One Year in Italy: 12 Months of Memories

Time Flies!
“Time Flies! Stop lying around and write something, will ya?” (Photo of a detail from the facade of Santa Maria dell’ Orazione e delle Morte on the Via Giulia, Rome)

Living in a new place, especially for an extended period of time, fills me with a sense of duty that I have to write everything down, commit every moment to memory, take a photo every day if not every hour. But eventually, that initial motivation turns to dread and an overwhelming feeling that I should be more mindful of my surroundings rather than living behind a lens or a computer screen.

The latter reason is why I have not written as much as I should have over this past year in Italy. Plus, I’ve just done so much in these 12 months! I’ve traveled all over Rome and its region Lazio, from the beaches to the lakes to hill towns in between, and have visited six other regions (with a goal of getting to all 20 before my time here comes to and end). Over the past year, I have also taken more than 7,000 photos — so much for not living behind a lens!

Despite that photo stat, I have been paying attention with my other senses: smelling the roasting chestnuts in winter, the jasmine bushes in spring, and the cool, damp aroma of underground spaces; listening to the rumble of trams, the clinking of cups and saucers, the fleeting bits of Italian conversations overheard in the markets and shops; and tasting the foods of each season. Touch has been more elusive, as Italy is full of things you want to touch but cannot — smooth marbles and mosaics and frescoes, tufts of moss growing out of crevices high on a Roman wall.

Of course, readers visit this blog to see Italy as much as learn about it. So, I wanted to share 12 photos over this past year, one for each month, to mark my transition from year one to year two. These are simple photos — most taken with an iPhone 5 — but they are special reminders for me. Read below for details.

Continue reading One Year in Italy: 12 Months of Memories

Photo of the Day: A Ray of Light in San Giovanni in Laterano

While hundreds wait in lines in the harsh sun to get into Saint Peter’s, the Archbasilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, also known as the Cathedral of Rome, is practically empty. San Giovanni is the oldest and largest papal basilica in Rome, although it has gone through many reconstructions over the years due to earthquakes, fires, and vandalism (by the actual Vandals, in the 5th century).

Admission to San Giovanni in Laterano is free. But you can purchase a ticket to visit the 13th century cloister, located through a door to the left of the altar, and the Scala Santa and Sancta Sanctorum (the Holy Stairs and Holy Sanctum, located across the street), one of the most important sites of pilgrimage outside of Vatican City.

Will the Vatican Museums finally limit the number of visitors?

Last week, I finally had a chance to revisit the Vatican Museums. It had been more than a decade since I had gone. And I had been reluctant to visit because of the crowds, which wrapped around the block. But my mother was in town, so I had a good excuse to go.

Getting in was easy enough, as we had reserved tickets through the Vatican Museums online ticketing system. Rain poured down on us as we got off the tram and walked uphill to the entrance. Most everyone there at 9:30 a.m. were part of a group or had reserved online so we were all kind of in the same line (scrum) to get in. Getting through the main doors, queueing up at the ticket window to get our “real” tickets (our printed reservations were just that), and walking through security took about 10-15 minutes.  No big deal.

But honestly, the Vatican Museums left me wanting this time. Or rather they left me with the feeling that I never want to visit again. Continue reading Will the Vatican Museums finally limit the number of visitors?

Upcoming Fundraiser at the Sistine Chapel Turns Heads

Sistine Chapel

Each day, as many as 20,000 visitors pay up to €16 per person to enter the Vatican Museums, the highlight of which is the Sistine Chapel. This coming weekend, reports Crux, approximately 40 fans of German automaker Porsche will get to pay up to €5,000 each to take a private tour of the Vatican, which includes dinner in the museums and a concert in the famous chapel.

