Saturday 18th June on Sea Princess.
The day was heralded by a spectacular Mediterranean sunrise as we looked towards Civitavecchia, our second port of call in Italy.
This was to be our first ever visit to Rome and we decided to book on a ship’s shore excursion which provided the most extensive itinerary we could experience in one day.
Rome in a Day
We were both so excited about seeing Rome but a little apprehensive about how we would cope with being on a very structured tour with limited free time – and the crowds we might encounter.
Dave in particular who doesn’t cope well with crowds (having spent most of his life in the bush with only the company of his geological pick) was getting a little bolshy as we had a cup of tea and some yoghurt on our balcony overlooking the port contemplating the day ahead.
In fact he had tried to convince me that a day trip to the outlying town of Orvieto was a better option! But having thrown our dilemma open to the lovely Lifestyle Fifty Facebook family there was almost unanimous sentiment that we would be crazy to miss Rome, and so I was able to convince Dave to man-up and get on with it!
We set off with trepidation. I hoped that red sky in the morning wasn’t a tourist’s warning! I wondered too if I should ask if a hip flask filled with whisky might be procured from somewhere.
From Civitavecchia drove along the coast and on through scenic Italian countryside where we saw fields of poppies and sunflowers and farmland ripe for harvesting. It was bucolic and beautiful.
After 90 minutes we arrived in Rome and had a quick guided coach tour en route to our first stop.
We entered the Via del Corso the main street of town and passed the Vittorio Emanuele Monument (the layer cake) and other papal and princely palaces.
Off the Corso, Via delle Muratte led us up to the most sumptuous fountain in Rome …
The Trevi Fountain.
This monumental Baroque fountain is found down what seems like a side alley in a small piazza, and is the central focal point of the square. It’s huge. The recent restoration work had been completed so we had a fantastic, scaffold-free view of this magnificent restored fountain.
We encounterd hundreds of people crammed into the small square, some standing with their backs towards the fountain, not only taking selfies but also throwing coins into the water because legend has it that if foreigners toss coins in the fountain they will return to Rome.
We had learnt earlier from our onboard destination expert, Hutch, that up until a few years ago all the money that was thrown into the fountain had not been donated to charities as many people thought but had been shared out amongst the cleaners of the fountain, a highly valued and handed-down job in Rome! However, in the last couple of years this has changed and the money now goes to charity.
Soon we were rounded up by our tour leaders. Fernando at the front with orange flag held high, and Francesca at the back with a round red number 5 (our coach number). Errant members of the tour who had sneakked off for a quick shopping spree were tracked down and returned to the herd and we headed off to our next exciting stop The Colosseum.
So far so good.
Dave’s first words at The Colosseum were, “They’re like ants. Look at them!” as if we didn’t count, and I had to delete his exclamation about the crowd from the video I was busy taking at the time.
We’d seen countless photographs of the Colosseum but nothing, nothing compared to the first real life sighting of this magnificent Roman structure. The arched facade of this giant stadium reared up against the vivid blue sky and dominated the scene in front of us – and took our breath away!
From there we joined the queue (we were like a column of ants streaming back into a termite mound) which surprisingly moved rapidly through the security check and in through the ticket gates.
As we were queing our knowledgeable guide Fernando explained some of the history surrounding the Colosseum and it’s place in Roman society.
We found it incongruous that the creativity employed by the Romans to design, construct and operate this amazing arena was for a brutal and destructive purpose perpetuated to keep the hoi polloi amused and to keep their minds off politics.
It was designed to accommodate around 60,000 spectators on numbered seats, and it’s said because of the efficient design of the arches (80 of them – 76 of which are numbered) that provide easy access, the arena could be emptied of all people in about 15 minutes. Blimey! It took us that long to get our group of 26 off the bus!
One of the more gory stories that I remember Fernando talking about was that the killing of elephants, giraffe, lions and other exotic wild animals was used by teachers for educational purposes to instruct their students not only on how great the Roman Empire was for finding these animalls, but also for geographical and historical enrichment too. It was like National Geographic for the Romans.
Fast Fact: The Colosseum was built in 8 years.
Macabre and Bloodthirsty
The games in the Colosseum were sponsored by rich patricians and entry was free for the proletariat. One event sponsored by Titus continued for 100 days during which 9000 animals were slaughtered and 2000 gladiators died. Each evening, after the days’ events had concluded, the almost one foot thick sand layer that covered the floor of the arena (it’s purpose to absorb all the blood from the carnage of the fights) was so soaked with blood that it had to be removed and replaced.
- Typically fights between different animals would be held in the morning and this could range from a rhinoceros fighting a hippo or a dog pitted against a porcupine, or an elephant against a lion for example, and other bizarre contests.
- Later in the morning the gladiators would be pitted against elephants, zebras, giraffes or any other exotic animals.
- During lunchtime there was what was considered humorous relief with jugglers, acrobats, and comic fights, for example a dwarf against a one-legged men – the Romans were definitely not politcally correct.
- There were also lunchtime executions … of course, for educational purposes 😉
- Children had to leave after lunch, when human contests would begin and the gladiators would fight it out. For the gladiators who triumphed, fame and fortune was ensured, and they became famous almost like the sportstars of today.
