Thursday, November 23.
This morning we had a 9 a.m. tour reservation to visit the Necropolis beneath St. Peter's Basilica so we wanted to leave the hotel by 8 a.m. So after a huge breakfast (see description above) we were on our way. It only took about 15 minutes to go from the Emanuele metro stop to the Ottaviano Metro Stop. From there it was a 15 minute walk to St. Peter's.
We arrived at St. Peter's square with only a few people about. The top of the dome was still hidden in the morning mist. I asked for directions to the Excavations Office in the baggage-check room. To get to the excavations office you enter the Vatican through the far left gate (facing St. Peters) and ask the Swiss Guards for directions. We then quickly entered St. Peter's to take a quick peep before the crowds arrived.
About 8:30 a.m. I asked one of the Swiss Guards how to get to the Excavation Office. He said it was just inside the gate and to return at 9 a.m. and he would let us in. We visited the gift shop, post office, and rest rooms (all on the left hand side of the square when facing the basilica). I also set off in search of a water fountain. I finally found one above the baggage-check office. It was a very large fountain that had twenty-spouts pouring water into a basin. I wasn't sure if this was drinkable, but what the heck, it tasted good. I drank from it several other times although I never saw anyone else taking a drink.
Promptly at 9 a.m. we entered Vatican City. I had walked just out of sight of the Swiss Guards when a Police Officer called me over and asked what I was doing. After assuring him I wasn't trying to steal the Pope-Mobile, we found the Excavations Office where we promptly waited. About ten minutes later the office opened and I picked-up the tickets I had reserved several months in advance.
To get tickets to tour the necropolis, it is absolutely essential to reserve as far in advance as possible. It is my understanding that very few groups are allowed through each day and these are limited to 10 people each. Later in the day I was talking with another lady who had tried reserving tickets in early October and had been unable to obtain them. I started in mid-September. You can reserve tickets through the internet. Be sure to state the exact date(s) you will be in Rome, the age of the people, and the number of tickets you need. They will then email you back a confirmation and directions on how you can pay. I was able to send a personal check (which took about 6 weeks to clear my bank). Tickets are only $8 each.
To me this was probably the most interesting part of St. Peter's. Our English-speaking guide first took us into a room and gave us some history about the site, the first church, and the current church. We then descended 20 - 30 feet into an area that was excavated in the 1930-40s. It was interesting to note that as we passed into each new section, doors shut behind us sealing in a carefully controlled climate.
The part of the Necropolis that you can visit is essentially a long street between ancient buildings. Imagine if you found yourself in a 3-foot wide brick-paved street between brick buildings that were 15-20 feet high. The "ceiling" is actually the floor of the crypt in St. Peters. These buildings are actually family crypts. It was customary during Roman days for families to visit the dead and eat a meal on the roof of the crypt - essentially they are small houses. Most of the tombs are pagan with only a couple having Christian symbols. At the end of this street you can look through a small opening and see the "hole" where Peter is thought to have been buried. I say hole because that is all that you see - the hole under the "tombstone" which was excavated when they were looking for a body. The tombstone is actually a small stone table of which you can only see half, the rest is still buried in the ground. And although you cannot see them, there are bones thought to be those of the Apostle. The Roman Catholic Church officially admits that it is not positive that this is the body of Peter or that this is the actual site.
It is however based upon church tradition and our guide make a good case for the possibility. I might get some or all of this wrong and certainly not in the detail in which our guide went. It seems that Constantine built the original church outside the city and on top of an ancient cemetery. Why? He must have had a reason to build there and the reason was this was the location of Peter's tomb. He leveled the hill by cutting off one end and piling it on the other. In the process he packed the crypts he found with dirt and used them as part of the foundation for his church. He also must have guaranteed the families of the dead that the tombs would not be violated as many valuable artifacts were found in the excavation (otherwise the workmen would have made off with them). The church was built so that the very center would be above the tomb that tradition said was Peter's (and even today the top of the dome is in a direct line with this tomb). Peter was buried just 50 yards from the site where it is believed he was crucified up-side down. And St. Peter's square was originally an ancient race course.
