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We visited Piazza Armerina on our final day in Sicily; it was our stop on the 2 ½ hour drive from Palermo to the Catania airport. I was interested in seeing the Roman villa with a large amount of intact mosaics dating, the Villa Romana del Casale, and a World Heritage Site. The drive itself was uneventful and we drove through the center of the island with its mountains and valleys. The villa is located outside the town of Piazza Armerina and so we toured this site before heading up to the town.
The villa was amazing – the home of a wealthy Roman so many centuries ago. I have created several tips about the different parts of the villa as well as included a travelogue of some extra photos of the site. The tips include:
Villa Roman del Casale - Baths
Villa Roman del Casale - Hunting Rooms
Villa Roman del Casale - Bikini clad females
Villa Roman del Casale - Banqueting Hall
The city of Piazza Armerina was less amazing; in fact, underwhelming could be the needed term. It didn’t help that this was the one day that we experienced rainy weather, but the town just didn’t have very much of interest to us. We tried to get into the cathedral but it was closed up. We tried to visit the castle, but it was an overgrown mess behind a locked gate. Our one success was a nice panini lunch in a small café across the street from the cathedral.
Having seen the Roman villa, I have no need to return to Piazza Armerina. But, for those planning a trip to Sicily, a visit to Piazza Armerina was very much worth the stop.
Written May 8, 2013
Standing just outside the Colosseum is the Arch of Constantine, one of the last monuments built by Imperial Rome, just before the capital was moved to Byzantium. This arch, built in AD 315 commemorates Constantine’s victory over Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian Bridge, which is a bridge located in northern Rome that was an important route into the city. Constantine’s victory paved the way for him to become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. (NOTE: This battle is depicted on a massive fresco in the Raphael Rooms of the Vatican Museum.)
What surprised me most about the Arch was that it is not entirely an original work, but rather it recycled other older Roman sculptures and reliefs (probably a sign of the declining Roman Empire and the arts associated with it). The arch is perfectly proportioned into three smaller arches with a large top over all three.
When looking at the front of the Arch (with the Colosseum in the background), you can see the following decorations:
Central Arch: From Constantine’s era, the spandrels at the top of the arch show his victories and the reliefs inside the arch come from Trajan’s era and depict Trajan’s victories over the Dacians.
Side Arches: The large round medallions above the arches are from the time of Antonines and depict hunting scenes. It is unclear where these came from but are believed to be from Hadrian.
Attic: The large top portion above the three arch ways has reliefs and sculptures in it. The reliefs come from a monument to Marcus Aurelius, representing sacrifice, his speeches to his troops, and his triumphal entry back to Rome.
The Arch is open to the public and there is no fee to look at it, although a fence keeps people from getting too close to the structure. It is located on the southwest side of the Colosseum.
Written May 8, 2013
Address: Piazza del Colosseo
I’m pretty sure that the Colosseum is on most must-see lists of visitors to Rome. Even if you don’t go inside it, you will want to walk around it just to see Rome’s greatest amphitheatre that was begun almost 2,000 years ago. Despite having seen the Colosseum in many pictures, it was impressive to see up close. Once inside, the best way I could describe it would be to think of a modern day football stadium without its field and seats. That’s how big it is!
Tickets: If you plan to go into the Colosseum, you are going to need tickets. I highly recommend you get them somewhere other than the Colosseum, where the ticket lines tend to be the longest. Some people use the ROMA Pass, some purchase their tickets online ahead of time, and others, like us, purchased our combo ticket at the Roman Forum ticket counter. We were there in late February so it wasn’t as crowded as the summer and the line was very short. If you are coming in high season, you will most likely want to get your ticket ahead of time.
Once you have your tickets, you can climb the steps up into the arena. Even in February, the Colosseum had many people and the steps are steep; this part seemed to go slowly, so I can only imagine what it would be like with double or triple the amount of people to work around.
There are various places you can enter the arena area – on three sides of the arena and on different levels. Once you are there and inside, I would suggest you visit all of them as each gives you a different view point. While photographs are allowed, it is difficult to find a good position due to the throngs of people. If you want that perfect photo, be prepared to wait for a space to open up. This requires patience as many people seem to stand in their spots for a long time, reading their tour books, taking photos, or just chatting about what they are seeing.
