Don’t EVER take a tour with VasTours.
In the planning stages of this trip, Mom and I booked a full-day tour we recall being titled “Ancient and Monumental Rome,” to the tune of somewhere around $160 apiece. It was supposed to be the perfect complement to our half-day tour of the Vatican yesterday.
It was not.
This tour pretty much wasted our entire day. We did see some cool stuff that might have made the whole day worthwhile, but had we known at the outset what the lineup would be, we wouldn’t have booked this tour…or stayed with it through midday…or possibly even have boarded the bus. It wasn’t a nightmare, it was just…lacking.
The day started early, when the tour company sent a shuttle to pick us up from our hotel room…that was a big plus, and set our hopes high for the day. It took some time to get started, though, but most of the people on the bus with us (if not all) were Americans…even one guy who graduated from the same university, in the same year, as my folks…that was cool.
Our guide’s name was Tina. Her English was okay…but many of the things she said didn’t make sense (half-finished expressions and phrases, terrible pronunciations, none of it helped by a headset system that blanked out and blasted static often). My first beef with her was the fact that, as we boarded the coach, she was parked in the front seat…the one that sees out the front window and, therefore, sees everything. Best seat in the house. She was in it, taking up the whole thing, when there was a jumpseat just for her down by the steps. Sorry, but if you’re the guide, you give your guests the best seat ‘cause you see this stuff every day. My next beef with her was her less-than-wonderful grasp of English, and my third was her tendency to make us stand in the heat of the sun while she rambled on about something unintelligible and unrelated to the artifact at hand, after falling silent as we walked from one point to the next (by contrast, Dara yesterday [company: Dark Rome] was a master of well-timed speech).
Our first stop was the Trevi Fountain – which we saw last night. Partial bummer. But it was different in the morning light, as she said it’d be, and this time, we had Mom’s camera, and it was much less crowded than it was last night. So, that was cool.
Next stop – Pantheon – which we also saw, though only from the outside, last night. Bummer. But this time, we’re going in! AWESOME! But, oh no, the guards are starting to move the barriers that will keep the crowds out while they say a mass! MAJOR bummer! So suddenly she’s telling us we have five minutes in the Pantheon. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?? So we’re going through at light speed, and I’m rushed, and then I’m pissed, because the Pantheon is COOL, and I don’t wanna be rushed!! Not that Tina is telling us anything anyway. I decide to ignore her, pop out my earbud, and explore. The sunlight from the oculus is high up, still in the dome, as it’s only 9 am. The square cutouts on the ceiling are beautiful…the sky through the oculus is pure blue, and I’m engrossed in imagining what it’s like when it rains right through it. They said the marble floor is slanted around like a saucer and the rainwater drains through holes in the center that they block off with rope, but I bet plenty of people have fallen on their butts due to this in the last 2100 years or so. Then I find Raphael’s tomb. I’ve fallen in love with Raphael in the last couple days, I must confess…as much with him as with Michelangelo and Bernini and even Caravaggio. So I stand before his tomb, and the translation of the epitaph goes something like this, if I memorized it right: “Here lies Raphael, by whom Nature feared to be outdone while he was alive, and feared she herself might expire when he died.” Beautiful. I love it. And then we’re being shooed out…not by the men in suits setting up for some mass, but by her. I already kinda hate her.
From there, it’s Piazza Navona. Finally, something new, even something I was hoping to see…the Fountain of the Four Rivers. It was great…then the guide told us that last year, there were regular sightings of Julia Roberts as she filmed Eat, Pray, Love!! (I cannot believe I won’t be in the States the night that movie opens!!!) So I shot some of the cafes she pointed out, since she said they’re featured in the film…though she was ignorant of what the actual book is about. She thought it was about some divorcee who came to Rome and fell in love with some young Italian guy. Riiiight. Whatever. The piazza was really cool, though, and I got some great shots of the fountain and the one off to the far end of the ellipse as well.
Guess where we went next. Yeah. The flippn’ Vatican again. Back to the Basilica. Third time for us in three days. On one hand, how could you ever get bored with the Basilica?? It’s amazing, it’s gorgeous, I’m still seeking Santiago on the floor, and I was excited to see Andrew and Veronica again (no dice, though, the forward area was railed off again). On the other hand, for Chrissakes, it’s our third trip to this one place in three days! I decided instead to go back for a beautiful wooden rosary I saw yesterday in one of the gift shops. Bust again. One gift shop didn’t have it; the other was closed. And we had to get back to the gift shop across the square after only about 30 minutes. I had to bolt for it. On the way, huge screens in the square showed the Pope giving his Sunday Blessing from Castle Gandolfo in the north. That was cool.
I remember we had to meet in the gift shop for the end of the “morning tour” at 12:20.
Then we had lunch.
The “afternoon tour” didn’t start until 3:20. Ask me what we did for three THREE THREE FRIGGIN HOURS of our LAST DAY in ROME.
