One of my first week(end) trips away during my exchange semester in Finland was to Italy! This trip was a 5 day getaway from Wednesday September 10th, 2014 to Sunday September 14th, 2014. We had only planned on visiting Milan and Pisa during these 5 days and never even intended on visiting Rome. After spending Wednesday, Thursday and about half of Friday in Milan we caught a train to Pisa, arriving in Pisa at about 4pm on Friday afternoon. The plan was to visit the leaning tower of Pisa that afternoon/evening and then spend Saturday in and around Pisa possibly heading down to the coast nearby for a nice relaxing day and then head back to Milan on Sunday to catch our flight back to Finland on Sunday evening.
I am not one who likes to spend a long time in each place I visit because quite frankly I get bored of places rather quickly. Pick any city and if you take away the main things to see/do in that city then it is the exact same as any other city. Just a collection of houses and buildings where people live and work. On our way from Milan to Pisa my friend I was traveling with got talking to the attendant who was going around checking tickets and was told that it is only about a 4.5 hour train ride from Pisa to Rome. Hearing this, my friend got thinking we could take an overnight train to Rome and spend Saturday in Rome rather than around the Pisa area where there was honestly not a whole lot to do. This sounded like a fantastic idea to me!
So we got to Pisa, visited the leaning tower and by 7pm we were done at the tower and having dinner in Pisa. We went back to the train station and purchased our ticket to Rome. The next overnight train from Pisa to Rome departed Pisa around 2AM. I made the mistake of not knowing that Italy had different power standards than Finland and I didn’t have a universal power adapter with me so after dinner and after buying the train tickets to Rome we frantically searched for an store in Pisa that sold universal power adapters so I would be able to charge my camera on the train ride to Rome. After all, if I am visiting Rome I want to take lots of pics! I managed to find a small electronics shop that was still open and did indeed sell universal adapters. I bought two and was all set.
It was about 10pm when we headed back to the train station to wait for our 2AM train. We were lucky that it was a warm summer evening in Pisa because the train station did not have any seating inside in the waiting area nor any heating system as the walls were mostly open to the outdoors. Once it gets dark the train station fills with many homeless people looking for a place to sleep or garbage cans to rummage through looking for food. We found some stone benches next to the train tracks that were not being used and decided to sleep on these for the next few hours until our train came. Sleeping on stone benches with homeless people sleeping and roaming around all around you was quite an experience! I watched my bag but they didn’t give us any trouble. I guess we must have looked homeless too.
After what seemed like an eternity and only a few short bouts of sleep here and there, 2AM rolled around and the train arrived and we got on board. Now, luck did not seem to be on my friends side this night. When we bought our tickets to Rome, I purchased mine from the terminal and then he bought his. However it turns out that I bought the last one because when he tried to buy his right after me, they were sold out for the 2AM train. He purchased a ticket for the next train that was supposed to depart Pisa at 5AM and arrive in Rome at 10AM but this would cost him several hours of time that could be spent visiting Rome. When the 2AM train came, he asked the conductor if he could board this train even though it was full. The conductor allowed him so long as he paid the difference in price between the two tickets. Since I purchased a valid ticket, I got a comfy seat in a cabin but all my friend got was a small square seat that folded down from the wall in the hallway of the train. After sleeping for a few hours on a stone bench, this was not much of an upgrade and was one of the worst nights sleep for him.
Unfortunately the cabin my seat was in did not have any power outlets to charge devices. I was panicking now because my phone and camera were almost dead so i’d have nothing to take pictures with in Rome. I walked the train trying to find outlets in the hallway I could use but there were none. There was one in the washroom so that would be my backup if nothing else. I walked down the corridor looking in cabins for empty seats and a power outlet. Again, as luck would have it, I found a cabin with one empty seat and one unused power outlet. I joined the five strangers inside who were sound asleep, plugged in my camera to charge and got some shut eye myself. I woke up after an hour or so and saw my camera done charging and even got time now to charge my phone up too. I was so relieved now!
Finally at about 6:30AM our train pulled in to the Rome train station. My friend who slept in the hallway all night (or rather didn’t sleep) found a bench and laid down for about a half hour of sleep before we got the day started. This was fine because at this hour, nothing is open in Rome anyways. At about 7AM we headed out to the city to grab some breakfast and get our day started. Our train was set to leave Rome at 7PM that day so we had 12 hours to visit this magnificent city full of ancient Roman culture and history.
The first thing we decided to do that day was to visit the Vatican! The lines were huge to get in here so we figured we should get it out of the way first. Nearing the walls of Vatican City, there are many tour companies around. I was approached by one salesman who informed me of the line ahead where the general public lined up to enter. This line was HUGE, running down the street and around the corner. He told me how they offer a fast pass that avoids this line. Wanting to maximize my time and not stand in line forever I decided to purchase this from him and when the doors to the Vatican opened, we walked past the lineup and entered. What I did not know, however, is that this entrance and the lineup outside was not to enter the Basilica but rather to enter the Vatican Museum. I am not a big museum fan nor a religious man by any means and would rather spend my time in Rome seeing ruins and other things than a museum full of religious artifacts. The items in the Vatican museum were very interesting, mesmerizing and have quite a history behind them so it was worth it. I did want to see one thing in the museum which is the Sistine Chapel. It’s something I’ve often heard a lot about and since I was here now I wanted to see it for myself which I did.
