Chillin’ with da Papa: Spring Break in Italia

I spent my Spring Break in Italy. I spent my Spring Break in Italy. I spent my Spring Break in ITALY!!!!!!!  I keep repeating that phrase in my head and still can’t believe that it was real life. It still feels like a dream that I was able to have this experience, let alone that one of my best friends was able to and share this adventure with me.

I messaged Jenna about a month and a half ago to see what her plans were for Easter week (Semana Santa in Spain) to see if she would be able to come visit. It has been really hard to plan times for friends to visit me, because my work schedule is so crazy and semi-inconsistent, so when I knew that I had an entire week off, I jumped at the chance to plan an unforgettable trip. Italy was a must-visit place on my bucket list, and it just so happens that Jenna was just as excited as I was about seeing Rome and Florence. We were originally going to visit Naples too, but it would have been too crazy and exhausting, so we decided 2 cities was the way to go.

We spent 5 days in two of the oldest, most incredibly beautiful, unique, and historically significant cities in the world and had an absolute blast. We ate the most incredible food and gelato, and drank amazing Italian wine, Prosecco or Limoncello at every meal. The food and drinks alone would have constituted an awesome trip, but we were able to hit almost every major tourist site in both cities, and still had time to relax, explore, and really experience true Italian culture.

I really hate the traveling/transportation portion of trips. It never seems to go according to plan, and this trip was no different. Our flight to Rome was delayed at the airport, and we ended up sitting in the airport for a few hours twiddling our thumbs. Then, once the flight finally arrived in Rome, the bus that we scheduled was 45 minutes late picking us up. So, while we had planned to get to the hotel around 2 to hit the ground running on our first day, we ended up getting to the hotel at around 5 and decided to just relax and take it easy since Wednesday would be a big day. We walked around the area of our awesome hotel (Eurostar International Hotel—highly recommended, and ate our first true “Italian” dinner consisting of pasta and gelato, and saw the Trevi fountain at night. The day we arrived in Rome was the day of the terrorist attacks at the airport in Brussels, and the Trevi fountain had the Belgian flag displayed above it that night, which was beautiful. We headed back to the hotel to get a good night’s sleep (which thankfully we fell asleep before 10) because we had to be up early to go to Vatican City.

IMG_1282Day 2

Every Wednesday in Vatican City, Pope Francis holds the “Papal Audience”, which is a time for pilgrims and visitors to Vatican City to listen to the pope speak and receive his blessing. The general audience begins at 10am, so we arrived at around 8:30 to get in line. Tickets are free, but there is a long line, as you can imagine, and a ton of security to go through to get a seat. We made it in at around 9:30 and got awesome seats in the front quadrant close to the stage. However, Pope Francis always drives around the entirety of St. Peter’s Square in his little white “pope mobile”. We happened to get a seat that was not only close to the stage, but also really close to one of the aisles he drove down which was amazing.

Attending the service with thousands upon thousands of religious pilgrims and visitors of all religions from all over the world was possibly the coolest thing I have ever done and was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Standing in the center of St. Peter’s Square with thousands of other people and being blessed and addressed by the Pontiff made me tear up (which made Jenna LOL). The service was done in 8 difference languages: English, Spanish, Polish, Arabic, German, French, Italian, and Portuguese. It lasted about an hour. There was a reading from the Gospel of John (which was then translated into 8 languages) and then the pope addressed us all (which was then translated into 8 languages), and everyone said the Our Father together in Latin (which I obviously didn’t know).

Next on our tour of Vatican City was the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. Thankfully, I had bought the tickets beforehand so we walked right in without a wait at around 11:30. Jenna and I both are not big fans of museums, but we knew this place was also a Must-See in Rome, so we spent a few hours walking through the massive archive of sculptures, paintings, jewels, and statues.

Our last stop was the Sistine Chapel. I have seen pictures of it, and there was a ton of hype about it, because it is the absolute last stop before the exit of the museum. I’m going to preface this by saying that you are allowed to take pictures in every single other room in the museum, but it is forbidden to talk or take pictures in the Sistine Chapel. So, we only broke 1 out of those 2 rules. We didn’t talk, but did manage to secretly snap a few pics of the ceiling using the selfie feature on the camera. Other people were being so obvious about it (ROOKIES) with their cameras out and the guards were screaming at them the entire time, which was hilarious. At least we didn’t get caught! Whoops! Sorry not sorry!

