First off, let’s put to rest the notion that seeing the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Vatican Museums is too much for one day, or that you need to join a tour group in order to “do them properly.” In fact, it is not only doable, but highly enjoyable and remarkably stress-free if you plan your time well – and of course make the necessary reservations in order to skip the long ticket lines.
Having previously visited Rome, on a day trip from Tuscany some 15 years ago, I have always mildly regretted that I ended up staying at the Vatican too long and arrived at the Colosseum a few minutes after its closing time. It was bittersweet to examine the exterior of the Colosseum but not being able to go inside, and I always told myself that if I ever returned to Rome, the Colosseum would be at the top of my list of sights to see.
So, when my wife Malene expressed an interest one day about taking a trip to Rome (where she had never been), I began thinking about making a point of revisiting the historic Italian capital, and this time ensuring that all the items on my bucket list were checked off.
Then, of course, a monkey wrench was thrown into my planning when we watched the 2014 movie “Pompeii” (one and a half stars at Rotten Tomatoes) and both ended up with a desire to visit the ancient city destroyed (and at the same time, paradoxically, preserved) by the famous eruption of the Mount Vesuvius volcano two millennia ago.
Okay, so Rome and Pompeii it would be…
After a couple years of mulling it over, finally, last fall I decided that for our fifth wedding anniversary in December, I would surprise Malene with tickets for a trip to both Rome and Pompeii which we would take over a long weekend in the spring, hopefully after recruiting the grandparents to watch over our two young daughters for a few days.
Without too many hiccups, the plan was set for a three-day visit (arriving on Thursday afternoon and leaving Sunday morning), and since a trip to Pompeii was arranged for Saturday, the trick was to ensure that all the most important sights in Rome were seen on Thursday and Friday.
We started Thursday afternoon by visiting the Pantheon, which was amazing, the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain, which were beautiful but massive tourist traps. (Pro tip: do not accept roses from the street peddlers unless you are willing to give money, no matter what you are told about these roses being “free.” They’re not free.)
Having already experienced the disappointment of missing the Colosseum 15 years earlier, I knew that planning was important in this regard, so I had gone online for advice a week before we had left for Rome.
Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail
In a thread at Fodors.com entitled “Are Forum/Colosseum and Vatican too much for one day?” a few commenters advised not to try cramming them into one day or simply expressed the opinion that the Forum/Colosseum and the Vatican each deserve their own day, but one piece of advice caught my eye, which I ended up printing out and making part of our itinerary for the trip.
A user by the name of Dave recommended that it is possible to do both in the same day without much hassle, as long as you start early. Be there by 9 AM, he advised. I’m glad we took his advice. We got there about 8:45 and since we had already purchased our tickets we were able to quickly make our way in.
Entering the Colosseum is a bit surreal. We all have some idea of the horrors that took place there, at least those of us who have seen “Gladiator,” but when you arrive, you realize that this is not just a place where a few bad things happened, but that its entire purpose was the depraved entertainment of privileged spectators by watching the less fortunate fight each other to the death – or, worse yet, by being torn apart by lions, bears and other wild animals.
The fact that the opening of the Colosseum back in 80 AD was celebrated with 100 days of “games” that featured gruesome deaths of thousands of animals and humans is a bit overwhelming when you confront the issue head on, and to be honest, I had the same feeling in the Colosseum as I once did when I visited the Auschwitz camp in Poland. Even nearly 2,000 years removed from those events, it’s hard not to contemplate human nature a bit and wonder if perhaps people are naturally just cruel and bloodthirsty.
But That Architecture
At the same time, while pondering our humanity and wondering if deep down perhaps we are a bit sadistic or maybe just fundamentally indifferent to the suffering of others, it is easy to also be taken in by the splendor of the place and recognizing it if nothing else as a rather impressive feat of engineering and architecture – especially for people operating a couple thousand years ago with what must have been relatively primitive construction methods (or maybe that’s just my 21st century historical bias).
My wife and I also noticed how the builders of the Colosseum used bricks that were surprisingly not much different than bricks that are used today. It turns out, in fact, that the ancient Romans developed the use of bricks under Emperor Augustus, borrowing techniques developed by the Greeks, and actually the technology hasn’t changed much to this day.
After about an hour in the Colosseum, we headed over to the Forum, which we enjoyed exploring for another hour or so. There were many beautiful and interesting sights to see, but if you have ever visited Athens’ Parthenon, Acropolis or Temple of Zeus you might get a sense of déjà vu. It occurred to Malene and me that, perhaps, one ancient ruins site might not be much different from another.
But of course, this shouldn’t be taken as a non-endorsement of the Roman Forum. By all means, if you visit Rome, you should see the Forum, if for no other reason than because, according to legend, it is the place were Rome was founded in 750 BC by Romulus, who, along with his twin brother Remus had been raised by a she-wolf. (Click here for more on that possibly apocryphal story.)
