Well, I suppose it was inevitable to have a few bad hours at some point during our European adventure. That moment came near the end of our two week trip, on the day we were supposed to visit the Vatican City.
We woke up early that day and picked up pastries and espresso on our walk to St. Peter’s Square. The sun was shining, we got our first glimpse of the River Tiber and its many gorgeous bridges, and we hadn’t gained a single pound despite two weeks of nonstop gorging. What could go wrong?
Well, this is where I cross the TMI line and tell you all that this whole weird day got started when I woke up and discovered that good old Aunt Flo had come to visit. Aunt Flo and all the cramps, worries and moodiness that come with her. Suffice it to say that I was not feeling too hot as we made our way to what many consider to be must-sees while in Rome. The Vatican Museums, The Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica and more awaited us at the end of our short morning walk, but we would not see anything past St. Peter’s Square.
Despite reading dozens of articles on how to visit the Vatican City, we did not buy tickets to the museums in advance. We wanted the freedom to be spontaneous and visit when we saw fit, rather than commit to a specific time and date months before ever setting foot in Italy. Guys, don’t be like us. Just choose your damn date and do a little research before you show up.
As it was, we arrived at St. Peter’s Square and were immediately overwhelmed by the multiple lines, the endless surge of people selling tours and who knows what else, and the realization that we really did not think this one through. We didn’t know what line to enter, we couldn’t be sure which tour operators were legitimate and which were scams, and to top it all off, my insides were being ripped to shreds and I was really starting to regret wearing a white skirt. So much for being a smart traveler.
We took exactly one picture and set off along the outer walls, following the crowd to the entry point for the Vatican Museums. Reps from various tour agencies hounded us as we walked, following us and forcefully pushing pamphlets into our hands. I ignored most of them, and made it clear to the more aggressive ones that we could not possibly be less interested in what they had to sell…that is, until we reached the massive line to enter the museums. One rep told us the line was two hours long already, but if we booked through him, there was a tour leaving in just fifteen minutes with no wait at all! We didn’t want a tour, weren’t sure if the rep or his claims would be trusted, and with the Vatican-run ticket booths a supposed two hour wait away, we decided to call it quits and move on. We would do a little research, buy our tickets online, and come back the next day.
Spoiler alert: we didn’t come back. Yep, believe it or not, we skipped the Vatican City. The Sistine Chapel will have to wait.
Instead, we set out in search of a pizza spot we’d seen on an episode of an Anthony Bourdain show. Called Bonci Pizzarium, the place makes giant pizzas and sells them by weight rather than by the slice. The pizza varieties on the show looked incredible, and if it impressed Mr. Bourdain, we wanted to try it for ourselves. If we couldn’t have the Vatican, at least we could eat a fancy version of my very favorite food!
Guys, I hate to do this to you, but…the pizza wasn’t great. There wasn’t a ton of variety, the pizza was relatively bland and boring, and it was incredibly overpriced considering how affordable the majority of our meals had been while in Europe. As we munched on potato pizza at one of the standing outdoor tables, it started to rain. Normally I love the rain, but after a week or more of cold, damp weather in France, I was ready for a little sunshine. On this particular day, the rain was simply the latest in a series of disappointments.
Feeling crampy and angry and cold, we walked all the way back to the hotel to wait out the poor weather. I crawled back into bed and we researched a potential return to the Vatican, feeling annoyed and discouraged by all the conflicting information we found. Bless Dan for being so understanding. I’m normally very independent and self-sufficient, but every once in a while these days come along and even I want to strangle myself for being so whiny. Dan reasoned that we’d been going nonstop for nearly two weeks, and reminded me that he’d woken up sick and spent half the day in bed the week before, towards the end of our stay in Chaumont. So now, it was his turn to take care of me!
We wound up spending a couple of hours in the hotel, just napping and reading and watching TV, and then decided to venture out and do a little sightseeing nearby, maybe grab gelato or an early dinner or something. In addition to being boring and tasteless, the earlier pizza meal had not been very filling.
