Cruising the Mediterranean: History Amidst the Bustle of Italy
01 Aug 2013
*Originally published at Traveling With Sweeney*
This is the second of my three articles about our recent Mediterranean cruise. The story continues in historic Rome!
There are about a hundred ways to see Rome. We chose the exhausting way. When I say we saw the city on foot, I mean that literally. At the end of what amounted to a ten-hour walk, we ached to be semi-prone with a cold drink! Yet when you are inside the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel staring up at Michelangelo’s frescoes, or turn onto a piazza filled with apartments and bistros only to find yourself standing smack in front of the Pantheon, the sensation of not only having stepped into history but being a part of it is as overwhelming as it is rewarding.
Getting there aboard the Equinox
Before docking in Civitavecchia, the port closest to Rome, our first 36 hours cruising aboard the Celebrity Equinox were a relaxing treat. Only four years old, the Equinox is a splendid ship, tasteful and elegantly appointed with an attentive, warm staff. Handed a glass of champagne as soon as we boarded, we stepped into the main atrium and relaxed on plush club chairs overlooking a tri-level opening filled with stylish lounges, each boasting a unique decor. A pianist entertained us before we wandered the ship to survey the amenities – and there were plenty. How many ships do you know of that feature a top deck with a huge lawn of real grass for sunning and picnicking or have daily glass blowing demonstrations, giving away many of their lovely creations at the end of each show?
On the deck below, beyond the large pool flanked by four hot tubs, the ship also featured a peaceful solarium with vaulted glass ceilings, another heated pool, cabanas, more hot tubs – and no one under 18 allowed.
Our veranda staterooms were compact, as most are, but well designed with tons of out of sight storage. The view from our generous balcony was lovely, as there was nothing between us and the water. I can even report one whale breach!
Our next day at sea was the first Captain’s Night so my husband David, our friend Shelby and I got decked out in all our finery!
David, Anita and Shelby
Exploring Historic Rome
Docking in Civitavecchia by 7 AM the next morning, we disembarked after an early breakfast, not wanting to lose a minute of our twelve hours in port. With Rick Steve’s Mediterranean Ports in hand, we fed our independent streak by exploring Rome, as well as the six stops that followed, on our own. His book is a valuable, specific guide that helped us make our way through Civitavecchia’s Port Gate to the train into Rome (40 minutes), and to every venue that followed. On our walk to the station, we were treated to Unconditional Surrender, a giant rendering of World War II’s most famous kiss. Check out the size of the tourists at the left of the picture!
“Unconditional Surrender”: Statue of famous World War II kiss
The train into Rome’s St. Pietro station reminded me of one of New York City’s old subways – hot, sticky and creaky. Navigating the station’s signs without knowing more than a few Italian words was not without stress, yet I was glad we didn’t opt for a bus tour, choosing instead to be part of the culture, if only for a few hours. After all, when in Rome…
Once arriving at St. Pietro station, we got our bearings and started our self-guided walking tour. The city felt surprisingly cramped, the side streets winding and narrow, the rich architecture a bit slapdash. Campo de Fiori, a famous open air market nestled in a restaurant-filled square was similar to Barcelona’s La Boqueria in that vendors’ wares were artfully displayed. My favorites were bags of rainbow striped farfalle and barrels filled with fragrant herb concoctions that made me want to toss a pinch in with some sautéed pasta on the spot.
As we ambled to our next stop, David froze in his tracks, drooling in front of a colorful bakery, eager to begin his quest for the perfect cannoli. He must have hit pay dirt on the first try. I could barely steal a bite from him before he inhaled it all.
I did some drooling of my own when at last we arrived at the Pantheon. I don’t know why I assumed that ancient Rome would be in an outskirt of the city. That the historic and the modern co-exist in the same block is something that must be seen to be believed – just don’t get caught gawking while cab drivers and businessmen on motorbikes zigzag down the narrow streets at crazy speeds, or you might get run down!
The oculus inside the Pantheon
Built in 126 A.D., the Pantheon is one of the best preserved of all Roman buildings. The vaulted ceilings, oculus and construction of this enormous space left us awestruck. We learned that almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon still boasts the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The rain falls through the oculus and the sloped floors allow for drainage out through the 25-foot entrance doors. The magnificent construction of the edifice and its interiors are enough to make you believe in alien beings.