Audio Guide While not always a fan of Rick Steves’, he does a good audio tour of the Colosseum (as well as other sites in Rome) that you can download for free from iTunes. You can download this to your iPod before you come to Rome and enjoy it as you explore the Colosseum. They are informative and provide some good details about what you are looking at.
See my additional tips on the interior of the Colosseum and the exterior of the Colosseum.
Written May 8, 2013
Address: Piazza del Colosseo
We spent a day looking over the early Roman areas; we didn’t see it all, but got a good overview of the area and what’s in it. Our day began at the Roman Forum, primarily because we had read a good VT tip that said the lines were shorter here than at the Colosseum for purchasing your combo-ticket. From what we saw, this tip was spot-on! We waited in line for about five minutes (remember, we weren’t there in high tourist season) but later we were able to bypass the very long line at the Colosseum; so we were very happy about all this.
How do you make sense of all the stones in the Forum? Best thing is to get a good audio tour or a very good guide book. I had done a good bit of reading prior to our trip and my copy of The Blue Guide – Rome more than paid for itself, but there was just too much material to try to read the book during the actual tour (hint: get the book a couple months before your trip and read up on it). So we downloaded the Rick Steves’ audio tour (free from iTunes!) and printed up the free maps (also on iTunes) and used that instead of purchasing the audio guides provided at the Forum. The guided tour was about 45 minutes long and covered all the highlights of the Forum – I thought it was well worth it! Hubby and I each had our own iPods with the tours so we were able to go at our own pace. This is a cost effective method if you are coming with a larger family and want to save a bit of money but still get a good history and cultural history.
Our tour began at the Arch of Titus (on the Colosseum end of the Via Sacra), which was nice since we were there when everything opened and most of the groups arriving were starting in the other section of the Forum, so we pretty much had the area to ourselves!
Highlights of our tour included (see additional tips) the Basilica of Constantine, the temple of the Vesta Virgins, temple of Julius Caesar, the Curia, and the Arch of Septimius Severus.
From the Forum area, you can walk up to the Palatine Hill. All our books told us we could also walk from the Forum to the Capitoline Hill, but that was closed off (not sure if it was temporary or more permanent – it was just a simple chain blocking the access). Once you have had your fill of the Forum area, exit towards the Colosseum to continue your tour of Roman ruins.
There was so much more to see, some closed and some areas blocked by construction or excavations. The Arch of Septimius Severus was massive but due to excavations nearby, you could not get near it from the Forum side. Later in the week we made our way down towards the Mammertime Prison from the Capitoline and from that vantage point had a much better view of the arch.
Bottom line – go on a nice day and get a good audio guide or book to help you understand all that you are seeing. Purchase the combo-ticket if you also want to go to the Colosseum so you can save money and avoid the lines at the Colosseum.
Written May 8, 2013
Sicily’s long and varied history has left the island with superior archaeological sites. We didn’t have time to get to all of the sites that had Greek temple ruins so we focused on Selinunte which is the largest archeological park in Europe. Selinunte is situated on the southwest side of the island and is close to the Mediterranean Sea with its magnificent Acropolis overlooking the water.
The beauty of Selinunte lies in the fact that it is not overly built up. Aside from the small town by the same name, there is little in the area. The ruins stand in wild overgrown fields with minimum human impact such as roads, tourist stands, cafes, and other buildings that tend to appear wherever the crowds are. Sure, Selinunte has these things, but they do not dominate the area.
We visited Selinunte at the end of the November; very definitely the off season for tourists and, like so many other places we visited on this trip, we were literally alone in the park. For a couple of people that do not like crowds, this was heavenly. We spent several hours exploring the two main sections of the park – the east group and the west group – walking between the sites. It was windy at Selinunte, partly because of its located by the sea. But despite the dark clouds, we did not experience any rain during our stay.
