The average Roman is somewhat unfriendly, walking the streets or Rome you will bump into lots of them scurring along,  going about their business, oblivious to the people around, endlessly talking to their cellphones.

We are also quite suspicious which comes from living in a big city. We know this is a charming and quaint city, but for everything there’s a price to pay and for us is to be confronted with a wide assortment of dodgy people which tend to be in your face (that’s another of our pet hates) and won’t take no for an answer.

Usually people like that target outoftowners, problem is with the current crisis they can be really pushy. The streets around the Colosseum and the Vatican are crawled with people which are after a fast buck. These days it’s impossible to walk the distance from the subway stop to the Vatican Museums entrance without being approached by one of those people trying to sell virtually everything from postcards to any kind of stuff . The catch up line is usually: ‘Do you speak English?’ or ‘Skip the line to the Museums!’, too bad most of the times there’s no line at all.

Now the best way to skip the line is to book through the Vatican website, you are given a time slot to show up and that’s  about it. This is also the cheapest way without any mark-up.

So those frightening tales about waiting in line for hours are a thing of the past.  A few years ago it was impossible to book the tickets online so the whole world would go to the Museums in the morning, last entrance used to 1pm. Hence long line-ups.

At present the Museums are open til 6pm (last admission though is at 4 pm)six days a week and visitors distribute through the whole day so if you really wish to find a humongous line like the good old days your only chance is to go there on the last Sunday of the month when the Museums are open only from 9Pm until 12Pm and free of charge, or during some festivities such as the Christmas or the Easter week. In that case there’s still people who arrive around 7Am and wait for a couple of hours  in order to be the first to go in.

So my advice would be to book any ticket (be the Colosseum or the Vatican) online to avoid the scalpers and save time to boot. The museums are usually busier during the weekend, so if you are in the position to choose the day of your visit Tuesdays and Thursdays are the less busy days of the week.

Around the Colosseum the environment is even more hostile: people dress as Roman centurions who may charge you from 5 to 20 Euros for a picture, young students (I always wonder when do they actually study since they are out on the streets all the time) offering free tours: ‘Buy now pay later’ being their favourite catch-up line (whatever that means) and knockoffs galore.

As for the Vatican you can save yourself a lot of trouble by simply booking your tickets to the Colosseum in advance. It’s only an extra 1,50 euro per ticket.  Keep in mind we don’t believe in plastic money much around here, so make sure you always travel with a little cash. The Colosseum ticket office accepts some major credit cards but not all.

A lot of websites also  advertise their tours with VIP entrance to the Vatican or to the Colosseum underground areas(hypogeum): but beware since in most cases  it is not a real VIP entrance and you are going to pay more for something  you could simply reserve  on your own !


Travel tips: the Vatican city


Dress code and photography

Everything is different in the Vatican, it’s a foreign country after all, so what works in Rome may not work over there.

If you are planning a visit there prepare yourself to go through security checks as you leave the country! (Italy)

No sharp objects (pocket knives, scissors and the like). Water is allowed as long as it’s in plastic, positively no glass bottles.

You should bring your camera, pictures are allowed (with a few restrictions) but no tripods.

There will be a dress code:  shoulders and knees must be covered so no tank tops, mini skirts or shorts. Sandals, flip-flops are fine, no restrictions for the shoes.

To make things more complicated, (this is its own country but the people who work there are Italians after all) the rules in the Museums (and the Sistine Chapel) differ from the ones in the Basilica of S.Peter’s. This can be quite frustrating at times but it’s the way it goes. You can bump into security guards every step of the way and each one of them can tell you their own version of the rules.

Here’s an example:

pictures are allowed  on the outside with no restrictions, while inside the Museums cameras and videos are fine without the flash. In the Sistine Chapel positively no pictures or filming whatsoever. In St. Peter’s Basilica pictures are fine with the flash, while down the Vatican Grottoes pictures are again not allowed. Confused? So are we.

So if you are told off by the security don’t say “but your colleague told me it was all right to…” it will only make matters worse, smile politely and pretend you don’t speak any Italian.

As everybody knows it gets sweltering in Rome in the summer with temperature always in the high 90’s. The humidity (and the heat index) make things worse especially when walking through the Vatican Museums.

A way around this problem is to wear pants (natch) and bring a pair of slacks as well.  Because  shorts (as long as they are knee high) are allowed in the Museums. then before you enter the church you can put on long pants and walk past the knee and shoulder checkers. The dress code is strictly enforced in St. Peter’s, especially when the Holy Father is in residence.  It is also true that recently men were allowed to wear shorts (always knee lenght) but to play safe we always recommend wearing long pants in the Basilica. Rules may change quickly with no advance warning.

There is actually something all the Vatican guards agree upon: flip flops are fine throughout the Vatican City!