Porsche has advertised the event on its website as the Exclusive Porsche Tour of Rome, which includes these tour highlights:

  • Access to the Vatican Museums outside the official opening hours
  • Magnificent concert in the stylish setting of the Sistine Chapel arranged exclusively for the participants
  • Unforgettable dinner in the midst of the exhibition at the Vatican Museums
  • Visit to the papal gardens at the Vatican and the Necropolis on the Via Triumphalis
  • Porsche Travel Club driving tour (two days) in the southern Lazio region

Meanwhile, Monsignor Paolo Nicolini, the managing director of the Vatican Museums, maintains that the event is the “debut of ‘Art for Charity,’ an initiative to exclusively support the charitable projects of the pope. This initiative is organized directly by the Vatican Museums and is directed at big companies. With the payment of a ticket, they can contribute to financing charity projects.” Nicolini told reporters on October 16 that, “The Sistine Chapel can never be rented because it is not a commercial place.”

The one-off event stands to raise about €200,000—almost half of what the Vatican Museums could raise in a full day off of tourist admissions, with only a fraction of the wear and tear. Artnet added:

“Since his inauguration, Pope Francis has put significant emphasis on the plight of the poor and has gained a reputation for his pragmatic and forward-thinking interpretation of scripture. This latest move may indicate that he is prepared to capitalize on the Vatican’s rich cultural heritage for the benefit of those in need.”

Visiting the Vatican and Rome During Easter


Springtime is a very popular time to visit Rome and the Vatican City. And for good reason. The weather is warmer. The gardens and parks are in bloom, with huge pots of azaleas providing a burst of color on the Spanish Steps. And for the thousands of churches, it is time to celebrate Easter.

Of course, the most popular place to visit during Easter is St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s Square (Piazza San Pietro). The Pope presides over several services at the basilica during Holy Week, including morning and evening masses on Holy Thursday, an afternoon vigil on Good Friday, and an evening mass on Holy Saturday. The big event, Easter Sunday mass, is celebrated in St. Peter’s Square, where thousands gather to watch the Pope bless an icon of the risen Christ and hear the Pope’s “Urbi et Orbi” message delivered from the balcony of the papal apartments.

The Pope also travels to other churches in Rome during Easter time to perform holy rites. On Maundy Thursday, the Pope typically delivers the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at St. John Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterano), the church for the Bishop of Rome – the Pope’s other official title. After St. Peter’s, this is the second-most important basilica in Rome and worth a visit even if you aren’t in town during Easter. (Also in this area is the Scala Santa, purported to be the “holy stairs” that led to the throne of Pontius Pilate. Saint Helena, mother of Constantine, brought these stairs to Rome from Jerusalem in 326 A.D. and Christians have been venerating them ever since.)

The Stations of the Cross Vigil in the Colosseum

Click here if you are unable to see the video above.

Another intriguing site to visit during Easter is the Colosseum, where the Stations of the Cross are held during an evening vigil on Good Friday. The Pope presides over this rite in the arena where many ancient Christians are said to have been “thrown to the lions.” The Colosseum was consecrated as a church in 1749 to commemorate these early persecutions of Christians and stem the pillaging of the structure’s building materials.

Note that seating at the Colosseum on Good Friday and in St. Peter’s Square on Easter Sunday is very limited. Free tickets for these events must be reserved well in advance with your local diocese.

Leading up to Holy Week, there are several other opportunities to see and/or hear a blessing from the Pope, including on Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday is also the the typical day on which World Youth Day, a celebration initiated by Pope John Paul II, is held in St. Peter’s Square. The Pope also delivers a blessing to general audiences each Wednesday throughout the year. For more information about applying to participate in a general audience with the Pope, review this information from the Prefecture of the Papal Household.

For more ideas on visiting holy Rome, have a look at the links below. You may also visit the official website of the Vatican for information on the Pope, the Holy See, and liturgical services.

Papal Basilicas of Rome
Santa Maria Maggiore
San Giovanni in Laterano
San Paolo Fuori Le Mura

Additional links of interest
Getting Into the Vatican Museums
Italy’s Most Unusual Religious Relics
Angels and Demons Tourism

Photo © WiltshireYan

Round-up: Italy in Winter, Hidden Salami, Timelapse Tuscany, and more

This installment of Italy travel articles includes two videos that I thought were worth sharing. Enjoy the round-up! Continue reading Round-up: Italy in Winter, Hidden Salami, Timelapse Tuscany, and more

Night Visit to the Vatican Museums on July 24

According to About.com, the Vatican Museums are going to be open late to visitors on July 24.