We spent a couple of hours wandering through the nearby streets and along the river, stopping frequently to admire the gorgeous architecture and wander open-mouthed through a handful of churches. I swear, these churches are on every corner and filled to the brim with beautiful art and architecture. Many of them feature paintings from famous artists like Caravaggio and Rafaello, and best of all, they are absolutely free to enter! As we wandered from one spot to another, we started to think this might actually be better than the Sistine Chapel. There were no crowds, no security guards, no two-hour line to enter, and no entry fee.
Here are a few of the places we visited.
San Luigi dei Francesi (Church of St. Louis of the French)
This is the national church of France in Rome, built for the French in the 1500s. Located just around the corner from Piazza Navona, the church features three paintings by Caravaggio. I absolutely loved the white and gold ceilings here. All that extravagant detailing, as well as the ceiling fresco by Charles-Joseph Natoire, made me think of the rooms at Versailles.
Church of Saint Augustine
Look at this gorgeous church! The Church of Saint Augustine was just a minute or two’s walk from our hotel. We’d walked past on our way to the Pantheon the day before. The church exterior is relatively plain and unassuming, tucked away against a parking lot in the tiny Piazza di Sant Agostino. Still, we popped inside to check it out, and were absolutely stunned by how gorgeous and colorful the interior was.
I loved the soaring ceilings, the lavishly-decorated arches, and the abundance of gold, marble and colorful paintings all over the place.
Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle
Of all the gorgeous churches visited in Europe, this was the one that knocked me off my feet. We visited in the golden hour, and all that gorgeous light from outside spilled through the upper windows and bathed the entire church in a surreal golden glow.
It probably helped that the church itself was done up in light marble and golden detailing, which bounced that light around and made the space feel even larger than it was.
We spent a lot of time in here looking at all the chapels, admiring the art, and seeking out cool angles for our pictures.
As an added bonus, this church also had a couple of mirrored tables going up the aisle which offered a better look at the stunning ceiling detail of the basilica.
After getting our fill of beautiful churches, we found ourselves back in Piazza Navona, bathed in the light of the setting sun. Talk about gorgeous.
We decided to take a chance on dinner at Bernini, the same restaurant where we had shared a bottle of wine the evening before. The staff there remembered us and rewarded our loyalty with a free appetizer, a blend of zucchini, red pepper and more in a savory sauce. We also ordered a rosemary flatbread, which was little more than a hard, over-toasted flour tortilla, two plates of pasta, and a bottle of wine to share.
I opted for the cacio e pepe, putting my faith once more in Anthony Bourdain’s favorite dish recommendations, while Dan tried out the spinach and mushroom ravioli. My dish looked pretty and was topped with a beautiful zucchini flower, but tasted like basic Kraft Mac and Cheese. I like mac and cheese, but I much preferred Dan’s ravioli in cream sauce. We admired the beautiful square as we ate, full of tourists comparing restaurant menus and snapping photos of the gorgeous buildings and fountains.
Despite the persistent ache in my gut, I really enjoyed the meal. It was nice to take a mini sightseeing break and just linger over a meal in such a gorgeous place. The wait staff surprised us once more as we prepared to pay, bringing out two complimentary glasses of limoncello. I don’t know if it was because we were repeat customers, or if was simply a post-dinner custom, but either way it helped to make us forget all about the crappy morning we’d had.
Feeling significantly better now, Dan and I grabbed our jackets and set off to explore a new corner of the city. Most of our time thus far had been spent to the East of Piazza Navona, and we wanted to poke around the cute little streets between the piazza and the Tiber River. We found wine bars, cafes, restaurants, clothing shops, vine-covered apartments, rooftop bars, and more. Walking through the area, fairy lights twinkling and laughter spilling out onto the street, was almost surreal. I felt like we had stepped right into a movie set. Surely such a perfect place could not exist in real life!? With all of the crowds and the cameras and the hawkers we’d encountered throughout the trip, it was wonderful to explore such a romantic little slice of the city with Dan. I didn’t take a single picture here, choosing instead to be in the moment and enjoy my faux “honeymoon” with my boyfriend.
By the time we returned to our hotel, warm despite the evening’s chill, we had very much forgotten about the poor morning we’d had. We’d completely turned the day around and had a good time after all. With just one more day to spend in Rome, we decided to keep the good vibes going and avoid the whole congested mess outside the Vatican.
To see what we did instead, click to read my day three trip recap!