Best time to go. Prepurchasing tickets or not? This is the question…..

Museums are generally busier on Saturdays and Mondays since  they are normally closed on Sundays.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays are much slower. Most of the people still like to go there in the morning, so if you go there around 2 pm, you will probably walk right in. The Museums close at 6 pm from Monday through Saturday so that’s plenty of time to cover the highlights, unless you are a museum bug.

On the last Sunday of the month the Museums are open and free but from 9 to 12,30  only so the lines are generally very thick ! Inside there is a lot of noise and confusion which is the reason why I’d avoid a visit to the Vatican Museums  on Sunday unless you have no other possibility.

What about Wednesdays? In springtime, summer and fall the Holy Father gives a morning  audience in St. Peter’s Square and the Basilica won’t be open to the public until the end of the audience (approx. 1 pm). So if you intend visiting the museums there won’t be large crowds  since many will attend the papal audience but if you want to see the Basilica exiting from the Sistine Chapel it will be closed. In the  early afternoon instead a lot of the groups attending the papal  audience will go to the museums.

When planning your tour I always suggest  to check the Vatican official calendar to decide whether or not making a ticket  reservation: if the museums are closed for 2 days in a row because  of a religious festivity when they’ll reopen  there will certainly be  a long line, if that’s the case I would surely book my tickets.

But how long are the lines really?

Back to the good old days before internet came around the longest line I had to stand in my career as a guide was some 2 hours. But this was before the Vatican introduced the reservation system via web.

Now when I give tours I normally enter with groups and individuals with ticket reservation but I’d say that very  long lines are rare, it happens only  when the museums are closed for a couple of days in a row.  All the other days I think that 1 hour  is the worst that could happen to you!

It is true that it is difficult to predict lines (on a cruise day for example there will be  busloads of visitors from the cruiseships) but very often on some of  the websites selling Vatican tickets and tours  you read those tall stories about humongous line-ups. That is I can say is a thing of the past (unless coming on December 24th or Easter).

Check this post as well for the Vatican tickets reservation:

Are you visiting Saint Peter’s? (during the busy season)

If  you decide to visit Saint Peter’s Basilica only, without the museums, expect to wait in line in the square if you get there too late. I suggest going to the Basilica before 9 am or after 4 pm. Normally guides can give tours in the Basilica from around 10 am to 4.30 pm so this is when the line in Saint Peter’s square gets very long.

Do you want to see Raphael’s Rooms?

Well then don’t do the mistake many do!

When you exit the Gallery of the Maps, there is another short gallery with some tapestries and then if you turn LEFT you’ll go to the Raphael Rooms. If instead you’ll go STRAIGHT you’ll take the stairs that lead directly inside the Sistine Chapel. At that point once you get in the Sistine Chapel  it will be impossible  to climb up the same  stairs and go to Raphael’s Rooms since it is a one way stairway. So if you do not want  to miss Raphael’s masterpieces in the Vatican remember to turn left (there is a small sign). After  the Raphael Rooms you’ll be able to reach the Sistine Chapel with a rather long itinerary  through the collection of Modern Religious Art in the Borgia Apartments.

The Basilica of San Clemente

It begins, as so many things in Rome begin, with a stout foundation of antique travertine, and rises high, in delicately quaint mediaeval brickwork – little tiers and apertures sustained on miniature columns and adorned with small cracked slabs of green and yellow marble, inserted almost at random. Henry James, Italian Hours

The quotation from Henry James does not refer directly to the Basilica of St. Clement but  to the nearly unique recycling of architectures in Rome, where every building springs from a previous one, thus creating an overlapping of architectures. One of my favourite expressions is that Rome can be considered a “huge  architectural  quiltwork” .
One of the most extraordinary examples of a layered city  can be found in the Basilica of  Saint Clement, a church located in the Colosseum area. Unlike other churches or buildings where you can visit only one level below, this basilica has two  underground levels open to the public!

This basilica is dedicated to  St Clement (92-101 AD) who is considered the third successor to Saint Peter in Rome. Unfortunately very little is known about  this pope, and the  story of his life is often combined  with colorful  legends.

Saint  Clement was a  martyr under emperor Trajan: he was exiled to Crimea and  forced to work the mines, but since  he stubbornly persisted in his  missionary activity the Roman soldiers bound him to an anchor and threw him into the Black Sea.  Sometime later, his body was  recovered  at the bottom of the sea when the waters miraculously receded . The remains were later brought to Rome and buried under the main altar of this church.

The visit normally begins with the upper basilica (built in the 12th century) which was for a long time mistakenly considered the only  church dedicated to Saint  Clement built originally in the 4th century. In 1857 Fr Joseph Mullooly,  Prior of Saint Clement’s, began excavations under the present basilica, uncovering not only the original, 4th century basilica directly underneath, but also at a lower level, the ruins of  1st century buildings.

