After a mostly sleepless flight from the United States, I arrived in Rome around 8:00AM to grey skies and rain. Did it matter? Nooo…. I was in Rome! I dreamed of coming to Italy for years and I was finally here! It was 6:00AM and I’d imbibed a bit too much with the two gals sitting next to me on the plane. They only had a few hours in Rome, which was a bummer. We would’ve had a good time, although I might not have remembered much of it if I stuck with them. My first stop was The Vatican.
I was staying in Orsa Maggiore Women’s Only Hostel in the Trastevere area of Rome. My directions were for the train, bus, and my own two somewhat wobbly legs, but my backpack was heavy and it was raining, so I got a shuttle for 30 euros from an orange desk in the airport. My head also felt a little fuzzy, so trying to figure out public transport, well, just wasn’t working. The shuttle was only about 15 euros more than I would have paid if I had taken the train and bus. Max took me and two other people, not my drinking buddies on the flight, to our hotels in his nice car, and I headed upstairs to check in.
My bed in the shared room that I would be sharing with the resident crazy lady wasn’t ready yet. Sleep. I just needed an hour. Oh look, there’s a lovely sofa here in this long, empty hallway leading to my room. “Can I just sleep here for an hour?” I asked. “Yes, of course,” the young lady working there replied.
Two hours later I awoke with a pounding headache. My heart leaped up into my chest. I thought I’d slept my first day in Rome away on a couch! What a relief to see it had only been two hours. I felt like hell and my mouth tasted like dirty socks. I rifled through my bag for Advil and a toothbrush, took care of business and got ready to go see the Vatican. They wouldn’t let me in my room until after 3:00PM. Little did I know what awaited me there…
Orsa Maggiore is a former convent in a beautiful 400-year-old building with terra cotta tiled floors and ridiculously high ceilings. The hostel is clean, quiet, and huge with spacious lockers and lots of showers. Breakfast is included. I would have to recommend it for solo women travelers especially. They also have free internet (only one computer) and free wireless in the rooms. The nearest metro stop, Circo Massimo, is a 30-minute walk away, but the hostel is in a great location in Trastervere. I grabbed an umbrella I found in the luggage room and I was off.
From Orsa Maggiore I could walk to the Vatican along the river. It was easy to find. Or was it just hard to miss? I couldn’t believe how many people were there in February in the rain, but it wasn’t crowded because St. Peter’s Square and Basilica are huge!! St. Peter’s Square is actually a huge circle with fountains and at this time of year, a nativity scene on steroids was still on display. I took a few pictures in the rain and wandered off to the Papal Tombs. There was no line and it is free to enter, as is St. Peter’s Basilica. I mean, the Vatican was built by poor people, after all. Best not to ask them to pay for it again…
There were several tour groups there, but not nearly as many as in summer. Only Pope John Paul II had a crowd praying in front of his tomb – his modest, no flash, no bling tomb. If I had it to do over, I probably would join a tour because I think with a guide, St. Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel would be a lot more meaningful and interesting.
When you leave the Papal Tombs, you go up the stairs and pop out in the middle of St. Peter’s Basilica. It was so huge!! The beauty of it is overshadowed by the size of it at first. I recommend wandering around just to get over the sheer size of it, and then wander around again to look at the details. Since I am not Catholic, a lot of the messages in the artwork and the design of the basilica isn’t so meaningful to me, but religion is always interesting.
While my headache had subsided, I was still sleep-deprived, so I know a lot of the history here went right over my head. I only know what I read in the books and my book said to look for Michelangelo’s Pieta statue. I just went towards the crowd of people that actually stood in one place for a long time. Pieta is behind bullet proof glass now. Apparently, it wasn’t until a few years ago. Pieta is a sight to behold. Carved of marble in 1499, Pieta’s detail is remarkable. It even made me forget my hangover for a moment.
I was dead tired by this time, but I still had to go see the Vatican Museums. A ticket for the Vatican Museums is 16 euros if you wait in line, 20 euros if you book the “Skip the Line” tickets online directly through the official Vatican Museums website. Tickets include the Sistine Chapel, of course. I also hadn’t eaten much except some toast at the hostel. But I forged ahead and it was worth it. I had no desire to see everything in the museum, just hit the high points, but the Sistine Chapel awaited at the end of the maze and that’s where I wanted to spend my time.
I walked through the Map Room, which was pretty epic, and then through what used to be the Papal Apartments I think, and the artwork on the walls and the ceilings was incredible. Much of the meaning behind it is lost on me, but I can still appreciate the beauty of it. I went pretty quickly through parts of the museum because I was so tired, but also because I was eager to see the Sistine Chapel. People were taking pictures in the museum, even with a flash, which I thought was very strange, but when I finally reached the Sistine Chapel, there really were no pictures allowed. Several CIA Operative looking dudes said so, and meant it. There was also no talking allowed. This made it eerily quiet inside.
The Sistine Chapel wasn’t as big as I expected, but it was extraordinary. It was crowded inside, but I found a seat and read about the scenes from the book of Genesis on the ceiling, and then what I was seeing made more sense. I know Michelangelo painted it and it is breathtaking, but until you understand the meaning of it, it’s all just a blur.
What I found most interesting, though, wasn’t actually the ceiling. I couldn’t stop staring at Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment dating back to 1541. It was commissioned by Pope Paul III as a reminder (warning??) to Catholics to keep their faith during the Reformation, lest they end up in hell. The near-naked figures are a swirling mass of tormented and tortured souls, said to represent Michelangelo’s own torment and struggle with faith. In the original painting, all of the bodies were naked and caused a lot of controversy. Pope Pius IV had Voltaire, Michelangelo’s student, paint the strategically placed loincloths and fig leaves, but they ain’t foolin’ nobody.
I sat for a long time reading and looking up, trying to understand what I was seeing, but when my eyes started to close, I knew it was time to finish my Vatican visit. My hangover hadn’t won, but it had scored a point or two.
Before going back to the hostel, I needed food. I made the mistake of going to a restaurant across from the Vatican. They advertised a set menu for 11 euros and the ravioli was good, but the rest, well, not so much. A fried chicken cutlet with no sauce, a salad with no dressing, and an apple I had to cut myself for dessert. They charged 2 euros for water and 2 euros for bread that was stale and I didn’t even eat it. Many tourists make the mistake of accepting the bread basket on a first visit to Italy, so if you don’t want to pay for bread, tell them you don’t want it because they just put it on the table like it is included in the price of the meal. It isn’t. After this happened two times, I learned my lesson.
I ate and went back to my hostel even though it wasn’t dark yet. My headache was back and I was wiped out. I took a shower, met my crazy roommate for the next FIVE nights, and went to bed early to her whispering “Why did she have to come here” like something out of a horror flick. I was pretty sure she didn’t have any weapons, and she was very small, so I felt I could take her on if necessary. Ask me if I cared. All of the excitement of finally seeing the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel wasn’t enough to cure my hangover or keep me awake. Neither were the whispers of a crazy lady.