After purchasing our ticket, we started with the east grouping, walking through the Visitors Center back door and then walking towards the first, and most impressive, temple: Temple E. After seeing all we could see from this temple and Temple F and Temple G, we walked about 30 minutes to the west group of ruins. Here we visited Temple A/O, the Acropolis, and the North Gate. We did quite a bit of wandering along the ancient city roads which were full of pot holes and stones. After a while though, we felt we had seen enough to satisfy our curiosity for Greek ruins and, sadly, it all started to look the same to us.
We didn’t have time to make a visit to the famous Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, but I think we learned a lot and gained a new appreciation for the ancient Greeks by seeing the ruins at Selinunte. %s
Written May 7, 2013
The Church of San Pietro in Vincoli – an odd name meaning “St. Peter in Chains.” That is because one of the primary relics in this church is the chains that supposedly were used to chain Peter in the Mamertine Prison, but the Bible tells us that an angel helped him escape. The two sets of chains were separated and, according to legend, when they were returned together, they mysteriously fused together, never to be separated again. These are the chains in the church, located at the altar. Since Peter is considered the first pope and one of Christ’s favorite apostles, this is a place where lots of visitors come.
Pope Julius II’s tomb is located in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli. But visitors also come to pay homage to an artist that didn’t get to finish his grand life’s work. To the right of the altar is Pope Julius II’s tomb designed by Michaelangelo, which today has only seven of the original 40 statues. It is still a magnificent work of art, just not to the scale Michelangelo had hoped for, with only three of the seven sculptures actually being completed by the artist himself – Moses, Leah, and Rachel – the rest being done by his assistants and students. There is the possibility that the effigy of Julius is also by Michelangelo, but this is disputed by the experts (see my separate tip about this artwork).
One more thing in this church related to Renaissance art: the tombs of Florentine artist Antonio Pollaiolo and his brother Piero can be found in San Pietro in Vincolo. The Pollaiolo brothers are memorialized with bust sculptures near the entrance door.
The outside of the church didn’t look much like a church and, if I hadn’t known what was in there, would probably have walked right past. But we purposely sought out the church (I had to see the Michelangelo!). It closes during lunch (between 12:30 and 3:00) so we patiently waited with a number of other people for the church to reopen. There are benches to sit on or the steps. Once inside, there seemed to be a mad dash to either the relic of the chains or to Pope Julius’ tomb – guess which one I went to first?
Written May 6, 2013
Address: Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli
The church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva is one of the few Gothic churches in Rome. If you have been to Florence, you may recognize this church as closely resembling the church of Santa Maria Novella; according to Renaissance artist and biographer Vasari, the two churches were designed by the same architects. Not only does it look like a building in Florence, but inside this church are several memorials and tributes to famous Florentines and others from Tuscany.
The church is thought to have been built over the ruins of a temple to Minerva back in AD 800, but was rebuilt in the late 1200s by the Dominicans. It was renovated in the 1800s, altering its appearance but left the façade in a very simple manner. Outside on the piazza in front of the church is Bernini’s elephant statue that holds an obelisk on its back.
There is quite a bit of fabulous art inside the church. The highlights of my visit to Santa Maria sopra Minerva included a statue by Michaelangelo, the tomb of Renaissance artist Fra Angelico, and tombs of two Medici popes; these three have separate tips. Other features in this church that are worth checking out are:
Just off the small Frangipani Chapel is the room where St. Catherine of Siena died in 1380.
Tomb of St. Catherine of Siena: Saint Catherine of Siena, known for influencing the pope’s return from Avignon to Rome, is buried in the church. A marble effigy of St. Catherine rests in a glass case under the high altar in the center of the sanctuary.
Frescoes by Filippino Lippi: Filippino Lippi was another Florentine, son of the famous painter Filippo Lippi. The Cappella Carafa chapel in the south transept has frescoes by this artist, who had to halt his work in the Florence church of Santa Maria Novella to come to Rome for this commission. The two frescoes on the walls and lunette show scenes from St. Thomas Aquinas’ life.
Bernini memorial to Maria Raggi: Bernini wasn’t a Florentine but he has an early work in the church as well. The memorial to a nun named Maria Raggi that features a tondo relief of her with cherubs and an exquisite stone drape that gives the appearance of simply flowing. This can be found on the side of one of the columns in the nave – from the back of the church near the entrance, the column is the 5th one up towards the altar on the left side of the church.
