The first thing they should tell you, in large BOLD letters, before you purchase a bus tour of Europe is that the average morning departure time is 7:30am. And they should also mention that your bags have to be sitting in the hall about 30-45 minutes before that, which means you have to be ready to go fifteen minutes before that so you can pack everything up. So if you're a woman, you should plan to just stay up all night.
They should also take a tip from the cruise lines and rate their excursions based on the physical activity level required. At least then you could call ahead and book your room at the nearest cardiac ICU. Nothing like being prepared.
Our first official tour day began bright and early with a promise from Simone that each minute we delayed would put hundreds of other tourists between us and Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel! We were blessed that our group took her warnings to heart and only two or three tour groups managed to squeeze in ahead of us in the line. Of course, being in line early meant the Vatican Museum did not open for another hour, so we got to catch up on our sleep while standing in line. Yes, it is possible to sleep standing up. We had a local tour guide for Rome named Marco, who really added a lot to the tour. Our tour was somewhat abbreviated and I'm sure we could have spent several days exploring the incredible treasures in the museum, the chapel, and the basilica, but even what we were able to see was completely awe-inspiring. A couple of sights really stand out in my memory even a month later - the first was The Last Judgement by Michaelangelo. While most focus on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, this work covers the wall at one end of the chapel and depicts Christ's final judgment. According to Marco, Michaelangelo created this masterpiece in the midst of the Reformation and, despite being commissioned by the Pope, depicted the Judgment in a very 'Protestant' manner. There is no evidence of purgatory, for example.
I found the painting fascinating and found loads of interesting information online about it, but I'll just pass along a link for those who may be interested: http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/x-Schede/CSNs/CSNs_G_Giud.html
Saint Peter's Basilica was completely overwhelming - again, I could have spent a week inside inspecting each piece of art. An interesting fact I did not know was that most of the decoration and furnishing inside was completed after Michaelangelo's death and, according to Marco, he would have been furious at how his Renaissance design was 'ruined' by Bernini's Baroque furnishings and statuary.
Our next stop was the Coliseum, officially named the Flavian Amphitheatre, named for Vespasian and Titus who constructed it (Flavius being their family name). The name Coliseum came from a huge statue of Nero that he erected beside it. Marco pointed out that much of the damage to the Coliseum as well as other Roman ruins was due to Rome being constantly occupied since antiquity - they embraced the reduce - reuse - recycle mantra and many of the stones from the Coliseum could be found in the foundations of buildings throughout the city.
Marco seemed to appreciate that not everyone in the group was up to the task of hiking through the Coliseum and the area known as the Forum. He offered those who chose not to see the Forum the option of waiting for us near where our bus would return for us. That worked out great for my mom and gave her a little break while I enjoyed viewing the various columns, stones, and piles of rocks known as the Forum. I think my favorite part was seeing an active archaelogical dig and hearing Marco say, "On our right we have an excellent example of the species Homo Sapien Archaeologico. Notice the hunched over posture and the use of small brushes and tools, but please, do not attempt to touch or feed them. It's very dangerous."
While the bus took us back to the hotel for lunch and a rest, Mom and I tried to decide whether to join the afternoon optional excursion or not - finally we asked Simone whether there would be a lot of walking or if it was mostly by bus and she said, "Oh, no, no, it's not much walking." Yeah right!
The afternoon tour picked us up from the hotel around 3:00pm and the bus carried us across the Tiber River and dropped us off. We then proceeded to walk for the next three hours through narrow, quaint alleyways that opened into large picturesque squares...for the next three hours! All of it is somewhat of a blur of blisters and sunburn except two things - The Pantheon and Trevi Fountain.
The Pantheon was so totally unexpected - I had heard of it, but only vaguely - and it was amazing. Originally built as a pagan center of worship, the Catholic church purchased it and converted into a Christian temple. It has been in continuous use (since it was rebuilt after an earlier structure was destroyed in an earthquake) since 126 AD. The dome is made of concrete and they used less and less dense concrete as they neared the top in order to lessen the pressure that might eventually cause it to collapse under its own weight. At the center of the dome, it is open, letting in the only source of light - sunlight - and rain. The floor was constructed with drains to allow rainwater to drain off the marble floors. And all of this was conceived nearly 2000 years ago and has stood the test of time - amazing!
Trevi Fountain, on the other hand, was a complete disappointment. It was impossible to even get close enough to the fountain to study it in detail because there were probably several thousand tourists in the small square where its located. We had been warned by both guides, as well as others who have visited, that this is a hotspot for pickpockets, so we were on guard against any intrusion to personal space - but it was impossible because of the huge crowd. Fortunately, we did not fall victim, but it did take the fun out of it - I decided that I needn't throw 1, 2, or 3 coins in the fountain because I had no intention of returning.
We ended the tour portion of the excursion at the Spanish Steps...so called because the Spanish Embassy donated the land for them. I believe it was 137 steps - and our tour bus awaited us at the top! Marco offered a welcome option to take an elevator to the top (even that required climbing two flights of stairs once we 'arrived') and Mom and I jumped at the chance. After nearly seven hours on our feet, we were looking forward to sitting down to dinner.
The dinner for this optional excursion was significantly better than the one included with the tour - it offered some variety to choose from at least. I had the chicken and Mom had the salmon, both of which were about average. The entertainment was a little more enjoyable, featuring a flautist and a guitar player.
We were eager to return to the room and plan our early morning wake up since we needed to be on the bus by 7:30am to leave for Florence, the home of Michaelangelo's David.