Visitors will be admitted from 7 pm until 9:30 pm with the museums closing at 11 pm and booking is required, according to Cultural Italy (tickets can be reserved through their site for a fee).

Sounds like a great way to spend a summer evening in Rome!

Photo by Malouette

Visiting Rome During Halloween

Halloween in Rome Italy
Scene from a tomb in Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Though I’ve always seen Rome as a city for lovers, I can’t deny that it has a certain morbid quality about it, what with all the church tombs, catacombs, and gladiator lore that are a part of its urban fabric. That’s what makes visiting Rome around Halloween a good bet – it’s like an instant haunted house!

Budget Travel pointed out so much in its article from a few years ago – The Eternal–Or Infernal?–City. Writer Barbie Nadeau lists some really great ideas for spooky places to visit in the city, including the Catacombs of San Callisto (though I prefer the Catacombs of St. Domitilla), the Protestant Cemetery (recently profiled here), and the excellent Crypt of the Capuchin Monks (in Santa Maria della Concezione, Via Veneto), which is a chapel built entirely of human bones.

Nadeau’s suggestions cover most of the bases, but I still have a few more scary sites to add to the list. So, if you find yourself in Rome over Halloween or just like visiting eerie places, add these to your list, too:

Mamertine Prison. This ancient prison at the Capitoline Hill-end of the Forum Romanum was built around the 4th C. BC and said to have been where Saints Peter and Paul were incarcerated before their executions. Because of this association, Mamertine has long been a Christian shrine. But other war criminal were also kept in the prison until they were publicly executed. There’s a tablet by the entrance that lists how some prisoners met their fate, quite a few of which were beheaded.

San Silvestro in Capite. Speaking of beheadings, this church is said to house the reliquary of the severed head of John the Baptist. The head – or perhaps the death mask – is on display in the church. It’s not particularly scary, but the thought of a 2,000 year-old-head in a glass box creeps me out.

Santa Maria del Popolo. An inconspicuous door off of the usually crowded Piazza del Popolo leads into the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, which houses a handful of some great free art, including works by Caravaggio and Pinturricchio. What’s spooky in this church is 17th C. tomb of Polish architect G.B. Gisleni. The tomb is topped with a life-like skeleton in a shroud. There are also various decorative skull and bones motifs throughout the church.

Museum of Purgatory. Located in the Chiesa del Sacra Cuore (Sacred Heart Church) on the left bank of the Tiber, the Museum of Purgatory contains “evidence” of souls that have been caught between earth and the afterlife. Jessica at Italylogue had a really good post on the Purgatory Museum a while back, so I’ll let her “lead the tour.”

Vatican Necropolis. I Scavi, or the excavations/necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica, seem like an obvious scare-inducer to me. Though, I suppose Catholics would argue that this space is more sacred than spooky. Nevertheless, if you like cold, dark places filled with tombs, you may want to tack this on to your obligatory St. Peter’s and Vatican tour. Be aware, however, that you have to make a reservation to visit the necropolis.

The above are a few of my favorites, but there are certainly more. If you have any you’d like to add to this list, please drop me a line. Happy Halloween!

Photo by Nic Nac

October 2008 Article Round-Up

Sometimes I’m not always sure if anyone is actually reading Italofile. As I’ve said, it is a true labor of love. Still I like to imagine that there are regular readers out there who enjoy discovering with me the destinations, hotels, art, schools, churches, etc., that make traveling in Italy so rewarding.