To enter  the present day basilica I prefer the entrance on Piazza di  S. Clemente rather than the one on via di S. Giovanni in Laterano. Once you walk through the little gateway you’ll find yourself in a little and peaceful  medieval courtyard: when I am here I always like to think about the pilgrims of yesteryear, resting, drinking the water from the fountain or massaging their sore feet after a long day walking or on donkeyback.

The present day church  repeats the plan of the 4th century church below but it is smaller on one side. As you enter the first thing that will catch your eye is the superb mosaic on the apse: the crucifixion of Christ in a feast of gold and green acanthus spirals. Christ’s cross is no longer a symbol of torture and suffering but  the new Tree of Life planted on the hill of Paradise restored by Christ. This mosaic is probably a faithful reproduction of the one in the 4th century basilica.

The richly coloured floor is a typical example of cosmatesque floor which can be found in several Roman churches. It is a style that was devised in medieval times by a family of craftsmen, the Cosmati, who often used recycled materials for their ornamental geometric patterns.

If you look at the columns and capitals you’ll notice too that they are all different: due to marble shortage it was customary in the Middle Ages and also later on  to dismatle other buildings such as  temples to recycle their columns and other materials.

On the right side is a little door that will take you to the ticket office for the excavations below: the upper basilica has no admission fee but there’s a 5 euros ticket for the levels below.

Descending the stairs to the 4th century level is like travelling in a time machine: a dark subterranean area that was once the 4th basilica. At the bottom of the staircase you’ll be in a corridor with some openings overlooking the church naves: it was the narthex, a porch where  penitents and catechumens could hear mass. Here we can find some of the frescos regarding the legendary life of Saint Clement.

Upon entering the 4th century basilica one has a slight disappointment: the low ceilings, the rubble walls instead of the ancient free standing columns and a   few frescos only survive from  the obliteration done around 1100 when the church, considered  unsafe, was filled with rubble and the new one built on top. It takes a few minutes before you realize this was a church!

In the left nave a stairway will lead you to the other levels: humidity increases as you descend and the stairs metal railings are moist. Before excavations reached this level this entire area was flooded: you can still see and hear the water stream that once flooded all this area now  flowing  in a tunnel dug by the archaeologists.

This 3rd level, which is also the most ancient, shows ruins of two different buildings separated by a narrow alleyway (once in the open air!) and both dating from the 1st century AD: one is a brick building maybe a Roman house with a Mithraic temple of the end of the 2nd century installed in it; the other is a  larger structure, constructed around a courtyard, probably a warehose
In the 4th century, the ground-floor rooms of this structure and the courtyard were filled in to the level of the first storey so to provide  foundations for a church in memory of Pope Clement.

Mithraism  was  religion of Persian origin imported in Rome probably by soldiers. Mithra was  a god born out of a rock  to bring salvation and most of the time is portrayed in the act of slaying a bull. The places of worship dediated to  Mithras were normally  built below ground and windowless. In cities, the basement of an apartment block might be converted; elsewhere they might be excavated and vaulted over, or converted from a natural cave or grotto.  A considerable number of mithraic temples came to light in Rome during archaeological excavations. In this temples  most rituals were associated with feasting: initiates reclined on stone benches arranged along the longer sides of the mithaeum  and animal sacrifices were made too.

Snow in Rome!

Normally Rome is not a city where we experience snow very often. We are some  20 miles away from the coast and we have a typical Mediterranean weather with mild winters. Snow is an exceptional event.

Last time we had some snow for a few days it was  1986: it was general chaos!!!

Cars, buses and scooters were not snow equipped and the traffic went mad. Schools were closed and it looked like Doomsday!

This morning started snowing seriously and the snow was sticking on the streets, but now it is raining again and the snow will melt quickly probably: this could be a real disappointment for the kids  coming out of the schools at 4.30 pm! They won’t be able to  play with snowballs or make a snowman.

The adults driving back home from work instead will be relieved, since Rome is a already extremely chaotic when it rains, guess what could it be with some snow inches on the road surface!

Here are some pics from our window taken this morning, we  live in a suburb so there aren’t spectacular views:

umbrella pines in the snow

Here instead is a picture of the Colosseum in the snow from the news website:

Villa d’Este in Tivoli

The Villa d’Este  is  a stunning Renaissance palace and garden set in the little town of Tivoli some 20 miles away from Rome.

Tivoli was the  ancient Latin city of Tibur which by  the  4th century b.C.  fell under the Roman control. Surrounded by a lush countryside and abounding in  water streams the Tivoli area was  soon chosen by many wealthy  roman families  as the place for their villeggiatura (holidays ). Emperor Hadrian  built here his magnificent residence  away from Rome’s intriguing politics, and where he could practice his favourite sport: hunting.

