We were intending that Croatia and Montenegro would be our last holiday of the year. Well, last holiday until we go to Lapland after Christmas! But when Tim saw some cheap flights to Rome from Birmingham airport this weekend, they seemed like too good a deal to miss out on The flights were with Monarch - an airline which I had no idea even flew to Italy - and perfectly timed so that we could leave early on Saturday morning and return late on Sunday evening. We have been to Italy lots of times before, but never to Rome, so it promised to be quite an exciting weekend.
The only catch, of course, is that it is November, so we knew we weren't guaranteed brilliant weather. It meant prices were potentially a bit cheaper though, and Tim managed to find us an affordable guesthouse to stay in which was only 10 minutes walk away from the Vatican. I thought it might also mean everywhere was a bit quieter, but having experienced how busy Rome is today then I don't think that's necessarily the case!
It's ages since we've flown from Birmingham and so the journey to the airport seemed pleasantly short Everything ran like clockwork with our flight and Monarch surpassed my expectations. The flight wasn't completely full, which probably helped, and in general it seemed a bit less rowdy than a typical Ryanair flight! Rome Fiumicino seemed like an efficient airport too, with e-passport gates that seem to work way quicker than the ones at Stansted and Luton. We hadn't done vast quantities of research about how to get into central Rome, but we were under the impression that there was some sort of metro or train from the airport. Indeed there was, but as soon as we began to walk through arrivals, we started getting accosted by people trying to convince us that it would be a mistake to take the train because it's too expensive (€15 each - which does sound expensive to be fair!). I was a bit confused at first but it transpired that these were taxi drivers, trying to convince us that they could drive us into Rome for €35 which would only be €5 more than the train. We managed to successfully evade them and instead followed signs towards the airport bus station to see whether buses to Rome might be any cheaper than the train.
Happily it turned out that the bus is indeed cheaper, and we ultimately paid €6 each for the journey, which seemed like a comparative bargain The advantage of the train may have been speed, though; the bus seemed to take a very tortuous route, incorporating a stop at an out-of-town shopping centre, and all in all it was an hour before we were finally deposited outside Rome's main Termini station.
I'd read lots of bad things about the area around the station, but to be honest it didn't look any more unappealing than the area around a station generally does. The main annoyance was the high volume of street-sellers who were continually trying to approach us to sell us garishly multi-coloured selfie sticks. Others were waiting nearby with umbrellas to start selling if it began to rain. It was quite irritating, but thankfully things calmed down a bit once we left the main station road and headed down one of the side streets.
It was after midday by this point and we wandered around the city centre for a while, vaguely on the lookout for somewhere to eat. First impressions were that Rome was beautiful, but also huge; there is definitely a lot more to see here than we will get through in two days. We found a nice restaurant after a while where we shared a couple of pizzas, and although the sky looked quite grey and threatening it was still plenty warm enough to sit outside and eat
Next stop was to check in at the guesthouse, which we were able to do from 2. It seems to be a lovely place and the room is really comfortable, though there's a slightly bizarre system where we have to mark on a piece of paper what we want for breakfast and then pin it up outside our door!
As our accommodation was so close to the Vatican, we'd decided in advance that it made sense to concentrate on visiting that first and save some of the other big sights, like the Colosseum, for Sunday. You can book tickets in advance online to see the Vatican museums (which culminate with the Sistine Chapel) but after some deliberation we'd decided not to do that; everything I've read suggests that you need several hours to get through the museums, and they close at 4pm on Saturdays so it wasn't really going to work out.
One thing I did want to do though was to visit St Peter's Basilica. This is completely free, so you just have to turn up and join the queue. The guidebook said that afternoon was the best time to go because the queues were at their shortest. It still looked like a pretty long queue to us though!
It was exciting to be standing in St Peter's Square though. We were able to enjoy views of the fountains and colonnades...
...as well as the beautiful dome of the basilica itself.
As we progressed through the queue we were able to see more of the exterior of the basilica. We also witnessed some queue-jumping nuns!
The main reason the queue is so long, apart from the volume of people, is that you have to pass through airport-style scanners before you can go into St Peter's, including putting things like mobile phones and cameras into trays to be scanned separately. We got through very quickly, but other people seemed to be making a bit of a meal of it! All in all though we probably only queued for half an hour, which wasn't as bad as I expected.
We walked round the colonnades...
...before emerging at the front of the basilica...
...where we had great view of the Papal balcony
Before you go into the basilica, you can stand and look back at St Peter's Square. We both thought it didn't look quite so large in real life as it does on TV!
Then there is an impressive passageway before you enter the church, with a very ornate roof.
Once inside, it was breathtaking just how enormous the basilica is. Never mind the museums, you could spend several hours just exploring this.
It was a bit of a strange experience though because there were so many people there; it felt more like a museum than a church.
There were clearly bits that were restricted from the public and I'm sure those have a more prayerful atmosphere, but the bits that were open were full of tour groups following flags and people with selfie sticks!
There was some amazing architecture to see though. I particularly loved the ceilings.
And tourists were kept well back from the beautiful altar, which St Peter's tomb is underneath.
In a side chapel we found a stone with the names of the all the Popes engraved on it.
The high turnover of Popes in the Middle Ages was quite notable!
Outside, we caught sight of the Swiss Guard in their very colourful uniforms.
The weather seemed to have brightened up a bit while we'd been inside, so we were able to stroll back through the square without being rained on.
There aren't many other buildings in the Vatican City! There's an official Vatican souvenir shop, the Vatican post office and then embassy buildings of various Catholic countries like Croatia.
As we left the Vatican and went back into the main part of Rome, we were immediately confronted with this enormous castle.
This is the Castel Sant'Angelo, initially commissioned by the Emperor Hadrian as a mauseleum and then used by various Popes as a fortress.
We walked around the grounds for a while and admired the views...
...before crossing over the river Tiber on one of the many bridges.
It was really beautiful to look back towards the Vatican (although a shame there was a huge advert for Samsung phones on the front of one of the buildings!).
The main part of Rome's city centre is on the side of the river which we had now crossed to.
We found ourselves in Piazza Navona, a large square with a church and an obelisk.
The church would probably have looked more impressive if we hadn't just come from St Peter's!
The obelisk is an ancient Roman one, surrounded by a more modern fountain.
It was probably around 5pm by the time we were in the square and darkness was starting to fall.
We realised there was going to be a limit to how much more of Rome we were able to see today.
It was very pretty alongside the river in the dusk though.
Before it got completely dark we did manage to stumble across some Roman ruins. Hopefully we'll be able to return tomorrow and see them properly in the daylight.
Once it got completely dark, we found ourselves outside the Altare della Patria, a monument built in honor of the Italian king Victor Emmanuel.
It's a really stunning monument and another one we look forward to seeing properly tomorrow in the daylight
We were pretty tired by this point so started walking back to the guesthouse along the river.
The castle was illuminated at night, which looked beautiful.
There was just time for a final look at the Vatican, before we went back for some much-needed rest!