were eventually completed, notably the installation of the statues of the 12 Apostles in 1718.

Steve learned about it as we were doing our research about the trip, and we’re very glad we found our way there. It’s a remarkable place, nearly as big as St. Peter’s and as quiet as St. Peter’s is crowded.

I should note that this site, like others, had tight security. In addition to the obvious presence of heavily armed military and police, we entered through metal detectors. Backpacks and purses were scanned separately.  This is the world we live in today.

The Archbasilica is the burial site for a number of early popes.

Across the street from the Archbasilica are the Holy Stairs, brought to Rome from Palestine by St. Empress Helena, mother of then-Emperor Constantine I and said to be the same stairs Christ traveled during his crucifixion. The marble stairs are protected by wood, but continue to be an important site for religious pilgrims.

Despite the crowds and the “iffy” weather, Steve and I had a terrific time in Rome. We walked, a lot, and were literally footsore by the time we returned to our hotel each day. We quickly adopted a rule that limited dinner to restaurants in a two- or three-block radius. Happily, the neighborhood was offered a number of small restaurants that served as many locals as they did tourists. (One night the waiters rearranged the dining room in mid-meal to accommodate a large family dinner!) We thought this was a good sign. Locals wouldn’t dine someplace that wasn’t really good.

Italians don’t even think about dining before about 8:30 or 9 and appearing earlier, even if the restaurant is technically open, seems a little rude. Instead, we would stop by around 7 pm and ask for a table later. They were always happy to hold one for us. Before we left home, a friend told us that restaurants would not serve wines they were not proud of. We took his advice and ordered the house red and it was always, always delicious.

Rome lived up to every expectation, but after four nights it was time to move on to Florence. More about that soon!

See you next time!




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