After this, I left the museum portion of the Vatican, walked back outside and around the walls of Vatican City and to the entrance and courtyard of St. Peters Basilica. This is the main church of Vatican City and a VERY impressive one at that! I was informed earlier by the company I purchased the fast pass from that it is better to come back to the Basilica at around 2-3pm to go inside as the line will be much shorter at that time. It was around 10AM now and the lineup was HUGE! Even longer than the museum entrance line. It was crazy!
I decided to come back in the afternoon instead. At this point, I found one of the city buses that head in the direction of the Trevi Fountain. This is a must-see for anyone visiting Rome. Sure it is just a fountain you might say but it’s architecture, design and detail and fantastic and is definitely a highlight of a visit to Rome! Unfortunately, the fountain was under construction when I was there so it had lost a lot of its appeal during that time.
Altar of the Fatherland
After the disappointing fountain, I walked down the street to the Altar of the Fatherland which is a grand marble monument and temple dedicated to the first King of Italy and the first world war soldiers. It is an amazing spectacle and definitely something anyone should see in a visit to Rome. Unfortunately, again it seemed this was the time of year for renovations for it too was under much construction and renovations at that time. Even regardless of the renovations, you could still see and appreciate the beauty of the structure and what it stood for.
Now it was time for some Roman heritage! Making your way around past the Altar, you come to many ancient Roman ruins including the Roman Forum of Augustus, Basilica Ulpia, the Roman Square and Trajan’s Market to name just a few of the MANY ruins in this area. This was by far the most exciting area of the city and a highlight of the entire Italy trip! I love the Roman history and seeing all of these ruins where you know the Roman civilization once walked and lived is so surreal to me. I spent a long time in this area wandering through the various ruins. I’ll let the pics below tell more about the experience!
At the end of the ruins, you come to the Roman Colosseum!!!! One of the seven world wonders and a structure known the world over! This is one place I’ve seen and heard about my entire life from history classes to movies and being here was so amazing! Like the other sites I had seen, the Colosseum too was under construction as they were trying to prevent more of this ancient structure from crumbling. Even though all this construction today made the experience a little disappointing, I can definitely appreciate the need for it so these marvels can be preserved for many more years to come!
Walking inside the Colosseum feels like you’ve stepped back in time! Walking through the dark, ancient corridors that open to the sunlight and the stadium in front of you makes you feel sort of like a Gladiator come here to fight! The inside too was under some reconstruction work but you could still see very much the history and the structure of what was once a place where Gladiators were forced to fight other men (and sometimes women) as well as other animals for sport and entertainment of the 55,000 spectators that could fill the stadium, all seated by rank. It is a history and civilization that is almost one of the oldest in our world and being here, in the midst of where they once worked, lived and played is an experience that is unlike any other. It is hard to believe that these structures of theirs are still standing after all these years.
Back to the Vatican
After the Colosseum and ruins, I headed back to the Vatican to get in line. It was now almost 3pm. The line was still HUGE but it was moving along at a pretty good pace so I was inside St. Peters Basilica in about half an hour. St. Peters Basilica was built was the Renaissance architecture and is one of the two largest churches in the world. It is regarded around the world as one of the holiest catholic shrines and as the greatest of all churches in all of Christianity. Like the other Roman ruins you learn about growing up, the Basilica is one place often seen on TV whenever a new pope was elected or some proceeding involving the pope was shown so being here in such a place brings with it such a feeling of nostalgia. like I said before, I am not religious by any means and do not believe in god but the reason I wanted to visit this place was more for its grand architecture and design.
The inside the Basilica was unlike anything I have ever seen and is hard to believe that people built this, let alone people living hundreds of years ago without the technology and equipment we have today. One thing I like about visiting Europe is the churches with the various architectures and designs from various time periods. However none compare to that of St. Peters Basilica. It’s size and scale are unrivaled and I have yet to see any other church or temple that can even compare.
Inside the Basilica you can climb to the top of the bell tower for 5 euro (or take the elevator part of the way up and them climb the final 200 steps to the top for 7 euro) for an amazing view over the Vatican City and Rome! I decided to climb the entire 500 steps to the top. Keep in mind that the corridor and steps get very narrow towards the top so it is not for those who are larger in size or for the elderly as the climb is quite intense if you are not in the best of shape. It was a somewhat difficult climb but the view from the top more than made up for it! For anyone visiting Rome, definitely go to the Basilica and do go to the top of the tower. It is one thing you cannot miss when in Rome!
After the Basilica I did a little more exploring around the city and then headed to the train station to catch my 7PM high-speed train back to Milan where I met a great group of kids on board and we talked for the entire journey back to Milan (or at least until they got off in Parma).
Overall I am very happy we decided to go to Rome for the day rather than just spend it around the area of Pisa. I would like to go back to Rome to spend a couple more days there but for now I am glad I got to see the handful of things I did both in Rome and in the Vatican. if you are planning a trip to Rome in your future, definitely make sure you visit all the places I mentioned above! You won’t be disappointed.