We had an hour to wander independently around the Colosseum, to view it from the upper levels and corridors, and gaze down on the uncovered passageways which once housed animals and gladiators prior to their fights. Standing where gladiators once stood, possibly facing their death, filled me with an unsettled sense of the macabre past.
Tip : There’s a good bookshop within the Colosseum, and toilets if you need them. Ladies prepare to queue.
The Duke Hotel
After the excitement and crowds of the morning it was a relief to escape to the refined elegance of the Duke Hotel for lunch. This luxurious 4 star hotel combines an historical exterior from 1895 with avant garde interiors.
We enjoyed a lovely Italian lunch with wine in grand surroundings with lively and entertaining chat around the table as we got to know our fellow day-trippers from America, the UK and Australia.
Then we headed out into a lovely warm Italian afternoon and drove to The Vatican Museum.
If Dave thought the Colosseum was busy, he had an even bigger shock waiting for him at The Vatican! The Roman tourist season was well underway, and it was a Saturday, and so the Vatican was teeming with eager and excited tourists.
Just Follow the flag!
With the benefit of being on a guided tour we were able to enter the priority entrance lanes which fast-tracked us through the enormous queues and even though the Vatican was extremely crowded we were inside and out of the sun within about 15 minutes.
Fernando took time before we entered the museum to tell us about the paintings in the Sistine Chapel (which forms part of the Vatican museum) and we both found this really interesting and he prepared us well for what was to follow.
The Vatican has been the residence of the popes since 1377 and has been an independent state called The Vatican City since 1929.
We entered the museum and joined a sea of humanity flowing from gallery to gallery like a snake. “It’s the Sistine Shuffle,” Dave quipped as we inched our way taking small fast steps like Japanese Geisha’s and trying to keep up with the orange flag ahead of us.
As we shuffled along it was hard to go against the grain. If you stopped to take a quick photo of some rare antiquity that caught your eye or a huge frescoe’d ceiling, you looked up and already you were thirty metres behind ‘the flag’ with the almost impossible task of trying to get through the crowd in front to catch up.
It’s testament to the ability of our two guides working together as shepherds that we all managed to get to the end of the tour without losing anyone – although we had one worrying moment when somebody did fail to turn up at a designated spot.
Despite the crowds and restricted opportunity to stop, quietly contemplate and view the wonders of the museum in silence, it was incredible to see the rare art on display. From galleries full of Roman statues, to tapestries , paintings, and ancient maps, the treasures on display were endless and it’s not surprising that this is the greatest collection of art on earth. The decoration of the building itself is stunning with marbled halls and frescoe’d ceilings and at the end of this walk it was time to enter the Sistine Chapel.
The Sistine Chapel
The Chapel was packed, mostly everyone gazing upwards at Michelangelo’s masterpiece but we managed to find a position close to the centre where we too looked up in awe at the beauty of this famous piece of art which he painted in 1508.
Tip: No photos are allowed in the Sistine Chapel
I was jabbering something to Dave when suddenly a loud baritone voice boomed from the heavens. “Silence!” it ordered, and I jumped out of my skin. The rabble, and me, suddenly fell quiet in this most sacred place.
Then we looked towards the wall behind the main altar, and gazed at The Last Judgement which Michelangelo began painting in 1536 and took him 6 years to complete. Three hundred figures swarm in a composition which has amazing clarity. In it the good rise to heaven and the wicked are precipitated into the abyss where the judge of hell awaits them.
It was then on to our last stop of the day, St Peter’s Basilica. I’m not sure how to find words to describe the sheer enormity and splendour inside this church, the greatest church in Christendom which holds 20,000 people.
As we looked up to the central dome by Michelangelo, which stands 136 metres high and has a diameter of 42 meters, light beams burst through in a breath catching celestial way.
Finally we walked out across St Peter’s Square through Bernini’s colonnade where two great semicircular wings of columns flank the square like the outstretched arms of the church receiving all mankind.
Agony but Ecstasy
We looked back on St Peter’s and the famous majestic view of the square which previously we’d only ever seen on TV and after a tough afternoon of heat and crowds we decided to buy something very Italian, very cooling and definitely calming – a great big gelato!
On the drive back to Civitavecchia we talked about our day and Dave said to me, “I can sum the day up in the title of the book about Michelangelo’s life: “The Agony and the Ecstasy”.
At the end of the day our day in Rome was really really worth it. Although the crowds and the intensity had been wearing we wouldn’t have missed it for the world. The sights, the experiences and the feeling of being cast back in time were just fantastic.
- Best time to visit regarding crowds – Autumn … from September, on a Friday (our guide told us)
- Wear comfortable walking shoes.
- Make sure your knees and shoulders are covered if you go to the Vatican.
- Take handbags (but not rucksacks) to the Colosseum and the Vatican.
- Beware of pickpockets.
- Maintain a sense of humour and stay close together in crowds.
- Have a designated meeting spot.
- Know what you want to see and prepare for it.
- Take time out to enjoy a gelato or an expresso and watch the passing parade.
We had the most fantastic day out in Rome with Princess Cruises shore excursion, but of course there was so much more to see and do if we’d had time.
So would love your tips and hints for Rome ….
I’m travelling as a guest of Princess Cruises, but all opinions are my own.