Lo and behold, this weekend I found that I have at least one reader! Maribel wrote in to tell me that last year I missed a New York Times article on “Tortellini Lessons at the Source” in Bologna. Thanks, Maribel! And, with that, I thought I’d provide another round-up of recent articles, from the NYT and elsewhere:

New York Times
In Turin, the Olympic Glow Hasn’t Yet Faded
Monastic Doors Open For Travelers
Milan: Princi (a must-visit bakery)

The Washington Post
2,000 Years After Vesuvius (Stabiae)
In the Eternal City, Walk in a Roman’s Sandals
Rome On Two Gelatos A Day
Good Libations: Bassano del Grappa, Still the One (Veneto)

Los Angeles Times
Art Springs to Life in Gardens Near Rome
Planning Your Trip to Rome’s Gardens
Planning Your Trip to San Marino
Planning Your Trip to Vatican City

Wall Street Journal
Venice Crossings: A Traghetto Tour
In Italy, A Monastery Getaway (Umbria)

The Independent (UK)
City Slicker: A Guide to Genoa
The Hip Hop Guide to Tuscany’s Treasures

The Guardian (UK)
The Insider’s Guide to Cortina d’Ampezzo
Instant Weekend: Florence
Flying Visit: Le Marche Is Olive-Town
Letting Catania Out of the Bag
Going Solo: Venice
Flying Visit to Lake Garda

Sydney Morning Herald
Dining in the Sky the New Way to See Milan
See Ya Later, Gladiator
Floating Through a Dream (Venice)

The Telegraph (UK)
Rome: Eternal Love
Palladio: 500 Years of Architectural Wonders
Sicily: Golf in the Shadow of Mt. Etna
Michael Howard’s Venice

Yes, this is an exhaustive list. But I’m sure I didn’t find everything. So, I’m depending on all you Maribel’s out there to help me out by sending me links to articles and other tips you think would be worthy of posting on Italofile. Thanks again!

Getting Into the Vatican Museums

It’s getting ever more difficult to get into the Vatican Museums (Musei Vaticani), home to some of the world’s most precious and recognizable Western art including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. The Vatican recently raised prices to €13 (ca. $17) for a non-guided visit and, according to the New York Times, the Museums are reducing visiting times for individual travelers not part of a tour group. The average tourist must now wait until 10 a.m. to get in (as opposed to 8:45 a.m. for tour group members) and the ticket office stays open only until 3:30 p.m. (12:30 p.m. in the low season).

So what’s the solo traveler to do?

One way to avoid the lines is to pay a bit more for an official guided tour. For €23.50 (about $31), you can reserve a guided tour, which includes admission, the two hour guided tour, a headset, and the privilege to avoid the queues. The Vatican notes on its website that “all visitors, individuals or groups booked with this Office, are entitled to enter through the main gate of the Vatican Museums on Viale Vaticano. Facing the Vatican Museums Entrance door, the line on the right is specifically for reserved guided Vatican tours.” Unfortunately, to reserve guided tour tickets you must FAX (!) your request to 06 6988 5100. (The Vatican has never been an institution known for its early adoption of technology, but fax reservations?!?)

If you’re lucky, and your trip coincides with the last Sunday of the month, then you can get into the Museums for free. Free entry is available from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Expect heavy crowds, of course. See the Museum calendar.

There are also private ticket booking services, such as Select Italy and tickitaly.com, that assist with reservations to the Vatican Museums as well as to other Italy attractions (e.g., the Uffizi Museums, Campo dei Miracoli, etc.). While these services can take the guesswork (and legwork) out of securing tickets, the mark-up can be astronomical.

A visit to the Vatican Museums should be on the itinerary of every first timer’s trip to Rome. But if your time is limited, say to a weekend, you’d be better off checking out Rome’s other showstoppers. A religious itinerary could include a visit to one or all of the four Patriarchal Basilicas of Rome. And, fantastic art is on view at the Capitoline Museums and in many minor churches around the city.

Your final option for checking out the Vatican Museums collection without spending a lot of money or time? Take an online tour.

For in-depth information about the Vatican Museums’ new entrance policies, see Vatican Takes Steps to Control Overcrowding by Elisabetta Povoledo.

Photo by Malouette