It was also a little claustrophobic to think of the huge church sitting above your head. Our guide also made mentioned that of the many tens of thousands of people who visit the church each day only a few know of the necropolis beneath their feet and even fewer ever get to visit. I highly recommend taking this tour if you can - this was one of the most impressive places we visited in Rome.
The tour ended in the crypt and we spent only a little time looking at the graves of the previous popes. We went back inside the church (through yet another holy door). It was a little more crowded by now but still not very bad. Using the RSB we self-guided our way about. St. Peter's is big like the Super Dome is big. It is so big that you can't really grasp how big it is. And while it was built to impress those ungrateful protestants with the might of the church, it was also built in such a way to mask its huge size and make it seem more "personal". Once again I was struck by the emptiness of the church. Now, there are many mosaics and statues, but they are not overwhelming. There is only one true painting in the church. All the other paintings are actually mosaics. And the most impress statue must be Michelangelo's Pieta.
We next wanted to climb the dome. Well, I wanted to and convinced everyone else to come along. We paid the $5 fee (including using the elevator to bypass the first two hundred stairs). Exiting the elevator you find yourself on the roof of the church (complete with rest rooms, gift shop, and water fountain). Just 50 stairs up and through a door you find yourself on the inside of the church at the base of the dome. At this point you can look down upon Bernini's bronze Baldaquin and get a great bird's eye view of the church.
Exiting through another door you start to climb, and climb, and climb, and climb, and climb, and....pass out. The stairs are actually very interesting - some are normal stairs going back and forth , then spiral stairs, then stairs going inward (towards the center of the dome). All the time the outward wall is curving inward which at places gives the whole place the skewed aspect of a carnival fun house. Eventually, just as you think you are going to die, you find yourself outside and very high.
All I can say is climb the dome. It might take you a while (if you get out of breath just stop and rest). From the top you have an incredible view of the Vatican, of Rome, and even the snow-topped mountains in the distance (at least they were snow topped in November). We snapped pictures and videos, looked for and found the Colosseum, and took a few minutes to rest. The day was gorgeous with blue skies and the temperature in the mid-sixties.
After climbing down, using the roof rest rooms, and one last look into the church, we headed back to the metro and to find a place to eat. We promptly fell for one of the oldest blunders know to man, "Never start a land war in Asia." No, actually, we sat down outside a café and got to pay $5 for a coke and $8 for pizza. Normally you could get a Coke and pizza for $4 total! But we were too tired to complain.
It was now about 1:30 and we had until 3 p.m. until we met our guide from Scala Reale for a 2-hour "Introductory" walk to Rome (as if we hadn't already walked all over Rome). We hopped the subway back to Via Veneto with the hope of visiting the San Maria Conzione.
On the way to the subway a man selling purses saw Margaret and called out, "Blondie, I have a special price just for you." This was hilarious. For the remainder of the trip Margaret was known as "Blondie".
I had come across this church mentioned in the guidebook as I was doing my planning at 1 a.m. that morning. This is a church that has 5 or 6 rooms completely decorated with human bones. Unfortunately, it was closed until 5 p.m., just liked it mentioned in the guide book. Funny, I missed that part. Fortunately, the church is right beside the metro so we hopped back on and went back to the hotel to relax, freshen-up, and drop-off assorted items.
About 2:40 p.m. we got back on the metro and went to the Spagna Metro Stop. We were to meet our guide in the area. We had made reservations for tours with a group known as Scala Reale (www.scalareale.com) as recommended in the RSB. For more information check out their web site. To book tours with them you must pay a $20 fee to join their organization. I believe this fee has something to do with them not being an Italian company. For this fee, they provide a 2-hour introductory walk to Rome.
We were to meet our guide, Jenny, at the Piazza Colonna. We quickly found where to meet and started to window shop as we waited for our guide. One store was a dealer ship for the "Smart Car". The "Smart Car" is probably the cutest cars since the original VW Bug. They are very small, just 2.5 meters in length, and come in an amazing array of colors. I would definitely love to have one back in the states. The store was closed but we decided to stop by later in the evening when they would be opened.
