Europe Day 12 – Vatican City, Piazza Navona, Pantheon and Trevi Fountain

For our second day in Rome, we decided to join the tour for both the St. Peter’s Basilica as well as the Vatican Museum for the cost of 100 Euros per person. While the cost might be expensive considering entry into St. Peter’s Basilica is free, the cost covers lunch as well as transportation, and most importantly no queues to enter. I chose this option in fear of having to endure long queues, though coming back to think of it, entry to St. Peter’s in the morning is pretty quiet with a short queue, while the Vatican Museum had no entrance queue in the evening. We started the morning with a complimentary breakfast buffet at the hotel’s lobby restaurant. While the hotel was much larger in scale compared to our lodging in Venice, the food was mediocre, and not as satisfying. Choices of food were more or less similar, but due to the presence of a large Japanese tour group while we were there, a portion of the breakfast area was reserved for them. As there was an early pick up for us from the tour company, we finished breakfast quickly before waiting at the lobby. We went on a small bus which brought us to the larger bus which was waiting beside the St. Regis Grand Hotel outside the Church of Santa Susanna. The tour agency office is in the vicinity where we paid for our tour before boarding the larger bus as we were given the audio guides.

Basilica San Pietro
Basilica San Pietro with the Obelisk

There was a short wait of 5 minutes or so as more passengers boarded before the bus set off towards the direction of the Vatican. The bus alighted us at Via della Conciliazione from where we set foot towards Piazza San Pietro. Having had higher hopes of the square and the basilica for all its importance, it just didn’t have the ‘wow’ factor. Somehow I thought that St. Peter’s looked better in the distance as it looked block-ish as one gets closer to the square and somehow the proportions of many domed buildings around the world fits more perfectly. We walked past the colonnades on the right side to enter the St. Peter’s Basilica. While the exterior of St. Peter’s failed to impress, the interior of the the Basilica makes it worth entering. One just wouldn’t realize the size of the church from the outside, for its huge size makes it an interesting place to explore the various shrines around the Basilica. From the entrance, you just realize the huge pillars supporting the facade and the ornate ceilings of the nave shows the power and wealth of the Church. Upon entering, statuetes of cherubs holding a bowl filled with holy water greets visitors along with various chapels that holds the tombs of several popes. Another attraction in the first chapel of the north aisle as one enters the Basilica is Michaelangelo’s Pietà. The main attraction, though is the central dome and the altar of St. Peter’s with Bernini’s Baldacchino.

Rays of Sunlight shines into the Nave
Rays of Sunlight enters St. Peter’s through the Nave
Altar with Bernini's Baldacchino
Altar of St. Peter’s with Bernini’s Baldacchino

On the way out of the Basilica, along the nave, one also finds markers depicting the comparative lengths of other churches on the floor. Upon exiting the Basilica, we walked back along Via della Conciliazione, and I noticed the Chinese Taiwan Consulate Office to the Vatican at the end. This road is occupied mainly by diplomatic offices and a souvenir stand at one end of the street where we were brought to by the tour guide. For a note, the tour guide we went with wasn’t a very good agency and the souvenir it brought us too was even worse! I bought some stamps and postcards from their shop, mailing it from their mailboxes, though I have yet to receive those, yet I know my recipients have gotten my postcards from Vienna! There was a gelateria and cafe beside the Chinese Taiwan Consulate along Via della Conciliazione which has some nice gelatos though.

St. Peter's Basilica from Via della Conciliazione
St. Peter’s Basilica from Via della Conciliazione

From outside the souvenir store, we proceeded next towards Piazza Navona, and the bus stopped us at the end of Ponte Umberto I where we walked along Via Giuseppe Zanardelli to reach Piazza Navona. Similar to Piazza del Popolo which we visited yesterday, Piazza Navona had the infamous role of being the site of the murder by water in the Fountain of Four Rivers. There are in fact 3 fountains in this stadium-shaped square, with the middle one outside the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone being the most prominent with the huge obelisk on the top. The fountain is so-called to represent the 4 prominent rivers known at that time: Nile, Danube, Ganges and Plata. Statues around the obelisk allude to the four river gods, with the face of the Nile covered due to the unknown source of the Nile during that period, piles of silver around the Plata, representing its name (Plata means silver in spanish) as well as the riches that America could bring to Europe, oars held by the Ganges representing its navigability and the Papal coat of arms on the Danube, since it was the closest river to Rome. Several other stories and myths abounds regarding the fountain and the church which was designed by competing architects Bernini and Borromini respectively. Thus from one perspective, it appears as if the river god Nile and Plata on the fountain appears to loathe the facade of the church and afraid of it collapsing. This is of course a myth since the church was completed later than the fountain. Other noteworthy building around the Piazza includes the Palazzo Pamphilj which now is home to the Brazilian Embassy in Rome. Piazza Navona is perhaps one of the liveliest squares with several restaurants lining the squares, and is definitely worth visiting for its fountains and the sculptures by Bernini.

