I can’t believe it’s a year since we were in Rome for my birthday! Weirdly, Rome at Christmas isn’t that Christmassy. More to the point, that’s why I chose it!
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still quite clearly Christmas in the city, There are fairy lights in the streets, big trees in large piazzas and decorations in shop windows and restaurants. It’s more that the sole focus isn’t Christmas, if that makes sense? Some cities are renowned for being Christmas destinations, with markets and winter wonderlands and the like. While that’s absolutely wonderful, and I do love a Christmas destination, I wanted my birthday to be more about my birthday than celebrating Christmas.
Clear as mud, right?
I suppose what I’m saying is, if you were looking for a Christmas getaway to give you all the Christmas feels, then Rome probably isn’t it. If you’re looking for a winter break with a healthy smattering of Christmas and loads to do, see and eat, Rome is perfect.
Now I’ve got that straight (!!) here are some Christmas pictures we took around the city during our 4 days. There are trees, street decorations, fairy lights and garlands. And seeing these make me want to go back!
I cannot wait to go back to this beautiful city! Next time I’d go when it was slightly warmer but not high season to be able to take advantage of lighter nights and outdoor cafes. Perhaps May or late September. That said, I would definitely recommend a visit in December, because the city isn’t too busy and hotel rates are reasonable.
Long ago, before Rome was even on my radar, I read a blog post which mentioned the Scavi tour, which is the underground necropolis at St Peters Basilica. It isn’t open to the general public – you have to send an email to the Vatican to ask about availability and, if there’s a space (only 250 people are allowed through each day, with a maximum of 12 per tour, compared to the 30,000 per day that visit the Vatican Museums), they will book it for you and send an invoice which you pay online. I kept this piece of knowledge in the travel portion of my brain (which is a lot bigger than, say, the common sense portion) to be used at a future date.
Fast forward then to September 2017, when plans for our trip were taking place, and I unearthed this memory and sent an email directly to the Vatican (I like to think the Pope himself opened and read it) who confirmed our booking in writing, with a request for payment of just 13 euros each. Although neither myself or the husband are of any religious persuasion, we do enjoy religious architecture and history and not missing out on ANYTHING (OK, the latter is just me) so this was a no brainer. We were booked for 1.30pm so it made sense to visit the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel in the morning. Checking on the website I found that you can also book and pay for timed museum tickets in advance, which made sense as we knew our itinerary and I guessed that the queues may be quite long (more on that later).
It was another beautiful morning with bright blue sky so we set off on foot across the Ponte Umberto bridge to the other side of the River Tiber. St Peters Basilica is visible from quite a way away, its dome dominating the skyline as you walk down the long wide road towards it.
We were approached a few times by people asking for money; old and disabled brandishing a paper cup towards us, which I found especially disturbing considering the location – isn’t the Church supposed to look after everyone? I was even more disturbed after our museum visit, because the amount of wealth is catch your breath obscene. Perhaps the Vatican City could rely less on harbouring so many priceless historical artefacts and more on looking after it’s own. But that’s a whole other post!
All around the area are ticket touts trying to sell tours, but also lots of tourist information people who are there to offer advice and directions, which was very helpful because, as expected, it’s incredibly busy with hundreds and thousands of people. As we rounded the corner to the street leading up to the museum entrance, our decision to prebook tickets really came into it’s own – the queue was 4 people wide and a good 300 metres long. We approached a tourist information person and showed him our booking, and he advised us to go right to the front, result!
Security is akin to going through an airport; you have to put your belongings in trays that go through an X Ray machine and then walk through a full body scanner (we felt safe everywhere in Rome; all the main attractions had armed police nearby, and the size of their guns would be a deterrent to anyone).
I’ll be honest here, I didn’t really know much about the Vatican Museums. OK, anything. I’m aware of the Sistine Chapel but hadn’t anticipated everything else that made up the attraction, and it was mind blowing, and somewhat overwhelming. We’re talking gallery upon gallery of priceless paintings, tapestries, sculptures, historical artefacts – even the ceilings are complete works of art. The amount of gold leaf was akin to nothing I’ve ever seen and we marveled at how so much of what was on display was completely priceless – how do you insure an Egyptian mummy?!
The sheer volume of stuff, for me, meant that I became a little bit complacent about what I was looking at. In a long narrow gallery full of sculpted busts and statues it became a little bit “oh look, there’s another centuries old piece!” which is bad but understandable, because its impossible to take it all in, and you find yourself drawn to the bigger pieces which means you could be missing out on something amazing next to it because it’s a bit smaller in size.
By selling off even 5% of the collection, the museum would still be an absolutely amazing place to visit but maybe, just maybe, the poor and needy begging outside would have homes to live in and food to eat.