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We stopped into a pizzeria near the museum for the quick lunch before heading to St. Peter’s. The line to tour the basilica was not as bad as we expected for 2pm on the day of a Papal General Audience, but it did take a while to go back through security.

St. Peter’s is truly impressive. It is of one of the largest, most famous, and most beautiful Catholic churches in the world (and I have seen about a million churches in the last few months so I consider myself an expert). It is supposedly the burial site of St. Peter, and is also where Michelangelo’s Pieta is housed. The interior of the cathedral is lavishly decorated with marble, stained glass, gold, and sculptured architecture.  There are tombs of famous popes housed inside the church. The main dome is huge and is directly above a massive, ornate canopy that sits overtop of the main altar.

We decided to take the 551 step hike to the stop of St. Peter’s, which was well worth the 5 euros and the pain and claustrophobia caused by walking that many steps in such a tight space with so many people. Thankfully, by the time we got to the top, we had clear, blue skies and sunshine which was perfect for the gorgeous panoramic views that we were lucky enough to see once we got to the top, sweating and out of breath naturally.

After heading out of St. Peter’s, we took selfies in St. Peter’s square since the sun was out, and decided to indulge in gelato at Old Bridge, a gelato shop close to the Vatican walls. It was AMAZING.

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Our next stop in Rome was the Spanish steps. I did take a picture, but they are under construction so hopefully the next time I’m in Rome I will be able to see the finished product.

We then took a walk to the Pantheon, a 2000-year-old circular building with a large dome ceiling with a circular skylight at the top (called an oculus). It was pretty dark inside, because the oculus is the only source of natural light in the building, so my pictures didn’t turn out great, but the place was definitely worth seeing. There was this large fountain outside with gargoyle creatures on it that I had to snap because they are my favorites. Fun fact: the reason the Pantheon is so well preserved is because it has been in continuous use since it was built almost 2000 years ago.

The final stop of our first full day was the Trevi fountain (again). The legend goes: if you throw one coin in the fountain, you will return to Rome, throwing 2 coins will lead to a new romance, and throwing 3 coins ensures marriage. Needless to say, Jenna and I tossed 1 coin over our shoulders and called it a day. Don’t worry, we had the selfie stick with us to document/video this moment.

Day 3:

Day 3 was spent in the beautiful city of Florence, which I will post about separately, but here are a few snaps from our awesome day.

Day 4:

After our crazy day trip to Florence where we amazed the locals with how many things we were able to do (and walked about 18 miles in the process), Jenna and I were so exhausted that we just couldn’t be asked to get out of bed early. Our original plan was to go to the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, but we didn’t realize that on Good Friday, everything closes at 2pm. So, we were SOL with going into the Colosseum, but we did manage to walk all the way around it and get some good pictures. We then decided to just continue walking in the area to explore, and came upon the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II which is a huge white building/memorial reminiscent of the US Capitol building, although I think this one has many more elaborate sculptures and is much more conspicuous in the area where it sits atop Capitoline Hill, one of the oldest parts of the city. We took the elevator to the top of the building and got an awesome panoramic view of the city.

Before making our way to the Piazza Campidoglio for sunset, we got gelato (again). Sadly, this particular gelato was very disappointing and I forgot to write down the name of the place so that I could highly NOT recommend going there. We then hiked up the steps to the Piazza to sit and watch the sun go down over Rome. The weather had been warm and clear all day, which led to a spectacular sunset.

We walked around a little and went back to the hotel to cool out a little before dinner. We decided to go to this pizza place called Cuore di Napoli that had gotten really good reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp, and it did not disappoint. I will go into the food that we are more later, but this pizza was SPECTACULAR, by far the best pizza I have ever eaten in my life. Getting my plate was one of those “cry of happiness” moments and it didn’t hurt that we had a liter of local red wine to wash down our dinner with. I also tried Limoncello for the first time, which shocked and appalled Jenna. Thankfully, I love the stuff as much as she does, and we were happy as clams as we half stumbled out of the restaurant around midnight. Our next stop was gelato (again) at Gelateria Dell Angelotto near our hotel which was amazing.

Day 5:

We decided to go straight to the Colosseum when we woke up, so we each ate a Cliff bar, and rushed to get in line for tickets. One ticket to the Colosseum is 12 euro, but it includes the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, so we got in line at the Roman Forum because we read that the line would be shorter. We were in line for about 45 minutes but thank god we did that, because the line at the Colosseum was ridiculously long. Supposedly it was a 2.5 hour wait without tickets and 2 hours with tickets. As we were walking and moaning about the line, a British girl told us that we could get a guided tour of all 3 of the sites for 13 euro, and we could skip the line. Well, that was clearly a no brainer, and the tour was completely worth the money.