Piazza Navona
Piazza Navona
Sculptures on the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi
The legend amongst tour guides on the sculptures at Piazza Navona

From Navona, it was a short walk towards our next destination, the Pantheon. We passed by Palazzo Madama which is now the Senate of Italy on the way to Piazza della Rotonda where another obelisk stands outside the Pantheon. Originally a pagan temple, the Pantheon is now tomb to several of Italy’s luminaries including the artist Raphael. As a place of religious worship, it had a tranquil atmosphere even with the oculus opening out into the skies. It was late morning by the time we finished or tour of the Pantheon and several people in the tour had went to purchase gelato from the shop in the corner of the Piazza della Rotonda, before crossing Via del Corso to reach the Trevi Fountain. An interesting toy store called Bartolucci is worth going in for authentic wooden toys. Visitors can’t miss the Pinocchio figure on the entrance of the store. After the toy store is the ancient ruins of the great temple once dedicated to Emperor Hadrian, but now incorporated into the Italian Stock Exchange Building. Upon crossing Via del Corso, one can also look towards the right for a peek into the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II. The Trevi Fountain is just another block away after crossing the street and is worth the visit as it is perhaps one of the most grandiose fountains in Rome, if not the largest. The Church of Saints Vincent and Anastasius can also be found in the corner of Piazza Trevi.

Piazza della Rotonda
Piazza della Rotonda and the Pantheon at the background
Trevi Fountain and the Palazzo Poli
Trevi Fountain in front of Palazzo Poli

As expected in summer, crowds abound by this fountain, though as it was around lunchtime, it wasn’t as bad as I expected it. The morning part of the tour ended as our tour cost was for 2 separate tours, of which the afternoon phase covers mainly the Vatican Museum. The tourists who joined just the morning part of the tour parted ways in the Trevi Fountain while the remaining of us boarded a bus that brought us to this Italian tavern called RomAntica Restaurant which is located close to Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. Tha tavern had a medieval interior and reminds me of those inns and taverns from the comic book Asterix and Obelix. We had been ordered set meals of a starter, a main course and dessert. Though beverages were an extra option. For starters we had macaroni with cheese, a choice of fish fillet or chicken chop for the main course and I can’t really remember what was the dessert. The macaroni with cheese was edible, though it was such a huge portion that none of us were able to finish it. The chicken chop was not bad, while the fish fillet doesn’t seem that good and since I can’t remember the dessert, it most probably is something not worth mentioning. We were picked up at around 2pm and by that time everyone had completed their meal and just eagerly awaiting the next destination. Similar to the morning procedure, a smaller bus picked us up and gathered us towards the larger tour bus outside the Church of Santa Susanna. Soon, we were off once again in the direction of the Vatican, though this time passing by Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II where we are treated to a great view of Castel Sant’Angelo, a mausoleum of Emperor Hadrian and later converted into a fortress and now a museum. It was another of Rome’s landmark structure which was featured in Dan Brown’s novel.

Castel Sant'Angelo
Castel Sant’Angelo from Ponter Vittorio Emanuele II

The bus went round Vatican City to drop us outside the entrance of Musei Vaticani. The Vatican Museums is actually a complex of several museum compounds and perhaps famous for the amount of artifacts, paintings, tapestries and sculptures collected by Popes since ancient times. For first timers, a guided tour is perhaps the best method, or alternatively, there’s this Vatican Museum iTunes guided tour app with audio and photos which is really good and definitely worth it even you aren’t visiting the museum. Most tours start out in the garden courtyard surrounded by the Museum buildings. Tour guides will the use the information planks located on the edges of the courtyard to explain on the Sistine Chapel, the most famous attraction in the Vatican Museum. And they have to explain it in the hot sun due to the restriction on speaking within the Sistine Chapel. In addition some ground rules were laid to ensure orderly procession amongst tour groups visiting the Museum.

The Pinecone Courtyard
The Pinecone Courtyard in the Vatican Museums

Since it was not possible to see everything, our tour started off in the Pio-Clementino Museum which holds several prime examples of statues with the Apoxyomenos, the Apollo del Belvedere, the Torso which inspired Michaelangelo, and the Laocoonte which was the first statue ever bought, and thus the starting point of the Musei Vaticani. The Laocoonte can be found in the Octagonal Courtyard within the Pio-Clementino Museum, and is surrounded by several other noteworthy statues. The next chamber known as the round hall is perhaps one of my favourite rooms in the Museum as it has a collection of giant statues facing a central red marble basin covered with a dome similar to the Pantheon. The Roman statues looks amazing and with its rich decoration of the room, transports visitors to another era, allowing them to feel the glory of that empire. The last gallery in this part of the museum is the Sala e Croce Greca which holds two royal sarcophagi made of red porphyry marble and commisioned by Emperor Constantine.

