Rome Highlights | A Study in Contrasts

Bonnie and I have long realized a pattern in our travels where we pause for a moment and realize we’re the only English speakers for miles around. That is, what we usually look for often leads us to situations where we wonder how the hell we got into a given situation like that, but it has almost always turned out for the best. Rome, however, being the former center of one of the largest empires in the world, and then in subsequent centuries, the center of a whole lot of other drama (Christian stuff, papal orgies, barbarian sackings, etc.), has a whole lot of Big Name things to check out for the tourists in us, full of grandeur and beauty enough to make our jaws drop. One of those in particular was, of course, the Vatican Museums and within it, the Sistine Chapel.

i Musei Vaticani

The Vatican Museums house an overwhelming collection of art and archaeological objects, but before describing that at all: just getting to them was a little bit like being back in India. There are so, so many touts, all of them obnoxious in a smorgasbord of different, annoying ways. We’ve luckily built up our ignoring skills over the past year, but I would have gleefully body-checked any of them, even the cute British girl. Well, she was cute until she was sarcastic to us after thinking we didn’t speak English.

Point of all this is: just keep walking. Go past the touts (the ones that claim it’s closed or that you need to have booked tickets in advance), don’t acknowledge their existence, keep right on past the herds of tour groups, don’t mistake them for amorphous lines, just keep going forward following whatever signs you can for the museum, through the atriums where it definitely wasn’t necessary to buy any tickets online to skip any lines, all the way up to when you get to some placid staff in little glass kiosks who calmly take your money and let you on through quickly and efficiently.

From that point, there is gallery after gallery of art, from absolutely gorgeous ceiling panels to impressive and unique statues from Greek and Roman antiquity and massive, carefully preserved tapestries. It’s awe inspiring, especially when combined with the natural light cascading through each hall’s windows.

But each hall is absolutely full to the brim with people, turning the whole affair into a slow-moving, muddy river. It’s not the worst thing, to be fair (at least we weren’t getting stampeded by tour groups like back in Vietnam), but the constant holding of phones and cameras and iPads overhead to snap photos of every last object did end up feeling a little crass.

And then the Sistine Chapel: yep, the one with God playing E.T. with Adam right in the middle of the ceiling. Kidding aside, it is a magnificent, warehouse-sized work of art, made even more fantastic in that it was almost entirely created by one individual. Bonnie was clever enough to download an audioguide for us that we could play on our cell phone, so we were able to understand the intended meanings behind each of the parts of the immense paintings, from the multi-story day of judgment wall to the story of creation across the ceiling, and all the prophets in between.

All while, that is, pausing for the guards to tell people to be silent over PAs as they chatted away, periodically yell at people for taking photos (because it’s the one place in the Vatican Museums where photos aren’t allowed), and while milling amidst enough people to fill up the entire floor of the chapel. Again, not all that bad, but by the end of it, we were flatly done with being around people for a while.

Parco degli Acquedotti

On the other hand, we also stumbled upon the Parco degli Acquedotti while looking for a good place to slackline in Rome. It was a solid metro ride out of the center of town, but absolutely worth it. It’s a very large park, full of open, grassy areas dotted with a variety of types of trees that all happen to provide great shade. As we strolled past the Acqua Felice, a smaller and more modern aqueduct that lines the park closest to the streets, we started to catch glimpses of the bigger and more ancient Aqua Claudia across the park.

It’s an imposing structure, stretching up in graceful, almost delicate arcs from fields of yellow and scarlet wildflowers crisscrossed with streams. We marveled that ancient engineers were not only able to construct such a thing, even if it had been worn down by the centuries to a series of disconnected fragments, but that they were also able to do it with such precision as to carry water over miles and miles with the gentlest of slopes.

As we wandered to the base of the aqueduct, we stepped out of the way for a couple bicyclists, and paused to watch dogs playing gleefully in the streams. The only loud noise was a small class out on a field trip, and the only other people we saw were sporadic joggers and couples taking slower strolls along the paths, which, incidentally, were lined with fruit trees, wild flowers, and even calla lilies.

We found a good spot to slackline just meters away from the smaller aqueduct, and when we were done and ready for lunch, we stumbled across a tiny pizzeria on the way back to the metro. The staff was friendly and the pizza (vegan for Bonnie) and supplì were delicious enough that we went back for thirds!

Long and short of it, I don’t think I need to provide ham-handed commentary; both Roman places are great in their own ways, just, they’re very different ways.