Getting into Rome
Ciampino is Rome’s second airport and it lies 7.5 miles South of the city. To reach the centre, jump aboard the E1 bus which takes you to a train station, from which you can travel into Rome’s main train station. For once, however, we had somebody coming to meet us. Andrew, our university friend, lived near Castel Gandolfo in a forested community of large, rather fancy houses. We were booked in to stay with them for three nights.
Castel Gandolfo is an extremely picturesque little town 15 miles South-West of Rome. It is home to a peach festival in July and sits on the shore of the beautiful Lake Albano. The Papal Summer Palace dwarfs one side of the town’s central square, guarded by the flamboyantly bedecked Swiss Guard, the Pope’s military guard.
Our first day in Rome, we decided to tackle the Vatican. Although August’s tourist rush in London was a distant memory, the crowds were still flocking to Rome where the temperature was peaking at 28°C. As we approached Vatican City we saw a snaking queue that disappeared around the corner in both directions. Touts descended claiming a three hour wait and offering queue jumps and private tours for a hefty sum, around €80 a pop. Declining and locating the back of the queue, we settled in for the long wait. I wonder if I would have been willing to shell out if it had been a freezing cold day?
The line took about about an hour, which was a pleasant surprise. There was airport style security at the head of the queue which was weirdly exciting. They didn’t stamp our passports though which I was a little sad about. If you call yourself a city state, you should get a passport stamp for going!
Travelling in Europe one can experience a touch of church fatigue (known in Asia as temple fatigue). This is a condition caused by seeing too much of one sort of amazing building or art. The sufferer can become blind to the beauty around them, the feet can begin to hurt and a general sluggishness can set in. I found that my touristy trudging around the Vatican left me feeling a little churched out. Fine art was everywhere. Paintings and sculptures lined every room and corridor. No doubt, the Italian renaissance work on show is great artistry but I ended up feeling a little blasé. I caught myself wondering if the car park we were walking past was full of nun’s cars, and trying to spot the Popemobile.
The highlight for most visitors is the Sistine Chapel. In large groups, you enter the room, past the no photography signs. Once to capacity, the doors are shut and everyone stares skywards at Michelangelo’s famous ceiling. While undoubtedly a backbreaking, breathtaking artistic accomplishment (amazing for something over 500 years old) and very beautiful, the whole experience is marred a bit by the guards berating the camera-wielding tourists (I can only imagine that this is ten times harder with the proliferation of smartphones). Add to this the fact that I am partially sighted and so couldn’t see the thing from ground level and you’ll see why I couldn’t wait to get out and look at it on a poster instead.
St Peter’s Basilica
Next door to Vatican City is St Peter’s Basilica. It sits in a grand piazza with great columns marking out a large semicircle on one side and the Cathedral on the other. It is from here that the Pope delivers his sermons. St Peter’s is vast, grand, titanic! An unexpected “oooo” escaped me as I looked up at the dome in the distance. Tiny people were moving around the edge. We had to climb it! So off we trotted to the lift that whisks visitors to the base of the dome. Gazing back down to the people below gave the tummy just a little flip. Then began the great climb to the top. Stairs that varied from a winding stairway disappearing around the bend of the dome, to a ladder like scramble upwards led us ever skywards. We emerged into the roof breathless and disorientated. It is the highest dome in the world (when you include the cross on the top) and so the views over the rooftops of Rome and the Vatican are fantastic. To celebrate the climb we indulged in some creamy gelato just across the road from the Vatican.
Dinner by a lake
That evening we were taken, by Andrew’s incredibly generous Mum and Dad, to a restaurant overlooking a glittering lake. I ordered the four cheese gnocchi. When it came, I was saddened to see it was the most diminutive dish on the table. The gnocchi was small and light but the sauce was incredibly rich that I almost couldn’t finish the dish. It was super filling and utterly indulgent. I went to bed wondering what crazy cheese-filled nightmares awaited me.
(I took some pretty good photos in Rome but the camera was stolen elsewhere on the trip so I don’t have them any more and I haven’t been back since.)