Last weekend I was feeling a bit nostalgic so I watched Roman Holiday on Netflix. In this movie, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck spend a whirlwind day doing all the things Audrey wanted to do in the Eternal City. It made me think about my own whirlwind one day in Rome. I had joined my best bud and her family as they toured Europe and on a whim, a few of us decided to forgo one of our three days in Tuscany in exchange for a quick trip to Rome. Obviously, one day in this historic city is not enough. But like the Stones advise, when you can’t get what you want, you should get what you need.
We awoke at the break of dawn and hopped on a train heading south. The train ride was only two hours so when we arrived in the Rome transportation hub, it was still pretty early. We picked out five major destinations we wanted to see and hit the ground running. With just one day available, here’s where we went and what we saw.
Our first stop was the Vatican Museums. When we arrived, there was already a line but within 30 minutes we were able to get through security (remember, the Vatican is its own sovereign state). Everyone who visits the Vatican Museums should prepare themselves for what they are about to see. I was blown away by all the amazing art crammed into every nook and cranny. The Sistine Chapel is well known for art on the ceiling. But before you even get there, your neck will already hurt from looking up at the different paintings and frescoes on the ceilings all throughout the hallways.
When you get tired of looking up, look down because the floors are all intricate mosaics. Then there is the stuff on the actual walls–I was so excited to see many of the paintings I had learned about in humanities classes in college. The School of Athens in the Raphael Rooms was massive and might have been my favorite at the Museums.
After winding our way through 50 plus different rooms and hallways, we ended up in the Sistine Chapel and we got to take in Michelangelo’s little number (you may have heard of it?). The Sistine Chapel is big–it is a chapel after all–but I wasn’t expecting it to be so big and have so many other scenes to look at. The main wall has the Last Judgment painted on it, complete with scary scenes of hell and those iconic fingers touching. But beyond the main wall and the ceiling there are frescoes all on the walls. You are in the room with hundreds of other people of all different nationalities and languages, all taking in the famous art.
Advice: if you are into art history and plan on seeing the Sistine Chapel, you should read the Agony and the Ecstasy. It’s long but really good.
After exiting the Chapel, we made a short walk over to St. Peter’s Basilica. This building has been called the ‘greatest of all churches in Christendom.’ Not too shabby, right? Besides being important for religious reasons, let’s just get this out right now–this baby is huge. Like the biggest-church-ever huge. Like twice the size of the National Cathedral in D.C. It is shaped like a cross and has a huge dome that dominates the Roman skyline.
Work on the Basilica started in 1506 and names like Bernini and Michelangelo worked on the design and decoration of St. Peter’s. So it should come as no surprise that it is a work of art in itself, and is then decorated by more works of art, such as the Michelangelo sculpture, La Pieta. I am always amazed when I see sculptures and think of these life-like scenes were created from a chunk of rock. La Pieta is quite beautiful and depicts Mary holding Jesus’ body after he was crucified.
Seeing stuff like this makes you wish our Presidents and leaders would commission works of art the way the Popes did during the Renaissance. As we exited St. Peter’s onto St. Peter’s square where 80,000 people sometimes gather, I experienced one of those weird little travel moments that seem so improbable. There in front of me were some people I knew from back home. Even when you feel like you are thousands of miles from home, home can come to you. Maybe the world isn’t such a big place after all.
The next stop on our trek was the Roman Forum, culminating in the Colosseum. We learned a valuable lesson that jaywalking was unwise as we crossed several busy Roman streets. Unless you wanted to be hit by twenty or so angry scooter drivers. I would advise anyone crossing streets in Rome to only go when Italian-looking citizens (tight pants, lots of leather) do so. We survived though, as do the many structures that make up the Roman Forum. The Forum is a collection of the remnants of buildings, arches and statues, all left over from a few thousand years ago. As in thousands. How these people managed to build such large structures that have lasted so long is incredible.
The Colosseum looks just the way it is supposed to and after waiting in line for a while, we got to go wander around inside. There are three levels of arches that are built on top of each other into a large circle. The floor in the center is not solid; instead it looks a bit like a maze when viewed from above. There is a wooden bridge across the center (reconstructed) so you can get an idea of what it looked like when the floor was solid. The theory is that this floor was removable so if they were reenacting a water scene on that particular day, they could flood it and play real-life Battleship.
The Colosseum would have looked a lot different back in the day. In my mind, it is basically what a giant football stadium in present times would look like–except minus the plastic chairs and replay screens.
Trevi Fountain is located in the Trevi district of Rome. That seems like an easy enough destination, but alas…we got lost. We stumbled upon a fountain, and not remembering exactly what the fountain looked like, threw our euro coins in with a wish. We must have looked ridiculous and we certainly felt ridiculous when we eventually stumbled upon the actual Trevi Fountain.
There should be no mistaking this thing–it is the massive fountain on the side of a building that depicts Oceanus flanked by men and winged horses. Nothing like what we had found earlier. We threw more coins in, like so many others do. The coins are reportedly collected and buy food for needy Romans, so I was okay with buying another wish.
Advice: carry around a map or G.P.S. when exploring a new place. And not a lame one like you get at the hotel when you check in, which is what we were using.
The final must-see for our trip was the Pantheon. In 126. A.D. Hadrian completed the Pantheon, but for what purpose seems to be up for debate. After its first few hundred years it was dedicated as a church and has basically been that ever since. The building itself is circular with a massive dome and several columns at the front. The most impressive part of the Pantheon is its dome–it is the size of the one at St. Peter’s and has a big circle right in the middle.
The reason this is so impressive is because the engineers who came up with this did it using concrete–without any metal. Oh, and remember, they did this 2,000 years ago. I kind of get why these people took over much of the world with those kind of skills. Several tombs inside the Pantheon, most famously this is where Raphael was laid to rest.
After a very busy day, we headed back to the station to get on the train north. We were exhausted, but exhilarated by all we had been able to see and do in a mere one day in Rome.
At the end of Roman Holiday, Audrey and Gregory know that they shared a magical day in a magical city, but also that they would never again get to replicate it. As I think back on my own great day in Rome, it is also a little bittersweet because one of my dear friends is no longer with us. While that makes me sad, I am able to smile when I remember trekking all over this famous city. We’ll always have Rome!
I have no doubt that I will get to visit Rome again at some point. However, I will never regret squeezing one day in Rome into the trip to visit the five sites listed above. Have you been to Rome? What were your must sees?