After getting our fill at the Forum, and a bit ahead of schedule, we proceeded to the Colosseo Metro station to catch the metro to Termini, changing to the A line and getting off at the Ottaviano stop metro stop where we had a delicious lunch at the nearby Duecentogradi sandwich shop before entering the Vatican Museums.
Skip the Lines
While making plans for our trip to Rome, I had been told that it is wise to make an appointment for the Vatican Museums rather than just showing up and buying a ticket. I cannot stress enough what a good idea this is. When we arrived at the Vatican Museums, we were taken aback by the exceptionally long line to get in, but then spoke to a Vatican employee and were reassured that since we had a 1:00 appointment, we could skip the line and head directly into the building to collect our tickets.
This made all the difference in the world, and for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why anyone would go to the Vatican without a reservation. I felt a little sorry for the people standing in line, wasting precious time standing out in the sun when they could have been inside making their way to the Sistine Chapel.
Getting inside the Vatican Museums is a bit hectic, and for the first time, I really counted my blessings that we hadn’t brought our two young daughters on the trip. They would not have been happy, I don’t think, and most likely neither would Malene and I, so if you are thinking of taking small children to Rome, I would think twice. They probably won’t be very interested in the sights and keep in mind that many of the activities would be somewhat demanding for young children who tire easily. Rome is not terribly stroller-friendly either – or wheelchair-friendly, I suppose.
Malene and I decided to try to make a bee line for the Sistine Chapel, but in the Vatican Museums, going “directly” to the Sistine Chapel still means a long, winding walk through a number of cavernous buildings. It is indescribably beautiful though, and worth taking the time to savor. You end up walking down the most majestic hallways you have ever seen, which are covered with gorgeous frescos, magnificent sculptures and other ornate décor from floor to ceiling.
Sistine Chapel Raises the Bar
By the time we made it to the Sistine Chapel, I thought that I might have already had my fill of religiously inspired artwork, having just walked past hundreds of some of the most incredible paintings on earth, but this trepidation disappeared the moment we entered the room. It is quite simply breathtaking and awe-inspiring, and despite the fact that you are accompanied there by hundreds of tourists and there are guards shouting things like “No photos!” it is still a very special, personal moment that you are not likely to forget any time soon.
The only “problem” is that once you gaze upon that sight, you might become a tad jaded and maybe even slightly desensitized to other beautiful works of art. Indeed, after leaving the Sistine Chapel and seeing other paintings on display in the Vatican Museums, I would sort of shrug and think to myself, “Oh look, another masterpiece.” The Sistine Chapel certainly raises the bar of expectations when it comes to art appreciation.
After the Vatican Museums, Malene and I headed over to St. Peters Square with the intention of going inside St. Peters Basilica, but upon arrival we discovered one of the longest lines we had ever seen and decided that it probably wasn’t worth the wait. So, with no regrets, we opted out of entering the church and just absorbed the atmosphere at St. Peters Square, marveling that even Catholic nuns were made to wait in line with no VIP treatment whatsoever.
The next day was our big trip to Pompeii. I had booked a day trip through the company City Wonders, which I would highly recommend. The trip was well arranged with very engaging and knowledgeable tour guides who offered all sorts of interesting tidbits of information.
The tour started with a visit to Mt. Vesuvius, or Vesuvio as it is called in Italian. The tour guide made clear that it was optional whether we wanted to climb the volcano that was responsible for Pompeii’s destruction in 79 AD and Malene and I resolved that we would try to make it to the top. Although the climb started a bit rough, we found our stride and made our way up to the summit in no time. This is strongly recommended, both for the view you can enjoy at the top and sense of accomplishment, not to mention the fact that there are few people who can say that they have looked into the cone of an active volcano.
Proceeding from Vesuvio we stopped for lunch at a place that serves traditional Napolitano pizzas, which we were told are quite different from Roman pizzas. Malene ordered a Margherita pizza and I had a Bianca (white) pizza, both of which were delicious, and we decided based on our limited experience that Napolitano pizzas are better than Roman pizzas, but perhaps not quite as good as New York pizzas.
Following lunch we got back on the bus and made our way to Pompeii. Despite all the amazing highlights that we had already seen over the past couple days, there was little to prepare us for the amazing experience of Pompeii.
An Ancient City
The ancient ruins were remarkably well preserved and provided an intimate glimpse into life in the first century. As we started walking around, it began to dawn on me that this place was much bigger than I had expected. I suppose that I knew that it was a city, but as you start exploring, you realize that it really is, like, a city. Our tour guide was fantastic, explaining all sorts of details about the place that we wouldn’t have known without an expert, including insight into the lives of slaves at the gladiator school and prostitutes at the brothel.
While I would not necessarily recommend joining a guided tour of the Colosseum, Forum or Vatican, for the Pompeii leg of the visit, I would definitely suggest a guide – although, naturally the guided tour is only as good as the guide.
If we had another day in Rome, Malene and I would have liked to visit the Catacombs, but alas, we had to catch a flight back to Copenhagen. Next time, though, the Catacombs will be at the top of the to-do list – now that I think about it, a good reason to make a point of returning someday.