Today before arriving to Tivoli and driving through an unattractive countryside dotted with ugly industrial buildings we are tempted to think “where  the heck am I going ?” but the doubts are soon dissolved when we arrive at villa d’Este. Unfortunately Tivoli suffered hard bombing during World War II  so some of the town architecture was hastily rebuilt  at the end of the war. Also the idyllic  Campagna Romana (Roman countryside) as narrated by the 18th/19th century  writers and painters does not exist anymore: erased  and violated by modern industrialization.

Once we cross the gate of Villa d’Este is like entering in a different world or century especially after the recent restorations.

fountain of the dragons

This Villa is the brainchild of the cardinal Ippolito II d’Este and his architect Pirro Ligorio.

The Cardinal d’Este was the son of the duke Alfonso I of Ferrara and  Lucrezia Borgia (the pope’s daughter ). He was one of the richest men of his age driven by an overpowering desire to succeed to the papal throne which he never did.

In 1550 he was appointed by pope Julius III as Governor of the hill town of Tivoli. Many would have despised such an assignement but the cardinal d’Este found the climate of Tivoli particularly salubrious and  the territory also offered him the opportunity of satisfying his passion for antiquities since the area in his control  was littered with ancient roman ruins.

The governor’s palace at Tivoli  consisted of an old medieval benedictine  monastery attached to the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. The cardinal, being a very refined man, could never accept such a modest dwelling and this is why he spent 22 years in refashioning the palace and creating his own garden of Eden.

Pirro Ligorio was probably the architect who inspired the whole project to which participated a large number of artists, gardeners, craftsmen,   painters and sculptors.

An enourmous quantity of water was needed for all the fountains so two acqueducts were to built to ensure enough water supply.

250 water jets, 50 fountains, 100 basins, 35.000 sq.metres of gardens: these are some of the impressive numbers of Villa d’Este.

Visitors enter nowadays  through the former side entrance  of the villa.  After the ticket office you’ll find yourself in a large courtyard with a small fountain of Venus.

The palace is on two levels: the level of the courtyard is where the private quarters of the cardinal where; below was the Appartamento Nobile where the guests would arrive from the garden.

Furniture pieces and scuptures  are all long gone. The wall and ceiling  decoration instead is still visible and particularly interesting is the one of the appartamento Nobile which was carried out by artists such as Girolamo Muziano, Livio Agresti e Cesare Nebbia . In the  1980’s during the floor renovation of the rooms some mosaics of a roman villa  on which the medieval convent had been built were found and now are visible through a plexiglas floor.The main Salone was the dining hall, on the ceiling Federico Zuccari painted the Banquet of the Gods where  the trompe l’oeil columnade   on the vault  and the  the side walls fake views of the villa and  other cardinal’s properties all contribute to the illusion of being in an open loggia.

Exiting the dining hall is a loggia with a panoramic view of the villa, just descend the loggia steps and the visit of the  garden will begin.

In the past the cardinal’s guests would arrive from the entrance located at the foot of the hill and then slowly they would climb up so to gradually enjoy the delights of the garden.

The extreme symmetry of the garden plan  is typical  of Renaissance Italian gardens: a series of  terraces run up the hill along  a central axis.

Here water was moulded  to express a variety of  visual forms, but it was also controlled to convey a variety of sounds.

Just choose the itinerary you prefer, take one of the many alleys that run perpendicularly, simply enjoy the delights of  this garden and abandon all  worries : the fountain of the Ovato is one of the most spectacular with its roaring waterfall and the oval basin and certainly it refers to the Tivoli territory. From this fountain, one of the earliest, water is conveyed to  many other fountains of the villa.

Fountain of the Organ, it originally housed and hydraulic organ now completely rebuilt which plays late renaissance music! Normally concerts are every two hours (check times at the ticket office).

Alley of one hundred fountains: a long  basin with three levels of water jets, the moss and vegetation growing on the stucco panels have  left very little of the former stuccoed bas relief decoration, but they certainly add a picturesque patina .

The fountain of the Rometta is a symbolic reproduction of the antiquities of Rome.

fountain of the Rometta

The fountain of the Owl,   had once twenty little bronze birds tweeting but  suddenly an  owl would arrive and scare the little birds which would cease singing . The birds tweet was created by a complex hydraulic  mechanism. The original decoration is all lost now  and instead is a modern reconstruction.

The Peschiere are  three large pools some 12 ft deep which  were built to house fish and fowl

The fountain of the Neptune is probably the largest and most spectacular though it was created in XXth century only by remodelling  the former Bernini’s Waterfall.

A visit to Villa d’Este can surely be satisfying, especially in the summer when it gets sweltering in Rome. The only drawback  being there’s only one exit so once you arrive at the bottom of the villa you will have to work your way up again, but you will agree it was really worth it!