Jenny, our guide showed up promptly at 3:00 p.m. Our group consisted of 10 people - the six of us and two other couples. This was a very relaxed and laid back tour that focused mostly on the Rome of today. Jenny is a film student and has lived in Rome the last five years. She shared with us what it is like to live in Rome. She doesn't drive and had only just purchased a scooter a few months before. Our tour went through many small streets and back alleyways, past the Mausoleo di Augusto, and ended in the Piazza d. Popolo.
Via Del Corso is the main road leading across Rome from the piazza and Via Babuino leads to the Spanish Steps. These two roads are connected by many cross streets. This is the prime shopping area of Rome. In this area you can buy just about anything. Some stores are bargain basements while others you can't even afford to look through the windows. We spent some time window shopping as we made our way back to the Smart Car store. By this time the store was opened. This is the only car dealership in the world that I have ever seen people come in to take pictures of the car.
They also sold "Hot Wheel" versions of the car in several different sizes. Sallie and Jody bought one as a Christmas present for Jody's father. The toy they bought cost about $20. The real car cost around $10000.
We then shopped our way to the Spanish Steps where a large group of "soccer hooligans" were merrily singing something at the top of their lungs. The streets were full of people out having a good time. We spent about 30 minutes looking for a gelato place that Jenny had recommended. We never found it and finally settled for gelato from one of the thousands of other gelato places.
Afterwards we made our way down to see the Trevi Fountain. It was crowded around the fountain but not too bad. This was the only site where I had people constantly trying to sell me various items. I also now know where all the coins are in Italy, at the bottom of fountains.
By this time we were tired and decided to head back to the hotel. The plan was to walk to the Barberini Metro Stop. Somewhere (actually on V. Scuderie) I made a right instead of heading straight. We found ourselves walking through a half-mile tunnel beneath the Giardini del Quirinale and emerging on the Via Nationale. It was at this point that I realized the mistake. We didn't want to retrace our steps through the auto-exhaust filled tunnel so we headed for the Repubblica Metro Stop.
This actually turned out to be a mixed-blessing. While we were all very tired and this additional walking wasn't exactly what we wanted, we did get to meet Roberto and I got the pleasure of someone trying to pick-pocket me. We were waiting for a train in the Metro when we met Roberto. Roberto is a Colonel in the Italian Air Force and looks, strangely enough, like Steve Martin. We had a great conversation, took some photos, and exchanged email. While we were talking we allowed three trains to pass by as they were all too full to get on.
Finally, a train arrived that had just enough room for us to board. Roberto warned us to watch out for pick-pockets. Now, I always keep one hand on my wallet in any situation that is crowded. As I was stepping onto the train I felt a hand slip into my pocket and quickly pull out. I turned around to see a small girl jumping out of the closing doors and running down the platform. This is a typical M.O. for these pick-pockets. They wait till just before the door closes and try to grab your wallet and get off the train. If I hadn't had my hand on my wallet it is very likely that she would have succeeded. My advice is to use common sense but don't be overly paranoid. Yes, at the worst you might lose your money but it is very unlikely that you will be physically injured. A money belt can keep your valuables safe. I had sewn a large pocket into my jacket where I was able to keep my camera, passport, etc. This pocket had buttons and could not be easily accessed.
With this little bit of excitement we made our way back to the hotel. On one corner of the square was a small rustic trattoria. These are small take-out / eat-in places that can be found all over Rome with excellent food and very cheap prices. There is usually a selection of pizza, lasagna, different meats, desserts, etc. We stopped and bought dinner to take back to the hotel. I purchased a large slice of eggplant pizza, two "spanish rice" filled fried dumplings, and a 1 liter Sprite for about $4. Back at the hotel we each went to our own rooms to eat.
Once again I believe I was asleep before 9 p.m. I must be getting old! Alan and I did spend a little time watching the Italian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire". We felt fairly smart as we were able to figure out the questions in Italian and get the correct answers. I woke-up again at 1 a.m. and was unable to get back to sleep for the next hour. I spent the time looking through guide books and planning what we do for the remainder of the trip.