The inside of the Colosseum is wayyyyyy different than the crazy, rich, elaborate, marble and column filled spectacle that it once was, however it is still the world’s largest amphitheater. More little known facts: The Colosseum used to have a roof and what is now the exterior of the Colosseum was once the interior wall of the Colosseum. Who knew? Most of what remains has been restored or is the brick that used to lay underneath the marble, although there are some original arches still standing. There used to be a floor that laid on top of the cages where animals like panthers, lions, and tigers were kept, but that has since disappeared and you can see the maze of rooms and tunnels that used to house the animals.

The place is massive, and it should be since it used to hold around 75,000 people (the same size as a football stadium in the United States) so that they could watch the gladiator games and other public spectacles (like animal hunts and public executions). We also learned that many of the gladiator games were fixed. For example, if a gladiator was “supposed” to win in a fight against one of the animals (meaning they had won before or were popular with the crowd), then officials would drug the animals which almost assured victory. If they were “supposed” to lose, then officials would make sure that they hadn’t fed the animals in days so that they would be a hungry, much more formidable foe. It was so interesting to see this building and re learn the history.

Next on our tour was Palatine Hill, the hill on which Rome was supposedly founded. It is mostly ruins at this point of great palaces and lavish homes built by emperors and the wealthy families of ancient Rome, but the some of the structures and the shapes of the residential palaces, courtyards, stadium, and dining halls can be clearly seen. During this part of the tour, we learned that instead of demolishing buildings, the cheaper way to rebuild was to fill the structures with earth and build on top of them, which is why parts of Rome have about 7 different layers of structures. Another fun fact: the reason why Rome has only two metro lines (which is miserable) is because every time they try to build a new line (or finish the third metro line that had begun being built), the construction workers run into a significant archeological find that they had no idea was even there.

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Our last historical stop of the day was the Roman Forum, which can be seen from above on terrace on Palatine Hill and then walked through. The Roman Forum is a rectangular shaped plaza that was once the center Roman life. The ruins there are extensive, and range from solo columns of buildings that once stood, to the ruins of temples, to massive arches that flank the pathways that lead through the center of the forum, to churches, arches, and other government buildings that have been expertly restored. We spent a while on top of the terrace getting the history of this place, but didn’t spend much time exploring below as we were exhausted after almost 5 hours of touring and ravenous because all we had eaten was the aforementioned Cliff bar for breakfast.

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First stop was food: gelato and a pasta dish did the trick and I was feeling much less hangry. We did some souvenir shopping, and then headed back to the hotel to research where we would go for our last dinner.

Since we didn’t want to mess with perfection, and were too burnt out to put in significant effort or travel far for dinner, we decided to go back to the same pizza place as the night before because it was so good. Seriously. SOOOOO GOOD. Again, it did not disappoint. Pizza, a bottle of Chianti, and Limoncello was just what I needed on my last night. And gelato afterwards of course. EDIT: I had to post a picture of the food/drinks from this place here, it would be a crime not to.

We felt like 3 full days was enough time to really see and explore the city and do our own thing, while still having the time to hit all the main touristy sites.

I think Florence and Rome should have their own food post, because we ate like queens. I still am attempting to detox from all the food, gelato, and alcohol we drank during the week. But, we were walking a ton and justified the gluttony with the motto of the trip, “When in Rome”!

Thankfully, Jenna and I were on the same page with everything throughout the whole trip. We had planned what we wanted to do beforehand and made an effort to take everything in and truly enjoy our experience. She is the ying to my yang, the cool, calm and collected to my stressed mess, and the Italian food expert to my clueless culinary tastes. I’m #blessed to have a friend that makes me laugh so hard that my stomach hurts, a fellow human that appreciates sleep, good meals, and the ridiculousness of the selfie stick as much as I do, an amiga that was always down to accomplish all of our travel plans even though they were super ambitious, and for a friend that was willing to drop everything in her life to come visit me during my year abroad. When we got back to Barcelona, we had about 6 hours to explore, which we made the most of.

My Florence post will be coming soon! The next trip scheduled for me will be Budapest, Hungary later this month! Until then…Adios Amigos!

 

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