The Trevi Fountain
The Fountain of Trevi was exquisite and overrun with tourists, who took pictures from every conceivable angle before making their wishes as they threw coins into the fountain.
The Spanish Steps
Ending our walking tour by climbing the Spanish Steps, we enjoyed a wonderful view of much of the city and after a relaxing lunch, boarded the metro to the Vatican. We had reserved our tickets on the internet weeks in advance, making it a cinch to wade past the long ticket line to get our passes at the will-call window. Prepare yourself for ridiculous crowds regardless of a pre-arranged appointment time.
Frescoes in the entrance to the Sistine Chapel
Gawking at the frescoes on the way to the Sistine Chapel, I felt like a boob – since there is no signage telling you when you have actually arrived.
Ceiling fresco near entrance to the Sistine Chapel
But we were content to move through the rooms like cattle until we were ushered into the magnificent chapel. The guards were reverent; adamant that no photos be taken and that no one speak in the chamber. Some visitors prayed; others meditated. A warm hum of awed murmurs were all that could be heard. As Goethe once said, “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”
Vatican exterior viewing the Pope’s Window
As we walked out to view the grounds of the Vatican, the Pope’s window and St. Peter’s Basilica, we made the mistake most tourists make, not using the “secret door” to exit the chapel, and wound up walking all the way around the Vatican wall in order to return to see the museum itself. Having trekked the entirety of the property twice, we can attest that it is far larger in scale than anyone can imagine from pictures or television.
A guard eyeballed me as we tried to use our tickets for re-admittance. “Why, Madam, why?” He wasn’t happy, but after we explained ourselves, we were allowed back in. Apparently, the sovereign country of the Vatican feels no need to tell you how to get anywhere on their grounds and isn’t worried about helping you to an efficient visit. This endless walk in circles was the worst part of our day but the tapestry of The Last Supper made up for it.
Tapestry of the Last Supper
For our last exhibit, we took in the Ancient Roman sarcophagi and did our best once outside the Vatican walls to find Termini Station for the trip back to Civitavecchia. The most direction we could get from any tourist information booth or Vatican guard was “Go to the wall. Turn right.” Pedestrians weren’t any more helpful. After turning right six times, we’d had our fill, but by some miracle, at last found the train station.
I’m sure denizens of the city get tired of being overrun by tourists daily, so we forgave the brusque attitudes we encountered in some of the people there. Rome was an experience we cherished more in retrospect, once we had time to reflect on the jaw-dropping sights of our journey. Still, I’d wager it was everyone’s most stressful day and, like many of our ship mates, we were dragging. Even if you think you’re wearing comfortable shoes – bring socks!
We took a less ambitious excursion in Naples the next morning, boarding a bus and then the metro for 40 minutes to get to Pompeii.
Being able to walk through a city destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and buried under almost 20 feet of ash in 79 A.D. is likewise not something one can make sense of. We marveled at the innovative street designs and layout of the raised stones, which made room for chariot passage, let the “drivers” know if the street was one or two-way, and also featured lowered parts designed for drainage.
The ash-covered body of a victim in Pompeii
We were also told not to feed the wild dogs we found resting in one of the better preserved structures. They seemed to act as guardians, watching over the ash-covered bodies encased in glass that we found within the building.
Vast expanse of Pompeii
One structure that was relatively undamaged was the brothel. It featured wall paintings where a patron could point to his desired, um…activity. The miniscule chambers with stone beds were unnerving, looking as uncomfortable as they were tiny. No amount of straw could make that palatable! Needless to say, more tourists crammed into that tiny building to take pictures than any other in Pompeii.
Not expecting so vast a city, we got lost for hours on the various streets, homes, amphitheaters and parks.
A glimpse of Naples
Convitto Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele and statue of Dante at Piazza Dante
We opted to take the train back into Naples and walk from the Archeological Museum through Piazza Dante to the port and our ship. The city, not as rich as Rome, featured some lovely architecture but was grittier and not as picturesque.
By the time we were back aboard the Equinox, after our two day whirlwind tour of Rome and Naples, we were ready to once again be pampered and were not disappointed. At every port, the staff was waiting outside the embarkation ramp with icy towels and cold lemonade. We enjoyed a great dinner and music in one of the lounges with a jazz quartet, happy for another full “sea day” before arriving in Greece.
Aboard the Equinox
Photos courtesy David Givens and Shelby Heard (all rights reserved).