Bernini bust of Giovanni Vigevano: As you make your way up to Maria Raggi’s memorial, a bust created by Bernini is in between the second and third side chapels on the left. This bust is of Giovanni Vigevano; in my research I have been unable to find out who he is, but obviously he was a wealthy patron to commission such a tomb.
An additional historical note: The church friary was where Galileo was put on trial in 1633 by the Inquisition for his belief that the Sun was the center of the universe and not the Earth. Because of his guilty verdict and condemnation, Galileo, a friend of Florence’s Medici family, was unable to be buried within the sacred part of the Church of Santa Croce in Florence, but rather is buried in a small side Medici chapel in the unconsecrated part of church property.
Written May 6, 2013
This is the primary destination for most people visiting the Vatican Museum and it will be crowded – just prepare yourself now for that fact since even on slow days, the chapel is full of people. First of all, the chapel is not that big and it is THE place everyone seems to want to be. So prepare to be squished and lose that sense of personal space for the duration of your visit (make sure your valuables are safely tucked away from anyone who may want to get them). The crowds begin long before the chapel itself as people are all funneled into the Gallery of Maps to await their time in the chapel.
Once in the chapel, take some time to just be amazed. If you are lucky and can find a seat along the wall, grab the opportunity (it helps to be able to put your head on the wall as you look up). Take some time to just soak in the ceiling and the craftsmanship. Consider how Michelangelo painted the ceiling – there is some controversy on whether he stood and painted or laid down on the scaffolding as he painted. Either way – it was a tough job for a guy that would rather be chipping at marble than dabbling in paints!
The paintings reflect the beginning of the world from the book of Genesis – separation of light and dark, creation of land, moon, sun; God giving life to Adam, the flood and Noah’s later drunkenness. Along the sides of the ceiling are paintings of the prophets and sibyls with scenes from the Old Testament in the corners.
After you have looked at the ceiling, look towards the altar at the magnificent Last Judgment, also painted by Michelangelo many years after the ceiling. It reflects a difference in attitude for the artist, painted after the sack of Rome and the start of the Protestant Reformation when the Catholic Church was facing attacks. This is a solemn piece – no one is happy in it, including those that go to heaven. The creatures that pull the people into hell are creepy. And Michelangelo put a self portrait into this piece – he is the flayed skin being held by St. Bartholomew in the center right of the painting.
After you have admired all of Michelangelo’s work, be sure to take some time to look at the rest of the paintings that go around the walls. These were done by Perugino and others before the ceiling was done. These depict scenes from the life of Moses and the life of Christ.
Before you go to the Sistine Chapel, I highly recommend you read up on the ceiling so you can appreciate what you are seeing. A good book about the creation of the ceiling is Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King. It is an easy read that will give you some ideas about the history, politics, and personalities during the time Michelangelo was painting in the Sistine Chapel.
Additionally, come armed with a good guide book, such as The Blue Guide – Rome that can describe the artwork you are seeing.
Finally, while I’m not always a fan of Rick Steves, he has a great audio series that can be downloaded from iTunes for free (yes, free!). There is a 30-minute audio tour of the Sistine Chapel that can provide you with enough history and interesting facts during your time in the chapel. Download before you leave for Rome (along with some of his other audio tours) and save yourself the money from the museums; be sure to print his accompanying maps for his audio guide as well, also on iTunes. I enjoyed all his audio tours while in Rome and the Sistine Chapel tour was one of my favorites.
Written May 6, 2013
St. Peter’s Basilica is an impressive building. Surprisingly though, it is neither a cathedral nor the “mother church” of the Catholic religion (that distinction is held by Rome’s St. John Lateran). St. Peter’s was built overtop the site of Peter’s tomb and the site of a church built by the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine. In the mid-1500s, the church was expanded and built to an even grander and more elaborate building closer to what we see today (this was during the time of Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling and Raphael painting Pious II’s rooms in the Vatican).
There is so much to see in St. Peter’s – plan on a minimum of an hour (not including waiting in security). If you plan to climb the dome, that would be additional time. We spent about half a day in the complex and still didn’t see everything.
