Rome: Third Time Lucky

This is my third time in Rome, and I’ve never seen the Sistine Chapel!

Six years ago, atop St Peter’s Basilica

I was 19 the first time I visited. But somehow my brother and I managed to visit the Vatican on the one day that Michelangelo’s labour of love was closed to the public. An avid Art History student a few years earlier, I kept myself from wallowing in self-pity at the failure by swearing to come.

And I did. Almost a year ago. But, this time Rome was simply a quick stop on a much bigger Italian roadtrip. The aim of the trip was to take our car into the smaller Italian coastal towns, so we deliberately spent just a single day in Rome before driving on to somewhere harder to reach – again swearing we’d be back in the city for a weekender before long.

The crowd…
So this time, my third time lucky, a weekend is all I need. Because there’s just one thing I’ve come for: Michelangelo’s exquisite ceiling. Thank God we booked in advance! We skip the several thousand punters who didn’t, and waltz inside.

The Vatican Museums are cleverly designed with crowd control in mind. You have to walk the entire length of the museum in order to get to the Sistine Chapel. Think Disneyland, except the reward is a 500 year old ceiling. Which in my book is better.

My favourite part of the journey is easily the Gallery of Maps. It’s still the world’s largest pictorial geographical study, and it covers the whole of Italy. I’m not quite sure how I was unaware it existed before visiting… but as an explorer I found it mesmerising.

The Gallery of Maps

But nothing can compare with the splendour of the Sistine ceiling itself. I’m not the only tourist staring up open mouthed, trying to take in the whole thing. I position myself under my favourite part – the Creation of Adam – and stare for ages, trying to imagine Michelangelo standing atop wooden scaffolding with his neck craned back, squinting as paint drips on his face from the ceiling above him.

We celebrate our successful visit, six years late, with the best pizza in Rome. Or at least that’s what we’ve been told it is. Pizzarium, away from the crowds down the non-descript looking Via della Meloria, serves pizza by weight – slicing off the amount you want from enormous sheets.

Unable to narrow down our selection from the array of mouthwatering options, Paul and I end up spending nearly €20 on five different pieces. My favourite looks like a garlic pizza but actually turns out to be potato… and it’s perfection.

Afterwards, our attempt to visit St Peter’s Basilica is thwarted by weather and a four hour queue. Thankfully, I was able to visit six years ago. None of the others have been lucky enough to come here before, so it seems that I’ve passed on the baton of swearing to return to the Vatican!

We console ourselves by crossing the Tiber and walking through the winding cobbled streets around Piazza Navona, where I’ve always thought the best cafés were, stopping for a delicious dessert featuring cherries, vanilla gelato, and a shot of espresso.

One of my favourite things about Rome is the way you can stumble across something wonderful, and that’s exactly what happened to us when we got caught in the rain and stumbled in to the nearest building – Santa Maria in Vallicella:

We walk home past some of the quintessential features of any Roman city tour – the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps.

At the Pantheon, I’m able to fulfil a lifelong dream of seeing rain fall through the hole in the middle of the ceiling. It’s not falling heavily enough to appear like a column, but I’m still excited by it. I love the Pantheon because it’s still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. St Peter’s Basilica is exactly 5cm smaller in diameter – something Michelangelo did on purpose to thwart the catholic church. Good thing they didn’t realise until after his death or I daresay his life would have ended differently!

The Pantheon

The next day, we repeat the Colosseum guided tour that I did six years earlier. It’s not cheap, but I find the commentary helpful in trying to imagine this (literally) colossal building as it once was.

The Palatine Hill tour afterwards was a fascinating insight to the way the emperors of Rome lived.

Marble from the palace of Tiberius in the foreground, with the [slightly less ancient] palace of Mussolini behind.
In the afternoon, we caught the metro to the Piazza del Popolo, which was historically the point of entry for tourists visiting Rome. And boy is it grand!
The Piazza del Popolo

We walk through the Villa Borghese to the Modern Art Gallery, which is full of fantastic exhibitions that take my fancy much more than I expected in this ancient city.

The Modern Art Gallery, on the edge of the Villa Borghese

Then, it’s time to head back to the airport. Unfortunately, we’ve been saving one of the best parts of the trip for last: a visit to the oldest gelateria in Rome. It’s enormous, immensely popular, and right next to where we’ve been staying. But our bus takes so long winding around the city that we have to skip the gelato and head straight to the airport!

Hopefully I’ll be back in another six years, to make up for it.