Another thing I was surprised by – it’s a bloody long way to the Sistine Chapel! I’m talking thousands of steps on your FitBit! You keep following the signs, thinking it will be in the next room, or the next room, but instead there’s another gallery of statues, or more irreplaceable artwork and while it’s amazing, I started to think, just get me to the Chapel already! And then, when I got there, another honest admission, I was totally underwhelmed. Like severely “is that it?” Which is probably very heathen like of me and, if I believed in him, I’m sure God would strike me down but I’m not going to pretend I thought it was amazing when I didn’t. I expected it to be a wow moment, which I’m sure for religious people it is, and maybe it was because we’d already seen so much amazing stuff, but in contrast to the bright colours and intricate artwork of the galleries we’d already walked through it was a bit meh (there’s God, trying to strike me down again). For a start off it’s very dull and poorly lit (presumably to protect the paintings) and the ceiling – arguably the main attraction – isn’t at all what I expected it to be; I thought it comprised mainly of the Creation of Adam but actually it’s lots of different paintings in a collage. I know Michaelangelo and this ceiling are highly revered, but it didn’t tick any boxes for me.
I was much more impressed with everything that came before and afterwards.
Every ceiling was incredible!
The walls of this hall were lined with tapestries depicting the Italian coastline and dated back to the 16h century. Look at the ceiling as well!
I would recommend the museum to everyone visiting Rome because it really is quite something; even if you’re an atheist, critical, non arty heathen like me!
After a quick lunch it was time to join the aforementioned Scavi tour; again we were thankful of the tourist information guides as the location wasn’t immediately obvious. More security ensued and we joined our group of 12 people in a courtyard behind St Peters Basilica ready to embark on a part of the Vatican City that not many people get to see.
Our guide was incredibly enthusiastic and knowledgeable, talking us through the history of how the excavated space came to be. The Vatican commissioned excavations to be carried out there before Pope Pius IX was set to be buried in the space, in the 1940s, expecting to find very little, but archaeologists found a burial ground (aka a necropolis) dating all the way back to the 4th century; the temple of Emperor Constantine who had ruled at that time, and a funerary monument with a casket engraved with wording that translated as Peter is here (Peter is believed to have been crucified upside down in Rome during first century AD and his remains were interred in a tomb on the Vatican Hill. Bone fragments proven to belong to St Peter have been found and are now kept in a shrine deep underground which you get to see on the tour. He’s important because he’s said to be one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, and so to religious folk he’s quite a big deal – hence having a whole basilica built in his name).
The necropolis is basically a city of the dead, and was the part of the city where people built mausoleums for their bodies to be interred after death. You can still see the layout of the Roman streets and the decor on the walls of some of the mausoleums (it reminded me, in a way, of parts of Herculaneum which we visited a couple of years ago). It’s crazy to think how old it all is, and that you’re actually walking on centuries old ground. The reason it was built over is because there was a huge fire which destroyed parts of Rome, but because it didn’t cross the River Tiber, this area of the city wasn’t damaged. Emperor Constantine gave the order to build on top of the Necropolis, and it wasn’t disturbed for thousands of years.
It’s very warm in the necropolis (you’re quite a way below ground level) and a lot of the areas are quite small and cramped. The tour takes around an hour and I would wholeheartedly recommend it, even if you’re not a religious person. Strict rules apply – no large bags (they have to checked in at the entrance and collected later), shoulders, arms and legs covered (this is a very religious space, whatever your own beliefs or non beliefs) – this wasn’t a problem for us as we visited in Winter, but one to consider for summer; and no photographs. The pictures below are taken from official sources because, although I wanted my own photos, I also didn’t want to get chucked out for breaking the rules!
You exit the tour in the crypt where lots of previous popes are buried; many of them have their own altars, some were restricted public access and there’s a lot of marble. When you exit the crypt you can enter the Basilica without the need to queue, which was fantastic because by that time of day the queues were thousands of people deep. For that reason alone it’s worth booking the Scavi tour – queue jumping and a behind the scenes look at parts of the Vatican City very few people have ever seen.
Inside the basilica is less impressive than expected, if I’m honest, it’s certainly not up there with the most beautiful places of worship I’ve ever seen (or maybe I was still reeling from the amount of artwork in the Vatican Museums!)
I was much more impressed by the outside, which really is stunning, especially against the clear blue sky. The columns are immense!
The Swiss Guards, who are solely responsible for protecting the Pope and must be of Swiss birth, Roman Catholic and between 19 and 30 years of age, were the only burst of colour against the stone of the building, and very snazzy they looked too!
Would I recommend visiting the Vatican Museums and St Peters Basilica? Absolutely. But more than the visit, I would wholeheartedly recommend prebooking tickets for the museum and Scavi tour, even more so in high season, to avoid the lengthy queues.
If you follow me on Instagram you may have noticed that I went to Rome for a few days before Christmas, to celebrate my 40th birthday.
You may also have noticed that we almost never made it out of Luton airport.
In case you don’t follow me on insta (you should, by the way, shameless plug of link to my account here) or if their silly algorithm means you don’t see my posts, here’s what happened.