Sat on a bus. Went to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that, to be fair, had a good house white whine and good pasta, though the “second course” left a bit to be desired…unidentifiable meat and a salad. We sat there for about an hour and a half. At a table with one other couple. Who didn’t speak any English. And whose language we couldn’t identify. Did I mention over an hour and a half??? Then we got some lovely lemon ice for dessert…then got back on the bus. And drove five minutes in a giant circle. And came back to pick up stragglers. And then drove back to the tour office. And stood around for twenty minutes. And then got on another bus. And sat there for another HALF AN HOUR. And contemplated a maniacal homicide spree!!!!
FINALLY, the afternoon leg started!!
Can you say “frustrated beyond belief???” Our entire morning and half the afternoon gone, and our only new experience was the inside of the Pantheon, which we had to blaze through in five minutes!
(I’m trying to stay positive, I swear I am….)
The afternoon tour started with the Coliseum. Heck yeah. That was cool. It looks enormous from the outside, but not so big on the inside (especially when you’re used to NASCAR tracks, ha ha). I’m not sure how I can describe it. You kinda just have to go there. Giant stone blocks…pockmarked like they’d been through shrapnel fire, like the banks of the Thames in London…and the archways and the long, high walls do seem amazing when you consider they had no modern machinery…just 35,000 slaves working nonstop for 8 years….
We got to go up to the upper level and look out, then got to wander around inside on the ground level, too. You have to imagine the floor of the arena over top of the hallways and archways they had underneath it, which are all exposed now. It’s just…cool.
Outside was a magnificent marble arch and lots of ruins that our guide didn’t bother to explain and I haven’t yet looked up. There was a temple to Diana, I believe. The rest of it I’ll have to find out about on the internet, I suppose.
Next stop was Capitol Hill, from which we surveyed the Roman Forum. That was pretty neat, too…it was behind the monument to Victor Emmanuel (the so-called “Wedding Cake,” the “Typewriter,” and the “Dentures”) and the Capitol building for the city of Rome. You go between them and look over a cliff (hill?) and down into the ruins of the Forum. Tall columns. A free-standing façade with the words “Senatus Populusque Romanus,” which shortens to SPQR, which on T-shirts in souvenir shops is apparently synonymous with “Rome.” The ruins were really pretty awesome-looking. It would’ve been neat to walk around in them, like Mom said she did 40 years ago, but it was okay just to look at them.
Back onto the bus. Last stop made the whole day. Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls.
This is a truly beautiful church. It had this off-the-beaten-track feel to it. I never heard anything about it till today. It even seems kind of hidden…near Circus Maximus but set down off the road behind a thick grove of trees. Then you see its white columned façade, with a gorgeous green courtyard within the columns. Two tall palm trees reach into the sky from each forward corner. A giant white marble statue of St. Paul glowers down from the center, stern yet benevolent at the same time. The white columns, the palm trees, the green hedges forming geometric shapes with the sidewalks, and the blue sky above…it’s an oasis. Just beautiful.
The church inside is beautiful, too…wide open spaces, not a cathedral-type feeling at all, just a long, meditative entry space facing a domed altar with gold mosaics featuring Christ and a bunch of other people (had our guide been worth anything, I’d know exactly whom). Along the roof on the sides of the entry space were headshots of all the popes in mosaic…with a light shining on the one of Benedict XVI, since he’s current…JPJ II was just behind him, and six or seven open spaces lie in front of him.
And under the altar in the center of the church is a little glass box containing nine links of a chain. Paul’s chains.
And under the little glass box is Paul’s tomb. This makes four for me.
(Paul counts, right?)
Other huge white marble statues were in the church (though again, we were rushed out, ten minutes in the church itself, so we could hang around outside the gift shop for fifteen minutes while we waited to collect everyone again, GRRRRR)…including St. Scholastica, whom I made sure to photograph. =)
And by then, it was 6:30. They sorted us back onto buses and took us back to our hotel, where we had our long-awaited gelato (first of the day!), had pizza in the restaurant bar, and resigned ourselves to the fact that we’re not really gonna see much more of Rome than this. No climbing the dome of the Basilica. Sigh. That’s okay. Just means I’ll have to come back some day.
On a more upbeat note, we are thinking we’ll get up really early and pack and check out, then try to leave our bags here while we go hunt a few last sites near our hotel. We can probably hit a bunch before 11 or noon or so…St. Peter in Chains, Sta. Maria della Vittoria, San Giovanni in Laterano, Sta. Maria Maggiore…all of them appear to be close by where we are, forming a kind of trapezoid with our hotel and the Termini station at the top. That would make me feel better, if we could see a few more things in the morning before we leave. We may even splurge and take a hi-speed train to Florence. =) Up-side…hi-speed train, get to Florence by about 1pm while still spending the morning in Rome. Down-side…more expensive (but not hugely) and blow through what could be awesome countryside. Oh well. I think the hi-speed will be really cool.
And I’m psyched for Florence. I think Florence is the focal point of our Italy time anyway. David awaits. I can’t wait to see him. =)
Enough for now. Battery dying, Mom falling asleep, wants to download her pictures, gotta get to bed.