Everything I Knew About the Vatican I Learned from Dan Brown

9DC5287E-A6BB-4431-92EA-F371FFB54F4FUntil today I didn’t really know much about the Vatican other than what I had gleaned from history courses taken long ago and from reading The Da Vinci Code. We could have wandered through the various museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica on our own, but we decided to pay a lot for a five-hour tour with a guide. This turned out to be a good decision for us because we would have spent a lot of time on the wrong things and probably would have run out of steam before we got to the good parts.

Our tour guide was Maria. She said her real name was Mary Freedom, a name given to her by her hippie parents in the 60s, but I don’t believe it. She seemed too young and too Italian for this to be true (although the business card she handed us at the end of the tour gave her name as Maria Libera Del Vecchio). She seemed a bit flip at the beginning so I thought this would be another one of those tours where the guides just made up stuff, but she turned out to be quite knowledgeable. She’s an art historian who specializes in Renaissance art and she has such a passion for it that listening to her was never boring. In each room of the museums she skipped past all the minor works and went right to the best ones.

The Pieta

Five hours is a long time to listen to someone talk, and sometimes it was hard to keep up, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I learned a lot about Michelangelo, Raphael, Da Vinci, and Caravaggio (and Bernini) that I never got from any art history course. Maria carried a tablet with her to show us details of paintings and sculptures, and to give a quick overview of the Sistine Chapel before we entered it because you’re not supposed to talk inside it (or take pictures). She was well versed in ancient Roman history as well as the history of Catholicism, although she seemed a little baffled by the current Pope, often saying, “But Francis will be Francis,” as she described his breaks from tradition.

Tomb of Alexander VII

The Vatican is an amazingly beautiful, historic place and I highly recommend touring it with a knowledgeable guide. The tour wore us out (lots of walking, stair-climbing, neck-craning to view ceilings and the dome) so afterward we returned to our hotel for a quiet evening of reading and writing.


There’s so much more to see and do here, but tomorrow we must say, “Arrivederci Roma” as we board the train for Florence.

The Colosseum, the Forum, and Opera Roma

The Colosseum

We purchased our Roma cards today which make getting around Rome and getting into museums much easier. We hopped on the Metro and went to the Colosseum with a few thousand other tourists. With Rick Steves as our guide (Paul has the app on his phone) we walked around and marveled at the amazing engineering feat the Romans (with slave labor) managed to create for viewing all kinds of barbaric entertainment (think football).  I kept thinking about the short story The Lady or the Tiger that I used to read with eighth-graders because they loved both the romantic and barbaric aspects although the ambiguity drove them crazy. The story doesn’t take place in Rome but in some semi-barbaric kingdom with an arena. Maybe my favorite part of the tour was when Mr. Steves explained that Roma and Amor together form a palindrome.

We then went to the Forum and I was disappointed that nothing funny happened on the way. I wish we had more time there because there’s much to see, but we managed to get through about half of the Rick Steves tour before we decided we’d had enough. You can see some of our pictures on the Rome page.

Opera Roma

In the evening we went to Opera Roma to see La Traviata. The hall is beautiful and we were seated in a box with three lovely Italian ladies who delighted in practicing their English with us during the intermissions. This is our third time seeing La Traviata this year. We saw the Met Live in HD production at the movie theater and the Opera Maine production in July, but one can never see enough La Traviatias, right? This production was good; the orchestra was great and the singing was okay although a bit dull in the first two acts. I think we have become accustomed to seeing great acting in operas on the Met stage because when it’s being broadcast to theaters around the world, the singers play to the cameras. It was still a great experience seeing an Italian opera in Italy (directed by an American, Sofia Coppola) with both English and Italian supertitles.

When in Rome…

Paul is pleased that we found the Borghese Gallery and it stopped raining.
Paul is pleased that we found the Borghese Gallery and it stopped raining.

Paul and I used to harbor a fantasy that we could be contestants on The Amazing Race, that TV reality show that pits two-person teams against each other in a race around the world. It only took one day in Rome to convince us that we would not fare well because a) we’re too old, b) we’re too slow, and c) we’re directionally challenged. We managed to find the right train from the airport, and we found our hotel after a circuitous but scenic trek in the rain, but our big challenge was to find the Borghese Gallery.

The Borghese Gallery is home to the spectacular Bernini sculptures and we had a reservation for a tour at 2:45. Finding it turned out to be a challenge. We decided not to use our cellular data on our phones to avoid huge charges, so we didn’t have Google to guide us, and our analog GPS (map) was not very good. We soon learned that most people in Rome really like tourists and are willing to help. Yes, we know to look out for pick pockets and we were very careful, but each time we stopped and asked for directions, everyone was polite and helpful.

The Borghese Gallery is amazing, but the Bernini exhibit is so popular that you have to make a reservation in advance and are only allowed two hours to view it. We were exhausted from an overnight flight, a lot of walking, and the time change, so we really weren’t able to give it its due.
Bernini-Rape of Proserpina
Interestingly, this museum posts a lot of rules that they do not enforce. When you enter you are told to check and bags, cameras, and recording equipment because no photography of any kind is allowed. I dutifully did that, but as we entered the exhibit, we saw people with huge cameras or phones (often on a selfie stick) and they were taking pictures everywhere. There were few security guards and they tended to look the other way. I even saw a mother place her three children inside a security rope so they could pose with a statue for a picture! This emboldened Paul to take out his phone and snap a few pics. No photography, however, can do it justice. One of the most famous works is the statue of the Rape of Proserpina (see Paul’s excellent photo above.)


We were especially fond of a bust of Cardinal Richelieu. No one laughed when I said he looked marblous, not even Paul whose major responsibility is to laugh at all my jokes.