Our flight from Luton was at 6.40am on the Monday morning, so we travelled down the day before and stayed in a hotel near the airport. Early start (3am alarm, eek) was fairly uneventful and we checked in and went to buy some currency (because dimwit here had forgotten to collect the euros I’d pre-ordered from the Post Office, d’oh!) I bought some bits from Boots (2 more travel plugs to ad to our growing – but missing – collection) and had a tasty breakfast with a cocktail to start an exciting and momentous trip. All was well, so with 20 minutes until the departure gate opened we had a browse in WH Smith to buy some magazines for the flight.
When we came to pay, we of course needed one of our boarding passes, which of course wasn’t a problem because they were safely in an envelope in my handbag alongside the passports. Except they weren’t. No boarding cards, no envelope and no passports. Cue frantic retracing of steps to the restaurant and boots (to no avail), heart in mouth and panic sweats. The husband, it must be pointed out, was taking things remarkably well (for him) and stayed fairly level headed and non-angry, despite the fact that the look in his eyes said otherwise. We raced back to security in the hope that someone had handed them in (as I reasonably pointed out, if you found some travel documents in an airport you’d have to be a total shit to throw them away) and THANK GOD a smiling security lady located them under a desk and gave them back to a calm-on-the-outside-frantic-on-the-inside me! I hadn’t even left them in the security tray after scanning though, no, they hadn’t even got that far. When I was putting my liquids in a bag, before the security check, I’d left the envelope on a shelf. An envelope which, with being shoved in and out of my bag on the journey so far, could easily have been mistaken for some tatty old rubbish,
Total muppet – it was almost a birthday to remember for all the wrong reasons…
Needless to say I wasn’t allowed to keep the passports for the rest of the trip, even though I’m usually Chief Security Officer; they remained securely in the husband’s inside pocket of his coat, and I was the butt of multiple jokes as a result!
I’m glad to report that the rest of the trip went by without incident. We arrived at Rome Fiumicino airport at around 10.30am, collected our luggage and headed out into the arrivals lounge where we were met by our pre-booked driver (I always try and do this, where possible, it saves lots of hassle and is usually cheaper than getting a cab at the airport, plus you get to feel a little bit like a famous person for a nanosecond!). The transfer to the city centre and our hotel took around 30 minutes, and the closer we got to the centre, the more evidence of Roman architecture started to appear; like random columns in the middle of modern buildings. That’s one of the things that surprised me about Rome, many of the tourist attractions are just in the middle of the working city, not on a dedicated site with a big wide open space around them. We stumbled on both the Pantheon and the Trevi fountain in this way; we turned a corner and there they were, in the middle of a piazza. It’s quite strange!
We arrived at our hotel – Antica Dimora dell Cinque Lune (I’ll review that in another post) – at around 11.30, which was too early to check in, but the receptionist was incredibly helpful and stored our luggage so we were free to set off and explore. We spent a few minutes getting our bearings, but knowing we were just steps from the River Tiber and the Palace of Justice meant we already knew where to head to if we were to get lost!
Spotting a number of hop on hop off bus tours on the main road alongside the river, we set off to find a bus stop, and by midday we were upstairs on a double decker, earphones firmly in place to listen to the commentary, and heading off on a 90 minute round trip of the city. We find that this kind of bus tour is a great way to see the highlights, get a feel for a city and an overview of what’s where, and then delve into the deeper sightseeing after that. On this occasion we used the Big Bus company, and paid 35 euros each for a 48 hour ticket, but other companies run within the city too (although your ticket is only valid for the bus company you buy it from).
As suspected, the bus tour was a great place to start. We went across the river, marvelling at the architecture of the city, winding through Via del Corso, the main shopping street, saw centuries old churches and buildings, detailed sculptures, statues and fountains, felt blown away by the magnificent sight of the colosseum at the bottom of a busy thoroughfare and imagined the site of the chariot racing on Circus Maximus.
Then we got off the bus where we’d started and stopped for lunch in a little bistro on the side of the road who did a lunch menu of bruschetta, choice of pizza or pasta and a glass of wine or beer for just 12 euros – not at all what we’d expected from reports of Rome being expensive. We sat outside on the terrace under a patio heater and it was just fabulous!
After checking into the hotel we headed out once more; this time over the river on foot and past Castel Sant’Angelo, with St Peters Basilica in our eye line. As our Vatican and St Peters visit was planned for the next day, we crossed across the River Tiber, meandered through tiny cobbled side streets, just soaking up how fabulous Rome is, declaring that we already loved the place and beaming with happiness.
Our hotel was just round the corner from Piazza Navona, which we’d read would have a Christmas market. It was all running remarkably late, setting up but not at all Christmassy, but the Fountain of Neptune and Fountain of the Four Rivers in front of the Santa Agnese in Agona church were beautiful to look at.
We found a beautiful bistro, covered in fairy lights with a rather gorgeous menu and decided we would head back there later that evening to eat, which we did – the most delicious medium rare steak wrapped in bacon with shaved truffles, accompanied by a bottle of chianti. Heading back to our hotel through Piazza Navona and past the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi it’s fair to say we were giddy with happiness and giddy with Rome.
Coming soon – day 2 at the Vatican Museums and St Peters Basilica.
Have you ever been to Rome? Let me know in the comments!