First things first – dress appropriately! Not so much a problem in the winter, but in the hot summer, you will not be allowed inside without your legs and shoulders covered. This means no shorts and no tank tops. You don’t want to wait in long security lines only to find you are not allowed inside.
Security – everyone goes through this – bags are run through scanners and you walk through the screening arch. Not a problem but the lines can get long in the summer – although we were there at the end of February and were only in line for about 10 minutes. As you approach the security point, have your metal items out of your pockets and everything ready to be screened (don’t be one of those people that wait until you are at the screening area and then be surprised that you have to be screened - be prepared and it speeds things up for everyone).
Once you are through security, it is decision time: to enter the church or climb the dome?? If you plan to climb the dome – do it first! If you exit the church and decide to climb the dome, you may have to go through security again. So as you approach the church, and before the stairs, you will see signs directing you towards the dome climb – turn there for the climb or continue up the stairs for the church.
As you enter the church, take some time to simply take in the sight – it is massive! Stand at the back and look down the nave towards the altar – it seems so far away (because it is far away). Then turn to your right and look at what many people come to the church to see – Michelangelo’s Pieta. It is behind glass due to an attack on the statue in the 1970s (why would anyone want to ruin this great piece of art?!).
Head up the nave. In the center marked by a barrier, are the names of churches around the world. These markers indicate where the other churches would fit inside St. Peter’s. Look at the massive columns on either side of the nave – don’t you feel tiny?!? The statues that decorate these columns are very large (even the cherubs are adult human size) to be in proportion to the size of the building.
There is so much to see from the high altar and St. Peter’s statue, to the dome and the baldachino. I highly recommend you get an audio tour or use a book, such as The Blue Guide – Rome to help you understand everything you are seeing. A free audio tour that is pretty good historically and points out the highlights is the Rick Steves’ audio tour that you can download free from iTunes. There are several for sights around Rome – we used these on our trip and found them to be just right for most people with just enough history for most people without overwhelming you. For those who are looking for more details – get a book and read up before or after your visit.
The church is open from 7:00 am – 6:30 pm. It is free unless you do the extras (such as the dome climb). Tours of the necropolis are only done for groups.
Written May 6, 2013
There is so much to see in the Vatican Museum, you will get overwhelmed unless you pace yourself. I had a list of must-see pieces of art that we looked for and then enjoyed the rest of the museum casually along the way.
I highly suggest you bring along some sort of guide book that will tell you what you are looking at since the labeling is not the best. My guide book of choice for the art and architecture in Rome is The Blue Guide – Rome, by Alta Macadam. This book will easily take you from room to room in the entire museum and tell you what you need to know about the art.
First stop after entering the museum was to get to the Pinacoteca, which is the Vatican’s Picture Gallery. Here are works by Leonardo, Raphael, Bellini, Fra Angelico, Caravaggio, and many more. The rooms in the Pinacoteca are numbered (look above the doorways for the Roman numerals).
From there, let your interests guide you. Do your research in advance so you know what you want to see or you will wind up wandering and wasting precious time. There are lots of tour groups that seem to command the prime spots in front of the works, so you need to allow time to make your way to the front if you want to see some of these things up close.
Seeing the Laocoön sculpture was important to me, so we made our way around to that ancient piece that was found in the 15th century in a farmer’s field. It is located outside in a courtyard.
The closer you get to the Sistine Chapel, the more crowded it becomes. Apparently, some people skip the museum and head straight to the chapel. Wow – I can’t imagine since the museum is full of treasures.
Be sure to take time in the Raphael rooms (painted at the same time Michelangelo was painting the chapel ceiling).
The hallway with all the maps on the walls is an interesting walk through. At this point, however, the hallways are filling up with people waiting for the chapel. And the bookshop is taking advantage of people going slowly through this area with tables and displays set up for you to purchase items.
You really need several visits to this museum to see it all – there are more than 4 miles of galleries! Plan ahead and come prepared to get the most out of your visit. Create a list of the must-see pieces you want to view lest you be disappointed after you leave. Be sure to find those works of art but don’t ignore the rest along the way. Look up at the ceilings and down at the floors. The entire building is a work of art!
And before you leave, be sure to take advantage of the bathrooms!
Written May 6, 2013
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