The Laocoonte
The Laocoonte in the Octagonal Courtyard of the Pio-Clementino Museum

From the Pio-Clementino, we headed to the 3 distinct galleries lining the western corridor of the Museum. They are the Gallery of Candelabra, Tapestries and Maps. As their name goes, the first gallery is so-called from the 2 giant candelabras overlooking its arched entryway, though it contains statues related to ancient mythology. The second gallery holds some of finest wall hangings or tapestries in the Vatican and the last gallery is decorated with maps showing the world as it was known in the late 14th century. Though these galleries contain immense treasures, I found the long corridor to be also well decorated with much detailing on the archway, ceilings and floors. The richness of the gallery is perhaps another reason to head to the Vatican Museums.

Archway Detail into the Gallery of Tapestries
Archway detail leading to the Gallery of Tapestries

There was several other rooms including the Sala Sobieski, Rapahel’s Rooms and the Borgia Apartment which we visited. Raphael’s Rooms contains the frescoes made by the reknowned artist while the Borgia Apartment is named after the infamous Pope Alexander VI who used it as his residence during his reign. It should be noted now that the museum is cooled naturally and has no air-conditioning during the summer months, which was why the long journey towards the Sistine Chapel was cooled only by the opened windows. It doesn’t help much since the museum was crowded and the weather was hot. Thus the Sistine Chapel is a welcome break! It is seeing the frescoes of the chapel including Michaelangelo’s famous Last Judgement which graces the wall upon entry. The ceiling frescoes tell nine stories from the Genesis including the separation of light from the dark, creation of stars and plants, separation of earth from water and creation of the universe with god at the centre. Followed by the creation of Adam, then Eve, the original sin, expulsion from paradise, before the great flood and finally Noah’s drunkenness towards rebirth after the flood. Amongst these frescoes, the creation of Adam is perhaps the most recognizable due to the hand of Adam reaching out to that of god which I is also featured in the Wonders in the game Civilization II. With no photography allowed in the Chapel and the darkness within, I didn’t take any shots. However the coolness within the Chapel and the wonderful frescoes certainly makes it worthwhile to visit and linger upon. After the spectacle of the Sistine Chapel it is difficult to be impressed by the rest of the Vatican Museum which continues with the Musei Biblioteca Apostolica which stores volumes and manuscripts collected by the church since early Christianity. At the end of the museum tour, there is a souvenir store and postal office where one can send postcard from. It is recommended to stop here for the official Vatican Museum souvenirs. However like the early morning tour, we were instead brought to this tourist trap along Via della Conciliazione. Before we exit the museum, there was this spiral staircase which marked the exit and was another one of the highlights of the museum.

Looking down onto the Spiral Staircase
The spiral staircase at the exit of the Vatican Museums

Like I mentioned earlier, the tour guide brought us back to the souvenir shop along Via della Conciliazione and I urge people not to buy their products since I know that postcards I have sent through the shop here haven’t been delivered to their recipients. Since we were waiting for the rest of the group to make their purchases, we headed over to the gelato shop a few paces down to get more ice cream! Since only the Vatican Museum was scheduled for the later part of the tour, some of the tour participants stopped to walk over towards St. Peter’s Basilica while the rest including us had the option of alighting along the way towards the tour agency. We chose to alight at Piazza Spagna as my Mum wanted to visit some of the shops that were closed on Sunday when we were there. We headed back to Termini using the metro line, and at Termini station itself we found this ice cream store called Antica Gelateria del Corso which had some nice tartufo ice cream and other range of amazing desserts! After savouring some desserts, we actually headed out for dinner which we had at one of the restaurants along Via Principe Amedeo. This time we ordered a pizza and another spaghetti vongole to share. I am a big fan of seafood pasta, and specifically pastas without tomato or cheese sauce. We also had an additional order of soup which was acceptable but not great.

Tram Stop outside Termini Station
Tram stop outside Termini Railway Station

With dinner concluded, there was still a stop which I have yet to visit in Rome. To me it might embody what Rome is all about especially after enjoying Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. The second metro line connects the Colosseo Metro stop with Termini and thus I had easy access to this location even at night. Suprisingly, there were still people admiring the Colosseum at night when we reached even though entry into the colosseum is already closed. This majestic building has got to be the most inspiring building in Rome, and it definitely is to Rome what Eiffel Tower would have been to Paris. Which was why I was especially pleased to capture some dynamic shots of this landmark with the passing traffic!

Traffic passes by the Colosseum
Colosseum at Night

Rome certainly won’t disappoint visitors, with the wealth of treasures in its churches and museums. However, as far as cities go, its public transport infrastructure is lacking, with the city looking disorderly and old (in fact, it is ancient). Add on the fact of hot summer weather and Rome wouldn’t be one of my favourite destinations in Europe. The best way to enjoy Rome, perhaps would be to read up more on its history and take in the piazzas and fountains around the city for they provide some of the best memories of Rome for me.

Must visit in Rome: That has got to be the Colosseum, and the fact that the city of Rome built a metro station next to an unused ancient ruin is testament to how important a landmark this place is to Rome. With is scale of construction, the Colosseo as it is known in Italy, will definitely ‘wow’! Best time to visit would perhaps be in the evening when the sun sets and the the monument gets lit up against the blue skies.

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