THE BLOG
05/04/2015 06:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Roman Discoveries

Crowds are a huge, huge thing at many major sights, including here at Rome's Vatican Museums. Emerging economies in large parts of our world are creating big middle-class populations with enough money to finally see the Europe of their dreams.

In the Vatican Museums' Raphael Rooms, visitors are packed in shoulder-to-shoulder. With booming tourism from populous countries such as China and India adding to the sightseeing demand, it makes having a careful plan for avoiding crowds even more important.

 

These days the Vatican Museums are jammed with heads -- in the case of this photo -- both ancient and contemporary. It always amazes me how the vast majority of people just line up for these sights, wasting literally hours to get in. On the other hand, those following the advice of good guidebooks learn how to avoid crowds and get in with almost no wait. But once inside, we're all just part of one big mosh pit of art love. Even with the intercontinental BO, it's a great experience.

 

The Vatican Museums are housed in what was essentially the pope's palace. In it an entire hallway is dedicated to maps. Here's an excerpt from the Rome guidebook:

The 16th-century maps on the walls show the regions of Italy. Popes could take visitors on a tour of Italy, from the toe (entrance end) to the Alps (far end), with east Italy on the right wall, west on the left. They actually functioned as the official maps from 1582, when they were painted, until the 19th century... The windows give you your best look at the tiny country of Vatican City, officially established as an independent nation in 1929. It has its own radio station, as you see from the tower on the hill. (Pope Francis lives in the residence just in front of that radio tower -- with the three green shutters. He can be seen strolling on his rooftop terrace on nice afternoons.) Near the end (on the left) is Liguria, where you can actually see the five little towns of the Cinque Terre circa 1582, and a chariot captained by Neptune himself taking Columbus to the New World.

You'll have to come here yourself to see Columbus and Pope Francis. But here in this photo is a tiny bit of the map showing the five villages of the Cinque Terre -- amazing to think they showed up on a map in 1582 about like they do today.

 

Vatican Coach Museum: Just beyond the cafeteria, near where you enter the Vatican Museums, is a delightful garden open to the public (that's usually filled with tour groups getting their Sistine Chapel briefing by guides who are not allowed to talk in the chapel). And just beyond that, steps lead into the Padiglione delle Carrozze, a newly opened, peaceful exhibit showing off centuries of papal carriages, cars, and "popemobiles" -- including the vehicle that Pope (now Saint) John Paul II was riding in when he was shot in 1981 (with video clips of the pope later meeting his would-be assassin to offer him forgiveness).

 

When making TV shows I love to get a "high wide shot" of whatever we're shooting. Many people visiting Rome see Piazza Navona, but very few ever get a good high wide. This photo is taken from the third floor of the Museum of Rome. The museum is only worth visiting for its views down to Piazza Navona, and its galleries of Romantic art depicting Rome in the 18th and 19th centuries.

 

The Museum of Rome (in Palazzo Braschi) is a lost opportunity. It doesn't seem to care -- or try -- and almost no one goes there. But I enjoy it for its Romantic paintings of great sights, showing what they looked like in past centuries. Many of Rome's medieval churches are medieval on the inside, but few are medieval on the outside. In the Baroque Age, the Church here was determined to amp up the public presence of its places of worship, and most were given Baroque facelifts. This is how Santa Maria Maggiore (one of Rome's four great Vatican churches, independent of Italy) looked before.

 

With so many restaurants to review in just four nights in Rome, I didn't have time to dine with my best friends in the city. So I did something that was a first for me: I hosted a dinner party at my favorite restaurant, Il Gabriello. Among those joining me in this photo are Tom Rankin (a professor and architect who established Scala Reale, which became the highly respected tour company Context; his latest project is "Tevereterno" -- revitalizing the Tiber River in Rome), Stefano Loreti (who runs Hotel Oceania, one of my longtime favorites, and really knows his grappa), Francesca Caruso (the guide who takes most of our Rome groups on such inspirational tours of the ancient sights), and Claudio Conti (my favorite restaurateur in Rome, who runs Il Gabriello restaurant). Each has joined me for great little bits in past TV shows on Rome and are examples of how the people-to-people, thoughtful travel we love is accessible to American travelers...and worth striving for.